Vitalism and Its Limitations
Cartesian Dualism and Early Modern Materialists
Analysis of Classical Psychic Faculties
Mapping Functions onto the Brain
In most modern discussions of human and animal psychology, there is an implicit or explicit assumption of philosophical materialism, which can be manifested in a number of ways. The mind can be considered a mere epiphenomenon of neural activity, or even more crudely, identified with the neural signals themselves, either individually or considered in aggregate. Such assumptions will not withstand close logical scrutiny, since they confuse ideas or concepts with their neural representations, and cannot account for truly semantic, rather than syntactic, phenomena. Further, they cannot account for the unity of human psychic experience (and a similar unity that likely exists in other animals), nor the fact that this unified consciousness can initiate bodily acts, except by claiming that the conscious will is but an illusion, or by invoking a concept of "downward causation", regarding the neurological aggregate as a causal agent, forming a viciously circular logic when coupled with materialism.
Further, a materialist account of the psyche is radically anti-empirical, favoring a theoretical construction over the universally and immediately perceived reality that our thoughts are not material, lacking spatial dimension, mass, and all the other characteristics of matter. In some cases, it even denies the agency of the conscious will, though we perceive that most directly and immediately, being in a sense co-extensive with that will. If, as the materialists evidently presume, we can be horribly mistaken about the quality of our thoughts and the agency of our will, both of which we perceive directly, why should we believe that we can read a scientific instrument correctly, or perform logical operations correctly? In other words, it is thoroughly self-stultifying to deny the validity of direct observation of one's own psyche, while believing in the validity of scientific experiments, which depend on observation of the external world. We can observe the external world only through the mind, which places objects in a mentally constructed space and time. We thus perceive objects only indirectly, translated into mental images and concepts, yet the images and concepts themselves we apprehend directly. Psychological materialism would have us deny the incorporeality of images and concepts that we know directly, yet accept the existence of physical objects, which are known only through the mind.
From 400 BC to 1600 AD, the Western philosophical tradition was highly formalized, structured, and built upon direct commentary on preceding philosophers, so it formed a more or less continuous body of specialized knowledge, with its own peculiar formal vocabulary. This philosophical tradition was not confined by religious confession, as Muslim philosophers referred to the works of pagans, and Christian philosophers relied on the works of Muslims. Throughout this two thousand year period of philosophical rigor, materialism could find no quarter, as a comprehensive and scholarly metaphysics clearly recognized that the intensionality of thought was not only apparently different from the extensionality, but it was necessarily so in order to admit of logical operations. The representation of an object, by necessity, is not the object itself, though it is an arbitrary sign for the object. Scholastic philosophy, with its nuanced understanding that distinctions in reason were not distinctions in essence, and that the reality of essence is not the same as the reality of existents, could not be contained by materialism. Indeed, the mere existence of scholastic reasoning and its higher concepts was a continuous refutation of materialism, as it constantly contemplated that which cannot be confined to matter.
In the seventeenth century, Galilean and Newtonian physics proved that the concepts of Aristotelian natural philosophy did not correspond to the actual dynamical relations of physical objects. Physics and subordinate disciplines, such as astronomy, chemistry, geology, and biology, struck out on their own, developing an understanding of the natural world through generalized descriptions of phenomena that could be encapsulated in physical laws. Some of the greatest scientists of the era, especially Descartes and Leibniz, attempted to give a metaphysical account of the natural order. These men of genius were hampered, however, by a lack of expertise in formal philosophy, so their treatment of age-old questions lacked technical rigor and precision of concept, and in many cases were a step backward from traditional metaphysics. This period yielded some fruitful though imprecise concepts, such as Leibniz's distinction between potential and kinetic energy, inexpertly borrowed from Aristotelian metaphysics. It also had some disastrous setbacks, such as Descartes' distinction between mind and matter as though they were substances (res extensa and res cogitans).
Descartes' erroneous psychology had some consequences which were decisively refuted by biological discoveries. For Descartes, all non-human animals were nothing more than highly sophisticated machines, with no interior conscious life. Biology has shown, about as convincingly as we can ever know anything about the mind of another, that many animals are capable of imagining, remembering, learning, dreaming and choosing a course of action. Further, even the human mind is not some detached intellect giving orders to the body, but rather the conditions of the mind are in many ways determined by the neural conditions of the brain. Thus Cartesian "dualism" is conclusively refuted by experimental science.
Descartes and those who followed him created a cultural disconnect between modern science and the classical Western philosophical tradition. This disconnect is evidenced by the widely held belief that the empirical refutation of Cartesianism is a refutation of "dualism" in general, meaning any non-materialist account of the mind. The belief that all non-materialist philosophies are "dualist" is erroneous. The various versions of Aristotelian, Scholastic, and Kantian philosophical psychology are not dualistic in the Cartesian sense, since they freely admit and even emphasize intimate relations of dependence between mind and body, without falling into the clumsy categorical error of equating the two. It is ironic, considering that modern science has done so much to prove that animals are not machines, for scientists to then turn around and try to explain all minds, human as well as animal, in terms of the mechanistic principles of inanimate matter.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been characterized by an increasingly amplified disconnect between philosophy and science. Most scientists do not bother to philosophize at all, for they believe that empirical science tells all there is to tell about reality. These scientists are effectively materialists. Those who do attempt to philosophize, at least among physicists, tend to arrive at a type of Platonism, where mathematical objects, be they laws of physics or wavefunctions, somehow become actualized in concrete form, but the fundamental reality remains in the universals. In the philosophy of mind, most scientists are in the materialist camp, and their "philosophy" is not a formal system of metaphysics so much as an attempt to conceptualize the findings of neurology in a way that is logically consistent with materialism, a belief that they uncritically assume. In their view, philosophy has no function but to organize the findings of science; it does not add any new knowledge or insight. In this vein, some scientists appeal to the symbolic logic used in computer science and mathematics, and attempt to reduce all meanings and thoughts to manipulations of symbols. From a philosophical perspective, this is an amateurish confusion between syntax and semantics.
In fact, real metaphysical philosophy has much to say about the mind, the locus of pure concepts, and neuroscience has surprisingly little. As the great neuroscientist C.S. Sherrington observed, the mind-body problem is basically in the same place where Aristotle left it over 2300 years ago. Although Sherrington was the author of the neuron doctrine, the belief that all neural activity can be explained in terms of the local behavior of individual neurons, he did not presume to have thereby explained away the mind in terms of neuronal phenomena. He was a philosophically literate man who understood the distinction between the conceptual realm of thought and its corporeal representation in neural signals. His successors, with much less appreciation for the Western philosophical tradition, have pretended to advance the discussion, when in fact they have retarded it, by confusing all non-materialist philosophies with Cartesian dualism, and by repeatedly confusing ideas with their representations, thereby committing an error that would have shamed a second-rate Scholastic. It is beyond the scope of this essay to examine all the metaphysical shortcomings of modern analytic philosophy, but we can show how materialism has impeded the acceptance of our own psychological experiences as valid empirical data.
The doctrine of vitalism is that an organic body has a soul as its substantial form. By "soul" we do not necessarily mean a spiritual entity, but the actualization of the body as a single, cohesive living being. In this view, an organism is not just an amalgam of cells or proteins, but has an essential unity, which can be exhibited in various faculties. In plants, vital functions are ordered to the good of the whole, often at the expense of individual cells or components. Animals, in addition to vegetative functions, have a psychological unity, directing locomotive and emotional functions to a common end. Thus the "mind" of a dog is not just a convenient term we use to characterize a collection of cellular activities, but it is a real subsisting entity, capable of effecting real physical changes. To be sure, an animal's mental activity is dependent upon, and is materially constituted by its brain activity. However, in the vitalist doctrine, the unified mind is what directs the activity of individual cells, and by extension the muscles that are ordered to move.
Some vitalists would go further and hold that the human mind has a capacity altogether lacking among other animals, having the capacity to deal in pure concepts. Some philosophers in the Christian tradition have deduced from this capacity that the human soul is essentially spiritual, in that it is capable in principle of subsisting apart from the body. This thesis is beyond the scope of the present essay, but we will consider the psychological reality of concepts, and how these differ from animal cognitions.
The soul, or vital force, or elan vital, or whatever name we wish to give to the unifying principle of an organism, might be regarded metaphysically as the "formal cause" of the organism. Formal cause should be distinguished from "efficient cause," which is our common mechanical notion of cause and effect. An efficient cause is that which actively produces an object or a new state in that object. A formal cause, by contrast, is the inner, active part of the produced or altered object that is the determining element of the new, efficiently caused reality of the object. For example, a clockmaker can put together some gears to make a clock, so he is the efficient cause of the clock. The formal cause of the clock is its ability to mark the time by periodic changes in the position of its components. Formal cause seems to be an abstract metaphysical entity that determines what sort of thing an object is. It is not temporally prior to the produced thing, but cotemporal with it; something becomes a clock simultaneously with acquiring the ability to mark time. A formal cause is a "cause" only in the sense of being metaphysically necessary to the existence of the produced or altered object, not in the sense of an efficient cause which is the generator of the object or its altered state. Obviously, the formal cause cannot be a cause in the latter sense because it is an element of the produced thing, and therefore cannot be existentially prior to it, though it may be metaphysically more fundamental.
As a general theory of biology, vitalism failed as nineteenth-century discoveries more clearly elucidated that cells and other microscopic components of organisms operated according to the laws of physics and chemistry. These components, as far as we can tell, interact locally and without immediate dependence on what goes on elsewhere in the body. The elan vital, whatever it may be, is certainly not a directly observable physical entity, nor is it the sort of thing, at least as far as vegetative functions are concerned, that acts as a physical efficient cause. Even locomotive operations seem to be controlled by the local interactions of neurons, without immediate reference to some overarching unified active principle. Extrapolating beyond the evidence, modern materialists have hypothesized that even the unity of consciousness is nothing more than the product of local interactions, a supposition we will examine critically throughout this essay.
The failure of the nineteenth-century version of vitalism was due in part to philosophical overreaching on the part of vitalists, who argued that the "vital force" was not merely a formal cause, but also an efficient cause of all physical events in the body. Certainly, there is reason for believing mental operations act as efficient causes, judging from our own immediate experience. If we are woefully mistaken on this point, we should not trust our judgment on anything else. However, there is no empirical support for the thesis that local bodily activity is to be accounted for by direct appeal to any unified "life force" in an organism. It is true that all the components of an organism effectively act for a common end, but this is in a way that is consonant with their local physical interactions, and does not violate principles of chemistry or mechanics. The vitalists would have been on sounder ground if they postulated the soul primarily as a formal cause, the determining and organizing principle of the body, but as an efficient cause only incidentally, in the case of some mental operations. One of the greatest errors made by modern philosophers of science, as well as some very capable historians of philosophy, is to mistake formal causality for a kind of efficient causality.
No discovery of modern science has abolished the reality that the parts of an organism often act for the good of the whole, with components behaving in a coordinated way that deviates from how they would behave in isolation. Nonetheless, no biological observation has yielded a phenomenon that contradicts the laws of chemical and physical interactions. A cell behaves differently in an organism from how it would in isolation only because it interacts in direct contact with other components, which in turn interact with others, and so it indirectly interacts with the body or bodily systems as a whole. As far as we can tell, we do not need to introduce a new force beyond those known to physics and chemistry in order to account for biological phenomena.
We should not overstate the evidence, for in fact we cannot measure the biochemical activity within a cell to such precision that we can be sure, for example, that the law of conservation of energy is not violated. For all we know, there could be minute mystical infusions of energy in each cell, and we would not be able to detect it. However, all visible bodily processes are sufficiently accounted for by the energy that can be obtained by respiration and digestion, so there is no need to invoke additional infusions of energy. Still, it is possible that the mind or some other vital force is able to direct molecules to move in a certain way. Again, we see no positive evidence of this. As far as we can tell, biochemical molecules follow the usual laws of mechanics and diffusion, but it must be admitted that subtle redirection of molecular activity would go undetected.
If we postulate the living soul primarily as a formal cause, however, there is no need to insist that such covert activities of efficient causation exist, though we may, on other grounds, think that the mind, in many kinds of animal, is able to direct the components of the body. Restricting our attention for the moment to soul as formal cause, we should examine more closely what is meant by saying the soul is the substantial form of the body.
When we consider what makes a physical substance a real being, we are asking about its essence (literally, "being-ness"). In the Western philosophical tradition, from Aristotle through the late Scholastics, the essence of physical substance was considered to be constituted of two principles, called matter and form. These principles are not palpable entities that can be observed as physical objects, but rather they are metaphysically distinguished in a single substance. This does not mean matter and form are merely formal, abstract entities; on the contrary, those in the Aristotelian tradition have held that the essence of physical substance is intrinsically and really constituted by these two principles.
Matter, at the most fundamental metaphysical level, is a substantial determinable principle, sometimes called materia prima or prime matter, meaning matter abstracted from any determinations. Such matter does not in fact exist as a physically distinct entity, since all matter, by physical necessity, is determined in space, time, and other properties, such as mass, velocity, charge, relation to other particles, et cetera. There is no purely inchoate, indeterminate stuff, but we can consider the matter of existing substances as abstracted from its determinations. The "stuff-ness" or "this-ness" of substance is the material aspect or principle of substance. We should note that matter in this philosophical sense is different from the modern physicist's "matter," which refers to substances including their determinate forms of protons, neutrons, and electrons. The Scholastic notion of matter was, however, fairly similar to that of Descartes, Newton, and other mechanists, who conceived matter as a featureless substance determined only by basic geometric properties and the principle of inertia.
Philosophical materialists naturally do not doubt the existence of a material principle in physical substances, but the reality of substantial forms has been much more controversial. Substantial form is the determination of matter that makes it one kind of substance rather than another. It may be thought of us as the synthesis of qualities or properties that makes prime matter have one mode of being rather than another. Some matter (in the generic sense of prima materia or "stuff") has the form of an electron, while other has the form of a proton, or even a photon, or anything else that may be identified as a real substance. It may even take on more complex forms, such as our everyday objects: books, trees, automobiles, dogs, human beings. This is where the notion of substantial form becomes controversial. A tree, a dog, or a book, the materialist will say, is nothing more than a composition of atoms, so there is no basis for invoking a substantial form as something real.
Substantial form is necessary to account for the permanence of a thing even as its matter is changed. If we were to adopt a strictly materialist account of complex objects, we would have to deny that I am the same person from moment to moment, as the cells in my body are constantly replaced. When we acknowledge that form is no less necessary to the reality of a substance, we can admit that a substantial form persists even if all the matter is swapped out. Thus a river remains the river even though its water is constantly replaced, and the same holds for all biological organisms, and anything else that replenishes its matter while retaining its form.
Aristotle originally conceived of the distinction between matter and form as a way out of the paradoxes of change identified by Parmenides and Heraclitus. If we acknowledge two principles in a substantial essence, the same object may be said to change or not change depending on whether we consider it from the perspective of (prime) matter or of substantial form.
While substantial form accounts for the permanence of a substance, prime matter accounts for the impermanence, individuality, and imperfection in a substance. This is because a substance conceived materially is restricted in time, as well as place and quantity, all of which are extensive properties. A substance that retains its form may nonetheless replace its matter, and in some cases loss of matter may lead to the loss of form. A dog may lose a leg yet still function as a dog, but if it loses its heart it will soon cease to be a dog at all. Also, a man may develop individual characteristics such as grey hair, certain wrinkle patterns, and voice inflections, but does not thereby cease to have the form of man. Nonetheless, a form might be only imperfectly realized in an individual, and this imperfection can hardly be imputed to the form, so it must belong to the matter. If a ball is imperfectly round, it certainly is not because the form "roundness" is deficient, but rather the prime matter does not fully and perfectly actualize the form.
All this talk of forms may seem like arrant nonsense to one steeped in the philosophical assumptions of contemporary science. Has it not been proven by evolutionary theory that there is no single form or template for each biological species? Rather, we are told, individuals and populations gradually change over a continuum, and any definition of a specific form is purely arbitrary. This is all well and good, but it does not follow that biological creatures or any other substances are formless. The intellect may conceive of flawless, idealized forms, only to find that in reality individuals imperfectly realize these forms, not because of any deficiency on the individuals' part, but because the forms are arbitrarily defined. Yet each individual creature certainly does have a form, and it is not an accident that its form is similar to that of its close relatives. There is a real similarity in physical nature that engenders the similarity in form. Whether these similarities can be categorized discretely, or along a continuum, the reality of form remains, unless we wish to return to a Cartesian contention there is nothing but spatial extension in physics. If we acknowledge that matter actually has intrinsic properties or qualities, we tacitly admit the existence of form.
We should emphasize that substantial form is not independent of matter, so there is no question of empirically separating the two principles. Going further, we cannot even visualize or imagine prime matter and substantial form separately; we only understand the distinction analytically. We are capable of understanding forms independently of matter, so we can understand equality even if we have never perceived two exactly equal things, and we can understand roundness even if we have never seen a perfectly round sphere. This ability to apprehend ideal forms leads us to believe there are cases when we can speak of an object imperfectly realizing a form.
There is another line of objection to attributing substantial forms to complex objects, and this is the philosophical position of reductionism. In this view, the physical reality of a substance is to be found in its most fundamental constituents, not in composite bodies taken as wholes. For example, "pen" is nothing but a label we apply to a collection of molecules arranged in a certain way. We do not need to appeal to the form or nature of "pen" to understand this composite object, but it suffices to understand the mechanics and chemistry of the constituent molecules. In other words, the "pen" is nothing more than a synthesis of molecules.
The neo-Aristotelian philosopher Mortimer Adler (1902-2001) regarded such thinking as fallacious, and argued instead that a composite being has at least equal claim to reality as its constituents, and possibly an even greater claim. This position seems to find some corroboration in quantum mechanics as interpreted by Werner Heisenberg, where subatomic particles exist only in states of potentia, that is, possibilities for being or tendencies for being, while only the atom as a whole is continually actual.
Yet Adler's argument would have us go further, contending that even solid everyday objects - pieces of furniture, articles of clothing, living organisms - all have a real existence, though not of the same kind as their molecular or subatomic constituents. When a clock, for example, exists as a unified real object, its atoms exist only virtually. They are then only virtually multiple, but the unity of the clock is real. Here "virtual" does not refer to the "virtual particles" of physics, but a degree of actuality greater than that of subatomic particles, yet less than that of the clock. Constituents become fully actual as distinct entities only when the unity of the composite breaks up into parts. The atoms in a molecule exist only virtually as atoms; the really actualized thing is the molecule, whose atoms do not have the properties or wavefunctions of free particles, but behave very differently in the bound state. Similarly, molecules combined in a plastic polymer exist only virtually as distinct molecules; the really actual thing is the plastic polymer as a whole. Going further, the different parts of the clock exist only virtually as distinct parts, but the more fully actual thing is the clock. This perspective completely inverts reductionist thinking, and the more "really real" is to be found in the higher composite unity, not in the lower constituents.
If I may be excused for being overly metaphysical in a discussion of physical science, let it be noted that scientists unthinkingly practice metaphysics all the time when they interpret their findings. Reductionism, no less than the position of Adler, is a metaphysical opinion, and it does not become less so simply because it is uncritically accepted by scientists. If nothing else, I should like to make the philosophical assumptions of scientists more explicit, so we can distinguish between what is empirically demonstrated and what is interpreted philosophically.
This top-down ontology does not necessarily entail a reversal of the direction of causation. The behavior of the constituents still remains the efficient cause of the composite entity, but once the entity is built, it is more fully actual than its components. Efficient causation remains in a bottom-up direction, but we may identify formal causation in a top-down direction. Formal cause, as we have said, is the determining principle of a substance, not its generator, so it is not temporally prior to the substance, but cotemporal with it.
The ontological priority of the composite is not just some abstract formality, but has real implications. When the hand on a clock turns, we do not say it turns because all its molecules have been pushed at the same time. Rather, the hand as a whole is turned, and the in virtu molecules are taken along for the ride. Similarly, when I push a rock down a hill, it is the rock as a whole that I push, and the molecules are along for the ride. Without this perspective, it would be impossible to speak intelligibly about rigid body motion. Could we say that a single body rolls down a hill, or should we account for this motion in terms of the motions of constituents? It seems immeasurably more parsimonious to attribute action to the collective, and indeed we have been able to have a highly precise understanding of physical mechanics without recourse to atomic physics. It was not dumb luck that the Newtonians could understand the physics of bodies without knowing subatomic physics, but their mechanics was based on real causation among macroscopic bodies. Even today, engineers and scientists regularly make accurate calculations based on the assumption that macroscopic bodies are real causal agents, without recourse to the physics of their atomic constituents.
This recognition that composite objects can be real efficient causes, not of their own constitution but in their interactions with other large-scale objects, helps make sense of some of the paradoxes of modern science. Schr÷dinger's cat paradox immediately evaporates, as we no longer see any contradiction in the fact that subatomic particles are usually in unresolved states, yet a macroscopic object composed of such particles is always in a resolved state. After all, the macroscopic object is what is more fully actual, or really real. This perspective also re-opens the door to our common sense notion that organisms are real physical entities that cause physical acts, not just slaves of their constituent particles. This realization does not require us to violate any law of chemistry or physics within an organism, just as the molecules of a rolling rock continue to obey such laws, though the rock is not the slave of its molecules.
In the case of animals with mental faculties, we may discern a unified consciousness that truly is an efficient cause of movements in the body, and is not simply a slave of its molecules. The reductionist position is absurd from an evolutionary perspective, since consciousness is an utterly superfluous adaptation if conscious minds are just slaves of their molecules and cells, making it grossly inefficient to assign significant energy to the maintenance of organic consciousness. Our top-down perspective has the advantage of restoring common sense to biology and ridding it of unnecessary paradoxes. An important accomplishment of modern biology was to disprove Descartes' mechanistic account of animal behavior; it is hardly consistent to also maintain that all minds, even human, are just epiphenomena of biochemical and cellular constituents.
This unified consciousness that acts as an efficient cause might alter the behavior of parts of the body, but we must take care that we do not put ourselves in a causal loop. If we were to say, for example, that the unified consciousness causes individual neurons in the brain to transmit signals at certain times, we cannot also say that these signals are the efficient cause of consciousness. In other words, we cannot have both upward and downward efficient causation between the same two entities. Therefore, we must be judicious in specifying what parts or aspects of the body the unified consciousness may affect.
A metaphysical analysis of psychology should not be mistaken for a theory of determinate physical properties and their effects. Since the sixteenth century, Aristotelianism was gradually abandoned as a theory of physical science with good reason, because it failed to account for new observed phenomena. As the Spanish intellectuals Francisco Suarez and Jeronimo Feijoo explicitly recognized, Aristotle's Physics is really a philosophy of nature, not a physical theory of dynamics. A logical analysis of the conceptual essences of natural objects is not the same as dynamic causation in the natural world, such as transfer of momentum and energy. Physical dynamics, as discovered through observation, can be subjected to metaphysical interpretation, but we generally can not deduce physics from a priori metaphysical considerations.
An Aristotelian essence is a 'nature' or 'principle of motion' in the sense of being the fundamental cause of all the operations of a thing, only at a metaphysical level. It is a way of saying that a thing does what it does because it is what it is; in other words, the activity of a substance is made possible by its intrinsic properties. However, as the neo-Thomist Etienne Gilson pointed out, knowledge of a conceptual essence does not necessarily give us knowledge of how existent beings interact in actuality, and it was a cardinal mistake of Scholastic natural philosophers (going back to Aristotle himself) to suppose that they could know all there is to know about an existent thing once they had defined its essence. On the contrary, definitions of essences are possible only after we have made observations of various existing objects in the natural world, in order to ascertain their determinate properties.
In the order of metaphysical reality, the essence of an entity determines its physical activities, but in the order of human knowledge, we must first observe determinate physical activities in order to gain better knowledge of the essence. Thus physical scientists ought to proceed independently of philosophers in their observation and analysis of determinate physical activities, but they may not thereby pretend that physical phenomena are independent of the metaphysical structure of reality. Rather, we are only able to deduce the actual metaphysical structure of the cosmos with the help of physical science, though there is more to metaphysics than physical science.
Although late Scholasticism, embodied in the work of Suarez, finally recognized a clear distinction between metaphysics and physics, it failed to retain Thomas Aquinas' important insistence on a real distinction between essence and existence. As a result, this essentialism met with serious metaphysical difficulties, exposed by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason. Essentialism tends to stifle progress in our understanding of nature when it pretends to encompass determinate existents in its grasp.
'Essentialism,' much like 'dualism,' has become an epithet for all non-materialist philosophies of mind. True essentialism pretends to analyze reality in an existentially neutral way, as if all determinate activities of an entity could be explained simply by defining its essence. Yet it is possible to speak of the soul or the psyche or the vital principle of an animal without being guilty of essentialism. We may hold that such a principle is an empirically real existent, whose existence is positively indicated by the organic unity and coordination of all parts of an organism, and is most perfectly realized in the unity of consciousness in higher animals. By examining the physical evidence of this coordination and unity, we can come to recognize that so-called "vitalism" and other philosophies falsely derided as "essentialist" are in fact sustainable even today. While modern evolutionary theory rejects a rigid essentialism where each member of a species participates in the essence of that species, not all forms of vitalism require such an interpretation; it suffices for each individual to have its own unique form or organizing principle.
The philosophical psychology of Rene Descartes is the antithesis of modern materialism, to the extent that it has become a sort of straw man adversary, yet Cartesianism is chiefly responsible for the conceptual constructs that made psychological materialism possible. Descartes regarded all existents as substances, and he held that matter was nothing more than spatial extension. In contrast with modern materialists, however, Descartes understood that thought is something other than extension, so it is necessarily incorporeal and therefore immaterial. All the principles of physico-mathematical science have extensive terms, expressed as continuous geometrical or discrete numerical quantity. Since mind is not per se extensive, mathematical physical science cannot give us the principles of mind. Instead, logic can give us rules of ratiocination, determining whether we have linked concepts validly, while concepts themselves are simply understood by our intellect, without recourse to physical science.
Even if we accept Descartes' belief that the non-extensive or incorporeal is necessarily immaterial, there is no sound basis for his supposition that mind must be a separate substance (res cogitans) from matter (res extensa). In the Aristotelian and Scholastic tradition, by contrast, it was accepted that the mind could be the substantial form of a material body. For metaphysical reasons extraneous to this discussion, Descartes rejected substantial forms. Modern scientists reject them because they reject metaphysics altogether (or so they think; in fact, they simply practice metaphysics poorly). This antimetaphysical attitude leads them to reject anything that quantitative science cannot describe, which includes mind to the extent it is non-extensive. Thus many psychologists, contrary to the name of their profession, reject the idea of a psyche distinct from the brain. Any non-materialist account of the mind is dubbed 'dualistic,' as if the only alternative to materialism was Descartes' supposition of a mental substance distinct from the body.
We, by contrast, will outline the philosophical psychology of the Aristotelian and Scholastic tradition, from which we can see a possibility that is neither materialism - which effectively denies the existence of mind, however it tries to work this verbal subterfuge - nor Cartesianism, which would allow no psychic faculties whatsoever to the irrational creature. The great argument against Cartesianism, the continuity of development of psychic faculties among animals, is impotent against Aristotelianism. Aristotle himself, a consummate biological observer, noted that there was an apparent continuum between life and non-life, and between animals and vegetables. We may discern, then, an ascending hierarchy of psychic faculties. Only the last of these faculties, human intellect and will, seem to transcend corporeal matter altogether, yet even the lower animal faculties cannot be contained by mere extension.
The philosophical materialists of the eighteenth century, unlike their modern counterparts, clearly apprehended the implications of their theory with respect to the human mind and animal faculties of sensation. If there is nothing in the universe save matter in motion, it follows that mind is a quality of matter, all matter, not just that which is arranged to form a human or animal body. Faced with the inescapable reality that thought is not to be accounted for within spatial dimensions, as thoughts have not length, breadth, or height, the materialist must identify thought as a quality of matter. Yet since a human or animal body can be formed out of virtually any collection of particles, the qualities of thought and sensation must inhere in all matter, to be actualized when matter is arranged to form a body. Somehow, the arrangements of neurons tap into this latent property of matter, which went unactualized for the first several billion years of the universe's existence. Even if we can get past the apparent implausibility of ascribing the qualities of sensation and thought to inanimate matter, the mere presence of such qualities would seem utterly providential, existing aeons before a species would make use of them to contemplate the universe. To give a concrete example, the qualia of color which we apprehend in our mind's eye would inhere in all matter, just as all matter has mass or electric charge according to the nature of each elementary particle. The same would be true of every other qualitative sensation.
The modern materialist, unlike his eighteenth century counterpart, often fails to appreciate the obvious reality that thought exists in dimensions utterly distinct from those of space, and so would have to be a fundamental quality of matter, dimensionally distinct like mass and charge. Instead, he tries to reduce all of mind to quantity. This foolhardy approach to the mind-body problem is conceptually incoherent; even if we accepted the unjustified assumption that everything in the universe is quantifiable, it does not follow that the distinctions among the various properties of the universe can be ascribed strictly to quantity. Mathematics cannot tell me the difference between mass and charge; gravitational and coulombic laws do not tell us the concrete realities that the variables describe; these are assumed by the scientist who knowledgeably applies them. Qualitative psychological experience is a brute fact that cannot be ignored or explained away by quantitative analysis alone. The inability of modern scientists to accept qualities as fundamental realities becomes especially crippling when they try to explain the mind, which is a locus of the most diverse qualities, in strictly quantitative terms. Thus we find the paradoxical situation of scientists who can only explain mental reality by explaining it away, replacing it with something non-mental and non-qualitative.
As mentioned previously, philosophers since Aristotle have long noted that there is a continuum of psychic abilities among living creatures. Nonetheless, it is useful to invoke a formal categorization of these abilities, so that we are clear, coherent, and consistent about what we mean when we speak of various determinate abilities. Then, when scientists observe determinate abilities in particular groups of animals, we can identify the formal faculties to which these abilities correspond. Without such a formalism, we run the risk of conceptual confusion and conflation in the physical sciences; a formalistic psychology forces us to speak in a logically coherent manner. We need not insist that each formally defined faculty corresponds to a distinct organ, neural structure, or physical process. Rather, a faculty can be a capacity for an entire class of activities. The role of the physical scientist is to observe and identify determinate activities, while the philosopher categorizes these activities in formal classes, in order to bring conceptual coherence to the philosophy and science of the mind.
Those familiar with the philosophy of science will understand that there is no escaping the necessity of categorizing the raw data of observation under conceptual classes. Scientists do this all the time when they call one thing an electron, but another a proton, one thing an ammonia molecule, another thing a hydrogen molecule. When we apply conceptual categories to things, we define a form for those things. It is impossible for us to describe things simply 'as they are', in an objective and philosophically neutral way. By the very act of speaking about things intelligibly at all, we necessarily apply concepts to classes of objects. Otherwise, we could only accept each thing as sui generis, and could never construct intelligible relations among real entities, which is the stuff of scientific theory. Since we already define forms for all physical objects just by virtue of speaking and thinking about them, it is hardly out of order for us to define formal faculties of the psyche. Nonetheless, if our categories are not to be mere castles in the sky, we must verify that our hypothesized faculties correspond to one or more determinate activities of actual living things.
The faculty of the soul common to all organisms is the vegetative faculty or threptikon, which is concerned with the maintenance of the organism. We call this a faculty of the soul insofar as nutrition, generation, and other biological functions are concerned with maintaining the organism as a cohesive unit, not merely with the maintenance of this or that part. Living things are markedly different from non-living things in their integrative operations, with multiple disparate parts or organs acting for a common end. It is true that every physiological function, as far as we know, operates in accordance with local physical and chemical forces. However, it is equally true that all these local actions are coordinated in such a way that we may often speak of a unified entity acting for a single end. An organism does not breathe or digest food in order to sustain a particular cell, tissue, or part, but to sustain itself as a whole. It is not just some linguistic convenience when we say that the organism breathes or digests, rather than attribute these actions only to particular organs. The various systems of an organism - respiration, digestion, circulation, excretion, etc. - are ordered toward an integrative existence, for the benefit of the collective, sometimes even at the expense of a particular part. All parts of the body are subordinated to the needs of the organism. For this reason we say that the threptikon is truly a faculty of a unified vital principle.
As far as we can tell, plants and other lower lifeforms execute their vegetative functions out of mechanical or chemical necessity, but among many kinds of animals we can discern some goal-directed behavior. Unlike Descartes, we do not think that a dog gnaws a bone or chases a stick out of mechanical necessity. It does these things because it wants or prefers to do them, even enjoys doing them. Evolutionary theory might explain the origin of determinate behaviors through natural selection: i.e., if a dog did not have such and such preferences, it would be less likely to survive. These phylogenetic explanations account for why some behavioral traits survive rather than others, but they do not abolish the reality of the goal-directedness of behavior in an individual dog. Confusion between phylogeny and individual behavior is what causes many biologists to erroneously insist that evolution has abolished teleology from nature. Such a claim is not only contrary to direct observation of the natural world, but in contradiction with the idea that evolution is based on adaptation, since the very notion of adaptation is inherently goal-oriented.
To adapt means to become fitted for a particular situation or function. We cannot coherently speak of an organism "adapting" to an environment without defining some function or situation in which the organism "ought to" exist. If we are to be truly teleologically neutral, we must acknowledge that there is no physical necessity that any organism should survive. It is only because organisms are constructed in a way that they "prefer" survival over death, reproduction over extinction, that they are able to be so resourceful in finding ways to survive.
In plants and other merely vegetative creatures, such "preferences" are simply the physical tendencies inherent in their chemical and mechanical constitution. A plant does not "prefer" or "want" things, as far as we can tell, since it has no cohesive subject that prefers and wants. In certain mobile plants and microbes, there is an ability to respond to stimuli, but these responses are strictly determined by local material conditions. It is only in animals with substantial neural functions that we find real, active preferences, instead of merely passive tendencies determined by material conditions. Darwin often marveled at the cleverness, cunning and resourcefulness of various animals in developing adaptations he found ingenious. Despite his belief that natural selection was serendipitous and purposeless, Darwin was too much of a field naturalist to deny agency to the animals he observed. They did not simply happen to survive; they were trying to survive, and often used purposeful behaviors to find solutions to problems.
Modern urban academics, with their increasing emphasis on molecular biology and genetics and their relative disdain for field researchers, run the risk of becoming alienated from animals as whole organisms, and succumbing to the Cartesian myth that an animal is just a mechanical composition of its constituents. Unlike Descartes, many biologists of today are motivated by a philosophical naturalism, even materialism, which they would extend even to the most intellectual animal, man. However, any attempt to reduce an organism to the material nature of its constituents will fail to account for the actually observed faculties of the soul, including the lowly oretikon.
For most of its history, the Western intellectual tradition emphasized abstract reasoning about the cosmos and its order. Accustomed as they were to considering subtle conceptual distinctions in the realm of pure thought, most intellectuals found materialism to be a highly deficient metaphysics, failing to account for the activities of philosophers themselves. Materialism had been espoused in antiquity by some of the pre-Socratics and by the Epicureans, but the crudeness of their metaphysics and their ethics brought disrepute upon the philosophy. The Epicureans could recognize no moral virtue that was not utilitarian, in contrast with the Stoics, who recognized the possibility of honor for honor's sake. This nobler view of ethics was most eloquently espoused by Cicero, and the rise of Christianity guaranteed that much more of Stoicism than Epicureanism would be preserved. In metaphysics, Aristotle found that materialists were shallow thinkers who only judged things according to appearances, instead of understanding their deeper principles. For two thousand years, every philosopher of the first rank repudiated materialism: Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Avicenna, Averroes, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, to name the most eminent.
In the modern era, many non-Scholastic philosophers continued to reject materialism on epistemological, metaphysical, or ethical grounds. These include Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, and Bergson. Materialism regained popularity in the eighteenth century, among anti-religious intellectuals who, despite being called philosophes, were not trained academic philosophers (with the singular exception of Hume), and had little appreciation of the technical nuances of metaphysics. In the nineteenth century, materialism was advocated by political theorists such as Mill and Marx, followed later by logicians, mathematicians and scientists who adopted Auguste de Comte's program to replace metaphysics with physical science. Work on symbolic logic by Peirce and Russell led to the development of "analytic philosophy," which pretended to restrict the scope of reality to physical science, and confined logical analysis to a manipulation of mathematical symbols. In a sense, they succumbed to the temptation to subject all reality to one's professional specialization, much as the Pythagoreans proposed that all things are numbers.
Most modern intellectuals, who are required to learn physical science but not philosophy in school, have come to neglect the habit of thinking about thinking. Instead, they merely observe, record, compute, calculate, correlate; in other words, they perform all the operations that can be performed on corporeal quantities. It is no wonder that materialism is popular again. Intellectuals have narrowed their scope of interest to the quantifiable aspects of sensible phenomena, and declared everything outside that scope to be non-existent or mere fantasy. Yet the philosophical deficiencies of materialism, expounded in their gory detail by the greatest philosophers over two thousand years, have not magically disappeared.
One such deficiency is the inability to account for any faculty of the soul beyond the vegetative. This begins with the faculty currently under discussion: the oretikon or appetite of an animal. The oretikon is classically defined as an inclination to good. By 'good' we do not mean strictly ethical good, but 'good' in the generic sense of a goal or objective of an animal that will help it realize its end or function. The notion of 'good' is inherently teleological, which is why materialism, when taken seriously, has made nonsense of any attempt at objective ethics. It is logically invalid to make inferences from statements about material and efficient causes to statements about final causes. In other words, just because we know a species evolved in a certain way due to certain conditions, that tells us nothing about what animals in that species 'ought to' do. All attempts to find an evolutionary basis for determining ethics and social policy are grounded in a logical error that would shame any competent philosophy student; inferring an 'ought to' statement from an 'is' statement. There is no way to prove from statements about physical efficient causes that an animal 'ought to' seek pleasure, or 'ought to' survive, much less 'ought to' care for others. We can only show that it does in fact do these things, and perhaps if it did not, it would be less likely to survive. This does not change the fact that individual animals often act because of preferences or tendencies that are inherently teleological. To deny this would be to return to Descartes' model of the animal as machine, in plain contradiction of what we observe and experience in our encounters with animals.
The fallacy of evolutionary behavioralism might be encapsulated thus: because a behavior is useful, its utility must be the sole reason for its being. An evolutionary behavioralist might think that if he finds some circumstance in which altruistic behavior is useful, that he has fully explained altruism. On the contrary, experience teaches that individual people who behave altruistically do not do so because of some psychological payoff, but because of a sense that it is the right thing to do and out of genuine concern for others. The pleasure of doing good is small and incidental, a side effect rather than a primary motivation. Failing to accept a reality with which everyone is familiar, the die-hard evolutionary behavioralists must reduce all ethics to utility, much like their Epicurean predecessors. In doing so, they deny the possibility of honor, of doing right because it is right. Even if we accepted such utilitarianism, the concept of utility necessarily entails teleology, for a thing is only useful with regard to some end. Thus, even on the level of utility, we might find real preferences or appetites in animals that are motivated by some end or goal.
There can be two kinds of appetite: conscious and unconscious. This is a formal distinction; in actuality, conscious and unconscious activities can be intimately interrelated and overlapping. We make this distinction in order to give clarity to our thinking about these matters. Unconscious appetite is classically called the appetitus naturalis, which includes tendencies or inclinations to act that are without knowledge. An animal may exhibit certain behavioral tendencies without consciously directing these tendencies. Nonetheless, such tendencies are integrative, as they are inclinations of the organism as a whole, though actualized by unconscious processes. They are distinct from vegetative activities in that they do not function solely for the maintenance of the organism, but may involve activities extraneous to such maintenance. For example, an animal may have an unconscious impulse to run when threatened, or to strike when it sees potential prey. Such behaviors may help the long-term survival of the organism, but they are not absolutely necessary in every instance for the continued sustenance of the creature. These operations are not maintaining the body of the organism intrinsically, but rather cause the whole organism to act in order to promote its welfare for the long term.
Not all unconscious appetites need be inclined to mere survival; they could incline to pleasure, strength, rest, or any one of innumerable possible objectives. Natural selection only requires that these objectives be consistent with the survival of the animal, or else such behaviors will be eliminated. Behaviors that enhance an animal's likelihood of survival are more likely to persist as traits, but this does not mean that the appetites per se are directly oriented toward survival, only that they incidentally improve the organism's viability. For example, a pup's playfulness may help it learn abilities it needs to survive, but that does not mean the pup is motivated by survival when it plays, rather than the enjoyment of play for its own sake.
"Natural appetites" are what we colloquially call "instincts," that is, unconsciously driven behaviors, which may or may not affect an animal's adaptability. Instincts are not so much the actions themselves, but inclinations to action, or capacities to learn certain actions once exposed to particular conditions. Instinct may be best described as a propensity to act in a certain way rather than another way. This propensity, being unconscious, may be motivated by some intrinsic physiological condition, yet, being oriented to the good of the organism, it is an integrative operation, and therefore a faculty of the soul.
There is empirical justification for a distinction between vegetative functions and instinctive functions, as seen by considering the "persistent vegetative state" of some comatose patients. In such a state, the brain stem can still function in order to maintain the organism, regulating the heartbeat and breathing, digesting food and circulating blood. Functions that ordinarily require consciousness cannot be performed without external aid, yet there are also unconscious functions that are absent in a vegetative patient. These include fear reactions to danger, sexual preferences, and a host of other unconscious mental activities. One reason for their absence is the lack of sensory subject matter for these appetites to act upon. Another reason is the lack of a consciousness with which these unconscious appetites can interact and exert influence. It seems clear that the exercise of unconscious appetites often depends on the presence of sensations and consciousness, even when this is not the case for vegetative functions. From this fact we may infer that there is a real distinction between vegetative functions and unconscious appetites.
Conscious appetite, or appetitus elicitus, is appetition that follows knowledge. Knowledge is classically defined as the possession of an ideal form in the mind, yet conscious appetite exists even among lower animals. Are we to say, then, that such animals possess ideal forms? We should distinguish at least two kinds of knowledge, to which correspond two types of appetitus elicitus. These are the sensitive and rational appetites.
The sensitive appetite follows sense-knowledge and sense-cognition, that is, awareness of sensations such as sights, sounds, and smells, and mental operations on these sensations to construct knowledge of more complex sensory objects. For example, an animal with eyes may have sense-knowledge insofar as light hitting its retina indirectly yields awareness of splotches of color in some field of vision. The animal may subject these sensations to various cognitive processes, such as judging how fast or how large the object is, or comparing it with previous sensations to see if it is a recognized class of object. Animals capable of sense-cognition may have knowledge of ideal forms, not that they contemplate forms as such, but they effectively work with forms as they judge whether a particular object fits into a recognized class (e.g., a dangerous species of predator). However, it is conceivable that some animals might experience sensations without comparing them to forms, in which case we say they have sense-knowledge without sense-cognition. 'Sense-knowledge' of this sort is really not knowledge in the classical sense, but just raw particularized sensations. Sense-cognition, by contrast, seems to necessarily involve knowledge of ideal forms, since the only way to use particularized sensations to yield knowledge of something other than raw sensation is to treat these sensation as exemplars of classes. If an animal perceives a splotch of green, it might apply mental operations to have a different quality, so it looks red, or has the quality we experience as sound, and so on. Such operations merely substitute different representations of sensation, without adding to the animal's knowledge. If the animal is to become aware of something beyond raw sensation, it must be able, at a minimum, to make associations between various sensations, from which it constructs an awareness of something that is not any particular sensation. To consider two or more sensations as terms in a relation, the animal mind effectively them as exemplars of universals. Thus sense-cognition necessarily entails effective use of universals or ideal forms, even if the animal never contemplates the forms as forms. By this I mean that the animal may represent forms or relations as sensations, in which case it is always contemplating sensations, though some of these sensations represent something other than particular objects of perception.
The rational appetite follows rational knowledge, which entails contemplation of forms as such. As far as we can tell definitively, only humans are capable of rational knowledge, as we will discuss at length later. For now, we will focus on the sensitive appetitus elicitus, which admits of further subdivisions.
The sensitive appetitus elicitus, like the appetitus naturalis, has no freedom. The appetitus naturalis is subservient to the material conditions of the body, and the sensitive appetite is dictated either by nature or by the object of perception. When dictated 'by nature,' we mean that the appetite is an intrinsic property of the animal, rather than the subject of free choice. This does not mean that the sensitive appetite is determined by extrinsic material conditions, rather, there is an intrinsic determinism in this mental faculty itself. The reason for this determinism is that it is posterior solely to sensitive knowledge. Without understanding of conceptual forms, an animal is incapable of logical thought and therefore cannot have the subject matter of free judgment.
Only the rational appetitus elicitus, which is the will of a spiritual soul, has freedom. This does not mean that there is not real choice among non-human animals; on the contrary, we emphasize the reality of animal preferences, as manifested in the sensitive appetite.
The sensitive appetitus elicitus can be subdivided into the appetitus concupiscilius and the appetitus irascibus. The appetitus concupiscilius or concupiscent appetite has as its object what the animal considers to be its good or its pleasure. Such appetites include love and hatred, desire and aversion, joy and sorrow. These appetites are most readily subject to utilitarian analysis, but we must recall that these appetites also define each animal's notion of utility. It loves what it considers good, and hates what it considers opposed to its good. It desires what it considers good or pleasant, and is averse to what it considers bad or painful. It takes joy when it apprehends what is pleasant, and experiences sorrow when it finds itself in a painful situation. By "pleasure" and "pain" we need not restrict ourselves to tactile physiological sensation, but may extend it also to emotional states that excite pleasant or painful sensations. "Good" and "bad" are not necessarily correlated to pleasure and pain, either in the physiological or emotional sense. A penguin, for example, may endure much hardship because it apprehends as good that its egg should survive until hatching, even though it experiences no physical or emotional pleasure at the time. Thus 'good' extends to any objective an animal considers desirable, regardless of whether it corresponds to a sensation that may be characterized as pleasure.
The appetitus irascibus, or irascible appetite, has an object that can only be obtained with difficulty. Such appetites include hope and despair, as well as courage, fear, and anger. This is an appetitus elicitus, so we are not considering unconscious instinctive fear or anger reactions here. Since it is a sensitive appetite, it is not free and rational, so the 'courage' and 'hope' here have no moral quality. Still, we find the image of moral behavior in these appetites, so we may speak of animals as being courageous or cowardly, hopeful or despairing. The irascible appetites differ from the concupiscent appetites in that some obstacle intervenes between the animal and its apprehension of pleasure, pain, good or bad. Hope is the attitude of expecting good, while despair is expecting bad. Courage is a willingness to face pain in order to obtain what is good, while conscious fear is an avoidance of anticipated pain. Anger, after which irascible appetite is named, is an aggressive response against a perceived obstacle to the good. It entails a desire to somehow thwart this obstacle, usually by force.
In rational creatures such as man, the lowly sensitive appetite may exert a sometimes powerful influence on the will by several means. One way is by modifying organic conditions in the brain or other parts of the body, thereby influencing cognitive functions. Another way is when the sensitive appetite is so intense that it prevents the mind (nous) from performing operations of intellect and will, to be discussed later.
After vegetation and appetition, a third class of faculties is that of sense perception (aisthetikos). This includes sensuous cognition, an awareness of sensations that entails processing them as exemplars of forms, so that they are understood as representing objects and classes of objects, not merely as raw sensory data. This faculty is traditionally considered passive or receptive, insofar as it is consequent to received perceptions. This seems like an unfair characterization, since the mind appears to take an active role in processing sensations into more elaborate cognitions.
There are three sub-faculties of sense perception (aisthetikos). These are: sensuous perception in the strictest sense (aisthesis), imagination (phantasia), and memory (mneme). These sub-faculties are closely related, even overlapping. Aisthesis refers to immediate sense perception, or the apprehension in the mind's eye of external sensory data nearly simultaneously with their occurrence. In reality, this perception requires some active contribution on the part of the nervous system, which translates sensations into neural representations that are then constructed to induce qualia apprehended by the animal's mind. Similar in quality is the faculty of imagination (phantasia), which is able to construct similar mental images (which need not be visual or spatial, but can correspond to any of the various senses) even in the absence of an external object stimulating sensation. It is unsurprising that much of the same neural hardware used for aisthesis is also used for phantasia. There is similar overlap between phantasia and mneme, the latter being the construction of a mental image in the absence of an external object, yet recalling a previous sensory experience. Memories generally differ from aisthesis in quality, being less vivid and intense, perhaps due to an imperfect retention of past experiences, or perhaps because it conjures images in the same way as the faculty of phantasia. This would account for similar neural manifestations in both imagined and recalled mental images, as well as the frequent failure to distinguish between true memories and mere imaginings. We might restrict the faculty of mneme to the retention and recollection of sensory experiences, while the construction of recalled memories might belong to phantasia. The sense-images recorded by memory can be the products of either aisthesis or phantasia, which is one way of accounting for difficulty in distinguishing true and false memories.
Even rational animals rely on the sensitive faculty of memory to retain their abstract thoughts. This is because humans must think in some language whose symbols are phonetic or graphic. Thus a person effectively memorizes an abstract idea not by retaining the idea itself, but by memorizing the mental image of the words corresponding to that idea. This mental image is stored the same way as raw sensations. Yet a mystery remains as to how the human is able to draw out the same abstract idea from the recalled words. That would entail a closer examination of the faculty of intellect, which we will touch upon later.
Modern psychology often fails to distinguish the phantasms of the imagination from the ideas and meanings they represent. Neuroscientists observe how the brain formulates phantasms or sense-images, and erroneously infer that they are witnessing the formulation of ideas. A mental sense-image, no less than the sensory stimulus that triggered its formation, is an object of sense, with no intrinsic meaning. I may see colors or hear sounds in my mind's eye or ear, but any particular sight or sound may be given any one of a number of different meanings. This is most obviously the case with human language, whose words are assigned arbitrary meanings not contained in their phonetic qualities. The same sound, "hors", may refer to a certain quadrupedal animal ("horse"), or to a type of voice ("hoarse"). The same image: "=" can mean "equal" or "level" or "identical" or whatever meaning we wish to ascribe. As soon as we pretend to reify a brain process according to some corporeal quality, such as color or sound, it becomes a mere representation and not an idea or meaning in itself. Modern psychology constantly confuses syntax with semantics, in its stubborn refusal to accept that the ascription of meaning to a sense-image is an abstract, immaterial operation. It will not do to pretend that the electrical signals in the brain are ideas or meanings, for this only replaces one kind of representation (sensory qualia: colors, sounds, smells) with another kind of representation: electrical pulses that have no intrinsic meaning. At some point, there must be a being who understands what the signals mean, as is proved by the fact that we ourselves understand ideas, and may use many different representations for the same idea. We will explore this distinction between ideas and representations at length later.
Another basic faculty of the soul, common to practically all that we call animals, is the locomotive (kinetikon), which governs self-propelled bodily movements. Traditionally, this faculty has been ranked higher even then the various types of sense-perception, since the latter are considered passive operations, while the locomotion of an animal is the most manifestly active operation of an animal. Indeed, it is the self-propulsion of creatures that is arguably their most visible distinction from inanimate objects, which dumbly fall or fly wherever they are tossed about by external forces. The animal, by contrast, can move itself, and it is this ability that impresses upon us the intuition that such a creature is truly a subject and not just an object. Our grammatical constructions of subject and predicate, as well as the distinction between active and passive, are no doubt influenced by our intuitions about how animals act locomotively.
However, we noted previously that it is not altogether accurate to regard sense-perception as purely passive, as the animal mind takes an active role in forming associations among perceptions. Indeed, these associations are often what prompt locomotive action, so that sense-perception, in the active sense, may be said to be the initiator or precursor of the locomotive faculty. An animal generally moves itself when it senses something or remembers something or imagines something, and then associates that perception in a way that prompts an appetite to move. The interaction among faculties, in actual practice, is quite intimate, and modern neuroscience offers some insight into the determinate processes whereby this interaction occurs, as we will discuss in another section.
The last major faculty of the soul, traditionally believed to be unique to humans, is reason (dianetikos) or rational cognition. This is divided into two parts: nous or intellect, and dianoia, which is ratiocinative reason. The nous is divided into two kinds of intellect: active (poretikos) and passive (pathetikos). An act of cognition is a verbum mentale, or mental word, whereby essence is apprehended. Unlike spoken or written words (or their sense-images in the mind), a verbum mentale is not a sense-object, but a semantic object with meaning that refers to essence, which is the reality of a thing abstracted from particular determinations. The intrinsically abstract character of this act should make clear that the functions of the faculty of reason are not in themselves corporeal. The rational functions are intrinsically independent of the body, since no manipulation of a corporeal body or its parts can, by virtue of the extensive corporeal properties of the body alone, give apprehension of abstract essences. The functions of reason may be extrinsically dependent on the body, needing the vegetative and sensitive faculties in order to make possible the sense-objects that can act as representations of a verbum mentale.
The functions of the rational faculty have been enumerated as conception, judgment, reasoning, reflection, and self-consciousness. If these functions are truly rational, involving an act of cognition or verbum mentale, it follows that they are all intrinsically independent of the body. We will consider each of these functions in turn. According to Thomas Aquinas, these functions all pertain to the passive intellect.
Conception is the formation of universal ideas that are fixed independently of images. This independence is critical, for once it is admitted that ideas are independent of phantasms (or their corresponding signals in the brain), we can see that conception is intrinsically independent of the body, as a true rational function. When the mind deals with universals, it conceives of objects stripped of their determinations. Purely representational or symbolic logic, such as that used by computers, does not grasp the concept of a universal, but instead deals only variables or classes whose argument or members are particular objects. Such symbolic logic, we may add, is not a logic known to the computer, which is completely ignorant of what it is doing, but is an interpretation we impose on the computer's activity. Even this humanly interpreted symbolic logic, nonetheless, does not encompass the notion of a universal.
A concept or universal idea, as we are considering it, is a psychological object or object of understanding. It need not be a real thing "out there" beyond the mind as an existent object. However, it does have a reality beyond the mere act of thought, as evidenced by the fact that different people can conceive the same idea at different times. If two people independently contemplate the idea of "equality" in the morning and again at night, we do not have four ideas, but only one. To the extent that we accept an identity among the objects of these four acts of thought, we acknowledge a reality of the idea that is independent of any determinate psychological act. Although the idea is real, it still is only an object of intellection, until we can adduce some other evidence showing that it corresponds to a real existent or at least a potentially existent object.
The fact that ideas transcend determinate acts of cognition has not escaped the notice of philosophers; indeed, Plato made this fact a central theme of his philosophy. While we may hesitate to give ideas as such the same reality as an existent object, we nonetheless recognize that human cognition has access to a realm of ideas that need not correspond to any determinate object of sense. For a purely material being to apprehend ideas is absurd, which is why materialism has never found adherents among the greatest philosophers. Modern science, however, avoids discussion of forms and universals, emphasizing observation of particulars, and so blinds itself to the incoherence of a material intellect. Yet even empirical science relies on universals when it pretends to discern laws of nature and patterns of regularity, or else it would be nothing more than a collection of data. Scientists deal in abstract concepts all the time, no less than the rest of us, but they refuse to contemplate concepts as concepts, that is, as abstract, universal ideas. This is why they clumsily confuse the phantasms of sense-perception with the ideas of the rational intellect.
Another function of the rational faculty is judgment, which perceives an identity or discordance among concepts. Since judgment deals with concepts, by necessity it is intrinsically independent of the body. Again, we do not deny that a rational function can be extrinsically dependent on the body. This is not a discovery of modern neuroscience, but men have long known and commented on the fact that it is difficult to make judgments if one is hungry or angry. We would not say, however, that food or oxygen is the substance of thought, or that thought is nothing more than the activity of food and oxygen. A necessary dependence, even when efficient causation is involved, does not preclude the possibility that other causes might also be required for a rational act. I may not be able to perform rational acts if my neuronal structures are not firing correctly, but it does not follow that this neural activity is identical with or the sole basis of rational thought, any more than the fact that I cannot think when deprived of oxygen proves that oxygen or blood is the stuff of thought. The neural structure is needed for the operations of the sensitive soul, which may influence the rational faculties, but it does not follow that these are identical. On the contrary, in the material realm we can only hope to find corporeal representations, not ideas in themselves which are the object of thought. True, we use sense-perceptions to represent ideas to ourselves in our mind's eye, and the formation of these representations depends on neuronal activity, but understanding these representations as universal ideas is an intrinsically immaterial act. We may be so constituted as to be unable to perform this immaterial act without the requisite material conditions, but that does not reduce the immaterial to the material.
Semantically, a judgment is a statement, whether declarative, interrogative, imperative, conditional, or of any other mood. Our rules of grammar are a syntax that restrict our usage of words (symbols or representations) to rules that conform to our understanding of the logical relationships between concepts. We try to make language the image of logic. In this way, sentences are the linguistic images of statements or judgments. The signals of the brain, to the extent that they convey information to or from a mind, are effectively a sort of linguistic image. Even external objects, such as computers, abacuses, printed books, semaphore flags, etc., can effectively act as linguistic symbols when their output is apprehended by a mind. Without such a mind, however, these instruments of representation are just unintelligent objects signifying nothing. A computer does not know what it is doing any more than an abacus or a printed book. Similarly, the electrical pulses in the brain are not symbols of any idea unless some mind apprehends that idea, interpreting the pulses in a certain way. Neuroscience operates on the level of syntax, not semantics, when it studies electrical pulses as such. In order to study semantics, the scientist must compare this neural activity (syntax) with the self-reported experience of intelligible meaning (semantics). For all their precision at measuring neural activity, scientists are still limited by the inherent imprecision of descriptive psychological experience to which they must try to map neural phenomena.
Judgment is distinct from conception, as it necessarily entails at least two concepts and an assessment of the logical relationship between them. While conception requires the mind to be capable of at least a mental ontology, judgment requires real logic, the philosopher's logic or classical logic with which we are familiar. Judgment has an analogy in the associative faculties of the sensitive appetite, and indeed our ability to do logic may depend on our ability to make associations between verbal representations, but logical operations are distinct from mere linguistic or syntactic operations, as the rational soul is distinct from the sensitive soul. The rational faculty uses logic to deal with verbi mentalis understood as universal concepts, while the sensitive faculties make associations between sense-images in order to stimulate their appetites. The fact that this latter association is not a rational judgment is perhaps evidenced by the fact that animals cannot make sentences, with the possible exception of certain primates. Even those that make sentences do not seem to understand them as logical statements, that is, as evaluations of truth, falsity or other logical categories. We will examine the possibility of rational faculties in non-human primates a bit later.
Another function of the rational faculty, which we may call "reasoning" or ratiocination, is the apprehension of a logical nexus between a conclusion and premises. This is a more formal, argumentative logic, such as we would learn in school, yet we grasp it even on a common sense level. The ratiocinative function deals with judgments or statements as objects, and links them as premises leading to a conclusion. This is an even higher level of abstraction than mere conception. Although most rules of logic can be formalized as syntactic rules, this formalization is post hoc, being consequent to our intuitions about what is logically valid or invalid. A mystery remains as to how we should have such intuitions of validity or invalidity, since we are dealing with objects (judgments) that are purely non-sensitive, but intellectual. With the intuitions of the sensitive soul, we can see how these might arise from the experience of interacting with our physical environment, but mere sensation alone could never help us discover the rules of abstract logic. Perhaps it is our experience of the conceptual world, a world that in its own way is as real the world of sensation, that lets us intuit these laws.
Like the other rational operations, ratiocination is conceptual and therefore intrinsically independent of the body. The rules of logic are laws of thought, not laws of physics. By contrast, the "logic" we encode on computers are just arbitrary rules of syntax that we impose, mimicking those of the formalized logical calculus or syntax we have developed. From a physical perspective, symbolic logic is arbitrary. We could just as easily wire "logic gates" in a way that cannot represent logical syntax, or we could choose to impose a different interpretation on the same wiring, and the computer would never know the difference. Real conceptual logic, by contrast, is not an arbitrary syntax, but is built into the very structure of concepts, in a world of ideas that is different from that of physics. The principle of non-contradiction, in computer "logic", is something we can arbitrarily impose or dispense with, yet on the level of concepts, it is indispensable. To a careful thinker, it should be clear that computer "bits" are not information in the conceptual sense, but merely potential representations of conceptual information, when presented to a mind. Concepts are apprehended only when we, as intellectual beings, conceive of universals when presented with the representations given to us by the computer. It is clear, then, that computer scientists are wrong when they say that the world is made of atoms and bits, for "bits" are not concepts, yet concepts are real. The computer scientist's clumsy attempt to fit Platonic ideals under the materialist umbrella fails utterly.
The last function of the intellect is reflection or self-consciousness. Consciousness of a sort is already present in the sensitive soul, but the animal is aware only of the sense-perceptions presented to it. Its own mind, as a knowing subject, cannot be reduced to a sense-perception, though perhaps it may be represented by one, so an animal with a merely sensitive soul cannot know itself as a knowing subject, since it has no grasp of the conceptual. Reflection or self-consciousness seems to be a special case of conception, where there is an identity between the knowing subject and the object known. Yet it differs from conception in that it is not dealing with a universal as such, but with a determinate entity (the self) who is capable of understanding universals. Self-consciousness means to be aware of oneself as a knower. Since the self, as a knower, deals with the conceptual, this intellectual self cannot be a sense-object, so any genuine knowledge of the intellectual self as such must be intrinsically independent of the body.
Many biologists use the term "self-consciousness" in a broader sense, applying it, for example, when an animal recognizes its reflection in a mirror as its own image and not as another animal. This kind of recognition only proves that the animal can correctly identify and associate a particular kind of sense-object. There is no evidence here that it apprehends its self conceptually, which is what we mean by self-consciousness here. We do not deny that animals with merely sensitive souls have a genuine subjective experience of reality. We merely state that an animal can have no knowledge of its subjectivity on a conceptual level, as a knower, which should be self-evident, given that it has no rational intellect with conceptual knowledge.
In a rational animal, the identity between the knowing subject and the object known does not mean that these two are now a unity. Psychologically, they are still dual. When I think of myself, "I" the thinker and "I" the object of thought are psychologically distinct, even though, of course, ontologically there is only one of me. This psychological duality is evidently necessary in order for me to be able to form logical judgments about myself. To make such judgments, "I" must be treated as a term or conceptual object in the judgment, yet "I" am also the subject who is making the judgment. Even in the more primitive act of conception, this duality is needed, since to conceptualize myself, I must regard myself as an object, yet I am also the conceiver or subject. In actual thought and speech about ourselves, we constantly refer to ourselves as though the self were some "other," yet we recognize an identity between this "other" and the "I" who is thinking or speaking. This act of recognition is something other than mere conception, so this function deserves a distinct name. Reflection or self-consciousness is an identity that is recognized on a logical level (for psychologically there is a duality), so this is an eminently rational or logical act, though it does not follow any rule of ratiocination, being an apparently primitive operation of the intellect.
All of the above functions or acts of cognition pertain primarily to the intellect or understanding, though the will is also involved in their actualization. For those who acknowledge a distinction between the "passive" and "active" intellect, Thomas Aquinas has maintained that these functions belong principally to the passive intellect. Yet each of these functions can be analyzed in terms of both the active and passive intellect. There need not be, then, any additional rational functions beyond those we have described in order to account for the roles of the active intellect and the will.
Some philosophers have distinguished two aspects of the intellectual faculty. The "active intellect" is the act of abstraction, while the passive intellect is what receives the abstract forms and understands them. Both the active and passive intellect, as they deal with abstract concepts, are intrinsically independent of the body. According to St. Thomas, expounding on a remark by Aristotle in De Anima, the active intellect alone shows a sign of immortality or intrinsic incorruptibility. This point is beyond the scope of this essay, but we note it in order to be clear that the corruptibility of the passive intellect, if it could be proved, would have no bearing on Thomistic arguments for the immortality of the rational soul.
Intellection in humans requires some previous sense perception. An intellectual act divests an object of its material and individual conditions, making it a universal and rendering the object intelligible. We cannot deny that universals are present in our minds, for all our concepts are universal. By contrast, an electric signal, a magnetic state, or a blot of ink, are all determinate and material. To arrive at a concept we must abstract from the determinate and material. I cannot explain any more clearly why a materialist account of psyche is thoroughly absurd and impossible. To try to describe this in terms of formal logic or some other mere syntactic representation would miss the point, which is the fundamental distinction between the syntactic and the conceptual. You either see it or you don't.
Since the intellect acts upon sense perceptions, intellect presupposes sensation. This is all that is meant by the ancient dictum that all knowledge comes through the senses. It does not mean that all knowledge is sensory, nor that concepts are mere sense-objects. Rather, if we had no sense-objects, our intellect would have nothing from which to abstract determinations, leaving concepts.
There is no logical necessity that intellection should depend on sense perceptions, rather than simply knowing concepts directly. Rather, it is a characteristic of human nature, where the intellect is extrinsically dependent on the body, that knowledge must come through the senses. Indeed, this physical necessity of acquiring knowledge through the senses is precisely what we mean by the extrinsic dependence of the intellect on the sensitive soul, which in turn is physically dependent on the vegetative soul for sustenance of its operations. Without such a dependence on the lower animal functions, there would be no strict logical or metaphysical necessity for knowledge to come through the senses. We can see why the Platonists viewed the body as dragging us down away from pure knowledge. Indeed, in a sense it seems to prevent us from knowing concepts directly, instead forcing us to make use of determinate representations in sense-perception.
We may also view the extrinsic dependence of the intellect on sensation from a developmental perspective. An infant's sense-objects are at first vague and indefinite. Repetition of particular sensations and contrast with other sensations enable the infant to obtain more definite apprehension, thereby perfecting sense perception gradually. Only then is the higher power of the intellect activated by sensitive cognition, at first feebly and dimly. This is followed by the cognition of objects under indefinite ideas, which, if they were assigned words, might be called "extended thing," "moving thing," et cetera, though of course an infant or toddler will not verbalize these ideas. At this stage, the infant learns to take objects as wholes. Repetition and variation of sense-impressions stimulates and sharpens attention. Pleasure and pain can evoke interest, which is when the intellect concentrates on part of various experiences.
It is here where the process of abstraction begins. Certain attributes are laid hold of, to the omission of others. Comparison and discrimination are called to action, leading to more accurate and perfect elaboration of concepts. Notions of substance/accidents, parts/whole, permanent/changing, evolve with these distinctions. These notions are all applied to objects of sense perception; there need not even be words for them in a child's mind. He may not know the terms "substance" and "accident," but he may understand "This shirt is red," as meaning that there is this thing (substance), a shirt, that has a certain attribute "red," which is distinct from the shirt itself, yet somehow pertains to the shirt.
After abstraction (considering an attribute apart from the rest; e.g., the "red" of the shirt as distinguished from the shirt itself, from the size of the shirt, etc.), a child may learn to generalize, that is, see that the attribute could be realized in many other circumstances. An apple could be red, as could a fire truck, and many other objects. If we recognize that the same "red" is in all these various objects, we arrive at a universal idea.
When an idea is given a name, it becomes a concept, since it has meaning, and can be re-used in whatever context we choose to place it. Verbalization is critical, and it is not merely slapping a label on an object, but understanding the name to signify a conceptual meaning.
We can see from the developmental account of intellect that it is senseless to speak of "raw intelligence" or intellectual aptitude abstracted from one's education or experience. The very exercise of intellect can only take place after extensive practice with the use of the sensitive faculties. Indeed, one's facility with the sensitive faculties can increase one's ability to learn, even though the sensitive faculties and the physiology of the brain are not intellect as such.
The faculty of intellect may be subdivided into the speculative, which pronounces on relations among ideas, and the practical, which considers the harmony of ideas with actions. The practical intellect includes the conscience, which pronounces on the moral quality of actions. Both kinds of intellection involve judicial acts. Ratiocination, discussed previously, involves a series of judicial acts linked together as a logical argument. The ratiocinative intellect of a human is distinguished from a simple intellect in that the former makes use of a succession of judicial acts to know some conceptual truth, while the latter is able to apprehend a conceptual truth directly in one act.
Intellect in general, whether ratiocinative or simple, is a faculty of truth and falsity. A ratiocinative intellect makes judgments regarding the truth and falsity of propositions. In a judicial act, it simultaneously affirms (1) the union of subject and predicate; and (2) an agreement between representation and reality. These affirmations are simultaneous because a word (verbum mentale) is truly a concept, representing an idea.
Even ratiocinative intellects are capable of intuitive knowledge, albeit imperfectly. We begin with the intuitive data of sense experience, to which we apply abstraction and discrimination, and retain sense-perceptions in our memory as representations of concepts. These representations are necessarily imperfect, and consequently our intuitive intellectual knowledge is imperfect, unlike that of a simple intellect. We must use concepts and reasoning in order to know things, rather than directly apprehending the thing-in-itself.
Our ideas of the infinite, of space, time, and causality, are all products of intellectual activity, for they correspond to no raw sense-object. Rather, our sense-perceptions are rendered intelligible by subjecting them to concepts such as these. Kant regarded space and time as the form of our intuition, to the point that he doubted whether we could know that space and time have any extra-mental existence. Realists believe that our intuitions of space and time are true, though perhaps imperfect, representations of reality.
The intellect is capable of intuition or immediate apprehension, as well as abstraction, identification and discrimination of concepts. One important act of identification is its conceptions of self and personal identity. The intellect is able to apprehend the self as a unity or unitary being, not merely a collection of mental states. If neurophysiology were the only psychological reality, we could hardly give credence to this identification, and would instead regard it as an illusion, as more than a few materialist psychologists have pretended to do. Yet it is not clear what it would even mean for the perception of the self as a unity to be an illusion.
A critical problem of philosophical psychology is the question of how we can know that we conceptualize and reason correctly. In particular, it is perplexing how we are able to apprehend any objective moral reality, though men of disparate cultures have often arrived at similar intuitions of moral duty. Attempts to offer physiological explanations reek of post hoc rationalization, the bane of evolutionary behavioralism. Such explanations can at best account for utilitarian ethics, but not for any objective sense of right and wrong. Our intuition of objective moral duty can have no real moral value unless it accords with the judgment of an Intellect competent to pronounce on the universal moral order. These deeper philosophical questions will be set aside here, as they are better dealt with in discussions of epistemology and ethics.
Having given an overview of classical psychological faculties, we will now turn to modern neuropsychology and see how its findings correspond to these constructs. Neuroscience can discern determinate neurological processes that facilitate the execution of various faculties, but scientists often mistake these processes for the faculties themselves, resulting in absurd denials of the immaterial rational intellect, the unity of the self, the freedom of the will, and other directly experienced truths that are far more certain than the tentative and indirect knowledge of physical science.
Modern neuroscience attempts to map all functions of the mind onto regions of the brain. This is reminiscent of phrenology, which purported to identify personality traits in particular parts of the head according to the contours of the skull. Modern neuroscientists make no distinction between the sensitive and intellectual faculties; they assume, with crude materialism, that the entirety of human personality is to be found in the brain. The primary instruments of observation are electroencephalograms (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). EEG data is obtained by applying electrodes to the scalp of a subject, and then, based on the spatial distribution of these electrodes and the strength of electrical signals received, the researcher can (now with the aid of a computer) determine the spatial distribution and various properties of electrical signals in the brain at a given time. By comparing these signals with the subject's reported psychological experiences (or presumed experience based on the task he is asked to perform), one can map certain psychological functions onto areas of the brain. A disadvantage of EEG is that it can only measure signals near the outer surface of the brain. In order to probe deeper, researchers use fMRI, which does not measure electrical signals directly, but detects increased blood flow that is known to correspond to increased neural activity. This enables a similar mapping of psychological functions onto the brain.
Neuroscience of the last hundred years is grounded in C.S. Sherrington's "neuron doctrine," which basically states that the operations of the brain can be entirely understood in terms of the operations of individual neurons. The neurons send electrical signals to each other by propagating ions along their axons, and then triggering the release of a neurotransmitter across a synapse or gap between neurons. The signal is received by another neuron's dendrites, each of which has many branches or "spines" (following Santiago Ramon y Cajal's term "espinas"). The dendritic spines are known to contain polyribosomes, but their exact internal function remains a mystery.
Superficially, the brain seems to be an incredibly complex electrical circuit, but there are some important fundamental differences. First, the "electricity" in the brain is not free flowing electrons, but heavy ions moving through cytoplasm. Thus signal transmission is much slower than in a circuit with copper wires. Second, there is likely to be a lot of non-electrical chemical activity involved in neural activity, but much of this remains a mystery. Basic neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine mediate countless functions in the brain, which is why drugs that alter their levels tend to have a host of side effects. Third, the brain is not wired like a motherboard or logic circuit, where every connection carries some syntactic significance. Dendritic spines grope around aimlessly until they happen to find an axon. If the brain were really analogous to computer circuitry, this random coupling would cause constant system failures. It seems that the fate of an individual synaptic connection is of negligible importance to the functioning of the brain. Axons tend to be grouped in bundles, so that as long as a significant fraction of them make their connection, it does not matter if a few go astray. The astonishing plasticity of the brain is a further distinction from computer circuitry; even patients with severe brain trauma are often able to recover lost function by using other parts of the brain.
Although Sherrington believed that the operations of the brain were reducible to those of neurons, he did not pretend that brain operations could account for the existence of psychological experience on a conceptual level. Modern neuroscientists, being generally materialist in their outlook, assume without proof that they have explained the functions of the intellectual soul once they have identified the sensitive functions on which it is extrinsically dependent. They do not use this terminology, of course, and it is their very failure to distinguish between the sensitive and intellectual faculties that we have a host of erroneous interpretations of the findings of neuroscience. We will cover some of the more egregious errors in the remainder of this essay.
First, however, we should give an overview of the findings of neuroscience with respect to the mapping of psychological functions onto the human brain. A simplified diagram is shown, identifying only some of the major areas, omitting their medical names, in order to give a general sense of the layout of the brain. Not depicted is the brain stem, which lies beneath and toward the rear of the brain (right side of diagram). This controls the vegetative functions, and is capable of operation even in a comatose patient. Evolutionarily, it is considered the most ancient part of the brain, which is why it also has the most primitive function. In general, we will find more advanced and evolutionarily recent functions as we move toward the front of the brain. These operations are all functions of the sensitive soul, though the more advanced of these are more directly relevant to intellectual operations. Yet no mere system of signal transmission suffices to account for the sensitive qualia and subjective consciousness of animals, much less does it bring us to the conceptual order experienced by humans. These philosophical shortcomings are steadfastly ignored by most neuroscientists, who identify all psychological functions with the neural processes that facilitate them.
Starting from the back of the cerebrum, we find the visual cortex, which processes signals from the optic nerve, and an adjoining cortex for visual associations. In the lower central part of the brain, we find both the auditory and auditory association portions of the brain. Yet humans have two other parts of the brain that are remarkably well-developed compared to other animals. These are the speech and language comprehension centers. Since most humans learn a spoken language before any other form, it makes sense that language comprehension should adjoin the auditory area. By "language comprehension" we mean the ability to learn syntax and vocabulary. This is not simply recollecting sounds, but learning to organize them in a structured way that can later be put to use in speech and other executive processes. Language comprehension on a syntactic level is certainly necessary to conceptual understanding, but it is not the same thing as the conceptual. Those who lack language comprehension will not grasp concepts, but it would be a clumsy mistake to point to this part of the brain as the location where concepts are formed, as if concepts had width and height, or as if a representation, whether neural or linguistic, was the same as an idea.
At the top of the brain, we have the seat of motor functions, and even further to the front (not marked in the diagram) is what is characterized as premotor. This region controls what we would call the locomotive faculty. Just behind the motor region is the sensosomatic cortex, which takes sensory inputs from the skin and internal organs and maps them in a virtual space defined with respect to the body. There is some truth, after all, to Kant's claim that space is the form of our intuition. Adjoining this is some cortex for sensosomatic association.
Evidently, large portions of the brain are devoted to processing sensory information and making associations among sensations. Yet the part believed to be the seat of memory is the tiny hippocampus, nestled deep in the center of the brain. Can all our memories really be stored there? Not likely, since a man without a hippocampus was still able to recall things from well before the loss of his hippocampus, though he was unable to form new memories. The hippocampus is involved in forming memories, but it is not a location where they are stored as if on a computer disk. Indeed, the question of how, or even if, memories are stored and encoded remains a mystery.
The prefrontal cortex, at the very front of the brain, is the most distinctively human neurological characteristic, being much more pronounced in homo sapiens than in the few other primates that possess it. It is responsible for calculative manipulations of sense-perceptions, and for what is vaguely called "executive" function. For all our precision at mapping neural activity, neuropsychology is still hamstrung by the conceptual limitations of our qualitative descriptions of psychological functions. It does no good to be able to identify precisely which neurons are firing, if we can only map these patterns onto the subject's self-reported assessment of his experience, with all the qualitative vagueness that entails. Neuroscientists have no choice but to accept this limitation, if they wish to truly give an account of psychology, not just neurology.
As we have noted, modern neuroscience does not recognize any distinction between the operations of the sensitive soul and those of the rational intellectual soul, mainly because scientists do not concern themselves with the philosophical distinction between concepts and their sensory representations. Their reluctance to recognize anything special in the human intellect is also informed by their understanding of Darwinian evolution, which explains the physiology of various species in terms of a continuum of gradual development. Extending this analogy to psychology, modern neuroscientists view homologous structures of the brain across species as evidence of a similar continuity of development in mental abilities.
There are some important limitations to this kind of analysis, however. First, different species may use different structures to perform a given function. Rats, for example, use their hippocampus instead of a prefrontal cortex to solve mazes. Second, homologous structures may have different functions in different species. All fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals possess a limbic system, but only the more developed animals experience something analogous to emotion, and only humans are able to verbalize and conceptualize their emotions. That is, animals with higher mental functions are able to subordinate their lower functions to these, thereby transforming the animal's experience of them. Our ability to conceptualize and verbalize our experiences gives even our "animal" emotions a different character. When I am afraid or sad, I am aware that "I am afraid" and "I am sad," propositions that would be unintelligible to animals incapable of self-reflection or conceptualization. Thus the limbic functions in a human have a markedly different psychological character than neurologically similar processes in a frog, since our experience of emotion is generally suffused with our rational consciousness. Our emotions have meaning, while meaning is unintelligible to a frog.
The failure of neuroscientists to distinguish between the different modalities of emotional experience in rational and sensitive souls is evident in their attempts to explain, or rather explain away, religious experiences. Following the usual materialist paradigm, researchers in this area pretend to explain a psychological experience in terms of the localization of associated neural activity, as if the experience were nothing more than this sensitive activity. This analysis fails to consider the rational or conceptual order, where humans are able to impose meaning on their sensitive experiences, not as something we do, but as our very mode of being. Using functional MRI images of Franciscans and Tibetans chanting or performing repetitive centering prayers, researchers observe activity in the limbic system, and crudely infer that religious experiences are located there. One does not need a functional MRI to know that religious experiences involve emotion. When we recognize and enjoy the presence of another being, it is only natural to have an emotional response, yet this is a response to our encounter with that other being, not the being itself. If we were to accept the logic of neuroscientists who pretend to have found God in the limbic system, we should also have to say that when a person has an emotional response to another human being, that other human being is just a figment of the limbic system. Clearly, an emotional response, which is a manifestation of the sensitive soul, is not to be confused with the intelligible reality experienced by the intellectual soul. The neuroscientists' philosophically motivated refusal to accept a distinction between the sensitive and the intellectual causes them to stumble into clumsy interpretive errors such as this.
Just as it is fallacious to identify human religious experiences with the emotional responses manifested in the limbic system, so is it perilous to identify any other class of psychological experience in terms of the locality of brain activation. Although we can precisely measure which areas of the brain are most active at a given point of time, our ability to correlate neural activity to a type of human thought remains limited by our imprecise qualitative descriptions of mental functions as "rational," "emotional," "executive," "memory," "cognition," and so on. We could try to evade this problem by defining psychological categories in terms of neural activities, but this would only give us tautologies without insight. If we declare, for example, that limbic activity is "emotional" by definition, that would divorce the term "emotional" from any subjective qualitative experience, and would not solve the problem of how neural activity corresponds to such experience. We have just taken familiar descriptive terms and given them a foreign definition. There is no escaping the necessity that our experientially-based qualitative classification of human behavior is imprecise, so the quantitative precision of functional neuroimaging is of limited usefulness, since it must be mapped onto the self-reported experience of human subjects in order to have any scientific validity as a theory of psychology.
The idea that the prefrontal cortex is the seat of reason belies certain prejudices about which kinds of mental functions are "higher" or more "intellectual." Our current academic culture favors mathematical or computational ability as the measure of intelligence, though this is a mechanical process that can be mimicked by computers without any understanding whatsoever. This standard of intelligence, which is embodied in many standardized aptitude tests, has given rise to the error of conflating computational activity with intelligence, a fallacy that permeates the literature on artificial intelligence. The rational soul or intellect is concerned with genuine understanding of meanings, not just facility at manipulating symbols and following syntactic rules. We may achieve understanding with the help of many faculties, not only calculation, but also through memory and emotions, which are associated with the limbic system. If I have formally reasoned something once, I do not need to repeat the argument ad nauseam, but simply retain the conclusion in memory, to be summoned by the limbic system when necessary. Evaluating another person's moral character may be an emotional process, yet this can yield a real kind of knowledge when it helps us accurately anticipate another person's actions because we "know" their character. In fact, much of our knowledge comes through "unconscious" (a better term is "intuitive") shortcuts, rather than explicit calculation. The calculative power of the prefrontal cortex is but one of many types of operations of the sensitive soul that aid in the pursuit of knowledge. It is not the sole arbiter of knowledge, nor does it, considered purely as neural signals, constitute any knowledge at all. To have knowledge, we need to move from signals to concepts, from representations to ideas. Sherrington understood this, which is why he saw no progress in the mind-body problem, even though he believed firmly in the neuron doctrine as a physiological theory.
The prefrontal cortex is often attributed "executive" functions that coordinate other systems and control the expression of emotions. Yet it would be a mistake to infer that the prefrontal cortex is the organ of the rational intellect or will. This is proved by the fact that people who lose their prefrontal cortex find that they still have a conscious will and preferred course of action, even a knowledge of right and wrong, though they find it difficult to execute their will. Thus the prefrontal cortex is not the organ of "knowledge" in the sense of the Aristotelian intellect, and to those who understand the distinction between the conceptual and its sensitive representations, it should be evident that there can be no such organ. Nonetheless, the intellect and will can be extrinsically dependent on the sensitive soul, as is evident from the limitations experienced by those who lose their prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is needed to execute that which has been decided by the will, often using other sensitive faculties, for example by allowing an emotion to be manifested or by suppressing it.
It can be tempting to take a feature like the prefrontal cortex, which exists only in primates and is highly developed only in humans, and make it the seat of the specifically human mode of consciousness. This would be to fall into a modern version of essentialism, where we take a quality that is unique to a species and make it the defining characteristic of that species. The Aristotelian definition of man was "a rational animal," where "rational" was the defining or essential characteristic of man. It is not very different to posit the prefrontal cortex as a defining characteristic, especially since neuroscientists erroneously ascribe to it the powers of the rational intellect and will.
This materialistic essentialism ignores the fact that even the more "primitive" systems, such as the limbic system, operate differently in primates and humans than in other animals, so the distinctively human character of our consciousness can be found in these other areas as well. For example, we are able to ascribe meanings to our emotions, classifying them as "fear," "happiness," "anxiety," "anger," and a host of subtle variations, so that we can contemplate them conceptually and not just experience them as raw sensation. Similarly, our memories have a different character, as they can contain conceptual knowledge and the results of abstract ratiocination, not just uninterpreted sense-perceptions. Similarly, practically every aspect of our consciousness is qualitatively distinct from that of other animals, in that it is conceptually self-reflective, often verbal, and suffused with meaning. Thus even humans who lack a prefrontal cortex are able to experience distinctively human consciousness in their limbic functions, reflecting in a mode that would be unintelligible to other animals. The various conscious mental functions overlap and inform one another. Throughout all of them, human consciousness is suffused with intellect (determining truth and falsehood) and will (choosing to act on what is known, though one may be impeded in the execution of that choice), which is unintelligible to other animals.
It is beyond our present scope to determine decisively whether other animals might also possess genuinely rational faculties. For now, we note only that the evidence adduced by scientists so far only favors the development of a highly sophisticated sensitive soul in other primates, but nothing indicating they have an intellectual consciousness, at least certainly not in their natural state. There have been some famous attempts to teach symbolic languages to apes, but these prove at best that apes are capable of using signs or gestures to represent other sense-objects, not that they are capable of grasping concepts beyond sense-objects. In other words, there is no evidence that they have a verbum mentale. From an evolutionary perspective, the gradualistic development of a sophisticated sensitive psyche in primates may be a necessary condition for the appearance of an intellectual soul in man, but it does not, by itself, explain the existence of intellect. At best, it is a necessary physical condition for the active operation of the intellect, which is extrinsically dependent on various sensitive functions, as can be seen in infant development.
In the case of the so-called "language" of dolphins, the evidence for intellect is even weaker. The highly developed speech center is coupled to an enormous auditory processing region that can generate extremely complex sound patterns. We now know that dolphins perceive sound spatially, much as we perceive light in vision, and so they can "see" in detail where everything is through sound. Their complex vocalizations are audible "snapshots" of what they have "seen" through sonar. Thus their "language" is really just an auditory "picture" of what they have "seen," so it is not even on the level of the symbolic syntax mastered by some apes. The example of dolphins shows the danger of identifying complexity of signals with intelligence.
There is a tendency in neuroscience to anthropomorphize neural processes, effectively elevating sensitive functions to the rational order. For example, scientists speak of "praxis knowledge," which refers to learned practical abilities such as tool use and other actions. Often such "knowledge" need not involve any intellectual comprehension or even subjective consciousness. It suffices for sensory input to interact with stored representations of movement that are translated into neural patterns. We do not know how these representations are stored any more than we do for other kinds of memory, but it is clear that "praxis knowledge" need not entail knowledge in the intellectual sense, which is knowledge of concepts. Yet scientists still speak of "praxis knowledge" (a better term would be "praxis memory") as if it involved genuinely semantic operations (i.e., using symbols that represent conceptual meaning rather than sensible referents). This is understandable, since describing the physical process in semantic terms helps us understand it, but this does not mean that the physical process itself entails any semantic understanding.
When neuroscientists speak of "semantic systems," such as visual semantics and auditory semantics, they generally mean manipulation of symbols and syntax. Some animals are also capable of semantics in the sense of correlating sense-perceptions with linguistic (or visual or gestural) representations. Yet none of these operations need entail real semantikos or meaning; there is only reference to sense-objects. An example of the muddled state of the philosophy of language in neuroscience can be gleaned from this sentence in a reputable paper on praxis knowledge: "Internalized linguistic referents contain semantic descriptions of objects and actions." A referent is an object (presumed to be real) to which a linguistic symbol refers; for example, an actual horse could be the referent of 'that horse'. It makes no sense to "internalize" a referent, which is, by definition, external. The horse will still be out in the field, no matter what we think of it. We may have a sense-image of the horse in our mind, but this is no longer the horse, only a representation of a horse. True, this sense-image could be considered a more immediate referent of the word 'horse,' but only if we are meta-cognitive enough to recognize the sense-image as distinct from the real horse. Otherwise, the perceived referent remains something "out there."
What does it mean for an "internalized linguistic referent" to contain "semantic descriptions" of real objects and actions? An external referent certainly does not contain any meaning (semantikos) as such; indeed the whole point of defining a referent was to distinguish the object from any subjective meaning that is applied to it. (Indeed, Russell went so far as to deny meaning altogether.) Yet perhaps the "internalized" referent acquires a character of subjectivity and comes to have some meaning attached to it. If this were the case, it would not be by virtue of being a referent, nor by virtue of being a sense-object, but by some other operation. The appearance of meaning remains an unexplained mystery. Perhaps more bizarre, in this account, meaning ("semantic description") appears to be prior to language. Unless, of course, as seems likely, the author intended the term "linguistic referent" to mean a linguistic object (e.g., a word or phrase), in which case the statement collapses into philosophical incoherence.
The existence of semantics, both in the animal sense of using symbols to represent objects, and in the human sense of using language to represent conceptual meaning, is highly problematic for materialist scientists. Most deal with the problem by muddling issues of the philosophy of language, as we have seen above. In this vein, one could also take the approach of denying that humans really have any conceptual knowledge beyond sense-objects. This is superficially easy to demonstrate, since human thoughts, even about highly abstract matters, always involve the use of linguistic objects, and these are always motivated by sense-objects in the first instance. All neural activity corresponds to one or another sensitive (or vegetative) function, so if we cannot find any higher conceptual activity in the brain, it must not exist. The argument against this line of thinking comes from simply contemplating that we can in fact grasp concepts that are beyond any determinate sensible representation. A philosophical exposition of this fact can at best point to the reality, but it alone cannot take us there. Indeed, the very significance of the fact is that linguistic representations and symbolic syntax alone do not constitute conceptual understanding. This is why I say you either see it or you do not. For those who see it, the arguments of materialism are vain attempts at demonstrating the impossible, which is why the most subtle minds have always rejected it.
Another example of an anthropomorphized sensitive faculty is that of "attention." One formal textbook definition states, "Attention is the focusing of consciousness by providing heightened sensitivity to a certain stimuli in awareness." Here we see the ease with which scientific thought elides between sensitivity and subjective consciousness. "Consciousness" is characterized as being "focused" by virtue of a "heightened sensitivity" to sensory stimuli. The saving phrase "in awareness" specifies that attention only applies to sense-perceptions of which an animal is subjectively conscious. It would not be enough for an animal to be more sensitive to one stimulus than another, which is possible even among the lowliest creatures. Yet the "attentional system," as it is characterized neurologically, seems to involve something beyond what we would ordinarily regard as "paying attention." The purely sensitive process of emphasizing a particular stimulus, for example, focusing on the image of a spoon rather than the white background, is considered a function of the attentional system. These functions are performed in the background, without our awareness or willing it, suggesting that in fact they are not truly conscious functions, except in the broad sense that any interaction with sensible objects can be called "conscious."
It appears that the neuroscientist's notions of consciousness and attention are quite vague, and make no distinction between sensitivity and intellect. In fact, there is quite a significant gap between "attention" in the distinctively human sense and the "attentional system" common to many animals (including humans), reflecting a similar disparity in their modes of consciousness. The Spanish philosopher JosÚ Ortega y Gasset noted that apes, no less than other animals, appeared to focus all their attention on their external sensible surroundings. An ape could stare off into the distance for what would seem an interminable time to a human, constantly watching and staying alert. It was as if its entire being was "out there," for as Ortega y Gasset says, "Tell me where your attention is, and I'll tell you who you are." An animal's subjective consciousness is filled with sense-perceptions and nothing more, so in a sense its "self" is totally "other," being filled with impressions of the external world. This is more especially the case in lower animals that cannot recognize their own reflections, perceiving the reflected self as an "other," yet even apes who have learned to recognize their own reflections, and have the capacity to "think about thinking" (that is, recognize their sense-perceptions, memories or imaginings as distinct from external reality) ultimately have sense-objects as the final referents of all their conscious thoughts.
A human being, by contrast, lives inside himself, even when he is observing the outside world. Every conscious sensation is given a subjective meaning, and is thereby made his own. This process of wrapping oneself inside oneself is described by Ortega y Gasset with the Spanish verb ensimismiarse. It does not denote introspection as opposed to external observation, but rather it describes a characteristic of all rational human consciousness, which infuses the "self" into everything it experiences. This is the exact opposite operation of what animal attention does. Instead of allowing the external world to suffuse the "self," a human being infuses his "self" into everything he perceives.
Modern terms for psychological faculties, such as 'consciousness,' 'cognition,' 'attention,' and the like, have no more precision than classical terminology, and arguably less. After all, they do not have the advantage of being the subjects of centuries of philosophical discourse among the Western world's most rigorous and acute minds. Modern terminology not only lacks metaphysical precision, but it is inconsistently used by scientists, with definitions varying substantially from one text to the next. With such crude categories, which often fail to distinguish between the rational and sensitive orders, or among the various gradations of the latter, we can only have a rather crude ability to map functions onto the brain, even if we could know what every neuron was doing in real time. Already, neuroimaging techniques are astoundingly precise, making possible the prospect of fully mapping the human brain, yet we are nonetheless limited by the imprecision of psychological categories. Even if we could completely map the brain, this would no more unlock the mysteries of the mind than mapping the human genome has solved all mysteries of human genetics. Just as many different genes can interact in complex ways to create phenotypes, so the different processes of the brain might interact in inconceivably complicated ways, and the relationship between neurological process and psychological function is often more subtle and complex than that between genotype and phenotypic traits.
Some scientists may try to circumvent the crudeness of psychology by focusing strictly on neurology as the only thing that is real, yet this will logically lead to treating all psychological maladies as if they were brain ailments. If this were really the case, all such maladies should in principle be treatable by surgery, electrical stimulation, drugs, and other physical modifications of the brain. In fact, this model had already been adopted to disastrous effect for much of the twentieth century, with its emphasis on electroshock treatment, anticonvulsant and sedative drugs, even lobotomies. Many therapists came to recognize that this overwhelmingly physiological approach to psychiatry often treated only the symptoms of a psychological malady without addressing the root cause. Further, public outrage at the inhumane treatment of institutionalized patients led to the illegalization of compulsory commitment in much of the world. Common sense, indeed, would indicate that if a person is troubled by events in his life, he should grapple directly with those events, rather than view the chemical manifestation of his anxiety as the primary problem.
In recent years, the proliferation of psychotropic drugs with milder side effects has led to a second wave of attempting to medicalize behavior. The results, though not as horrific as those of the mid-twentieth century, are every bit as crude. Psychotropic drugs do not "cure" psychological maladies, but mask their unpleasant symptoms. Many of them are little better than happy pills, much like the illegal drugs used recreationally. The most common function of these drugs is to heighten production (often by inhibiting uptake) of basic neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, in order to improve mood or sharpen attention. Since each type of neurotransmitter is used to mediate hundreds of different brain functions, there are guaranteed to be complex side effects. Contrary to common claims, these drugs do not correct chemical imbalances; they create them. The patient's serotonin level is not measured prior to prescription to see if there truly is a chemical imbalance; the mere fact of being emotionally depressed is considered to suffice. In actuality, only extreme psychotics such as serial killers show major decreases in serotonin levels, sometimes around 40%, yet antidepressant drugs can effectively increase serotonin levels over a hundredfold.
The crudeness and general ineffectiveness of psychiatric treatment, evidenced by the constant proliferation and prolongation of drug treatments without reduction in prevalence, should give us pause in accepting that physiological neurology teaches us how to treat the mind. Not only do physiologically-oriented neuroscientists often fail to understand the mind, many have effectively given up on understanding it and strive only to understand the brain, naively assuming that an understanding of the mind will come along with that. This is like assuming that by understanding how a printing press works, we will automatically understand the issues discussed in newspaper articles. The signals in the brain are indeed representations of thoughts, but the psychological significance of these thoughts had better be understood if we are to treat a psychological ailment. Physically inducing the brain to think along different lines is no more a solution than to say that the solution for anxiety about war is for the newspapers to print articles about something else. This trivial "solution" is effectively what is proposed by physiological treatment of properly psychological problems.
Despite the crudeness of modern neuroscience, both in its physiological approach to psychiatry and in its conceptualization of psychology, we must recall that classical terminology of faculties, for all its philosophical precision, also has serious limitations. The classical theories of psychological faculties were built up from the subjective experience of rational consciousness, so all non-rational faculties are seen from the perspective of rational consciousness. Modern neuroscience allows us to look at what happens behind the scenes, when various sensitive faculties operate without the direct knowledge of the rational consciousness. Some of these faculties may give signs of an effective "sensitive consciousness" such as animals possess, though this is of a different order than that of the rational interpretive intelligence in humans.
Ordinarily, the human intellect is able to directly or indirectly engage with the various sensitive faculties, and somehow coordinate them. In extreme cases such as split-brain patients, however, certain sensitive faculties can be severed from the speech center, so there is no way the rational intellect can have knowledge of their operations. Then these faculties "fly solo," relying on past experience, and can even exhibit some verbal, though non-interpretive, consciousness. It should not be too surprising that the sensitive soul should sometimes be able to operate on its own; after all, the lowly vegetative functions are able to do so. The sensitive soul, even in a unified brain, can operate as what we might call the unconscious mind. The great lasting achievement of modern psychology, going back to Freud, has been to gradually uncover the surprising degree of sophistication to be found in unconscious operations.
Having seen the limitations of scientific pretensions to have mapped all psychological functions onto the brain, we will concentrate specifically on those of greatest interest to the question of an immaterial psyche, namely those of higher conscious functions, such as what is experienced by humans. Arguably, even the sensitive functions in other animals are necessarily immaterial, as they inhabit a virtual space and involve apprehension of universal forms, not that animals perceive forms as forms, but as classes of sense-objects. We focus on the human faculties because they are most eminently immaterial and because we have direct knowledge of the human subjective experience, not because we wish to begrudge the other animals a truly immaterial psyche as well.
Continue to Part II
© 2010 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org