Take a long slip of paper…

How can we (pardon the pun!) wrap our minds around the immateriality of the intellect, the non-materiality of the mind, and, thus, the human soul of which it is the chief power?

If I were to write one vertical hash mark, on an infinitely long slip of paper, for every number in the set of natural numbers, I would have to do so by mentally producing each number and then writing it down. Even if you were to try to do away with something like “mental actions” and, instead, say that the act of writing a number just is my mind-deed for producing each number (which is what Ryle, Wittgenstein, and, more recently and radically, D. Melser, would probably say), the mind-deeds still count as one of three elements in the process:

1. the numbers themselves,

2. the neural act of ‘minding’ them, and

3. the marks on the paper.

All three elements are distinct, since a number is not one of the hash marks, a hash mark is not a mental deed (even if the act of writing a hash mark were construed as a mental deed), and a mental deed is not a number. They are all three empirically distinct.

The problem is that, without a fourth element, namely, an act of the intellect enclosing or pervading, as it were, all three other elements in a unified idea, the three elements have no meaningful connection. And unless they have a meaningful connection as constituents of one formally coherent complex, then they have no meaning on their own. Only formally united do they mean what they mean; as empirically distinct, they don’t actually mean anything determinate.

Even if I posted a flashing bright red sign on the wall that explained the intended correlation between the hash marks, the numbers, and my mental counting (e.g., moving my lips, moving my eyes in abstract neural space, wiggling my fingers as I count, etc.), unless a visitor to my room added a fourth, binding element, namely, an intellectually integrated idea of the sign-paper-writer complex, the elements of my counting, writing, and posting a sign would have no meaningful connection. Without that connection, however, they cease to function as what I intend them to be. Without a formally integrated knowledge of how they relate, there is no way to say my counting isn’t really a form of dancing, or that the hash marks aren’t a portrait of my mother, and so on. This is akin to the plus-quus problem. No percept can really be a concept without an overriding intellectual conception of what those percepts are manifesting at a formal level. Indeed, as the etymology of the words indicates, it is only through (per) the percepts that intellectual understanding ‘takes in’ (con-cipit) the idea and brings all the percepts together (con). By analogy, perception is to conception what the sperm and ovum are to fertilization.

Although the writer (or some visitor) intellectually conceives of the connection between abstract numbers, visible hash marks, and human mental operations BY MEANS OF a mental operation (and, for that matter, may emphasize the connection by writing down his mental conceptions, and, if he liked, may even more strongly assert the connection by encoding it with a natural-number sequence), but that intellectual conception is not itself a mental operation. If it were, it would just be one more dangling element in the complex, which still lacked any intellectually meaningful relation to (or intentionality with respect to) the other elements. The intellectual conception is the form of the complex as it is variously dematerialized BY MEANS OF the hash marks and tabulations. Forming an intellectual conception by means of mental operations no more means the former is the latter than drinking a glass of water means the water becomes glass when I drink it, or that a sinusoidal wave on the surface of a lake is itself a sheet of water.

It was while reading Gordon Clark’s The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (P&R Publishing, 1964), that I noticed an interesting link between his comments on the underdetermination of scientific data and James Ross’s argument about the immateriality of the intellect (as a power that can determinately dematerialize, or, “pick out from among”) formal operations. Clark says this of scientific laws qua ideal-theoretical descriptions (pp. 58-60):

[S]ince the Newtonian laws do not describe the actual workings of nature, they cannot be used as a satisfactory demonstration of the impossibility of God and miracles. … [N]on-observational factors are essential ingredients in scientific law. … [When deriving a law from measurements why] does the scientist choose the mean rather than [the median or the mode]? … [N]othing in the observational data has dictated his choice. … [When plotting a graph to describe the data in a law-like correlation,] the empirical data do not necessitate any given curve. … [T]he scientist could have chosen a law other than the one he actually selected. Indeed, his range of selection was infinite; and out of this he chose, he did not discover, the equation he accepts. … [I]f mathematical equations could describe nature, the chance of choosing the correct description is one over infinity, or zero. Therefore, all the laws of physics are false. … [Can empirical] acquaintance with any part of the universe justify a conclusion true for the universe as a whole?

The point, admittedly with a strong operationalist flavor, is that physical reality can accommodate an infinity of mathematical descriptions, since nothing in the physical world perfectly fulfills or instantiates one mathematical-nomic description to the exclusion of other descriptions.

Clark then presents his critique of scientific verificationism (p. 71), a critique implicit in the formal proposition the perimeter of the book’s cover: If p, then q; q; ∴ p.

A simple argument of verification proceeds as follows: The given hypothesis implies certain definite results; the experiment actually gives those results; therefore, the hypothesis is verified and can be called a law. Obviously, this argument is the fallacy of asserting the consequent; and since all verification must commit this fallacy, it follows that no law or hypothesis can ever be logically demonstrated.

Consider this syllogism:

All inductive arguments in the last resort reduce themselves to the following form: If this is true, that is true: now that is true, therefore this is true. This argument is, of course, formally fallacious. Suppose I were to say: “If bread is a stone and stones are nourishing, then this bread will nourish me; now this bread does nourish me; therefore it is a stone and stones are nourishing.” If I were to advance such an argument, I should certainly be thought foolish, yet it would not be fundamentally different from the argument upon which all scientific laws are based.

–– “Limitations of Scientific Method”, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. Ed. Robert Egner and Lester Denonn. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961. 620-627, pg. 622.

I was struck by the harmony Clark’s argumentation had with Ross’s summary of his argument for the immateriality of thought and, thus, the mind (found in the 4th footnote of his stimulating essay, “The Fate of the Analysts: Aristotle’s Revenge*: Software Everywhere” (Ross’s own comments are in brackets):

(1) Every physical process, no matter how long (even infinite), is indeterminate among incompatible pure functions;

(2) so, no such process can be IDENTICAL with any of them, nor can it uniquely determine a function among processes that is IDENTICAL with any pure function. [That follows from the arguments used by Wittgenstein, Goodman, Kripke and many others.]

(3) But we know beyond any doubt that WE think in forms that are pure functions (addition, squaring, conjunction, modus ponens) and are not indeterminate among incompatible functions.

THEREFORE, our thinking, in so far as it is the realization of a determinate pure function, cannot be any material process or any function among material processes. Thus, human thought, as intelligent, is immaterial.

I think that argument will survive along with the argument that the understanding can have no organ and similar considerations recited in that Chapter. But one must remember that the argument is not to be understood to deny that the medium of human awareness is animal consciousness, [See Aristotle and Aquinas, both saying human understanding requires {animal} sensation], which is properly regarded as a physical (or physically based, anyway) process, explicable scientifically.

The point is that every physical process could always conceivably be described as, or according to, some other function, say by both “p + q = r” and “p + q = r, except after r exceeds n“. No physical process or state of affairs is adequately exhaustive in the way a formal operation or idea is exhaustive. We could always find some other function to fit the physical data. There is an infinite open-endedness, or indeterminatesness, of physical reality to be determined by any other function in turn. No physical state of affairs, regardless how well we know it in detail, exhaust the options of instantiating that function, since it could always be the case that the state of affairs actually describes some other highly similar function. This would be an empirical discovery, not a problem with the previous formal, mathematical description we were using before. A physical state of affairs might seem to perfectly instantiate a pure function, but that state of affairs could always be found to be function-F-at-t1 except for F-at-t1+n. No physical state of affairs can be identical with the function it exemplifies, since it is only one instance of that function. The same shoe may fit dozens of people, but only a formal connection with its owner, Bob, makes that shoe Bob’s shoe from among an infinite array of possible physical ‘clumps’ that could fill the role.

In the last paragraph I cited, notice that Ross applies this argument to the brain-mind debate. To wit, demonstrating how and that the nervous system is at work in all thought processes utterly misses the point, namely, that while human thought is always sensible and neural, yet thought per se, though mediated by perceptual-neural physical reality, is immaterial and therefore performed by an immaterial power. Brains, like computers, can simulate thought without actually, formally dematerializing it. To borrow one of Fr. Jaki’s own metaphors (from his Brain, Mind and Computers), just as two rivers may combine molecules when they converge but do not thereby perform addition, as a formal mental operation, so a computer may produce an algorithmic solution without thereby grasping the problem as a formal operation. The immateriality of intellection is argued for by Fr. Jaki on the grounds that all denotative words are universals. Mortimer Adler, drawing explicitly from St. Thomas, argues for the immateriality of the intellect along the same lines in his book, Intellect. Briefly, St. Thomas’ (ST Ia, a. 1, resp.), and thus Adler’s, point is this:

“[T] the form of the thing understood is in the intellect under conditions of universality, immateriality, and immobility: which is apparent from the very operation of the intellect, whose act of understanding has a universal extension…. So also the intellect, according to its own mode, receives under conditions of immateriality and immobility, the species of material and mobile bodies: for the received is in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver. We must conclude, therefore, that through the intellect the soul knows bodies by a knowledge which is immaterial, universal, and necessary.”

A completely physical description of human cognition qua physico-chemical phenomenon is possible and, indeed, desirable. Such an account, however, will not and can not account reductively for the immaterial source of thought as such, such a reduction being the goal of physicalism as opposed to physics proper, of scientism rather than science.

As St. Thomas says in, SCG 1, 3:

“For since the leading principle of all knowledge of any given subject-matter is an understanding of the thing’s innermost being, or substance––according to the doctrine of the Philosopher, that the essence is the principle of demonstration––it follows that the mode of our knowledge of the substance must be the mode of knowledge of whatever we know about the substance. Hence if the human understanding comprehends the substance of anything, as of a stone or triangle, none of the points of intelligibility about that thing will exceed the capacity of human reason. But this is not our case with regard to God. The human understanding cannot go so far of its natural power as to grasp His substance, since under the conditions of the present life the knowledge of our understanding commences with sense; and therefore objects beyond sense cannot be grasped by human understanding except so far as knowledge is gathered of them through the senses.”

To relate this to analogy I proposed to begin this post (hash marks, numbers, mind-deeds), I would replace “substance” with “intellectual conception of the mentally observed complex”, and “the points of intelligibility” with “‘mindable‘ elements of the complex.” I would add that the disjunctive holds, to wit, if the human understanding does NOT comprehend the substance of anything, then any and all of the points of intelligibility about that thing will exceed the capacity of human reason. Paradoxically, the intellect is that which brings us “beyond” sensible, particular things to the immaterial, universal essences of them; yet, since our intellect depends, in this current mode of existence, on the senses, we cannot go “beyond” sensible things by sheer intellection alone.

St. Thomas says explicitly the same in ST Ia, q, 84, a. 7, resp.:

“In the present state of life in which the soul is united to a passible body, it is impossible for our intellect to understand anything actually, except by turning to the phantasms.

“First of all because the intellect, being a power that does not make use of a corporeal organ, would in no way be hindered in its act through the lesion of a corporeal organ, if for its act there were not required the act of some power that does make use of a corporeal organ.

In a word, the neural-somatic, sensible basis of the intellect is a necessary but not sufficient basis for its operation. St. Thomas continues (ibid.):

“Now the reason of this is that the power of knowledge is proportioned to the thing known. Wherefore the proper object of the angelic intellect, which is entirely separate from a body, is an intelligible substance separate from a body. Whereas the proper object of the human intellect, which is united to a body, is a quiddity [i.e., a specific ‘whatness’] or nature existing in corporeal matter; and through such natures of visible things it rises to a certain knowledge of things invisible. Now it belongs to such a nature to exist in an individual, and this cannot be apart from corporeal matter: for instance, it belongs to the nature of a stone to be in an individual [i.e., particular] stone, and to the nature of a horse to be in an individual horse, and so forth. Wherefore the nature of a stone or any material thing cannot be known completely and truly, except in as much as it is known as existing in the individual. Now we apprehend the individual through the senses and the imagination. And, therefore, for the intellect to understand actually its proper object, it must of necessity turn to the phantasms in order to perceive the universal nature existing in the individual.

This train of thought has value not only in the mind-brain debate, but also in the larger debate about epistemology, idealism, and realism. Only by adequately grounding our cognition in the sensible world, as the cognition of another sensible object in that world, can we secure a foothold for the immateriality of the intellect as argued for in the preceding, as well as for the reality of the external world. To cite Étienne Gilson, at some length, in Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge ([San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986], pp. 173ff.):

“As St. Thomas says: ‘Non enim proprie loquendo sensus aut intellectus cognoscit, sed homo per utrumque [Q. d. de Ver., q. 2, a. 6, ad 3].’ This explains why we are able to form a certain knowledge of [empirical] singulars. By means of the senses we directly grasp the tings we know, thanks to our perception of their sensible qualities; and by means of the intellect we grasp the same things, thanks to the abstract concepts we form of them. Therefore, ut is the whole man who knows particulars, in that he thinks what he perceives. … ‘Properly speaking, neither the senses nor the intellect knows; it is the individual man who knows by means of the senses and the intellect. There are several actions but only one subject, one being who possesses distinct yet harmonious powers and produces these diverse actions [citing Domet de Vorges, La perception et la psychologie thomiste [Paris: Roger and Chernoviz, 1892), 197].’ … Concerning such operations, St. Thomas comments: ‘Non sunt animae tantum, sed conjuncti.’ … To locate the principle of his proper activity beyond or above him is simply to say that man is not man. No question can validly be approached from the standpoint of sense or intellect alone; everything must, in the long run, be related to the conjunctum, to man, who is the only concretely existing knowing subject.…

For starting with the conjunctum means starting with corporeal bodies as well as with knowledge, and if we start with bodies it is clear that, for us, the existence of matter is not a problem.”

The implications of this view of the mind and man as a cognizer are profound, to say the least, for discussions of the Eucharistic Real Presence. If man can only proper know anything via sensible reality, and, in turn, can only understand sensible reality via the abstractive, immaterial power of the intellect, then the canonically guarded intimacy of the Eucharist––take, eat, drink––is not merely a liturgical nicety, or a rationalistic stricture, but very well may be the only coherent grounds in which God can be known to humans as both He wishes and as they can bear. Once again, we see how the Eucharist is the Church’s only possible ordo theologiae, the axis of her total identity in Christ, the Eucharistic Lord of body and mind, heart and soul.


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