Thursday, June 18, 2009

Your mouth bone is connected to your stomach bone…

A few months ago I blogged about St. Thomas' claim that "my soul is not I." This was merely part of my ongoing desire to explore and promote Aristhomistic hylomorphism on this blog and in my intellectual life generally. One of the key points I made in that post concerned the intimate connection between the human senses and the human intellect. It is a Scholastic axiom that "nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses [nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu]." [After reading this post, please refer to the comment box for a documentary "appendix" about this axiom.]

I happened to notice that sometime later, a commenter had critiqued this axiom, thus:

Don't forget genetics. That determines what we can sense, literally, and how it can be sensed.

Also, the vast majority of what we do sense never reaches consciousness, and our decisions are rarely rational. Saying that we're sentient rational beings is a step or two beyond generous. That we're so prone to flattering ourselves for qualities we mostly lack says something about the quality of our subjective judgement.

Now I don't know the commenter, and I realize the thread at unBeguiled is cold, but the impressive illogicality of the critical comment merits a closer look. And I mean that. For me, a major element of Scholastic anthropology is at stake if this commenter's critique had any merit, and, therefore, his jab at hylomorphism ought to be skewered so that similar failures of logic have that much less of a voice in the debate. I will also conclude by noting a disastrous irony in the critique, which I will call "a klu(d)ge attack", in reference to the notion, à la Gary Marcus, that the human cognitive system is an ad hoc, clunky, ultimately unreliable quick-fix patched together just well enough by crude evolutionary duct tape and self-congratulatory human confabulation to let us survive childhood and inseminate a viable uterus.

But enough romance.

The first claim in this kludge attack is as easily dispensed with as it was dispensed, since it merely restates the Scholastic axiom. The point of the axiom is that our intellectual contact with the world is rooted in our created biological nature. Adding the term "genetic" to this nature does little more than sharpen its image.

The second claim is more ambitious, mo' bigger, and therefore falls mo' harder. It is an attempt to show that the axiom nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu is wrong. It is attempting to show that the cleft between our senses and our intellect is wider than the Scholastic axiom permits. To grasp how badly the kludge attack misses the mark, consider this modus tollens syllogism:

Nothing is digested by your stomach that is not first ingested by your mouth.

But this bubble gum is in your mouth and not in your stomach.

Therefore, you have a deficient digestive system.

The kludge attack displays a parallel (il)logic:

Nothing is conceived by the intellect that is not first perceived by the senses.

But some sensory data are in the human senses and not in the human intellect.

Therefore, humans possess a rationally deficient intellect.

The second prong of the kludge attack rests on a massive logical confusion. The Scholastic axiom says that what is (normally)* in our intellectual grasp is first of all in our sensory grasp. It does not, however, state that whatever is in our sensory grasp is in our intellectual grasp. The kludge critique, however, assumes the axiom does entail the second claim, which is why it notes cases where what is in our sensory grasp is not also in our intellectual grasp. This is true enough, and is basically what the Scholastics meant by saying that humans have not only a vegetative (biotropic) and animal (semiotic) soul, but also a rational (intellectual) soul. The critique fails, then, by trying to refute Scholastic anthropology with a distinction it already accepts.

The primary intrinsic organizing principle (or soul, anima, morphē) of human life is a "vegetative" power. This metaphysical substratum keeps our lungs breathing and hearts pumping, propels us to seek warmth and nourishment, compels away from crushing pressures and pains, and so forth. This is our "brain stem soul." A second intrinsic organizing principle of human life is the animal power. This energizes us to interact with other living entities, to seek more distant desires (like that water hole we recall from a few days earlier), to emit sounds of distress and interest, and so on. This is our "cerebellar soul." The third intrinsic organizing principle of human life is the rational soul, which is what enables us to name objects, to organize large-scale plans based on immaterial desires, to reprioritize and redefine our values based on our social commitments and linguistic ideals, etc. It is by the intellect that we "know" what a "tree" is, but it is by the senses that we know this or that tree. Without the intellect, we could never know a "tree" as something metaphysically distinct, for we cannot perceive the particular (sensory) without a simultaneous conception of the universal (intellectual) in any particular. Nor can we directly intuit metaphysical essences apart from direct sensory contact. We know the universal, therefore, in the particular and the particular by the universal.

This delicate balance between empirical and rationalist cognition is what makes Scholastic anthropology so robust. There is nothing disturbing for an Aristhomist to hear that much of what enters our sensory database does not also inform our rational actions. Most of life is driven by the autonomous vegetative and animal powers of man, and it's just as well, since if the lower two powers in man had to be vetted by the rational soul moment by moment, humans would suffer a cognitive overload.

The third point worth mentioning is that the denigration of our rational nature inherent in this "kludge cudgel" is self-destructive. Here we have a commenter denying the efficacy of human reason… by means of human reasoning. He is, in other words, deploying a rational argument against rational argumentation. Hence, as G. K. Chesterton writes in his preface to Fulton J. Sheen's God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (New York: Image Books, 1925), "in the modern world generally, the Catholic Church comes forward as the one and only real champion of Reason" (p. 7). "The Church is larger than the world," Chesterton continues,

"and she rightly resisted the narrow rationalists who maintained that everything in all the world could be approached in exactly the same way that is used for particular material things in this world. But she never said those things were not to be approached, or that reason was not the proper way to approach them, or that anybody had any right to be unreasonable in approaching anything. She defends the wisdom of the world as the way of dealing with the world; she defends common sense and consistent thinking and the perception that two and two make four" (p. 7).

Chesterton's point takes on even greater significance when we recall how the commenter's jab at human reasoning is, as I say, itself a specimen of human reasoning. "Who knows," Chesterton mockingly pantomimes an irrationalist like Ibsen, "that two and two do not make five in the fixed stars?" (p. 8) The humble air of critical worry, in both Ibsen's worry and our commenter's anti-rationalism, is as initially admirable as it is ultimately incoherent. "If you are not sure there are any fixed facts" Chesterton goes on, "how do you come to be sure there are any fixed stars?" (p. 8) In other word, the ability to detect errors in human reasoning presupposes the reliability of our rational examination of those errors.

We obviously are not merely blind kludges-with-legs, since we can transcend our kludgey limitations well enough to discover, trace, and remedy them. This dynamic captures the vitality of Aristhomistic epistemology, insofar as Artisthomism maintains a healthy balance between the sensory limits of human reasoning and the intellectual advances humans can make over their sensory limitations. For this reason I call the largely anti-rationalist kludge psychology of modularity-evolutionary psychology biological Kantianism (cf. the lower sections of this post on Lakoff and Johnson). Just as Kant's distinction between phenomena and noumena and his attendant denial that we can know the noumena presuppose an adequate enough knowledge of both terms to know where one begins and another ends, so biological Kantianism presupposes the reliability of our cognitive abilities in the very act of deconstructing them.

Chesterton's whimsically devastating comments dovetail with a point Sheen makes a few chapters later in God and Intelligence. Contrasting the contemporary (ca. 1925) intuitionist-pragmatist form of theology with the classical-intellectualist form of theology, Sheen notes the latter "began with the world––not the world of internal experience but the external world of movement, contingency, varied perfections, efficient causality and finality. Its point of departure was extra-mental. The source of its proofs was in the open air" (p. 43). This emphasis on the externality of our cognition is all of a piece with the Scholastic axiom nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu, since that axiom without question directs man to look outside the limits of his own skin and his own dim inner intuitions of the world, and to remain in humble connection with the world as it comes to him via the sensory systems endowed to him by his Maker. A sounder metaphysical basis for empirical science could hardly be fathomed, and, in fact, has not yet been fathomed.

* * *

* I say "normally" since Catholic mystical theology acknowledges "infused knowledge." Infused knowledge is anything known by a person––say, a foreign language, the hour of someone's death, the exegesis of a biblical passage, etc.––that does not enter his intellectual conceptions by means of the normal sensory-inductive process. Despite its insistence on sensory intellection, Aristhomism finds infused knowledge no more bizarre––nor any less in need of a special "outside" grace––than if a doctor surgically implants a meal into a patient's stomach after a major craniofacial operation.


The Cogitator said...

The following is a rough appendix to this post, since it provides documentation for, and some elaboration of, the Aristhomistic theory of sensory intellection. SOURCE:

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Mortimer Adler, drawing explicitly from St. Thomas, argues for the immateriality of the intellect along the same lines in his book, Intellect. Briefly, St. Thomas’ (ST Ia, a. 1, resp.), and thus Adler’s, point is this:

“[T] the form of the thing understood is in the intellect under conditions of universality, immateriality, and immobility: which is apparent from the very operation of the intellect, whose act of understanding has a universal extension…. So also the intellect, according to its own mode, receives under conditions of immateriality and immobility, the species of material and mobile bodies: for the received is in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver. We must conclude, therefore, that through the intellect the soul knows bodies by a knowledge which is immaterial, universal, and necessary.”

A completely physical description of human cognition qua physico-chemical phenomenon is possible and, indeed, desirable. Such an account, however, will not and can not account reductively for the immaterial source of thought as such, such a reduction being the goal of physicalism as opposed to physics proper, of scientism rather than science.

As St. Thomas says in, SCG 1, 3:

“For since the leading principle of all knowledge of any given subject-matter is an understanding of the thing’s innermost being, or substance––according to the doctrine of the Philosopher, that the essence is the principle of demonstration––it follows that the mode of our knowledge of the substance must be the mode of knowledge of whatever we know about the substance. Hence if the human understanding comprehends the substance of anything, as of a stone or triangle, none of the points of intelligibility about that thing will exceed the capacity of human reason. But this is not our case with regard to God. The human understanding cannot go so far of its natural power as to grasp His substance, since under the conditions of the present life the knowledge of our understanding commences with sense; and therefore objects beyond sense cannot be grasped by human understanding except so far as knowledge is gathered of them through the senses.”
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The Cogitator said...

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To relate this to analogy I proposed to begin this post (hash marks, numbers, mind-deeds), I would replace “substance” with “intellectual conception of the mentally observed complex”, and “the points of intelligibility” with “‘mindable‘ elements of the complex.” I would add that the disjunctive holds, to wit, if the human understanding does NOT comprehend the substance of anything, then any and all of the points of intelligibility about that thing will exceed the capacity of human reason. Paradoxically, the intellect is that which brings us “beyond” sensible, particular things to the immaterial, universal essences of them; yet, since our intellect depends, in this current mode of existence, on the senses, we cannot go “beyond” sensible things by sheer intellection alone.

St. Thomas says explicitly the same in ST Ia, q, 84, a. 7, resp.:

“In the present state of life in which the soul is united to a passible body, it is impossible for our intellect to understand anything actually, except by turning to the phantasms.

“First of all because the intellect, being a power that does not make use of a corporeal organ, would in no way be hindered in its act through the lesion of a corporeal organ, if for its act there were not required the act of some power that does make use of a corporeal organ."

In a word, the neural-somatic, sensible basis of the intellect is a necessary but not sufficient basis for its operation. St. Thomas continues (ibid.):

“Now the reason of this is that the power of knowledge is proportioned to the thing known. Wherefore the proper object of the angelic intellect, which is entirely separate from a body, is an intelligible substance separate from a body. Whereas the proper object of the human intellect, which is united to a body, is a quiddity [i.e., a specific 'whatness'] or nature existing in corporeal matter; and through such natures of visible things it rises to a certain knowledge of things invisible. Now it belongs to such a nature to exist in an individual, and this cannot be apart from corporeal matter: for instance, it belongs to the nature of a stone to be in an individual [i.e., particular] stone, and to the nature of a horse to be in an individual horse, and so forth. Wherefore the nature of a stone or any material thing cannot be known completely and truly, except in as much as it is known as existing in the individual. Now we apprehend the individual through the senses and the imagination. And, therefore, for the intellect to understand actually its proper object, it must of necessity turn to the phantasms in order to perceive the universal nature existing in the individual.“
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The Cogitator said...

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This train of thought has value not only in the mind-brain debate, but also in the larger debate about epistemology, idealism, and realism. Only by adequately grounding our cognition in the sensible world, as the cognition of another sensible object in that world, can we secure a foothold for the immateriality of the intellect as argued for in the preceding, as well as for the reality of the external world. To cite Étienne Gilson, at some length, in Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge ([San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986], pp. 173ff.):

“As St. Thomas says: ‘Non enim proprie loquendo sensus aut intellectus cognoscit, sed homo per utrumque [Q. d. de Ver., q. 2, a. 6, ad 3].’ This explains why we are able to form a certain knowledge of [empirical] singulars. By means of the senses we directly grasp the tings we know, thanks to our perception of their sensible qualities; and by means of the intellect we grasp the same things, thanks to the abstract concepts we form of them. Therefore, ut is the whole man who knows particulars, in that he thinks what he perceives. … ‘Properly speaking, neither the senses nor the intellect knows; it is the individual man who knows by means of the senses and the intellect. There are several actions but only one subject, one being who possesses distinct yet harmonious powers and produces these diverse actions [citing Domet de Vorges, La perception et la psychologie thomiste [Paris: Roger and Chernoviz, 1892), 197].’ … Concerning such operations, St. Thomas comments: ‘Non sunt animae tantum, sed conjuncti.’ … To locate the principle of his proper activity beyond or above him is simply to say that man is not man. No question can validly be approached from the standpoint of sense or intellect alone; everything must, in the long run, be related to the conjunctum, to man, who is the only concretely existing knowing subject.…

"For starting with the conjunctum means starting with corporeal bodies as well as with knowledge, and if we start with bodies it is clear that, for us, the existence of matter is not a problem.”

The implications of this view of the mind and man as a cognizer are profound, to say the least, for discussions of the Eucharistic Real Presence. If man can only proper know anything via sensible reality, and, in turn, can only understand sensible reality via the abstractive, immaterial power of the intellect, then the canonically guarded intimacy of the Eucharist––take, eat, drink––is not merely a liturgical nicety, or a rationalistic stricture, but very well may be the only coherent grounds in which God can be known to humans as both He wishes and as they can bear. Once again, we see how the Eucharist is the Church’s only possible ordo theologiae, the axis of her total identity in Christ, the Eucharistic Lord of body and mind, heart and soul.

UnBeguiled said...

Human beings are prone to cognitive errors.

I think that is all that commenter was trying to say.

Interestingly, the various methods of science are set up to reduce these errors. Religions, on the other hand, have built in mechanisms to exploit these errors.

Of course, for a person caught up in religion, it's kinda hard to acknowledge these obvious facts. Probably because doing so is psychologically difficult.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe one of those thousands of religions is actually true. But how could we tell?