Sunday, August 10, 2008

I am the river in the river…

A few days ago, I wrote about what I call 'caput absentum', which is what I call the philosophical fallout of Dandy-Walker syndrome, which is a neurological disease that fills the skull with so much cerebrospinal fluid as to greatly reduce the size––but sometimes not the function––of the brain. I would like to add something to those thoughts, specifically about my writing this (emphasis added):

The soul of the person––the living identity of the person as such––is that dynamic fixture created in us by God which allows us to heal, grow, communicate, know, and, if the need arises, reshape our brains in stunning ways. Because we will to think and live and love, thus our various bits and pieces fall in line with the larger current of our rational agency.

This claim gets at something that I have been pondering for quite a while (relatively speaking). Regular readers here will know I have blogged at some length before about ArisThomistic hylomorphic anthropology. As in:

Something that keeps popping into my mind is how, in C.S. Lewis's book, Miracles, he offhandedly mentioned how the materialist claim that mind cannot influence matter is refuted by the sheer fact that we can raise our hand. This passing comment has stayed with me vividly for the past several years. What it showed me is how we take 'immediate' personal causation for granted, contrasting it unfairly with the mysterious 'mediate' causation upon things outside our somatic limits. I have a deep intuition that the raising of our hand is, in principle, no different from the raising of a hammer or, in turn, the raising of the Titanic. I'm not a sheer idealist, since I do believe in material reality, but it was only until I was exposed to Aristhomistic hylomorphism that I was able to make theoretical, metaphysical sense of my intuition. Many of my posts dealing with Aristhomistic (or Thomistotelian) anthropology are trying to illuminate my intuition about the bounds of human (and generally embodied) causation, and, ultimately, causation as such.* So here I go again.

We are not so much clumps of matter animated by an anima, but rather hylomorphic fields of rational agency. It is not 'up to' matter (hyle) as to how it is to be shaped (or, in-formed), but is up to the world's many forms (morphei [?]) to instantiate (or, dematerialize) various actual entities. In a similar fashion, it is the electromagnetic field that shapes the inert iron fillings on a sheet of paper in a science class. The hylomorphic field of a person's rational agency is what allows us to almost literally 'incorporate' tools, persons, mementos, etc. into our person. Our bodies are, in principle, just as much 'incorporated' by us as the samurai's sword and the Marine's rifle are incorporated into their identities. The dynamic expansiveness of our personal form (or, soul) also accounts for two phenomena that are construed as a major challenge to traditional anthropology.

The first challenge has to do with the endurantism vs. perdurantism debate. If you don't know, to put it very simply, this is about whether a thing is the same 3D-thing continuously and wholly as it passes 'through' time, or whether things are actually 4D-objects made up of 'time slices' that co-exist contiguously as the 'sections' of that object in time. Again, loosely, endurantists claim that objects exist in the 'atmosphere' of time, as it were, while perdurantists claim that objects exist in the 'atmosphere' of perception. Some months ago I read an essay [PDF!] by Hales and Johnson, titled "Endurantism, Perdurantism, and Special Relativity", about this debate in support of perdurantism based on Einsteinian relativity. It was an enjoyable work, but even though I did not reject it on logical grounds (as A. Pruss does in "Special Relativity and Endurantism"), I rejected it on the grounds that it did not seem to impinge upon endurantism as properly understood in a hylomorphic metaphysics.** Hylomorphism does not mean an object or thing is wholly and completely present in each part of itself, but only that each part of a thing is wholly and conjointly present to that thing's form as the integral substance of its material divisibility. The front of a train may exist in a different time-frame from the back of the train, as special relativity indicates, but this does not mean the train is only partly present in different time-frames. All it means, hylomorphically, is that the essence of a train formally unites the different sections of the train in different time-frames. All the parts, in every time-frame, are still under the formal power of the train as a substantial entity.

This has to do with Aristhomistic anthropology by virtue of the fact that we can not only dematerialize things (by giving them formal structure, such as by naming them, pondering them, reshaping them, etc.), but also can 'deformalize' (and thus rematerialize) things by virtue of our own formal agency over them. This 'deformalization' happens every time we consume and digest food. At some point, the dynamic formal integrity of our selves rematerializes the food into something closer and closer to sheer matter, at which point its potentiality (as, say, a bolus) can be formalized in the 'service' of our bodies. Once you consume a carrot, it loses its form as a carrot and becomes something else, namely, YOU. Certainly nothing can become sheer matter (hyle), since then it would have no formal structure at all allowing it to interact with us, but its deformalization from being a carrot allows its molecules and minerals (with their own tiny formal structure) to be formally integrated into the, as I say, larger 'current' of our dynamic personal agency. This is what I mean by the title: we are dynamic flowing current of agency in the larger flowing stream of material changes, yet we maintain a kind of enduring identity by riding the waves, as it were, created by the stream around us. We are, if you like, hydraulics––living water structures––in the Heraclitean flux.

All of this talk about de- and reformalization works toward explaining a phenomenon to which V.S. Ramachandran draws attention in his Phantoms in the Brain. He notes how certain tactile illusions can make us feel as if a detached object were part of our body, or as if our nose, for instance, were a number of feet removed from its normal location and yet still part of us. He notes how we even tend to treat our cars as an extension of our bodies, which is why we get so sad or enraged when people endanger or damage it. Reckless driving is not simply a form of uncorteousness and possible endangerment, but actually, Ramachandran suggests, a form of physical intimidation and assault against our very selves, albeit directed at the 'car' part of our body. The ability to rearrange, extend, relocate, and even lose parts of our body, as well as the ability to 'absorb' non-somatic elements into it, is all rooted in our nature as hylomorphic fields of rational agency. I admit, it's a bit Borg-like, but metaphysics has to have some elements of adventure to keep us eggheads chugging through it.

* (I won't go into it here, but the whole tradition of being bewildered and outraged by the, ostensibly Cartesian, idea of immaterial entities causally interacting with material entities, is built on a lot of unclarity about causation as such. I think even our concept of material-material causation gets way too much slack from a tradition allegedly committed to critical inquiry. I guess I have a little too much Hume in me to see material causation as just 'obvious' or uncontroversial. Certainly, a number of studies have been written on causation, so there's no doubt I'm speaking from great ignorance. But I stand by my intuitions until I dig deeper.)

** (A further problem I have with perdurantism, which I saw in Hales' and Johnson's essay, is that exactly by referring to 'this' or 'that' object, we are eo ipso recognizing it as one whole object for at least the duration of the speech utterance. If there is nothing of which the time slices can be predicated, then they cannot be predicates of anything. Time slices are slices of what, if not of some-one-thing, which is what endurantism provides?)

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