The Last Superstition: Software Is Immaterial

Chapter 4: Minds Are Not Material

In order to prove that human souls are immortal, Feser has to prove that there’s some part of a person that survives death, and the destruction of the body. If there’s a part of a human left behind when you remove the matter, that part must presumably be immaterial, and independent of the body (and in particular of the brain). Let’s watch how he does this:

Consider first that when we grasp the nature, essence, or form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form, nature, or essence that exists both in the thing and in the intellect. The form of triangularity that exists in our minds when we think about triangles is the same form that exists in actual triangles themselves; the form of “dogness” that exists in our minds when we think about dogs is the same form that exists in actual dogs; and so forth. If this weren’t the case, then we just wouldn’t really be thinking about triangles, dogs, and the like, since to think about these things requires grasping what they are, and what they are is determined by their essence or form. But now suppose that the intellect is a material thing – some part of the brain, or whatever. Then for the form to exist in the intellect is for the form to exist in a certain material thing. But for a form to exist in a material thing is just for that material thing to be the kind of thing the form is a form of; for example, for the form of “dogness” to exist in a certain parcel of matter is just for that parcel of matter to be a dog. And in that case, if your intellect was just the same thing as some part of your brain, it follows that that part of your brain would become a dog whenever you thought about dogs. “But that’s absurd!” you say. Of course it is; that’s the point. Assuming that the intellect is material leads to such absurdity; hence the intellect is not material. [p. 124]

Notice what he’s saying here: to make a triangle, you arrange matter in the shape of a triangle; to make a dog, you arrange atoms in a certain way, in the Form of a dog.

And, he tells us, in order to think about triangles, something in our cognitive process has to become like a triangle; to think about dogs, something has to become dog-like (including being dog-shaped). But since there’s no part of the brain (or, indeed, any other material part of the human body) that becomes triangular when we think of triangles, something else must be responsible for that aspect of cognition; something immaterial.

The most polite thing I can say here is “wow”. Clearly this is someone who doesn’t know the first thing about how software works, on the most basic level. I don’t expect Feser to be a programmer, but surely he realizes that the National Hurricane Center computers that simulate hurricanes don’t actually create rain and wind in the data center. That when you play World of Warcraft, there aren’t actually orcs running around somewhere.

(This reminds me of a post by Gil Dodgen at Uncommon Descent, about how a computer simulation of evolution would have to include random changes to the processor, OS, and so on. (My original response to that post here.))

Even if we granted Feser’s reasoning, above, it would only get him as far as “there’s more than just the brain; understanding the brain doesn’t mean that you understand the mind.” But he goes farther than that, telling us that “there is the fact that even though the intellect itself operates without any bodily organ” (p. 127).

If the soul can, unlike the form of a table, function apart from the matter it informs (as it does in thought), then it can also, and again unlike the form of a table, exist apart from the matter it informs, as a kind of incomplete substance. [p. 127]

Again, wow. This is like saying that since software is not hardware, it can run without any hardware. Or that since music comes down to vibrations, and since CDs don’t vibrate, that CDs aren’t involved in playing music. You wouldn’t expect to see tiny pictures if you look at a DVD through a microscope, or hear dialog if you listen to it closely enough, and yet this is the sort of mindset that Feser seems to be seriously considering, as far as I can tell.

I can understand Aristotle and Aquinas making these sorts of mistakes: they lived at a time when people didn’t really distinguish between a book, and the words in the book. So it’s natural that, in groping around for these concepts, that they would make some mistakes. But Feser doesn’t have this excuse. Not only do we distinguish between book-as-words and book-as-object, we can put a price tag on this difference: as I speak, the hardback edition of The Last Superstition sells for $18.85 at Amazon, while the Kindle ebook costs $7.36 less.

There’s a bit in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where two philosophers object to the use of a computer to figure out the Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. One of them says, “I mean what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?” I feel we’re at that point with the “whatever it is that is the thing but isn’t matter”: Plato called it Form, Aristotle and Aquinas called it essence. We call it data, information, software, and we use it every day.

We understand software. Feser has no excuse for promulgating the sort of primitive thinking above.

Helpfully, Feser tells us why he doesn’t notice when his train of thought jumps the rails and plows across a field before getting stuck in a ditch:

Here, as elsewhere, the arguments we are considering are attempts at what I have been calling metaphysical demonstration, not probabilistic empirical theorizing. In each case, the premises are obviously true, the conclusion follows necessarily, and thus the conclusion is obviously true as well. That, at any rate, is what the arguments claim. If you’re going to refute them, then you need to show either that the premises are false or that the conclusion doesn’t really follow. […] The “findings of neuroscience” couldn’t refute these arguments any more than they could refute “2 + 2 = 4.” [pp. 125–126]

That is, Feser is so convinced that his premises are true, and that his reasoning is correct, that he doesn’t even bother with reality checks, though he does bring up science when it suits him:

When does the rational soul’s presence in the body begin? At conception. For a soul is just the form – the essence, nature, structure, organizational pattern – of a living thing, an organism. And the human organism, as we know from modern biology, begins at conception. [p. 128]

Not that he bothers citing any biologist to confirm this statement. Maybe this is one of those “obviously true” premises that he doesn’t feel the need to defend.

Far from any of this being undermined by modern science, it is confirmed by it. For the nature and structure of DNA is exactly the sort of thing we should expect to exist given an Aristotelian metaphysical conception of the world, and not at all what we would expect if materialism were true.

Oh, really? Then I’d love to see the book where Aquinas predicts the existence of a double-helix with “backbones” made of coal and phosphorus, scooping those atheist materialists, Francis Crick and James Watson, by centuries. Unless, of course, he’s just doing the same thing that every other apologist does: wait until scientists do the hard work of discovering something, then say, “Pfft! My god could’ve done that. In fact, he did, if you squint at this scripture just right.”

Naah, it’s definitely medieval prescience.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Plato’s Forms

Chapter 2: Greeks Bearing Gifts is a recap of the history of Greek philosophy that led to Thomas Aquinas, which he’ll talk about in chapter 3. This is, in my opinion, the best chapter in the book.

I’ll skip over the first section, From Thales to Socrates because although it’s interesting, from a historical perspective, to see where certain ideas came from, most of Feser’s arguments are based on something like Plato’s Forms, so let’s skip ahead to that.

Plato’s Theory of Forms

If you draw a bunch of triangles, you’ll notice that none of them are perfect: one of the sides might be crooked (in fact, all of them are crooked, if you look at them through a microscope), or the corners might not quite meet up, and in any case, the sides have non-zero width. All of them are more or less good approximations to the abstract notion of a triangle. On top of which, we can think about triangles, and draw conclusions about them, that might not be true of any specific triangle that we can draw. So there are real-world triangles, and there’s the abstract notion of a triangle.

Likewise, dogs are all different from each other, but they all have something in common, namely that they’re dogs. But it would be tautological to say, “all dogs are dogs”. What is it, exactly, that all dogs have in common? For Plato, it’s their Form (which I will try to remember to capitalize, since it’s a term of art). Feser tells us:

What is a “Form”? It is, in the first place, an essence of the sort Socrates was so eager to discover. To know the essence of justice, for example – to know, that is to say, what the nature of justice is, what defines it and distinguishes it from everything that isn’t justice – would for Plato just be to know the Form of Justice. [p. 32]

In other words, a Form seems to be a definition, or specification. (Also, the terms “Form”, “nature”, and “essence” seem to be more or less interchangeable, here.)

that when we grasp the essence or nature of being a triangle, what we grasp is not something material or physical, and not something we grasp or could grasp through the senses. This is even more evident when we consider that individual perceivable, material triangles come into existence and go out of existence and change in other ways as well, but the essence of triangularity stays the same. […]

That does not mean, however, that in knowing the essence of triangularity we know something that is purely mental, a subjective “idea.”7 Nor is this essence a mere cultural artifact or convention of language. For what we know about triangles are objective facts, things we have discovered rather than invented. It is not up to us to decide that the angles of a triangle should add up to 38 degrees instead of 180, or that the Pythagorean theorem should be true of circles rather than right triangles. [pp. 33–34]

Yes, the astute reader will have noticed that triangles’ angles don’t always add up to 180 degrees, so in a way, it is up to us to decide whether we’re talking about euclidean or non-euclidean geometry.

But let’s leave that aside, and note that what Plato seems to be doing here is groping for the concept of information, or software. It might be hard to remember, but for most of human existence, this was a fairly difficult concept. You didn’t have a book or a letter as a separate entity from the paper it was written on. You could sing someone else’s song, and you could copy someone’s words or ideas in your own book, but for the most part, there was no need to distinguish between information and the medium it was recorded in. So Plato et al. get props for thinking about this.

Unfortunately, Feser doesn’t answer, or even discuss, some of what I think are rather basic questions about Forms: how many Forms are there? Is this a constant number, or perhaps can we create Forms as needed? Which Forms apply to a given object? And how do we know?

Feser tells us, above, that a crudely-drawn triangle, drawn in chalk on a sidewalk, is just a poor instance of the ideal “triangle” Form. But presumably it’s a decent instance of the “sidewalk art” Form, and a very good instance of the “wobbly triangle drawn in chalk where the corners don’t meet” Form.

What about an iPhone 7? Does it instantiate the “rectangle” Form? The “telephone” form (which in turn is an instance of the “electronic device” Form)? If you use it to tell time, does it instantiate the “clock” form? If you use it to hold down loose papers at a café, does it instantiate the “paperweight” form?

If, as I suspect, Plato assigned Forms to salient entities in his environment, I see no reason why we couldn’t define our own Forms based on what we find interesting or important at any given moment.

Later, we’ll talk about the toothpaste-eating squirrel.

Series: The Last Superstition