Aristotle, Locke, and Berkeley: An Intro to the Mind/Body Problem Pt 2

In my last blog, I explained the philosophical issue of how matter relates to consciousness aka the “Mind-Body Problem”. I briefly explained the dilemma and its solutions from the perspectives of Thomas Hobbes, Paul Churchland, and Rene Descartes. Before reading this second writing, I would urge you to please read part one here:

In a brief summation, I described Churchland’s identity theory (that the mind is identical to the brain), Descartes’ substance dualism (that the mind and the brain were made up of two distinct and separate substances), and the Hobbes’ materialist view of motion, appetite and aversion (that the mind is just the brain ruled by physical laws and instinct), and presented scientific evidence for and against each view. I then promised you that I would use this second writing to delve into a third view of idealism, and I will. But before I do, it is crucial to understand the differences in the variations of dualism, and in order to do that, we have to go all the way back to Aristotle. Again, this is just an intro and by no means exhaustive, but, hopefully, I can help my readers come to a simple understanding of a complex problem. Or at least, for kicks and giggles, show you how to screw with someone’s head to the point that they are not sure if you exist. Anyways, here we go . . .

In part one of this series, we (very briefly) looked at a major objection raised by philosophical materialists against the theory of substance dualism, commonly called “The Interaction Problem”. Basically, this problem arises from the perceived inability for these two separate and fundamentally different substances to have any real causal connection to one another, thus an “explanation is required of how something without any physical properties has physical effects[1]Or in other words: how can the immaterial affect the material when they’re so different? This has long been a sort of conversation stopper for many dualist on the part of materialist, but is not quite the massive problem for certain forms of the theory, such as hylermophic dualism. This was the view held by St Aquinas, who either adopted or reframed many of his views from Aristotle.

If you’ve ever taken an introductory philosophy course, you have surely read Plato and heard something about his “Forms”. Plato believed that whatever we see to exist, and even non-spatial or abstract objects such as numbers and attributes, existed in a pure and unadulterated actuality. So, when we use these things like the number three or we are good, we are in a sense borrowing it from its perfect “form” via intellect or “reason”. So when you see a tree or an act of good, you are only seeing a diluted perception of the “form” of a “Tree” or the “Good” and we came to better know it through rational interaction. He felt that the use of reason alone lead us to the highest “Good”, which was what Plato called “God”, although atheism and Plato’s “Forms” are not mutually exclusive. You can be a Platonist without being an atheistic materialist. But, for the sake of this writing as an introduction, we will not make this a focal point right now.

Now, like I said, the interpretations of his forms are still argued vigorously, and the ontology of abstract objects, their materiality, immateriality and such is not what this blog is about. The reason I am saying this is because it is relevant in understanding Aristotle’s mind-body philosophy, and hence, hylermophic dualism. Because like Plato, Aristotle thought us to be rational creatures. Aristotle thought that material objects, such as a rock or a tree, can only instantiate one form at a time. So, only rational beings can understand while also grasping a “form”, and only immaterial beings can grasp multiple forms simultaneously. Therefore, we were more than just a body.

In “On the Soul”, he writes, “We say that one kind of being is substance. One sort of substance is matter, which is not a this in its own right; another sort is shape of form, which makes (matter) a this; and the third sort is the compound of matter and form. Matter is potentiality, and form is actuality; actuality is either, for instance, (the state of) knowing or (the activity of) attending (to what one knows). What seems to be substances most of all are bodies, and especially natural bodies . . . it follows that every living natural body is a substance and, (more precisely), substance as compound. But since every such body is also this sort of body- i.e., the sort that is alive- the soul cannot be a body, since the body (is substance) as subject and matter and is not said of a subject. The soul, then, must be substance as the form of a natural body that is potentially alive. Now, substance is actuality; hence the soul will be the actuality of this specific sort of body . . . Hence we need not ask whether the soul and body are one, any more than we need to ask if the wax and seal, or in general, about the matter and the thing of which it is the matter. For while one and being are spoken of in several ways, the actuality (and what actualizes) are fully one.”[2]

The key part to take away from that quotation is that the soul is the form of the natural body. Now, what does that mean? It means that the mind and body are not independent from one another, but are in constant states and sequences in one relationship.

This is very important to understand in order to offer a cogent response to the interaction problem because that particular materialist objection assumes that the soul and the body to be totally separate from one another and interacting in an efficiently caused manner. That is to say, that the objection is raised from a supposition that the immaterial agent alone is what brings an action into being or causes some form of change. But this is not the case for Aristotle’s outlook because, in his view, reason is just one part of the soul. It is but one immaterial proponent that makes up one substance (the body) in an formally caused way. This means that it express the essential nature of the thing itself.

That is a big difference between Descartes’ and Aristotles’ view because in Aristotle’s dualism, the mind and the body are not technically interacting at all. Instead, the “form” makes up the “matter” into one object. They don’t independently interact with one another or exist apart from one another. They are one in the same in different forms, while the soul, generally speaking, still can exist apart from the body. Not all scholars agree on this, and we will deal with their objections when we move onto St. Aquinas, but for now, this will be our working concept. [3]

The next philosopher to mention is John Locke. Locke differed greatly from Plato and Descartes in that he, like Aristotle, was an empiricist instead of a rationalist. That means that he thought that knowledge primarily came through the senses, not just through the faculty of reason. But he was also a dualist. So this will help us come to a clearer understanding of the scope of knowledge and the mind-body problem, and also create an open door to introduce philosophical idealism: the view that consciousness, not matter, is fundamental to reality.

In “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, Locke lays out his view that we are born as a type of blank slate, writing, “Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas:- How comes it to be furnished? . . . Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded.”[4]

Now, Locke was still skeptical of sensory data. He would readily admit that senses fail all the time, but he just didn’t go full-stop and throw them all out like Descartes did. He, instead, relied upon a detection system for testing trustworthy sensory impressions. This system divided things we perceive in reality into two categories: things with primary and then secondary qualities.

Primary qualities were things that are qualities that are inherent to the object itself, things that are mind-independent, such as weight, height, depth and motion. You could genuinely think that a brick (Locke used an apple as an example) that weighs 20 pounds weighs a million pounds, but you would be wrong. You could think it was a circle and not a rectangle, or that I wasn’t actually throwing it and it is moving right into your face, but you would be wrong. Those were primary attributes. Then, there were secondary attributes, which were things that were not necessarily true. They were truths that really only exist in our own minds, but they came through our knowledge of primary qualities.

Secondary qualities included color, shape, sound, and texture. He deciphers this difference when he writes, “From whence I think it easy to draw this observation,- that the ideas of primary qualities of bodies are resemblances of them, and their patterns do really exist in the bodies themselves, but the ideas produced in us by these secondary qualities have no resemblance to them at all. There is nothing like our ideas, existing in the bodies themselves. They are, in the bodies we denominate from them, only a power to produce those sensations in us; and what is sweet, blue, or warm in idea, is but the certain bulk, figure and motion of the insensible parts, in the bodies themselves, which we call so.”[5]

This seems like a pretty common sense way to be an empiricist. The brick is 20 pounds but I really see it as more of a pink brick than a red one and so on. If I thought it weighed a million pounds, I would be wrong, but if I thought it was more pink than red, then, fine. Locke helped many philosophers reconcile differences in qualitative experiences while affirming the reliability of information that derived from our experiences. However, not all philosophers agreed with Locke. One of these such philosophers was Bishop George Berkeley.

If George Berkeley were still alive, he would be the guy that shows up at the party and makes you wonder who spiked the pot. His philosophy sounds crazy, but let it sink in. Remember that Berkeley was also an empiricist who, like Locke, also recognized that one’s intellect was needed for the senses to distinguish different ideas from one another. It’s not that he didn’t necessarily agree with Locke, he just didn’t think that Locke followed his own thought to its natural conclusion; he felt Locke didn’t go far enough.

Berkeley felt he could demonstrate this by turning Locke’s own philosophy against him. He starts his treatise against Locke’s empiricism by writing, “By touch I perceive for, for example, hard and soft, heat and cold, motion and resistance . . . And as several of these are observed to accompany each other, they come to be marked by one name, and so to be reputed as one thing . . . a certain color, taste, smell, figure and consistence having been observed to go together, are accounted one distinct thing, signified by the name apple . . . there is likewise something which knows or perceives them . . . This perceiving, active being is what I call mind, spirit, soul or myself . . . for the existence of an idea consists in being perceived.”[6]

What Berkeley is saying here is that you can’t see something like the shape of an apple, or a brick, without already having an idea of all of its qualities. You can’t have either quality without the other. How would you actually know that brick’s shape? How would you actually know that it was a rectangle and not a circle? Keep in mind that Locke thought that secondary qualities were not objectively real, but were only qualities that could be subjectively experienced. So, how then, do you perceive an apple’s shape without perceiving its color? Both are mere ideas that are, in Berkeley’s idealism, indistinguishable from one another to the one looking at the apple. In other words, you can’t decipher any of the primary qualities without also considering the secondary qualities. If you rid yourself of any of the secondary qualities trying to get to the primary qualities, you don’t have an apple or brick at all.

Berkeley then writes, “Some there are who make the distinction between primary and secondary qualities: by the former, they mean extension, figure, rest, motion, solidity . . . yet by the latter they denote all other sensible qualities, as colors, sounds, taste, and so forth. The ideas we have of these they acknowledge not to be the resemblances of anything existing without the mind or unperceived; but they will have our ideas of the primary qualities to be patterns or images of things which exist without the mind, in an unthinking substance which they call matter. By matter we are to understand an inert, senseless substance, in which extension, figure, and motion, do actually subsist. But it is evident from what we have already shown, that extension figure and motion are only ideas existing in the mind, and that consequently neither they nor their archetypes can exist in an unperceiving substance. Hence it is plain, that the very notion of what is called matter or corporeal substance, involves a contradiction in it.”[7]

This is Berkeley’s uber-controversial logical conclusion that he thought Locke ought to have found himself: matter doesn’t exist, only perceptions.

So, under this philosophy, there is no mind-body problem because there is no body!! There are only ideas and thoughts, mere minds perceiving that we have a body. Now, this would seemingly lead to Solipsism (the view that only “I” exist), since if I stop perceiving myself (or you perceiving me?), then I wouldn’t exist! The universe would actually cease to exist if this were true, right? Nope. This is when Berkeley drops the G-word . . .

Under Berkeley’s idealism, the universe is upheld in existence by the ultimate and omnipresent perceiver: God. God would then be holding all perceivers in existence by his own perception upon us. So everything that exists, from your body to Mars isn’t matter at all, but mere thoughts in the mind of God.

He writes, “Hence it is evident, that God is known as certainty and immediately as any other mind or spirit whatsoever, distinct from ourselves. We may even assert, that the existence of God is far more evidently perceived than the existence of men . . . There is not any one mark that denotes a man, or effect produced by him, which does not more strongly evince the being of that spirit who is the Author of Nature . . . He alone it is who upholding all things by the word of his power, maintains that intercourse between spirits, whereby they are able to perceive the existence of each other. And yet this pure and invisible light which enlightens everyone is itself invisible.”[8]

Berkeley had then formed his own type of “I think therefore I am” statement: “to be is to be perceived”.

So let us consider our previous examples of scientific studies that created objections for philosophical materialism, such as the Jerome Feldman’s Visual Binding Problem. This problem arises from the brain’s inability to combine information to form a unified perception, such as a subjective experience in reality. Feldman writes, “There are intractable problems in all branches of science; for Neuroscience a major one is the mystery of subjective personal experience. This is one instance of the famous mind–body problem (Chalmers 1996) concerning the relation of our subjective experience (aka qualia) to neural function. Different visual features (color, size, shape, motion, etc.) are computed by largely distinct neural circuits, but we experience an integrated whole. There is now overwhelming biological and behavioral evidence that the brain contains no stable, high-resolution, full field representation of a visual scene, even though that is what we subjectively experience (Martinez-Conde et al. 2008). The structure of the primate visual system has been mapped in detail (Kaas and Collins 2003) and there is no area that could encode this detailed information. The subjective experience is thus inconsistent with the neural circuitry.”[9]

This is a serious problem for any type of materialist philosophy, whose proponents usually just offer me some sort of naturalism of the gaps fallacy argument, telling me that we don’t know enough about the brain yet in order to say consciousness isn’t reducible to matter. But the problem is that a dualist or idealist conclusion is actually based upon what we do know about the brain, not what we don’t know about it. I drive a Prius, and no matter how hard I try, it will not hit 500 miles an hour. It just doesn’t have that capability. This analogy is perfectly reasonable since the brain, on its own, does not have the capacity to integrate such massive amounts of information needed to explain what we subjectively experience.

Yet, if you are a dualist, especially of the variety I have covered in this blog, there is not a problem whatsoever. The immaterial mind is acting in an informative way to the brain and creating the visual experience we perceive. And if you are an idealist, then this is not a surprise at all, since consciousness is ultimately what is most fundamental to reality, not matter.

I will soon post a separate blog on Berkeley and the mind of God but, for now, will bring part two to a close. Next, we will discuss St. Aquinas’ twist on Aristotle’s dualism, dual-aspect idealism, and property dualism.

Also, to my particularly philosophically literate readership please get off my back! I will get to Kant, Spinoza, Hume and Nagel, I promise. These are just introductions!

[1] Problems of Interaction. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ret. 28 June 2016. Web.

[2] Aristotle. “On the Soul.” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 231. Print.

[3] Thanks to Dr. Sloan Lee for pointing this out to me!

[4] Locke, John. “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 680-681. Print.

[5] Locke, John. “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 680-681. Print.

[6]Berkeley, George. “A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 750. Print.

[7] Berkeley, George. “A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 753. Print.

[8] Berkeley, George. “A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 784. Print.

[9] Feldman, Jerome. “The Neural Binding Problem(s).” Cognitive Neurodynamics 7.1 (2013): 1–11. PMC. Web. 30 June. 2016.


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