The magnetic imperative?

A philosophy student sent me a link to this article describing an experiment which seems to indicate that a magnetic field put in the right spot messes with one’s moral reasoning: “A person’s moral judgments can be changed almost instantly by delivering a magnetic pulse to an area of the brain near the right ear.”

Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

4 thoughts on “The magnetic imperative?”

  1. I saw that study and found it fascinating. My only gripe was with the predictably overstated conclusions: “Moral judgment is just a brain process” . The fact that the brain is involved in moral thought (or thought generally) does not prove that the brain is sufficient for moral thought. This rather elementary philosophical error is pervasive in the neuro-sciences. For some reason it is never corrected, or perhaps the corrections do not take because of some invincible ignorance.

    A reminder to all chronological snobs who think fancy brain scans are proving something we did not already know: Aquinas and Aristotle knew thousands of years ago that the brain was involved in thought (though I grant that their accounts were primitive as they discussed things like “lesions on corporeal organs” and “frenzies”).


  2. I certainly respect your view, Vince. And I don’t think a Thomistic view of the human being (hylomorphism) is at odds with the relational ontology (Levinas, etc) that you and I are both interested in. Aquinas does not take himself (as I understand him) to be giving an account of the human person with his metaphysical anthropology, rather he is giving an account of the human being. While I think all human beings are human persons, an account of one is not necessarily an account of the other. Levinas and crowd are interested in the human person (which is a relational and hence ethical matter) and frankly not at all interested in the human being (which is a metaphysical matter). One advantage of the phenomenological approach is that it simply avoids all of the metaphysical binds. I don’t mind wading into those waters, and obviously Aquinas is happy to do so. But what is interesting is that the place where Aquinas speaks most clearly about personhood is not when he is talking about man but when he is talking about the Trinity. So I think Aquinas might well have a “relational ontology” of personhood after all.

    While there is more Platonism in Aquinas than is often thought, he is not a Platonist on this point regarding the soul. The soul is not a supernatural or other-wordly thing for Aquinas, it is natural and worldly (though its intellectual power can “touch” the supernatural and other-worldly). Aquinas defines the soul as the “first principle of life” of a living material entity. The “soul”, then, is just another word for a “living form” or a “nature”. (Dogs and other “beasts” have a “soul” – though not an intellectual soul and hence not one that is subsistent).

    For my part, I think materialism has serious explanatory deficiencies not just in explaining relationships (the Levinasian point) but also in just explaining the human person, the act of understanding, and language. And I still think “soul-talk” is extremely useful in working out the inner life of man (I have Aristotle in mind here in particular, but also the harmony of the soul business one finds in the Republic).


  3. Yes, the act of understanding is not an act of the body but is an act of the intellectual soul. A few thoughts:

    a) But I would quibble with your wording on one point: Aristotle would not say that “the soul arises from the body”, as if it were an emergent property or something. Aristotle is quite firm in his ontological prioritization of form: matter is for the form, form is not for the matter. If you want to know why something is the way that it is, look to the form. (But this is not a Platonism because the form is immanent to the material thing).

    b) I would not call Aristotle a “dualist” even though he distinguishes matter (body) and form (soul). There is only 1 thing – the composite, though the composite has “two aspects”.

    c) I don’t think the category of the “mind” adds much here. The human soul has an intellectual power (along with sensitive, locomotive, appetitive, and vegetative powers). The act of that intellectual power is abstraction. What we call the “mind” is, for Aristotle, just the intellectual power of the soul.

    d) The relationship between ideas and matter is complex. Ideas are not reducible to matter because they are intentional. But they arise from sensory experience (we are born with blank slates and all understanding begins in the senses). Aquinas argues that a “lesion on a corporeal organ” (say, brain damage) can effect your ability to acquire new knowledge and can effect your ability to recall knowledge already acquired (implying that memory has something to do with the brain). This would be odd for a Platonist or a Cartesian dualist who thinks of the body as a *thing* over here and the soul/mind as some other *thing* over there. But the soul is not a *thing*, it is the act of the body.


  4. Aquinas argument for the immateriality of the soul is stunningly simple. So simple that most modern readers dismiss it more quickly than they should:

    Question 75.1
    “This opinion [materialism] can be proved to be false in many ways; but we shall make use of only one proof, based on universal and certain principles, which shows clearly that the soul is not a body.
    It is manifest that not every principle of vital action is a soul, for then the eye would be a soul, as it is a principle of vision; and the same might be applied to the other instruments of the soul: but it is the first principle of life, which we call the soul. Now, though a body may be a principle of life, or to be a living thing, as the heart is a principle of life in an animal, yet nothing corporeal can be the first principle of life. For it is clear that to be a principle of life, or to be a living thing, does not belong to a body as such; since, if that were the case, every body would be a living thing, or a principle of life. Therefore a body is competent to be a living thing or even a principle of life, as such a body. Now that it is actually such a body, it owes to some principle which is called its act. Therefore the soul, which is the first principle of life, is not a body, but the act of a body; thus heat, which is the principle of calefaction, is not a body, but an act of a body.”

    Of course this argument does not prove that the soul is subsistent, one could hold an ’emergent property’ view of the soul (something some materialists would say, though I think one of the clearest versions of that account comes from Cebes in Plato’s Phaedo). He goes on to argue that the human immaterial soul is subsistent by appealing to the special act of the intellect.


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