Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Immaterial thought and embodied cognition


In a combox remark on my recent post about James Ross’s argument for the immateriality of thought, reader Red raises an important set of issues:

Given embodied cognition, aren't these types of arguments from abstract concepts and Aristotelian metaphysics hugely undermined?  In their book Philosophy in the Flesh Lakoff and Johnson argue that abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

End quote.  In fact, none of this undermines Ross’s argument at all, but I imagine other readers have had similar thoughts, and it is worthwhile addressing how these considerations do relate to the picture of the mind defended by Ross and by Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers generally.

Note first that metaphor doesn’t affect Ross’s point about the determinacy of thought in the slightest.  Recall that to say that a thought is “determinate” in the sense Ross, Quine, Kripke, et al. have in mind is to say that there is a fact of the matter about whether it has one rather than another among a possible range of meanings.  To use Quine’s famous example, if I have the thought that gavagai, that thought will be determinate in the relevant sense if there is a fact of the matter about whether it has the content that there is a rabbit over there as opposed to the content that there is an undetached rabbit part over there or the content that there is a temporal stage of a rabbit over there.  Now, whether I am using gavagai metaphorically is irrelevant.  For example, suppose I am pointing to a human being as I have the thought.  If the thought has a determinate content, then there will be a fact of the matter about whether I am describing the person metaphorically as a rabbit, or as an undetached rabbit part, or as a temporal stage of a rabbit.  In short, to say that a linguistic utterance or thought is determinate in the relevant sense doesn’t entail that it is not metaphorical.

Second, though there is, accordingly, no need to get into a discussion of Lakoff and Johnson’s claims about metaphor in order to defend Ross, it should be noted briefly that it would be a serious mistake to suppose that anyone who endorses Ross’s claim that a linguistic utterance or thought can have a determinate meaning must be committed to a simplistic account of language that ignores the rich and complex ways that the meanings of words can be extended.  On the contrary, the crucial role that the analogical use of language plays in human thought is a longstanding theme in Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy, and Ross himself wrote an important book on the subject.  Moreover, to suppose that we have to regard a concept either as having a straightforward literal meaning or as metaphorical is to assume a false dichotomy.  Not all analogy is metaphor, so that a concept can have an analogical but still literal meaning.  (See pp. 256-63 of Scholastic Metaphysics for a brief overview of the Thomistic approach to this subject.)

Third, Ross and other Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers would by no means deny that human cognition is embodied.  On the contrary, Aristotelians and Thomists have always insisted that embodiment is natural to us and to our mode of cognition.  They do not regard a human being as a res cogitans or the body as something to which the human mind is only contingently attached (as Cartesian dualism implies) much less as a kind of prison (as Platonism holds).  Rather, on the Aristotelian-Thomistic view, a human being is a substance to which both incorporeal and corporeal operations are essential, and the incorporeal ones (intellectual and volitional activity) require certain corporeal ones (namely sensation and imagination) as their natural concomitant.  That is why the title of the article in which Ross first presented his argument is “Immaterial Aspects of Thought,” and the title of my article developing and defending the argument is “Kripke, Ross, and the Immaterial Aspects of Thought.”  And that is also why, though the intellect is incorporeal and thus survives the destruction of the body, it cannot do much on its own.  Death is not a liberation, but (as I have put it elsewhere) something like a “full body amputation” that leaves the human being reduced to an incorporeal stub.  (See the posts linked to below for further discussion.)

However, there is a special way in which contemporary thinking about embodied cognition might seem at odds with Ross’s argument.  The idea of embodied cognition has in recent years been closely connected with the notion of tacit knowledge explored by mid twentieth-century thinkers like Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Ryle, Polanyi, and Hayek, and developed further by more recent writers like John Searle, Hubert Dreyfus, and Charles Taylor.  One way to sum up the basic idea is that all conscious and explicit knowing that such-and-such is the case presupposes a background of inexplicit knowing how to cope with the world, where knowing how is a matter of having certain capacities, dispositions, and ways of acting rather than a matter of grasping propositions.  These capacities, dispositions, and ways of acting are in turn largely bodily capacities, dispositions, and ways of acting, so that all of our explicit propositional knowledge ultimately presupposes embodiment.

Now, I have long been highly sympathetic to this line of thought, and have discussed Hayek’s application of it in a few places (here, here, and here).  In fact it represents, I would argue, a rediscovery of an essentially Aristotelian conception of human nature.  (This is a theme I develop in some forthcoming work.)  But it might seem hard to square with Ross.  One of the central theses of writers on tacit knowledge is that it can never in principle all be made explicit.  Even when we make explicit some piece of knowledge that had been inexplicit or tacit, there is always some further body of knowledge that remains inexplicit and exists in the form of dispositions and habits of action rather than propositions.  As Polanyi liked to put it, “we know more than we can tell.”  Conscious and explicit knowledge is like the tip of an iceberg, and no matter how much of the iceberg you bring up above the surface, there is always more that is left underwater. 

Now, if we have knowledge that is never explicit but rather embodied in habits and dispositions, then doesn’t that entail that it is not determinate in the relevant sense, especially insofar as it is embodied and thus sunk in materiality?  And doesn’t that conflict with what Ross says?

It does not conflict with it at all.  For one thing, the precise sense in which inexplicit knowledge of the sort in question might be said to be indeterminate needs careful spelling out.  And it is not clear that it really is indeterminate in the relevant sense.  Suppose you have the thought that it is raining, and when it is raining, traffic is bad, and from that thought draw the conclusion that traffic is bad.  You have reasoned according to the inference rule modus ponens, but suppose you do not realize this because you have never taken a logic class and it has simply never occurred to you to consider that form of reasoning in the abstract, apart from the concrete examples in which you have deployed it.  We might say that your knowledge of modus ponens is in this case tacit or inexplicit, embodied in certain habits or dispositions of thinking and speaking rather than as a proposition or rule you have ever consciously entertained. 

Now suppose you take a logic class and explicitly learn the rule.  You think “Hmm, I’ve always reasoned that way, though I never before really thought about the fact that that is what I was doing.”  You now certainly have a thought with determinate content.  But if what you grasp now is something you recognize as a rule you had always applied in the past, it is hard to see how what you knew in the past, inexplicitly or tacitly, was any less determinate in its content in the relevant sense than is the thought you have now.  It always was the determinate rule modus ponens that you were applying, even if you weren’t aware of it.  The determinacy of the immaterial intellect arguably seeps down, as it were, into the body, so as to make determinate even tacit knowledge.

But put that aside, because there is a deeper point.  Ross never says in the first place that every single thought we ever have is entirely determinate in its content in the relevant sense, and he doesn’t need to say that in order to make his argument.  All he needs is the premise that some thought is determinate in its content.  So, even if we were to concede that inexplicit or tacit knowledge is indeterminate, that would not affect Ross’s argument, because all he needs is the claim that some of our explicit thought is determinate in its content.

This objection to Ross would also seem once again betray a failure to understand the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of human nature and how it differs from other conceptions.  If a human being were an angel or a Cartesian res cogitans, then perhaps we would be able to say that everything we know we know explicitly and that all of our mental states and processes are entirely determinate in their content in the relevant sense.  If a human being were entirely corporeal, as a non-human animal is, then we would be devoid of strictly intellectual activity and thus it could be said that everything we know we know only tacitly or inexplicitly and that none of our mental states and processes (i.e. sub-intellectual exercises in perception and imagination) has any determinate conceptual content in the relevant sense.  But neither of these scenarios holds.  In fact, human beings straddle the divide between the purely incorporeal and the purely corporeal, having one foot in the angelic realm and one foot in the animal realm.  Hence we are mixtures of the determinate and indeterminate, the explicit and the tacit.  And that we have at least some determinate mental content is all Ross needs for his argument.

FURTHER READING:








17 comments:

David McPike said...

How about this argument?
1. All formal thinking is either semantically determinate or indeterminate (i.e., can be assessed in terms of properly semantic properties).
2. No physical process is semantically determinate or indeterminate.
3. Thus, no formal thinking is a physical process.

Paul said...

How would a Thomist respond to the "hard problem of consciousness" formulated by David Chalmers? ("How is it that some organisms are subjects of experience?")

Does the answer have to do with the immaterial aspects of thought?

John rockwell said...

What's your thoughts on mental insanity like schizophrenia caused by chemistry in the brain going wrong as well as cases where some men ended up cannibalizing family members because of this?"A voice in his head telling him if he eat of that man that man becomes a part of him"

Does that prove that consciousness is the result of the amalgamation of chemical processes and cellular activity?

And that anything going wrong with that also seriously changes the nature of consciousness?

Grace and Rust said...

@John Rockwell,
No, that only proves that the human mind needs the chemical processes and cellular activity of a functional brain in order to work properly (under normal circumstances, at least).
To borrow one of Dr. Feser's own analogies, suppose we find a message on a piece of paper. The more we smear the ink, the less intelligible the message becomes. It would be silly to conclude that the semantic content of the message is the result of the ink and paper. This also holds if we change the spelling of a few words, and alter the grammatical structure; the meaning changes, but it is not because the meaning is the result of the ink and paper themselves.
Insanity can have a material cause, but it would be analogous to how material disturbances can interfere with the meaning of a text.

Steve said...

I wonder if a post on the distinction between 'phantasm' and 'judgement' from an A-T framework could help clarify Ross' argument for some of the naysayers. There seems to be a conflation of the two built in to many of their responses.

Red said...

Hi Dr.Feser,

Fascinating posts, What I had in mind was that as the embodied cognition is a challenge to any realist metaphysics,belief that all abstract concepts,mathematics and even reasoning itself is shaped by aspects of body, a naturalist might not find these arguments persuasive, you do well to point out that here that the arguments premises are not undermined directly here at least and that ATists affirm that cognition if embodied.

But still can't embodied cognition be used to make a positive case for materialism and nominalism? Like the way Carroll formulates what he calls Poetic Naturalism, any alleged immaterial aspects and irreducible qualitative/first person features of reality are just different ways of describing reality and any novel features of reality are emergent in the sense of weak emergence.

Thursday said...

But still can't embodied cognition be used to make a positive case for materialism and nominalism?

Only if you already assume the modern materialist conception of what the body is.

Thursday said...

How would a Thomist respond to the "hard problem of consciousness" formulated by David Chalmers? ("How is it that some organisms are subjects of experience?")

Does the answer have to do with the immaterial aspects of thought?


Consciousness, for the Aristotelian, can be a purely bodily thing, though the Aristotelian would think of bodily in a different way than modern philosophers. Thus consciousness per se does not necessarily have any immaterial aspect.

So, for example, animals have consciousness, but not an immaterial intellect.

Cole said...

What would you say to the critic who favors some form of idealism? In other words, apart from the complete source of all reality, everything else exists within the immersion of materiality. Simply put, even an angel would view his or her view of reality as some of the material reality. If that makes sense?

Is our experience of existence merely a part of that larger picture of material reality, apart from God?

Daniel Carriere said...

Recall that to say that a thought is “determinate” in the sense Ross, Quine, Kripke, et al. have in mind is to say that there is a fact of the matter about whether it has one rather than another among a possible range of meanings.

This comment makes me think of final causality. Can we translate this argument into Thomistic terms?

Daniel Carriere said...

I found a quote from Scholastics Metaphysics on page 227.

Concepts are also determinate in a way no mental image can be. There is nothing in the mental image of a triangle by itself that determines that what it represents is a particular triangle, or triangles in general, or a dunce cap, or a piece of pizza, etc. The concept triangle, by contrast, determinately represents triangles. To borrow a famous example from Descartes, there is no clear difference between a mental image of a chilliagon (a polygon having 1,000 sides) and a mental image of a myriagon (which has 10,000 sides) but the concept chiliagon and myriagon are clearly and distinctly different. We also have many concepts (like logical consistency, law, abstraction, economics, certain, etc) that are so abstract that no mental image at all (except images of the written or spoken words they are merely contingently associated with) corresponds to them."

All of this is in the context of Chapter 4 Essence and Existence in the section describing moderate realism about essences. I find it this interesting as well:

Moderate realism is realist insofar as, unlike Lockean conceptualism, it takes essences really to exist in individual things themselves, so that even though the essences are universal only as abstracted by the intellect, the conceptual product of this abstractive activity has a foundation in mind-independent reality.

Cheers,
Daniel

Daniel Carriere said...

I'm also trying to relate this back to a comment Feser makes in Aquinas on his chapter about psychology that for Thomas, it is intentionality that is irreducible to material things. That the intellect and the will are irreducible to the lower functions of the soul (vegetative and sensory). That intellect differs from sensation, not just in degree, but in kind. And the difference between the will and animal appetite is similarly absolute.

Daniel Carriere said...

But put that aside, because there is a deeper point. Ross never says in the first place that every single thought we ever have is entirely determinate in its content in the relevant sense, and he doesn’t need to say that in order to make his argument. All he needs is the premise that some thought is determinate in its content. So, even if we were to concede that inexplicit or tacit knowledge is indeterminate, that would not affect Ross’s argument, because all he needs is the claim that some of our explicit thought is determinate in its content.

Hi Dr. Feser,

So, in terms of Thomas and Aristotle, would every sense or phantasm that has gone through the agent (active??) intellect and resides in the possible intellect be an example of a determinate thought, and only those singular phantasms, images, and memories be examples of indeterminate thought?

God bless,
Daniel

machinephilosophy said...

Is the adjudication of metaphor itself metaphorical?

Reality's an illusion, for real.

How about that beyond the control of God book, wherein abstract objects are used to somehow bootstrap the arbitration of their own ontology, but of course without mentioning that fact itself.

Or a moral argument for God, but let's not get into whether or not we ought to think about that one. I dismissed that non-moral good back at the office.

Regarding Chalmers and the hard problem of consciousness: what's a problem?

Maybe the belief in molecular genetics is just caused by a brain chemical, like belief in consciousness, sensory awareness, problematicness, and significance are.

But hey, self-reference avoiders have to make a living like the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

Well, Prof Edward Feser, At first blush, what could be so radical
about the "immateriality of thought" per se? What's contentious,
I suppose, is that this notion could a lot of philosophers who
think otherwise, or cannot believe in such a description of thought.
But wouldn't this "immateriality" hold for consciousness and mind
too? And, wouldn't this essentially reinforce substance dualism,
as described by Descartes, and those who agree with him? Sure,
there are many who don't want to contemplate that we are not
mere subjects of the natural world, or that we are not like
machines. But as persons, we occupy a special and especially
vexed place in the natural world (if we want to understand this
actuality), and, however much machines may appear to resemble
us, the prospect that we might consider ourselves machines too
hasn't gained much traction in cultural or intellectual terms,

Donald Lindeman, New York

Eduardo said...

Hey Machine Philosophy is alive O_O!

So that rumour he had dissappeared into the 4th dimension was not true...

Kristor said...

The determinacy of the immaterial intellect arguably seeps down, as it were, into the body, so as to make determinate even tacit knowledge.

Until it does thus sweep down, the body is indeterminate. It isn't anything in particular. It isn't anything at all. It isn't. Facts presuppose acts.