Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bodies, Animals, and Minds 5 --- Aquinas 3

Another deep-seated intuition we have is that two material objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time. Take any two material objects and try to get them into the same space. You can’t do it. They bounce off each other; they repel each other. And indeed, this is precisely why we don’t try to park our cars in spots that are already occupied by other cars.

The same goes for human beings. As Aquinas sees it, if there were a distinct body and a distinct animal in this region of space where I am now standing, then there would be two material objects in the same place at the same time, and surely that’s impossible. Aquinas’s view captures this intuition nicely as well: there can only be one thing here in this spot right now, and that’s me.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bodies, Animals, and Minds 4 --- Aquinas 2

In the last post, I explained that for Aquinas, there is just one thing occupying this region of space where I am now standing, and that’s me, a human being. Aquinas thinks it would be ludicrous to say that there is a distinct body, animal, and mind in this same region of space.

Now, at first sight, that probably sounds right to most people, and for good reason: it lines up with a number of intuitions that we have about material objects, and especially about living organisms.

For example, one intuition we have is that living organisms exhibit a very tight kind of internal unity. That is, the parts and functions of an organism are tied together very tightly and integrated into one single entity. It’s not as if I’m made of a bunch of lego bricks that can be pulled apart at will. If you pulled off my leg, it would be incredibly painful, and I would very likely die from blood loss, if the shock didn’t kill me first. I’m not a loose blob of parts; there’s a very tight connection between everything within me.

So we tend to think about living organisms as tightly unified individuals, and Aquinas’s view captures this intuition very well. When asked what it is that occupies this region of space where I am now standing, there’s got to be just one thing here, namely a single living organism (me).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bodies, Animals, and Minds 3 --- Aquinas 1

In the last post, I pointed out that if we look at the region of space where I am now standing, we can identify at least three different sorts of things: an organic body, a living animal, and a mind. The question is, though, how are these three things related? Are they three distinct things in the same region of space, or is there just one thing here?

According to Aquinas, it would be ludicrous to say that here in this region of space that I now occupy, there are three entirely distinct things. As Aquinas sees it, there’s just one thing here, and it’s me, a human being.

Aquinas gives a number of arguments for why this must be so, but the one that really gets to the heart of his view is this: if a ‘human being’ were actually just a bunch of other individual things that just happened to occupy the same spot, then a ‘human being’ would really just be an aggregate of those other things. As Aquinas himself puts it:
‘Many . . . things do not make up one [larger] thing unless something unifies them and ties them together. So, for example, if Socrates were both an animal and a mind . . . , those two things would need to be united by some link that would make them into one thing. But since there is no such link [ex hypothesi], Socrates would just be an aggregate or a heap of many things’. --- From Quaestiones de Anima, in the Responsio to question 11.
And Aquinas clearly thinks that would be absurd. A human being is one individual thing, not a conglomerate of many things occupying the same region of space.

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.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Bodies, Animals, and Minds 1

One of the things that medieval philosophers debated was this: how many substantial forms do material substances (especially human beings) have? This is known as the controversy over the plurality of forms. The debate can seem rather abstract and archaic, what with all the matter and form stuff. It may be abstract, but it’s not at all archaic. It still occupies philosophers today. In this series of posts, I want to introduce the topic in a way which I hope will make the basic problems and issues clear. So here goes.

One way into the debate is to think about this question: what exactly is a human being, or perhaps even a (human) person? Most of us would agree that we have bodies, we are all living animals, and we have minds. But which of those is crucial for being a (human) person? All of them? Just one of them? Some combination of them? Or perhaps none of them at all?

To help bring the issue into focus, consider the following. Sometimes people suffer severe head trauma, and as a result, they lapse into a vegetative state. Sometimes the damage is so bad that they require life support. They need machines to keep the heart beating and the lungs breathing.

What do we want to say about the person then? When I have my students deal with this question, many of them start off by arguing that when the mental activity stops, the person stops too, so to speak. And that suggests that the body is not that important for personhood. ‘It’s the mind that matters’, my students tell me.

But we can further push the point. Philosophers sometimes hypothesize about science-fiction sorts of scenarios, one of which is brain transplants. Imagine if we could take my mind --- all of its abilities, knowledge, memories, personal quirks, and so on --- and then transfer it into another body. Where would I be then? Would I go with my mind into the next body, or would I have left an important part of me behind in the old body?

In the next post, I’ll start digging into how the scholastics dealt with these sorts of questions.