Consciousness, Body-Mind, and Aristotle’s De Anima:

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Presented by Dr. Ron Muller

Monday evenings 7:30-9:00 pm via Zoom: June 3, 10, 17, 24.

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Background:

From the earliest times, we have sought to understand the nature of man and our role in the cosmos.   At first, we found explanations in the realms of myth and legend reflecting the yearnings of the human heart and captured in the imaginings of the poets and sages.  Ancient religious traditions built upon these intuitions and developed systematic explanations of the meanings involved with the great challenges of life—the struggle for existence, the tension between good and evil, and especially the purpose of life itself in the face of death and eternity.

In the sixth century B.C., the ancient Greeks took another approach.  They began to investigate the natural world using common sense and analytic reasoning rather than metaphor and poetic imagination.  Philosophy was born as they searched for knowledge and understanding based on what is most evident to our natural human reason, beginning with the question— what is the truly real, what is the most excellent form of being?  Metaphysics, the philosophy of being, was born in this way as thinkers sought to understand the reasons and causes of things.  Focused at first on the natural world, they identified the principles of atomic theory and showed that the universe is a complex of innumerable, extremely small particles which cluster together to form the physical reality of our experience.    

A century and a half later during the great “Golden Age” of Greece, philosophic interest shifted focus as philosophy turned to questions concerning the nature of man, the principles of ethics, politics, and issues about living well and being happy. In the climate of ideas defined by Socrates and the Sophists at the time some taught that man by nature is a rational animal who excels in his existence by seeking truth, acting justly, and living virtuously.  But others argued, alternatively, that morality is simply social convention and that true virtue is the advantage of the stronger in being successful in life. While Socrates showed, through the dialectical method, the logical implications of true judgments, the Sophists embraced the atomist legacy of the Pre-Socratics along with the conclusion that there is no true success in just actions nor bad results for unjust acts because upon death, a man dies, his soul departs his body, and his consciousness is no more.  By being unjust towards others, one may prosper by greater wealth, power, or fame; injustice rather than justice is the formula for a good life.  Accepting the atomist theory, the Sophists embraced the materialist assumption that both the good man and the bad man are living beings whose consciousness ceases absolutely with the death of the body because the body causes the soul.  Plato, on the other hand, was influenced by the earlier Pythagoreans who argued for the immortality of the soul and an eternal destiny.  Seeking to understand the nature of life and the nature of a living, Aristotle addressed the issues in his extraordinarily influential work, De Anima, a work later embraced by St. Thomas Aquinas as the philosophic foundation for a proper understanding of man consistent with Christian theology.

In this historical context, we see philosophic inquiry illuminate the body-mind issue to show how natural reason confirms the truths revealed by theology.  Generally, reflection begins with understanding how factually a person is a composite of matter and spirit, body and soul, the material and the immaterial.

On the one hand, the body is an extremely complicated matrix of different organs and complex structure and chemistry which carry on life functions –if the body is alive.  If the body is dead, its components, lacking a unifying life principle, begin to break down, break apart, disperse, and dis-integrate.  Unlike the body, the life force which animates the living being is not itself a bodily element, but rather, an immaterial or incorporeal entity.  In metaphysical terms, it is the efficient cause of the life of the living organism because it causes the whole to live; also, it’s the formal cause of the living organism because through the life function it directs, it determines the kind of thing, the nature, or the essence of what the living being is.

In human beings the life principle is called the “soul,” derived from the Greek psuche (ψυχή). meaning life or breath; Also referred to as body-soul, the body-mind problem seeks to understand the relation between these two components in human persons.  “Soul” is referred to as “mind” in body-mind because the life principle in human beings has (among many others) the distinctive power of self-awareness and self-determination.  We identify consciousness with our minds because we are constantly aware of ourselves as each being the “self” of a personal life, a unique persona, and metaphysically a distinctive “who” possessing personhood and self-awareness, –in short an individual personality.

For reference: Terms and Concepts

In addition to the terms mentioned above, other philosophic concepts and distinctions are important for addressing the questions below which the course will consider in the light of the historical background.  These include the concepts of: consciousness, psyche, and ego, telos and teleology, nature, essence, or suchness, the principle of sufficient reason, condition and cause, and epi-phenomenalism.  Especially important are Aristotle’s teaching on the four types of causality, substance and accident, and hylo-morphism (his view of form and matter). 

Questions and issues

To understand the nature of life generally and the nature of the human person specifically, the course will address these questions and issues:

  1. What is the cause of a living being? Is the principle of life found in matter or in an immaterial animating principle?
  2. Is the life principle or soul caused by the body or does the body cause the soul? Is epi-phenomenalism correct that the mind and spirit are simply by-products of the organization of matter?
  3. Hasn’t it been shown that genes cause us to do things, confirming that physical events in the body cause our actions despite the illusion of free will?
  4. Is Aristotle correct in his analysis of the powers invested in the animating life principle and his distinction between the vegetative, animal, and rational souls?
  5. Is the body-mind problem in fact a non-issue for the reason that only mind exists and that, as the tradition of metaphysical idealism contends, the reality of a physical world is an illusion? Was Berkley correct that we only know impressions or ideas in the mind?
  6. According to Aristotle, can the soul exist beyond death?

Texts:

Find the readings from public domain works by the Pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas.

For more information:

Please contact Dr. Muller at abb303@gmail.com or 248 410-3575.

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