Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Avengers and classical theism

Watched The Avengers again on Blu-ray the other night.  In a movie full of good lines, a few stand out for (of all things) their theological significance.  Take the exchange between Black Widow and Captain America after the Norse god Thor forcibly removes his brother Loki from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s custody, Iron Man gives chase, and Captain America prepares to follow:

Black Widow: I’d sit this one out, Cap.  

Captain America: I don’t see how I can.

Black Widow: These guys come from legend, they’re basically gods.

Captain America: There’s only one God, ma’am.  And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Was Aquinas a dualist?

At the start of chapter 4 of Aquinas (the chapter on “Psychology”), I wrote:

As I have emphasized throughout this book, understanding Aquinas requires “thinking outside the box” of the basic metaphysical assumptions (concerning cause, effect, substance, essence, etc.) that contemporary philosophers tend to take for granted.  This is nowhere more true than where Aquinas’s philosophy of mind is concerned.  Indeed, to speak of Aquinas’s “philosophy of mind” is already misleading.  For Aquinas does not approach the issues dealt with in this modern philosophical sub-discipline in terms of their relevance to solving the so-called “mind-body problem.”  No such problem existed in Aquinas’s day, and for him the important distinction was in any case not between mind and body, but rather between soul and body.  Even that is potentially misleading, however, for Aquinas does not mean by “soul” what contemporary philosophers tend to mean by it, i.e. an immaterial substance of the sort affirmed by Descartes.  Furthermore, while contemporary philosophers of mind tend to obsess over the questions of whether and how science can explain consciousness and the “qualia” that define it, Aquinas instead takes what is now called “intentionality” to be the distinctive feature of the mind, and the one that it is in principle impossible to explain in materialistic terms.  At the same time, he does not think of intentionality in quite the way contemporary philosophers do.  Moreover, while he is not a materialist, he is not a Cartesian dualist either, his view being in some respects a middle position between these options.  But neither is this middle position the standard one discussed by contemporary philosophers under the label “property dualism.”  And so forth.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

New Scholastic Meets Analytic Philosophy

Lindenthal-Institut in cooperation with the publisher Ontos Verlag announces an international colloquium on the theme “New Scholastic Meets Analytic Philosophy,” to be held in Cologne, Germany on December 7 - 8, 2013.  The invited speakers are E. J. Lowe, Uwe Meixner, David S. Oderberg, Edmund Runggaldier, Erwin Tegtmeier, and Edward Feser.  Details can be found here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Justice or revenge?

I have, in various places (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, and here), defended capital punishment on grounds of retributive justice.  And I’ve noted (following the late Ralph McInerny) that what many people who object to capital punishment really seem to find off-putting is the idea of punishment itself (capital or otherwise), smacking as it does of retribution.  A reader asks what the difference is between retributive justice and revenge.  It seems, he says, that there is no difference.  But if there isn’t, then it is understandable why many people object to capital punishment, and even to punishment itself.

I think the reader is correct to suggest that the perception of a link between retributive justice and revenge is the source of much opposition to capital punishment, and of suspicion of the notion of punishment itself.  The thinking seems to go something like this:

1. Revenge is bad.

2. But retribution is a kind of revenge.

3. So retribution is bad.

4. But punishment involves retribution.

5. So punishment is bad.

The trouble with this argument, some defenders of punishment might think, is with premise (2).  But while I would certainly want to qualify premise (2), the main problem in my view is actually with premise (1).  “Revenge” (and related terms like “vengeance” and “vindictiveness”) have come to have almost entirely negative connotations.  But that is an artifact of modern sensibilities, and does not reflect traditional Christian morality.  For there is a sense in which revenge is not bad, at least not intrinsically.  Indeed, there is a sense in traditional Christian morality in which revenge is a virtue.  What is bad are certain things that are often, but only contingently, associated with revenge.  Hence those who reject punishment on the grounds just summarized are not wrong to see a link between retribution and revenge.  Rather, they are wrong to assume that revenge is inherently bad.

Let me explain.  Or rather, let me allow Thomas Aquinas to explain:

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The divine intellect

A reader asks:

[I] was curious, given your work in philosophy of mind, what you would say is the most plausible notion we have of God's mental content… [T]he popular theories (functionalism, phenomenology, holism, etc) all seem to violate the doctrine of divine simplicity… I have a hard time conceiving of any conception of minds on which the mind is not, in some sense of the word, modular, or complex.  Minds have got to have thoughts at the very least on the most basic, primitivist conceptions, and that seems to require that minds have parts.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Objective and subjective

One of the barriers to understanding Scholastic writers like Aquinas is their technical terminology, which was once the common coin of Western thought but is alien to most contemporary academic philosophers.  Sometimes the wording is unfamiliar even though the concepts are not.  For example, few contemporary analytic philosophers speak of act and potency, but you will find quite a few recent metaphysicians making a distinction between categorical and dispositional features of reality, which is at least similar to the former, Scholastic distinction.  Sometimes the wording is familiar but the associated concept is significantly different.  For example, contemporary philosophers generally use “property” as synonymous with “attribute,” “feature,” or “characteristic,” whereas Scholastics use it in a much more restricted sense, to refer to what is “proper” to a thing insofar as it flows from the thing’s essence (as the capacity for having a sense of humor flows from our being rational animals and is thus one of our “properties,” but having red hair does not and so is not a “property”).  Other terms too which are familiar to contemporary philosophers have shades of meaning in Scholastic writers which differ significantly from those associated with contemporary usage -- “intentionality,” “necessary,” “causation,” “essential,” and “teleology” are examples I have discussed in various places.

And then there are “objective” and “subjective,” which are sometimes used by Scholastic writers to convey more or less the opposite of what contemporary philosophers mean by these terms.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Brain hacking and mind reading

Over the last week or so several news stories have appeared (e.g. here and here) suggesting that it is technologically possible to “hack” the brain and extract from it PIN numbers, credit card data, and the like.  This naturally raises the question whether such a possibility vindicates materialism.  The short answer is that it does not.  I’ve commented on claims of this sort before (here and here) but it is worth revisiting the issue in light of what I’ve said in recent posts about how the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) philosopher understands the relationship between thought and brain activity.