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Rediscovering Human Beings, Part 1

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August 17, 2012 Tags: Brain, Mind & Soul
Rediscovering Human Beings, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Edward Feser. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: In yesterdays’ post, Fuller Seminary scholar Joel B. Green laid out some of the challenges to familiar concepts of the soul posed by both contemporary science and careful attention to the Scriptures. Today and tomorrow, philosopher Edward Feser—who comes at the issue from a Catholic tradition assumed in some circles to be uniformly and “simply” dualist in its thinking about the essence of humanity as created by God—presents exactly the kind of sophisticated approach to thinking about “human being” that Green suggests must be forthcoming. Feser affirms both the embodied and incorporeal aspects of our experience without suggesting that they are radically separated or two different “substances.” In part one, below, Feser lays out an argument for the immaterial character of abstract or conceptual thought, and suggests that we have lost sight of the way classical philosophers understood humans to be a seamless unity of the material and the immaterial.

Everyday experience tells us that a human being is the sort of thing that eats, sleeps, grows, reproduces, sees, hears, walks, feels, loves, hates, speaks, thinks, and chooses. Aristotle’s way of summing up this homely truth was to say that we are by nature rational animals. That we are animals is thus something we hardly needed Darwin to tell us. It is obvious from the fact that, like other animals, we have stomachs and skin, eyeballs and ears, limbs and teeth, muscles, brains, and the other organs necessary to carry out the activities in question. Like dogs and cats, apes and eels, we are essentially bodily creatures.

Yet it doesn’t follow that we are mere animals, and our rationality is what sets us apart from the rest of the genus. Indeed, for Aristotle, and for Aquinas after him, rationality is unlike our other capacities in having an essentially immaterial and non-bodily aspect. The reason has to do with our capacity to form abstract concepts, which underlies all our other distinctively rational activities. It is because you can grasp what it is to be a man -- not just this particular man or that one, but any possible man, man as a universal -- that you can go on to form judgments like the judgment that all men are mortal, can reason from that judgment together with the judgment that Socrates is a man to the conclusion that Socrates is mortal, and so forth.

There are several arguments that establish that this capacity for abstract thought cannot in principle be reduced to or otherwise entirely explained in terms of brain activity, even if brain activity is part of the story. The arguments have their roots in Plato and Aristotle and have been defended in recent years by Aristotelian philosophers like Mortimer Adler, John Haldane, David Oderberg, and James Ross.1 Answering the various objections to (and misunderstandings of) these arguments takes some work, but the basic idea can be set out fairly simply.2

Let us take as an example the thought that triangles have three sides. For that thought (or any other) plausibly to be material, it would have to be identifiable with something like a symbol or set of symbols encoded in the brain -- something analogous to the symbols encoded in the electronic circuitry of a computer. But there is no way a thought could be entirely reducible to that sort of thing. For no material symbol could possibly have the determinate or unambiguous content that at least many of our concepts have; and no material symbol could possibly have the universal reference that our concepts have.

Consider the most unambiguous symbol of triangularity there could be -- a picture of a triangle, such as the one to the right. Now, does this picture represent triangles in general? Or only isosceles triangles? Or only small isosceles triangles drawn in black ink? Or does it really even represent triangles in the first place? Why not take it instead to represent a dinner bell, or an arrowhead? There is nothing in the picture itself that can possibly tell you. Nor would any other picture be any better. Any picture would be susceptible of various interpretations, and so too would anything you might add to the picture in order to explain what the original picture was supposed to represent. In particular, there is nothing in the picture in question or in any other picture that entails any determinate, unambiguous content. And even in the best case there is nothing that could make it a representation of triangles in general as opposed to a representation merely of small, black, isosceles triangles specifically. For the picture, like all pictures, has certain particularizing features -- a specific size and location, black lines as opposed to blue or green ones, an isosceles as opposed to scalene or equilateral shape -- that other things do not have.

Now what is true of this “best case” sort of symbol is even more true of linguistic symbols. There is nothing in the word “triangle” that determines that it refers to all triangles or to any triangles at all. Its meaning is entirely conventional; that that particular set of shapes (or the sounds we associate with them) have the significance they do is an accident of the history of the English language. But something similar could be said of any material symbols whatever. Even if we regarded them as somehow having a built-in meaning or content, they would not have the universality or determinate content of our concepts, any more than the physical marks making up the word “triangle” or a picture of a triangle do. But then the having of a concept cannot merely be a matter of having a certain material symbol encoded in the brain, even if that is part of what it involves. Nor can it merely be a matter of having a set of material symbols, or a set of material symbols together with certain causal relations to objects and events in the world beyond the brain. For just as with any picture or set of pictures, any set of material elements will be susceptible in principle of alternative interpretations; while at least in many case, our thoughts are not indeterminate in this way.

We might understand the point by analogy with sentences. If you are going to use the English sentence “Snow is white,” you are typically going to have to express it via some material medium -- ink marks, pixels, sound waves, or what have you. All the same, the meaning of that sentence cannot be accounted for in terms of any of the physical properties of those media. There is nothing in the shapes of the letters that make up the words of the sentence, or the chemistry of the ink in which they are written, or the physics of the compression waves in the air that you generate when uttering them, that makes them refer to snow or to whiteness or indeed to anything at all. A sentence is a seamless unity of the material and the immaterial, and it is created by another seamless unity of the material and immaterial -- a human being.

At this point there will no doubt be those who object that positing ectoplasm or spook stuff is hardly a better explanation of thought than an appeal to brain activity is. And that is quite true. But then, I said nothing about ectoplasm or spook stuff in the first place. When a mathematician points out that it is just muddleheaded to speak of the square root of 25 as if it were a kind of physical object, it would be silly to accuse him of believing that the square root of 25 is made out of ectoplasm or spook stuff. If your picture of reality cannot accommodate numbers alongside physical objects, that is your problem, not his. Mathematics simply provides a powerful example of a body of truths that cannot be captured in the language of physics, chemistry, neuroscience, and the like.

Similarly, to point out that whatever a thought is, it cannot in principle be reduced to the physical properties of brain activity, is simply to provide another example of an aspect of reality that cannot be entirely captured in such language. Only if we assume that all of reality must be so captured will this sound odd, but that we should not assume this is, of course, precisely the point. And if we do assume it, we are doing so in the face of the evidence, and not on the basis of the evidence. For it is precisely what we know about thought from our everyday familiarity with it -- such as the fact that it sometimes has a determinate content, and a universal reference -- that tells us that it cannot be entirely material, just as it is what we know about numbers from our everyday familiarity with them that tells us that they cannot be physical objects.

But doesn’t neuroscience show that there is a tight correlation between our thoughts and brain activity? It does indeed. So what? If you smudge the ink you’ve used to write out a sentence or muffle the sounds you make when you speak it, it may be difficult or impossible for the reader or listener to grasp its meaning. It does not follow that the meaning is reducible to the physical or chemical properties of the sentence. Similarly, the fact that brain damage will seriously impair a person’s capacity for thought does not entail that his thoughts are entirely explicable in terms of brain activity.

Aristotle and Aquinas, though they regarded the human intellect as immaterial, would not have been surprised in the least by the findings of modern neuroscience. Indeed, they would have been surprised had neuroscience not turned up the correlations it has. This will sound surprising if you take Descartes as your paradigm of a philosopher who affirms the immateriality of the human mind. But defending Descartes is exactly the reverse of what I have been doing. For it was Descartes who substituted the real, concrete human being -- a seamless unity of the physical and the mental, the bodily and the immaterial -- with a bizarre patchwork of abstractions of his own devising. Materialists have followed him ever since. Materialism is just a riff on Cartesianism, not its opposite. Tomorrow, I’ll explain exactly what I mean.


1. See Mortimer Adler, Intellect: Mind Over Matter (New York: Collier Books, 1990); J. J. C. Smart and J. J. Haldane, Atheism and Theism, Second edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), pp. 96-109; David S. Oderberg, “Hylemorphic Dualism,” Social Philosophy and Policy 22 (2005); and James Ross, “Immaterial Aspects of Thought,” Journal of Philosophy 89 (1992).
2. I provide an exposition and defense of such arguments in chapter 7 of my book Philosophy of Mind and chapter 4 of my book Aquinas. An especially detailed exposition and defense can be found in my article “Kripke, Ross, and the Immaterial Aspects of Thought,” forthcoming in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly.

Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books and writes regularly on his own blog. You can learn more about him at his website.

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HornSpiel - #71998

August 17th 2012

Why are these philosophical discussions important? Because they help us to properly understand the limits of scientific inquiry.

If a thought, a person, cannot be reduced to the physical, can it be said to exist in a scientific sense. That is, can thoughts and persons (not the material bodies and brains but the real soul/spirit amalgams they incorporate) be the objects of scientific study? I would say not.

This goes to the heart of the science-faith debate. The symbol using, conscious, intelligent, self-reflective beings we are, are not essentially physical. We require a physical body to “exist” as agents in the the material creation. This is part of what It mean in my opinion, to be made in the image of God. It is also why were are the image of God. The Bible speaks of the Church as His Body. Through our physical bodies, not only do we exist, but also, God exists in the world.

Science simply cannot say anything about the nonmaterial nature of human beings any more than it can about God.

Dunemeister - #72001

August 17th 2012

Personally, I’ve been helped by the Australian philosopher David J Chalmers’ book, The Conscious Mind, where he offers an analysis of the notion of supervenience. There he proposes that the mental is just as real as the physical. However, the mental supervenes on the physical by means of psychophysical laws. Thus the physical (as far as humans are concerned) is indeed “essential” (if that’s the right word). This is, of course, a hopelessly brief summary of 300 plus pages of argument.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72003

August 17th 2012

IMHO Dr. Feser does not prove that the mind is material, just that our philosophical thinking no longer describes the world we live in.

This sentence that I am writing, after I hit the submit button, will “exist” in hundreds of places in just the way it appears on my screen. 

Now is it material or immaterial?  It would seem to be material because we can see it.  On the other hand we know that something material cannot exist in more than one place at the same time. 

The answer is that the words are physical in that they have form, but their meaning is rational.  The words are material, but their meaning is immaterial.  The medium is material, but the message is not. 

The brain and the whole nervous system is made up of physical nerve cells, but the activity of thinking is not material, but rational.  This activity of the brain is the mind.

Muscles engage in physical activity.  The brain engages in mental or rational activity.  Brains are all basically alike, while minds are all unique.    

Mind/Body dualism no longer works as modern neuroscience amply demonstrates.  I in no way defend it.  But physical monism also does not work.  We need to go beyond both to find a new and satisfactory new world view for today’s world. 

Dunemeister - #72006

August 17th 2012

Actually, if Chalmers’ account is anywhere near right, mind/body dualism is alive and well. Interestingly, he takes fully on board the insights of modern neuroscience. In other words, neuroscience does not “amply” demonstrate that dualism no longer works. It may in fact underpin it.

GJDS - #72007

August 17th 2012

Professor Feser,

I would be very interested in a comment from you as this area is outside of my expertise – I have always thought Descartes’ view could be summarised as, “I am not brain dead, therefore I think”. Views on uncertainty and doubt however, should not be dismissed. While meaning is illustrated by your discussion, I cannot see how you deal with doubt. Is it the ‘irritation’ of doubt, or is it that we humans may also consider something as meaningless? Does doubt have a place in discussions on meaning? How is abstraction to be viewed? Is abstracting from something, or independent of, say, your triangle? How much does sense certainty and regularity have to do with meaning as your have discussed it.

One thing that does not appear to be answered when I read articles such as this is the importance of growth from a child at birth, to an adult, and how this brings “meaning” to speech, writing and indeed all understanding by us humans. I cannot contemplate a human being as “fully formed” and his/her faculties fully functional from birth. It is this area that may also impact on comments one may hear about artificial intelligence and neural networks.

wesseldawn - #72013

August 18th 2012

With the mind we analyse, conceptualize, and philosophize. This is the material world.

With the spirit we go beyond physical realities. Prayer, and E.S.P. cannot be measured as they are attributes of the higher consciousness. Essentially we are higher consciousness trapped in a physical world. The “immaterial” sometimes crosses over to the material and we call that a miracle.




Roger A. Sawtelle - #72015

August 18th 2012

A triangle is a triangle.  It is not an abstraction, it is a three sided figure. 

We can use a triangle to solve geometric problems where it represents different dimensions, but it still is a triangle and not an abstraction.

The equilateral triangle can symbolize the Trinity because it represents the Three and One-ness of the Trinity, but it is still a symbol and not an abstraction. 

The mind is not an abstraction of the brain, the mind is the immaterial activity of the brain, which is thinking.  When the body dies, the brain dies, but the immaterial ideas of the mind as recorded on paper, on tape, and/or electronically live on so we might understand them long after the brain is deceased.   

Language is representational and relational.  It is not abstract, or an abstraction of reality. 

Merv - #72027

August 18th 2012

The concept of ‘triangularity’ is abstract, Roger, even while something that has the shape of what we call a triangle is very material.  But professor Feser’s point still stands that no matter what you do to show or demonstrate ‘triangularity’ to somebody your attempt to embody that completely in ink, paper, or pixels will still depend on them to make the abstract connection to what you mean to communicate.  We already share in our abstract concepts learned in geometry class so that we know what that word means.  But if even we who share in humanity can imagine different interpretations for that picture such as ‘arrowhead’, then how much more would an alien who did not share our cultural assumptions or terran education find many different meanings in the figure that to you means “triangle”. 


Roger A. Sawtelle - #72030

August 18th 2012


I disagree.  The image or the word triangle is not an abstract, but relational.  If you want to know what a triangle is, you look at a definition in the dictionary or other similar resource.  You do not abstract from triangularity. 

Definitions describe relationships.  If you are talking about geometry, you are talking about equations.  Again equations are not abstraction, they define relationships.  x= y2 + z2.  Equations are relational and real.  Just because they are immaterial does not make them unreal as materialists believe.

Again if you want to know what an arrowhead is, look in the dictionary or in an encyclopedia.  There is nothing abstrract about an arrowhead.

Jenai Goss - #72036

August 19th 2012


Blaise Pascal adresses the subject of abstract symbols, and geometric symbols and problems in particular, and adresses the point that standardized definitions are what help many of them to work.


Jenai Goss - #72037

August 19th 2012

than deriving it. For example:

“A sentence is a seamless unity of the material and the immaterial, and it is created by another seamless unity of the material and immaterial—a human being.”

 Assuming the premise was true, (as it was not proven as a seamless unity, considering the law of the excluded middle), how would this conclusion be proven from the premise?

 In addition, Hebrew philosophy held that the body and soul are seperate entities - and the old testament is filled with such references following this[Ecc 12:7, for instance]. (Soul could also refer to the whole of a person’s body, much as in the some later philosophies ‘human’ could refer to the whole body or to the soul].  *Greek* philosophy originally held to a materialistic soul, but Plato was a major influence for change, arguing for an immaterial soul [albeit his take was that the body imprisoned a pure soul, which is different from the jewish concept of body/soul both working in tandem] .

 Descartes, Philo, Pascal, Saado Gaon, Gassendi, Plotinus, etc -  there are many philosophers who supported the idea of an immaterial soul.

It is true that for jewish philosophers this was more harmonious than the later philosophers - for jews, the body and soul both worked together in the body, and could both sin [but no, their substances were not the same]. In Plato’s version, the soul was pure, and the body a corrupt jailer. 

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matt10:28


Roger A. Sawtelle - #72050

August 20th 2012

Much of the confusion is based imho on terminology.

The Greek word for soul, psyche, can be used to mean “mind” as in the mind and body problem or as spirit as in the spiritual aspect of a person as opposed to the mental or physical.

Imho there is no doubt that there is a very significant difference between the brain and the nervous system and the rest of the human body.  The Physical Body is our home base so to speak.  It is absolutely necessary for life and beyond life.  The Mental or Nerve Body is necessary for us to be persons and to life a human beings.

Because the brain is part of the body some people what it lump it together with the rest and call it physical, even though its function is mental.  The body does physical work, pumping blood, breathing air, moving, etc.  The brain does non-physical work, thinking, regulating, evaluating. 

The issue seems to be, How can a physical body produce non-physical thinking?  That really can’t be answered except that God created the physical universe non-physically, so it follows that the physical could be able to produce the non-physical.

The only way to make sense of dualism is to find a third aspect of reality which bridges the separation between the physical and the mental bringing them into relationship.  We call this this aspect of reality Purpose or Spirit (or Teleos.)  

donjindra - #72094

August 21st 2012

I just love Feser’s uncritical reasoning. Analogies pop into my head so easily.

“But doesn’t common sense show that there is a tight correlation between our legs and our ability to walk? It does indeed. So what? The fact that leglessless will seriously impair a person’s capacity for walking does not entail that his walking is entirely explicable in terms of legs.”

If Feser thinks he’s not relying on dreaded spook stuff then it’s incumbent upon him to show us what sort of stuff he really means—something specific, something that isn’t a meaningless abstraction in itself. Feser is always pointing out foundations of sand in other systems of thought. Science can’t justify science—that sort of thing. Yet he has no problem using the most vague abstractions known to man to justify abstraction itself.

Yes, indeed. So what?

donjindra - #72098

August 21st 2012

Dogs don’t understand triangles. But they do understand steak. They understand a steak’s smell. They can be trained to understand the word steak too. And they can even reach beyond the English language. Bells can mean steak, as Pavlov proved.

So this makes me wonder how abstractly does a dog brain think? How can it know this particular smell today is similar to the smell of yesterday’s steak? I mean, today it’s T-bone whereas yesterday it was tube steak. Yet somehow the dog knows the two are alike. It doesn’t need to re-learn every day that the similar smell means similar steak. Yet every day it’s a different steak. If it learns a bell means steak, could we use different bells to indicate steak? To my knowledge Pavlov didn’t use triangles with dogs. But I wonder if Feser knows dolphins can be trained to associate triangles to objects and behaviors?

Animals, surprisingly, don’t know abstraction is for humans use only. Dogs don’t know they’re not supposed to respond to a “universal” steak or a “universal” cat. They simply respond—kind of like how we do to “universal” triangles. Maybe, even in their canine ignorance, dogs know more about brain function than Feser does. For it’s Feser who ultimately retreats from experience.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72150

August 22nd 2012


Language is not about abstractions as western thinking insists.  Language, symbols, etc. is about relationships.  That is what we and other animals can make.  

donjindra - #72152

August 22nd 2012

Roger A. Sawtelle,

It could be abstractions are about relationships.  I tend to think of them as data compression—which are kind of about relationships.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72164

August 23rd 2012


Abstractions are not about relationships.  Abstractions are not data compression either if I understand data compression right. An abstraction if anything is a generalization, but symbols and language are not generalizations and abstractions, but relationships.

A triangle is a triangle, a three sided figure.  If it is not a three sided figure, it is not a triangle. 

donjindra - #72166

August 23rd 2012

Roger A. Sawtelle,

It’s a bit premature for us to settle on exactly what abstractions or languages are. Maybe one day we’ll know. But whatever the ultimate answers are, they’re going to be a lot less vague than being “about relationships” or “data compression.”

“A triangle is a triangle, a three sided figure”—we can both agree on that no matter the perspective. But from that I’m not sure what you’re relating that “three sided figure” to.  A four sided figure? And precisely how in your mind does this differ from an abstraction?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72184

August 25th 2012


Forgive me, but your statement begs the question. 

You say it is premature to settle on an answer to this problem.  It might be premature for you because you have not thought through the problem and issues, but there is no reason to think that it is premature for people who have using language for many millenia to understand what they are doing.

Now you seem to think that relationships are vague, but really put ypourself in the position of a baby learning to speak and ask yourself what is the most real “thing” in his/her life and how that leads to her/his first word, Mama or Dada. 

Mama is not an abstraction from the universal Mother.  Mama is the relational source of life and love.  Based on this experiential relational anchor babies experience and learn many other relationships. 

Relationships begin with the concrete and move to the general, while abstraction goes the other way.  We no longer believe in Plato’s Ideal Forms, but our theory of language is based on them.  How does that make any sense?

Yes, a triangle is differentiated from a quadralateral by the number of its sides, but that is a process very different from abstraction which as I said is generalization from many of the same kind, or reduction from an ideal model, not differentiation between different kinds.

As you should know the simple triangle is the basis of Geometry, which is the starting point for all math, science, and through Pythagoras, philosophy. 

Thus since the triangle fits the relational model of language, this speaks volumes about the structure of knowledge found in math, science, philosophy, and even theology (which is ultra-relational.) 

donjindra - #72193

August 25th 2012

Roger A. Sawtelle,

“Relationships begin with the concrete and move to the general, while abstraction goes the other way.”

I think everyone knows this. It’s trivial.

Our theory of language is not based on platonic forms.

The simple triangle is not the basis of Geometry. Read Euclid.

When I said it’s premature to settle on exactly what abstractions or languages are, it’s because nobody has solved the problem. If you think you’ve found something that’s not trivial go get it published in a journal. But so far no one is even close. Ultimately the solution will be found at the biological level, not at the vague and abstract level we’re both operating at here.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72204

August 26th 2012


Ther triangle is the basis of Geometry.  I was not going by Euclid, but by the way I was taught geometry by a teacher who clearly had read Euclid.  However I did look at Euclid and found that my eaducation was correct.  Geometry is based on the triangle.  

As I said relationships are neither abstract or vague.  I really do not understand why you keep saying they are.  Nor do I understand why you might think that biology will give an solution to a rational or intellectual question.  Nor do I find evolutionary answers not vague or clear.  

Your idea of publishing an article is good.  If you know of a journal that would publish a paper by a non-specialist, let me know.

donjindra - #72224

August 27th 2012

Roger A. Sawtelle,

Euclid’s first five postulates:

1. A straight line segment can be drawn joining any two points.

2. Any straight line segment can be extended indefinitely in a straight line.

3. Given any straight lines segment, a circle can be drawn having the segment as radius and one endpoint as center.

4. All Right Angles are congruent.

5. If two lines are drawn which intersect a third in such a way that the sum of the inner angles on one side is less than two Right Angles, then the two lines inevitably must intersect each other on that side if extended far enough. This postulate is equivalent to what is known as the Parallel Postulate.

Your teacher was wrong.

Relationships are abstractions. Relationships apply to a multitude of situatins, therefore the concept itself is an abstraction. But to say language is based on relationships is to say nothing. It’s ludicrously vague.

Our brains are biological units. When lanuage is finally explained it will be based on the structure of the brain—biology.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72241

August 28th 2012


If you look at the remaining of the postulates which deal with Figures, they are based on the Triangle.  Geometry is about figures, not about lines or even angles.  Geometry is about triangles.

Relationships are not abstractions.  Relationships are relationships.  Up is up and not an abstraction.  To say that language is based on abstractions is vague as you say, but language is not vague.  Language is as clear and precise as we make it, when it is based on relationships which are real, clear , and precise.     

Our brains are biological units, used for the rational purpose of thinking and communicating.  When language is explained it will be based on how the human mind can rationally communicate the physical, rational, and spiritual reality of life.       

Organisms and mechanisms that work, do so because they have a rational structure.  That is what we need to discover for the mind.  This structure is found in relationships which are in nature, in humans and other animals, and in language.  

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