Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Progressive dematerialization

In the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition, it is the intellect, rather than sentience, that marks the divide between the corporeal and the incorporeal.  Hence A-T arguments against materialist theories of the mind tend to focus on conceptual thought rather than qualia (i.e. the subjective or “first-person” features of a conscious experience, such as the way red looks or the way pain feels) as that aspect of the mind which cannot in principle be reduced to brain activity or the like.  Yet Thomistic writers also often speak even of perceptual experience (and not just of abstract thought) as involving an immaterial element.  And they need not deny that qualia-oriented arguments like the “zombie argument,” Frank Jackson’s “knowledge argument,” Thomas Nagel’s “bat argument,” etc. draw blood against materialism.  So what exactly is going on here?

Here as in other areas of philosophy, misunderstanding arises because contemporary readers are usually unaware that classical (Aristotelian/Neo-Platonic/Scholastic) philosophers and modern (post-Cartesian) philosophers carve up the conceptual territory in radically different ways, and thus often don’t use key terms in the same sense.  In this case, terms like “matter” and “material” have a very different force when writers like Aristotle and Aquinas use them than they have when Descartes, Hobbes, or your average contemporary academic philosopher uses them.  There are at least three ways in which this is true. 

The matter of the moderns

First, and as I have noted many times, the tendency in post-Cartesian philosophy and natural science is to conceive of matter in exclusively quantitative terms and to regard whatever smacks as irreducibly qualitative as a mere projection of the mind.  This is the origin of “the qualia problem” for materialism.  The reason materialists cannot solve the problem is that since they have defined matter in such a way as to exclude the qualitative from it, qualia -- which are essentially qualitative, as the name implies -- are necessarly going to count as immaterial.  Materialist “explanations” of qualia thus invariably either change the subject or implicitly deny the existence of what they are supposed to be explaining.  (The basic point goes back to Cudworth and Malebranche and is the core of Nagel’s critique of physicalist accounts of consciousness.)

This is a point I‘ve developed at length many times (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, and here) and I won’t belabor it here.  Suffice it to say that for the A-T philosopher, while this is a strike against materialism it isn’t really an argument for dualism unless one accepts the purely quantitative conception of matter in question -- as Cartesians do but A-T does not.  From an A-T point of view, the modern “mathematicized” conception of matter is essentially incomplete.  It’s true as far as it goes, but it’s not the whole truth.  So, the failure of some feature to be analyzable in material terms as materialists and Cartesians understand “material” does not entail that it is not material full stop.  It might still count as material on some more robust conception of matter.  And there is a sense in which, for A-T, qualia are indeed material, at least if we use “material” as more or less synonymous with “corporeal.”  For A-T philosophers regard qualia as entirely dependent on physiology.  Our having the qualia associated with seeing a red object, for example, is entirely dependent on bodily organs like the retina, the optic nerve, the relevant processing centers in the brain, and so forth.

This brings us to the second way in which A-T philosophers carve up the conceptual territory in ways contrary to the assumptions typically made by modern philosophers.  For some modern dualists are bound to object: How, on any conception of matter, could qualia be entirely dependent on such bodily organs?  Don’t attempts to analyze qualia in terms of (say) neuronal firing patterns fail whether or not we think of matter as exhaustively quantitative?  The trouble with such objections, though, is that they think of materiality or corporeality in essentially reductionist terms.  They suppose that to say that such-and-such a feature is corporeal entails saying that it is reducible to some lower-level feature of the body.  Hence when they hear the A-T philosopher say that qualia are corporeal and dependent on bodily organs like the brain, they suppose that the A-T philosopher is claiming (as a materialist might) that an experience of red is “nothing but” the firing of such-and-such neurons, that an experience of pain is “nothing but” the firing of some other group of neurons, etc.

But that is simply a fundamental misunderstanding of the A-T position.  The A-T philosopher entirely rejects the reductionist assumption that lower-level features of a system are somehow “more real” than the higher-level features, or in any other way metaphysically privileged.  Hence he rejects the idea that to affirm that some feature of the world is both real and material is to suppose that it is exhaustively analyzable into, or entirely reducible to or emergent from, some collection of lower-level material features.  (The words “exhaustively” and “entirely” are crucial here.  Naturally, the A-T philosopher does not deny that a system can be analyzed into its parts and that this has explanatory value.  The point is that this is only part of the story.  The parts in turn cannot properly be understood except in relation to the whole, at least in a true substance as opposed to an artifact.  See chapter 3 of Scholastic Metaphysics for detailed treatment of this issue, including responses to the usual objections.)

Within the material world, A-T philosophers traditionally hold that there are at least four irreducible kinds of substance: inorganic substances; merely vegetative organic substances (in the technical Aristotelian sense of “vegetative”); sensory or animal substances; and rational animals or human beings.  Only in the case of the last does the A-T position hold that there is a strictly immaterial or incorporeal aspect.  Non-human animal life is irreducible to vegetative life and vegetative life is irreducible to the inorganic, yet all are still entirely material.  Again, materiality or corporeality simply has nothing essentially to do with reducibility.

So, in order to understand what A-T philosophers mean by “matter” and “material,” the reader must be careful not to read into their statements the exclusively quantitative construal of “matter” or the reductionist construal of “material” that are at least implicit in the usage of the average modern philosopher.  How, then, does the A-T philosopher understand “matter” and “material”?

Degrees of immateriality

This brings us to the third point, which is that from the A-T point of view, matter is to be understood primarily in contrast to form, where the matter/form distinction is a special case of the more general distinction between potentiality and actuality.  Consider a triangle drawn on a whiteboard with a dry-erase marker.  It is a composite of a certain form, triangularity, and a certain kind of matter, ink.  (Metaphysically, things are more complicated than that, since the triangle is an artifact and thus triangularity is an accidental form modifying something already having a substantial form; and the ink, accordingly, is a kind of secondary matter, rather than the prime matter that substantial forms inform.  But we can ignore all that for present purposes.  Again, see Scholastic Metaphysics for the full story.)

The ink qua ink is potentially a triangle, or a circle, or a square, or some other figure.  The form triangularity makes it actually one of these rather than the others.  The form triangularity is of itself universal and one.  That is to say, it is the same one form -- triangularity -- that is instantiated in this triangle, in other triangles drawn on the whiteboard, in triangles drawn in geometry textbooks or in sand at the beach, etc.  By contrast, the specific bit of ink that has taken on that form on the whiteboard is particular, and makes of the triangle a mere particular instance of triangularity among multiple particular instances.  That it is made of this particular bit of ink also makes the triangle changeable and imperfect.  The triangle can be damaged or erased altogether, and even when it exists it does not instantiate triangularity perfectly, insofar as the sides of any material triangle are never perfectly straight, etc.  By contrast, triangularity as such is perfect triangularity, and indeed is the standard by reference to which particular instances of triangularity are judged more or less perfect or imperfect.  Triangularity as such is also permanent.  Individual triangles change and are generated and corrupted, but triangularity as such is timeless and unchanging. 

So, form qua form corresponds in A-T metaphysics to actuality, universality, unity, permanence, and perfection.  Matter qua matter corresponds to potentiality, particularity, multiplicity, changeability, and imperfection.  Now, these characteristics are susceptible of degrees, so that there is a sense in which materiality and immateriality can come in degrees.  The more something exhibits potentiality, particularity, multiplicity, changeability, and/or imperfection, the more matter-like it is.  The more something exhibits actuality, universality, unity, permanence, and/or perfection, the more immaterial it is.  It is in light of this that we can understand how, though A-T regards perceptual experience (and the qualia associated with it) as corporeal, there is nevertheless a sense in which it has an immaterial aspect.

For A-T epistemology, knowledge or cognition involves a kind of union of the knower and the thing known insofar as the former comes, in a sense, to possess the form of the latter.  Now, knowledge or cognition can be either of a sensory sort or of an intellectual sort.  The first sort we share with other animals; the second is the sort we have and other animals do not.  It is the second, intellectual sort of cognition that is in the strict sense immaterial and is thus incorporeal.  But sensory cognition, though corporeal, is immaterial in a loose sense insofar as there is a way in which it involves having the form of the thing known without having its matter.

Consider the perceptual representation of an apple that you form when you look at it.  The color, part of the shape, and the appearance of the texture of the apple are captured in the visual experience, whereas the interior of the apple, its weight, its solidity, and other characteristics are not captured.  By capturing the former without the latter, the visual experience involves a kind “dematerialization,” as it were.  It “pulls” the forms redness, roundness, etc. from the apple so that they exist as qualia of conscious experience rather than in the apple itself, while “leaving behind” the rest of the apple.  But this is not a strict dematerialization, of course, any more than is the “dematerialization” accomplished by a photorealistic still life painting of the apple (which also captures the color, shape, etc. without capturing the interior of the apple, its weight and solidity, etc.).  For just as the painting is itself embodied in canvas and paint, which are material, so too is the perceptual experience embodied in physiological activity, which is also material. 

Now, the loose sort of “dematerialization” accomplished by physiological activity can be more thoroughgoing than the sort involved in a perceptual experience.  The visual experience of the apple is an experience of this particular apple, capturing its particular color, shape, etc.  But a mental image of an apple might resemble many apples -- say, by virtue of more vaguely capturing the color or shape, or by leaving out features such as idiosyncratic indentations or areas of discoloration.  And other representations encoded physiologically (such as those posited by cognitive scientists) might be even further than a vague visual image is from physically resembling any particular thing, as a blueprint or wiring diagram is very far from resembling any actual building or computer.  This distance from the kind of close resemblance between a representation and particular thing represented that is involved in a perceptual experience gives mental images and more abstract neural representational states a kind of generality which can superficially resemble the universality of concepts.  This distance from the particular things thus makes these representations “immaterial” in a loose sense.

Still, strictly speaking, they are material.  And neither neural representations nor anything else material can in principle have the true universality of reference that concepts have, nor the determinate or unambiguous content that concepts can have.  For material representations will of their nature have particularizing features that prevent them from capturing the universality of a concept, and will be systematically indeterminate or ambiguous between alternative possible semantic properties.  Hence, just as you will never get a true circle from a polygon no matter how many sides you add to it, you will never get a true concept from a material representation, no matter how many particularizing features are removed from it, and no matter how many other representations you add to it in a system of material representations in order to narrow down the range of possible semantic contents.  In both cases, you can at best only get a simulation.  To be sure, the simulation might be very impressive.  A polygon with sufficiently many sides can fool the eye and appear to be a circle.  A sufficiently powerful computer program might appear to be intelligent.  But if you examine any polygon carefully enough its non-circularity is bound to become evident, and if you examine the outputs of any computer carefully enough its “sphexishness” is bound to become evident.

The thesis that concepts are in principle irreducible to material representations is something I’ve defended at length elsewhere, most systematically and in greatest depth in my ACPQ article “Kripke, Ross, and the Immaterial Aspects of Thought.”  (Some relevant blog posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.)  Anyway, arguing for the immateriality of thought is not the point of the present post.  The point is to note that on the A-T view, whereas sensation and imagination are immaterial in a loose sense, conceptual thought is immaterial in a strict sense. 

Even then there is the qualification to be made that the human intellect must constantly “turn to the phantasms,” as Aquinas puts it -- that is, it depends on sensation for the raw materials from which it abstracts concepts, and it makes use of mental imagery even when entertaining the most abstract concepts.  For instance, the concept triangularity cannot be identified with any mental image of a triangle nor with the word “triangle,” but we tend to form images either of the geometrical figure or of the word whenever we entertain the concept.  (Previous posts with some relevant discussion can be found here, here, here, and here.)  As rational animals we are composites of the corporeal and incorporeal and are thus not entirely divorced from matter even in our intellectual activity.  Only an essentially incorporeal intellectual substance -- an angel, or God -- would be that.

Hence we find in A-T writers a distinction between three degrees of immateriality:

1. The quasi-immateriality or “immateriality” in a loose sense of sensations, mental images, and other neural representations.  These we share with the lower animals.  The “immateriality” is loose because these are all corporeal or intrinsically dependent on matter. 

2. The strict immateriality of true concepts.  These we do not share with the lower animals.  But, though not intrinsically dependent on matter, our intellectual or conceptual activity is extrinsically dependent on matter insofar as we require sensation and mental imagery -- and thus sense organs and brain activity -- as a source of information and as an accompaniment to the act of thinking.

3. The absolute independence of matter of angelic intellects and the divine intellect, which do not require bodily organs even extrinsically.


  1. But sensory cognition, though corporeal, is immaterial in a loose sense insofar as there is a way in which it involves having the form of the thing known without having its matter.

    It involves the form without the thing’s matter, but it involves my matter… but in what way? Having a form intellectually is a different way to have a form from having it materially, because having the form of, say, greenness materially is simply to be a green thing, but thinking about the concept of greenness does not make (any part of) me green. But a sensory experience of green also does not make me a green thing, so it follows that I do not possess the form materially. Or are there supposed to be two ways of having a form materially?

    Well, one answer is to claim that when I see green, I really do become green — in fact, I believe Aristotle does say something like that. (My eye’s turning green may sound suspicious on a modern view, but I suspect it is defensible; certainly when I see a circular pattern, there is an actual circle present in the pattern of activated cones and rods in my eye, and when I touch something warm, my hand actually does become warm itself.) However, why am I not then aware of the colour of the sole of my foot, or my spleen? And how am I able to sense things when they are not physically present in me (e.g. because my brain is stimulated in the right (or wrong) way, or simply when I remember something)?

  2. But if you examine any polygon carefully enough its non-circularity is bound to become evident, and if you examine the outputs of any computer carefully enough its “sphexishness”is bound to become evident.

    I suppose that depends on what we mean by “carefully enough”. The sides of a polygon can easily be fine enough that they are indistinguishable to the naked eye, for human sight has a finite resolution. Of course, the image could be magnified to make present to our sight what our sight cannot see directly. Similarly, a computer could (in principle) be complex enough to be indistinguishable from true reason to the unaided mind… and nothing so simple as a magnifying lens will aid us in getting around that limit. (If we could “see” other minds directly, we could read the computer’s mind and find that there was nothing there to read; but humans can’t read minds, and there is no tool to let us do so.) So it would seem that there is always the possibility of fake intelligences that could fool us.

  3. I must confess the quasi-immateriality of sensation has always puzzled me, so this is a helpful post.

    However, the question that immediately follows in my mind is where the "higher-level features" of matter come from. If they were always present in potency in prime matter, but not actualized until the reception of the form of a soul -- and if vegatative creatures are not reducible to the inorganic, or sensitive to the vegatative -- then what can, in principle, be the efficient cause of the first plant, or the first animal? With the rational soul we are committed to saying that God creates every new one from nothing, but with regard to the purely material Thomists are usually quick to distance themselves from(capital "C") Creationism and Intelligent Design and allow that nature can take its course in some manner of evolutionary progression. So how does this work? If the lower organisms really did precede the higher ones in time, then must God have intervened supernaturally whenever a new kind of soul appeared on the scene?

  4. Put another way: Can anything strictly natural account for the generation of a new level of material soul that did not exist before? If so, what must be true of that agent's own form?

  5. @CCK:

    A partial answer, I think, is that substances can interact naturally and materially to produce other substances with different forms.

    The interaction is important. To take a rough analogy, a square doesn't have the "potency" to become a cube or a pyramid, but it does have the "potency" to be one face of a cube in combination with five other equal-sized squares, and to be the base of a pyramid in combination with four equilateral triangles with sides equal to its own.

    Similarly (and literally rather than analogically), hydrogen and water can combine to yield a new substance with an entirely different form (water) even though neither one has this causal power all by itself. Moreover, water has properties that are not reducible to those of hydrogen and oxygen alone, and a hylemorphist would say that the hydrogen and oxygen exist in water only "virtually."

    So unless we think that an act of special creation takes place every time a chemical compound is formed, we've already accepted that some substances can interact in ways that generate other substances with new forms. In that case we shouldn't see any problem in principle with natural, material evolution or even the emergence of the "first plant" from substances themselves without vegetative souls (forms), even if we don't know precisely how it comes (or came) about. (We don't completely understand how it happens with water, either.)

    If there's something about human beings that does require an act of special creation, we're exceptional in that respect—and of course that's just what Thomism does hold.

  6. In other words, and more roughly: the potencies to produce those new forms are in some way "spread out" over multiple substances, not in any one of them alone.

    Also, of course, the forms are "new" only within the temporal order of creation; qua forms, they subsist eternally in the divine intellect. So there's no particular problem with having the created order come with them already "baked in," so to speak.

  7. (More precisely, "the potencies to produce those new forms" should be "the potencies to produce substances with those new forms.")

  8. Thanks, Scott, that helps. Is there a difference though between "horizonal" and "vertical" development, so to speak? It sounds to me that when Prof. Feser speaks here about "four irreducible kinds of substance" he means by "irreducible" something more than the way in which emergent properties resulting from every chemical reaction are "irreducible." Perhaps I am misreading him, but if every interaction is irreducible in this way, then why mark out these four kinds as being somehow special?

    It is not too difficult to understand (in a general way) how the interaction of inorganic things could give rise to new inorganic things, or how one species of animal could over time and through mutation generate another. But do not the *immanent* powers make ensouled beings irreducible to the inorganic in a way that intra-level emergent properties -- wetness and hardness in the inorganic, warm-blooded and cold-blooded in the animal, etc. -- do not? What makes the "jump" possible?

  9. @CCK:

    "What makes the 'jump' possible?"

    Well, I think the essential point to observe here is that if hylemorphism is true, then the entire material world has immaterial aspects and that these don't simply "emerge" from the lower material levels, even in simple chemical reactions. (The properties of water don't "emerge" from those of hydrogen and oxygen; to say that the form of water is "virtually present" in either element is just to say that it has a causal power to participate in a chemical reaction that yields a substance with that form. I suppose we could say that the form "emerges" in some sense, but I don't think that's what's generally meant by "emergentism.")

    I think it's better to ask why such a "jump" is impossible in the case of the rational soul. And the answer to that question is simply that the intellect is completely, entirely, 100% immaterial, whereas sensation, phantasms, and so forth are not. If that weren't the case, there would be no reason in principle why a substance with a rational soul/form couldn't be generated by (material/hylemorphic) substances lacking such a form, even if in fact it didn't happen that way.

  10. To put that last point in another way: as far as I can see, there's no reason in principle that God couldn't arrange a world causally so that any substance might combine with some other substance to produce a third substance with a form differing from either of the first two. A world in which things that looked like cats gave birth to things that looked like porcupines or elephants wouldn't be our world (and those animals wouldn't be cats, porcupines, or elephants but something else with different forms/natures), but I don't see that it's logically impossible; how such things in fact work in this or that world seems to me to be a strictly empirical question. However, I think it is logically impossible for material, embodied substances to get together and generate something wholly immaterial.

  11. I guess i still can't process why something like color perceptions are material. Go back to Leibniz's mill; when I see a red apple, there is no corresponding "objective" redness in my material brain. Even if you want to claim that color is an objective property of the concrete reality of matter, though not one science describes, it still doesn't change the fact that the color or shape of the apple is no where found "objectively" in my neurons. Am I just missing the point here?

    Also, doesn't our concept of an apple irreducibly change our perception of the apple-material we see such that an animal can't see the same material organization we do? The "appleness" of the visual image cannot be divorced from the perceptual quality of the experience itself. Our concepts "carve" the world into forms that give an illusion of mere sensory perception but which obscure their intrinsic conceptual character. This character cannot be divorced from the perception, despite our ability to "describe" the abstract perceptual character of the form (it's round, it's red etc.).

  12. In my experience 'subjectivizing' the qualitative properties of material reality actually does-in the objectivity of the quantitative or mathematical properties of material things as well. It drives a wedge in each of the senses that results in a divorce and disqualifies each and every sense as a reliable judge to form a standard suitable for objective use.

    Colour, for instance, will affect how large or small things appear (a room painted white will seem larger than the same one painted black). If qualia are subjective then eventually even the quantitative properties of things disappear into subjectivity. What standard of length measurement doesn't ultimately appeal to some sense for its basis? If it's not based on sense, then what is it based upon? What is six feet tall if I can't reliably ever see or feel an instance of it, say?

  13. "If qualia are subjective…"

    Well, we want to be careful not to equivocate here. A quale (if there are such things as qualia) is a feature of experience and therefore how something appears to a subject, but that doesn't mean they're "subjective" in the other sense (wholly dependent on someone's personal feelings, beliefs, etc.). My experience of a precise shade of red has a fully objective character of its own, even if nobody else ever experiences it; there's still some fact of the matter (even if we can never know it) about whether two of us ever do experience precisely the same shades of color.

    That's in part why you can't infer, from the "subjectivity" of sensory experience, that we can't even tell what the objective measurements of a room are.

  14. Scott is onto the right idea here. It's not about "subjectivizing" reality, but "objectifying" the subjective directly. Then we can confront the truly objective forms of qualia experience and relate to THEM as what's OUT THERE, not a spatiotemporal BOX. In a way, it's the death of subjectivity itself by a complete totalization of subjectivity because even one's concepts and ideas have an objective character in Qualia Space. All experience relates to God geometrically and it's the geometric structure of God that provides the ultimate objective reference point, not the world.

    What's out there is what's in here, with the interface of spatiotemporal reality as a useful gameplay strategy.

  15. @CCK:

    Of course it's also possible that God did "intervene[] supernaturally whenever a new kind of soul appeared on the scene." Perhaps, e.g., a substance with a vegetative form can give rise only to substances with (possibly different) vegetative forms, and likewise a substance with a sensitive form, so that each of these "jumps" can be accounted for only by supernatural influence. Certainly many Thomists have thought so.

    But whether that's correct or not, it still seems to me that the important difference in the case of the rational soul/form is the complete immateriality of the intellect. Thomism doesn't stand or fall with the claim that the production of a vegetative soul is absolutely different in kind from the production of water from hydrogen and oxygen. But if it turned out that a rational soul could be produced in that way, that would be the end of Thomism.

  16. @Matt Sigl:

    "I guess i still can't process why something like color perceptions are material."

    Basically, it's because we can't see colors if we don't have material eyes. Concepts, by contrast, aren't material because, even though we require material sense organs to acquire them in the first place, our continuing to have them is not dependent on any material organ. We need sensory-perceptual experience in order to understand what a triangle is, but once we understand, we understand. (Damage to the brain may keep us from manifesting that understanding, but that's another issue.)

    "Go back to Leibniz's mill; when I see a red apple, there is no corresponding 'objective' redness in my material brain."

    Maybe, maybe not. But either way, there's a corresponding "objective" redness in you (in your conscious experience). You, the substance, are the subject of that experience; whether that experience can be physically localized to some part of your anatomy is another question entirely. The experience of redness is qualitative rather than quantitative or structural—and, again, it's your experience, not your brain's.

    1. But we don't see with our eyes, we see with our mind. Eyes are data collection. Look at dreams. No eyes necessary.

  17. @Matt Sigl:

    "Scott is onto the right idea here. It's not about 'subjectivizing' reality, but 'objectifying' the subjective directly."

    If you mean what I think you mean, then I agree. If I see a red apple, then that "subjective" redness is an "objective" property of the apple at least in the sense that the apple has the power to participate in a causal process giving rise to my experience of that color. Even if that were all we had, it would be enough to establish that the "subjective" color was, in A-T terms, virtually present in the apple.

  18. "Basically, it's because we can't see colors if we don't have material eyes."

    God and angels can't see colors?

  19. "God and angels can't see colors?"

    That's correct.

  20. Here are a few other things God and angels can't do:

    Ride a bicycle.

    Contract hepatitis.

    Swallow a spoonful of castor oil.

    Go blind.

    And so forth.

  21. (A minor concession: if there somehow turned out to be some way to see colors other than by having material eyes, then perhaps God and angels could manage it. But even that still wouldn't alter the fact that we can't, and that our vision is material.)

  22. Scott: So unless we think that an act of special creation takes place every time a chemical compound is formed

    And I think we can say that the first time a given chemical compound, or animals, or any other substance, comes into being, its form needs to be created. (Though perhaps this glosses over certain details with respect to the other point you mentioned about forms’ existing in the divine intellect.) Once the first one has been created, any new instance of a material substance shares the same form — different matter is all that is needed to differentiate them. So the creation of the first man would be comparable to the creation of the first being of any other species… but the second human would require not only different matter, but an individual (and thus individually created) soul (otherwise we’d end up sharing the same intellect (and you thought the old party-lines were bad!)).

    As to whether this creation of the original of any substantial forms counts as “intervention”, I’m inclined to think it a matter of semantics. After all, creation and conservation are much the same thing — creation is just the act of conservation that comes first.

  23. @Scott

    Here are a few other things God and angels can't do:

    So no touch, taste, smell, see, or hear...

    An "analogical intellect" in a black box, as it were.

    However, it does sound like a good description of a perfect nothing...

  24. An "analogical intellect" in a black box, as it were.

    There's no such thing as an 'analogical intellect' full stop; analogical requires a comparison of how two uses of a term relate to each other, so that a term in one use can only be analogical relative to a term in another use.

  25. @Brandon

    You are saying that God's intellect is actually like ours and not only analogues to ours?

  26. No, I'm saying "'analogical' requires a comparison of how two uses of a term relate to each other, so that a term in one use can only be analogical relative to a term in another use'". Nothing is analogical except in comparison to some other thing.

    But you seem to have an odd view of the word 'analogue' if you think 'analogue' means 'not actually like'.

  27. Bob,

    I think Brandon was just assuming that you're capable of writing clearly for yourself. I'm less generous. I assume you were referring to the fact that we can only analogously refer to entities such as angels and God as intellects.

  28. "God and angels can't see colors?"

    That's correct.

    Especially when we define "see" in terms of a material operation - i.e. "sensation".

    But of course, this says nothing about whether God and angels can (or cannot)
    colors via another route, open to the intellect but not dependent on sense. And so saying God cannot see colors goes hand in hand with saying "God is not limited by body." Or, to go further, saying "God cannot see colors" points out an aspect in which God does not suffer our limitations.

    Sort of like Bill "being able to count his money" implies both a power and having finite amounts of money. So saying of Solomon who has the same powers but has infinite money that he is "unable to count his money" is not pointing to a lesser power in Solomon compared to Bill. (But only sort of like.)

    Remember, in a discussion of this sort, to keep hold of the most important point: "It doesn't matter."

  29. John West,

    I would say a similar thing to your comment. Reference is only analogical compared to some other reference. 'Analogical' or 'analogous' is an inherently comparative term. This is why Aquinas talks about terms being analogous or analogical of God and creatures. Saying we can only analogously refer to something is a bit like saying we can only relatedly refer to something, or that we can only similarly refer to something; on its own it doesn't say anything, because you need to know what it's referring to.

    Usually, of course, we mean that a term like 'intellect' is analogous when used of God and us, since for obvious reasons our intellect is the kind of intellect with which we are best acquainted, and then, of course, it conveys the point that 'intellect', when used of both God and us, is more correctly used of God than it is of us, because it can apply to us only with qualifications that do not come up when applied to God. I take it you were meaning something like this; but I want to insist on the point that analogy in this case always involves a comparison. 'Analogy' just means 'proportion'; and in this context it means the proportion of one term to another.

  30. Really great stuff. I offered a link to this post on my blog:


  31. Oh, I'm definitely and regularly guilty of imprecise language:

    "I assume you were referring to the fact that we can only refer to entities such as angels and God as intellects by analogy to the human intellects with which we're familiar." Is this better?

  32. @Tony:

    Agreed on all points. Thanks for the elaboration.

    @Mr. Green:

    "And I think we can say that the first time a given chemical compound, or animals, or any other substance, comes into being, its form needs to be created.…The creation of the first man would be comparable to the creation of the first being of any other species… but the second human would require not only different matter, but an individual (and thus individually created) soul[.]"

    That seems right to me. At any rate it gives a good reason why each individual human being requires a special act of creation, in contrast to individual non-rational animals and plants (and each occurrence of a chemical compound).

  33. John West,

    That would be one way to say it.

    I wouldn't have said anything about the looser use, except that in this context I think it's one of the things that's important to be careful about, since the entire emphasis on any discussion of the subject is going to have to be the proportion itself.

  34. Fair enough.

    One should not, in any case, be surprised at being chastised for loose language on a Scholastic blog.

  35. @PhiGuy110:

    I'd say dreaming isn't "seeing" in the fundamental sense of visually perceiving an external object, but you're right that vision isn't a function of the eyes alone.

  36. If we're on the topic of Epistemology I'm going to throw in a question which has been worrying me for a while: How would one explain Thomism's position on the question of Sense (and the related Casual v Adverbial theories)?

    I would give it as the Intellect's being informed by the Species Y is the Intellect's capacity to Intend Y even if Y has no actually existing Referent (or, possibly, couldn't have an existing Referent a la the good old Square-Circle)

    If anyone knows any book on article that tackles these issues in modern Analytic speak please, please do point me in its direction.

  37. Are Apples Red in the Matrix?


  38. @Daniel:

    "I would give it as the Intellect's being informed by the Species Y is the Intellect's capacity to Intend Y even if Y has no actually existing Referent (or, possibly, couldn't have an existing Referent a la the good old Square-Circle)"

    There is indeed something puzzling about your parenthetical comment. On the one hand, it can't be quite right just as it stands, as there just isn't any "Species Y" for our intellect to be informed by if no referent is logically possible. On the other hand, we seem to be able to recognize (to borrow your example) what "square circle" means well enough to understand that it's contradictory, so apparently it doesn't just mean nothing at all.

    Thoughts? Opinions? Bueller? Bueller?

  39. We know what a circle is and we know what a square is, and know that one has characteristics that exclude the possibility of being the other. The referent in this case is just the impossible, and "square-circle" is a tidy example of an impossibility. That's my very quick thought, anyhow.

    Non-being, on the face of it, seems to be a similar kind of term.

  40. The irreducible paradox of unobservability is the actual real state of every one and every thing

    Reality has no thing in it, mo other in it, no separate self in it, no ideas, no constructs in mind or perception, and, altogether, no point of view.

    There is a flow of process, very complex. It is all an electronic apparition - literally. A light show.

    all of this is arising in overwhelming brightness.

  41. Scott said,

    Thoughts? Opinions? Bueller? Bueller?

    Ohh no I’m reaching for the Phenomenologists again!

    I would employ Husserl's distinction between logico-grammatic Nonsense e.g. 'This Green or' and Formal and Material Absurdity/Counter-sense e.g. 'A is Not-A' or 'This Shape is Square and Circular', the former having no unified meaning whilst the latter is still a senseful concept albeit on we know is de facto impossible of its very nature. In 'having' the essence of a Square-Circle we take the formal concept of any Being/Entity and 'stick' properties onto it - the only worry I have here is that it might be a step towards Bare Particularism even though Entity is only being used as a highest Genus concept.

    I'm not sure where I stand with the Scholastic solution stemming from Suarez and his contemporaries* which treats such impossibilia as ens rationis - they may well be in a sense but the thought of them has determinate content and so must have a ground in the Divine Intellect.

    For that one needs this:


    @Matt Sheen,

    Yes, I've thought of that comparison as well. I would say there is a difference in as much Square-Circle has Material content whilst it’s questionable whether Non-Being even has Formal content. When we talk about the Square-Circle we are talking about an entity with determinate properties; when we speak about Non-Being we are speaking about not-any-thing (A Square-Circle would in principle have an essence whilst Non-Being couldn’t).

  42. If a circle is defined as the set of all points equidistant from any particular point, wouldn't simply distorting relevant spatial dimensions make it possible to actually have a square (at least in appearance) circle?

  43. A circle is a two-dimensional shape, so no.

  44. @Matt Sheean and Daniel:

    Matt: "We know what a circle is and we know what a square is, and know that one has characteristics that exclude the possibility of being the other."

    I think that's the key point, yes. I do have to agree with Daniel, though, that "square circle" has content and "non-being" doesn't.

    I suspect that what's going on in the "square circle" reference is that we're actually referring to two properties (squareness and circularity) or forms (square and circle). In fact, if Matt is right that we can see the two are mutually exclusive even as we make the reference, then we must be.


    Sure, it's possible to define a weird metric on what looks like a(n almost) square bit of 2-space so that it comes out "circular" with that metric. That might be one way of giving a non-contradictory meaning to "square circle," but of course the object wouldn't be both square and circular (thus not-square) in the same respect.

    Likewise for a three-dimensional circular cylinder with equal diameter and height. Viewed from the side, it looks square; viewed from the end, it looks circular. Here, too, the two properties aren't contraries, so it's not contradictory for one shape to have both.

  45. I see Scott has given a much more helpful reply.

  46. Does Oderberg go into Thomistic modality more than Dr. Feser? Also, has anyone tried defining a symbolic logic system with act and potency operators?

  47. (Also, Bob, I promise I wasn't trying to be nearly as unhelpful as I was, this time. I was on a bus, with a tablet.)

  48. @John

    I never said one needed to distort 3 dimensions...obviously...

  49. Let me see if I have this right.

    An ontological thing (substance) can't be purely "material", because matter doesn't exist except when instantiating a form. However, one can talk of the material aspect (the matter) and the formal aspect (the form). Likewise, a property of a substance can be "material" (e.g. insofar as the matter is affected) or "formal" (immaterial; insofar as the form is affected).

    So, qualia are "material" insofar as the matter is affected (e.g. by signals traveling down the optic nerve and processed in the visual cortex). However, they aren't entirely material because the form is also affected (something is experienced).

    Cognition is "material" insofar as sense information is used to construct phantasms (e.g. neural representations). But it has a completely immaterial aspect when understanding of universals are abstracted from the phantasms (e.g. there is no neural activity associated with this; matter is not affected).

    So is the reason why qualia are "corporeal" and cognition is not because for qualia the material and immaterial aspects are simultaneous (e.g. it is "intrinsically dependent" on a bodily organ) while for cognition they are not (e.g. abstraction is only "extrinsically dependent" on the brain)?

  50. @Scott,

    It would be circular with respect to all points being actually equidistant while simultaneously being square relative to an observer outside this bit of distorted space.

    So no, there is no danger to non-contradiction in this instance. However, it may bring up some issues with regards to the op.

  51. @Bob:

    "It would be circular with respect to all points being actually equidistant while simultaneously being square relative to an observer outside this bit of distorted space."

    Right. Equivalently, I think, it would be circular under one metric (the weird one) and square under another (the presumably Euclidean one the observer is implicitly using).

  52. @John West,

    I have yet to read it fully myself but there is an essay in by Gerald J. Hughes in the anthology Mind, Metaphysics and Value in the Analytic and Thomistic Tradition which looks to deal with exactly these issues. It's entitled 'Ontology and the Art of the Possible.

    Brian Leftow's God and Necessity presents a magisterial take on questions of modality though in connection with the grounding in the Divine Nature rather than Act and Potency per say. There was a review of it linked to a while back here which summarised some of the interesting points. It (just the review) certainly helped me a lot with worries vis a vis Actualism.

  53. re: square circles

    I have only ever thought of them as a useful illustration of nonsense. In that sense (hehe) there is something specific about a square circle that, indeed, is not shared by "non-being", "nonsense" and other such terms. I want to say that the use of the term is how I'd consider it. I've always thought of square-circles, married bachelors, and so on as illustrative.

    Actually, this brings to mind the Penrose Triangle. That is a thing, after all, I can show you one. A square circle would be harder to draw, but there are some impossible shapes that are possible to represent visually.

  54. @Scott

    Right and as such I suppose one might consider this weird fact with regards to universals.

  55. The Penrose Triangle is especially interesting because it's perfectly unexceptionable as a two-dimensional image; it generates problems only when we try to interpret that two-dimensional image as a drawing of a three-dimensional object according to the usual conventions of lighting/shading, rules of perspective, and so forth.

    The figure itself is entirely possible (that's why Matt can show us one) but there's no possible 3-D object of which it can be regarded as a drawing. In a sense we can see that object's parts, but we can't assemble them into a consistent whole.

    It's thus an illustration (and, I think, a very good one) of the fact that there can be references (like "square circle") that successfully refer only "partway," so to speak.

  56. @Bob:

    "Right and as such I suppose one might consider this weird fact with regards to universals."

    In what way?

  57. @Scott

    "The form triangularity is of itself universal and one" may not be necessarily true.

  58. Daniel,

    Thank you. Out of curiosity, what worried you in relation to Actualism?

  59. @Bob:

    "'The form triangularity is of itself universal and one' may not be necessarily true."

    I think I see what you mean, but I don't think there's a genuine problem here.

    Here's what I take you to mean, so tell me if I'm misunderstanding you: it may be that one and the same real object may seem to instantiate one proposed "universal" under one set of conditions or from one point of view, but another, contrary "universal" under another set of conditions or from another point of view. Therefore there's some question about whether the object in question really instantiates either of those proposed "universals," and thus about whether they're genuinely "universals" at all.

    If that's what you mean, then I agree that it's a question with which realists about universals must deal. But I don't think it's especially difficult for them (or us, since I'm one) to deal with.

    Anna Marmodoro has argued (I think effectively) that an object really possess all of the colors with which it might appear to any observer under any set of conditions. If she's right, then one and the same object can be both (say) this precise shade of red and that somewhat different shade of red; it's just that these colors are contraries only when (so to speak) they're "competing" for a spot in someone's perceptual experience under certain conditions. The object possesses them both, but doesn't manifest them under the same conditions, and the powers to appear one shade of red to one perceiver under one set of circumstances and to appear another shade of red to another perceiver under another set of circumstances aren't contraries.

    If that's sound, then surely it's also sound to say that the same object can appear circular to one observer under one set of conditions and square to another observer under another set of conditions.

    Aside from that, it's also not at all clear why this or that object's not being absolutely circular (appearing circular under any and all conditions to the exclusion of any other shape) means that circularity isn't a real universal. As far as I can see, the "circularity" shared by two objects that appear circular-under-certain-conditions-to-certain-perceivers is a perfectly fine universal. That is, a property or character doesn't cease to be a real universal merely because it's exemplified or instantiated only under certain conditions.

    Have I addressed your point?

  60. (Please append to m penultimate paragraph and really possess both properties.)

  61. @Scott:

    "Sure, it's possible to define a weird metric on what looks like a(n almost) square bit of 2-space so that it comes out "circular" with that metric."

    Intermezzo: the maximum norm will do that for you: e. g. for a 2d-vector v = (x, y) define its norm |v| as the maximum of x and y. The metric or distance between v and u is |v - u|. A general construction via Minkowski functionals shows that every balanced convex set (some hypothesis is missing here; too lazy to check it out) is the unit ball of some norm and vice-versa.

    The maximum norm is geometrically bad because, unlike the usual Euclidean metric, it does not come from an inner product. All 2d metrics that come from inner products have ellipses as unit balls, so if you additionally require some extremal condition you end up with the Euclidean metric.

  62. @grodrigues:

    Very slick. Thanks!

  63. @John West,

    My concern was to whether grounding Necessary Truths, truths of essence, in the Divine Nature would in some sense make them contingent and in principle alterable to Divine Fiat, a position compared to which something like modern Platonism would seem more likely. On the Classical view of Divine modality this is not so though as the necessity of the essence is a limited expression of the necessity of the Divine Nature itself. Leftow himself doesn't exactly share this view himself though just reading about it and the alternatives was helpful. I've managed to dig out a link to that review - hope it still works:


    Thinking about it James Ross’ Thought and World deals with questions of modality on a broader scale in some of the later chapters. It's available online on Ross' webpage if you haven't already seen it.

    @All you Thomists,

    For what it's worth I am sceptical as to the sufficiency of explaining modality in terms of Act and Potency unless it really amounts to shorthand for talking about the ways in which God could create (which is essentially how Scotus and latter Leibniz took it). We should reach God through objective essences qua eternal truths possibilities and not the other way.

    We may distinguish Possibility into 'Logical Possibility', which means that the entity in question is not impossible of its essence, and 'Concrete Possibility', which means the existence or perhaps even potential existence of a prior being (other than God) with the power to bring the existence of the being in question about.

    This can be illustrated with reference to the Principle of Plenitude: the Principle, or at least the formulation of it I have in mind, goes something like 'Given a sufficiently long period of time anything that is possible is actual' (we will take the 'anything' here as referring to species not particulars). However in the light of the above what it should really read is 'Given a sufficiently long period of time anything that is possible is actual providing there be a potential efficient cause to bring it about'.

    This ties in with a concern I have with the Third Way* in that it is indeed ‘logically possible’ for all material beings to go out of existence but is it ‘concretely possible’ i.e. can any material being or conjunction of material beings bring that state-of-affairs about? The Third Way in as much as it relates to Contingency would seem destined to default to the Second.

    *At least given the formulation Ed seems to prefer. I know Robert Maydole has given a Modal reading of it in terms of Possible Worlds.

  64. Daniel,

    "Thinking about it James Ross’ Thought and World deals with questions of modality on a broader scale in some of the later chapters. It's available online on Ross' webpage if you haven't already seen it."

    Thanks (and for the UVic link). I just shifted back into the theist camp, so I'm looking at most theist modal systems for the first time. Now that I've allowed immaterial entities back into my ontology, Lewis's realism is too inelegant to continue holding.

  65. @VinceS:

    "Let me see if I have this right."

    Sensation is "material" (in the strictest sense) because by nature it requires bodily organs, and intellect isn't because it doesn't.

  66. @VinceS:

    "An ontological thing (substance) can't be purely 'material', because matter doesn't exist except when instantiating a form."

    I think what you mean here is basically right, but the way you're saying it isn't quite.

    A substance isn't (in the strict sense) immaterial just because it has (in a looser sense) immaterial aspects. Gold, for example, is a hylemorphic "compound" of matter and form, but as a substance it's fully material. So is an oak tree, a stalk of corn, or any other plant that has only a vegetative soul/form. So is a dog, a duck, or any other animal that has only a sensitive soul/form. It's only when we get to substances with rational souls/forms that we come to substances that aren't strictly material.

    In each case what's important is not whether the matter can exist apart from the form, but whether the form can exist apart from the matter. The human/rational soul/form can do so; although it's an incomplete substance when it's not embodied, it doesn't just fail to exist at all.

    "So is the reason why qualia are 'corporeal' and cognition is not because for qualia the material and immaterial aspects are simultaneous (e.g. it is 'intrinsically dependent' on a bodily organ) while for cognition they are not (e.g. abstraction is only 'extrinsically dependent' on the brain)?"

    My previous post is in reply to this question, but I'd like to amplify one point. Simultaneity doesn't have anything to do with it directly; what matters is ontological dependence. It follows, as a consequence of the dependence of qualia on bodily organs, that (assuming qualia exist at all) they exist simultaneously with the operations of those organs. But intellect can be simultaneous with brain activity; "extrinsic dependence" doesn't imply non-simultaneity, i.e., at different times.

  67. …existence/activity at different times.