Neurobabble and Aristotle

Over the last year I have been introduced to the work of Edward Feser, a philosopher and writer from California. I read two of his books this last year, and recommend them both.  The first was ‘Aquinas: A Beginners Guide’ which is a great introduction to Aquinas that includes a powerful argument against complexity ID arguments.  The second was ‘The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism’, which is a really well executed book.   Much of his work is in the philosophy of mind, and chapter 4 of his Aquinas book would be of particular interest to students who take that Huenemann course.

The link here is to his comments on “neuro-babble.”  Philosopher Tyler Burge, in a recent op-ed in the NY Times, perhaps coined the term “neurobabble” which he called only an “illusion of understanding.” “Neurobabble” is the excited talk of a certain kind of materialist who takes every new discovery in neuroscience to be a demonstration of the the mind’s reducibility to the neural processes.

Feser thinks that one cause of neurobabble is ignorance of the Aristotelian-Thomist position (he refers to it as A-T).  Most materialists think the only alternatives are Cartersian dualism (usually given in unfair caricature) and property dualism, both of which travel with serious mind-body interaction problems.  What is always ignored in the debate is the A-T position (hylomorphic dualism).

For those unfamiliar with A-T, Feser does a nice job of introducing an Aristotelian approach here.  I won’t recast the argument here, what makes Feser so good is his clear and accessible writing and I won’t try to improve upon it.  But, for summary:  Feser explains hylomorphic dualism and contrasts it with other dualisms and with materialism, arguing for its superiority (no interaction problems, not reductionist, etc).  Since the Aristotelian-Thomist position requires bodily activity as a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for acts of the human intellect, the A-T gladly accepts the findings of modern neuro-science, “not as a reluctant concession forced on the theory by the successes of modern neuroscience, but, on the contrary, precisely as a prediction of the A-T position as it has been understood from the beginning.  Were Aristotle and Aquinas to be made familiar with the sorts of neuroscientific discoveries frantically trumpeted by materialists as if they should be an embarrassment to the dualist, they would respond, with a shrug: “Of course.  Told you so.””

Feser concludes, “The fact is that Aristotelian-Thomistic hylemorphic dualism is the theory most clearly consistent with all of the philosophical and neuroscientific evidence.”


Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

18 thoughts on “Neurobabble and Aristotle”

  1. I don’t know if this comes as a surprise, but I agree that philosophers of mind need to take Aristotle more seriously, and the neurobabblers are far too smug. But to play devil’s advocate….

    The same objections arose as Keplerian/Galilean/Newtonian science took over. Defenders of hylomorphism found mechanistic explanations too bare and reductionistic to really be explanations. Time passed, the ranks of those defenders diminished, and now it’s safe to say that hylomorphism has exactly zero presence in contemporary physics. Now I imagine one could say, “Ah, that’s the problem with contemporary physics. They are never able to explain anything!” But … really? Isn’t that something of a reductio? Contemporary physics doesn’t explain anything because it isn’t Aristotelian enough?

    My point is that perhaps the same thing is happening in philosophy of mind. For a while it seems like certain features are not being explained. As time passes, our understanding of those features changes dramatically, or perhaps we even cease to believe in them. The explanans becomes sufficient because we gradually change the face of the explanandum.


    1. I think the “cease to believe in them” point is important. My Contemporary Euro class is reading selections from Heidegger’s “What is a thing” right now. One point raised is that each epoch has its own “horizon” for understanding what a thing is. Aristotle and Newton were dealing with the same data, but the data revealed itself to them in different ways because they had a different understanding of being and the “thingness of a thing”.
      The modern physicist rejects final cause and in fact it seems silly to him, not because final cause is silly or fails to have explanatory power but because the modern mathematical/scientific horizon of being conceals that aspect of being rather than revealing it.
      Every epoch has its own biases and is incomplete. The danger, Heidegger is eager to remind us, is thinking that any one explanation is “sufficient” or somehow has a unique claim to getting to the “uninterpreted facts”. The modern horizon of being seems to be particularly greedy and jealous, in this regard (concealing more than it reveals?).
      Point is, modern physics explains plenty from its own horizon. But that it doesn’t need Aristotle’s 4 causes to explain things doesn’t particularly show that Aristotle’s 4 causes don’t reveal something true about things. Rather it just shows that the modern horizon of being tends to conceal those aspects while revealing others. The same may go for neuro-science and the philosophy of the mind. In fact, I am inclined to say that the neuro-babble (like all modern science) is more apt to reveal what Heidegger calls “the correct” as opposed to “the true” (because it is a “challenging-forth” rather than a “bringing-forth”, to put it in Heidegger-ese).


      1. That’s a clear and useful way to bring Heidegger into the subject. But is there a distinction between (a) revealing something further about the nature of things and (b) just redescribing the phenomena in a different vocabulary?


      2. Did a Heideggerian position just get accused of clarity? What good is pomo philosophy if people actually understand it?

        I’ll try a few examples to respond to your question, Huenemann.

        On Love
        The scientist: “A hormone related to oxytocin stimulates pair bonding, aggression towards potential rivals, and paternal instincts, such as grooming offspring in the nest. Variation in a regulatory region of the vasopressin receptor gene, avpr1a, predicts the likelihood that a male will bond with a female.”

        The poet: “Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs,
        Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes,
        Being vexed, a sea nourished with lovers’ tears.
        What is it else? A madness most discreet,
        A choking gall and a preserving sweet.” – Shakespeare

        You decide: Does the second reveal something left concealed by the first account, does it tell us something further about love? Or is it just the same thing with different words?

        Another example, from Heidegger: I can disclose the Rhine as a source of hydro-electric power, revealed under a certain “horizon” of disclosure. But that disclosure is not complete, the Rhine is also beautiful, culturally significant, etc etc. Here it seems even more obvious that this is not a case of simply changing the vocabulary. Rather, I am saying something entirely different in each case. Each horizon has its own unconcealing power but also a concealing tendency. And, Heidegger’s point seems to be, the poetic unconcealment is able to articulate something that the scientist (qua scientist) really is not able to.

        I would say the same thing about the experience of art (another one of Heidegger’s favorite examples). The “purely” efficient cause account of one of Bach’s fugues hardly explains why we are so drawn to the music and the experience of beauty. To tie this back to the A-T position, it may tell us the ‘how’ but really can’t tell us the ‘why’.


    2. Perhaps Etienne Gilson puts the matter much more simply (in his book ‘From Aristotle to Darwin’):
      “Natural science neither destroys final causality nor establishes it [not the implicit rejection of complexity ID args]. These two principles belong to the philosophy of the science of nature, to that which we have called its ‘wisdom.’ What scientists, as scientists, can do to help clarify the problem of natural teleology is not to busy themselves with it. They are the most qualified of all to keep philosophizing about it, if they so desire; but it is then necessary that they agree to philosophize.”


  2. Hello Profs. Kleiner and Huenemann,

    Thanks for the link and the kind words. Re: the early moderns’ rejection of hylemorphism and the rest of the Scholastic conceptual apparatus, I would say that what happened is that empirical and metaphysical issues got tangled together in such a way that the Aristotelian metaphysical baby got thrown out with the Aristotelian scientific bathwater. So, while it is true that we don’t need hylemorphism and the like for purposes of empirical science (as we now understand what demarcates empirical science) it doesn’t follow that we don’t still need something like it in order to make sense of the metaphysical underpinnings of empirical science. (Later Scholastics would describe it as part of “philosophy of nature,” understood as the branch of metaphysics devoted to explicating the presuppositions of any possible physical science.)

    I’ve said a bit in defense of hylemorphism in the two books of mine Prof. Kleiner refers to. (I suppose it is worth noting that the polemics in The Last Superstition are not to everyone’s taste. No polemics at all in the Aquinas book, though.) But David Oderberg’s book Real Essentialism is by far the most thorough and rigorous defense currently available.

    (BTW, Prof. Huenemann, your Understanding Rationalism is a terrific book.)


    1. Thanks for joining our discussion, Edward! That’s neat. (And thanks for the compliment on my book.) Yes, I can see the point you’re making, and it is true that many philosophers of physics would agree that there is a lack of metaphysical grounding/structure/support for much of contemporary physics. Now whether Aristotle provides what’s needed in another matter… The great big question, I suppose, is whether our concept of what is needed for a complete explanation has shifted. Newton famously claimed “I frame no hypothesis” when pressed to explain the mechanics of gravity, and that became something of a rallying cry for so-called phenomenalistic science: put together the math that describes the phenomena, and call it a day. That certainly seems meager from the perspective of Kant or Aristotle. But is it? Why should more be required for a complete explanation? How well-founded is that concept of explanation which requires appeal to formal or final causes? Are we sure that’s the only or best concept of explanation?


  3. Flattered that you made your way to our blog, Prof Feser. Good to talk about the A-T position today too, this being the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas.

    We might make an even bolder claim than you do above. It is not just that we need something like the A-T position to make sense of the metaphysical underpinning of science. Rather, something like the A-T position (with final causes) is necessary in the sciences. As Aristotle says, “Those who fail in this tell us in reality nothing about nature.” For the scientist to banish final cause altogether is to put the scientist in the position of not being able to emphasize one over the other in these two descriptions: ‘the flamingo stepped onto the muddy land and laid its eggs’ and ‘the flamingo stepped onto the muddy land and stepped on a frog’. But what any scientist who is actually telling us something about nature says is “The flamingo stepped onto the muddy land in order to lay its egg.”


  4. Hello gents,

    Yes, this is a big topic. Here are some of the considerations I’d put forward:

    1. As “dispositional essentialist” philosophers like Martin, Heil, Ellis, Molnar, and others argue, it is hard to see how we can make sense of causation as an objective feature of nature unless we attribute to things dispositions or powers that are “directed towards” their characteristic manifestations. So, if we hold that empirical science does reveal to us real causal patterns, then it seems we need to acknowledge such dispositions and their directedness. Yet this is just to re-affirm what the Scholastics had in mind by final causality. (Walter Ott notes the parallels between the Scholastics and contemporary metaphysicians like the ones cited above in his recent book Causation and Laws of Nature in Early Modern Philosophy.)

    2. Some philosophers of chemistry (e.g. Scerri, Hendry, van Brakel) argue that the common assumption that chemistry is reducible to physics is unfounded. They argue that certain macro level features cannot be defined in micro level terms, that they exhibit a kind of downward causation, and so forth. Now, if this is right, then it arguably points in the direction of something like Aristotelian formal causes, since the irreducibility of higher level features of substances to their micro structure is part of what the A-T philosopher is getting at in attributing substantial forms to things. (Obviously A-T philosophers would also typically want to attribute substantial forms to material substances more complex that what chemistry is concerned with. I use the example to make the point that if reductionism arguably fails even in chemistry, it is prima facie that much more plausible to maintain that it fails elsewhere too.)

    3. Without something like the Aristotelian actuality/potentiality distinction, we seem left with the sort of incoherent Parmenidean view of nature that Aristotle introduced the distinction in order to avoid. Parmenides’ description of the world denies change, but this is incompatible with the existence of the very thought processes that lead us to his conclusions. Similarly, some physicists and philosophers, in affirming a four-dimensional “block universe” and denying the reality of time and change as we experience them, are left in a similar position. For time and change as experienced thus get relocated into the mind. That leaves us either with a dualism that makes the mind itself inexplicable in the material terms most of these folks want to confine themselves to, or with an eliminativism that is arguably self-undermining. The way to avoid this is to affirm change as a real feature of the world, and thus something like the actuality/potentiality distinction. But that distinction is the core of Aristotelian hylemorphism. (Form and matter are just instances of actuality and potentiality.)

    4. As Harrison says, teleological concepts are in any event hard to avoid in biology. People still assume they must be ultimately dispensable, though, essentially on the grounds that they’ve been dispensed with elsewhere, a consideration which is thought to override their prima facie indispensability in biology. But if (as I have suggested) they have not in fact been banished elsewhere, then the barrier to taking them at face value in biology would disappear.

    OK, that’s more long-winded than I intended — sorry. But hopefully it gives a sense of how the A-T position might be defended. (And from a starting point independent of A-T — the philosophers I cited are not A-T philosophers.)


  5. Harrison,
    for a christian theist to dismiss complexity arguments is to give up real miracles in favor of faux miracles and to undermine science in the most radical way. Christians cannot deny the “resurrection” of Lazarus. This is unexplained complexity is spades.Two moves are available. Either this is divine action as such noted by complexity unexplained, as is the case with the origin of life. Or it is simply explained by a set of physical laws we no nothing about. This means that most of modern medicine is bogus and this undermines science and Divine power in in a very radical way


    1. I disagree with you on this, Sherlock. I am not a fan of complexity ID arguments because I think they misunderstand and misuse final cause. I would suggest that there are other ways of handling miracles.

      Perhaps we should have a debate on this sometime. We both like design arguments, but I only want to make “orderliness of nature” arguments while you want to make complexity arguments. It might be interesting for students to hear two theists duke it out over the complexity args.


      1. I agree that complexity arguments and orderliness arguments are different but I think that both of have to think hard about how to incorporate the best elements of the other. I do not want to give up
        final cause and you should not want to give up the best way of accounting for miracles. After all doesn’t the Vatican examination of miracles use a “complexity” matrix implicitly. ” This woman being healed from parkinson’s is unexplained complexity”


  6. Of course I don’t want to give up final cause either, I just don’t want to misuse it. I think complexity ID arguments risk seriously misusing (and frankly misunderstanding) final cause.

    I do not recall – and I would be quite surprised by it – if Vatican explanations of miracles made a commitment to complexity. The chief of the Vatican Observatory has rejected complexity ID arguments, for example. For something to be “unexplained” does not require that it be “unexplained complexity”. It might simply be not explainable by natural laws.

    We should debate this sometime. I think students would be quite interested.


  7. I agree unexplained does not require unexplained complexity. But what is the “red flag” here? Is it not that there is an event that is too complex to be explained by randomness and cannot be explained by known science. Complexity has to be part of it to rule out randomness explanations . Lazarus is neither a random event nor an explained event. I think that the best way to view it is as a complex event that must reasonably be attributed to God


    1. My primary problem with complexity ID arguments is that they get final cause wrong (they fail to distinguish between form and shape, they confuse final and efficient cause).

      Regarding miracles:
      There might be some miracles that are purely “coincidental” or random. There is a scientific explanation for earthquakes in general. Is there a scientific explanation for the earthquake recorded in Acts? It just seems like the wrong kind of question. The event may be seem random, but it will look like providence to believers. I am not all that troubled by accepting that bit of randomness with some miracles.

      Other miracles are not like this. The resurrection is not a miracle that has a corresponding possible scientific explanation. This miracle is un-scientific. But I see no reason why we must needs explain this in terms of complexity rather than as a supernatural suspension of ordinary natural laws. Either way, I am not particularly interested in building an argument for God’s existence out of miracles like this. I prefer Lewis’ approach in his book Miracles. He tries to prove God’s existence first (that is, prove naturalism false), then goes on to particular miracles.


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