There is a curious phenomenon unwinding throughout secularism. One wing is busy elevating animals to the status of humans. And another is dedicated to demoting humans to the level of animals. The overarching goal appears to meet in the middle and declare as equal, in every respect, human creatures with, say, dolphins and colobi, or any other species which is deemed photogenic or does not regularly make appearances on dinner menus.
The former are not just “outraged” members of PETA, or those who push fur-wearing bans. This new group of the Very Concerned are scientists, like those signing the “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” or who organize conferences around “Consciousness in Humans and Non-Human Animals.”
Those who attend First Annual Francis Crick Memorial Conference will be lectured on a “purely data-driven perspective on the neural correlates of consciousness.” There the “most advanced quantitative techniques for measuring and monitoring consciousness will be presented, with the topics of focus ranging from exploring the properties of neurons deep in the brainstem” presented. It is neurons—exceptionally scientific objects of study—deep in the brainstem that tell us that monkeys are the same as you and I. Not in the sense of being conscious, which animals of course are, but in the sense that their intellect and rationality and our intellect and rationality are equal.
It is also neurons deep in the brain which tell us that humans are animals. Not in the dull sense that like annelids we are capable of self-motivation, or like birds we respire, or like mosquitoes we like to eat blood, particularly in our case in the form of breakfast sausage. No, even past popes knew we had bodies and were animals in that sense. What scientists are now “discovering” is that our brains are mere mechanical engines. Input data, provide a glucose power supply, turn the crank and what comes out is perfectly predictable. We are just machines, these scientists say: unthinking, deterministic machines. Slaves to our neurons.
Wait, that’s wrong: not slaves. A slave is a man wrongly imprisoned. Neurologists tell us there is nothing sentient there that can know it is imprisoned. We are just masses of tissue, reacting in pre-programed, unwilled ways to external stimuli, just as the dumbest gnat or cockroach does.
These two views—the simultaneous elevation of animals and demotion of mankind—are of course incompatible. They cannot both be true. If some animals are rational, intelligent beings, then so are we, but then we cannot be mere machines. If we are robots acting out the script provided by our selfish genes, then so are animals, neither group being entitled to any special treatment. Yet we race to embrace both theories. We are therefore converging towards a special state of lunacy.
It is partly a psychological question why this is occurring in our society, but since Yours Truly has no expertise in deviant behavior I remain silent on this matter. There is a theological explanation for our comportment, but we can’t bear thinking on this. Therefore, let’s jump right to the philosophical underpinnings.
Now, if it cannot be so that some animals are just like humans and all animals including humans are unthinking beasts, it can be so that both views are wrong and that instead, just as common sense and all observation suggests, we humans are unique, far different than any animal. That, except when under the influence of alcohol or theory, we are possessed of rationality, of self- and other-awareness, of intentionality. It “should be obvious that it is simply a conceptual impossibility that [intentionality] should ever be explained in terms of or reduced to anything material”.
Free will, as you might guess, is perfectly explainable:
In an Aristotelian-Thomistic analysis, the relationship between a choice and the action it results in can be understood as an instance of formal-cum-final causation. The matter of “material cause” of the action is the sequence of neural firing patterns, muscular movements, and the like by means of which the action is carried out. The formal and final causes of the action—that which gives intelligible structure to the movements—is just the soul considered as a kind of form, and in particular the activities of thinking and willing that are distinctive of the soul’s intellective and volitional powers. The action is free precisely because it has this as its form, rather than having the form, say, of an involuntary muscular spasm. Nor are the intellect and will themselves determined by such things as physical law, because they exist as parts of the realm of formal and final causes, not material and efficient ones.
Let’s don’t forget that Aristotle did not use the word cause in its modern sense of “temporally ordered events”, but as answers to four Ws: What’s the thing made of? (material cause) What’s its form? (formal cause) What actualized its potential? (efficient cause) What’s the thing for? (final cause). A thing must have all four causes: it cannot have just one. In particular, all things have a final cause, in the sense that all things (almost always unconsciously) are “directed toward” some “goal.” This should be utterly uncontentious, given that we see that everything in fact is “directed toward” some (limited range) of “goals.”
But it is contentious, and many moderns reject the idea of final causality. Mostly because they don’t like the implications of accepting it, or because they believe that “science” has proven final causality false.
Let me be clear about something. However widely accepted, these claims are, each and every one of them, simply untrue. They are false. Wrong. Mistaken. Erroneous. Non-factual.
(Regular readers may recognize the tone.)
Rejecting final causation “immediately created a number of serious philosophical problems that have never been settled to this day, but instead have only gotten progressively worse; indeed, historically unprecedented in their bizarreness and rationality.” In Yours Truly’s own field, the “problem” of induction is one of these. Grown men and women actually deny that inductive beliefs are rational (while never ceasing to use them). What this did to statistics is obvious (hello, p-value!).
But the rejection of final causality has also slain rationality in neuroscience. Feser quotes W.T. Stace: “The world, according to this new picture, is purposeless, senseless, meaningless. Nature is nothing but matter in motion. The motions of matter are governed, not by purpose, but by blind forces and laws.” That view led to the slaughter of the universal morality—a subject Feser’s pursues briefly, and which we’ll investigate another day.
For now, we examine the logical conclusion of the modern enterprise: eliminative materialism, a fully mechanical picture of all reality, including the stuff that goes on inside our heads. We have already seen the proof that our intellect cannot be material, yet there are is no shortage of scientists and philosophers who claim the mind does not even exist, except perhaps as an epiphenomenon of wiring together large numbers of neurons, each following a preset “program.” As “John Searle (who, as we have seen, is no religious believer) has argued, every form of materialism implicitly denies the existence of the mind, whether or not it intends to.”
For as Searle has emphasized, there is a difference between following a rule and behaving as if one were following a rule. Suppose someone tells me to follow the following algorithm: 1. Move from the front of the desk to the back of it and go to step 2; 2. Move from the back of the desk to the front and go back to step 1. If I comply, then I will begin circling the desk. Now suppose an earthquake knocks a marble off the desk and after hitting the floor it begins to circle the desk. The marble acts as if it were following the algorithm, but of course it isn’t, while I really am following it.
Because of intentionality, of course. The marble has none. Feser gives several—as in several—other, what should be well known, but which are not, arguments proving, and not just suggesting, that the mechanical picture of our minds is false. He also shows that final causality is necessary to understand or explain what we are.
So what happened? Why were Aristotle and Aquinas abandoned? Nothing more banal than this: “Apart from scholars who specialize in these matters, most academics and other intellectuals, and certainly most journalists and popular writers, simply cannot think about the Middle Ages, Scholasticism, the scientific revolution, and related topics except in terms on the crudest clichés and caricatures.” In other words, laziness and desire the old stuff be wrong.
[T]he rabid anti-Scholasticism of the early moderns was driven less by dispassionate intellectual considerations than by a political agenda: to reorient human life away from the next world and toward this one, and to weaken the rational credentials of religion so as to make this project seem justifiable and inevitable.
I can testify that one can graduate from a PhD program in the sciences at a prestigious university and never, not once, be required to take a philosophy course. There was no expectation that we would even know who Aristotle was. This is especially screwy in my own field of probability applied to physical models because we toss ideas of causality around all the time. Fancy never having to think about what you’re doing! As Mermin said about quantum mechanics: it was “Shut up and calculate.”
But, as Feser says, Aristotle will have his revenge. There is a growing interest in some of us to return to our roots,to discover what we’ve been missing out on, to dispense with “the problem of this” and “the problem of that” in a coherent, sensible, satisfying, and correct way. Of discovering, that is, what is true. The Last Superstition is thus required reading for any scientist who thought they knew what they were talking about when it came to philosophy.
Update I just saw this at Feser’s site. Watch the video. Hilarious. “These are thrilling times.”