Intelligent Design

Confusion About Dualism Abated

Spread the love

There is a lot of confusion about dualism.  Few people today hold to Cartesian substance dualism, but that is often the straw man that materialist opponents to dualism attack.  Over at O’Leary’s Phineas Gage post Dr. Vincent Torley asks:  “Why are we wasting our time debating a completely discredited theory (Cartesian dualism) which most Christians don’t accept and which the Christian Church has never accepted, anyway?”


He then goes on to explan:



The favored theory of the Catholic Church, for instance, is hylomorphism, originally developed by Aristotle and Christianized by St. Thomas Aquinas. A further discussion of hylomorphism may be found in this article by by Fr. John O’Callaghan. The author demonstrates that belief in a soul does not imply substance dualism – the belief that soul and body are two things. On the contrary, every human being is a unity. An organism’s soul is simply its underlying principle of unity. The human soul, with its ability to reason, does not distinguish us from animals; it distinguishes us as animals. The unity of a human being’s actions is actually deeper and stronger than that underlying the acts of a non-rational animal: rationality allows us to bring together our past, present and future acts, when we formulate plans. When Aquinas argues that the act of intellect is not the act of a bodily organ, he is not showing that there is a non-animal act engaged in by human beings. He is showing, rather, that not every act of an animal is a bodily act.


Hylomorphism claims that some acts that persons perform (acts of the intellect and free decisions) are non-bodily acts. But “personality” is much broader than these. Hence we should not be surprised at findings that personality is linked to the brain. In any case, an individual’s personality may change significantly during their lifetime, even without brain injury; yet we still say they are the same person. Indeed, personality can change as a result of a voluntary decision. My wife tells me that she was a very shy child until the age of ten – and then she suddenly decided to change her personality. Everyone remarked upon how different she was.


Speaking for myself, I would not be one whit perturbed if my personality does not survive my death – indeed, I rather hope it doesn’t!


Thus the following comments are attacking a straw man:



“If mind is independent of brain, one would not expect a brain injury to change personality (as opposed to simply reducing function, for example).”



“That suggests then that personality is formed and governed by somatic and environmental factors – and is not therefore not linked to an immutable soul … “


The above comments are problematic only for dualists who hold that all mental phenomena (thoughts, decisions, memories, mental images, emotions, feelings and sensations) reside exlusively in an immaterial soul.


A hylomorphist, by contrast, will happily grant that the following are all acts we perform with our brains and nervous systems: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting; feeling happy, sad, angry or afraid; imagining something; and remembering something.


What about the evidence that brain damage impairs intellectual function, as described in this article by Joanne McGee? (Thanks for the link, B. L. Harville.) We have to keep in mind that abstract thought is a very high-level operation, which cannot occur unless a whole host of lower-level activities are occurring. The brain is a magnificent information processor. Hence, damage to the information processor can mean that the intellect has nothing to process. It is not that the intellect has ceased to be; it is lower-level functions that are at fault here.


For those readers to whom the prospect of bodiless survival appears too dismal to contemplate, the Christian message is: well, it should! I suspect that a disembodied soul could not deliberate about anything without a massive degree of Divine assistance to make up for the loss of a brain. In any case, this artificial mode of post-moterm existence is but temporary. What a Christian looks forward to is resurrection: a permanent reunion of soul and body.


Finally, this article by Professor Alfred Freddoso is well worth reading for any Christians who may be tempted to jettison the doctrine of a dismebodied soul altogether: .


24 Replies to “Confusion About Dualism Abated

  1. 1
    WAR_ON_ERROR says:

    So like only “intellect” transcends the material world? Why single that out? What’s the significant difference between “imagining something” and “abstract thought”? Confused. If I were a Christian I would just think that the soul must be a backup drive in the netherworld to preserve my material pattern and allow it to exist on another plane of reality. What would be wrong with that?


  2. 2

    I am generally loathe to make comparisons between brains and computers, but in this case I believe there is validity in the comparison. Here’s how I perceive the question of mind/brain duality.

    Early in the 20th century computers were hard-wired to produce specific computations (such as artillery ballistics). Such computers became referred to as “analog” computers, because the the wiring in the computer was a direct physical analogy to the computations being carried out.

    Analog computers were fast, but limited by the fact that to solve radically different problems required physically rewiring the computer. Noise was also a problem, especially as the size and speed of analog computers increased, along with the complexity of the computations being performed.

    Today, virtually all computers are digital computers, at the heart of which is a “general-purpose processor” which can be programmed to carry out virtually any computation, including the simulation of the operation of an analog computer.

    What separates these two types of computers is the way inputs and outputs are encoded prior to and after computation. In an analog computer, this encoding is direct and physical: the wiring contains within it the encoding process, as electrical circuits produce an “analogy” to the computation. In a digital computer, the inputs are first encoded in digital form (translated from “higher level” languages into the binary language used by the processors in the computer’s core).

    Nervous systems can be divided into essentially the same two types of “computers”: that is, some nervous systems carry out operations that are “hard-wired” while others carry out operations that are “programmable”. The nervous systems of some animals are mostly “hard-wired”. An example is the nervous system of the California sea slug (Aplysia californica), which has been used extensively in the study of neural processing.

    Other nervous systems comprise both computing modes. Out own nervous systems are like this. Our autonomic nervous system (which controls such processes as breathing) is almost entirely analog in operation. By contrast, most of our “higher” cognitive functions are carried out by what amounts to a massively parallel digital computer, housed mostly in the cerebral cortex and associated input and output processors.

    Here is where we get to the question of dualism: the program that “runs” in a digital computer is not physically part of the wiring of the computer. We know this because if the computer is turned off, the program stops running, and if the computer is turned back on without rebooting the program from “hard” or “flash” memory, the program starts again at the beginning, rather than continuing from where it left off.

    Ergo, the program for a digital computer is analogous to the “mind” that “runs” in the circuits of our digital processor “brain”. They are two different things: the electrons flowing through the various logic circuits in the processor are not the same thing as the processors themselves, and vice versa.

    The analogy goes deeper, of course. A digital computer can “exist” without a program running in it, but if it does, it is essentially analogous to either a simple analog input device or a comatose or dead brain (depending on whether there is current flowing through any part of the circuitry or not). However, a program cannot exist unless it is “running” or “stored” in some physical form. Either it is running in the circuits of a digital computer, or it is stored in some analog/hard form. So, brains can exist without minds, but minds cannot exist without brains, in the same way that digital computers can exist without programs, but programs can’t exist without computers in which they can run.

    But wait, you say, I can offload a simple program from my computer into my own memory, then erase it from the computer, and it’s gone, right? Well, no, it’s gone from one computer (the one you erased it from), but it’s simply been transferred to another one – the one inside your head. If, after memorizing the code and erasing it from the computer you suddenly stop existing (maybe the ceiling caves in and flattens you and your brain like a pancake), the program “living” in your brain goes away and can’t be loaded back into the computer unless someone else either 1) recreates it from scratch, or 2) transferred it from your brain to theirs.

    So, stated in this way, dualism is as real as real gets. A program is most emphatically not the computer in which it runs, if that computer is a programmable digital device. And, to extend the analogy, whatever actions arise from the programmable parts of the brain of necessity arise from the “mind” (i.e. the program running in the brain), and are therefore essentially infinitely modifiable.

    This is where “free will” comes from: it arises from those parts of the mind that are “running” and “stored” in the programmable parts of the brain. This, of course, strongly implies that if those parts of the brain are damaged or destroyed, “free will” goes away. It also implies that any entity that has a programmable “mind” which includes the ability to make decisions has “free will”, at least if it is defined in this way.

    But is such “free will” actually free? Can a computer program carry out an operation that it has not been programmed to carry out? I’m not a computer engineer, so I can’t answer that question. Does any one on this list have any opinions about this, or about the model I’ve presented here? If so, I’d very much like to read them, especially if they are critical (i.e. you don’t agree with me)…after all, how am I to learn if no one ever disagrees with me?

  3. 3
    eligoodwin says:

    Cool, so you can demonstrate this soul?

  4. 4
    vjtorley says:


    Cool, so you can demonstrate this soul?

    Glad you asked. First of all, “soul” for Aristotle simply means “that by virtue of which we call a thing alive.” The soul is simply the form of a living body. Thus microbes, plants and animals all have souls. “Soul” as understood here is not some spooky thing hovering above a body; it’s simply what makes a living body alive.

    For Aristotle, organisms are ‘something more’ than chemical machines; although their activities do not conflict with the laws of physics and chemistry, at least some of their properties or parts are not wholly reductively identifiable with or explicable in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry as they apply outside of living systems. Thus Aristotle believed in top-down causation. Top-down causation is currently out of favor in scientific circles, but the philosopher Richard Cameron makes a convincing case (see link below) that it is fully compatible with modern science. (Cameron is an orthodox Darwinian, by the way, so that makes his arguments all the more interesting.)

    The other point to appreciate about Aristotle is that his account of life is unabashedly teleological. He argues we cannot define what a living thing is without invoking teleology. Modern science tends to look askance at teloeological explanations, but Cameron makes a powerful case that modern biology cannot eliminate teleology from scientific discourse.

    Anyway, you can read Cameron’s unpublished Ph.D. dissertation “Teleology in Aristotle and Contemporary Philosophy of Biology: An Account of the Nature of Life” (2000) at . I think it should be indispensable reading for anyone with an interest in the deeper questions in the field of biology.

    Another article of interest:
    Cameron, R. 2004. “How to be a Realist about sui generis Teleology Yet Feel at Home in the 21st century.” In The Monist 87(1), January 2004, pp. 72-95.

    So much for souls. I’ll post something on the human soul shortly.

  5. 5
    vjtorley says:

    OK. Here is a list of good links to philosophical arguments for the view that intellectual acts (such forming an abstract concept or engaging in abstract reasoning) cannot be identified with any bodily act, state or process.

    A. Arguments based on Hylemorphic Dualism
    Hylemorphic Dualism by Professor David Oderberg.
    Professor Oderberg argues here that our capacity to entertain an infinite number of concepts is at odds with the brain’s finite storage capacity. He concludes that human beings’ capacity to think cannot be explained purely in terms of their brains.

    Aquinas’s Proofs of the Immateriality of the Intellect from the Universality of Human Thought by Professor Gyula Klima. Klima’s article is an ingenious reconstruction of Aquinas’ argument that acts of understanding cannot be bodily acts. Scroll down to page 19 to read the article. See also the comments by Robert Pasnau on page 29 and Professor Klima’s reply on page 37.

    Klima offers two main arguments – one relating to the intellect’s universality of scope (very briefly: it can form concepts of all kinds of bodies, so it cannot be a body), the other relating to the universality of concepts (e.g. the concept of gold, or the concept of a dog), which apply to all individuals in space and time that fall under them.

    Here’s a short summary of Klima’s first argument:
    “The intentional reception of forms [i.e. information – in this case, abstract concepts] in the cognitive faculties of cognitive subjects is … the process of encoding information about the objects of these faculties, and this, in turn, is nothing but the intentional reception of the forms these objects have in esse reale (i.e. in reality), in the cognitive faculties … The question Aquinas’s and Aristotle’s argument raises is whether the particular kind of encoding process/intentional reception that is characteristic of intellectual cognition can take place in a material medium, in the way the encoding of music on a music CD takes place in a material medium. The argument tries to establish the negative answer to this question by claiming that since the encoding medium cannot have in esse reale (i.e. in reality) the forms it encodes, and the intellect encodes all material natures; therefore, the intellect cannot have any material nature … that is to say, it is immaterial.”

    Klima summarizes his second argument as follows:

    “The main claim of the argument from the universality of concepts is that the universal concepts of the understanding cannot be received in a material medium, because their universality is achieved precisely by their being abstracted from matter.”

    The key point here is that the human intellect, unlike the senses, is a cognitive faculty that does not represent individuals qua individuals, but represents individuals in a universal manner. These considerations provide us with a good reason to believe that the concepts themselves cannot exist in a particular point in space, for example somewhere in the brain.

    B. Arguments based on Intentionality

    Intentionality by Dr. Pierre Jacob.
    Article in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Fall 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Scroll down to section 9 – Can intentionality be naturalized? – for a balanced discussion of the relevant issues.

    C. Arguments based on Intensionality – with an “s,” not a “t”!

    Intelligibility and Intensionality by Professor David Oderberg.
    A common argumentative strategy employed by anti-reductionists involves claiming that one kind of entity cannot be identified with or reduced to a second because what can intelligibly be predicated of one cannot be predicated intelligibly of the other. For instance, it might be argued that mind and brain are not identical because it makes sense to say that minds are rational but it does not make sense to say that brains are rational. The scope and power of this kind of argument – if valid – are obvious; but if it turns out that ‘It makes sense to say that’ creates an opaque context, such arguments will fail. Dr. Oderberg analyses a possible counterexample to validity and show that it is not conclusive, as it depends on what syntactical construction is given to the premises. This leads to the general observation that the argument form under consideration works for some constructions but not others, and thus to the conclusion that further analysis of intelligibility is called for before it can be known whether the argumentative strategy is open to the anti-reductionist or not.

    D. Arguments Based on the Reliability of Critical Thinking

    (i) What is critical thinking?
    Defining Critical Thinking by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction.
    The Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique and the Foundation For Critical Thinking, two sister educational non-profit organizations, work closely together to promote educational reform. They seek to promote essential change in education and society through the cultivation of fair-minded critical thinking. The Critical Thinking Web site has a collection of articles and resources relating to critical thinking.

    (ii) How does the reliability of critical thinking constitute an argument against materialism?
    Naturalism Defeated by Professor Alvin Plantinga.
    Plantinga takes an interesting tack here and argues that naturalism (the idea that there are no gods or supernatural beings) and evolution, far from going hand-in-hand, actually contradict each other. You cannot believe in both theories without fatally undermining your grounds for believing that your own cognitive faculties are reliable – which in turn undermines your grounds for believing the two theories you endorsed in the first place. However, it is possible to recast Plantinga’s article as a powerful argument against materialism. If materialism is true, then we have no reason to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable (except regarding purely practical questions like where our next meal is going to come from).

    E. Arguments Based on the “Hard Problem of Consciousness”

    (I’m not a great fan of arguments based on the hard problem myself, as it seems to me that all it proves is property dualism – that first-person properties are not reducible to third-person properties. By itself, that doesn’t prove that first-person properties are immaterial. Still, I’ll leave it for readers to decide whether they like this kind of argumentation.)


    (The Mind-Body Problem and Promissory Materialism by Dr. Michael Egnor.)

    On this episode of ID the Future, CSC’s Logan Gage interviews professor of neurosurgery at SUNY, Stony Brook Michael Egnor on the mind-body problem and promissory materialism. Dr. Egnor explains how materialism has not been able to answer the “hard problem of consciousness.” Instead, as promissory materialism, it claims that materialism as a theory will eventually be able to explain what it has yet to explain at all.

    F. Buddhist Arguments Against Materialism

    Arguments Against Reductionism, Materialism and Epiphenomenalism by Sean Robsville.
    A Web site which critiques materialism from a Buddhist standpoint. Has links to some interesting articles.

  6. 6
    skeech says:

    I suspect that eligoodwin was asking for a demonstration of the “disembodied soul” that Barry mentioned in closing.

  7. 7
    David Kellogg says:

    Oh well, I guess Dr. Torley has partly answered my question. Thanks.

  8. 8
    vjtorley says:


    Fair enough. If empirical demonstrations are more up your alley, try the following link:

    and scroll down to section 2.4.2 (Empirical arguments for the soul). Very interesting stuff!

  9. 9
    turandot says:

    vjtorley wrote:

    “For those readers to whom the prospect of bodiless survival appears too dismal to contemplate, the Christian message is: well, it should! I suspect that a disembodied soul could not deliberate about anything without a massive degree of Divine assistance to make up for the loss of a brain. In any case, this artificial mode of post-moterm existence is but temporary. What a Christian looks forward to is resurrection: a permanent reunion of soul and body.

    “Finally, this article by Professor Alfred Freddoso is well worth reading for any Christians who may be tempted to jettison the doctrine of a dismebodied soul altogether….”

    Maybe I’ve misunderstood your argument, but it seems to me that Dr. Freddoso’s essay, which is first-rate, IMO, contradicts several of your premises.And, I wonder, how do you explain the existence of the disembodied souls we call angels?

    Anyway, your posts make for very interesting reading and the links are interesting and informative too.


  10. 10
    StephenB says:

    —-vjtorley: “The key point here is that the human intellect, unlike the senses, is a cognitive faculty that does not represent individuals qua individuals, but represents individuals in a universal manner. These considerations provide us with a good reason to believe that the concepts themselves cannot exist in a particular point in space, for example somewhere in the brain.”

    Excellent! You have fulfilled a desperate need. Also, you might enjoy Mortimer Adler’s discussion with William F. Buckley, I entitled, “Mind over matter,” reproduced on youtube.

  11. 11
    ScottAndrews says:

    In Genesis, Adam ‘became’ a living soul. The animals were called “souls.” (Some translations cover this by rendering the Hebrew word for “soul” differently between verses.) In Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote that the soul of a man and the soul of an animal have the same future, death.
    As far as I can tell, Aristotle and Aquinas pulled their concepts of the soul out of their respective imaginations. Why build a religion on the framework of the Bible and then replace the specifics with Greek philosophy?

  12. 12
    vjtorley says:

    I’d like to thank everyone for their comments above. In response, I’ll start with Scott Andrews’ Biblical objections to the Aristotelian doctrine of the soul.


    In Genesis, Adam ‘became’ a living soul. The animals were called “souls.” (Some translations cover this by rendering the Hebrew word for “soul” differently between verses.) In Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote that the soul of a man and the soul of an animal have the same future, death.

    Careful; I believe you are conflating Hebrew words here. The King James Version of Genesis 2:7 has God forming Adam from the dust of the ground and breathing the breath of life into his nostrils, after which he becomes a “living soul.” However, the Hebrew word is “nephesh.” According to Wikipedia, nephesh “is the Hebrew word commonly translated as soul in English. It literally means ‘breath,’ though it is usually used in the sense of ‘living being’ (breathing creature).” “Living being” would certainly be a better translation of “nephesh” in Genesis 2:7, where it refers to Adam himself, not his “breath of life.” My New American Bible translates it as “living being,” and so do many other versions.

    You then write that “In Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote that the soul of a man and the soul of an animal have the same future, death.” But the Hebrew word for “soul” here is a different one: ruach. My Bible translates it as “life-breath”:

    For the lot of man and of beast is one lot; the one dies as well as the other. Both have the same life-breath (ruach), and man has no advantage; but all is vanity. Both go to the same place; both were made from dust, and to the dust they both return. Who knows if the life-breath of the children of men goes upward and the life-breath of beasts goes earthward? (Ecclesiastes 3: 19-21, New American Bible).

    Later, the author of Ecclesiastes writes that “the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath (ruach) returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

    Nowhere does the author of Ecclesiastes affirm that the life-breath (ruach) dies. Humans die and return to dust, as do animals. The fate of the life-breath is open to doubt in Ecclesiastes 3:21. In Ecclesiastes 12:7, it is said to return to God, but it would be rash to impute to the author a belief in individual survival on such a slender basis. Nevertheless, the life-breath is not said to perish or go earthwards when a person dies, unlike the life-breath of a beast.

    You write:

    As far as I can tell, Aristotle and Aquinas pulled their concepts of the soul out of their respective imaginations. Why build a religion on the framework of the Bible and then replace the specifics with Greek philosophy?

    You seem to forget that the New Testament was written in Greek. That means that when the New Testament speaks of a soul, it is using the word psyche as Greek speakers of that time would have used it. Greek usage in turn was strongly influenced by … Greek philosophy, including that of Aristotle! So like it or not, we have to grapple with Aristotle’s philosophy, which is likely to have (directly or indirectly) influenced St. Luke, St. Paul and other New Testament authors.

    What, you ask, is wrong with the religion of the Bible? Nothing at all. But if you’re talking about the Old Testament, then I have to say that its anthropology is incomplete and not clearly articulated enough to withstand the withering philosophical onslaught of skeptical 21st-century scientists. Greek philosophy, on the other hand, contains an abundance of well-thought-out philosophical concepts whose richness has not been exhausted, even by contemporary philosophers. (I refer readers once again to Richard Cameron’s dissertation, cited in post #2 above.) These same concepts are also found in the New Testament. That’s why I believe that the harmonization of Greek and Jewish thought in the three centuries after Alexander has to rank as one of the greatest intellectual triumphs of all time.

    If you’re still unconvinced, ponder these two questions: (1) What is the difference between living and non-living things? (2) What happens when you die? If I look at the Old Testament, the answer to (1) appears to be: respiration. But many living things do not breathe. (By contrast, Aristotle’s philosophy offers a clearcut answer: living things have a good of their own, or telos.)

    There is no clear answer to question (2) at all in the Old Testament, except for a reference to the general resurrection in Daniel 12:2-3, and possibly one or two other places (Job 19:26; but see Job 7:9, 14:12). The book of Wisdom affirms the immortality of the soul (3:1-3); but it appears to be relatively late (c. 100 BC), it was not written in Hebrew, and not all Christians accept it as part of the canon of Scripture.

    If I look in the New Testament, on the other hand, I see a clear affirmation that the soul (psyche) can survive death and be with God (Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23; Revelation 6:9), and that both the good and bad shall rise again (Matthew 25:31-46) – whereas the Old Testament seems to suggest in places that only the righteous are raised (Isaiah 26:14). The point here is not that the Old Testament is wrong; rather, the point is that the New Testament, which bears the influence of Greek philosophy, puts a full stop where the Old Testament leaves a comma.

    “But isn’t it a leap to equate Greek philosophy with Aristotle?” you ask. Yes, it is. Plato’s influence on Greek thought was even greater, arguably, and some Church Fathers certainly leaned towards his views. The Christian Church had to do a lot of winnowing and sifting in order to discern what to retain and what to reject in Greek philosophy.

    Finally, in the late 13th century, Aristotle’s views, after having been “Christianized” by Aquinas, supplanted the dualistic thought of Augustine (who was heavily influenced by Plato) in the Western Church. As Aquinas astutely realize, the great advantage of Aristotle’s thought that he offered a unified account of human nature, in contrast to the dualism of Augustine. The account of how Aquinas’ own views evolved and how they came to predominate in the late 13th century can be found in “From Augustine’s Mind to Aquinas’ Soul” by Fr. John O’Callaghan, at Now the Church had a philosophical system and an anthropological theory which were sufficiently robust to withstand objections by unbelievers. The baptism of Aristotle by Aquinas endowed the Greek philosophical edifice with additional rigor; Aristotle was notoriously vague on the subject of the afterlife, but Aquinas addressed the fate of the separated soul in a rigorous fashion (Summa Theologica I, qq. 75, 89).

    To sum up: we have to confront the objections of skeptics and mockers of faith. Rather than limiting ourselves to Scripture alone, wouldn’t we do better to draw on the treasure trove of Greek philosophical thought which the authors of the New Testament knew and made free use of?

  13. 13
    David Kellogg says:

    This whole discussion seems either to assume a Christian perspective in inquiry or that the support of dualism will be framed in Christian terms. Are there any more secular contemporary approaches?

  14. 14
    vjtorley says:

    turandot (and later, some remarks in response to Allen McNeill):

    You write:

    Maybe I’ve misunderstood your argument, but it seems to me that Dr. Freddoso’s essay, which is first-rate, IMO, contradicts several of your premises.And, I wonder, how do you explain the existence of the disembodied souls we call angels?

    Looking through Dr. Freddoso’s essay, I suspect that the contradiction you allege stems from his explicit avowal of the Catholic Church teaching that each and every human soul is directly created by God, which sounds a lot stronger than the mere affirmation that some acts performed by human beings (acts of the intellect and free decisions) are non-bodily acts. Direct creation of the soul seems to smack of dualism all over again.

    So let me try to set the record straight, by attempting to equate Aristotle’s terminology with some contemporary jargon used in computer science.

    Let’s start with the terms ENTITY and ATTRIBUTE. Here we go. Roughly:

    Substance = ENTITY (e.g. an ingot of gold; a bacterium; a human being).
    Form = ATTRIBUTE (e.g. the color of gold; the shape of a bacterium; the height of a human being).
    We can also say that an ATTRIBUTE is a basically INFORMATION; thus Form equals INFORMATION.
    Matter = Concrete INSTANTIATION of an ATTRIBUTE; or physical REALIZATION of an ATTRIBUTE (e.g. this gold ingot; this rod-shaped bacterium; this 170-centimeter human being).

    Primary matter = MASS-ENERGY, i.e. the basic “stuff” which underlies all transformations of entities occurring in nature. It has no attributes of its own, except that we can say how much “stuff” gets transformed (Conservation of mass-energy).
    Substantial form = KEY or DEFINING ATTRIBUTE of an ENTITY, which grounds all the other attributes of that entity (e.g. for gold, atomic number 79; for a bacterium, the information residing in its DNA, which makes it that kind of bacterium; for a person … well, we’ll see).
    Accidental form = NON-DEFINING ATTRIBUTE of an ENTITY (e.g. the color of gold; the shape of a bacterium and the height of an individual, mentioned above, are all non-defining attributes or accidental forms).
    Essential accident = ESSENTIAL but NON-DEFINING ATTRIBUTE of an ENTITY (e.g. the specific heat capacity, melting point and boiling point of gold; the tendency of the thick layers of peptidoglycan in the “Gram-positive” bacterial cell wall to stain purple; and such attributes as being a mammal, being a primate, being a biped, and being able to think about dying in human beings).

    [Technical excursus: I’m sure Allen McNeill will object that species are not rigidly defined categories, especially in bateria, where we don’t even know how many species there are yet (perhaps somewhere between 10*7 and 10*9). True. Species do change over time, and their boundaries are not perpetually fixed – but they don’t have to be. All Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory requires is that the attributes of all current members of a species be unified under a common framework which explains the anatomy, development and behavior of that organism. In the case of bacteria, that framework is the information contained in its DNA. (Probably that’ll turn out to be an oversimplification, as yet more codes may be found within the cell, in addition to the DNA code; but let’s leave that to the biologists.) Over millions of years, the information defining the species may gradually change. All that means is that we can never say exactly when a new species appears in the fossil record. No problem.]

    Back to people. What Aristotle and Aquinas are saying is that the DEFINING ATTRIBUTE “humanity” – unlike “C. elegans-ness” (C. elegans is a well-studied worm, for those who haven’t heard of it) – can’t be defined in terms of DNA, or any other biological property – even that of belonging to the species Homo sapiens. Why not? Because as I have argued in earlier posts, humans possess certain features which transcend the biological: their ability to form abstract, universal concepts; to engage in syllogistic reasoning which makes use of these concepts; to think critically about the truth or falsity of their currently accepted concepts; and to make free decisions about what ends they should pursue and how best to pursue them, in the light of what the concepts they have formed about the world around them.

    Abstract universal concepts, as I have argued above, are not physically instantiated. This is where the computer hardware-software analogy breaks down, Allen McNeill. Software programs cannot form concepts, or even store concepts. All they can store is code which can help people to recall concepts. Sure, I can write “Gold = atomic number 79” and store that in bits on some computer; but the bits corresponding to this statement in the computer’s memory are not a concept; they are just a short-hand code which we can store on a disk drive, to help us recall the concept when we need it. Their “intentionality” (or “aboutness”) is derivative upon the meaning we assign to the encoded bits.

    Human beings are animals. They are bodies. Physicalists are right about that. But humans are strange animals, who can also perform non-bodily acts, as we have seen. What follows is that the DEFINING ATTRIBUTE of a human being must be something which is itself immaterial (non-physical), even though it can only be realized in a body – namely, the body of a member of the species Homo sapiens.

    Now, a bodily act cannot give rise to something immaterial, abstract and universal. Thus only an act from outside the physical order could generate the defining attribute of a human being. In religious parlance, this means that every human soul is created by God. Nothing and no-one else but God could create something which is capable of transcending the material in its everyday activities.

    What that means is that whenever any human zygote comes into existence, God has to make an immaterial DEFINING ATTRIBUTE (or soul) for it; otherwise it would grow up to be nothing more than a biological organism, devoid of rationality. God must do this, regardless of how the zygote originated – through cloning, IVF, sexual intercourse or otherwise. Does that mean God is busy? Sure – but then, He maintains the whole cosmos in being at all times, so creating a few immaterial human souls would be no sweat for Him.

    NOW we can see why human disabilities are utterly unimportant. Zygotes, infants, adults and Alzheimer’s patients all possess the immaterial DEFINING ATTRIBUTE of rationality, which presupposes the ability to form abstract, universal concepts. That’s why we’re all equal. All that prevents these human beings from exercising their rationality are extrinsic physical limitations – the brain has not developed, or the brain has degenerated – NOT intrinsic limitations. If a surgeon from the future could somehow regrow the brain of a terminal Alzheimer’s patient, rationality would re-appear. Lack of brain development or brain damage can interfere with reasoning, because the brain has to store and process information about objects encountered in the outside world – which we subsequently abstract from – in order for us to engage in reasoning. If there’s no information on hand, then there can be no reasoning. Because humans are essentially embodied beings, the information has to be stored in a physical medium.

    And what of death? The death of a human being means the death of a person. So what happens to my humanity when I die? How can it survive, any more than the grin of a cat can without the cat?

    As we saw above, the defining attribute of a human person (rationality) is immaterial. When I die, then, my KEY or DEFINING ATTRIBUTE survives, but I (as an ENTITY) do not.

    Now do you see why the immortality of the soul is not a cheerful doctrine? Being dead is a highly artificial and unnatural state. If humans are capable of post-mortem reasoning (as accounts of NDEs strongly suggest, and as the Church has taught for the past 2,000 years) then we can only assume that the information required in order for this reasoning to occur must come from an outside source – presumably from God, the Creator of the soul, although other intelligences could perhaps supply it as well. Somehow the soul must plug in to God, in the absence of a body. Such an unnatural state cannot continue forever; which is why Christians devoutly hope for the resurrection of the body.

    OK, now on to angels. Angels are not disembodied souls. Souls belong in bodies; angels never had a body and never will. So what are they?

    Let’s go back to forms.

    Form = ATTRIBUTE (of an entity) = INFORMATION.
    Substantial form = KEY or DEFINING ATTRIBUTE of an ENTITY.

    Aquinas thought that an angel was form and nothing else, which means that an angel IS its defining attribute! But there are many angels in the Bible, so since there is nothing material to differentiate them, each angel must have a different defining attribute. Each angel is intelligent, but in a way which is specifically unique. Each angel is the only member of its own species.

    Thomas’ contemporary, Bonaventure, thought that this sounded very odd. So he proposed that angels had some sort of matter as well as a form. Recall our earlier definition:

    Matter = (i) INSTANTIATION of an ATTRIBUTE; or (ii) physical REALIZATION of an ATTRIBUTE. Bonaventure’s angels possess matter in sense (i) but not sense (ii), as they’re not physical beings. For Bonaventure, “‘matter’ is the principle in each thing that makes it a particular thing: it’s what makes an angel this particular angel, in contrast to the form, which is angelhood-in-general” (quote from Wikipedia article, “Hylomorphism”). Personally, I think Bonaventure’s idea makes more sense.

    But how do angels think at all if they can’t get any information about the outside world from the senses, as we do? Answer: it could be implanted, or infused, from the beginning of their existence. Or it could be periodically updated from outside (i.e. God). Such a peculiar mode of existence immediately strikes us as highly unnatural and extremely detached from the world; but for an angel, it would be natural. An angel has intellect and will, and nothing else.

    But where do they store their information, if they don’t have bodies? Answer: who says that information can only be stored in a spatio-temporal body?

    But if they are non-physical, how can angels act on the outside world, then? There are only two possibilities, as far as I can see: (1) They can’t act on the outside world, directly; God does it for them, even when they will something evil. (God reluctantly acquiesces in their evil decision, because He respects their power of free choice, which He himself has given them.)(2) They can act on the outside world, because they somehow “contain” some attributes of the world. How could that be, if they are pure intellect? Answer: God let them create some attributes of some kinds of entities in the cosmos. Thus they contain these attributes in the same way as an author’s mind contains the plot of a novel she wants to write: some attributes of some entities in the world are literally their IDEAS, and are ontologically dependent on the angels as their creators. (Makes the world sound a bit like the Matrix, doesn’t it? But don’t forget, the Universe itself is God’s handiwork, anyway, so that’s even more mind-blowing.)

    But wait! Some angels are bad, right? Right. And some entities in the cosmos are organisms, right? Right. That means that some features of organisms could have been malevolently designed by evil angels. Which features? I suggest you ask a mosquito. But hey, I’m not a biologist. If someone wants to argue that a mosquito is an important part of the “cycles of life,” then I’m willing to listen.

    Thus organisms may well turn out to contain a mishmash of intelligently designed features in their cells and in their genes, which have been designed by intelligences both good and bad, as well as more fundamental features designed by God. If I were looking for the hand of God, I’d look at DNA.

    StephenB: I’ll have a look at Mortimer Adler’s discussion with William F. Buckley when I get the chance. Thanks for the tip.

    Until, I have avoided the vexed question of whether any non-human animals have concepts. (If they do, then they have immaterial souls, too.) I would recommend Dr. David Oderberg’s recent article, Concepts, Dualism and the Human Intellect. Dr. Oderberg makes a strong case that non-human animals do not have concepts in a strict sense of the word, even if they can sort objects into categories, as Alex the parrot could. Anyway, I invite readers to judge for themselves.

  15. 15
    QuadFather says:

    It seems to me that even if we established the existence of a soul beyond the body, we would still be left with the same questions we’ve always had:

    How do we retain memories?
    Where do memories go when we’re not thinking about them?
    How are memories recalled?
    How is it that memories can be “triggered”?

    We began to understand how this was possible when we invented computers that also retained “memory”. Remove the computer analogy, and what explanation are you leaving us with?

    … Hmmm?

    So … I think that if we establish the existence of the soul, we are still left with: “Well, it has to work SOMEhow …”

    And then, one begins to wonder: Why eliminate that computer analogy at all? Maybe it’s accurate, and maybe the brain does have a lot to do with things? Seems really simple to me.

    On the other hand, I don’t doubt that there are some really strange NDE phenomena that have been documented. I just haven’t bothered to research this.

    But regardless of the outcome there, soul or not, we are still left with those questions up above, and the computer analogy is still our best explanation.

    Just thinking aloud.

  16. 16
    absolutist says:

    Consciousness is not physical and therefore neither are states of consciousness like thoughts, beliefs, desires, sensations and volition. You don’t think with your brain. You cannot store information or reprogram the brain. God or the Designer of your choice does not have a brain and he is able to think just fine. The brain may facilitate the process while you are in your body but you won’t find any thoughts, desires or beliefs there. Thoughts or sensations are of or about things. You have a thought about your mother, a belief about whether oranges taste good or not, but physical states of the brain don’t have intentionality, that is ofness or aboutness about them, therefore conscious states and physical states are not the same thing.

    Allen_MacNeill [2]

    “So, brains can exist without minds, but minds cannot exist without brains”

    Actually the mind can exist just fine without the brain, but the brain cannot survive without the mind.

    “programs can’t exist without computers in which they can run”

    “programmable parts of the brain”

    The brain does not contain a program, hence is not programmable. Programs do exist without computers. They may not run, but running and existing are two different things.

    Maybe this will help: content is expressed in sentences. La neige est blanche and snow is white are two different sentences that both have the same content. The content is in my mind while the sentence is on the computer screen. The sentence is not the same thing as the thought. You can see a sentence but you can’t see a thought. A thought is a state of consciousness.

  17. 17
    allanius says:

    Well, er, the article and Barry’s rumination do raise an important rhetorical point for the ID movement, quite apart from the esoteric speculations that follow. From a strategic point of view, “dualism” is a very bad word to use…as is often seen at DI and sometimes also here.

    “Dualism” isn’t what Allen appears to think it is. Actually his analogy lands him on the Aristotelian side of the question. “Dualism” is the result of Plato’s claim that intellect is “good” and matter, not explicitly stated this way but implied in a hundred ways, is “evil.”

    This happy little proposition led to endless grief in philosophy and then in the church, when the contagion was spread by Augustine. The immediate effect, as Aristotle gleefully pointed out, is that “the good” becomes nothing more than a force of resistance to existence. “The good” quite literally cannot even be imagined by embodied beings.

    This problem can be seen in Plato’s attempt to ascribe goodness to the circle. Unfortunately, the circle cannot be analyzed with perfectly rational results; hence Place was forced to retrench and claim that he didn’t mean circles the way we draw them on the page but the idea of the circle—which is what, exactly? What is a circle that is not an actual circle, encumbered with pi?

    Nothing. And that’s the problem. “The good” and goodness become nothing to men, who are stuck in their infernal bodies and cannot help picturing a circle to themselves whenever they hear the word “circle.”

    Christians should be especially wary of the notion that intellect is a transcendent value. It was the excessive love of intellect and its power of judgment that led to the fall. Absolutely nowhere in the Bible is intellect glorified for its own sake or equated with God or the good. That’s purely a Greek delusion.

  18. 18
    absolutist says:

    allanius [17]

    “Absolutely nowhere in the Bible is intellect glorified for its own sake or equated with God or the good.”

    “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord…” (Isa 1:18) points to the contrary.

    “but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1Pe 3:15) is another passage that seems to suggest that careful arguments crafted in the intellectual mind are indeed valuable.

  19. 19
    StephenB says:

    —-allanius: “Dualism” is the result of Plato’s claim that intellect is “good” and matter, not explicitly stated this way but implied in a hundred ways, is “evil.”

    It is ironic that in responding to a thread which explains that not all dualisms are created equal, you conflate Plato’s radical dualism with Aristotle’s “moderate” dualism.

    It is doubly ironic that you defined Augustine’s position in terms of his early Manicheism (a created world of good and a created world of evil and yet another form of radical dualism) when that is precisely the doctrine that he rejected upon converting to Christianity, which easily lends itself Aquinas” moderate dualism (God created everything and “saw that is was good.”)

    It is three times ironic that you ignore the point of Christian philosophy which defines evil as a “privation” of the good and a non-substantial entity.

    It is four times ironic that you define Plato’s matter as “evil” as opposed to “non-being” or unreal.

  20. 20
    David Kellogg says:

    This whole discussion is almost solely Christian. Is this philosophy or theology?

  21. 21
    ScottAndrews says:

    Rather than limiting ourselves to Scripture alone, wouldn’t we do better to draw on the treasure trove of Greek philosophical thought which the authors of the New Testament knew and made free use of?

    Only if we believe that man’s philosophy can compare to God’s knowledge and wisdom. Yes, that sounds awfully one-sided. But one is perfect, and the other is flawed and ignorant in comparison.

  22. 22
    vjtorley says:


    You make an excellent point about memory. I think the computer analogy is actually appropriate here. Information is stored in the brain and retrieved by the brain. Even if the mode of storage and mechanism of retrieval remain largely unknown to us, I think this is a reasonable conclusion.

    On the other hand, the Achilles heel of the computer analogy is its insistence that all our behavior is programmed, and that what makes me “me” is simply my program. I think this is a bad proposal, for three reasons.

    First, as Dr. Allen McNeill (who proposed the analogy in #2 above) knows far better than I do, we are animals. Our physical hardware, rather than our software, defines WHAT we are, even if (as I would hold) it fails to encompass WHO we are. But a computer doesn’t have the kind of “whatness” that an animal has. It is just an assemblage of parts cobbled together, but lacking integration. That’s why the computer analogy is too thin to serve as an account of human nature.

    Second, the program account of human personality fails to account for the essential uniqueness of each individual. A program can be copied. The same program can run on two computers.

    Third, it seems wildly implausible that my behavior is governed by a program or even a suite of programs. For I can do strange things such as: doubt the existence of this program or suite; ponder how to destroy or transform it if it does exist; and wonder what I would be like (or even whether I would be at all), if I did not have such a program. What kind of program does that?

    Let us readily grant that much of our behavior is pre-programmed. Even so, it is still true that we can step outside our programs, and do things with oyr lives that are not – and could not be – governed by any program.

    Finally, let me try to dispel any lingering doubts about the “inelegance” of a (literally) deus ex machina account of the origin of each and every human person: their soul, being immaterial, is created by God. Think of it like this. Of all the beings that exist in the universe, we alone (as far as we know) are moral agents. We are the true supernovas of the cosmos. Why shouldn’t our arrival be heralded by a Divine act of intervention?

    Second, think of the number of events that have occurred in the history of the cosmos: about 10*150, according to Dr. William Dembski. However, the number of people who have ever lived is only 10*11 at most. That’s still a very small fraction of the events that have occurred in the universe, that require an act of God.

  23. 23
    StephenB says:

    —-David Kellogg: “This whole discussion is almost solely Christian. Is this philosophy or theology?”

    The subject is about philosophical “dualism,” which defines reality as consisting of two realms, matter and non matter. The non material realm can can include, among other things, subjects such as God, angels, souls, and minds.

    Philosopical “monism,” rules out all those things in principle. It holds that there is only one realm of existence. This thread was prompted by monists (Darwinists) who tried to discredit “moderate dualism,” which is the natural metaphysics of the mind, by characterizing it as Cartesian “radical dualism” and therefore make illogical monism seem more plausible.

  24. 24
    StephenB says:

    The exception to @23, of course, would be monistic pantheism, which illogically equates the creator with the creation. For pantheists, the universe is God and vice versa. That means that since the universe is always changing, God must be changing as well. That also means that there can be no unchanging laws or unchanging reality behind the laws, which is another way of saying that the universe is an intellectual madhouse.

Leave a Reply