Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Aquinas on consciousness


My article “Aquinas and the problem of consciousness” appears in the anthology Consciousness and the Great Philosophers, edited by Stephen Leach and James Tartaglia and just published by Routledge.  Lots of interesting stuff in this volume.  The table of contents and other information are available here.

19 comments:

hektikpecs said...

Out of curiosity, do you defend the notion that the hard problem of consciousness is ill-conceived, and the problems of qualia evaporates once you understand quality as a predicable of being?

Callum said...

Aquinas, following Aristotle, just saw the Intellect and Will as immaterial and therefore immortal? (And identified as the soul?). Would qualia, consciousness experience (especially unified conscious experience) and memory come under the material aspect of a human being in Aquinas' thought, under imagination and sensory experience?

That would seem to have quite a substantial difference in identifying what is necessary to personhood than Cartesian Dulaists.

Vincent Torley said...

Hi hektipecs,

Ed's views on the "hard problem of consciousness" can be found here:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/08/animals-are-conscious-in-other-news-sky.html

In answer to Callum: for Aristotle and Aquinas, unified consciousness experience is what they would call "common sense" (one of the internal senses). Aristotle discusses this in his "De Anima" Book III, part 2. Animals possess this common sense.

There is no suggestion in Aristotle's work that he regarded processes diverse as perceptions, thoughts, mental images and desires as members of a special domain of "mental states." Aristotle does not seem to have regarded perception and thought as even belonging to a common category (e.g. "knowledge", "cognition", "awareness" or "consciousness"). The only term that Aristotle does apply to both perception and thought is krinein (De Anima 3.9, 432a16), which according to Ebert (1983, "Aristotle on what is done in perceiving," in Zeitschrift fur Philosophische
Forschung
, 37, 181-198) is best translated as discrimination, or a discerning activity. Hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

Callum,

Just to add to Vincent's points (with which I agree):

-While Aristotle considered the (active) intellect to be immaterial, it's debatable whether Aquinas considered the (active) intellect to be immortal.

-It is Aquinas, not Aristotle, who explicitly argues from the intellect's immateriality to its immortality.

-Aquinas, not Aristotle, considered the will to be a power separate from the intellect in the rational soul.

-Aristotle did not have a notion of an immaterial faculty of 'will.' Instead of 'will,' Aristotle had the practical intellect (a rational power) working in tandem with the appetite (a sensitive power).

Also to answer your question, " Would qualia, consciousness experience (especially unified conscious experience) and memory come under the material aspect of a human being in Aquinas' thought, under imagination and sensory experience?"

Interesting question. Aquinas, following Avicenna, says somewhere that the intellectual faculty in humans 'flows over' the sensitive faculties, which would seem to imply that the distinctively human experience of qualia and consciousness is not purely material. (It would also seem to imply that non-rational animals experience consciousness and qualia differently than we do.)

Anonymous said...

*Oops, first points should have read:

-While Aristotle considered the (active) intellect to be immaterial, it's debatable whether Aristotle also considered the (active) intellect to be immortal.

Gyan said...

Since animals do experience quale and I suppose that quale are immaterial by the standards of modern physics, does that mean that animals can not be fully described by modern physics?

This conclusion, I believe, is supported by Aquinas who wrote that while stones move by necessity, the animals move by instinct, and man moves by deliberation.

Thus, by Aquinas, the animals do not move by necessity i.e. do not follow the laws of physics. Surely this conclusion of Aquinas should be highlighted.

Anonymous said...

Gyan,

Interesting points. I haven't thought much about it, but I take it that physics as currently practiced concerns itself with only material and efficient causation--leaving out formal (as well as final) causes. That being the case, as the 'form' under consideration moves up the hierarchy of forms, one should expect that its amenability to explanation by the laws of physics moves down.

Ilíon said...

Consciousness (*) is a "problem" only if one has set oneself the task of creating it where there is none.



(*) and the wider mind-body "problem"

Robert Byers said...

There is no problem in conscienceness concept.
There is just a immaterial soul that is meshed to the material world by being meshed to the memory.
All our soul does is read the memory.
so all human thought must be seen as hand in glove with the memory.
So does our soul feel pain? It may or may not. I'm not sure.
However body pain must move to the soul, if it does, by way of the memory.
thats why there are people who have phantom pain and others feel no pain where pain should be and is functioning at the interface of the pain and the body.

De Rerum Natura said...

I don't understand the standard distinction between "material" and "immaterial". By comparison with matter, God or the soul (in classic Christian understanding) is not im-material, but super-material. I.e., His "substance" is permanent, perfect and necessary, ours is transient, imperfect and contingent. By comparison with God, all matter is like mist or smoke beside granite (only infinitely more so). Our souls are also permanent. The problem of consciousness in a wholly material brain, which present-day science finds absolutely uncrackable, isn't solved by positing that consciousness has an immaterial basis: it's compounded.

See C.S. Lewis's description of Heaven in the Great Divorce (1945):

Then some re-adjustment of the mind or some focusing of my eyes took place, and I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were as they always had been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps. It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison. Moved by a sudden thought, I bent down and tried to pluck a daisy which was growing at my feet. The stalk wouldn't break. I tried to twist it, but it wouldn't twist. I tugged till the sweat stood out on my forehead and I had lost most of the skin off my hands. The little flower was hard, not like wood or even like iron, but like diamond. There was a leaf — a young tender beech-leaf, lying in the grass beside it. I tried to pick the leaf up: my heart almost cracked with the effort, and I believe I did just raise it. But I had to let it go at once; it was heavier than a sack of coal.

===

I don't think anyone can explain consciousness. Modern science or materialism can't even define it, let alone explain it. Aristotle's ideas seem a bit like someone classifying seashells or flowers. There's a pretty system with pretty labels, but no real explanation of how mind interacts with matter or of how we can objectively test for the presence of consciousness (e.g. in a sufficiently complex computer). Is consciousness necessary for full competence in using a human language or for passing a human? Science fiction has been raising these questions for decades, but science hasn't moved an inch towards answering them.

Ilíon said...

^ If someone could explain consciousness, then he could create conscious entities where none exist. So (especially for the materialists), much easier to explain it away.

Ilíon said...

"There's a pretty system with pretty labels, but no real explanation of how mind interacts with matter or of how we can objectively test for the presence of consciousness (e.g. in a sufficiently complex computer)."

There will never be a computer program that is conscious, no matter how physically complex the computer, or computer network, on which it executes.

At the same time, a computer program *is* an immaterial (*) entity. And computer programs *can* interact with or effect change to material entities. So, once "science" grasps that -- and once scientists give up on reducing the mind to an effect of mater in motion -- perhaps scientists will be able to ask better questions related to the so-called mind-body problem.

(*) whether a computer program is immaterial in the same way that a human mind is is a different question.

De Rerum Natura said...

There will never be a computer program that is conscious, no matter how physically complex the computer, or computer network, on which it executes.

It's not possible to make dogmatic statements about where and how consciousness can appear, because no-one understands it. It may be that computers built of metal and plastic cannot be conscious, but who knows? No-one. And I would say that it's the program + the machine that would be conscious, not the program on its own.

^ If someone could explain consciousness, then he could create conscious entities where none exist. So (especially for the materialists), much easier to explain it away.

Any fertile pair of sufficiently advanced animal can create one or more conscious entities. But the cut-off point for "sufficiently advanced" is impossible to determine.

Ilíon said...

"It's not possible to make dogmatic statements about where and how consciousness can appear, ..."

Are you an idiot?

I didn't make "dogmatic statements about where and how consciousness can appear", I made a "dogmatic statement" about what a computer program is and is not.

"Any fertile pair of sufficiently advanced animal can create one or more conscious entities."

Ah, you're a self-made idiot.

Re Rerum Natura said...

Are you an idiot?

Are you Oscar Wilde redivivus? Or simply working off possible frustrations in your private life? I'll pray for you, dear.

I didn't make "dogmatic statements about where and how consciousness can appear", I made a "dogmatic statement" about what a computer program is and is not.

Are you a native speaker of English? Your dogmatic statement is that consciousness cannot appear in the operation of a computer program. IOW, you made a dogmatic statement about where consciousness can and cannot appear. If you have proof of your statement, please produce it. Ex cathedra blethering doesn't count, I'm afraid.

"Any fertile pair of sufficiently advanced animal can create one or more conscious entities."

Ah, you're a self-made idiot.


Ah, you are Oscar Wilde redivivus. I'll look forward to your memoirs.

Josh said...

Please excuse off topic, but I would be very interested in Prof. Feser's view:

Augustine, Aquinas, Barlaam & Palamas: The Root of Western Theological Error

https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=8954608646904080796&postID=873874103252933230

Josh said...

Sorry, wrong URL for the article! Here is the correct one:

https://jaysanalysis.com/2016/10/19/augustine-aquinas-barlaam-palamas-the-root-of-western-theological-error/

Grace and Rust said...

I've been reading the blog fairly frequently for about two years now, but I never thought I would comment. Anyhow, @De Rerum Natura, I may be late to the party, but I think I can help with the problem of consciousness.

A little bit needs to be unpacked first, since I find you a bit unclear in the first half of the quoted paragraph.
I don't understand the standard distinction between "material" and "immaterial". By comparison with matter, God or the soul (in classic Christian understanding) is not im-material, but super-material. I.e., His "substance" is permanent, perfect and necessary, ours is transient, imperfect and contingent. By comparison with God, all matter is like mist or smoke beside granite (only infinitely more so). Our souls are also permanent. The problem of consciousness in a wholly material brain, which present-day science finds absolutely uncrackable, isn't solved by positing that consciousness has an immaterial basis: it's compounded.
As I understand it, you are drawing an association between how we call different materials (water, wood, etc.) "substances" and how we call spirits "substances," too. Going by your use of Lewis's passage from The Great Divorce, you call immortal things (and especially God) "super-material" because, being more permanent, they are in that sense more substantial than the matter we study in the lab, which we already call substances. I hope all of this is fair so far. If so, I think the difficulty you expressed is terminological. Being "immaterial" does not mean something is not substantial, it just means it isn't made of matter, where for most modern people "matter" means that which takes up space and has mass. I doubt you believe that the soul takes up space or has mass, so that means that the soul is not made of matter, even though it is clearly more permanent. The kicker is that the soul is more substantial precisely because it is not "material" in the usual sense of the word!

Going from there, this could help explain why theories of consciousness which assume an immaterial basis do not actually compound the problem. Let me apply the modern definition of matter into a syllogism:
1. All material things are mechanistic.
2. Consciousness is not mechanistic.
Therefore,
3. Consciousness is not a material thing.
I expect you would naturally deny premise (1) because your notion of "matter" is far broader than what is applied here.* Regardless, the difficulty lies here. The association you seem to make above suggests that positing an immaterial explanans for consciousness is just to say that no substantial reality actually explains the existence of consciousness. That is problematic! But thankfully, "non-materialist" theories of consciousness do not really imply that consciousness exists without some real thing to produce it. They may have their own problems, but it seems that they are no worse than materialistic theories so defined.

I hope this helps.
God bless.

(*) Aristotelians would reject premise (1) as well, but we do not therefore regard the soul (or God) as being "super-material." Whether this is ultimately inconsistent is neither here nor there. Still, atheistic materialists appear to be beholden to that assumption, perhaps because they are also beholden to scientism, or because of the enlightenment era tradition to construe all qualitative properties of the external world as subjective phenomena within the mind. As such, at least most of them have to deny premise (2), and take all the weird baggage entailed by whatever arguments they employ against it entail.

Grace and Rust said...

I'm typing on a phone, so I want to keep this short.
@ De Rerum Natura, it seems to me that your difficulty with calling God and spirits immaterial rests on drawing an association between how people call materials (butter, wood, etc) "substances" but also call God and spirits substances, too.
But by "immaterial" we simply mean that God and spirits are not composed of anything which has mass and takes up space. We do not therefore suggest that consciousness has no substantial explanation.