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: Animal Souls

Chapter 4: Scholastic Aptitude

Having introduced his main themes in chapters 1-3, Feser now elaborates upon them, starting with

The Soul

a soul is just the form or essence of a living thing. [p. 121]

And the form or essence, you’ll recall, is the whatever-it-is that makes a thing the sort of thing that it is. For triangles, the essence is triangularity (i.e., being a three-sided polygon).

One might think, then, that the soul of a human would be whatever it means to be human. Humanity or humanness, that is. But from context, that doesn’t seem right: humanness is something shared by all people, while the soul has traditionally been an individual thing. That is, while Martha Washington and Nelson Mandela have the same essence of humanness, they have distinct souls.

He goes on to classify souls into a hierarchy: at the bottom are “nutritive souls”, which plants have, and allow them to take in nutrients and reproduce. Above that is the “sensory soul”, which does everything a nutritive soul does, plus sense the world around, and move. Nonhuman animals have sensory souls. And finally, there are “rational souls” — human souls — which have everything that sensory souls have, plus the capacity for abstract thought.

Clearly, this classification is based far more in medieval preconceptions than in modern biology. For one thing, the venus flytrap seems to have a sensory soul, since it clearly senses its environment. For another, there’s no mention of bacteria, which can fit in either category as well. (I’ll grant that, almost certainly, only animals can fit into the “rational” category.)

But the distinction between nutritive and sensory souls isn’t nearly as important as that between sensory and rational souls, since the point is to discuss the mind, and certain things that follow from that, like morality. And here is where Feser really ought to have done himself a favor and looked into current research on animal intelligence.

A quick Google search turned up this Scientific American article about, well, abstract reasoning in animals. I wasn’t surprised that apes exhibit abstract reasoning (the experiment was, roughly, to see whether orangutans and a gorilla could answer the question, “Here’s a picture; here’s another picture; is it the same kind of animal as the first picture?”), but I was surprised that dogs can exhibit abstract reasoning as well, being able to distinguish dogs from non-dogs by sight. Crows can this as well, distinguishing “this is a set of similar things” from “this is a set of dissimilar things”.

More recently, an experiment seems to have shown that apes have theory of mind. That is, gorillas and other apes can figure out what another individual believes, even when that belief is false.

Feser will, I am sure, reply that this isn’t the sort of high-level abstract reasoning that defines a rational soul, and put forth further criteria, but that’s exactly my point: the line between humans and other species isn’t nearly as wide as it might appear; certainly not as wide as Aristotle and Aquinas probably thought. And, of course, our ancestors evolved from clearly-non-rational animals to clearly-rational humans.

Do gorillas or orangutans have rational souls, if at least some of them can, at least on occasion, reason abstractly? It certainly seems to be one of their potentialities, as I understand Feser’s use of the term elsewhere.

More about rationality (emphasis and comments added):

Rationality – the ability to grasp forms or essences and to reason on the basis of them – has as its natural end or final cause the attainment of truth, of understanding the world around us. [Says who? I would have said this is the natural end of curiosity, not of rationality. — arensb] And free will has as its natural end or final cause the choice of those actions that best accord with the truth as it is discovered by reason, and in particular in accord with the truth about a human being’s own nature or essence. [What does this even mean? — arensb] That is, as we shall see, exactly what morality is from the point of view of Aristotle and Aquinas: the habitual choice of actions that further the hierarchically ordered natural ends entailed by human nature. [Who decides which ends are natural? — arensb] But the intellect’s capacity to know the truth is more fully realized the deeper one’s understanding of the nature of the world and the causes underlying it. And the deepest truth about the world, as we have seen, is that it is caused and sustained in being by God. The highest fulfillment of the distinctively human power of intellect, then, is, for Aristotle and Aquinas, to know God. And since the will’s natural end or purpose is to choose in accordance with the furtherance of those ends entailed by human nature, the highest fulfillment of free choice is to live in a way that facilitates the knowing of God. [p. 122]

The description of free will, here, is not one that I’ve ever seen. The core of free will, as I’ve usually heard it, is the ability to make decisions without external influence; what Feser is describing sounds more like “figuring out what’s true, the better to attain a desired goal”. The two concepts are related, but different.

The definition of morality also looks weird. Feser seems to be saying that morality involves learning to live in accordance with human nature. But as I think any parent will tell you, children need to be taught not to steal, or hit their siblings and playmates. And thus, contra Feser, morality seems to be about learning to overcome the less-desirable aspects of human nature, that we might live together with minimal friction.

I pointed out earlier some of what I saw as quite shoddy reasoning on Feser’s part, and why I didn’t find his arguments for God convincing. And given that, as he tells us, Aristotelianism/Thomism has been abandoned by modern scholar, neither do a lot of other people. And thus at a minimum, Feser ought to use his rationality to come up with a better way of getting at the truth, either a better argument for God or an admission that the ones he’s using aren’t all that good.

All in all, though, this paragraph exhibits, in spades, the sort of thinking that gives theology a bad name: redefining common terms in unfamiliar ways, and making questionable-at-best leaps of logic from one clause to the next, to arrive at one’s desired conclusion.

Series: The Last Superstition