Aristotle on the Immateriality of Intellect and Will

Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575.jpgAt Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne has responded to my post about the immateriality of the intellect and will and the reality of free will. He admits that he doesn’t grasp the argument completely, so I’ll expand upon it a bit.

First, a note on the provenance of the argument. The argument is not mine. It was originally proposed by Aristotle (De Anima, Book III). For two millennia, it was the common wisdom of educated men, and was widely considered decisive. Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic philosophers developed it further (Sententia Libri De Anima). Through Aquinas and Maimonides and Averroes, this argument of the peripatetic pagan became a cornerstone of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic understanding of the mental powers of the soul.

With the rise of Cartesian and Hobbesian mechanical philosophy and materialism in the 16th and 17th centuries, the classical argument for the immateriality of the intellect and will was simply ignored and then forgotten. Yet Aristotle’s argument has never been refuted. Modern materialists confidently deny free will and deny the immateriality of the intellect and will without even the slightest acquaintance with this pivotal argument that has been extant for two thousand years. That we take the free-will deniers seriously is a pitiful commentary on our gullibility and the poverty of our intellectual culture.

What follows is a pr�cis of the argument.

We have knowledge of two kinds of things — particulars and universals. Particulars are things that exist as discrete objects in nature. An apple is a particular, as is a tree and a man.

Universals don’t exist as discrete things in nature. Universals are characteristics of particular things. Goodness (say, a good apple), greenness (of a tree), and humanity (said of man) are universals. Universals are concepts, not discrete things existing in nature.

Particulars are substances — things that exist in their own right. Universals are things that exist in other things — accidents, in Aristotelian terminology.

Particulars have material agency, whereas universals don’t. If you are hit by a red truck, you are hit by the truck, not by the red.

Aristotle asked: Is knowledge a material act, or an immaterial act? He noted that certain kinds of knowledge — such as sense-perception, imagination and memory — grasp particulars and can be readily understood as material acts. I see a rock, or a tree, or a man. Such perception of particulars can easily be understood as inherently material — or at least very tightly linked to matter. In fact, modern neuroscience has dovetailed nicely with Aristotle’s view. The visual perception of a tree involves a fully material process of light striking the retina, activating neurons and action potentials via projections to the occipital cortex, etc. In many situations, the sense-perception of an object correlates with brain activation in a somatotopic pattern. Regions of the retina project consistently to specific corresponding regions of the cortex. It’s very well organized. It’s quite elegantly material.

Now Aristotle understood "material" in a quite different way than modern materialists do, so modern materialism is still stymied in its ability to explain even sense-perception (the qualia problem). But the general Aristotelian principle that knowledge of particulars is inherently material has withstood the test of time.

Aristotle pointed out that universals are another issue entirely. Knowledge of universals like good and evil — the kind of knowledge on which free will is based — is mediated by intellect and will. Intellect and will entail knowledge of concepts, not particular things.

How can a concept be instantiated in matter? Well, it can’t. Concepts (universals) are not particulars. Therefore concepts cannot be instantiated as a particular in brain tissue or as a particular in any material substrate, such as a brain state.

Simply put: brain states are particulars, and concepts are universals, so a concept cannot be a particular brain state.

The standard materialist reply to this observation (after the materialist admits that the two thousand year old argument is completely new to him) is that the concept is represented in a brain state. The materialist will appeal to "integrated… overlapping… massive parallel processing" or to whatever is the consensus neurobabble of the day.� But all neurobabble reduces to representation. All (non-eliminative) arguments for the materiality of the intellect and will depend on brain representation of concepts.

The materialist will have a point here, although he won’t understand it. While a universal cannot be a particular substance, it can be an accidental form in a particular substance. It is certainly true that concepts can be represented materially. I am doing so now as I type this. Perhaps concepts can be represented in the brain in some way, analogous to the way I am representing these Aristotelian concepts on my computer.

But this doesn’t get materialists out of the bind. Imagine that a concept can be represented in a brain state, via a kind of neuro-HTML code for thought. In fact, philosopher Jerry Fodor and others have proposed a "language of thought" hypothesis that proposes that thoughts are represented in the brain by a specific syntax. The problem with the use of language of thought hypotheses to fully explain mental concepts materialistically is that a representation presupposes that which it represents.

Imagine drawing a map of a city. You must first have a city, or the concept of a city, in order to draw the map. No city, no map. A representation is a representation of something — so the representation cannot be the complete instantiation of that thing. If the representation is the complete instantiation of a thing, the representation is the thing itself, not a representation.

If a concept is represented in a brain state, then the concept is presupposed by the representation, and therefore you haven’t explained the concept. You’ve merely explained its representation.

Even if materialists could show that a concept is represented in a brain state, as an accidental form rather than a substantial form, they can’t explain the concept materialistically, because the material representation of a concept by accidental form presupposes the concept.

A further problem with the view that a concept could be an accidental form is that accidental forms have no material agency — the truck hits you, not the red — so if concepts were accidental forms, they couldn’t cause anything to happen in the material world, including in the brain. Concepts would be mere epiphenomena of brain activity, and would be causally impotent. This view, which is epiphenomenalism, hasn’t been taken seriously for centuries, for obvious reasons. In case the reason doesn’t seem obvious, consider this: if a concept is an accidental form, and it therefore has no material agency, your statement "a concept is an accidental form" couldn’t be caused by any concept that you have.

A concept — a universal — can’t be explained materialistically.

You may have noticed in this argument a way out for materialists. Materialists could claim that the brain state doesn’t represent the concept — it just is the concept. Materialists could claim that our folk concepts (sic) of concepts are mere ignorance of the reality that we have no concepts at all. (If you’re not chuckling now you don’t understand the argument.) This is the concept that there are no concepts. Matter is the only thing that exists. Our concepts are just matter, without remainder and aren’t representations at all.

This view — eliminative materialism — is regnant in materialist circles. Suffice to say that eliminative materialism is the drain around which all materialism eventually swirls. �

Intellect and will are immaterial powers of the mind. The will is not determined by matter, and free will is real.

Now all of this is not to say that intellect and will are not dependent on matter for their ordinary functioning. If you are hit in the head with a baseball bat, your immaterial intellect and will won’t work properly for a while. This is because intellect and will are dependent on material sense-perception and imagination and memory for their ordinary function. If you cannot perceive anything or imagine anything or remember anything, you have no substrate by which to understand anything. The immaterial powers of the mind function normally only when the material powers of the mind are functioning normally.

You may notice that this Aristotelian view of the dependence of immaterial intellect and will on material sense-perception and imagination and memory comports nicely with our own experience of free will. We are obviously influenced, and sometimes influenced powerfully, by the material state of our body. We do not judge or act wisely when we are tired or drunk or sick. Sometimes the impairment is so profound that we are not held responsible for our actions (e.g., if we have schizophrenia).

So our will is free from determinism, but influenced by matter. Sometimes the material influence is strong. Sometimes the influence is weak. Matter does not determine our will, but matter most certainly influences our will. This is our common experience.

The heart of Aristotle’s genius was his ability to provide an enduring and masterful explanation of what all men know to be true. The modern denial of free will is a bizarre delusion, and one wonders if the deniers really believe what they say. They certainly live their lives as if free will were undeniable.

It is a scandal that the debate over free will is taking place largely without acknowledgement or even awareness of the classical demonstration of the immateriality of intellect and will. Aristotle’s demonstration of the immateriality of intellect and will and his implicit defense of the freedom of the will from materialist determinism is as valid and pertinent today as it was two thousand years ago.

By Copy of Lysippus (Jastrow (2006)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



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