Friday, October 15, 2010

Bodies, Animals, and Minds 2 --- The Aristotelian Background

As with most medieval issues, the place to start is Aristotle, for he really set the terms of the debate. To start, consider the spot where I am now standing. Now let’s ask this question: what occupies this region of space? Aristotle thinks we could give a number of different answers here.

(1) For instance, one thing that fills this region of space is a body, i.e., this chunky lump of tissue bumbling around up here. And this is not just any old body. It’s not made of clay, or steel, or any other sort of inorganic material. It’s made of flesh and blood, bones and organs. In short, it’s an organic body. So one option is that there’s an organic body in this region of space.

(2) A second answer might be that there’s an animal here. For Aristotle, the defining characteristic of animals is that they are sentient, which is to say that they are aware of and responsive to the outside world. And indeed, I have five senses through which I access the outside world: I can see things, smell things, touch things, and so on. So here we have another option: there’s an animal standing here in this region of space.

(3) A third answer you might give is that there is a mind here, i.e., something with an intellect and will. Of all the animals on our planet, only humans are able to think in complicated ways, love our spouses and children deeply, take stands on moral issues, and so on. These are the sorts of things that can only be done by a mind (or at least by a thinking thing). So here we have yet another option: that there’s a mind which in some sense or other resides in this region of space.

So Aristotle thinks we can identify at least three things in this region of space. At the very least, there’s a body here, there’s an animal here, and there’s a mind here (or at least a thinking thing).

But how are these three related? Are they three entirely distinct things that all occupy the same region of space simultaneously, perhaps like how if we look at a wet sponge, we could say that the water and the sponge occupy the same region of space as well? Or is there just one thing occupying this region of space, and it has the characteristics of a body, an animal, and a mind?

That’s the basic question. Next, I’ll turn to Aquinas.

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