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New Website Aquinas.Design Provides Insight into Nature and the Mind


I have written about Father Michael Chaberek’s superb website Aquinas.Design. Father Chaberek provides a wonderful synopsis of the consilience between Thomism and intelligent design science, and he provides a very useful introduction to Thomistic metaphysics. He helped me (a passionate but amateur Thomist!) understand an issue that perplexed me for years.

The Great Chain of Being

I understood the difference between substantial form and accidental form, and I understood some aspects of the Great Chain of Being, which is the Thomist framework for understanding existence, with prime matter at the lowest level and God at the highest. What perplexed me is: Do things such as rocks, mountains, oceans, etc., really have substantial form? It is clear that living things do, but what about things that are not so clearly delineated. It is perhaps an admission of my rather geeky nature that I obsess over such questions, but alas I do. 

Father Chaberek addresses this issue very nicely:

[A] grand claim of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics is that substances constitute a hierarchy. In other words, even though everything that exists is a substance in some sense there are some things that constitute substance in a deeper and truer sense than the others. The hierarchy in the descending order looks like this:

Spirits (angels)

The only true substance is God alone. He is one and indivisible in the highest degree, He is the most self-contained, most specified and simply the most “is.” Every other substance is just a substance by participation in God. The highest created substances are the angels. Their specification (and therefore essentiality) is much greater than that of any material being. Below angels there are humans who have the subsistent soul. This means that the human soul may exist without matter though naturally it exists with the body (the material component of a human being). The subsistent soul makes humans more specific and unified than any other material being. Below humans there are animals and plants. Below plants there are non-living physical objects such as compounds and elements. In fact neither of them should be called substance because they do not constitute unity. They are not distinct; they are not specified or self-contained. Hence, in metaphysical terms water is not substance, it is merely a compound. If we call it substance we do it in a very weak way and only by analogy to the true substances. Elements and compounds are in a way a contradiction of substance. Similarly, artifacts, though sometimes quite complicated and very much organized (e.g., computers, cars), are not substances but ensembles of parts, compounds and elements.

A Question Answered

This answered my question about the substantial form of mountains and oceans very nicely. Substance implies unity, and all things other than God are substances only by analogy, by participation. In animals and man, for example, it is reasonable to speak of unity — of discreteness of self and clear demarcation from non-self. In mountains and oceans, it is less meaningful to speak of discreteness. Where does the mountain (or ocean) start and the valley (or sea) begin? Mountains and oceans are compounds, combinations of elements, without the unity necessary for substantial form. 

Father Chaberek’s discussion on the Chain of Being is useful in other ways. For example, it provides a clear explanation of the difference between human, animal, and machine “intelligence.” Humans and animals have substantial forms, which are their souls, and souls have powers such as sensation, perception, memory, etc., that constitute what we moderns call the mind. A mind then requires a substantial form, or at least a form that is analogous in a significant way to substantial form.

A machine, such a computer, is an artifact, and has no substantial form at all. It has an accidental form — a contraption of unrelated parts, elements, and compounds cobbled together by man. A computer is complex, but it is not a substance. It is an artifact, and as such it has no soul and cannot have a mind. 

Enormous Explanatory Power

So in the Thomist view, only an animal or a man can have a mind because only an animal or man has a sensitive or intellectual soul. Computers aren’t substances and don’t have souls, so they don’t have minds. Man can represent thoughts (i.e., store accidental forms) on computers, but they are just representations, not the thoughts themselves. 

Thomism has enormous explanatory power. A thousand years before the computer era, St. Thomas implicitly explained clearly why machines can be a useful adjunct to thought (as artifacts) but can never think themselves. 

Father Chaberek offers many deep insights from the Thomistic perspective on his blog.