by Michael Kitz
Discusses Descartes questions concerning "conciousness" & "form"
Review of Descartes Intial Question about Conciousness and it’s Inherent Mistake
By Michael Kitz
“When I say that spirit is incorporeal substance. . . if he should answer, that when he hears the words incorporeal substance, he imagines some aerial or other very thin, subtle,
transparent body, I shall reply, that this comes from a vicious custom he has brought himself to, of imagining something whenever he will conceive anything, though of a nature incapable of being truly represented by any image in the fancy [imagination]… Because the use of imagining, whenever we would conceive things, is so stubborn an
impediment to the free actings of the mind, in cases that require pure intellection, it will be very useful, if not necessary, to accustom ourselves not to be startled or frighted with every thing that exceeds or confounds the imagination, but by degrees to train up the mind to consider notions that surpass the imagination and yet are demonstrable by reason.”
(Robert Boyle, quoted in Burtt, Metaphysical Foundations of
Modern Physical Science, p. 183-84)
Can “consciousness” be reduced to some sort of physical behavior, brain state or function or is “consciousness” fundamentally immaterial, something that will forever and
necessarily be a mystery to science? That is the big question that Descartes bequeathed
to modern philosophy. To illustrate what’s wrong with the question itself and the
confusion it created, I’ll begin with a little question of my own.
During the year or two preceding the turn of the millennium, there was much talk and concern over what came to be called the “Y2K” problem. The issue, you’ll remember, revolved around the fact that most computer programs of the previous decades specified the year with only two digits, and hence, would be unable to distinguish between the year 2000 and the year 1900. The fear was that the computers would all reset and start over, like a rebirth, which would cause all information since it began that was gained to be lost or just all crash. There was no agreement of the reaction of computers programs when they are confronted with a contradiction (which usually results in a crash) or confronted with a problem it has not been given instruction on solving. Given our economic reliance on computers and computer chips, there was widespread concern about the problems this would cause. Clearly computer programs used by financial institutions would have to be fixed; as would the programs used by Admissions and Records offices in colleges and universities. But what about carswith chips to control gas flow? Would they start on the morning of the new millennium?
My little question is this: suppose someone coins a new word, “shlork’, and uses it to refer to all things humans have made that somehow keep track of time. The category of
“shlorks” will thus include things like computers, trains, automobiles, programmable
coffee pots and pendulum-powered cuckoo clocks. And let us also suppose that there are
good reasons to think that computers, trains, automobiles and programmable coffee pots
might succumb to the Y2K bug. But since four out of five shlorks might malfunction, do
we then have good reason to believe the fifth shlork, my pendulum-powered cuckoo clock,might also malfunction? Perhaps, statistically. Common sense tells us that if something happens once under certain conditions then it is likely to happen again under the same or similar conditions. But the actual answer (as we learned again from Y2K) is actually, “NO”.. The term “shlork” in no way, as the ancients said,“divides nature at its joints” and, hence, as a social construct it can tell us nothing about reality.
The argument is that “consciousness”, as Descartes used the term, is also a social
construct. He took all sorts of things—pains, dreams, mental images, perceptions,
memories, intentions and concepts—and lumped them into a single invented category. He
then asked, “What do all these things have in common and how do they differ from
things like rocks, trees, arms, noses and brains? We all know his answer—the first
category, “consciousness”, name things that lack extension; i.e., they are immaterial
substances. Whereas the second category, material objects, name things that are fully
definable in terms of their extension, i.e., their weight, shape and measurements. Thus,
his infamous dualism.
Descartes’ mistake was to lump radically different sorts of things into a single category. Yet, most critics of dualism continue to ask his misleading question: “What is consciousness?”
Aristotelians reject, or at least, divide the question. They argue that pains, mental images, perceptions and memories are all in principle reducible to some sort of physical behavior, brain state or function. It is only concepts—if you will, the fifth “shlork”—that point to something transcending physical categories. As Aristotle said, “only the intellect comes from without.”
Let me begin to unpack this crucial distinction between concepts and percepts with two little thought experiments and one parable.
Thought experiment one:
Close your eyes and form a mental image of a circle. Now form a mental image of
an octagon. Most of us will have no difficulty “seeing” these two images as
distinct. But, now, form a mental image of a chiliagon, i.e., a 1000 sided regular
polygon, i.e., an octagon on steroids. Can anyone honestly claim that their mental
image of a circle is distinct from their mental image of a chiliagon? Nonetheless,
we have no difficulty thinking about the difference between circles and chiliagons
because our concept of a circle is quite distinct from our concept of a chiliagon,
even though we are unable to form distinct mental images of the two.
Thought experiment two:
Imagine you are in a room where there is a piano, a map of North America and
several people who drive cars. Now suppose you are asked to count the number of
keys in the room. Can you do it? Perhaps, but not until you know whether you are
supposed to count both car keys and piano keys, or perhaps even the key on the
map. And if the request was made verbally, then we would also need clarification
about how to count the Florida Keyes.
Now image you are in the same room and another request is made—this time you
are asked to count the number of “things” in the room! Can you do it? Just like
counting keys, it is impossible to count “things” until one knows what constitutes
a “thing”. Are we supposed to count each person as one thing? Or do we count
their noses, feet and toes as three separate things? Or perhaps we should count the
cells in their noses as individual things? Obviously, our questions don’t end here!
A peripatetic philosopher, a number crunching statistician and a super-sleuthing
forensic scientist are hiking down a trail when they see huge rocks on the side of a hill
shaped like this:
The statistician comments that the odds against rocks arranging themselves by
random chance into a shape like this are so great that the rocks must be a sign of
The forensic scientist (in the skeptical spirit of John Wisdom’s“Gods”) sets about to look for physical evidence that some person or group of people that actual arranged the rocks. Yet, using his most sophisticated tools, he discovers no evidence that humans have had any physical contact with these rocks, and concludes that the statistician is wrong. The rocks are nothing morethan a highly unusual event, utterly devoid of meaning.
The statistician, not to be out done by the tools of the forensic scientist, gets out
his calculator, plugs in some numbers, pushes a button, and out comes a
number—10to the 87th power. He then explains with his favorite illustrations just how big that number is and then repeats his original claim: these rocks must be a sign of what’sahead.
Finally, though without much hope, the statistician and scientist turn to their toolless philosophical friend for assistance.
“Well,” says the philosopher, “maybe the rocks are a sign and maybe they are not—it all depends on their essence, i.e., their form. If they are only rocks shaped like words, then they’re not a sign. But if they are in the form of a word, then they are a sign.”
Thanks a lot philosopher, so again you have given us an answer that provides no resolution. Why does he always have to come with us?
Without the sophisticated tools of math or science, their philosophical friend can
only utter meaningless mumbo-jumbo.
So the dispute continues as they walk down the road. 15 minutes later they see
a taco stand. The statistician is delighted and takes this to be a sure vindication of
his tools and methods. The forensic scientist is crest-fallen, wondering why his tools didn’t uncover evidence of human activity. The philosopher remains agnostic.
Just a day later, the owner of the taco stand drives up the road and sees the same
rocks. He thinks to himself—“What a great advertisement!”—and makes
arrangements with his lawyer in New York to purchase the land and add an arrow pointing to his stand. When the peripatetic philosopher hears of the purchase, he says to himself: “Whatever they were previously, now the rocks really are words.”
The point in all three cases is that Form is not Shape. Here I’m using the term “shape” as a short hand to refer to the totality of a thing’s physically quantifiable properties, i.e., its physical shape and size, height, weight, chemical composition, etc., in its most complete description. In other words, I’m using the term “shape” as Descartes used the termextension.
“Form”, on the other hand, is used to refer a thing’s essence or nature. A thing’s form is that which makes it what it is. For example, I can write the word “tool” in several
different ways so that it has several different shapes. Yet any instance of the word “tool”,
irrespective of its shape, has the exact same form. We know that differently shaped
instances of the word “tool” have the same form because they all convey the same information which is nothing other than the concept tool, i.e., what the word means.
Having stipulated the meaning of “form” and “shape”, let me now return to our three
examples and unpack them further.
(1) The conclusion that Aristotelians draw from the chiliagon vs. circle example is that humans can conceive of (i.e., think about, reason and understand) all sorts of things that cannot be perceived. As Hamlet said to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” Of course, the precise ontological status of concepts remains to be determined. But any philosophy that conflates conceiving with perceiving (i.e, thinking with visualizing) is subject to a devastating counter-example at the outset. (And, as Robert Boyle understood, the confusion of thinking with imagining is equally disastrous for science.)
(2) The conclusion I draw from the ill conceived request simply to “count things” is that
our idea of “quantity” is itself a “quality”. We should probably fault Galileo and Locke
more than Descartes for this mistake; they bear the primary responsibility for dividing
our perceptions into primary and second qualities. “Primary qualities”, they said, were
those perceived features of objects that could be measured, weighed or otherwise
“quantified”. “Secondary qualities”, according to Galileo and Locke, were somehow
caused by an object’s primary qualities, yet they were really nothing more than the
subjective experiences of perceivers. In other words, what really existed in nature were
quantifiable properties; qualitative ones were merely subjective experiences and wholly
parasitic upon those which are quantifiable.
(Aside: One thing is clear, “on the street” Galileo’s and Locke’s distinction has stuck. No
matter what is being studied—be it the structure of a bridge or the structure of a student’s
essay, the assumption is that we must first measure; then and only then, can we draw
objective conclusions. I take the silly shibboleths of the “Student Learning Outcomes”
movement and its insistence on “measurable objectives” as a case in point. For this I first
blame the Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, but then I blame Galileo and
They got it exactly backwards. Quality is not parasitic upon quantity. Rather, quantity is parasitic upon quality. There is absolutely nothing that one table, one atom, one person, one baseball game, one pain, one poem, one corporation and one concept have in common except, as Aquinas put it, the transcendental quality of unity. Since all quantities are, by definition, iterations of one, it follows that all quantifiable measurements are conceptually dependent on human’s ability to abstract qualities which distinguish heaps of stuff from integrated wholes. And if our ability to abstract qualities which unify is nothing more than a subjective, airy-fairy, socially constructed and idiosyncratic “feeling”, then so is the most scientifically sophisticated set of quantifiable
And though most of you have caught my drift, let me be explicit—the most fundamental quality of things is their form. Until we know what something is (i.e., until we have abstracted its form) any kind of counting or measurement is impossible.
(3) The conclusion of the parable is that form is not in things the way dirt is in a rug. To
put dirt into a rug or to pull dirt out of rug is a physical process that requires some sort of
physical contact with the rug. But the way humans put meaning (in-form-ation) into
physical shapes is radically different; so too is the way humans pull out meaning (inform-
ation) from physical shapes. When we come to understand what something is (i.e.,
when we have abstracted its form) we are not performing a physical process. At no point
did the owner of the taco stand need to make “physical contact” with his rocks to make
However, Aristotelians never tire of repeating that nothing is in the intellect which is not first in the senses. To perform the intellectual act of abstraction we must first perform the prior act of perception. Plato famously argued that the humans can make direct contact with the Forms. But Aristotelians insist that humans are by nature rational animals, not disembodied minds. And as animals, our ability to abstract forms presupposes sense perception. Sense perception is a necessary condition for the intellectual act of abstraction. But it cannot be a sufficient condition because forms (i.e., what something is) are distinct from perceivable shapes, even in their most sophisticated description.
At the most fundamental level, points of mass/energy are constituted by the forces
that are described by the laws of nature. From those laws the existence of
consciousness follows as a logical consequence, just as does the existence of any
other biological phenomena, such as growth, digestion, or reproduction (Mind: A
Brief Introduction, John Searle, p. 130).
Searle calls his position “biological naturalism,” a term that warms my Aristotelian heart (one of my many hearts). At the risk of being repetitious, let me again say: Aristotelians have no objection to Searle’s comparison of pains, perceptions, and memories to other biological phenomena such as growth, digestion or reproduction. There is no reason in principle to believe that these are constituted at the most fundamental level by anything other than the same sorts of mass/energy points that constitute digestion and growth.
Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that all of these are describable by “laws of nature.”
Now we must be clear about what’s entailed by a “law of nature”. Here I find the
“type/token” distinction helpful. While the term is a little dated, the distinction is not. If
I’m holding a quarter, a nickel and a dime in my hand, then I’m holding three types of
coins. However, if I’m holding three pennies in my hand, then I am holding one type of
coin, but three coin tokens.
So, at a minimum, “laws of nature” must establish “type-correspondences” (as opposed to a mere token-correspondences) between things or events. In other words, events or states of type A are observed to be consistently correlated with events or states of type B. Given our understanding of neurobiology, it is becoming more and more reasonable to conclude that there are such correspondences between things like pains and perceptions and discoverable events in the brain. Here, Aristotelians are in full agreement with Searle.
However, there are powerful reasons to believe that there are no type-correspondences between brain states and concepts. The reason is simple: there is no type-correspondence between the shape of words (or any other intentional sign) and the concepts they communicate: i.e.
TOOL (English word)
- --- --- .-.. (Morse code word)
Same word, radically different forms.
Yet, “tool” typed and “tool” written in Morse code communicate the same concept.
Obviously, there is no lawful limit to the number of shapes that might physically
communicate a particular concept to a particular person. It would be a miracle of
supernatural proportion if the infinite number of physically distinct stimuli that could be
used to communicate the concept tool ended up residing in the same brain state.
Having said this, we should add that all Aristotelians assume that there is a token/token
correspondence between concepts and particular neuronal brain states. That is, for every
concept “x” there is a brain state “y” with which it is correlated, though there is no lawful
(i.e., predictable) generalization correlating types of things.
For example, let us say a C-shaped crack in a particular rock, call it “x”, was caused by some physical state/event, call it “y”. In a token/token relation there is no lawful
Generalization such that whenever rock of type X is in state/event type Y, then a Cshaped crack will emerge. In simple English, a C-shaped crack in a particular rock is the result of random causes which no scientist could, or would care to, predict. But random causes are still physical causes; though they are unpredictable, they in no way violate the conservation laws of mass/energy.
So too, there is nothing in Aristotle’s theory of mind, as there is in Descartes’, whichcontradicts the “conservation laws” of modern science. After all, Aristotle asserted long ago that “nothing comes from nothing.”
Furthermore, since Aristotelians insist thathumans are rational animals, not disembodied spirits, they also insist that the brain is a necessary condition for rational thought (e.g., the abstraction of concepts). Concepts do not “emerge” out of nothing; nor do concepts exist in the “gaps” between mirco-states of
the brain. Rather, concepts are correlated in a token/token fashion with brain
states/functions in the same way meanings are correlated in a token/token fashion with
ink marks and acoustical disturbances of air.
For example, suppose Fred first learned the concept tool by seeing something shaped like“TOOL” associated with hammers and hand saws. Let us assume for the sake of the argument that one day a neurophysiologist discovers that on the neuronal map of Fred’s brain it is neuron 9,346,766 that houses this piece of Fred’s perceptual past. Finally, let us suppose that this same scientist is able to hook up Fred’s brain to a computer and that every time neuron 9,346,766 is stimulated, Fred reports thinking about the concept of tool. Would that demonstrated that concepts really are brain processes? Not unless they could also demonstrate that in other people’s brain it is neuron 9,346,766 that was correlated with the concept tool.
Might such a demonstration be forthcoming? Well, there is no logical contradiction here.But there are huge problems nonetheless. Even though Fred learned about tools by seeing the physical shape “TOOL” associated with things like hammers and hand saws, other people will have learned the concept tool by seeing the physical shape “tool” associated with chain saws and chisels and still others by seeing the physical shape “instrumento” associated with ink pens and ice picks. The number of differently shaped physical objects used to communicate a single concept like tool is virtually infinite.
Contrast this with perceptual states in the brain, for example, feeling a painful burn. Thenumber of physically different objects that cause a painful burn are also virtually infinite.
Fire, frying pans, hydrochloric acid and dry ice will all cause the same burning sensation.However, in this case they also have the same physical effect on the body. In otherwords, with pains we do have a type/type relation—same physical effects on the body predictably yield the same burning sensation in one’s consciousness.
But is there any reason to believe that all the different physical tokens that mean tool
(TOOL, tool, instrumento, - --- --- .-.. , etc.) will physically affect the same neuron in
different brains so as to produce the single concept of tool? If, as Aristotle said, the
human intellect is akin to the divine, then how much more akin to the divine is such a
massive coincidence, i.e., the coincidence of millions of different physical tokens all
miraculously being coordinated so that they have exactly same effect on the brain? Now,
again, we must be clear—nothing I’m saying violates the strict conservation laws of
There is always, according to Aristotle, a one-to-one correlation between a brain
state and a concept; it is just that these correlations are only token/token.
But if concepts are always correlated with physical brain states, then aren’t Aristotelians
simply cowardly materialists, unwilling to take the plunge and admit that we live in a
purely physical world? In short, if all concepts have a material cause in the brain, then
aren’t “concepts” nothing more than airy-fairy fluff for the faint of heart? No. The fact
that brains are necessary for conceptual thought doesn’t mean that they are sufficient. Of
course, a full blown defense of the radical ontological distinction between concepts and
percepts would take us far beyond this short review. Fortunately, my response to the charge that Aristotelians are cowardly materialists only requires a review of what words are andwhat they do.
One possibility is to argue that there must be something physically distinctive and
significant about the ink and/or acoustical disturbances which constitute the words of the
last paragraph; it is just that scientists have yet to figure out what it is. But remember the
rocks in the taco “sign”—by signing a piece of paper in a lawyer’s office the owner is
able to instantaneously in-form the rocks with meaning. Now that’s “action at a distance”
which ought to make any materialist blush since it clearly violates Einsteinian constraints
on the communication of information. Put simply, the materialist’s problem is their
assumption that the only significant way one thing (meaning) can be in something else is
the way dirt is in rugs.
The other possibility is for a materialist to deny that anything of significance vis-à-vis the rocks was accomplished in the lawyer’s office, i.e., to deny that they were in-formed with meaning. But, then, we must ask of the ink flowing from the materialist’s pen or the acoustical disturbances emanating from his mouth: How did they become carriers of information? Where do they house their meaning? Why should they be any more significance than the rustling of leaves or the pattern of rocks after a landslide?
In sum, I’ve tried to make three interconnected points:
• There is a crucial distinction between concepts and percepts
• The brain is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for conceptual thought
• Nothing in the Aristotelian understanding of mind contradicts the “conservation
laws” of modern physics
Now, take the ideas of tthe questions and analogies raised here and discuss or ponder?
“Is Descartes’ misguiding us with his question regarding “conciousness” as quoted at top?