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What is a Soul?

Soul

What is a soul? Or to be more precise, what is a human soul?  Or to be even more precise, what is a human being?  For that is really the key question; and I sometimes think that the biggest obstacle to understanding what the soul is is the word “soul.”  People too readily read into it various erroneous notions (erroneous from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, anyway)—ghosts, ectoplasm, or Cartesian immaterial substances.  Even the Aristotelian characterization of the soul as the form of the living body can too easily mislead.  When those unfamiliar with Aristotelian metaphysics hear “form,” they are probably tempted to think in terms of shape or a configuration of parts, which is totally wrong.  Or perhaps they think of it in Platonic terms, as an abstract universal that the individual human being participates in—also totally wrong.  Or they suspect that since it is the form of the living body it cannot coherently be said to subsist apart from that body—totally wrong again.   So let us, for the moment, put out of our minds all of these ideas and start instead with the question, what is a human being?

To ask what a human being is is to ask what the nature of a human being is.  What makes human beings the kinds of things they are?  What makes them distinctive?  What sets them apart from other kinds of thing?  To answer this it is useful to consider those kinds of thing which, on the Aristotelian-Thomistic view, come just below and just above human beings in the hierarchy of reality: non-human animals, and angels.

An animal is something which by its nature not only exercises vegetative powers like taking in nutrients, growing, and reproducing, but is also capable of sensation and imagination, of appetite, and of locomotion or the ability to move itself in response to the promptings of appetite and in pursuit of what it senses or imagines.  Particular kinds of animals will, given their natures, exhibit this repertoire in their own distinctive ways.  For instance, land animals will exercise their locomotive powers by walking, hopping, or slithering, fish by swimming, and (most) birds by flying; and each will do so by means of its own distinctive organs -- legs, fins, wings, and so forth.

Now of course, not every single individual animal will perfectly exercise the capacities that are natural to it, or even actually possess the organs that are its natural means of exercising them.  A dog might injure or lose a leg, or even fail to develop legs in the first place because of some prenatal defect.  But it is still of the nature of such a dog to have legs, and to walk and run with them.  In the extreme case, we can even imagine a dog which (as a result of an accident, say) has lost not only its legs, but its sense organs and higher brain functions, and is kept alive through intravenous feeding -- reduced, in effect, to a portion of its vegetative functions.  All the same, the nature of such a dog, no less than that of a healthy dog, is to have sense organs, legs, and all the rest.  That the dog has been prevented from realizing that nature doesn’t change the nature itself; and should the dog be somehow restored to health and functionality, it is precisely those doglike attributes that it had lost that would be restored to it, rather than some other attributes.

Consider now an angel, which stands on the other side of the metaphysical divide marked by human beings.  An angel is, by nature, a creature of pure intellect, which entails—given that, as Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers argue, intellect is necessarily immaterial—that an angel is essentially immaterial.  (The wings, white robes, and long blonde hair are symbolic—suitable for children’s prayer books but not for metaphysics!)  Being immaterial, angels cannot be damaged or physically malformed the way an animal can.  (Of course, angels can be morally defective—there are fallen angels, after all—but that is a failure of will, which is an immaterial power that follows upon intellect.)   Indeed, being immaterial, they have no tendency toward corruption at all.  They are of their nature immortal.

And now we come to human beings.  A human being is by nature a rational animal.  That is to say, a human being is something which by its nature exercises both the animal powers of nutrition, growth, reproduction, sensation, appetite, and locomotion, and the intellectual and volitional powers possessed by angels.  Hence it exercises powers of both a material and an immaterial sort.  For that reason it is to a large extent capable of damage and malformation, as an animal is; but not completely so.  In particular, a human being can be damaged to such an extent that it completely loses the organs of its animal and vegetative powers, and thus cannot exercise them at all -- to such an extent that only its intellectual and volitional powers remain.  But those intellectual and volitional aspects of human nature, precisely because they are immaterial and thus do not depend on any corruptible material organ, cannot themselves perish, any more than they can in the case of an angel -- though they would be impaired given that the human intellect’s normal source of data is the sense organs, which are material, and given that its activity is normally carried out in conjunction with imagination, which is also material.

Now what we’d have in the case of a dog which had lost its legs, its sense organs, and its higher brain functions is the stub of a dog, the bare minimum consistent with the dog’s surviving at all.  The nature of such a poor creature would not have changed, but it would have been reduced to realizing only the smallest fragment of what would naturally flow from that nature.  You might almost say that it had been reduced to little more than the nature itself, with almost nothing in the way of a manifestation of that nature.  And a human being damaged to such an extent that it could exercise none of its animal capacities and retained only its intellectual and volitional faculties in an impaired state would, you might say, be a stub of a human being, the bare minimum consistent with a human being’s surviving at all—a human being reduced to little more than its nature, with almost nothing in the way of a manifestation of that nature.  The key difference would be that whereas the severely damaged dog of our example could also go on utterly to perish, this stub of a human being could not.  It is immortal, though the full human being is not, which is why resurrection is necessary.  (To be sure, God could annihilate this “stub,” just as He could annihilate anything; but as with an angel, nothing in the natural order could destroy it, because, being immaterial, it would have no inherent tendency toward corruption.)

Now such a stub of a human being is what a soul is, or a disembodied soul anyway.  This is why Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers often call a disembodied soul an “incomplete substance”—not because they are trying incoherently to fudge the difference between a Cartesian res cogitans and the idea of the soul as a kind of form, but because a disembodied soul relative to a living human being is like a legless, senseless, brain-damaged dog relative to a healthy dog.  The severely damaged dog is in an obvious and natural sense an incomplete substance, and the disembodied soul is an incomplete substance in just that sense—it is an incomplete, damaged human being.

This is also a way to understand the sense in which the soul is the substantial form—that is to say, the nature—of a human being.  A nature or substantial form is not a Platonic abstraction.  It exists in a concrete individual thing, as its principle of operation and the source of its properties.  It is there as long as, and only as long as, the individual thing itself is there.  But when the operations and properties in question are prevented from being manifested, what we are left with in effect is the principle or source without that which flows from it.  Thus to reduce a human being to the bare minimum consistent with its being there at all is to reduce it as far as possible to its nature or substantial form—that is, to its soul alone.

Some might insist that if the intellectual and volitional powers of a human being persist in even an impaired form after the animal powers have been destroyed, this must be because the former inhere in a substance distinct from that in which the latter inhere, as Descartes held.  But this is like saying that since the stub of a dog would continue to exist in the absence of its legs, eyes, ears, etc., it follows that the stub in question (an eyeless, earless, brain-damaged torso) and the legs, eyes, ears, etc. are all distinct substances.   And they are not; rather, they are all aspects of one substance—the dog itself—and can be made sense of only by reference to that one substance.  Similarly, that the impaired intellectual-cum-volitional stub of a human being would continue to exist in the absence of its animal powers does not entail that the stub in question and the animal powers must be grounded in distinct substances.  They are not; rather, they too are aspects of the one substance—the human being himself—and can be made sense of only by reference to that one substance.

I've noted before that those beholden to scientism tend to reify abstractions—to abstract the mathematical structure of a concrete physical system and treat it as if it were the entirety of the system, or to abstract the neurobiological processes underlying human action and treat them as if they were the whole source of human action.  I also noted that while those prone to scientism are notorious for this, Cartesians are guilty of reifying abstractions too.  Specifically, they abstract from the one substance that is a human being its intellectual aspect and its animal aspect and make of them two substances—putting asunder, as it were, what God and nature had joined together.  And when they finally recombine them, what they are left with is nothing human at all, but a bizarre shotgun marriage of angel and animal, or ghost and machine.  But sometimes a man is just a man.
 
 
NOTE: Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his blog, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.
 
(Image credit: Unsplash)

Dr. Edward Feser

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Dr. Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustines Press, 2010); Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009); and Philosophy of Mind (Oneworld, 2007). Follow Dr. Feser on his blog and his website, EdwardFeser.com.

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  • Loreen Lee

    Within the trilogy of mind, body, soul, or spirit, are you saying that the 'soul' is some kind of unification of the 'Cartesian' dualism?

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Just two things, Loreen, body and spirit (spirit or mind or soul).

      • Loreen Lee

        Kevin. Thanks for your comment, but this is not consistent with Trinity theology. I'm just trying to place the concept of the Holy Ghost within some kind of consistent understanding of what makes Christian doctrine/dogma a monism, rather than a dualism.

  • workforlivn

    Angels don't exist and man is an animal.

    • Mike

      My guardian angel exists.

      • workforlivn

        Let me correct myself. My angel doesn't exist. I am however followed by a six foot rabbit.

        • Mike

          It is real as in physical or is it real as in your mind?

  • Abe Rosenzweig

    I found this entire article to be entirely mystifying. According to the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame's biography of Otis Redding, soul is "music that arose out
    of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and
    rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying."

    Nothing in Dr. Feser's article indicates even the slightest interaction with or even awareness of this salient area of soul research.

    • Sarc/nado

      Yeah, let's take a totally serious and meaningful subject and diminish it with sophomoric humor. That's real helpful to everyone. But at least I see you got a few 'likes'. Mission accomplished, eh?

      • Mike

        I think he was only trying to "levitate the situation" a bit so i "liked" it too.

      • Abe Rosenzweig

        I'm sure that we can all agree that there is practically nothing more meaningful than soul music. Maybe Jesus did capture the Cerynitian Hind (or whatever), but he never sang anything like "Got to Give It up."

        • Michael Murray

          Maybe He didn't sing but He must have useful when the band ran out of beer.

    • Hosea Long

      Ha?

  • Caravelle

    This is strange. You say this :

    An angel is, by nature, a creature of pure intellect, which entails—given that, as Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers argue, intellect is necessarily immaterial—that an angel is essentially immaterial. (...) Being immaterial, angels cannot be damaged or physically malformed the way an animal can. (Of course, angels can be morally defective—there are fallen angels, after all—but that is a failure of will, which is an immaterial power that follows upon intellect.)

    i.e. You say angels are creatures of pure intellect, and point out this means they cannot be damaged physically (as they have no physicality to damage), and that they can be morally defective (which is distinct from the intellect), but you don't address at all whether they can be damaged in their intellect.

    Later you talk about human beings saying this:

    And a human being damaged to such an extent that it could exercise none of its animal capacities and retained only its intellectual and volitional faculties in an impaired state would, you might say, be a stub of a human being, the bare minimum consistent with a human being’s surviving at all—a human being reduced to little more than its nature, with almost nothing in the way of a manifestation of that nature.

    But nowhere do I see you treat the question of what happens when a human is damaged in their intellectual or volitional faculties.

    Do you believe the intellect cannot be damaged, and if so how do you distinguish your use of the word "intellect" from the common use of the word, which includes faculties that can indeed be damaged (the previous thread's comment thread has relevant discussions of Alzheimer's disease, for the most obvious example).

    • Loreen Lee

      It also places the intellect as being more 'important' than the will. If the intellect and the will could be thought to correspond to Jesus, vs. God the Father, that's a difficult proposition. Also if soul could be compared to the Holy Ghost who has been related in these article, etc. to the unity that the Holy Spirit brings to the Trinity, I would be interested in exploring the possible relationship between 'theism' and 'deism' in relation to the incompatibility that I find between the Greek 'proofs' and God as written in scripture. The idea of a relationship that is a two-way thing between consciousness and the neurons of the brain is very interesting to me.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        The idea is that intellect is prior to will. The idea that good is good and evil is evil just because God says so is a consequence of putting the Divine will before the Divine intellect.

        • Mike

          Doesn't that also address the euthyphro problem in that in christianity if morality "IS" God/his son JC (per Leah Libresco's "framing of it") then there no disconnect btw God and Goodness itself as there is in other philosophies which must account for each and every thing separately?

        • Loreen Lee

          Your response has merely encouraged me to continue with my Google researching into the transcendentals from Plotinus, through Plato and Aristotle, etc, and the relationship to the Trinity. In the first case, which includes even Kant, the movement is generally from Truth (with Beauty) to Goodness. However, as you know, in the Nicene Creed the 'procession' is from Father to Son, and from these to Holy Ghost. The relationship between the Transcendentals and the Trinity was thoroughly explored in the late middle ages.
          Only Plotinus makes reference to 'Soul' within the categories of The One, Nous, and the Soul, envisioned within the existing conception of the starry heavens to the material earth.
          I find it interesting that Jesus, (and I paraphrase) makes reference to both the 'upward' and 'downward' movement, when he says something like you can only get to the Father through me, but also you come to me through the Father. These comments to my interpretation merely highlight the unity with the 'Godhead'. Thanks for your comment.

  • Mike

    "the disembodied soul is an incomplete substance in just that sense—it is an incomplete, damaged human being" aha so a soul alone with a body is not a complete human being and a body without a soul is just an animal....hmm interesting; is this why catholic dogma is that the resurrection will not be only spiritual but also necessarily bodily? or at least one of the reasons?

    Anyway thanks for this it's fascinating; btw did aristotle posit the Soul or something like it or is it an "out growth" of his philosophy?

    • Kevin Aldrich

      The Catholic understanding is that since a human being is a composite of body and soul, we won't be complete after death without a bodily resurrection.

      • Mike

        Thx so not a ghost in a machine nor a machine w/out a ghost or a machine with only the illusion of a ghost; also not a machine from which a ghost "emerges" as natural theology aka Naturalism/physicalism would imply but a machine "endowed" or "ensouled" by God directly. Fascinating.

  • BrianKillian

    "I was thrown out of N.Y.U. my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final, you know. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me." - Woody Allen

  • Gray Striker

    The topic of souls, and the definition of same is clearly elusive, and is one of those subjects that have been endlessly speculated upon by philosophers, theologians, and the many who want to believe that we will somehow continue our existence after the death of the physical body. The topic of souls belongs in the general category of the purely speculative, pertaining to ethereal,religious hysteria, legend,ghosts, spirits, demons, angels etc. and any other elusive spectre of the imagination,...and exist only in fertile human imagination...as do things such as ufo abductions, etc. Things for which there exists no credible evidence, or even anecdotal evidence that would stand up under any scientific or logical scrutiny.

    Not trying to put anyone on a downer as per existence after death....just putting my opinion out there....and you too are entitled to yours of course.

    If you derive comfort of sorts by believing that you have a soul...and that your life will continue after death of the physical body.....that is fine and good...and I accept that some people need that assurance and hope to go on with their life.

    Some would call me a Nihilist...and of course they would be correct broadly speaking in doing so.To my way of thinking....oblivion after death is far preferable to hell, decades or centuries in purgatory etc. If perchace I am wrong on this matter....and I have no illusions and think that when the light goes out....that is it. If there really is a god....and I face him at death, then I will definitely appeal to his "loving kindness" and "mercy".....and ask him for forgiveness for all that I have done wrong, and all that I didn't do right. But in the meantime....given the suffering of billions on this world since time immemorial...I see no sign of a caring loving creator.....Christians don't hold your breath for me to be saved in this lifetime.
    All comment replies are welcome.....except those of Mike....for obvious reasons that are apparent if one reads the previous article to this one.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      The Aristotelian/Thomistic notion of a soul is based on reason. Their assertion that the intellect and will are immaterial are conclusions based on rational arguments. None of it is parapsychological wishful-thinking product-of-the-imagination mumbo-jumbo.

      • David Nickol

        The Aristotelian/Thomistic notion of a soul is based on reason.

        A lot of things "based on reason" are not true. The belief that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones was based on reason. The belief that men have one fewer ribs than women was based on reason.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Yes, but because knowledge of these things can be check according to reason they can be known to be true or false. The same should be true of the immateriality of the soul.

          • David Nickol

            The same should be true of the immateriality of the soul.

            I would say that neither the immateriality of the soul nor even the existence of the soul cannot be known to be true or false. Perhaps reasonable arguments can be made, but this is metaphysics, and there is no body of "metaphysical facts."

          • Kevin Aldrich

            In the Aristotelian/Thomistic view the soul is just the life of the thing that is alive. Alive, there is a soul, dead there is no soul and decomposition happens. So, if you see something alive, there is a soul there. That is why they said plants have vegetative souls and animals have sensitive souls. We have rational souls--meaning we also have reason and free will. It is just that they reasoned that rationality is immaterial so there must be something about the human soul that is immaterial. Since it is immaterial, it could possibly survive separation from the body.

            As for no body of metaphysical facts, there are plenty! One is the whole is greater that a part of a whole. Or something cannot be and not be in the same time in the same way.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            The Latin word we translate as "soul" is anima, which simply means "life."

          • Michael Murray

            As for no body of metaphysical facts, there are plenty! One is the whole is greater that a part of a whole.

            This is not true for the set of all counting numbers 1, 2, 3, ... nor I thought for the Trinity.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I was really hoping someone would push back on this post.

          • Caravelle

            "The whole is greater than the parts" is, for given definitions of "whole", "greater" and "parts", a mathematical fact, a physical one or not a fact at all. I don't know where metaphysics come in on this one. You might be confusing metaphysics with logic. Or physics.

          • mriehm

            The difference between humans and other animals is one of degree, not of kind. They're not automatons, and they possess "free will" (decisionmaking ability), too. Animals have emotions and they exhibit degrees of reasoning, too. There is no basis upon which to say that humans possess a different degree of life force than animals.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Aristotle and Aquinas and others know that animals have senses, experience emotions, have passions, and can act intentionally. That is the "sensitive" or "animal" soul. It is also why they called us "rational animals."

            What other animals don't have is reason. They can't think abstractly and form concepts.

          • Caravelle

            In the Aristotelian/Thomistic view the soul is just the life of the thing that is alive. Alive, there is a soul, dead there is no soul and decomposition happens.

            That's a nice view for an ancient Greek philosopher to have but biology has made some progress since then. In particular we understand how decomposition works. Living bodies are made of cells and complex proteins; these can break down on their own, and do so all the time throughout the organism's life; as long as metabolism functions however they get rebuilt all the time too. Faster breakdown (what we usually think of as "decomposition") happens when other organisms like bacteria, fungi, and animals consume the organism's tissues. Again this is something that can happen anytime during the organism's life, but as long as metabolism functions the organism usually has defenses to keep such attacks in check. When it doesn't, or those defenses are overrun, the organism dies.

            The difference between life and death isn't decomposition, it's the metabolism that keeps decomposition in check while it's going. But while metabolism is generally part of the definition of life, it isn't universal to all aspects of all living things. Viruses have no metabolism. Most multicelllar organisms contain dead tissues that don't metabolize. With trees that form heartwood these dead tissues can take up most of the tree, and they can decompose away to nothingness while the living parts of the tree continue on; does the soul of a tree only exist in its metabolically active parts? Does gangrene mean the soul has left the affected limb?

            Similarly, what does "vegetative soul" and "sensitive soul" mean in a world where plants can sense their environments, a Venus flytrap is more active than an adult sponge but a larval sponge is more active than both, or where most living things are neither plant or animal but are bacteria?

          • No, you cannot check whether something is true or false by reason alone. You need some kind of data to test. You need some observation to base your reason on. Absolutely every instance of every thing you can actually point to as an intellect is material. You can speculate that there is some immaterial realm or way that we cannot detect in which intellect exists, but the moment you observe it, you will be observing matter.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Nope. When you conceive of a triangle in Euclidian geometry you are doing something completely immaterial. It is not based on anything observable or empirical. It is pure reason at work.

          • David Nickol

            Do you understand what Feser means when he says that imagination is material? Do you agree that imagination is material? Isn't imagination an essential part of human consciousness? If disembodied souls (the "saints" in heaven) have no imagination, how do they understand human beings who pray to them asking for miracles?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Imagination refers to the images in our minds that got there through the senses. That is the sense in which they are material, I believe. They are stored in the memory. When we remember something we are recalling images. When we "imagine" we combine images in our memory into new pictures.

            As for how the souls in heaven remember or hear prayers or communicate with one another or God, I don't have a clue.

          • I disagree, whenever I conceive of something, my material brain is changing state, there is nothing immaterial going on. It is observable and empirical. Sure it is reason, there is no need for the "pure".

          • Kevin Aldrich

            It is "pure" reason since it does not rely on the imagination.

            No triangle you can imagine or make will ever approach what your minds conceives.

          • I say that it is entirely in the imagination. Triangles in my imagination are what my mind conceives. I don't know what you mean by "approach" but if I draw a triangle with straight lines they will not be perfectly straight, but that doesn't mean the one in my midnd does. There are no lines in my mind there is a concept of perfectly straight lines which is impossible to represent in matter with mass. So what? Are you claiming you know that somehow the perfect lines exist other than as a concept of them? Without matter or energy and sans time? This is non-existence as far as I can tell.

            Again I think what I materialists often fail to appreciate is what a concept is. I have a concept of "all living dogs" this does track to an actual set of things. I can also conceive of "all unicorns" this does not, even though it is a non-incoherent concept. But just because I have this concept does not entail that it tracks to anything real.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            In this link, Feser explains the distinctions between sensation, imagination, and intellect:

            http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/02/a-world-of-pure-imagination.html

            Aquinas completely agrees with you on the distinction between dogs and unicorns. That is why he rejected Anselm's ontological proof of the existence of God.

          • mriehm

            When "conceiving" of a triangle, "it is pure reason at work." Okay, fair enough.

            But then: "It is 'pure' reason since it does not rely on the imagination." What does that mean? Is there some difference - aside from words - between "conceiving" of a triangle in one's mind, and "imagining" it?

            "No triangle you can imagine ... will ever approach what your mind conceives" - What does that even mean?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            It is the difference between images and concepts. Images in our imaginations are mental representations of real things in the world we have encountered through one of our senses. On the other hand, the intellect sees the forms of those things through abstraction. The imagination can call up specific chipmunks one has seen, but the intellect grasps chipmunk nature.

            A common way of showing the difference between imagination and reason, is while it is impossible to mentally picture the difference between a 10,000 sided regular convex polygon (if I got those terms right) and a 10,001 sided one, or between them and a circle, it is perfectly possible to conceive of the differences through reason.

          • And this is our disagreement. I however can point to a number of material things that always happen whenever I conceive of any triangle. You can show me nothing immaterial happening, and never show me such a conception occurring with no material event. You say there is something immaterial happening but have no evidence to adduce related to to it.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Aquinas said everything in our intellect was once in our senses, so he was aware of your objection. We form concepts based on the input of our senses--that accounts for what's going on in the brain. Yet from this arises ideas and ideas are immaterial. So at least one kind of immaterial thing exist.

          • I think you and Aquinas are labelling our subjective experience as immaterial. I label it an emergent experience from neural activity. Whether this generates a some non-material experience, I cannot say, I just have no evidence of it.

            I grant you it feels like more than the sum of the parts, but this feeling is really all we have. My view is that this experience is the neural activity. The neural activity does seem to be necessary for it.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            When we form concepts or see the forms of things it is subjective in the sense that it happens in our intellects but it is objective in that it really does capture something true in the real world.

            I think an important question is how can we abstract from material things if we ourselves are merely matter?

          • I would say that how exactly we form concepts is unknown. What consciousness is, is also unknown. But whenever people report having ideas, thinking, dreaming ad so on, there is neural activity occurring. Whether something more than neural activity is going on, is also unknown and not established by the neural activity or the subjective reporting of it.

            As for abstraction, I do not see anything mysterious. Labelling a marble "1" is an abstraction, identifying properties of the marble as a category of marble seems pretty straightforward. Through very simple processes such as this we can get to incredibly complex systems as we have shown in the few decades since we have been tinkering with artificial intelligence. We now have built minds that can beat any human at chess, draw pictures of observed images smell better than us, see and hear more. That can dance. To be sure these devices pale in comparison to what evolved in us over 500 million years, but give us a few more decades and I expect we will have computers who are indistinguishable from human cognition.

            Anyways, always a pleasure conversing with you. I think we are near to beating this one to death!

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          The belief that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones was based on reason.
          And later confirmed by experiment. Air (or water) resistance does matter.
          Besides, "heavier" seems to have meant something different in Aristotle's Greek, something more akin to the "heft" of catching the object than to static weight.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Independent of surface area heavier objects will have a higher terminal velocity, but it is possible for a heavier object to fall slower, because of surface area. Aristotle's reasoning would not allow for that, so he reasoned incorrectly.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Or else you may not know all his reasoning. Aristotle was describing fall through a plenum, not a vacuum; and "weight" did not mean the same thing as today. He was not entirely correct, but neither was he stupidly wrong.
            The same goes for Stevin and others who experimented with dropping bodies. Dropping a cannonball and a feather should demonstrate that not all bodies fall at the same rate and the action of the medium on the body can be important.

          • David Nickol

            My point was that a lot of things that have been "based on reason" have not turned out to be true. Are you actually disputing that?

            I know you are clever enough to, in some manner or other, dispute any example I or anyone else gives of something that was "based on reason" that turned out not to be true. But the individual examples are not the point. The point is that saying something is (or was) "based on reason" is not proof that it is true.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Anyone can be mistaken. There are plenty of things that have turned out wrong that were firmly based in observation: the Ptolemaic model, for example.

            It is not clear how one can reach a conclusion without basing it on reason.

      • Gray Striker

        So you say...How can you be so cocksure! I know...because you and so many others fear the oblivion of death that awaits us all.-)
        Philosophical "mumbo-jumbo", religious or otherwise does not impress me.I believe that Cathlolics are in denial about the existence of an omnipotent, all loving god given the reality that is so obvious to any rational thinking person.

        • Mike

          Maybe you dread meeting your maker and so you dismiss all evidence to the contrary for fear of having to admit that one day you too will be judged? Freud works both ways and then some.

          • Gray Striker

            ..

        • Kevin Aldrich

          These seem to me to out of bounds personal attacks. You have no basis for knowing what I am afraid of or what Catholics' psychological motivations are.

          • Gray Striker

            You are the one who first used the term Mumbo_Jumbo...This was definitely not a personal attack! Just was voicing my opinion on the matter. Is that not allowed on here? I will henceforth refrain from commenting on anything you post. Will that be ok? Seriously... Thanks.

        • David Nickol

          I believe that Catholics are in denial about the existence of an omnipotent, all loving god given the reality that is so obvious to any rational thinking person.

          And yet there are millions of rational, thinking persons who believe either what Catholics believe, or something equivalent.

          I highly recommend Gary Gutting's conclusion (Debating God: Notes on an Unanswered Question) to his 12-part interview series in the New York Times in which he "interviews" himself regarding the series. A pertinent quote:

          Here what I’m saying about religion is what many rightly say about other strongly disputed areas such as ethics and politics: people on both sides can be reasonable in holding their positions, but neither side has a basis for saying that their opponents are irrational.

          Be nice to Kevin and Mike (and everybody else, too).

          • Gray Striker

            I take your point and will check out Gary Gutting, but do you yourself actually feel that given the situation of human and animal suffering, the natural disasters, plagues, disease and abject poverty that abound now and all throughout history, since the advent of biological evolution, that it is reasonable to assume that an omnipotent and loving creator exists? I can easily understand why people choose to believe such a deity exists rather than to accept that it is lights out after death, as I have already alluded to. Fear of death and and non existence is common to all and I blame no one for grasping at any straw of hope. I myself sincerely hope there is something beyond death, but see no real evidence of such. Anyway thanks for the Gutting link.

          • David Nickol

            I think Catholicism (and other branches of Christianity) admit this is not the world an all-good God would have created, and then they try to account for what went wrong by the story of "the Fall" of Adam and Eve. I find the concept of "the Fall" impossible to believe for a number of reasons.

            It does seem to me that it is possible that this is the world that an all-good God did indeed create and that we simply don't understand how that could be the case.

          • Gray Striker

            I just read the Gutting article that you cited. Very interesting.

            Since Gutting is a practicing Catholic....I find it especially interesting when he says:

            I’m an agnostic. I don’t find it reasonable to accept or reject a transcendent God, so I withhold judgment,

            I also am agnostic on the matter, but I do find difficult to get my mind around the fact that someone who is a professing Catholic does not find it reasonable to accept a transcendent God, though he does not reject the concept either, nor am I saying he should. He must experience some discomfiting cognitive dissonance.It seems like "fire insurance" faith. I don't believe in a transcendent god either, nor do I totally reject the possibility.

            It was a good article worth reading.Thanks

          • Michael Murray

            Agreed. I just had a look at the last one. I also find the idea that he can be agnostic and Catholic peculiar. He cams that

            G.G.: Still, I don’t see how you can find a place in a church that claims to be the custodian of a divine revelation, when you don’t believe in that revelation.

            g.g.: The fundamental revelation is the moral ideal expressed in the biblical account of Christ’s life. Whether or not that account is historically accurate, the New Testament Christ remains an exemplar of an impressive ideal. Engagement with the practices (ethical and liturgical) inspired by that ideal is the only requirement for being a Catholic. Beyond that, historical narratives and theological doctrines can at least function as useful means of understanding, even for those who aren’t prepared to say that they are true in any literal sense. Some believers may have experiences (or even arguments) that have convinced them that these doctrines are true. But religions — even Catholicism — should have room for those who don’t see it that way.

            (He is interviewing himself so GG is him and gg is him !)

      • Yes, reason is being applied here but in a speculative way. The theology of existence in the Silmarillion is also logically coherent, it is not impossible, but that has nothing to do with whether it is true.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          No. The argument is not based on whether something is possible but whether something is necessary. Aquinas and others who argue that a rational soul is by its nature immaterial and therefore perdures after the death of the body think they are reaching necessary conclusions.

          But I appreciate your reference to Tolkien.

          • But you need more than an assertion that something is just inherently necessary to demonstrate that it exists or is part of reality. There is nothing about being immaterial that entails necessity or existence.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            If something is immaterial it has no parts and so it (literally) cannot decompose.

            The human soul is rational. Rationality is immaterial. Therefore the human soul is immaterial. Since it is immaterial, it has no parts that can decompose (unlike our bodies, which are made up of trillions of trillions of parts).

            Therefore, if something immaterial exists, however it came into existence, it necessarily exists from that point on.

          • Caravelle

            If something is immaterial it has no parts

            Does not follow. Why can't something immaterial be made of immaterial parts?

            Also, "decomposing" isn't the only way of going from existence to nonexistence; things can also be transformed in one go (like electrons and positrons annihilating each other, they don't decompose they're just turned into energy as a unit).

            Also, immaterial or not, human reasoning is definitely made up of different parts.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Immaterial is the opposite of material. There is no material to make parts.

            A living thing that dies does not go into non-existence. Its material is transformed.

            Subatomic particles don't really annihilate; as you say, they change into something else. Anyway, decomposition refers to living things.

            What are these definite parts that make up human reasoning?

          • Caravelle

            Immaterial is the opposite of material. There is no material to make parts.

            Again, why can't parts be immaterial?

            Anyway, decomposition refers to living things.

            No, it also refers to natural numbers, vector spaces, graphs, functional relationships or systems, chemicals, words... Notice how almost all of those are immaterial entities that have various ways of consisting of many immaterial parts.

            What are these definite parts that make up human reasoning?

            In what sense? On the most abstract level there are different reasoning modes: deduction, induction, Bayesian inference (which both of the former are special cases of). Reasoning also involves many different processes: seeking information, understanding meaning, evaluating the reliability of sources of information, estimating likelihoods, executing syllogisms, testing the conclusions for consistency and other kinds of error-checking, making choices as to what information to seek next... Different aspects of reasoning are also separable in the brain, as shown in imaging studies (where different parts of the brain can be shown to do different tasks) or studies of patients with brain lesions (where some patients will lose the ability to do one task but not the other while other patients suffer the opposite disability, showing that the two tasks are separate). Weird things like formal reasoning vs semantic reasoning, or resolving certain vs uncertain inferences.

          • Michael Murray

            Interesting links -- thanks. I assume they are also addressing the argument we have had here in the past that "reason" must all evolve in one jump. The usual comment is "well you can't learn to abstract in bits, you abstract or you don't". That seems wrong to me but I don't know enough neurology to argue why it's wrong.

          • Caravelle

            I don't know the answer to that. I see two questions there: is there a qualitative leap between our intelligence and that of all other animals, and what that qualitative leap is.

            I tend to think "yes" on the first question, with some caveats on the "all other animals" bit (orcas look quite smart), but the existence of a qualitative leap doesn't mean that evolution would actually need to leap across it. There's a qualitative leap between gliding and flying too, but it's very easy to see how it could be bridged gradually. But for the second question I have no clue. "Abstract" sure sounds good, but what does it mean?

            For that matter I don't think it's correct that you can't learn to abstract in bits, given how it's literally what happens with children. A four year-old child can learn to read and write, hold a coherent conversation and generally interact like a human being; they've developed a sense of self, they even know that everyone doesn't know what they know, which they didn't only a year or so earlier, but they still can't tell that quantities are conserved.

            All of those things I'd think involve being able to abstract something or other, yet they don't come as a unit. And if those things don't involve the ability to abstract, what does?

          • Michael Murray

            Thanks again for the links. Here is the kind of thing I was thinking of from a past article here

            There is an argument similar to Zeno's Paradox of Dichotomy that holds that sapient man arose by slow, gradual increments. That is, arguing from the continuum rather than from the quanta. Now, "a little bit sapient" is like "a little bit pregnant." It may be only a little, but it is a lot more than not sapient at all. There is, after all, no first number after zero, and however small the sapience, one can always cut it in half and claim that that much less sapience preceded it. But however long and gradual is the screwing-in of the light bulb, the light is either on or off.

            https://strangenotions.com/adam-and-eve-and-ted-and-alice/

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Well argued.

          • Michael Murray

            If something is immaterial it has no parts

            Voldemort divided his soul into seven parts.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            JK Rowling is a master of the imagination, not the intellect.

          • Again, what you say is not incoherent, there is just no reason to believe it is real or exists in any way.

            You are just saying if there is a necessary immaterial soul it necessarily exists. Sure, but if a necessary evil demon that created all of these ideas about god and souls etc exist it necessarily exists too.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I'm not trying to say what I think you think I am.

            I'm open to correction (cuz I'm a rank amateur) but I think the argument goes something like this:

            1. We possess the ability to form concepts.
            2. These concepts are immaterial.
            3. Material things, in themselves, cannot produce anything immaterial.
            4. Therefore, there must be something in us that is also immaterial.
            5. That immaterial thing is our rational soul.
            6. The rational soul, being immaterial, has no parts, so it can't fall apart once it begins to exist.
            7. Therefore, the soul can continue to exist even if it is separated from its body.

            I can't think of how that line of reasoning would produce a necessary evil demon that could create anything.

          • I don't accept premise 2. Nor is there anything in this which makes the immaterial ontologically necessary. The I. Arterial in this is contingent on the existence of the beings that do this and the truth of the premises.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            If a concept, such as any generalization, is not immaterial, then what is it made of? What, for example, is the concept "chipmunk" composed of?

      • mriehm

        The problem is that these arguments do not convince the philosophical community at large. Catholic theologians discuss and debate - and reach conclusions - primarily in an insular world of their own.

        On this website I have seen it claimed many times how the existence of the soul, or of angels or demons or whatnot, is "proven" by philosophical and metaphysical arguments. If these suppositions were indeed proven by logic, in the same way that mathematical theorems are proven, there would be widespread acceptance of them within the philosophical community, and by humanity at large, and these "strange notions" would form a part of our species' fundamental knowledge.

        But of course no such acceptance exists, because the "proof" is only accepted by those who steep in that particular school of thought.

        And thus it is with all other bodies of religious doctrine, too; the only universal truth is that all religions claim to have the answer, but the arguments are only convincing to their own flocks of pre-indoctrinated believers.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          I don't agree with your underlying criticism. There are many fields of organized knowledge in which there is no universal consensus, including natural science. Philosophy is a wide field and many philosophers have no interest in natural religion. If you demand that everything be as certain as mathematics, I think that makes you a logical positivist, but I'm pretty sure philosophers by and large reject that position now.

          • mriehm

            On this website I have read some very strong claims about metaphysical proofs of the existence of god and the human soul. The claimants do not qualify their proofs to be uncertain in any way. Perhaps now you'll lead the way in that, Kevin!

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I'm only a baby yet misformed philosopher. Feser is for real as well as many others who don't write things for SN.

    • Mike

      I am holding my figurative breath for you; remember the holy spirit is already at work in you whether you ack. it or not; after all you're on here (a CATHOLIC site for God's Sake!) of all places aren't you?

      Sorry just got to the bottom of your comment; sorry, no more replies ;).

    • Fr.Sean

      Gary,
      Hey i'm a little late on your discussion, but i appreciate your transparency and hope that it's all true even though you suspect it's wishful thinking. there's a lot you hinted at that would need to be unraveled (from a catholic pov), but i would just would want to point to two things. there are a lot of aspects of humanity that have an eternal nature, i.e. love, hope, justice, existence. etc. why do those concepts seem to have an eternal Nature? secondly, as you no doubt know, if any of this (the catholic faith) is true it still comes down to a choice. when i often hear skeptics speak of how people of faith think about life and or eternity, it almost sounds like they think the believer is just in some form of denial, like they say they believe but deep down inside it's just wishful thinking. in my experience in dealing with people that aspect of viewing the faith of "hoping it's all true even though they suspect it isn't" is a way that one thinks early on in their faith. they go through this back and forth state of believing and then not believing. often times after one has grown in their faith it then becomes, not if there's an eternity, but what is there eternity (aka, perhaps a little anxiety about purgatory). a mature faith that has struggled with various aspects of doubt or overcoming weakness worries little over what eternity is like because the realize the God who loved them into freedom carries that into eternity.
      if you see your faith as a possibility and continue to pursue those questions though prayer and being open i'm sure you'll have the same confidence about eternal life. i know the natural question is, "yea, but how will i know i'm not deceiving myself." naturally i can't guarantee something that is metaphysical, but when you see life through that lens you'll know your not deceiving yourself. just make a few small choices, and be assured of my prayers.

      • Gray Striker

        I stand by what I said. I don't think that I said anything unreasonable or illogical.

        What I said:

        If you or anyone else derives comfort of sorts by believing that they have a soul...and
        that your life will continue after death of the physical body.....that
        is fine and good...and I accept that some people need that assurance and
        hope to go on with their life.Not trying to put anyone on a downer as per existence after
        death....just putting my opinion out there....and you too are entitled
        to yours of course.

        if you see your faith as a possibility and continue to pursue those
        questions though prayer and being open i'm sure you'll have the same
        confidence about eternal life.

        I find the
        above to be just a tad condescending.I do understand that you are just
        coming to the rescue of the Catholic version of God and your personal
        faith, but at the same time I find it insulting that you are insinuating
        that if I am only open enough and pray enough I will become as
        enlightened as you are. With all due respect if I may be as blunt as you are Fr. Sean, this seems to be the typical attitude of devout Catholics toward agnostics and atheists, . Thanks for the response to my comment.

        • Fr.Sean

          my apologies, i thought you were throwing out, "if it's all true i hope that....." perhaps i misread your statement.

          • Gray Striker

            Thank you for your concern over my "immortal soul". but What I actually said was...

            I have no illusions and think that when the light goes out....that is it. If there really is a god....and I face him at death, then I will definitely appeal to his "loving kindness" and "mercy"

  • David Nickol

    To answer this it is useful to consider those kinds of thing which, on the Aristotelian-Thomistic view, come just below and just above human beings in the hierarchy of reality: non-human animals, and angels.

    If the explanation of what a soul is assumes the existence of angels, I doubt that atheists, agnostics, and skeptics are going to find it very helpful.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Good thing it doesn't then. Aristotle did not have any angels in his discussion.

      • Ignatius Reilly

        Perhaps you should point that out to Fesser. He used angels as the basis for this discussion. We aren't discussing Aristotle - we are discussing Fesser.

        • David Nickol

          Exactly!

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          He mentioned them in order to "place" humans. But neither the definition nor the nature of animae depend on them.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I don't see where that is mentioned in the post.
            Does a person's body limit the soul's intellect? Will a pure soul be better at mathematics then the same soul that is in a human body?

      • David Nickol

        Aristotle did not have any angels in his discussion.

        But Feser did.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          See response, above. The discussion no more depends on angels than Einstein's relativity depends on trolley cars.

          • David Nickol

            The discussion no more depends on angels than Einstein's relativity depends on trolley cars.

            The discussion may not depend on angels, but it assumes their existence.

            It is not Edward Feser's fault his piece seems glaringly out of place on a site aimed at atheists, agnostics, and other "nonbelievers." Anyone who reads the Note at the end of the piece and follows the link to read what Feser himself has to say about the appearances of his blog posts on Strange Notions, will agree (I think) that Feser himself has serious reservations about the use of his blog posts here.

  • David Nickol

    . . . . given that the human intellect’s normal source of data is the sense organs, which are material, and given that its activity is normally carried out in conjunction with imagination, which is also material.

    Since according to Catholic belief, the only two people who have died that have physical bodies are Jesus and Mary, does the above mean that all other human beings who have died and gone to heaven have no imagination? If imagination is material, are angels without imagination? Consciousness without the ability to imagine seems to me to be, um, unimaginable.

    Those who have gone to heaven are generally depicted by religions like Catholicism as the most fortunate of individuals, existing in utter bliss. But it seems to me that disembodied souls (if such things can exist) must be thought of as profoundly disabled human beings.

    • Mike

      'profoundly disabled human beings.'...interesting; would this mean that animals are profoundly disabled human beings then?

      • David Nickol

        would this mean that animals are profoundly disabled human beings then?

        No, animals are animals. However, assuming the immortality of the soul, the souls of the dead (disembodied souls) have entirely lost the use of their bodies. Consequently, they are as profoundly disabled as living persons who have entirely lost the use of their bodies. It might be argued that disembodied souls shouldn't be called "human beings." But to the extent they retain their identities, they are profoundly disabled compared to what they were before death. I know that Aquinas said something along the lines of, "Abraham's soul, strictly speaking, is not Abraham." But of course Catholics pray to saints. Since the saints are disembodied souls, it seems one would have to say that as things currently stand, praying to St. Francis or any other saint is not, strictly speaking, praying to St. Francis.

        • Mike

          I see your point. thx.

        • Gray Striker

          Mike seems to be an angler trolling for suckers in shallow water.

  • Ignatius Reilly

    How do we know that angels exists? Can we reason about it or is it just a matter of Divine Revelation?
    Fesser seems to imply that angels are pure souls with the properties of intellect and will. It is not therefore true that every being with intellect and will therefore possesses a soul. It is a converse accident. Just because A-->B does not mean that B-->A.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Feser is spelled with one "s".

      • Ignatius Reilly

        Thanks! I didn't realize I was spelling his name wrong.

  • Gray Striker

    Beware of Mike.....Mike seems to be an angler trolling for suckers in shallow water.

  • muchsarcasm

    ...

  • Mike O’Leary

    The article says that what demonstrates humanity, and in turn a human's soul, is his use of "immaterial powers". The first question is whether rationality is immaterial. We know that the brains of humans differ from other animals, so it's difficult to assume rationality comes from an unseen and assumed property when we have a visible possibility in front of us.

    The second question is whether these so-called immaterial powers suggest multiple souls in a single body. My brother is a quite skilled musician, yet we know that most people aren't very capable musicians. Could there be a separate soul that specifically helps the musically talented? I've been quite adept at mathematics since I was a child? Do I and others like me possess an additional soul that grants me that single ability? More importantly, how is my theory of multiple souls any more falsifiable than the concepts Dr. Feser gave in his article?

    • Ignatius Reilly

      Well argued. Beast avatar.

  • a_theist

    I am surprised Fesser does not make reference to the Pauline (1 Thessalonians) three part model [spirit, body and soul] in his thinking. This model accounts for the physical and intellectual (brain based) dimensions and allows for the many observed effects, of say changed personality, with brain damage while leaving the spiritual dimension intact. As Fesser points out the body soul model has its origins in Greek philosophy - not scriptural text.

    Certainly Catholic theology dismisses the trichotomous (3 part) approach based either on a literary argument of synonym or on the simple idea (with its origins in Plato) that we are body and soul. The problem with this dismissal is that it does recognise the findings of modern neuroscience that a large aspect of what we call personality - or that which characterises us as individuals is actually brain based, often hard wired. Traditional theology attributed these personal characteristics to our soul.

    At some point we will have to recognise that neuroscience will bring the same sorts of changes to doctrine as did evolution.

  • After carefully reading this I am still at a loss to understand what Feser considers a soul. He defines a human by distinguishing it from animals and angels. We are animals. we are a distinct kind of animal and we share almost all of our properties with other animals. We have a much more complex brains and cognitive functions which make us unique but pretty much all of our mental functions are found in animals too, from emotions to abstract problem-solving.

    I do not believe in angels and everything he has said about them is contrary to our experience of reality. In every instance of observing an "intellect" no matter how defined, we see it contained in matter. Whether a human brain, animal, or computer whatever we call intellect is part if some kind of network of interacting matter. When you damage the matter you often damage the intellect. Sometimes so severely that there appears to be no intellect left, even though the matter is never destroyed. Newborns appear to have no intellect as do severely brain damaged humans. Feser seems to argue that these humans retain some form of intellect in an unobservable way. This seems terribly ad hoc and unjustified.

    Other than special pleading or wishful thinking there is no reason to think a human intellect continues or exists beyond its material manifestation. Feser seems to conclude from the fact that most humans intellects are more complex than a dog's that when the human stub breaks into other chemical and energy arrangements, it is not annihilated? I see no reason to accept this.

    • Peter

      In a universe inexorably drawn towards the increasing complexification of matter, the human brain represents the most complex form of matter that we know of, the pinnacle of universal evolution. This is the pinnacle at which the universe has achieved such a degree of complexity as to make it capable of consciousness.

      In us the universe has achieved complete consciousness. That is why we are special. We may not be alone. There may be other sentient life forms dotted around the cosmos now or in the future. If so, the universe is destined to achieve widespread consciousness as an inevitable consequence of its inbuilt drive towards greater complexity.

      However, what we do not know for a fact are the effects of matter reaching such a high degree of complexity as found in the human brain. We feel that we are different; we have abstract thoughts and look beyond the plane of our existence. These are clues which tell us that we cannot dismiss out of hand the likelihood that the matter found in the human brain creates, because of its ultra complexity, even higher levels of awareness and consciousness which we cannot scientifically measure.

      We do not know what the ultra complexification of matter can achieve. We cannot measure it with our crude scientific instruments and therefore we assume that all that exists is that which can be measured by them, that which can be observed. Therefore from a strictly materialist point of view, it is better to keep an open mind, because there may be far more to the mind than simple observations reveal.

      • I have an open mind and, like you, I agree we do not know. I am responding to the claims made by theists that we indeed do know that there is something immaterial that this something includes something called a soul and this should can, in some way, allow me to have eternal life in my own somehow reconstituted physical body.

        What is the justification for this? The subjective feeling that we are more than our bodies in the face of all observation that we are our bodies. Ancient texts that also feature talking donkeys. I'm saying our ignorance and feelings are insufficient to ground these claims.

        • Peter

          Again from a strictly materialist point of view, it is not implausible that a very high degree of material complexity contained in the brain can produce phenomena which we cannot measure because we are only equal to and not superior to the thing which is producing the phenomena.

          We can observe the phenomena a simple structure like a star produces because we are far superior to a star in terms of complexity, but we cannot observe all the phenomena created by our brains because we are not superior to them and therefore lack the means to do so.

          As you say, we only have a subjective feeling that we are more than our bodies in the face of all observation that we are our bodies. This could be because our observations are limited. All we have with which to study our brains are our brains.

          • I do not think it is implausible, I think it is virtually certain that we cannot completely measure all physical or material phenomena. This is not an issue for the brain but all matter. See Heisenberg's uncertainly principle.

            This means we lack knowledge. I don't know about plausibility, I'd say we are simply not in a position to place probabilities on what is happening on some level we cannot observe directly or indirectly.

            Immaterialism is not impossible, maybe. I don't know that either. I don't know if it is plausible or probable. Our ignorance of it does not entail it. Our subjective experience that is demonstrably related to material also does no entail it.

          • Peter

            Materialists argue in favour of a multiverse despite the fact that they have no experience or knowledge of it, indeed no evidence of it at all. They argue in favour of a multiverse because it is not implausible.

            By the same token it is not implausible that the pinnacle of material complexity contained in our brains can generate phenomena beyond our knowledge and general experience, such as a level of consciousness which no longer depends on its physical origins.

            Perhaps human beings mark the point where consciousness expands from being totally contained in the brain, as for animals, to becoming partly independent of it.

  • What a strange way to start defining a human being, by defining what it is not. I would define a human being as follows. A complex interaction of organic molecules. A material configuration, bipedal, mammal, great ape, with a unique brain capable of complex abstract thought. Poor sense of smell, good but by no means the best senses of sight and hearing, lacking echo-location capabilities. Incredibly vulnerable in the first five or six years of life. Unique in the known universe for its language and tool-making abilities without which it would be unlikely to survive long.

    What is insufficient in that definition?

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      I find that that definition doesn't sufficiently account for the interior dimension / subjective experience of being a human. When I say, "I enjoy eating doughnuts", it means something more to me than, "an identifiable complex interaction of organic molecules is configured toward interactions with doughnuts". This latter expression is part of what I mean when I say "I enjoy eating doughnuts", but by itself it seems to paint an inadequate picture of what it is like to be me eating doughnuts. (And since I believe that I am a human, reductive material explanations seem more generally to be inadequate to explain humans.)

      (My objection to your definition has no relationship to the OP, as far as I can tell. And, whereas the OP puts a special focus on delineating humans from other animals, I certainly wouldn't claim that sentience / subjective experience is unique to humans. But you asked a general question, so I felt free to volunteer my own answer.)

      • I think all of those experiences and properties may indeed be accounted for by the chemical/physical processes in humans. The donut has a chemical makeup that affects the chemistry in my mouth and this interacts with the insanely complex chemistry and physics of my brain.

        Even the seemingly simple experience of tasting something engages and incredibly complex and amazing network of biology that is human beings that evolved over hundreds of millions of years. I see nothing reductive in this. I don't pretend to understand all of this, but we do understand a great deal. Just stating that there is also some undetectable, entirely mystifying immaterial process accounts for nothing and in unnecessary.

        • a_theist

          I think all of those experiences and properties may indeed be accounted for by the chemical/physical processes in humans

          certainly developments in neuroscience would increasingly add support to your position.

          There is an explanation that satisfies the advances in neuroscience that paint us as a mixed bag of biochemical reactions that explains much of our "feelings" etc.and the theist position that there is a non-physical dimension to our existence.

          If we see ourselves as body (ok no problems there) and mind (or intellect and brain function) and spirit (that part of us which interacts with the non-material domain that theists maintain exists). This model (presented by Paul in 1 Thess) accounts for the continued undamaged existence of the individual when as you say When you damage the matter you often damage the intellect.

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          Just stating that there is also some undetectable, entirely mystifying immaterial process accounts for nothing and in unnecessary.

          Speaking only for myself, I don't think I'm proposing any additional processes, immaterial or otherwise. I'm instead suggesting that one needs a language that goes beyond the language of material things in order to describe our experience of reality. No additional processes, just language that works at a different level to describe the same processes. Language, for example, that allows me to say things like, "I have a body", even though, from a pure materialist perspective (as far as I can imagine that perspective), it makes no sense to imagine an "I" that possesses my body.

  • Thomas Gnau

    If the brain is damaged -- say, in an automobile accident -- aren't the intellectual and volitional faculties damaged as well?