Neurobabble and Aristotle

Over the last year I have been introduced to the work of Edward Feser, a philosopher and writer from California. I read two of his books this last year, and recommend them both. The first was Aquinas: A Beginners Guide (a nice introduction that includes a powerful argument against complexity ID) and The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (really well executed). Much of his work is in the philosophy of mind, and chapter 4 of his Aquinas book would be of interest to students who take that Huenemann class.

The link here is to his comments on “neuro-babble.” Philosopher Tyler Burge, in a recent op-ed in the NY Times, perhaps coined the term “neurobabble” which he called only an “illusion of understanding.” “Neurobabble” is the excited talk of a certain kind of materialist who takes every new discovery in neuroscience to be a demonstration of the the mind’s reducibility to the neural processes.

Feser thinks that one cause of neurobabble is ignorance of the Aristotelian-Thomist position (he refers to it as A-T). Most materialists think the only alternatives are Cartersian dualism (usually given in unfair caricature) and property dualism, both of which travel with serious mind-body interaction problems. What is always ignored in the debate is the A-T position (hylomorphic dualism).

For those unfamiliar with A-T, Feser does a nice job of introducing an Aristotelian approach here. I won’t recast the argument here, what makes Feser so good is his clear and accessible writing and I won’t try to improve upon it. But, for summary: Feser explains hylomorphic dualism and contrasts it with other dualisms and with materialism, arguing for its superiority (no interaction problems, not reductionist, etc). Since the Aristotelian-Thomist position requires bodily activity as a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for acts of the human intellect, the A-T gladly accepts the findings of modern neuro-science, “not as a reluctant concession forced on the theory by the successes of modern neuroscience, but, on the contrary, precisely as a prediction of the A-T position as it has been understood from the beginning.  Were Aristotle and Aquinas to be made familiar with the sorts of neuroscientific discoveries frantically trumpeted by materialists as if they should be an embarrassment to the dualist, they would respond, with a shrug: “Of course.  Told you so.””

He concludes, “The fact is that Aristotelian-Thomistic hylemorphic dualism is the theory most clearly consistent with all of the philosophical and neuroscientific evidence.”

* Added note: A discussion on this post was taken up at the USU Philosophy blog, and Prof Feser stumbled on our blog and participated in the discussion.

About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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