Monday, August 2, 2010

Fodor’s trinity

What is the mind-body problem? In an article summarizing his work, which he wrote for Samuel Guttenplan’s A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, Jerry Fodor answers as follows:

[S]ome of the most pervasive properties of minds seem so mysterious as to raise the Kantian-sounding question how a materialistic psychology is even possible. Lots of mental states are conscious, lots of mental states are intentional, and lots of mental processes are rational, and the question does rather suggest itself how anything that is material could be any of these.

For Fodor, then, there are really three mind-body problems: the problem of consciousness, the problem of intentionality, and the problem of rationality. Why are the phenomena in question problematic?

Let’s look at each briefly. (The following characterizations are mine, not Fodor’s.) When light strikes your retinas, a complex series of neural processes is initiated which may result in one of a range of possible behaviors – taking steps to avoid an obstacle, sorting red apples from green ones, or saying “It’s sunny outside.” When light strikes an “electric eye” or photodetector of some sort, electrical processes are initiated which also may result in one among a range of possible behaviors – the setting off on an alarm, for example, or, if the device is associated with a robot, perhaps behavior similar to the sort you might exhibit, such as avoiding an obstacle, sorting objects, or declaring (through a speech synthesizer) that it is sunny. Now, in the case of the electric eye and its associated robot, what we can observe going on in the system is presumably all there is. The system has no “inner life” or conscious visual experience associated with the electrical activity and behavior. But we do have conscious awareness; we do have an “inner life.” There is “something it is like” for us to see things, whereas there is nothing it is like for the robot to “see” something. Or as contemporary philosophers like to say, we have qualia while the robot appears not to. So, what accounts for this difference? It does not seem plausible to hold that it can be accounted for merely in terms of the greater complexity of the human brain, because the difference between conscious systems and unconscious ones seems clearly to be a difference in quality and not merely of quantity. This is the problem of consciousness.

Then there is the problem of intentionality, which concerns, not just intentions, but meaning in general. (The technical term “intentionality” derives from the Latin intendere, which means “to point at” or “to aim at,” as a word or thought points to or aims at the thing that it means.) Suppose we say that within the robot of our example there is a symbolic representation that means that it is sunny outside. Though the representation has this meaning, it has it only because the designers of the robot programmed the system so that it would be able to detect weather conditions and the like. The electrical processes and physical parts of the system would have had no meaning at all otherwise. By contrast, the thoughts of the designers themselves have meaning without anyone having to impart it to them. As John Searle has put it, the robot’s symbolic representations – like words, sentences, and symbols in general – have only derived intentionality, while human thought has original or intrinsic intentionality. What can account for the difference, especially if we assume that human beings are no less material than robots? That, in a nutshell, is the problem of intentionality.

Consider also that we are able not only to have individual meaningful thought episodes, but also to infer to further thoughts, to go from one thought to another in a rational way. This is not merely a matter of one thought causing another; a lunatic might be caused to conclude that mobsters are trying to kill him every time he judges that it is sunny outside, but such a thought process would not be rational. Rather, we are able to go from one thought to another in accordance with the laws of logic. Now, it might seem that the robot of our example, and computers generally, can do the same thing insofar as we can program them to carry out mathematical operations and the like. But of course, we have had to program them to do this. We have had to assign a certain interpretation to the otherwise meaningless symbolic representations we have decided to count as the “premises” and “conclusion” of a given inference the machine is to carry out, and we have had to design its internal processes in such a way that there is an isomorphism between them and the patterns of reasoning studied by logicians. But no one has to assign meaning to our mental processes in order for them to count as logical. So, what accounts for the difference? How are we able to go from one thought to another in accordance, not just with physical causal laws, but in accordance with the laws of logic? That is the problem of rationality.

Most contemporary philosophers of mind would, I think, agree with Fodor that this trinity of issues constitutes the mind-body problem, and I think they would also more or less agree with my statement of the problems. They do not necessarily agree about how difficult the problems are. Of the three, the problem of rationality seems to get the least attention from contemporary philosophers. Fodor himself thinks that this problem is the one contemporary philosophers have most plausibly been able to solve in a way that vindicates materialism, and that they have done so (contrary to what my statement of the problem suggests) precisely by thinking of rational thought processes as computational processes over formal symbols encoded in the brain. Most other contemporary philosophers of mind seem to agree with Fodor about this much, though there are prominent dissenters, such as Searle, Dreyfus, and defenders of the anti-materialist “argument from reason.” The greatest of the ancient and medieval philosophers would have sided with the dissenters; for Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, et al., rationality was the aspect of human nature that could not possibly involve a material organ. (We will come back to this point.)

Contemporary philosophers, by contrast, are obsessed with the problem of consciousness, and in particular with “qualia” – something you do not see the ancients and medievals worrying about at all, certainly not as something that pointed to any immaterial aspect of human nature. Fodor, like many other contemporary philosophers of mind, regards this as “the hard problem” for materialism. The problem of intentionality also gets a lot of attention from contemporary philosophers. My sense is that in general they tend to find it more challenging than the problem of rationality but not as challenging as the problem of consciousness. My own view is that, at least as contemporary philosophers tend to understand the problem, it is in fact as great or even greater a difficulty for materialism than the problem of consciousness is. The ancients and medievals would, I think, have agreed, though they would have regarded the problem as pointing to an immaterial aspect of human nature only to the extent that it overlaps with the problem of rationality.

The reason for all this is that the problems of consciousness and intentionality, as they are understood by modern philosophers anyway, are not (as they are often assumed to be) “perennial” problems of philosophy, but rather an artifact of certain historically contingent metaphysical assumptions early modern philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Co. put at the center of Western thought. In particular, they are an artifact of the “mechanistic” revolution I have discussed and criticized so frequently on this blog and in my books The Last Superstition and Aquinas.

I have explained how this is so at length, both in those books and in previous posts, but here is a brief summary. On the older, Aristotelian-Scholastic understanding of the natural world that the early modern thinkers overthrew, qualities like color, sound, odor, taste, heat and cold were taken to exist in the material world more or less in just the way common sense supposes that they do. The moderns, reviving the view of the ancient atomists, denied this: For them, the natural world is made up of intrinsically colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless particles in motion, and the qualities in question exist only in the mind of the observer. For purposes of physics, we can in their view redefine heat and cold in terms of molecular motion, or red and green in terms of the different surface reflectance properties of physical objects, but heat, cold, red and green as common sense understands them exist only in consciousness. But since the brain is on this view made up of inherently colorless, odorless, tasteless particles no less than any other physical object, this seems inevitably to entail that consciousness is not a feature of the brain – which is, of course, exactly what Descartes, Malebranche, Locke, and other early modern thinkers concluded insofar as they embraced dualism. Therein lies the origin of what contemporary writers call the “qualia problem” or the problem of consciousness.

The older, Aristotelian-Scholastic view also held that a kind of meaning, teleology, or goal-directedness is built into the structure of the material world from top to bottom. This includes not just the usual examples – the functions of bodily organs – but basic causal relations as well. For the Scholastics, if some cause A predictably generates some specific effect or range of effects B, this can only be because A inherently “points to” or “aims at” B. Generating B, specifically – rather than C, or D, or no effect at all – is what Aristotelians would call the “final cause” of A. Causing B is what A will naturally tend to do unless impeded. Now the early moderns eliminated final causality from their picture of the natural world; this was and has remained the core of a “mechanistic” conception of nature. For them there is no teleology built into nature, no purposiveness or goal-directedness. There are brute, meaningless cause and effect patterns, but no reason inherent in nature why a cause should have just the effects it does have. One result of this was to open the way to the puzzles about causation raised by David Hume. More relevant to our interests here, though, is that it made intentionality particularly problematic. If nothing in the material world inherently “points to” or “aims at” anything else – if matter is comprised of nothing more than inherently purposeless, meaningless particles in motion – then, since the brain is made up of these particles no less than any other material object is, it seems to follow that the intentionality of our thoughts, that by virtue of which they inherently “point to,” “aim at,” or mean something beyond themselves, cannot be any sort of material property of the brain. Thus is generated the problem of intentionality.

So, Fodor’s trinity of “mind-body problems” very much reflects a modern set of assumptions about the nature of the physical world. It also reflects a presumption of materialism insofar as Fodor, like so many other contemporary philosophers, writes as if the question to ask were “How do we explain these phenomena in material terms?” Of course, a modern dualist would say that these phenomena cannot be explained in material terms, so that the right question to ask is “Given that these phenomena are not material, how are they related to material phenomena? For example, do they interact causally with them, and if so, how?” You might say that what the mind-body problem is is in part determined by how one thinks it should be solved. (“But how does positing immaterial mind-stuff explain things any better?” A common materialist retort, but not a good one, for reasons I have explained here and here.)

Notice also that Fodor says nothing about the “body” side of the mind-body problem – as if matter were unproblematic and only mind posed any philosophical difficulties. As I have noted recently, a number of prominent contemporary philosophers have emphasized that this is by no means the case. And from an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, the moderns’ standard assumptions about matter are perhaps even more problematic than their assumptions about mind. “Qualia” can seem necessarily immaterial only if we assume that matter is as the ancient atomists and their modern successors assume it to be; the “qualia problem,” which many modern materialists regard as such a challenge to their position (as Democritus himself did) is a problem that their own favored conception of matter created. The same is true of the problem of intentionality, at least if that is taken essentially to involve the problem of how something material can “point to” or be “directed at” something else. From an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, since matter is not as the atomists take it to be, and immanent final causality or teleology pervades the material world from top to bottom anyway, there is no special difficulty in regarding qualia and (at least many instances of) intentionality as in some significant sense “natural” or even “material” phenomena.

Things are very different, though, where intentional phenomena having a conceptual structure are concerned, as well as where reasoning is concerned. Here is where the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition locates an immaterial element to human nature. The reason, in a nutshell, is that the objects of our thoughts are universal rather than particular, and determinate or exact rather than indeterminate or ambiguous; that the thoughts themselves inherit this universality and determinacy; and that nothing material can possibly be universal and determinate in this way. This is, of course, a very large topic deserving a discussion of its own. I have explored it in more detail in earlier posts (e.g. here and here) as well as in chapter 4 of Aquinas and chapter 7 of Philosophy of Mind. (The most thorough recent defense of the line of thought in question is probably the one offered in the late James Ross’s article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought.”)

The “dualism” that results is very different from the Cartesian variety, though. For the mind (or more precisely, the intellect) is not a substance on the Aristotelian-Scholastic view, but rather a power of the soul, and the soul in turn is not a substance either (or at least not a complete substance) but rather the substantial form of the living human body. Neither is the body a substance. It is rather only soul and body together which make a complete substance, where soul and body are just one instance among innumerable others of the hylemorphic form/matter relationship that exists in every material substance. Accordingly, there is no “interaction problem” of the sort that faces the Cartesian. Such a problem arises when we think of the mind as an “immaterial substance” (or as a collection of “immaterial properties”) which must somehow interact with a (mechanistically-defined) material substance via what Aristotelians would call efficient causation. But from an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, that is simply a category mistake, or rather a collection of category mistakes. Intellect is rather one of a myriad of powers the soul imparts to the human animal of which it is the substantial form. Thus it is formal causation which relates soul (and therefore mind) to body, not efficient causation. (I have discussed this issue in more detail here, here, and here.)

All of this is bound to sound very odd to the average contemporary philosopher. It will not sound odd, though, to those familiar with the rich conceptual apparatus of the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, a system of thought of which most contemporary philosophers of mind are ignorant, or at best know only through the caricatures peddled by early modern philosophers. Working one’s way out of the metaphysical assumptions moderns typically bring to bear on these issues is very difficult and takes time; the temptation is always to try to translate the thought of a Plato, an Aristotle, or an Aquinas into categories contemporary philosophers are familiar with, when what we ought to be doing is recognizing that it is precisely those categories the ancients and medievals would challenge. Thus are Plato the “proto-Cartesian,” Aristotle the “functionalist,” and other ahistorical Frankenstein monsters created. (I had not sufficiently freed myself of such modern assumptions when I wrote Philosophy of Mind, in which there is still too much Cartesianism. Chapter 4 of Aquinas provides a corrective, and a more detailed treatment of how thoroughly wrong contemporary philosophers of mind get the conceptual lay of the land, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view.)

So, from an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, the materialist’s “problem” of explaining the three purported kinds of mental phenomena in material terms (where “matter” is understood mechanistically) and the Cartesian’s “problem” of explaining mind-body interaction are pseudo-problems. In short, while for Fodor and other contemporary philosophers of mind there are three mind-body problems, for the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosopher, there is no mind-body problem at all.

34 comments:

RkBall said...

Thank you, ProFeser, for this accessible-to-the-layman post.

I've been trying to argue with atheists about whether beauty can exist, e.g., a beautiful sunset, if there is no-one around to witness it. I've argued that, given the qualia hypothesis, a sunset (where beauty resides primarily in the array of colors) can only be beautiful if either a) there is a conscious person to witness it, or, b) materialism (and the qualia hypothesis) is false. I've also argued that beauty, being an abstract, is a nonsensical term in an unconscious, insentient universe (prior to man). I hope I'm at least in the ball-park on this.

Anonymous said...

What observation or experiment could be carried out that would potentially falsify this Aristotelian-Scholastic model of the mind? Thanks.

Ilíon said...

"... ProFeser ..."

*grin*

BenYachov said...

>What observation or experiment could be carried out that would potentially falsify this Aristotelian-Scholastic model of the mind? Thanks.

I reply: Why would you use an empirical scientific experiment to test a philosophical argument? That is like trying to use a microscope to observe a Galaxy instead of a telescope. You are making a major category mistake here.

Bizarre!

Ilíon said...

On 'the problem of intentionality' and concepts and symbols --

'Symbols' are inherently meaningless entities (a physical or a non-physical "object") which minds use to stand for (i.e. symbolize) other entities. Among the entities for which a 'symbol' may stand are:
1) other symbols;
2) numbers;
3) logical operations;
4) concepts;
5) states (physical or otherwise);
6) objects (physical or otherwise);
7) pretty much anything at all.

A symbol's meaning is entirely ascribed; a symbol has no meaning apart from that which one or more minds have determined to conventionally attribute or impute to it. A symbol's "meaning" is a pretense by one or more minds; the "pointing to" of a symbol is not in the symbol, it is rather in the mind or minds which are agreed to use that symbol to point to that other entity (which may itself be meaningless).

Thus, two Summerian merchants may use cross-hatchings pressed into clay to symbolize how many sacks of grain the one shall trade to the other for how many goats. Thus, two modern businessmen may use electro-magnetic patterns to represent how many dollars (which are themselves merely symbols) the one shall trade to the other for how many machine parts, and which precise type(s) those machine part are to be.


"As John Searle has put it, the robot’s symbolic representations - like words, sentences, and symbols in general - have only derived intentionality, while human thought has original or intrinsic intentionality."

To say that symbols have "derived intentionality" is imprecise and easily misleading; symbols have "ascribed (or imputed) intentionality" -- all intentionality of a symbol is extrinsically ascribed or imputed to it. By a mind.


"The electrical processes and physical parts of the system [i.e. of the robot] would have had no meaning at all otherwise [than by the design of its builders]. By contrast, the thoughts of the designers themselves have meaning without anyone having to impart it to them. As John Searle has put it, the robot’s symbolic representations – like words, sentences, and symbols in general – have only derived intentionality, while human thought has original or intrinsic intentionality."

A robot may be designed to be a symbol manipulating machine (*), but that's the most it can do: manipulate inherently meaningless objects -- and only so long as the rules by which the manipulations are to be performed can *also* be represented symbolically.

And, every symbol which the robot is capabale of manipulating may itself but symbolize some other symbol. That is, there is no requirement that a robot's symbols symbolize ("point to") any actual meaning or even any actual physical object. There is no meaning in the robot, anywhere -- and the robot understands nothing, and never can understand anything.

In contrast, a thought or concept is not a symbol, but rather is intrinsically meaningful, and cannot by used as a symbol (**).

Now, we obligately use symbols to communicate our concepts/thoughts one to another. This is probably at the root of the difficulty so many have with fully grasping the truth that symbols are utterly meaningless.


(*) And, it seems to me, a machine which cannot manipulate symbols cannot rightly be called a 'robot.'

(**) One may choose to use the symbols one normally uses to stand for some concept to stand for some other concept, but the one concept itself is not standing for the other concept.

Ilíon said...

On 'the problem of rationality' --

"Rather, we are able to go from one thought to another in accordance with the laws of logic. Now, it might seem that the robot of our example, and computers generally, can do the same thing insofar as we can program them to carry out mathematical operations and the like. But of course, we have had to program them to do this. We have had to assign a certain interpretation to the otherwise meaningless symbolic representations we have decided to count as the “premises” and “conclusion” of a given inference the machine is to carry out, and we have had to design its internal processes in such a way that there is an isomorphism between them and the patterns of reasoning studied by logicians. But no one has to assign meaning to our mental processes in order for them to count as logical."

The reason we can design and program a robot/computer such that we can use it to simulate a logical inference is because we can use meaningless symbols to represent not only objects or states or concepts but also to represent logical operations. If the last were impossible, then computers would be impossible.

Yet, the computer is always and only a machine designed for the manipulation of utterly meaningless symbols. The computer does not, and cannot, ratiocinate; it manipulates symbols.

A computer is but a glorified abacus, and symbol manipulation is not thought -- the difference between a robot or computer (which is to say, in both cases, a computer program) and a mind is not a difference of degree, but of kind. Symbol manipulation may be (and frequently is) used by human minds as an aid to clarity of thought, but it is not itself thought.

A computer is but a glorified abacus -- and no one in his right mind ever imagines that an abacus could ever think, or that one could ever be a mind.

Why then does anyone (asserting himself to be thinking clearly) imagine that a computer program could think or could be a mind, if only it were complex enough and/or running on a fast enough machine? Does the design of the physical machine, such that electro-magnetic patterns are used to represent the material beads of an abacus change the nature of symbol manipulation? Does the design of the physical machine, such that no person must be detailed to manually flip the virtual beads change the nature of symbol manipulation? Does the design of the physical machine, such that the sub-machine which flips the virtual beads can do so millions of times per second change the nature of symbol manipulation?


"Of the three, the problem of rationality seems to get the least attention from contemporary philosophers. Fodor himself thinks that this problem is the one contemporary philosophers have most plausibly been able to solve in a way that vindicates materialism, and that they have done so (contrary to what my statement of the problem suggests) precisely by thinking of rational thought processes as computational processes over formal symbols encoded in the brain."

They "solve" the problem with respect to materialism, and in materialism's favor, by wholly misrepresenting the problem, and generally by improperly/falsely conflating symbol manipulation with thought.

Flipping physical beads on an abacus, or flipping virtual beads in a computer's CPU, or the changing of electro-chemical states in the brains of human beings or other animals is not itself thought and cannot "give rise" to thought. But, such physical/material state change is all that materialism has to work with to "explain" all that exists, including thought and concepts.

t said...

"From an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, since matter is not as the atomists take it to be, and immanent final causality or teleology pervades the material world from top to bottom anyway, there is no special difficulty in regarding qualia and (at least many instances of) intentionality as in some significant sense “natural” or even “material” phenomena."

Ed,

let me first say that I love your texts, so much so that you are my favorite contemporary philosopher. Also I would like to add that I am the adherent (or at least wannabe) of the A-T philosophy myself.

However, I must admit that the ideas like the one in the quoted text above repeatedly surprise me. Not only in this text, I found the idea in lot of your texts.

What do I mean? I understand the A-T idea of final causality and accept it as metaphysically unavoidable (and your texts played a great role in persuading me in this). But I don't se how the mental intentionality can be equated or reduced to the final causality. Final causality means that the thing "points to" or "is directed to" something as its effect. So far, so good. But I don't thini it is the case that mental intentionality only means "pointing to" or "directedness to" something in the previous sense (i.e. as an effect); it is something quite another. When I thing of an apple, the apple is not the effect that will result from my thinking. Rather, the mental intentionality means that my thought referes to, "faithfully represents" something. So, we are speaking of two quite different kinds of "pointing to" and this second kind is definitely not something that we usualy find in material objects. But if this is so, then it seems that we cannot reduce thought to material process; therefore "that what thinks" cannot be material. So it seems to me that the argument from intentionality is quite valid argument even on A-T pressupositions.

On the other hand, I don't fully understand the argument from abstract thought. This argument says that the thought cannot possibly be material because we are capable of thinking of abstract objects while material objects and/or processes are always particular and never universal. But someone could reply in the following way: I can write the word "apple". The letters themselves are, of course, particular, but they nevertheless refer to any or all apples in the world. In the same way, some pattern or process in brain, although by itself particular, could nevertheless refer to any number of objects and so be abstract. You could respond that this is derived intentionality as oposed to original or intrinsic intentionality of human thought, and you would be perfectly right. But it seems to me that by taking this step, the argument from abstract thought falls back to the argument from intentinality.

Similar reasoning applies to the arguments related to qualia. I understand that A-T philosophers locate sensible qualities like "redness" or "hotness" in the material object themselves. But it is one thing to be red or hot (i.e. to have redness or hotness); it is quite another to experience redness or hotness, to be conscious of them. So, it would seem (at least to me) that these qualia arguments are perfectly valid and legitimate, even on A-T premisses.

Please correct me if I get something wrong.

David said...

Ed,
I enjoyed reading the post. For an average guy, there is much to ponder. Hope you take questions from average guys. If not Ilion (“Troy?” Or “ I the Lion?”) seems like a smart guy.

I can bring images to my mind. I can literally see in my mind’s eye my wife when she is not here. I can see her fair skin, blonde hair, her blue eyes, and can concentrate on her high Nordic cheek bones. I can willfully change the image of her from 19 when I married her to today at 41. I can purposefully make the picture of her sitting and reading her Bible or laughing at the stories of my day in business.

What is that image and how does it fit into the categories you mentioned? I’m not asking how the image is produced, but what is that image itself? It seems beyond material, even though I need my physical brain to produce the image.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

@Anonymous101PM:

What observation or experiment could be carried out that would falsify a materialist model of the mind? Thanks.

Ilíon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ilíon said...

"... Hope you [Feser] take questions from average guys. If not Ilion (“Troy?” Or “ I the Lion?”) seems like a smart guy."

Troy (and thanks for the compliment). Also, it always oddly pleases me when others recognize, or suspect, that ‘Ilíon’ isn’t about lions, but is about the city we English-speakers call ‘Troy.’

And, while he [Ilíon] is slightly smarter than average, he's also so utterly average by just about any measure one might bring to bear that it’s just sad to contemplate. And, even where he may be "above average" (say, in stubbornness), he has other “average” or “below average” characteristics (say, in perseverance) which frequently work against him meeting his potential.

Ilíon said...

T: "On the other hand, I don't fully understand the argument from abstract thought. This argument says that the thought cannot possibly be material because we are capable of thinking of abstract objects while material objects and/or processes are always particular and never universal. But someone could reply in the following way: I can write the word "apple". The letters themselves are, of course, particular, but they nevertheless refer to any or all apples in the world."

But see, the glyphs "a-p-p-l-e" do not actually "refer to any or all apples in the world; " the glyphs "a-p-p-l-e" do not actually refer even to the sound of the word "apple." Moreover, the sound of the word "apple" doesn't actually refer to any particular apple nor to the concept/abstraction (I perforce must here represent by the glyphs) 'apple.'

These physical entities (squiggles of ink on paper or light on a screen, sounds in a certain pattern) do not possess of themselves any meaning whatsoever, they do not of themselves refer to anything whatsoever. Rather, they are symbols; that is, while they are utterly meaningless of themselves, we have agreed amongst ourselves:
1) to use these certain glyphs to stand for these certain sounds;
2) to use this certain pattern of individual sounds to stand for this "word:"
3a) to use this word to stand for any particular object of a certain sort;
3b) to use this word to stand for the abstraction or universalizaton of any or all objects of that certain sort.
It is because these physical entities are inherently meaningless that we (being minds) are able to use them as symbols; it is because they are actually meaningless that we are able to attribute or ascribe or impute meanings to them.


T: "In the same way, some pattern or process in brain, although by itself particular, could nevertheless refer to any number of objects and so be abstract. You could respond that this is derived intentionality as oposed to original or intrinsic intentionality of human thought, and you would be perfectly right. But it seems to me that by taking this step, the argument from abstract thought falls back to the argument from intentinality."

But, just as with "letters" and "words," the electro-chemical states (and state changes) within brains are utterly meaningless of themselves; there is no meaning or intentionality or referentiality in the brain states.

t said...

Ilion,

yes, I understand everything you say and I completely agree. But the point is, you are compelled to talk about meaning and intentionality to reply to this (superficial, I completely agree) objection. It is not in itself obvious that a particular thing cannot refer to many objects (and so to an abstract concept); this has to be demonstrated and in demonstrating it you must have reference to intentionality. But isn't it than the case that the argument from abstract thought somehow relies on the argument from intentionality as a more basic, more fundamental argument?

Ilíon said...

T: "But the point is, you are compelled to talk about meaning and intentionality to reply to this (superficial, I completely agree) objection."

Only in so far as the objection is improperly or incorrectly phrased in terms of meaning and intentionality.

The objection, being a statement of 'naturalism,' publicly repudiates suh concepts as telos and intentionality being fundamental to reality ... and then attempts to smuggle intentionality into its premises, unaknowledged -- visualize someone trying to sneak her (*) friends into the bar through the bathroom window, so as to avoid the cover charge.

(*) GASP! Is one allowed to use "inclusive language" in such a non-laudatory manner? GASP


T: "It is not in itself obvious that a particular thing cannot refer to many objects (and so to an abstract concept); this has to be demonstrated ..."

Of course it is obvious, for it's definitional: 'to reference' (that is, "to pointing to") definitionally implies 'intention;' it is only by reason of the intention of (one or more) intenders that a thing can be said to -- can be imputed to -- reference, or point to, another thing. This referencing, or pointing to, is imputed or attributed to the thing by the intender(s), but it is not inherent to the thing; the one thing doesn't *really* reference, or point to, the other thing.

Certainly, a thing may symbolize any number of other things; but symbolization is the extrinsic imputation of meaning to a thing.


For example, if I were to throw a quiver of arrows into the air and allow them to fall as they may to the ground, and if I were then to observe the alignment of the arrows and were to say of one arrow "It's pointing at the house," and of another "It's pointing at you," my statements are, strictly speaking, false. As no one intended any of the arrows to be in the particular alignments into which they fell, it logically cannot be the case that any of them are "pointing to" anything.

However, in normal discourse, it's far easer to talk about the alignment of the arrows by using the imprecise (and logically false) language than by using accurate language.

Likewise with speaking about more typical symbols; it is generally far easier to speak as though the meaning imputed to some symbol were intrinsic. But, the price of using imprecise (and false!) language is that our thinking tends to become imprecise (and thus false to a greater or lesser degree).

[continued]

Ilíon said...

[continued]

T: "... and in demonstrating it you must have reference to intentionality."

It's just about impossible to discuss the concept/abstraction (which I perforce must here represent by the glyphs) 'apple' without using either the word "apple" or the glyphs "a-p-p-l-e."

How then can I say to that fellow over there, "No, no, no; you're misapplying or misattributing the concept 'intentionality'" if I do not in some way refer to the concept?


We are minds/subjects -- intentionality is "what we do" (and it seems almost to be our default mental setting to see or attribute intentionality even where/when there seems to be none). But, mere objects do not "do" intentionality. And, it is false to treat of ourselves as though we were mere objects; it is false to treat of mere objects as though they were subjects.


T: "But isn't it than the case that the argument from abstract thought somehow relies on the argument from intentionality as a more basic, more fundamental argument?"

Almost every argument relies upon some more fundamental argument(s) ... until one gets down to rock-bottom axioms.

An "argument from abstract thought" is generally intended as a falsifier or defeater for certain naturalistic or materialistic objections to other anti-materialistic arguments. Or, in my case, it might well be intended as a step in showing God-denial to be demonstrably false.

Edward Feser said...

Hello t,

As I indicated in the post, we need to distinguish between intentional states having a conceptual structure and those which do not. It is those which have it -- for example, a thought like "That is an apple" -- that can be true or false, and those indeed cannot be material. But those without a conceptual structure -- for example, a horse's desire for the apple he sees -- can be material (at least if we allow, as an Aristotelian would, that final causality is immanent to the material world) while they cannot be true or false. A horse might be frustrated when he bites the "apple" and (because it is a fake) tastes wax. But he doesn't have a false thought in that case, because he doesn't have a thought at all. He just has an internal state which moves him toward (what we conceptualize as) apples.

Re: the argument from abstract thought, the point isn't that a purported brain symbol lacks anything like intentionality; at least on an Aristotelian metaphysic it might have some kind of "goal-directedness" and thus something like intentionality. (True, even the most rudimentary forms of intentionality are a problem for materialism, because it assumes a mechanistic conception of matter. But if we avoid that error, basic instances of "directedness" like the horse's desire for the apple do not establish that there is anything immaterial involved.)

The point, again, has instead to do with conceptual structure. In particular, no purely material entity or process, even on an Aristotelian understanding of matter, can in principle have the universality and determinacy thought has. For example, any purported brain symbol is going to have individualizing features that are incompatible with the universality of the concept it is purportedly to be identified with; it is going to be ambiguos in a way the concept is not; and so forth.

Re: qualia, that's a much bigger topic. Suffice it to say that there is disagreement between Aristotleian-Scholastic philosophers about the extent to which "secondary qualities" reflect objective features of things, though all are agreed in rejecting the non-hylemorphic approach to conceptualizing matter that goes hand in hand with the way the moderns deal with this issue.

Edward Feser said...

Hello David,

What exactly the image is is a big topic. My only point was that while it seems obviously immaterial on a modern, mechanistic conception of matter -- it doesn't seem like a complex arrangement of colorless, odorless, tasteless particles; we don't observe anything like that when we look in a guy's brain; etc. -- when we reject that conception of matter and think in hylemorphic terms the issue just isn't so clear.

Part of the problem here is that we moderns have a natural tendency to think of a material substance as a collection of basic parts and to think of everything true of it as somehow a truth about the arrangement of those parts. Hence we think: "I don't see how the atoms, or molecules, or neurons, or whatever all add up to a mental image." But that's just the wrong way to think about the issue from the get go. Part of the point of hylemorphism is that we need to break free of this "how does the whole arise out of the parts?" way of thinking.

Related to this, I suspect that many people symathetically encountering A-T for the first time unreflectively tend to maintain an essentially atomist understanding of matter and then think of a "substantial form" as something that gets added to the atoms or whatever. The atoms (or whatever we think of the smallest elements as being) are somehow the most fundamental thing about a material substance ontologically speaking, and anything else ahs to be either constrcuted out of them or added on from outside. But that too completely misses the point. From a hylmorphic point of view, my having a mental image, like my having a stomach and eyeballs, is no less ontologically fundamental than my being made up of atoms. Hence however we characterize "matter," it has to be consistent with that fact.

The bottom line is: Materialists are not only wrong to say that amtter is all that exists. They also don't even understand what matter itself is in the first place. Unfortunately, most moderns work with an essentially materialist cocneption of matter, which means most modern dualists don't understand what matter is either. If we don't see that hylemorphism is a radical challenge to what moderns tend to take for granted, we haven't understood it.

Edward Feser said...
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Edward Feser said...
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Edward Feser said...

Crap, what an awful lot of typos in those last two comments. Oh well.

Ilíon said...

Is it possible for anyone who is unable to cause matter to exist to truly claim to really understand matter?

David said...

Thanks Prof. Feser for taking the time to answer my question. Thanks also to Ilion (given name or fan of Homer?) for the dry humor and honest response.

I must admit I have a hard time seeing the world as not the sum of its parts. I worked my way through a BS in Chemistry at the CSUF (an average student) because I thought that was a good way to understand the world and a promising way to make a living. When I fix my car or repair my leaking plumbing I think in terms of parts. I think also about this in terms of my theology--God as a Trinity and having certain characteristics.

Can you give me some examples of systems that can't be understood best as the sum of its parts or are best understood without thinking about the parts that make them up?

Forgive me if I sound simple.

Ilíon said...

"... (given name or fan of Homer?) ..."

It's my name.

David: "I must admit I have a hard time seeing the world as not the sum of its parts. ..."

One of the parts of a thing -- and which nearly everyone seems to go out of his way to overlook -- is the design or plan or "organizing principle" of the thing. In more A-T terms, this would be its 'form.'

Relatedly, another ignored or overlooked part of a thing is the process (or 'work') by which the various component parts of the thing came to be organized in the particular relationships which hold between them. In more A-T terms, this would probably be its 'efficient cause.'

I think that that silly aphorism, "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts" is both a reflection of and a cause of or contributor to this habit of (and sometimes insistence upon) not seeing the immaterial parts of a physical thing.

For example, one may have all the material parts which might comprise a house or a car (or a single brick of that hypothetical house) and still not have a whole house or car (or brick). Or, one may have all the chemicals (down to the level of the exact individual atoms and molecules) which might (or formerly did) comprise an organism and still not have an organism, but rather herely a goo of chemicals (or a corpse).

One seemingly has all the parts comprising the thing -- to be precise, one has all the parts that are visible to a materialistic reductionist mindset -- and yet one does not have a whole house or car or brick or organism.

George R. said...

From a hylemorphic point of view, my having a mental image, like my having a stomach and eyeballs, is no less ontologically fundamental than my being made up of atoms. Hence however we characterize "matter," it has to be consistent with that fact.

Yes, but why must the hylemorphic point of view be accepted as true? What is it about atoms that doesn’t allow them to ontologically most fundamental?

David said...

Thanks Ilion,

I think I understand your ideas. But, when I think of "parts" I also think of the properties they have. I put Sodium metal and Chlorine gas together in a flask and they order themselves as NaCl (table salt) because of the ionic properties of the atoms. So, the design principle was inherent in the properties that make the "parts."

This example doesn't work for a house which takes human forethought and effort to construct. Would you make a distinction between "natural" systems and "human" systems?

If I'm not using all the right terminology, just bear with me. I'm genuinely trying to understand.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

George R.

Two things that come to mind about atoms.

1. Parts partake of wholes and therefore saying a cat's atoms are most fundamental in the cat's being is to presuppose there is a formally integrated, formally intelligible "cat" in the first place. If atoms are the basis of all reality, there can't be formally discrete entities to which they belong since 'being a cat-complex' is not a property of atoms. Being an atomic complex is, however, a formal property of cats.

2. Atoms are what they are and not something else because they themselves existentiate concrete forms. I suspect there's no such thing as "fundamental particles" because even the most empirically austere particles are, on hylemorphism, but concrete acts of depotentiated matter. As such, atoms' atomicity itself already evinces hylemorphic constraints.

Best,

Ilíon said...

David: "But, when I think of "parts" I also think of the properties they have. I put Sodium metal and Chlorine gas together in a flask and they order themselves as NaCl (table salt) because of the ionic properties of the atoms."

That's one explanation for the observed phenomenon; whether it's the truth of the matter ... well, God knows. We don't, and can't. Mind you, I'm not saying that it's not the truth of the matter, but only that we can't really know that it is the truth of the matter.

That's a weakness of scientific explanations; we rarely, if ever, know that a scientific explanation really is an explanation. And, we can't use science to separate the potentially true ones from the false ones.


Allow me an illustration --

I'm a computer programmer. I currently write PC programs using object-oriented languages; originally, I wrote mainframe programs using assembler. But, even then, there were multiple layers of abstraction between the work I did in writing programs (and in my understanding of what I was doing) and what *really* went on when one of my programs executed.

But, it's 2010 and I've moved on from those days. So, let us say that I have written some program you wish to use. I've given you a copy of it and I'm explaining to you how to use it.

So, I'll say something like, "When you click on this button, 'thus-and-such' will happen."

But, the truth of the matter is that that explanation has no relationship to what really happens, and it has little relationship or similarity to my own "internal" explanation of what happens. I, being the author of the program, and you, being the user of it, care about quite different abstractions or models of the program and what *really* goes on when it executes.

Suppose the buttons used in the program are instances of a button I custom wrote. There are a different ways I might have gone about doing this ... and you likely don't care. You likely don't care that I wrote the code for the button, and you're even less likely to care about the various ways I might have gone about doing so. But, suppose that you do care. How, merely by using the buttons, are you ever going to decide whether I created the button in this manner or that? The answer is, you can't differentiate unless you can swing some deeper level of analysis (say, getting a copy of the source code for the button).

Now, I didn't make a point of mentioning this to you ('cause I didn't deem it important to your use of the program), but you later notice that when you hover the mouse cursor over a button, its appearance changes; and, when you click a button, its appearance changes yet again.

Is this change of appearance of the buttons just "eye candy," or is it functional (and there are at least two modes in which this might be functional)? That is, is the change of appearance somehow necessary for the button to do what it does? Or, is it intended as a visual cue to the user, but strictly speaking is unnecessary to the program's functionality? Certainly, you might explain the behavior in any of these three ways, but which explanation is correct? And, how can you decide between them without, again, managing a deeper analysis than that available to you as a user of the program.

[continued]

Ilíon said...

[continued]

Now, in this program, some of the buttons perform one action when you click them and perform a different (though perhaps related) action when you hold down the shift-key and then click them.

Are these "shift-click" buttons instances of a second custom written button, or are they instances of the button I'd mentioned previously? From your perspective, they're a totally different type of button. But, are they really? And, how can you decide?

And, keep in mind, the descriptions I've been giving really have little, to no, relationship to what really goes on when the program is executed ... including something so basic as speaking of "clicking the button."


Scientific explanations of the world are analogous to the explanations of a program by its users. They may be descriptive, and they may be useful (one certainly hopes so), and some may be more useful than others. But, absent an ability to "get under the hood," so to speak, there is no way to know that they're the truth of the matter.


David: "This example doesn't work for a house which takes human forethought and effort to construct. Would you make a distinction between "natural" systems and "human" systems?"

It appears to us that natural systems or reactions (say, the formation of table salt, or the formation of ice crystals) "must happen" (or "just happen," as some materialists assert these days) given certain conditions. But, we can't know that to be the actual case; what we know is that we haven't observed otherwise and that it has been useful to us to assume it to be the case.

But, even if the reactions must happen ... why must they? Ultimately, is it really that the "rule" by which the reactions happen is itself something that just happened; or, ulimatly, is it that the "rule" really is a rule, that the rule was intended and was designed into the fabric of physical reality? That is, ultimately, are there only causes (as in cause-and-effect), or are there reasons (as in ground-and-consequent) for what happens?

George R. said...

Codgitator,

Thanks. I like your answer.

I was just playing devil’s advocate, by the way. I myself am a committed hylemorphist. Your defense of hylemorphism is very good. The question is this, however: Can hylemorphism be demonstrated with certitude? I say it can be. Your argument does go a ways toward proving it, but when you say things like “I suspect. . .” I wonder if you yourself are entirely convinced. Furthermore, do you think that there is an argument that would be able to persuade the resistant, or those like David who are trying to understand the concept? It seems to me that most scientists and philosophers today, even those few that are sympathetic to classical philosophy, are unable to grasp the concept of natural substance being ontologically prior to all quantity. Therefore, they invariably identify substance per se with secondary matter, which is a quantity per se. So what is needed, IMO, is a convincing demonstration that proves that substance is prior to quantity.

But like I said, I don’t think you’re too far of from proving it already.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

George R.:

Well, it's nice to know I haven't driven you AWAY from hylemorphism! ;p I used the word "suspect" in reference to the existence of what physicists like to call "fundamental particles," and I think given the methodological limits of exact physical science, there is no more fitting word than "suspect" (or conjecture, etc.), since science inherently lacks a way to PROVE its discoveries are ultimate (i.e. not falsifiable) and actual (i.e. not merely operational). If my suspicion about fundamental particles appears to be a lack of confidence in hylemorphism, that's just a foible I'll have to live with. ;p The reason I think hylemorphism is intellectually superior to any putative or prospective scientific claim, and therefore immune to crude 'falsification' by some new 'discovery', is twofold. First, supposing there comes a day when (in more or less Peircean terms) there is, in principle, no farther scientists can dig into nature––for example, because the apparatus required to explore some -nth level of physical order is so large and complicated that it would exhaust all conceivable human resources (thus leaving no observers for the post-experiment world), or the size of which would be mathematically corrupted by spacetime dilation and/or cataclysm––if at that point, scientists just agree they've found THE fundamental particles in nature (since going 'deeper' wouldn't leave behind anything coherently 'natural'), then it would still be subject to hylemorphic analysis. It reminds me of Walker Percy's idea of the indefatigable Delta Factor (viz. Peirce's triadicity): despite all efforts to 'reduce' language to energy exchanges or pure abstract necessity, the articulation and reception of that reduction would itself be subject the irreducibly human and semiotic constraints of the Delta Factor. So, again, if science hasn't 'debunked' hylemorphism by now, I see no principled reason why it could ever do so. This may not count as 'proof' for hylemorphism, but a worldview without a significant defeater is by definition significantly undefeated. Undefeasibility is probably too strong a requirement for ANY rational claim.

The second reason hylemorphism is superior to what I call perinoetic reductionism (i.e. theoretic empiricism), is that hylemorphism already gets to the heart of reality and orders epistemology in turn, whereas the former (Kantian-Carnapian) metaphysics orders reality based on our epistemological functions. Hylemorphism, in other words, is already saying what we need to make sense of reality––albeit with a number of outstanding internecine theoretical dispute on fine points––while model-based empiricism is constantly second-guessing itself about what––or whether!––reality is. Interestingly, the presence of ongoing dispute in the hylemorphic "big tent" displays its vitality, contrary to much popular bias, as an active "research program." I think the last real metaphysical opponent to hylemorphism was Hegel, since he challenged the fundamental subject-accident schema in his own way, but by now I think it's obvious his system is… well… I don't see Zizek mounting a serious defeat of hylemorphism anytime soon.

Best,

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...
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t said...

Ed & Ilion, thanks for the answers.

Ed,

"It is those which have it -- for example, a thought like "That is an apple" -- that can be true or false, and those indeed cannot be material. But those without a conceptual structure -- for example, a horse's desire for the apple he sees -- can be material (at least if we allow, as an Aristotelian would, that final causality is immanent to the material world) while they cannot be true or false."

This is OK. It is just that I thought that modern philosophers, when they talk about intentionality, mean only what you call the intentional states with conceptual structure (so horse'e desire for an apple wouldn't even count as an intentional state on this view). Perharps I was wrong.

"Re: the argument from abstract thought (...) The point, again, has instead to do with conceptual structure. In particular, no purely material entity or process, even on an Aristotelian understanding of matter, can in principle have the universality and determinacy thought has."

OK. Please note that I am not a naturalist. On the contrary, I want to fight naturalism. That's why I am in constant search for airtight arguments against naturalism. But in order to ensure that the argument is really "airtight", I try to anticipate possible naturalist's replies or objections to it. So I was wandering, what if our naturalist takes refuge in some form or another of representationalist theory of knowledge (as he probably will) and from this point of view denies our premise, replying effectively: "Well, other symbols, like words, images and computer variables, being material, also lack this universality and determinacy, yet this doesn't prevent them to refer to universal and determinate things and thus be universal and determinate in another sense" (perharps because of having some universal and determinare relation - causal or whatewer - to those universal and determinate things.
Can we still salvage the argument from abstract thought, without resorting to the argument from intentionality to show that he is wrong? I suppose we could reply that such representationalist theories lead to the problem of universal scepticism, and I concede this is a powerfull argument against representationalist theories of knowledge, but I am not sure if this is a strict refutation.

Just Thinking said...

Why would you say Locke embraced dualism? That is no obvious fact.