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Aristotelian minds

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Ric Machuga gave a fascinating lecture yesterday. His main claim is that in order for there to be meaning in the world, there has to be an immaterial intellect. “Meaning” here isn’t anything fancy; it is just the phenomenon of a set of symbols meaning something, like the way that the word “tool” means tool. You can find a copy of his paper here. Professor Machuga has offered to check this website from time to time, so he’ll respond to any questions or objections you post!

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10 Comments

  1. Luke Stepan says:

    Mr. Machuga-

    In your book, “In Defense of the Soul: What It Means To Be Human” you write: “Our arugment will be that rocks, trees, and dogs are really different in kind and that contemporary scientists are absolutely correct to assume the phylogenetic continuity of all species.” (page 46) You then go on to explain that Natural kinds can still be ontologically ordered; that there are real ontological differences between elements, compounds, plants, animals, and human beings. (pages 48-50).

    Are you saying that human beings could have come from elements, compounds, a common anscestor of apes, etc. over time? Or is your position that ontological differences have always existed, it’s just the lines between species (like the line between venus fly traps and animals) is very fuzzy?

    With the former position, wouldn’t ontological differences be rather arbitrary? If compounds could always evolve into plants, plants into animals and animals into rational animals, then there would be no real differences, only percieved differences that humans must have placed on things.

    P.S.

    Great book. Since I read it, I have never looked at contemporary issues (evolution, AI, etc.) in the same way; Aristotle still matters. In this way it has helped change the way I think.

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  2. Ric Machuga says:

    Luke,
    In your second paragraph, you ask me to chose between two alternatives, but like Aristotle, I insist that the “or” is inclusive, not exclusive.

    If a flight attendant asks a traveler whether he would like cream or sugar with his coffee, some people say “Both”.

    So too, when an Aristotelian is asked whether Darwin is correct in saying that there is biological continuity among all species, including humans, or whether humans are ontologically different in kind from all other animals, Aristotle and his follower say “Both” (cf. Aristotle’s, On the Soul I. 1 403a25ff or my book page 84 ff; for an explanation of “ontological difference in kind” see chapter 4, especially the figure on page 47)

    I hope that helps and thanks for your kind words about my book,

    Ric

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  3. Luke Stepan says:

    Ric

    It looks like I have some reading to do before getting back to you on this. It initially seemed to me that one would be hard pressed to take both of the positions (phylogenetic continuity and real ontological differences among the categories of being) even with the arguments you presented in your book; but perhaps I didn’t give this section of the book enough consideration/understanding before drawing that conclusion. Also, I’m inexperienced with the idea of “phylogenetic continuity” so this could also be part of my problem. I’ve been rather busy, I just wanted to let you know I wasn’t intending on droping the topic.

    Also, this topic I presented as an interest of my own, and has little to do with the lecture you gave. If you would rather have this thread stay focused on your lecture, then let me know and we can drop the topic right now. Thanks.

    Luke

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  4. Ric Machuga says:

    Luke,

    I’m more than willing to continue this discussion when you have more time.

    My apologies for the use of jargon. “Phylogenetic continuity” means nothing more than “common descent”, i.e., all biological life on earth evolved from one or a “few” common ancestors.

    Bye for now, Ric

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  5. George says:

    Ric,

    Let me ask Luke’s question in a way that dodging it will be more difficult. Have ontological differences always existed?

    George in Colorado

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  6. George says:

    Ric,

    Let me ask Luke’s question more carefully.

    Did a sudden ontological event occur at some point in time so that, from then on, human animals were ontologically different in kind from all other animals?

    George in Colorado

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  7. Huenemann says:

    George — I’m not sure Ric is still checking this blog, but when he visited USU we did discuss this question a bit. As I recall, Ric acknowledged that your question does make him uncomfortable. He’s not firm about a species-specific line, since he thinks there’s no reason why other animals could not also possess an intellect. But, still, there will be some deep difference between the “intellected” animals and the others. Did that difference emerge over evolutionary history? Yes, since clearly there was once a time when there weren’t any animals with intellects. But how could evolutionary forces select for the emergence of a nonphysical capacity? Here’s where I think Ric isn’t sure what to say. Obviously, having an intellect will lead to skills and behaviors which can be selected for/against. But why an intellect emerges in the first place, or somehow attaches itself to a suitable organism, is a mystery. (At least I think that’s what Ric would say; it’s what I would say, if I were him!)

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  8. Huenemann says:

    Sorry – now that I just wrote that reply, more is coming back to me. Ric stresses that form is joined with matter at “the ground floor” — everything is a form/matter composite. When things get assembled in the right way, such as in the case of a human brain, the forms are capable of producing (or sustaining? or?) the intellect. In any case, it’s not as if a thing, the intellect, floats around in netherspace waiting for the right piece of meat to infect; rather, the intellect emerges out of qualities the composite materials already possess. Ric also maintains that the intellect is not strictly required for explaining the physical behavior of the organism. We can put together a thoroughly mechanistic account, in principle, of all the actions I am performing as I type this reply. But what would be left out of such an explanation would be my intentions as I type, along with the meanings I am trying to convey with these motions. Those intensional entities cannot be reduced to mechanics. So this would allow evolutionary forces to work on everything we are doing, and perhaps indirectly select for intellectual capacities. I hope this is a more accurate answer than the last one.

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  9. Ric Machuga says:

    George,

    Aristotle, of course, believed that all species always have existed, and hence, there was no point in the past when, as you say, “a distinct ontological event” distinguished rational and non-rational animals. Nonetheless, he maintained that the intellect “came from without.” I take it that this means that it cannot be explained in the same wholly physical terms as the rest of our behavior can. While I agree with Aristotle on this (the intellect “comes from without”), we clearly have evidence that wasn’t available to Aristotle demonstrating that humans have not always existed—so, yes, there was a point in time when a “distinct ontological event” occurred.

    And, here, I would endorse Prof. Huenemann reading, with one minor change. On my reading of both Aristotle and Aquinas there are physical causes for all physical events. Since speaking and writing are both physical events, that means they are physically caused. My minor quibble with Charlie is referring to these as “mechanistic”. It is crucial that we distinguish between physical causes which are lawful/predictable and those which are not. The precise location of the leaves on my front deck were physically caused by the big storm that just hit northern California—but no one would say that their location was mechanistically determined. This distinction allows me to argue that while the intellect transcends physical explanations, it does so without requiring either gaps or “violations” in the conservation laws of physics.

    Well, there is obviously much more to say, but this is probably enough for now.
    Ric Machuga

    Like

  10. George says:

    Ric and Charlie,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond.

    George

    Like

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