Section 3

Understanding and Choosing

Chapter 1

Are humans different?

We now come to the acts that are distinctively human among living bodies--or at least acts which we have no clear evidence for in any other animal: understanding or thinking, and choosing or willing. As we investigate them, we will conclude that these acts are spiritual, not immaterial; and this will leave us with implications for the human soul and its immortality, which will be the subject of the next section.

It is a little hard to begin this discussion, because here more than anywhere else, perhaps, the general view of people is that it is scientifically established that we are just complex animals, and all the talk of a special dignity we have and of spirituality, freedom of choice, and immortality belong to "religion" and are wishful thinking, and have nothing to do with actual facts, let alone with anything that can be established from the observable data confronting us.

The mere fact that David Hume's skepticism is called "empiricism" is a clue to how deep the attitude is; but Hume is perhaps not the real culprit here. What made the big difference was Kant's elaborate and rather convincing arguments that questions of spirituality, freedom, and immortality cannot be proved (or can be proved both ways, depending on the question) and are held because they must be believed for practical purposes of moral conduct. Hegel's brilliant vindication of spirituality went, unfortunately, much too far, and all he did (after the initial enthusiasm wore off) was to give the anti-philosophers ample grounds for saying that philosophy was nothing but convoluted word-games that had nothing to do with the real world.

Let me take up at this point only Kant's refutation of the spirituality of the soul, just to show that it doesn't establish what he thought it did. Further discussion will be left to an appropriate place, but something must, I think, be done at the outset.

Kant calls the view that the soul is spiritual (actually, a "spiritual substance") the "paralogism" of pure reason, meaning that it is a four-term syllogism, and so invalid. The argument goes this way: A substance (using the classic Scholastic terminology, as perhaps modified by Descartes) is that which unifies a multiplicity;(1) but the "(I think)," the mind or soul, unifies my consciousness; therefore the human soul is a substance. But the human soul is not one of the objects of experience; therefore it is spiritual. Therefore the human soul is a spiritual substance.

Kant's contention is that "to unify" here is taken in two different senses. The "substance," on his analysis, is the rule of consciousness (the category) by which the data of sensation are collected into a unified whole through time, resulting in a object of experience (which for Kant was essentially what I would call a perception, not an object at all); and the "substance" shows up as the underlying thread (actually, the time) unifying the object. That is, the "substance" appears as something in the object, even though it is in fact only the rule by which sense-data are unified through time.(2)

The paralogism comes at this point. The "(I think)," the subject, is not a unifier of experience in that sense; it doesn't connect my stream of consciousness into a single something all at once, the way an object of consciousness is a unified whole. Hence, there is no reason for saying that the human soul is a substance at all. The only things we can know are objects of experience; and the human soul cannot be an object of experience; and so, since the reasoning above uses "unify" in two senses, we cannot know anything at all about the "(I think)."

First of all, his analysis of substance as a rule of my consciousness does not explain, as I discussed in Chapter 1 of Section 2 of the second part 2.2.1, how I must unify only some of the data of sensation into a percept and how I can't make a single body out of the book and the table it is on. If "substance" is a category of my mind, there would be no reason for not being able to do this. Hence, as I pointed out in that chapter, something from outside is forcing me to consider this set of data as belonging to one unit and that set of data as belonging to another; and this can only be because the parts of the body are in fact unified by something outside my control altogether. This is confirmed by the fact that I can create sets of disparate objects and consider them as units, even though I know that the collection is not a real unity.

Hence, "substance" is not a category of the mind. Secondly, we are not interested in the mind as a "substance" anyhow; in fact it isn't one. What I am going to be arguing is that the human body is unified, and therefore has a unifying energy; but that the unifying energy cannot simply be energy because one of the acts performed by the human body is that of understanding, which is infinitely beyond the capacity of energy. Hence, Kant's arguments simply do not apply to what we will be talking about. He may have refuted Descartes' notion of the mind as a kind of spirit inside a machine; but that notion was invalid anyhow (though on other grounds).



1. You will recall from the second part that my usage of "substance" is not the unifying energy itself, but a specific type of unifying energy. So the properties of a substance are what all the examples manifest in common, not the properties of the individual.

2. If you think of the "object" (the percept) as a picture made by a television tube, consisting of a number of colored dots arranged across the screen as the electron beam scans the tube, then the picture is Kant's "object" and the fact that the unification takes place through time is what shows up as the "unity" in the picture.