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Can Traditional Philosophy Help Us Understand Mind vs. Brain?

Michael Egnor asks us to look back to the traditional idea that the soul is the “form” of the body

Yesterday, we published the fourth portion of the debate between materialist philosopher David Papineau and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, where the key issue was “Is the mind simply what the brain does?” Today, we look at the portion which starts roughly at 36 min where Papineau and Egnor start to talk about traditional philosophical ways of thinking about the soul and the body (partial transcript):

Note: Dr. Papineau is a “physicalist.” On that view, “the mind is a purely physical construct, and will eventually be explained entirely by physical theory, as it continues to evolve.” (Philosophy basics) He is considered to be one of the best defenders of naturalism (nature is all there is), often called “materialism.”

Michael Egnor: In the Thomistic view, the soul is the “form” of the body. It is different from other forms, in that it can contain forms but not become the thing it contains, and Aristotle actually said the soul is, in a way, all things. So the way that intentionality works, in Thomistic dualism, is that the soul grasps the form of the [00:36:30] object of your thought, and that form of the object of your thought is incorporated in the form that is the soul, so the soul can have forms of other things in it without becoming that thing.

Note: The soul as a “form” can be seen as the difference between a live body and a dead one. A body before and after death may be almost identical — except for that one critical fact. In traditional philosophy, some parts of the soul are considered material (emotions) and others are considered immaterial (reasoning and moral choice).

About “intentionality”: you can, of course, imagine many things without becoming any of them. You could write an epic without becoming one of the characters.

David Papineau: It does sound to me like just explaining one mystery in terms of another. If you tell me that I have a soul, and the form of the city Lima is part of my soul, and that’s how I can refer to the city Lima that just needs to be explained …

Note: There was considerable crosstalk at this point…

Michael Egnor: Sure, sure. Aristotle believed that the fundamental things that exist in the world are substances, and that substances are composites of two things. They’re composites of principles of intelligibility, that is what you can understand about the thing, like a tree, and a principle of individuation, that is that tree and not simply generic trees. These two things, together, were substances. The principle of intelligibility, Aristotle went on to call form, taking after Plato, who would use a similar concept. And the principle of individuation, Aristotle went on to call matter. And form and matter make up everything that exists in the natural world.

Note: Aristotle (385–322 BCE) “numbers among the greatest philosophers of all time. Judged solely in terms of his philosophical influence, only Plato is his peer: Aristotle’s works shaped centuries of philosophy from Late Antiquity through the Renaissance, and even today continue to be studied with keen, non-antiquarian interest. A prodigious researcher and writer, Aristotle left a great body of work, perhaps numbering as many as two-hundred treatises, from which approximately thirty-one survive.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Michael Egnor: Aristotle believed, also, that form was the actuality of something, and matter was the potentiality of something. And Aristotle felt that the first actuality of a living thing was its form, which he called the soul. And he describes three different kinds of souls. There are vegetative souls, which belong to plants, that enable plants to grow, and to reproduce, and to get nourishment. [00:39:00] There are sensitive souls, which belong to animals, which allow animals to perceive, animals to move, to do things like that, as well as the vegetative powers, and there are rational souls, which belong to people, which allow human beings to have rational understandings of things.

Aristotle believed, and Thomas Aquinas affirmed, and I affirm that the rational powers of the human soul are not material. They can’t be material, because matter doesn’t have rational relationships. There is no logic in material relationships. There’s physics in material relationships. And there’s a ton of neuroscience that supports Aristotle and Saint Thomas’s view. I’d be happy to go over that with you in detail, if you would like.

David Papineau:[00:40:00] Thank you. I did know about Aristotle, so that was very useful for the audience. But I must say it… Well, no, it’s a worked out theory, but from a contemporary perspective, it does look like mystery-mongering. The idea that somehow, these forms get embraced by my mind [00:40:30] has no counterpart in anything familiar to modern science. Now, that wouldn’t be a huge issue if you didn’t face what seems to be the central point that I flagged earlier.

I mean, suppose that we… Suppose, for the sake of the argument, I buy that there’s a form [00:41:00] of the city Lima, and somehow, this is embraced by my intellect, and that enables me to think about Lima and so on, and now I put to you, well, there’s nothing in the physical material world corresponding to any of that, but strongly, we want to allow that the things I think, and feel, and conclude, and decide [00:41:30] make a difference to what I do. They make a difference to the movement of my body, and I presume they’re going to make a difference to the nerve signals coming down from my motor cortex. I just don’t see what possible story there is about how all that stuff about forms and souls is going to make any difference to the movements of the molecules in my brain. That’s the problem that you face. …

I was just going to say that the position that you’re putting forward, there was space for it within a modern science that allowed that in addition to physical forces, like electromagnetic forces and gravity operating on matter, there were also nervous [00:42:30] forces, forces of sensibility, forces of irritability, vital forces. I mean, things like that maybe do have the structure that you were talking about based on Aristotelian forces, but the forces we’re left with… I mean, modern science, modern biochemistry doesn’t appeal to any of those things in explaining the operation of cells, operation of the rest of our bodies, so I just don’t see where this kind of stuff you’re talking about is going to be able to make [00:43:00] a difference to anything that happens in my body.

Arjuna [host]: I think one question we need to ask is that any worldview is going to place mystery or inconceivability somewhere, so the question is, is the dualism placing the mystery in the wrong place or is the physicalism placing the mystery in the wrong place, or which one is more justified in where it places the inconceivability?

Note: There was plenty of crosstalk at this point, establishing that Papineau believes that the brain is the mind and Egnor doesn’t.

Michael Egnor: First of all, Werner Heisenberg made a comment I thought it was fascinating, because unlike so many scientists in modern times, he was philosophically quite literate, and he made the comment that quantum mechanics was an astonishing affirmation of the Aristotelian idea of potency and act, that the state of quantum decoherence was essentially a state of potency, and that observation brought it into [00:44:30] act. Heisenberg was a strong Aristotelian, and said that after, like, 2,300 years, Aristotle has been shown to be correct about that.

Note: Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976) was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, famous for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: “The more precisely you know the position of a particle, the less precisely you can simultaneously know the momentum of that same particle.” – Thoughtco

Michael Egnor: I can’t believe that you don’t think that science uses formal and final causes. You don’t think that your biochemistry has anything to do with purposes, that your heart doesn’t have a purpose, your brain doesn’t have a purpose?… But no, formal cause is the intelligibility [00:45:00] of something. You don’t think that physiology and biology has anything to do with the intelligibility of living things? … Why do you denigrate the Aristotelian concept of form?

David Papineau: Because I’ve spent my life trying to see how intelligibility and purposes can fit into [00:45:30] the modern scientific worldview. That’s what I do. I don’t start bringing in things that make no sense from a scientific point of view. I accept what science has good evidence to believe, and I explain purposes, and intelligibility, and logic, and reasoning, and intentionality within that framework.

Michael Egnor: What is the materialist framework that [00:46:00] makes quantum mechanics intelligible? How do you make quantum mechanics intelligible in a materialist framework?

David Papineau: So, I’m slightly surprised what you said about Heisenberg, because I don’t think he could have said that decoherence was an illustration of the Aristotelian principles, because I don’t think decoherence was talked of until sometime after Heisenberg died.

Michael Egnor: No, he’s talking about the presence of multiple [00:46:30] potential quantum states, that would collapse, so the waveform become actual. I used the word decoherence to describe what he said, rather than to quote him verbatim. No, but my question is give me a cogent materialist explanation for quantum mechanics. I can give you a formal one. Can you give me a material [00:47:00] one?

David Papineau: Well, I mean. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do the philosophy of quantum mechanics in the next …

As it happens, they have fifteen minutes left to unpack more of the relevance of quantum mechanics. Stay tuned!

You may also wish to read the earlier portions of the debate:

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor takes on philosopher David Papineau Round 1. In the debate, Egnor begins by offering three fundamental reasons why the mind is not the brain. Neuroscience caused Egnor to honestly doubt Papineau’s materialist perspective that the mind is simply what the brain does.

Round 2: Philosopher Papineau replies to neurosurgeon Egnor. Dr. Papineau is considered to be one of the best defenders of naturalism (nature is all there is), often called “materialism.” Papineau: Mental processes, including conscious processes, are one in the same as physical processes. I’m curious about how Michael Egnor would answer it.

Round 3: Egnor vs Papineau: The Big Bang has no natural beginning. In the debate between theistic neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and naturalist philosopher David Papineau, the question gets round to the origin of the universe itself. Egnor maintains that the Big Bang, which is held to have created the universe, is an effect with no physical cause. Papineau agrees.

Round 4: Egnor vs. Papineau Egnor defends the mind vs. the brain. Philosopher David Papineau does not feel that neurosurgeon Michael Egnor is being “entirely helpful” at this point… It became quite the dustup actually. Egnor deals with the brain as an organ, not a theory, and doesn’t see it as equivalent to the mind. Papineau differs.

Also: Philosopher: Consciousness Is Not a Problem. Dualism Is! He says that consciousness is just “brain processes that feel like something” Physicalist David Papineau argues that consciousness “seems mysterious not because of any hidden essence, but only because we think about it in a special way.” In short, it’s all in our heads. But wait, say others, the hard problem of consciousness is not so easily dismissed.

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Can Traditional Philosophy Help Us Understand Mind vs. Brain?