Monday, November 23, 2009

Oderberg contra Strawson on act and potency

Some time back I linked to my Philosopher’s Digest review of Galen Strawson’s Analysis article “The identity of the categorical and the dispositional.” Here is a review of David Oderberg’s article “The non-identity of the categorical and the dispositional,” a reply to Strawson. The distinction Strawson and Oderberg are debating is, essentially, the all-important Aristotelian distinction between act and potency. Strawson rejects the distinction and Oderberg upholds it.


  1. Just so you know, I've never quite been able to look at things the same way since I read your Act and Potency.
    I know, I should get The Last Superstition. I will. Let me close these deals first, okay? Early January, you should make at least one sale, insha'llah. ;o)

  2. Just reread the ‘Act and Potency’ May 7 post and comments. Lots of points to take off on, there. I would ask the hypothetical: what substantial form goes with a fetus born with a brain that lacks those lobes needed for reasoning?

    Also, I read an online paper by Oderberg on hylemorphism and personal identity, and this is what assured me that the notion in hylemorphism – that man’s essence is rationality – is a dogmatic assertion that could legitimately be substituted with some other human capacity of great value. Likewise the fiat-like assertion that non-human creatures cannot reason. And also the assertion that human rationality requires that God create a supernatural substantial form for people everytime they make a fetus, but a plain ole natural one is all the brutes are due.

    Do A-T philosophers have pets? (I have a strong hunch the Dominican didn’t.) Do they read what animal behavioral researchers are discovering? Do they care of the pain their anthropocentric arrogance has engendered on the creatures throughout the ages? CAN THEY ABSOLUTELY SAY WHAT PTIVATE CONSCIOUS EXPERIENCES ARE ENJOYRD BY NON-HUMANS?

  3. 27th comrade,



    1. Such a fetus has the same kind of substantial form you and I do, just as a one-armed man has the same kind of substantial form you and I do. It's just that, like the one-armed man, the damage to it prevents it from realizing all the capacities inherent in that substantial form.

    2. Of course pets and other animals have conscious experiences. What Thomist has ever denied that? What is at issue is whether they have intellect, which means whether they have the capacity to grasp abstract concepts. And one piece of evidence that they do not is that they lack language.

    3. There is nothing "fiat"-like in what Oderberg or any other A-T theorist says about these matters. It is the lack of language (for example) that leads them to deny that non-human animals have intellect, and it s the immaterial nature of intellect (given the sorts of arguments for its immateriality that I've referred to in many previous posts) that leads them to say that it cannot arise out of natural processes but must be specially created by God.

    Obviously the full case woud have to get into issues about exactly what constitutes language, whether apes or any other animals might be said to have it, etc. The point is that these are in fact issues A-T writers have addressed. Whether or not you agree with it, there is nothing arbitrary in the least in their position.

  4. Thanks, Ed

    I had just read in the online Summa that Aquinas held that the appropriate soul could not be instantiated until the existence of form-appropriate material organization had developed in the fetus (vegetative, animal, rational), and he felt the brain wasn't developed enough to be rational until a few months. That is what led me to ask my hypothetical.

    With a severly deficient brain, there clearly is NO potential to in-form w/ a intellectual soul. Are you sure a deficient brain carries the same weight as a missing arm in this scenario?

    I attribute the early developers of A-T (Ari and Tom) with the choice of human reason as the highest attribute and thus what specially defines human essence. And, as you say, I find it hard to agree that this is our fundamental essence - too little Quality in rationality, as Pirsig would say.

    Researchers acknowledge that animals reason, and they also communicate w/ themselves and others, in utterance, thru visual signs, and by transference of physically-felt 'energy' in a manner described by Whiteheadian prehension.

    I am not saying it is merely arbitrary for A-T to limit intellect to humans, but that it is scientifically incorrect.

    I have no agenda, I am just thinking. Certainly not trying to sway anyone to process philosophy instead of A-T. I just read a paper on Whitehead's view of time - that was time I'll never get back! I do like a lot in his metaphysics, and even more in the Metaphysics of Quality set forth by Pirsig.

  5. BTW

    I forgot the most pervasive means by which dogs, in particular, communicate: we use blogs and e-mail, and they have pee-mail!

  6. Burl,

    To answer your question about the progression of the fetus from the vegetative, to the animal, to the human soul. Every composite being has a final cause by virtue of their nature. The final cause of man is happiness; the final cause of a dog is doing the things that make dogs flourish.

    What is the final cause of the fetus when its soul is in the vegetative state of progression? Its final cause cannot be corruption, to be replaced by another form: the final cause is the perfection of a thing, not its corruption.

    The only coherent answer is that the vegetative soul is the same soul as the fully developed human soul into which it will develop. But happiness is only the final cause of rational beings. Thus, to interpret Thomas as saying that the soul is "merely" vegetative or "merely" animal as if it weren't already a human soul is misleading.

    I'll leave it to the historians to determine what the biology was at Thomas' time, and why they felt the need to speak of human development in the terms that they did, and why he speaks in such a way that it seems as if one soul is "replaced" by another soul. But for the purposes of the current objection, this discussion is sufficient to show that even fetuses in the early stages of development are still human: we know a thing by its form, and we distinguish one form from another by their objects or final cause. Fetuses have the same final cause as fully developed human beings. Ergo, etc.

  7. the fiat-like assertion that non-human creatures cannot reason.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. What is the evidence that other animals can reason? Something like the Cave of Lascaux or the Code of Khamurapi would be convincing. I suspect that what animals accomplish can be explained adequately by {sensation + perception/imagination}.
    + + +
    Do they read what animal behavioral researchers are discovering?

    This should be helpful:

    + + +
    Do they care of the pain their anthropocentric arrogance has engendered on the creatures throughout the ages?

    Mary Midgley ascribes this to the Enlightenment and humanism.

    + + +
    animals reason, and they also communicate w/ themselves and others, in utterance, thru visual signs, and by transference of physically-felt 'energy'

    Of course, diseases can also be "communicated," so we ought be a little careful with the term. The Underground Grammarian once used the example of a zebra on the edge of the herd who sniffs a lion in the tall grass. That zebra does not think to himself in any form, "I must warn the others!" He does not think at all. He reacts directly to the perception and bolts. The other zebras sense the motion, perceive the other running, and begin to run. That is not because they think, "Something spooked Zeke! Run!" It's because zebras who did not bolt when other zebras bolted are severely underrepresented in the gene pool. Thus, what we would interpret as zebra-to-zebra communication is in fact zebras reacting to an environment that includes other zebras.

    The same goes for "utterances." Various songs, grunts, and cries do not comprise a language. Language requires grammar and that means relationships and abstractions. An animal in the jungle who sees an anaconda is afraid. But humans can be afraid of anacondas even when none are about, even when nowhere near where anacondas have previously been seen. They can live in a world where snakes are composed of discourse, not of blood and bone.

  8. Ed and Paul

    From the Catholic Encyclopedia ( )

    “St. Thomas's doctrine is briefly as follows...
    [The soul] is not wholly immersed in matter, its higher operations being intrinsically independent of the organism;
    the rational soul is produced by special creation at the moment when the organism is sufficiently developed to receive it. In the first stage of embryonic development, the vital principle has merely vegetative powers; then a sensitive soul comes into being, educed from the evolving potencies of the organism — later yet, this is replaced by the perfect rational soul, which is essentially immaterial and so postulates a special creative act.”

    On this, God would not create a rational soul to inform the matter of a fetus with a deficient (non-rational) brain, since there is no potential for reason present to so inform. My hypothetical was based on this reading.

    Mike Flynn

    “the fiat-like assertion that non-human creatures cannot reason.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”

    Just so, can you prove the extraordinary assertion that non-human creatures cannot reason?

    Earlier, I asked this question in a comment that “ CAN THEY [A-T philosophers] ABSOLUTELY SAY WHAT PRIVATE CONSCIOUS EXPERIENCES ARE ENJOYRD BY NON-HUMANS?”

    Ed merely acknowledged that they have experiences. Would you or Ed care to elaborate in this question?

  9. May I suggest a book, Burl? I think you would find it incredibly interesting and insightful. It's called "Intellect: Mind Over Matter" by the great Dr. Mortimer J. Adler.

  10. Burl,

    You're right that Aquinas himself believed that a fetus was not informed with a rational soul until something like 40 days after conception; that's why he didn't think that abortion before 40 days was homicide, though he did think it was immoral anyway. But many contemporary Thomists disagree with Aquinas, in part for metaphysical reasons and in part for reasons stemming from embryology. Both sources converge on the point that am embryo's development into a viable child is not a process in which one being perishes and another comes to be, but is the development of the same individual being. Whatever you think about rationality, it's clear that normally developed human beings have capacities for rational thought and action. Because the embryo and the viable baby are the same individual entity, it makes sense to attribute the radical potentiality for rationality to the embryo. It is not that the embryo has the potential to become a human being, but that it *is* a human being by virtue of the capacity it has to develop the ability to think and act rationally. By contrast, an ovum has the capacity to become a human being, but the transformation of an ovum into an embryo does not preserve the substantial identity of the ovum.

    You could challenge all this, of course, but you'd have to do so on metaphysical grounds. One way to do it would be to reject essentialism and deny that there is any meaningful distinction between essential and accidental properties, so that all this talk about the difference between substantial change and development is just a function of our linguistic categories. Another way, perhaps more in keeping with your intuitions, would be to insist on a different understanding of potentiality. You might argue that we can only appropriately attribute a potentiality to a being when that being possesses the physical/material vehicle for actualizing the capacity. In effect, you could challenge the standard Thomist position by attacking the coherence of the idea that a being can have a capacity for X when it is not able to X. There is something to be said for that approach; what sense, after all, can we give to the idea that a person born without eyes has the capacity to see? I'd agree with you that Ed has done too little to show that this does make sense (certainly the relevant passages of The Last Superstition leave me unsatisfied), but I suspect he has far more resources to deal with that sort of objection than you might think. In particular, it seems to me that a deeper conception of potentiality might be necessary for understanding the normal development of features in animals. After all, a child (or a dog, for that matter) born without eyes is not the same as a child (or a dog) born without wings.

    I don't think these are easy matters; I'm not satisfied with the A-T position as Ed has laid it out. But it's certainly not as easy to dismiss as you seem to think.

    Your dismissal of rationality is another story, but your invocation of Pirsig explains quite a bit of the trouble we're having here...

  11. Burl, the online Catholic Encyclopedia is a very useful thing, but it is notoriously out of date. Furthermore, the answer that I gave you is the answer that John Wippel gave me in class when I asked a similar question to yours. If we are going on arguments from authority, I'd trust an internationally known Thomist over the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia any day. :)

    If we are going on actual arguments, it seems like my argument still stands.

  12. "the fiat-like assertion that non-human creatures cannot reason."

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

    Just so, can you prove the extraordinary assertion that non-human creatures cannot reason?

    Alas, the extraordinary claim is that non-human animals can reason. There is not empirical evidence for this claim, outside of Aesop's Fables and Disney cartoons and "wild life adventures."

    The assertion that something "is" is the positive assertion. To demand proof for a negative is less useful. Can you prove that there are no purple platypuses on Pluto?

    Even so: the lack of any evidence for speculative metaphysics, art, language, law codes, composed music, physics, etc. among the other animals would seem indicative.

  13. Thanks Peter

    I googled and got this
    When asked about dolphinese, Dr. Adler makes my point about whether we can know what animals experience. I get his ideas of immateriality and Universals and such, but not sure what to make of it all.


    I think you and I could have great conversations – you are great at explanations and sensitive at abstracting another's viewpoint. Thanks for the helpful comment. You gotta respect a man who knows his Pirsig!


    Your discussion of an A-T human soul seems better than St. Tom's ala the encyclopedia. It affords more breathing room for those who surmise a more natural style of instantiating essemce.


    I am sure that I could try to haul in every piece of animal behavioral research, and we would still be equivocating over the degree of this or that concept required to meet this or that criterion. Not gonna'.

    I did spend time yesterday looking at a few tidbits along the animal reasoning line while awaiting your (and Ed's) replies to my question “Can philosophers absolutely say what private conscious experiences are enjoyed by non-humans?” (Hint, the correct answer is NO)...

    You may look at Koko
    I watched all 8, but the last has a few provocative points that arguably suggest this intelligence thing would be less problematic in another metaphysics.

    At in “One World, Many Minds: Intelligence in the Animal Kingdom,” Paul Patton tells of a study of reasoning octopuses that'll grab 'ya!

    You said “the lack of any evidence for speculative metaphysics, art, language, law codes, composed music, physics, etc. among the other animals would seem indicative [of reason].” Anthropocentric, to say the least. A dog that can detect an oncoming human seizure or cancer and then notify us of it does not hold it against you 'cuz you cannot.

    Again from the all-creatures website, we can see what the communicating animals are NOT talking about. Consider the essences of rational man and his animal kin...

    “Animals don't create trash. Animals don't build nuclear weapons to annihilate each other. Animals don't conjure up religions and then kill each other in the name of their Gods. Animals with white fur don't discriminate against animals with fur of a different hue or color. Animals only take what they need. Animals are self-cleaning and don't waste water -- my cat has NEVER had a bath yet he'd smell better than any human who didn't shower. Animals don't gay bash homosexual animals. Animals don't screw over other animals for financial gain a la Bernie Madoff. Animals don't breed other animals to be prettier, fatter, or tastier. Animals don't systematically torture and abuse and kill billions of other animals (or each other) the way humans do. Animals don't commit Holocausts, they don't factory farm, and they don't ethnically cleanse each other. Animals don't cheat. Animals don't front. Animals are their authentic selves.”

    It is this last nature of dogs that so impresses me: dogs are not duplicitous, they are authentic subjects. Refreshing compared with the company afforded by the 'rational' beings.

    Mark Twain said it well: “I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the 'lower animals' (so called) and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man. I find the result humiliating to me.”

    I just feel it is too bad that A-T theory constrains God from giving a top-notch A-T subsistent soul to the good guys, because they don't pass some anthropocentric, clear-as-mud, threshold of rationality. It may have been different if Ari and Tom lacked the unique ability to get into the private consciousness of other subjects and have their experiences.

  14. “Can philosophers absolutely say what private conscious experiences are enjoyed by non-humans?” (Hint, the correct answer is NO)...

    Heck, they can't say that about other humans.

    You may look at Koko

    Koko did a "live chat" on AOL a few years ago. It was obvious that Koko was pressing buttons pretty much at random or in sequences that had previously garnered a reward. Koko's "handler" would then "interpret" what these sequences of symbols "really meant to say." Other respondents fell over one another with awe at the demonstrated "intelligence." Herbert Terrace, who began as a believer, eventually decided that all of the reactions observed were explicable in terms of stimulus-response.

    “Animals don't create trash. Animals don't build nuclear weapons to annihilate each other. Animals don't conjure up religions and then kill each other in the name of their Gods. Animals with white fur don't discriminate against animals with fur of a different hue or color. Animals only take what they need. Animals are self-cleaning and don't waste water -- my cat has NEVER had a bath yet he'd smell better than any human who didn't shower. Animals don't gay bash homosexual animals. Animals don't screw over other animals for financial gain a la Bernie Madoff. Animals don't breed other animals to be prettier, fatter, or tastier. Animals don't systematically torture and abuse and kill billions of other animals (or each other) the way humans do. Animals don't commit Holocausts, they don't factory farm, and they don't ethnically cleanse each other. Animals don't cheat. Animals don't front. Animals are their authentic selves.”

    Very interesting. Neither do stones or sunflowers. That doesn't make them intelligent. It only means that we can project our own ideologies onto the animal template. A number of those things that animals don't do, they do; others may be taken as evidence of the very lack of abstract thinking being denied. Others have previously been cited as things animals do in order to minimize the gap between them and us.

    Walt Disney has a lot to answer for.

  15. I think a lot of light comes in from the (Peircean) triadic/dyadic (or Sebeokian-Deelian semiosic/semiotic) distinction in animal cognition. Animals as such are semiosic creatures and in some cases, perhaps many, non-human animals are superior dyadic signers, since their cognitive processes are "unencumbered" by the complexities of triadic signing.

    I recently wrote a longish post about this and the peculiarities of human semiotics. See especially my discussion of whale songs toward the end.

    Also for your consideration:

    "Of all living things we can say that they are semiosic creatures, creatures which grow and develop through the manipulation of sign-vehicles and the involvement in sign-processes, semiosis. What distinguishes the human being among the animals is quite simple, yet was never fully grasped before modern times had reached the state of Latin times in the age of Galileo. Every animal of necessity makes use of signs, yet signs themselves consist in relations, and every relation (real or unreal as such) is invisible to sense and can be understood in its difference from related objects or things but never perceived as such. What distinguishes the human being from the other animals is that only human animals come to realize that there are signs distinct from and superordinate to every particular thing that serves to constitute an individual in its distinctness from its surroundings."

    –– John Deely, "The Semiotic Animal: A postmodern definition of human being superseding the modern definition ‘res cogitans’", p. 10.


  16. Cogitator

    That is an intriguing post for sure. I read your essay and bookmarked Deely for later (I am reading an essay on Pirsig for now -Rhetoric and Madness: Robert Pirsig's Inquiry into Values').

    I never heard of semioticsm and hope gain from its study.

    Three ideas pop-up about your essay point of benign playlike deceit:

    1) I noted in a post that it is this inability to be something you aren't that strikes me as high-dog-Quality

    2) The sociologists' looking glass self which says 'I am not who I think I am, I am not who you think I am, I am who I think you think I am' seems connected to an unwilling instance of playing deceitfully

    3) Maybe a case of non-human playing showers comment that their pets really do sense they are on show and somehow play to the camera.

  17. Wow, relations, relations.

    I started the day reading this very good summary of Pirsig's principal thought, which of course discusses Quality – the relation between and source of subject and object.

    Cogitator posted a comment that suggested looking at semiosis (process of signs which are relation entities) to shed light on our animal communication talk. Following his link to Deely's paper – which urges a new Thomism informed by semiotics (knowledge of signs) – I was reminded of James Felt's call for a new Thomism informed by Whitehead interrelational process of the many and the one.

    I sensed a similarity between semiosis and Whitehead's prehensions, I googled up this paper
    titled 'Whitehead and Pythagoras' wherein the author says C. S. Peirce's ideas of semiosis ARE prehensions (yeah!), and that Whitehead would have done well to incorporate more from Bergson and Peirce (often referenced by Deely).

    I find it harder to read Deely than Whitehead (if that is possible), so I am glad to have Pirsig along to clear these process things up.

    As to semiosis, I faintly see that it says humans see the signs for all things, but other creatures somehow only see signs for some things, and I think this is what you are saying Cogitator, right?

  18. Burl:

    I'm glad you liked the piece on fourfold semiotics. Semiosis consists of dyadic signing common to animals (stimulus-response). Semiotics consists of signing about signing itself. The distinction seems to pervade the human non-human divide. (I should add that I find it very bizarre to hear there is no essential difference between humans and non-humans, since the course of the debate invariably requires citing things done by non-humans as proof that they can do things done by humans… an exercise which performatively recognizes there are two distinct classes of beings from which to draw examples of action. You can't challenge a distinction without seriously recognizing it.) This is why I would not see doggishness in a dog show as anything more than dyadic signing. Pooches respond favorably to favorable stimulation, and a dog show chronicles that.

    I'll borrow from Walker Percy here even more explicitly than in my fourfold-piece: Point to a red balloon, say "balloon," and a dog will respond in some dyadic way. Then put your hands at your sides, close your eyes, and say "balloon"––and the dog will have no "idea" what to do. Wait a few days and utter "balloon" in a random context. At most the dog will seek the balloon. Point to the same balloon and say "balloon," and your spouse or roommate will also respond dyadically. Then just utter "balloon" in a random context and another person will say, "What about it?" Triadic signing is not necessarily aimed at triggering any action, but I simply don't think non-humans can grasp this abstract level of signing. Semiosis vs. semiotics.

    It's hardly degrading to see non-human animals as "mere" dyadic signers, since that is just to call a spade a spade.

    I'll ask this: What can dogs (or dolphins or parakeets, etc.) teach humans about being human that they don't already teach us precisely by being "mere" semiosic creatures? Meaning (with HT to James Chastek from the Just Thomism link in this thread): Can we really imagine or cite cases of dogs (etc.) semiotically directing humans to "speculative wisdom" about physics, economics, thermodynamics, etc.?


  19. Burl, you must have misunderstood me. I said that your invocation of Pirsig was a symptom of the problems we're having. What I meant to say was, the reason you're having such a hard time getting any of this stuff is that you're the sort of person who thinks that Pirsig is anything but a pseudo-philosopher. The incessant inability to make distinctions or even to understand what distinctions others are making is certainly a quality you share with the master.

    Nothing you've said so far about non-human animals raises a shred of a doubt against the A-T understanding of rationality. You don't seem to notice, for instance, that a lot of the positive qualities you are (rightly!) ascribing to dogs are best explained in part by the fact that they don't have the kind of reflective conceptual self-consciousness that A-T philosophers (and a whole lot of others, too) take to be central to 'rationality.' If you were arguing against the position that non-human animals are unconscious mechanical automata, then your appeal to the abundant empirical evidence of animal intelligence would be impressive indeed. The trouble is that A-T philosophers (nor many others who agree with them that on this point) do not have that kind of view about non-human animals. Aristotelians insist (against the Cartesian-inspired tradition that was dominant until very recently) that non-human animals are conscious, perceive things about their environment, discriminate between various features of it, engage in intentional action in pursuit of their goals, and even communicate through the use of various signals. But none of those things are, on an Aristotelian view, features of 'intellect.' 'Intellect,' strictly speaking, refers to the capacity for abstract conceptual understanding, which brings with it a particular kind of self-consciousness and ability to reflect on one's own activities and thoughts. In particular, it involves an ability to consider the reasons that one has either for belief or for action, and it's that ability that is central to rationality (in case you don't see it, 'reason' and 'rationality' are linguistically related -- both come from the Latin ratio). No amount of empirical study could possibly show that the ability to reflect on the reasons one has for belief and action does not depend on a capacity for abstract conceptual thinking, since there is just no way to give any sense to the idea of reflecting on one's reasons without engaging in abstract conceptual thought. Empirical evidence could give us reasons to ascribe these capacities to non-human animals, but the kind of empirical evidence that would be relevant is not the ability to use signals, but the ability to use genuine symbols, signs that do not simply signal that some particular response is called for, but that represent other things in the world. It's a complicated issue, but it should be easy to get a basic idea of why Coco's ability to be trained to gesture in particular ways in order to get others to respond in particular ways is not genuinely symbolic communication, but merely a more sophisticated version of what your dog does when he whines at you to take him outside. None of this entails that non-human animals are not intelligent in one sense of the word; clearly they engage with their environment in pursuit of their goals, they can learn how to do it more or less effectively, they can respond to various circumstances with fairly refined degrees of sensitivity, and they can communicate with each other and with us in some pretty complex ways. What they can't do is engage in reflexive conceptual thought, symbolic communication, or rational reflection. This basic difference between humans and non-human animals supplies most of the explanation for the differences that you cite.

  20. Perhaps two other points will help. First, though some A-T philosophers might disagree, many (including myself) would see no reason why human beings must be the only rational animals; it is in principle an open question whether there are other rational animals, and perhaps some animals like dolphins might count. In particular (and here many Thomists would disagree), there is no reason why different animals might not approximate rational, conceptual intelligence to various degrees. Some Thomists tend to emphasize the idea that the human soul has to be especially special, so special that God has to create it directly. But that is no part of Aristotle's view, and there is no reason why one has to believe in special creation or in the immortality of the soul in order to see the difference between rational, conceptual intelligence and perceptual intelligence (for examples of philosophers who agree, though from very different perspectives, consider Anthony Kenny's Metaphysics of Mind and any of Donald Davidson's essays on animal thought). There may be some other, good reasons for holding that the intellectual soul is immortal (or at least could survive the death of the body) or that it must be directly created by God. But even if there are no such arguments, the basic distinction still stands.

    The second point is that none of this compels us to deny any dignity to non-human animals or to classify them as mere 'things' rather than 'people.' The person/thing dichotomy is another wrongheaded inheritance of early modern philosophy, and though I would agree with just about everybody who has ever thought about the problem for very long that rational animals deserve a deeper kind of respect than other kinds, that doesn't entail that they don't deserve any respect or even that they don't deserve special kinds of admiration that rational animals don't. Again, though there are some Thomists who have (mistakenly, I would argue) followed Descartes, Locke, et al. into dividing up the world into persons and things, nothing remotely like that is entailed by recognizing that human beings have capacities for rational, conceptual thought that other animals simply lack.

    Stop reading Pirsig and try reading some real philosophy, my man.

  21. Thanks Cogitator and Anonymous for your most excellent thought. It is probably a good idea to back up a bit:

    It was my initial intuition that started all this talk about the creatures and the top-notch A-T soul tailor made exclusively for those that have deep abstracting skills involving language, intelligence, and rationality. Like all of the commenters here, I also do not think fido or flipper can do the deep conceptual thinking either. I do not know what they experience.

    My initial intuition was that something seems inverted w/r to valuation. Revelation about God, especially Jesus, seems way less concerned with high-intelligence and way more with characteristics like caring, humility, innocence, empathy – you get the idea. But St. Tom’s metaphysics gives more value to this rational capacity of man.

    My thinking was simply that my dog is closer to exhibiting the behavior urged upon us and valued by God, while human rationality seems to make it harder for us to do likewise. I do not see why we get the platinum-grade soul because of rationality. Seems like if we are singled out and given a special soul, it oughta be for something else we can do.

    On Pirsig, it is hard to shake the 30 years of his influence on my thinking. Don’t be too quick to dismiss his appeal for us to heed something better than rationality.

    Thomas’ unknowable full actuality
    Whitehead’s indescribable creativity
    Lao Tsu’s Tao that is not the Tao conceived
    And Pirsig’s Quality that cannot be defined

    They emphasize one common thing – our abstract reasoning cannot get us there. Better to approach with the clearer mind of a child.

  22. Burl:

    Like I said, animals teach us best about ourselves by being not like us. They "grasp" the Gospel better than humans do, in interesting instinctive ways, because they are not fallen in the same way as humans are. They are like children unknowingly in the midst of a divorce by their parents. They act normally, naturally, and beautifully, but don't realize just how bad the sitch is over their heads. ;)

    In an equally whimsical vein, cf. this little post and see how––or whether––it might play out in animal cognition.

    I fully agree that "pure reason" is inadequate for "human purity"–-Jesus was no Kant and VIC VERSA!––but I also submit that classical Xian anthropology is not about "pure reason" anyway. Cf. James Ross on cognitive voluntarism as well as my various pieces pertaining to the valuational dimension of rationality. –– towards the bottom, in blue

    Finally, not the least because it is of the moment, but also because it eventually gets at the affective dimension of truth, read this latest post of mine:


  23. Burl,

    Perhaps you should read Peter Strawson's "Freedom and Resentment." It isn't too long. Strawson isn't an Aristotelian or a Thomist or anything, and I wouldn't agree with everything he says in that essay, but he does make a few important points that are relevant to what you've been saying. His main argument is that we can only make coherent sense of the set of emotions and attitudes that are most central to our interpersonal lives (what he calls 'reactive attitudes' ranging from gratitude and love to anger and resentment with lots between) if we understand those attitudes to be directed toward people for actions that they can choose to perform or not to perform for reasons. In other words, he's arguing that freedom of action is a necessary condition for the coherence of our reactive attitudes, and that a life in which our reactive attitudes made no sense would not be worth living for a human being.

    Strawson isn't arguing for a libertarian view of free will; he thinks that the kind of freedom he discusses is compatible with certain kinds of determinism. But the reason I recommend the essay is less for what Strawson says than for what follows from it if he's right. What follows is that a whole lot of the stuff that you want to attribute to animals besides 'abstract, conceptual stuff' really does presuppose the capacity for 'abstract, conceptual stuff.' You seem to be underestimating the extent to which rational understanding is operative even in our simplest acts of perception; in particular, you seem to underestimate the role that it has in action and in emotion as well. To put it simply, I wouldn't disagree with you that non-human animals show things like empathy, concern, and so on. But I don't think that it makes any sense to think that the kind of empathy or concern that a dog is capable of is basically the same as the kind of empathy or concern that you or I might have. Nor do I think it makes much sense to describe non-human animals as humble or innocent except by a certain kind of analogy; they are humble and innocent in the sense that they just aren't capable of being arrogant or guilty of crimes.

    In short, I think you're putting too much into the idea that the rational soul makes human beings more valuable in the grand scheme of things. It certainly makes us more complex, and it certainly (I would say) entails that we have reason to treat each other much differently than we have reason to treat even the most similar non-human animals. But it doesn't need to entail that non-human animals are of no value, that God isn't interested in them except as mere means to our flourishing, or any of that stuff. I do think that it can only make sense to talk about 'moral' value when you're talking about rational agents who can choose to act or not to act on the basis of reasons; so I would deny that non-rational animals have genuine 'morality.' But that they are extremely sophisticated, beautiful, and admirable creatures, well, there can be no doubt.

    Finally, if you're concerned about why humans get to be special on the A-T view, that has everything to do with the idea that rational thought is essentially immaterial and that therefore (which is the questionable part) an identity-bearing part of the human being can survive the death of the body. If that's right, then it has nothing directly to do with whether or not non-rational animals are caring, humble, and so on, and everything to do with the fact that there is no immaterial aspect of their identity that can survive the death of their bodies. I myself regard these claims as inessential to the Aristotelian view of human and non-human animals; but even if it's true, it just doesn't cut against anything important that you've been saying.

    You may also want to have a look at Herbert McCabe's short essay "Animals and Us" in his The Good Life.

  24. Thanks Cog and Anon

    I reviewed your suggested links, and have also spent hours studying ET (existential Thomism) ala Arraj's interpretation of Maritain. I am comfortable here - it resonates w/ my essence, so to speak.

    One observation from ET epistemology is that we use concepts to know the world received via the senses. Without these conceptualizations, we could not act. The same MUST be said of other creatures that similarly act. Both our rational brains employ concepts to shape and interpret so as to interact w/ external existents (things and subjects).

    ET holds that we know existents (beings) by knowing their essences, since that is how limited reason works. Esse is pure actuality and is formless (essenceless); essence is a non-actual potential to exist a certain way, in a certain mode, as a certain being.

    Such a being is real existence as it exercises the esse in a specific mode. Such constrained beings are knowable bia rational intellect, but their esse IS NOT. To know esse, we need an non-rational preconscious intuition of Being.

    Can any of us say animals have no such pre-iconscious, non-rational capacity?

  25. I have an idea...

    It is nearly impossible to change a convinced mind. I feel in my gut that whatever afterlife holds for any of the creatures, it holds for ALL.

    And you guys don't feel it. But perhaps you could suggest some sources you've come across that gave you pause to reconsider - if so, could you cite them here so I could enjoy them.

    For instance, this vid gave me a lot to think about against my beliefs...

  26. Just another thought on a my intuition of Being post (two up):

    If the intellect's final cause is allowing us to know God, and the existential Thomists (and Zen masters) are right that we have to still our reason's grasp of essences - silence the mind - to gain a deeper insight into and experience of pure existence (esse, God's Being), then the quieter less concept-filled rationality of non-human animals is already much better set up to have this intuition (instinct perhaps?). All day long, our pets may be having some really nice transcendental visions!

    If our intellects are aimed at knowing God, wouldn't it make sense that we would be compelled to want to know his esse in all of creation? We each already knows the qualia of human experience - this brings up an intriguing question: if you were given the chance to switch minds with your pet or another human for a day, which would you take?