Roderick T. Long  BUY MY BOOK OR ELSE!

Archives: April 2005

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Out of Form, Out of Mind – Part II
Guest Blog by Kevin Vallier

Sorry I’ve been incommunicado for so long, particularly if you’ve been awaiting my reply. Rumors of my concession have been greatly exaggerated. Roderick and I have simply been rather busy. But, I have returned. In this post I’m going to do two things:

1) I’m going to respond to Roderick by addressing abbreviations of his relevant points which are fully elaborated in previous posts.

2) I’m going to intersperse my responses to him by weighting against my actual view, which is something like St. Thomas Aquinas’. I think my view comes out stronger in the end, because I don’t think Roderick adequately addressed my concerns. So, you’ll get to see why I asked this sort of question in the first place. I think Roderick’s conception of the soul is too metaphysically thin; you’ll see why I think this below.

3) I know this is three things, but I just wanted to point out that for those of you who don’t care or don’t have time to fiddle with the details, just read the summary I’ve given below.
I begin:

“Here I dissent; Aristotelean forms are not mere shapes.”
I’m aware of this. It just isn’t clear what sort of form of the body that the soul is supposed to be. Presumably, it should be the configuration of the brain (at a time or over time) that embodies its activity. I concede the general point, to whatever extent I denied it, that a dead brain and a living brain can have the same shape without having the same form (although, modern biology would tell us that they will actually have different shapes). Nonetheless, even if the form of the brain contains every aspect of its manner of organization, it isn’t clear what aspect of its organization entails mental activities, and it seems to me that this will be impossible to discover empirically for “problem of other minds” type reasons. This is a point I will make throughout my response: there’s an inevitable conceptual gap between mental and physical facts for which some account is going to have to be given.

“The soul consists in the body’s vital organisation, its functioning as a living and conscious being.”
I’ve gathered from the response you’ve given that you want to say that the soul just is the brain’s conscious life and that the form just is this sort of thing. Is that a fair way of putting it?

”If this sounds like functionalism, the difference is that for functionalists the bodily functioning in which mental processes consist can be identified in non-mental terminology, whereas for Aristoteleans it can’t.”
I’m not sure at all why this is. Imagine I have a recording device that can record all of the atomic facts about neurons, and lay out in a spatial grid all of their locations, and record their biochemical interactions over time. A computer records all of this data and I write a program to spit it out in propositional form. Now, it sure seems to me that I’ve just specified all the facts about my brain without making reference to mental processes.

You might respond that you can’t specify that the organ is a brain without knowing that a brain is for producing mental activity, and so you can’t know whether the mass of neurons is a brain at all unless you know that it has a mental activity. However, this is of little consolation. All of my previous worries can simply be rephrased by my asking, “How do we know that mass of matter in your head is a brain? Do we know by conceptual necessity that it produces the mental? If so, then it’s necessarily a brain ….” This response only pushes my question back a level; I’m interested what the relationship is between that physical stuff in your skull and who you are. There isn’t any obvious conceptual connection.

And regarding your plant example, why can’t I give a completely reductive account of a plant? Why is life irreducible to mechanical processes? It seems fairly obvious that one can specify the activity of a bacterium, for instance, in purely mechanical terms. What’s wrong with adding a bit of complexity? Where does the irreducibility come in? Hasn’t modern chemistry taught us that to be alive, strictly speaking, is simply that a complex atomic system has certain features, like that it tends to reproduce itself, grow, etc.?

“And the function of a brain is inter alia to enable mental processes.”
I like that you’ve used “enable” here. I agree with you that the purpose of a brain is to enable mental processes. But that isn’t enough to necessitate them. This seems to beg the question of just what the brain’s final cause is. Perhaps it is as you say, and the purpose of the brain is just to produce mental activities. However, perhaps it is as I say and the purpose of the brain is to provide a substrate for the soul to cognize in. I’ll expand on these points down below. But why prefer your account to mine?

I think the difficulty I’ve pointed out above stands: let’s just change the discussion to talk about a heap of neurons organized brain-wise, which flickers and sends signals like a brain does. I’m talking about the object specified with the computer program I speak of above. Now: does that thing produce mentality by conceptual necessity, causal necessity, or only contingently? In other words, how do we know when we’ve got a brain? Are the physical facts enough? If so, then physicalism is true. But you’ve denied this. If they aren’t enough, then what is enough? It seems to me that something must be added to the matter in order to have a mind/brain instead of a quasi-brain.

As to the Putnam point: I recognize that a watch is a social object, whose function can’t be specified independently of our intentionality. That’s fine. It wasn’t the best choice of an example. How about a rock? I can specify all the facts about a rock in purely physical terms. It’s pretty easy really. And I don’t see why I can’t do the same for a plant or a “brain” (brain*?).

“Well, Aristotle thought that there were some psychological functions that (unlike sense-perception) have no organ. (And I think he was right about this; see Peter Geach’s article “What Do We Think With?” in his book God and the Soul.) But it’s a mistake to slide from saying that such functions have no organ to saying they have an immaterial organ. (It’s hard to tell whether Aristotle in fact made this mistake, since his remarks on this topic are so brief and cryptic.) If they don’t need an organ, an immaterial organ is of no more use than a material one. Likewise, positing an immaterial “medium” is just positing a medium and then calling it immaterial; but it’s not going to be immaterial in the Aristotelean sense.”
I want to say four things here:

1) Suppose I took St. Thomas’ position: The soul is a subsistent form; it’s a substance that configures matter. This means that the soul is an immaterial object that can exist on its own, but that requires matter for its essential activities. Without the body, all of its activities are in potential. In this case, I can perfectly well make sense of what Roderick describes as Geach’s position. The soul has a non-material activity. However, if the soul is not subsistent, and is merely the form of the brain, then how is it even coherent to say that the form has an activity which has no organ? It’s the form of the body, and yet it has an activity that is apart from the body.

2) I’m not positing a “medium” exactly. I just want to say that there are certain activities which, while reflected in the neurology, are not entailed by the matter. If the soul is not conceptually separable, then it is not obvious at all how the immaterial activity is even possible.

3) I’ve read the Geach book. Geach thinks that the immaterial activity is literally timeless. If that’s true, then I think you can’t be right that the soul is just the form of the body, because the soul will be capable of a timeless activity whereas the body is essentially embedded in time.

If you want to part ways with Geach on this, and say that the immaterial activity is in time, then I’ll be interested to see how you cash this out. In this case you’ve got two options: either the immaterial activity links up with discrete physical states, or it does not.

If it does not, you have something like the British Emergentist picture, where mental activities and physical activities overlap. This is incompatible with an Aristotelean position about souls from what I can tell, because mental activities are no longer formal vis-à-vis the brain.

If you think the immaterial activity links up with discrete physical states, then you have two further options. Either the immaterial activity is the formal aspect of the physical activity, in which case it looks like you’ve got a dual-aspect view of reason and cause explanations (which you and I have agreed in conversation rules out libertarian free will because you cannot be free to do otherwise than you did if reasoning is merely the formal aspect of physically determined processes), or it’s something more than that, in which case you’ve got my view, which is that the physical provides mere enabling conditions for immaterial activities, but those activities are not fully captured by the formal aspects of brain states. In this case, some other fact is required to fix whether a given physical state will be involved in a reasoning activity, as the mere existence of the physical state will not be enough to conceptually entail reasoning. In my case, that fact is the existence of a separable soul (and if you ask me where that comes from, I’ll gladly tell you).

4) If, as you say, the soul engages in an immaterial activity, then it looks like there is a conceptual gap between the total set of biologically specified physical facts and the mental facts. If you take the Thomistic view, you can account for these intuitions. Souls are conceptually separable because they’re subsistent forms. They’re sort of their own beast, in a way. But on your view, it seems hard to understand how to get an entailment relationship between the properly specified physical facts and the immaterial activity. Certainly the entailment isn’t a priori. And if the entailment is a posteriori, then I think you’re in the same boat with all of the physicalists that try to save physicalism by postulating a posteriori (yet necessary) connections between mental facts and physical facts – you end up writing crude promissory notes or engaging in mysterianism of various sorts.

“Does Kevin think all causal necessity is incomprehensible unless mediated by conceptual necessity? (If so, why?) Or does he think causal necessity is intelligible in most contexts but not in the mind-body case? (If so, why?)”
When I made this point, I was referring mostly to the British Emergentist position, which holds that the mental is a kind of substance that arises from the brain in a causally necessary fashion, but without any sort of conceptually necessary relationships and without any additional fixing facts to shore up the entailment gap. I know that William Hasker in his book The Emergent Self attempts to solve this problem by arguing that God attaches some nomologically necessary clause to the laws of physics which is something like, “When you get organized brain-wise, spit out a soul.” That seems terribly ad hoc to me, but at least it takes the conceptual gap somewhat seriously.

With that example in hand, you can see my worry: in the philosophy of mind, it just doesn’t make sense to say the following four propositions at once:

1) The mind is a separate thing from the brain.

2) The mind arises via causal necessity.

3) There is no conceptually necessary relationship between the existence of a brain and the existence of a mind.

4) There are no additional facts to shore up the remaining conceptual gap.
Thus, it seems to me that the emergentist picture decays either into arguing that there are conceptually necessary relationship, or that there are additional “fixing” facts involved in producing minds. Otherwise, we have minds for no reason at all.


Roderick’s view is that the soul is a material form – it’s merely the manner of the brain’s organization. My view is that the soul is an immaterial thing that requires matter for its operations. Basically, my concept of the soul is a bit meatier than his is; and we both wildly depart from the orthodoxies in modern analytic philosophy of mind. I have argued for my position (which I take to be somewhere in between St. Thomas Aquinas’ and Descartes’ position) by arguing that there are conceptual gaps between the physical facts and the mental facts, in which case we need to appeal to further immaterial facts in order to explain why brain produce minds. Roderick’s response is to say that there is a conceptually necessary connection between minds and brains because you can’t specify what a brain is without making reference to a mind. I deny this, but even if I accepted it then my question is whether the stuff that looks like a brain entails the existence of a mind. If it doesn’t, then it seems like we have to appeal to something beyond the material world in order to get ourselves a soul. If it does, then I think we don’t have a position that resembles mine or Roderick’s and that is seriously vulnerable to objection.

My general points focus around the idea that by postulating that the soul is a subsistent form we are able to explain certain features that Roderick’s view cannot account for (like that the soul has an immaterial activity). I can also explain why there are conceptual gaps between observed physical facts and mental facts, as the soul/mind is conceptually separable (and probably actually separable) from the brain. Roderick tries to keep the conceptual tie, but he does so at the cost of making it hard to understand why there exist conceptual gaps and how we reason in a way that isn’t merely a material process.

So, which sort of soul do we have? An Austro-Athenian soul? Or a Parisian soul (Aquinas and Descartes both did much of their philosophy in Paris)?

Posted April 28th, 2005



Happy Birthday, Herbert Spencer

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Today marks the birthday of Herbert Spencer (27 April 1820––8 December 1903), a thinker whose contributions to philosophy, biology, psychology, sociology, and political theory earned him the status of required reading in most universities a century ago. Today he is largely forgotten – except in ludicrously inaccurate caricature as a “Social Darwinist” who supposedly advocated letting the poor and weak die off in order to improve the breed. (Nope, he never said it.) These days most of Spencer’s works are out of print; no historic plaque marks his London residence (38 Queen’s Gardens, just north of Kensington Gardens; I paid my respects there last May), and his grave is overgrown and neglected. Happily, however, interest in Spencer seems to be reviving of late.

 Herbert Spencer Spencer was one of the last stalwarts of classical liberalism, holding up the banner of peace and freedom, and inveighing against regimentation and the régime of status, long after the liberal mainstream had sold out to collectivism and militarist imperialism. After working as a railroad engineer and an editor at The Economist, Spencer devoted the rest of his life to developing, over the course of many volumes, an integrated and systematic theory of life and society. His political philosophy (which I summarize in Herbert Spencer: Libertarian Prophet) anticipated – and influenced – much of contemporary libertarian thought. Likewise, his theories of spontaneous social order, pattern-perception, and the self-defeating character of direct utilitarianism anticipate the work of Friedrich Hayek; his evolutionary cosmology anticipates that of astrophysicist David Layzer and chemist Ilya Prigogine; his writings on the relation between statism, militarism, and male supremacy anticipate the insights of radical feminism; and his pre-Darwinian (1852) critique of creationism could have been written yesterday.

One of Spencer’s contemporaries described him as a “prophet whose greatest discoveries can only be duly appreciated after two or three centuries.” Let’s hope we can accelerate that process a bit. (For a list of online works by and about Spencer, click here.)

Posted April 27th, 2005



The Primacy of the Abstract


The Molinari Society will be hosting its second symposium in conjunction with the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in New York City, December 27-30, 2005. We plan a two-hour session, with two papers, and hereby solicit abstracts on the general topic of “Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin.” Papers should address the general question of whether libertarianism should be thick or thin (“thin” libertarianism is libertarianism understood as a narrowly political doctrine, while “thick” libertarianism is libertarianism understood as essentially integrated into some broader set of social or cultural values) and may (but need not) also address the connection between libertarianism and some specific position or set of positions (environmentalism, left-anarchism, Aristotelianism, feminism, egalitarianism, Christianity, secular humanism, the labor movement, etc.).

Send abstracts to Roderick T. Long at:
(Those interested in being a commentator at the session should do likewise.)

Deadline for receiving abstracts: 5 May 2005
Notification of acceptance / rejection: 15 May 2005
Accepted papers due: 1 November 2005

Posted April 18th, 2005



Vienna Waits For You

 Journal of Libertarian Studies  Journal of Ayn Rand Studies This month sees the release of two journal issues of possible interest to my legions of screaming fans:

Issue 19.1 of the Journal of Libertarian Studies – the first to appear under my editorship – features articles on Benjamin Constant, Henry Hazlitt, Murray Rothbard, economic methodology, and the politico-economic causes of World War I, as well as a new design format. I offer a summary of the contents here.

Issue 6.2 of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies offers a symposium on the interconnections between Ayn Rand and the Austrian School, including an article by me, “Praxeology: Who Needs It,” responding in Austro-Athenian mode to Rand’s philosophical criticisms of Ludwig von Mises. Bettina Bien Greaves reviews the issue here.

If you haven’t subscribed to these two journals your life is undoubtedly a bleak and meaningless void. Happily, this problem can be corrected by clicking here and here. Libertatem stude!

Posted April 17th, 2005



Rock Me Ludwig

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

At the last Austrian Scholars Conference several of the faculty, including myself, were brutally conscripted into performing a musical skit based on the songs that Ludwig von Mises and the other members of the Mises Circle back in 1920s Vienna used to sing at dinner after meetings of Mises’ Privatseminar. (The lyrics were written by philosopher Felix Kaufmann, a member of both the Mises and Vienna Circles.)

For this performance Jeff Tucker actually did most of the singing while we drank wine, scarfed down chocolate creams, and read our lines off notes. Guido Hülsmann played Mises (appropriately, since in the songs Mises is about to abandon Vienna for Geneva, just as in real life Guido is abandoning Auburn, the Vienna of the South, for Angers); Walter Block played Hayek (’cause you need a moderate to play a moderate …); and so on. I was cast as the villainous Hans Mayer, a follower of Max Weber who later ditched Austrian economics for National Socialism.

This painfully unrehearsed performance is now available in online video format. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Posted April 11th, 2005



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