Edward Feser on the Mind and the Body


Edward Feser has an interesting article called Progressive Materialization, it is interesting.

In the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition, it is the intellect, rather than sentience, that marks the divide between the corporeal and the incorporeal. Hence A-T arguments against materialist theories of the mind tend to focus on conceptual thought rather than qualia (i.e. the subjective or “first-person” features of a conscious experience, such as the way red looks or the way pain feels) as that aspect of the mind which cannot in principle be reduced to brain activity or the like. Yet Thomistic writers also often speak even of perceptual experience (and not just of abstract thought) as involving an immaterial element. And they need not deny that qualia-oriented arguments like the “zombie argument,” Frank Jackson’s “knowledge argument,” Thomas Nagel’s “bat argument,” etc. draw blood against materialism. So what exactly is going on here?

Here as in other areas of philosophy, misunderstanding arises because contemporary readers are usually unaware that classical (Aristotelian/Neo-Platonic/Scholastic) philosophers and modern (post-Cartesian) philosophers carve up the conceptual territory in radically different ways, and thus often don’t use key terms in the same sense. In this case, terms like “matter” and “material” have a very different force when writers like Aristotle and Aquinas use them than they have when Descartes, Hobbes, or your average contemporary academic philosopher uses them. There are at least three ways in which this is true.

The matter of the moderns

First, and as I have noted many times, the tendency in post-Cartesian philosophy and natural science is to conceive of matter in exclusively quantitative terms and to regard whatever smacks as irreducibly qualitative as a mere projection of the mind. This is the origin of “the qualia problem” for materialism. The reason materialists cannot solve the problem is that since they have defined matter in such a way as to exclude the qualitative from it, qualia — which are essentially qualitative, as the name implies — are necessarly going to count as immaterial. Materialist “explanations” of qualia thus invariably either change the subject or implicitly deny the existence of what they are supposed to be explaining. (The basic point goes back to Cudworth and Malebranche and is the core of Nagel’s critique of physicalist accounts of consciousness.)

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