Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Something on your mind? What's the matter? What's matter?

Let me open with a script-joke, c/o my dad.

Before he studied physics, Einstein was highly interested in bees.

He even wrote a paper on the subject, saying if the bees disappeared, the global ecosystem would collapse.

You've heard about this in the news. But it's hard to believe.

When she first heard his theory, Einstein's wife was puzzled.

“Bees?” she asked. “What's the matter with bees?”

“What's the matter with—,” Einstein began. “The matter. … Yes, matter. Now that's interesting.”

The rest, as dey say, is hist'ry.

In the substantive notes of The End of Faith, Sam Harris, currently going for a doctorate in neuroscience, spends some time arguing for brain-mind identity. This is not surprising, I'm sure, considering Harris is a rabid materialist. All the same, one of the prongs in his argument consists in asking what sense it makes to say there is cognitive/intellective capacity beneath or beyond (“meta”) the wetware of our brains. To use Harris's illustration, a dualist may claim our linguistic ability (say, to speak French and English) actually resides in or stems from the soul. Yet, at every turn, when the brain is damaged the same “soulish” ability of speech is also damaged. Indeed, a severe enough cranial injury can render us complete incapable of any speech. Does it makes sense, Harris asks, to say that down deep there is still some mysterious linguistic ability in the soul? Are we to imagine the soul somehow lost the power of speech concomitant with brain damage? His answer is, of course, no; the very idea shows how silly such dualism is. For in his eyes, the erasure (rature) of linguistic ability at the neural and behavioral level proves that just is where such abilities reside. It may just be hindsight, of course tempered by my alleged rabid Christian desire to paint atheists as black as possible, but looking at this argument now, in my putative mind's eye, it seems to be one of the lamest efforts Harris could make in the mind-body debate.

Framing the rhetorical challenge as he does, while also noting his singularly modern and narrow references, indicates Harris has little if any grasp of classical Aristotelico-Thomist anthropology (ATA) (specifically, noology, the study of the mind). According to that view, the human person is a substantial union of two essential, not integral, parts, namely, a material body informed by an immaterial soul.

Some terms need unpacking here, especially “substantial,” “essential parts” and the phrase, “material body informed by an immaterial soul.” These terms roll out from the basic hylemorphism of ATA. Hylemorphism is the metaphysical theory that all actual finite entities (i.e., substances) are an inseparable “bond” of form and matter (morphē and hulē in Greek). These two analytical metaphysical categories co-exist in what I'll call “transcendent mutuality,” by which I mean that the very essence of each term consists in its actual relation to the other. The two concepts are actually inseparable, though conceptually distinct. The actual existence of form has a transcendent (i.e., “definitional” or “automatic”) relation to matter. And vice versa. The essence of matter, in the concrete existence of a particular substance, is to be configured by its proper form, and the essence of form, in a substance's concrete existence, is to “reside” in matter. There is no intelligible reality to matter unless it has a form to give it concrete particularity (i.e., substance) and no intelligible reality to form unless it has matter to configure. Thus these are essential (i.e., substantial) and not merely integral (i.e., spatial) parts of a prime substance. As we read in the Decree of Approval (27 July 1914) following St. Pius IX's Doctoris angelici,

Although extension into integral parts is a consequence of a corporeal nature, it is not the same thing for a body to be a substance and for it to be of a certain quantity. By definition, a substance is indivisible, not in the same way as a point, but as something which is outside the order of dimension. Quantity, which gives extension to substance, in reality differs from substance, and is an accident in the fully meaning of the term.

As for matter without a form, this is known as hulē prote, prime matter, and is actually nonexistent: lacking any and all formal characteristics, there is no way as which pure matter can actually exist. Something utterly colorless, shapeless, featureless, etc.—literally formless and undifferentiated—has no actual existence: its existence is pure potential, not at all actual. Much the same goes for pure form. Unless it has some matter to inform (i.e., to shape and differentiate), form never actually exists. Without a form, matter is always and essentially on the verge of becoming, something, anything, everything. Indeed hulē is the Becoming ingredient in reality. It is the basis for the boundless capacity of reality to change, advance, and revert. Form, by contrast, unless it is “locked in” to matter, is always at risk of being a sheer, self-contained ideal concept, undispersed and unadulterated by the sprawling variability of matter. Form, you might say, is the Be-Thisness of reality. Once the form “horse” is spread throughout concrete horses, it loses its pristine totality as horseness, having to suffice as the form of any number of examples, which are never as perfect as the form on its own. Once a form joins matter, it is no longer pure form in abstractio, as Plato argued about the Forms, but is simply one actual, incomplete “version” of the form. Form is what it is in and of itself, whereas matter is never and not at all “what it is,” since matter qua hulē is not actually anything. Without each other, though, pure becoming and pure thisness are non-actual. While pure matter, as pure potential, never becomes anything actual, pure form, as so to speak total act, never exists in any actual, material way. Their actual existence is, thus, transcendentally mutual.

The two transcendent categories can be likened to two passengers trying to get on the train of actual existence. Unfortunately, Marlo Matter is so amorphous and vast that he can never even get off the ground into the cars. He can not be seated because he is already seated, at every point of his body and for all his days. Meanwhile, Frankie Form is so excited about the ride that he never settles down into a particular seat, and is instead constantly running outside around the train in a blur of pure action. He can not be seated because to sit would be to lose the pure drive to find a seat. Finding a seat would rob him of his only goal: finding a seat! But if the two work together—Mr. Form whipping Mr. Matter into shape and Mr. Matter channeling Mr. Form into as seat—they can actually get a seat (i.e., actually exist).

If the idea of “actual existence” seems redundant—like a bottom-floor basement—you should realize there is in fact more than one way of existing, namely, possibly (or analogously) and necessarily. Ask yourself: Does the next moment from now exist? Yes—but not actually, only potentially. Also ask yourself: Does the immediately preceding moment exist? Yes—but not actually, only analogously with the present moment. Now ask yourself: Does this question exist? Yes—and necessarily, for the very act of posing it actualizes it, whereas its merely potential existence would never have produced the question in question!

In any case, these two characters—form and matter—are the big players in ATA's theory of substances. A prime substance is a singular hylomorphic actuality, possessing actual matter by virtue of its intrinsic form and existing formally by virtue of its proper matter. A secondary substance is a general category, like horses, whereas, this or that particular horse is a prime substance. Although the term substance means literally “that which stands beneath” (sub-stantia in Latin, hypo-stasis in Greek), it should not be confused with the entity's form, as if the form were prevenient and independently floating on its own “out there”, just waiting for matter to come along and give it a material existence. Form, as I said above, does not exist “out there” by itself as an immaterial ghost; it does, however, exist immaterially as the constitutive principle in matter. Being transcendent to one another, form and matter are actual only in their integral co-relation; and this integral bond of a form and its matter is what makes a substance “what it is” in distinction to anything else. Form is that which enables us to answer the question “What's the matter?” Since matter could be anything, the answer to what the matter is actually, is the form. The role of form and matter in ATA are, respectively, to differentiate general categories (secondary substances) and differentiate individual members (prime substances) of a common class. One substance is essentially distinct from another kind of substance by virtue of its form; something with the same substance as another is unique by virtue of its individual (literally individuating) matter. Water, for example, is a substance whose essence is to have two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom joined in a polar covalent bond. Changing water's form to, say, two hydrogen atoms in a covalent bond with two oxygen atoms, would render it substantially, essentially, different, and thus no longer make it water. On the other hand, keeping the form of a three-way bond, while changing the hydrogen atoms to oranges and the oxygen to a lemon, would substantially, essentially, alter water into something else.

Humans, in turn, are essentially differentiated from others kinds of entities (beings) by virtue of the essential union of our material bodies with the form of our soul. Our unique substance is to be the “transcendentally mutual union” of a soul (the form of the body) and a body (the matter of the soul). For the human to be a substantial being means it is—we are—a kind of being differentiated essentially from other kinds of being, and this by virtue of our having a rational soul in a properly material body. Changing our form to that of water would destroy us by disintegrating our proper substantial integrity. Conversely, changing our matter to that of cheese would also destroy us as human beings since it is not proper to the form of human substance (our “being-human”) to inform cheese as a human being. Cheese, largely because it has its own proper form for its cheesy matter, is simply not the right matter to allow the human form—the soul—to manifest as a human being (much as lemons and oranges are simply not the proper matter with which to actualize water, regardless how hard the form of water “tries” to affect that change). We can know if something does have a human form if its matter at every point is capable of and “inclined to” forming a human person, which is why human fetuses are not humans-in-the-making, but truly, formally, humans. We cannot decide someone is not a human because of a deficiency or radical change in his materiality (short of death, that is), which is why Terri Schiavo was still a human person whereas corpses, lacking all formal human capacities, are not. A dead body is simply not the proper matter to form a human, though a brain-damaged body on “auto-pilot” is still materially adequate to formal humanity. Her matter can never define someone as a human, though, once at a sufficiently “warped” stage, it can disqualify something from being a human. This is why an ovum and a spermatozoon are not humans, but their union, as the cause of the substantial production of a human person, does constitute that zygote as a human, with adequate material to allow the form to produce a human baby and a proper form to “mold” the matter into that person. The reason we can speak of a human nature is because humans are substantially the same: we have the same form, in our soul as the immaterial principle of our lives, but we are individuated by our unique material composition. We are all formally alike but all materially unique—and thus all substantially the same.

Bringing all this back to bear on Harris's line of reasoning, what should be clear is that his quibbles about brain damage may refute crude dualism but they are meaningless—or rather, self-evident—in ATA. Of course we will lose our ability to speak if we suffer brain damage: such damage to our matter naturally prevents our complete formal manifestations at the behavioral level. Then again, the formal adequacy of our human nature becomes apparent as soon as we imagine the brain damage were completely and perfectly reversed, restoring the brain to its pre-injury condition. What would happen then? The patient would have the same linguistic abilities as before! Why? Because once the material “discrepancies” are straightened out, the formal perfection of his soul allows the patient to reactivate once-lost behavioral powers. As Benjamin Wiker says,

[I]f we realize that we are rational animals, then the latest brain research poses no real problem. It is simply a half-truth distended illicitly into a whole truth. If we are indeed rational animals, we should expect to find that thinking depends on our animal nature, including our brain, in the same way that our rational volition, for its execution, depends on the use of our hands, legs, eyes, or ears. If our thinking didn't depend on the brain, then we truly would be angels trapped in animal suits.

So, I don't need to poke about in the brain to realize that a good cup of coffee makes thinking a whole lot easier after a bad night's sleep. … My acts of volition are real, and I use my body, not like an alien machine, but as part of my unified being. … I am neither a Gnostic angel with no need of a brain or body to think, nor am I a slightly elevated ape for whom thinking is merely an elaborate form of sensation. I am, to repeat, a rational animal, an essential unity of immaterial soul and material body. If we try to cling to either extreme, and neglect this golden mean, then we are forced into denying what we actually know and experience. (http://www.tothesource.org/12_11_2002/12_11_2002.htm)

Consider also these comments from Alfred Freddoso, in his lecture, “Good News, Your Soul Hasn't Died Quite Yet”:

[E]ven though the doctrine of the immateriality of the soul entails that our higher cognitive and appetitive operations are not themselves operations of the brain, the anti-dualistic nature of the Catholic view of the human animal … should antecedently prepare us to expect that such higher operations will depend heavily on the normal functioning of the brain and central nervous system. … [F]rom a Catholic perspective dualism is just as wrongheaded and, in the end, just as pernicious as physicalism. Dualism treats body and soul as two separate substances or, at the very least, two antecedently constituted integral parts of an entity whose unity is per accidens; and it identifies the human self with just the immaterial soul. In this it runs afoul of the Catholic teaching that the soul is the form of the body and that the human body and the human soul are so intimately linked that they derive their identity from one another. Perhaps more precisely, the soul is the form of the human organism as a whole and, as such, makes it to be the sort of living substance it is. Thus, the human body and human soul are not two antecedently constituted integral parts, but rather (to use the scholastic phrase) complementary 'essential parts' of an organism whose unity is per se. The Catechism puts it this way:

"The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the 'form' of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature."(34) [CCC §365]

So much for those guys, who actually know their stuff. On my own small, dim path, the analogy I've used for many years in these discussions is that of a movie screen and a movie projector. The screen is our brain, the projector is our soul, and the film is our behavior. The soul projects “our very lives” onto the screen, and the screen, importantly, can alter the appearance of the film if it is reshaped. Moreover, if a section of the screen is cut out (i.e., brain damage), although the projector is still burning bright, we can see nothing on the screen. Even if the screen is restitched together, there will be “tell tale” signs of past brain damage which henceforth alter or impair the projector's “performance.” This in no way equates the mind (the film) with its ability to function (the image). As Derrick Hassert says, "This equating of the 'soul' with a set of functions or processes—what cognitive psychologists might refer to as 'mind'—is the same faux paux Descartes made, but one that Aristotle and Aquinas did not: In Aristotle the mind is a subset of abilities defined by the essential nature of the creature (the soul).[5] The soul precedes all else. We are humans first by nature, not by function" (in "Brain, Mind, and Person: Why We Need To Affirm Human Nature in Medical Ethics").

Incidentally, these thoughts were for the most part stirred, and re-stirred, up by my recent reading of Nancey Murphy's slim, lucid book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? While I am very intrigued and indeed attracted by “non-reductive physicalism” (or “supervenient physicalism,” or “emergentism”), and found Murphy's exposition of it very appealing, yet I have fundamental reservations about the whole view not only because of the irreducibly immaterial (i.e., meta-physical-ist) aspects of human existence but also because of some of the chilling ethical repercussions such a view bears within it. If personhood, and human worth, emerges from our physical functionality, and if our relationship with God is entirely predicated on our physical capacity for it, what happens when we lose those capacities, as from brain trauma? If such value can emerge can it not just as easily submerge? Reservations aside, Murphy's book is a superb introduction (or refresher) to the issues and provides numerous good leads for further study.

As always, caveat lector: I am not a professional philosopher, so there can and indeed probably are numerous key errors in my discussion. I welcome enlightenment but provide to others what I can in the meanwhile.


Michael Turton said...

Well, I can see several philosophical errors, including incoherent concepts, massive violations of parsimony, mistaking assertions for explanations, mistaking labels for explanations, proffering explanations without evidence, not specifying causation, and assuming what you are trying to prove.

But I did enjoy the tour of all these ideas.


the Cogitator said...

Yassuh, we do aims to please.

the Cogitator said...

Hey Michael,

Would you mind unpacking at least a few of your complaints in detail? It´s one thing to pick at my lowly exposition but it´s quite something else to brush aside ATA. So, knowing clearly which of these you´re doing would be helpful. As it stands you have given me a heap of assertions without explanations.

Are you rejecting hylemorphism as such? Are you rejecting crude dualism as a mistaken rejection of ATA? As Freddoso states explicitly, Catholic noology (and anthropology) is neither dualist nor physicalist.

As for not specifying causation, I´ve always been "worried" (as philosophers like to say) by the notion of causation in any system. Prima facie it does seem harder to visualize how immaterial entities can causally impinge on material entities, but I have had little exposure to any compelling account of physical causation itself. By my lights it is sheer lazy induction to use the "obviousness" of physical causation as an argument against the "illogicality" of hylemorphic causation. Perhaps one can say physical causation is clear IFF the propositions (or, logical conditions) describing one and only one state of affairs (SOA) bring about another logically consistent SOA (e.g., in loose terms, a match ignites when the match head is applied with adequate force to an abrasive surface). But how is this logical description of antecedent and consequent SOA any clearer than the explanation of form operating on and in matter? Besides, even in the logical effects account of causation, the terms of each SOA still find a coherent place in a hylomorphic account. By my lights, hylomorphism is a plain an explanation as anything. It is as elementary, simple and parsimonious as recognizing the wave is the form of undulating water.

I do hope you can carry on this discussion, as your frequent irruptions into the combox, most often followed by total silence, give off the distinct odor of a troll.