Rediscovering Human Beings, Part 2

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August 18, 2012 Tags: Brain, Mind & Soul

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

Rediscovering Human Beings, Part 2

Note: In part one, Edward Feser laid out the philosophical argument (in keeping with concepts explored by Aristotle and Aquinas alike) that though humans are indeed animals, of a kind with “dogs and cats, apes and eels,” it does not follow that were are merely animals. Furthermore, he argued that a critical piece of what sets us apart is our rationality, as represented by such things as symbols and linguistic forms. But though our rationality is intimately connected with our bodies—and our brains in particular—it is nevertheless profoundly and irreducibly immaterial, without being any less real. Today, Dr. Feser turns to the way that modernist writers departed from classical models for understanding humanity as being intimately and indivisibly connected, to the detriment and confusion of much contemporary thinking on what it is to be human.

I ended part one by saying that 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 between brain activity on the one hand, and on the other hand our distinctive capacity for abstract, conceptual thought. They affirmed that, much as a sentence is a seamless unity of the immaterial and the material -- of meaning and of the physical medium by which meaning is conveyed -- so too a human being is another seamless unity of the immaterial and the material. Finally, I suggested that it was actually Descartes who substituted the real, concrete human being with a bizarre patchwork of abstractions of his own devising, and set the stage for the various materialisms that followed. It is that point to which I will return today.

Descartes was among those early modern thinkers -- Galileo and Newton were two others -- who put at the center of Western thought an essentially mathematical conception of the material world. There is nothing wrong with that conception when it is used for the purposes for which it was invented -- the prediction and control of natural phenomena. But it is merely an abstraction from concrete material reality, and not the whole of material reality. It captures only those aspects that are susceptible both of mathematical modeling and of detection via the experimental techniques by which the models may be tested. But anything else falls through its net.

Now when aircraft engineers abstract from real, concrete passengers everything but their average weight, so as to determine how many passengers of average weight can fly on a particular type of plane, no one thinks that the utility of this method shows that actual airline passengers have no features other than their average weight. The abstraction is extremely useful, but hardly provides an exhaustive description of reality. Yet the utility and predictive power of physics is often taken as evidence that it gives us an exhaustive picture of material reality. This sort of argument is like that of the drunk who insists that his keys have to be under the streetlamp, because that is the only place there is light to look for them. That it is difficult to look for the keys elsewhere has absolutely no tendency to show that they are not in fact elsewhere. And that it is difficult to study aspects of material reality not susceptible of the methods of physics does not show that no such aspects exist. The fallacy is extremely obvious when you think about it, but it is committed all the time by otherwise intelligent people, and gains a certain prestige from the frequency of its commission and the status of those who commit it.

Now Descartes not only took the material world in general to be exhausted by what could be put in the abstract language of mathematics, but he took the human body in particular to be so exhausted. Colors, sounds, smells, tastes, heat, and cold, as common sense understands these qualities, are, precisely because they are qualitative rather than quantitative, not expressible in the mathematics that has become the language of physics. Descartes thus relegated them to the mind. Color, sound, heat, cold, etc., as common sense understands them, anyway, were in his view to be regarded as existing only in our experience of the material world, not in the material world itself.

But neither, of course, are notions like meaning, thinking, willing, or other mental attributes expressible in the language of physics. Hence, having already reified one abstraction -- that is to say, having taken the abstracted mathematical features of the concrete material world and treated them as if they just were the whole of the material world -- Descartes went on to reify another. He abstracted conscious thought from the concrete human being who is its subject, and made of it a substance in its own right, a res cogitans or “thing that thinks.”

A human being was then redefined by Descartes as a composite of these two invented substances: “matter,” understood not as common sense understands matter but rather as an abstract mathematical structure treated as if it were a concrete reality, and utterly devoid of color, odor, sound, taste, heat, cold, meaning, or purpose; and “mind,” understood not as a faculty of a certain kind of animal but rather as an entity in its own right, a thinking thing that is nothing but a thinking thing, and in which alone exist the qualitative features we know from conscious experience (“qualia,” as contemporary philosophers call them).

Naturally, this bizarre re-conception of human nature -- man as a “ghost in a machine,” as Gilbert Ryle famously parodied it -- opened up a host of philosophical problems which persist to this day. The materialist “solution” to the problems has been to reject one of Descartes’ reified abstractions (the res cogitans) while keeping the other, the material world conceived as if the equations of physics exhausted its nature. Unsurprisingly, this has led to theories of the relationship of mind to body which seem implicitly to deny, rather than to explain, the existence of mind, consciousness, meaning, and free choice. And as books like Alex Rosenberg’s recent The Atheist’s Guide to Reality indicate, it seems that an increasing number of materialists might be willing to make the denial explicit. But the view that results is utterly incoherent -- in effect, a denial of the very existence of rational thought in the name of rational thought.

A genuine solution requires abandoning both of Descartes’ abstractions and rediscovering the human being as an irreducible psychophysical whole -- the mental and the physical as two aspects of one thing, just as a sentence’s meaning and the physical marks that make it up are two aspects of one thing. Far from being “unscientific,” such a rediscovery would be a return to reality as we actually know it from experience -- rather than the fallacious and ideological retreat from experience represented by Cartesianism and materialism alike. Wittgenstein and his followers made a significant contribution to such a rediscovery. (M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker’s Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience is an important recent example.) But it is not enough to critique bad metaphysics (as Wittgensteinians essentially confine themselves to doing). A sound metaphysics -- a metaphysics that builds on rather than denies what we know through ordinary experience about human beings and the wider natural world -- must be put in its place. And that is what Aristotle, Aquinas, and their contemporary successors offer.


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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Gregory - #72021

August 18th 2012

“The materialist ‘solution’ to the problems has been to reject one of Descartes’ reified abstractions (the res cogitans) while keeping the other, the material world conceived as if the equations of physics exhausted its nature.” - Dr. Edward Feser

Then what we’re looking for is a post-materialist (or contra-materialist) new solution outside of physics. We obviously need to go ‘beyond nature’ to find it. We probably then need to look at least sometimes beyond the analytic philosophical tradition too.

“A sound metaphysics…what Aristotle, Aquinas, and their contemporary successors offer…” – Feser

It seems significant that there has been no third name since Aristotle’s death in 322 B.C.[E.] and Saint Thomas Aquinas’ in 1274 A.D.[C.E.].

Perhaps, however, there is one name, an as yet unacknowledged leader of the so-broadly-called ‘contemporary successors,’ who died late in the 20th century.

Perhaps this person, more than anyone else in over 700 years, can help us to heal the rift of the res cogitans (mind and matter), by speaking in (post-)modern language, not just in medieval or ancient tongue.

Personally, I’m not ready to throw the continental French-Dutch-Roman Catholic René Descartes under an autobus just yet! ; )

“the power through which we know things in the strict sense is purely spiritual” (AT 10)

“the most substantial notion of a first principle we can have is ‘that our soul exists.’ For it is very useful indeed to convince oneself first of the existence of God, and then of the existence of all creatures, through the consideration of one’s own existence.” – to Clerselier, June or July 1646; AT 4)

Two above quotations from Descartes’ Changing Mind by Peter Machamer and J.E. McGuire, Princeton University Press, 2009.

Would the esteemed Dr. Feser offer a third name to update the Aristotelian-Aquinas tradition he promotes on this ‘rediscovering human beings’ theme?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #72026

August 18th 2012

“A genuine solution requires abandoning both of Descartes’ abstractions and rediscovering the human being as an irreducible psychophysical whole—the mental and the physical as two aspects of one thing, just as a sentence’s meaning and the physical marks that make it up are two aspects of one thing.”

Certainly a human being is a whole, but that does not mean that a human does not also have parts.  A person does have a body and a mind.  I think that a person also has a spirit. 

A person is physically sick if his or her body is out of sync.  A person is mentally ill if her or his mind is out of sync.  A person is spiritually sill if his or her spirit is out of sync.  A person cannot be an irreducible whole if aspects of her or his life are out of kilter.

Again mind/body monism does not work, and mind/body dualism does not work.  We need to go beyond both to find a new form for humanity, body, mind, and spirit.  


Roger A. Sawtelle - #72028

August 18th 2012

“A genuine solution requires abandoning both of Descartes’ abstractions and rediscovering the human being as an irreducible psychophysical whole—the mental and the physical as two aspects of one thing, just as a sentence’s meaning and the physical marks that make it up are two aspects of one thing.”

Certainly a human being is a whole, but that does not mean that a human does not also have parts. A person does have a body and a mind. I think that a person also has a spirit.

A person is physically sick if his or her body is out of sync. A person is mentally ill if her or his mind is out of sync. A person is spiritually ill if his or her spirit is out of sync. A person cannot be an irreducible whole if aspects of her or his life are out of kilter.

Again mind/body monism does not work, and mind/body dualism does not work. We need to go beyond both to find a new form for humanity, body, mind, and spirit.


Peter Hickman - #72040

August 19th 2012

Roger,
Did you ever read Watchman Nee’s ‘The Spiritual Man’?
It’s available on-line: http://www.worldinvisible.com/library/nee/sprtmnv1/1968cont.htm
Years ago it helped me come to a tri-partite view of man.


Francis - #72039

August 19th 2012

During the hours that many spend mulling the mysteries of man-ness, many are motoring to hell (cf. Mat 7:14).

Some have tried turning our focus away from our navels, and directed our attention toward the seriousness of sin [“the crisis of the loss of the sense of sin” – John Paul II; “the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin” - Pius XII].

 

Will BioLogos be posting any articles on “Rediscovering Sin”?


donjindra - #72095

August 21st 2012

Feser writes:

“That it is difficult to look for the keys elsewhere has absolutely no tendency to show that they are not in fact elsewhere. And that it is difficult to study aspects of material reality not susceptible of the methods of physics does not show that no such aspects exist.”

This is true, but it’s not as if people haven’t been looking in those “difficult” places.  Fact is, they had been looking in the dark for thousands of years when people like Bacon and Galileo finally noticed nothing was ever found. So they had a sensible idea. Let’s look where there’s light! where we can actually see and grab what we find! That’s no fallacy.

Feser is welcomed to seek in the dark. In a few more millenia maybe he’ll find something.


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