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Four Arguments for Mental Life Inhering in a Spiritual Substance


What is Life? The originality, irreducibility, and value of life, 1997

The following analysis is based on philosophical proofs for the substantiality of the human soul that were expounded elsewhere,1 and of which four will be summarized.

1. The first argument takes its starting point in the Aristotelian discovery of a fundamental distinction within real being: between (1) "accidents," that is, between those acts, activities, qualities, attributes, etc. which inhere in something else and cannot stand in being in their own right, and (2) their ultimate ground in those beings that exist in themselves (in se). The ultimate subject and ground of being, that stands in itself, is what Aristotle calls hypokeimenon, ousia, hypostasis, or substance.2 Only these beings which stand in being on their own right can lend ontological support to the first group of categories of being, that is, all the accidents and dependent principles of being. Among these we cannot count real existence. It is an actuality that neither stands in itself nor can be said to be an accident of substances. For it is that actuality which makes the substance be, the most intimate actuality which posits in being that which exists, including substances.3 On the basis of this distinction, we can understand that any conscious thinking, knowing, feeling, or willing, and thus any conscious life, does not exist as a thing as such, or better, as an entity which stands in itself. It is not a subject but an activity (accident) which requires a substance. Thinking or willing are "in another entity" and require a subject which is not like these activities, an attribute of another thing, but stands in itself. This is what Aristotle means by substance. "Substance" in this sense has nothing to do with a thing (res) as opposed to a person but indicates only the irreducible trait of “standing on its own feet in being," as opposed to inhering in another entity. Thought and any conscious life require a substance-subject, someone who thinks, wills, etc. The character of substance in general and of the soul as a simple and indivisible substance has been explored recently by Roderick M. Chisholm.4 There are some points of fundamental difference between Chisholm's and my own views concerning the spirituality (or possible materiality) of the simple self.5

Scheler, unfortunately, thinks that he can save the category of person only by denying its substantial being and standing in itself. So he says in his Position of Man in the Cosmos:

The center of the spirit, the "person," is therefore neither an objective nor a thing-like [which Scheler understands as "substantial"] being but only an ordered whole of acts which lives itself.6

But this I or self, this person who wills or thinks, is clearly given in our experience as one single and indivisible subject.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz insists on the utter and evident impossibility that a composite entity could think.7 The non-spatiality and the indivisible unity of the subject of thought excludes that it be matter which possesses necessarily parts outside parts. In contemporary thought, this point was well explored phenomenologically by Roderick M. Chisholm, who, like Kant and Leibniz, does not distinguish clearly enough the simplicity of the mathematical point from the soul.8 Aristotle stressed the non-spatial and absolutely indivisible unity of the soul, distinguishing it sharply from the simplicity of the mathematical point:

Hence mind cannot have that kind of unity either; ... How, indeed, if it were a spatial magnitude, could mind possibly think? Will it think with any one indifferently of its parts? In this case, the "pari" must be understood either in the sense of a spatial magnitude or in the sense of a point ….9

Material objects can carry many properties, as, for example, color and beauty. A material object can store the physical substratum of information, for example, a letter, a piece of paper, or - in a far more complicated manner - a computer disk. But can a composite thing, as our brain, think? We understand that this is impossible. We arrive at the following insight: the mind as subject of our thought-life is an absolutely indivisible, simple subject that cannot be observed by the senses. To say that my ego is divided into two is absurd. Even the phenomenon of schizophrenia presupposes the undivided and indivisible unity of the ego of the schizophrenic person. Because of the evidence of the unity of the subject of consciousness, some thinkers have argued that the earliest phases of embryonic life cannot involve personal life, since twinning is still possible. Even if they err in this assumption, they recognize the non-duplicability and non-divisibility of the individual person which manifests itself most clearly in self-consciousness, as Sir John Eccles has repeatedly noted. Now the brain and any other bodily organ possesses billions of non-identical cells and parts, into which - as Leibniz remarks in the Monadology, no. 17 - we could enter, if they were enlarged, and which we could observe through the senses. But we understand the non-sensible nature, the simplicity, and the necessary indivisibility of the I-subject of mental life and thought. Thus, neither the mind nor its life can be reduced to physical systems.

2. Another argument for the reality of the mind and the irreducibility of its life to chaotic or non-chaotic physical systems is based on two evident premises. (1) It is based on Aristotle's intuition that the subject (substance), as what supports in being every attribute inherent in it, constitutes the primary reality of a thing. This subject surpasses in "actuality of being" (in reality, properly speaking) what just exists in dependence on it. Substance is the supporting ground of being for everything in it. The subject (substance) is the most real part of an entity. (2) While small physical causes suffice to kill human beings, human beings are still nobler and possess an incomparably superior reality than the whole universe of bodies. By knowing and in virtue of our free acts and moral conscience, human beings surpass in reality the entire cosmos of physical substances, including the perennial mummified existence of our body. Conscious and rational life possesses an actuality and contains a self-possession of being compared to which the universe of material substances is like nothing. For the conscious life of the I to be reduced to the being of a material substance would be equivalent to its annihilation.

From these two premises follows that the incomparably higher life of the spirit, which is more properly real and of greater dignity than all material substances of the universe, cannot possibly be a mere function or accident of one of them, the brain. If the substance is the most real entity in the world, that which is primary being, as Aristotle holds, then the conscious self whose reality and life surpasses that of all material bodies put together (which are "nothings" compared with it), cannot coincide with the material substance of the brain and even less with some accidents or epiphenomena of it.

3. A third argument in favor of the reality and substantiality of the mind, and in favor of the irreducibility of the mind's life to physical systems, is based on the specific essence of certain acts. Knowledge, for example, in order to be knowledge, must depend in its content on the nature of that of which it is knowledge. As subjects of knowledge, we mentally grasp the nature or existence of what we know. In certain knowledge, such as that you yourself exist, you as knower can be equally certain of the object of knowledge and of your own receptive mental grasping. You know, for example, that you truly exist and are a subject and that you know this. Knowledge exists only to the extent that someone grasps that or how something is, because it is and is in a certain way. Cognition possesses an intentional relationship to its object and is characterized by a receptive transcendence of the subject in the cognitive contact with the object of cognition. Knowledge must not only be formed objectively by the nature of the object, as a piece of wax can be objectively formed by a mold, but it must mentally reach this object, cognitively touch it so that it discovers that and how something is. Cognition would therefore be impossible if knowledge were just dependent in its content on brain-functions which are subject to causal laws and are entirely determined by external material causes which have no intrinsic relation to the true nature of the objects of knowledge. Just as it is impossible that a computer, whose output is entirely dependent on physical events, could know or check its own program in any real and ultimate way, so we human beings could never know anything if our knowledge were causally dependent on material processes and their causal connections, and if we did not have a mind distinct from matter and its causal effects. But human beings know with certainty some things. Therefore, they have a mind. Any assertion, including that of radical skepticism, is absolutely impossible without cognitions, as, for example, that I exist, that I doubt, that I am aware of objects, that I pose a question, that the two contradictory states of affairs which I consider in doubt cannot both be. These and countless other such things not only can be known but they are known by all of us. We claim and possess this knowledge inevitably in any assertion or thought. Hence, any assertion of the identity of knowledge or of the cognitive life of the mind with brain-processes, or of its causal dependence on the brain, is self-contradictory. This does not exclude the manifold dependence of the mind on the brain and on the brain's activity as the empirical condition of mental activity. But we must distinguish cause from condition, as well as empirical and absolutely necessary conditions. Cognitive acts can never have their efficient cause, nor their absolutely necessary conditions in the brain, but only their empirical conditions.

The untenability of any reduction of consciousness to an epiphenomenon of brain events or to these events themselves (in the mind/brain identity theory) could also be shown regarding freedom and promising. Jonas10 has demonstrated the absurdity of the mutual promise of Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz and his friends to promote materialism. They pledged to promote a theory of the power of matter over mind, but they presupposed, in the very assumption that their promise could and would be kept, an original power of the mind over matter and its independence from chemo-electrical processes in the brain. A promise or any other free act is necessarily impossible, nay absurd, if this act is identical with, or determined by, material or organic processes, or if it is a causal product of evolutionary developments. Every person presupposes some free acts, as, for example, searching for truth, asserting, or promising, even when she or he resolves to investigate or to defend materialism. Hence, materialists who give promises contradict their own theory in every moment in which they - inevitably - presuppose their freedom. We are dealing not with an inevitable subjective presupposition a la Kant but with an evident datum of the essence of freedom and of its real existence in us. When we act in a way which implies the free initiating of acts which do not proceed from another cause but from the self itself, these acts would not exist if we had not willed them to be. They involve the fact that we are master over their being or non-being. This datum of freedom refutes materialism, according to which free acts could not exist. Philosophies which recognize the existence of a soul can embrace determinism, but materialistic philosophies must inevitably do so. Thus, the life of free acts and of their subject is irreducible to the brain and to any conceivable material system, whether it is dominated by well-explored or by chaotic rules. This is overlooked by James P. Crutchfield, when he links freedom to chaotic events in the brain as if freedom could be reduced to them or explained by them.11
Cognition and free actions contradict their being an epiphenomenon of, let alone their being identical with, the brain or its functions. This becomes evident when we consider the cognitive transcendence in which the being or essence of something discloses itself to our mind as it is in itself. It is also evident when we consider the transcendence of our freedom (in the morally good act and in love) which is capable of responding to a good for its own sake, to give it the proper value-response, and to transcend all immanent unfoldings and self-actualizations of our own life. This feature of transcendence is absolutely essential for any understanding of the person who can be better characterized as a trans-telechy than as an en-telechy. In the next chapter, I will examine the beautiful "definition" of the essence of the human person given by Max Scheler in terms of transcendence and self-transcendence:
The core of his [man's, the human person's] nature - apart from all special organization - is in fact this movement, this spiritual act of transcending himself!12

Thus, to explain cognitive and free acts and their capability for transcendence in the cognition of what and how things are, and to explain the transcendence of the human person in the free stances taken by persons toward them, in terms of a psycho-physical identity or radical causal dependence, involves a necessary contradiction to the nature of these acts. This position leads anybody who asserts it into a self-referential contradiction. Nevertheless, attempts at a reductionistic explanation are undertaken by the "bio-psycho-social model" of the human mind popular with many scientists.

4. The most striking argument for the irreducibility of the mind and of the mind's life to material systems is taken from a reflection on the immediately experienced "I" which "accompanies" all our experiences and which is the self-conscious subject of any mental life. In this "I," we encounter a subject which we do not have to infer as the cause of our acts but which we experience immediately as subject and which we understand to stand in itself and to act. This subject of consciousness, which we encounter immediately in our experience along with our acts, has a set of predicates that differ from those of any conscious experience per se. Not our experiences are conscious of each other, but we as subjects consciously live them. They cannot reflect upon themselves and know themselves, but we as subjects can reflect on them and on ourselves.

To overcome the reductionism that is inherent in many forms of structuralism, we need to overcome the attempt to reduce life to non-living entities and functions and the reduction of consciousness to life. Consciousness and conscious life are essentially distinct from biological life. Consciousness belongs to the essence of the actualization of this higher and specifically personal mode of life. Life is given in the consciously awakened life. But the life of the soul thus given must not be reduced to consciousness, as many idealists and transcendental phenomenologists seek to do. On the contrary, the life of the person given in consciousness reveals itself to be more than consciousness and as something which can be preserved, though not properly actualized, without consciousness. The unconscious states of sleep or loss of consciousness and the experience of regaining consciousness prove this irreducibility of the life and existence of the conscious subject to consciousness or to its consciously lived and awakened state. Nevertheless, in its awakened and conscious state, life exists in an incomparably higher form than when it is deprived of consciousness.

When I consider carefully the self-given subject of consciousness, I discover that this "I" shows itself to differ from any mere function of another thing or of a brain and is immediately given as substantial subject. I also discover that the human mind possesses each trait of substance in an incomparably superior way to the weak and analogous manner in which material entities can be substances. This can be seen from the following considerations. The mind is the ultimate subject of acts, as thing-substances are of accidents, but the mind is also a consciously living subject. For this reason, we reserve today the term "subject," which originally designated all substances, for persons only. The subject is not an "it," but a "he" or "she." The person's acts do not merely "inhere" in a mind-substance but are performed and lived by the mind-subject. As one single, non-composite self and as conscious of herself or himself, the person stands in herself or in himself and is "this single substance-subject" in a way quite incapable of being matched by the material world where accidents inhere in various parts and appearances of bodies and not in one single material subject. In sharp contradistinction to this material world, my identity as one simple (non-composite) "I" - the subject of myriads of experiences - is given to me. An investigation into memory, retention, and "superactual consciousness" in Hildebrand's sense might help elucidate the lasting identity of the subject of consciousness.13 The character of the self as indivisible substantial subject involves its difference from the brain and from any totality that consists of non-identical distinct parts. Material things are not indivisible, nor do they possess an inner unity of substance comparable to that of the mind. The subject of personal life possesses other traits of substance (identified by Aristotle) more properly speaking than any material substance could possess them: lasting identity throughout many states and accidental changes, reality in the proper sense of this term, and individual thisness. Material things lack individual thisness in the sense of the absolutely indivisible, irreplaceable, and incommunicable identity of the sort that is found in the personal self that can think, act freely, and love. While material things or paintings by Rembrandt also possess these traits in some way, each material substance and each part thereof can be replaced by another one, without this making a big difference, whereas persons cannot be replaced or substituted by others. Even masterful paintings could conceivably be replaced by a perfect copy. Moreover, in material things the different traits of substantiality are somewhat separate from each other. For example, their individual thisness and distinctness stems from an external form which does not coincide with their self-standing substantiality. Again, what is lasting in them is not the material substrate of body cells which are entirely renewed every seven years. In contrast to this, in the subject of the conscious life that is immediately experienced by us from within, the various traits of substantiality are united. The same subject lasts, is substance, is an individual self. These considerations make evident that the mind cannot be a supervenient attribute or epiphenomenon of brains. The "rational substance" of the self-experiencing mind possesses traits which make it necessarily different from the brain with its billions of replaceable cells. The mind is different from each one of these cells with its countless non-identical parts and with its poor embodiment of the general traits of substance. We see again the impossibility of considering this second type of experience of life and the conscious life itself, as an emergent property of complex material systems of any kind and of their immanent internal laws. The magic words of "emergence" or "laws of chaos" cannot help, because chaos never can bridge intelligible essential differences, and the laws of chaos can never explain what is intrinsically impossible: that the operations of the mind which reveals itself as a substantial entity distinct from matter could be produced by unexplored laws of matter.

[1] See Josef Seifert, Leib und Seele: Ein Beitrag zur philosophischen Anthropologie (Salzburg: A. Pustet, 1973); Das Leib-Seele Problem und die gegenwärtige philosophische Diskussion Person: eine kritisch-systematische Analyse (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2nd ed. 1989), pp. 111 ff., 180 ff.; cf. also Hölscher, The Reality of the Mind.

[2] See Aristotle, Metaphysics; Categories. See also Josef Seifert, Essere e persona: Verso una fondazione fenomenologica di una metafisica classica e personalistica (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 1989), ch. 8.

[3] See Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia; see also Josef Seifert, "Essence and Existence: A New Foundation of Classical Metaphysics on the Basis of 'Phenomenological Realism,' and a Critical Investigation of 'Existentialist Thomism'," Aletheia, 1:1 (1977), pp. 17-157; 1:2 (1977), pp. 371-459, chs. 1, 2, 4, 5.

[4] Roderick M. Chisholm, Person and Object (London: Allen & Unwin, 1976); The First Person (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982); "Brentano's Conception of Substance and Accident," Die Philosophie Franz Brentanos (Grazer philosophische Studien) (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1978), pp. 197-210.

[5] See Roderick Chisholm, "Is There a Mind-Body Problem?", Philosophic Exchange, 2 (1978), pp. 25-32; and Seifert, Das Leib-Seele Problem, pp. 65, 80, 123, 129.

[6] See Max Scheler, Die Stellung des Menschen im Kosmos (1928), in:
Scheler, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 9, ed. Manfred Frings (Bern: A. Francke Verlag, 1976), pp. 7-72, p. 39.

[7] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Monadology, no. 17.

[8] See Chisholm, Person and Object.

[9] See Aristotle, De Anima, Book 1, 407 a 7 ff.

[10] Hans Jonas, Macht oder Ohnmacht der Subjektivitat?

[11] James P. Crutchfield, "Chaos I," Handbook of Metaphysics and Ontology, eds. Hans Burkhardt and Barry Smith, 1 (Munich/Philadelphia/Vienna- Philosophia, 1991), p. 143.

[12] Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values, trans. Manfred S. Frings and Roger L. Funk (Evanston, I11.: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 289.

[13] See the following works by Dietrich von Hildebrand: Ethics (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 2nd ed., 1978), chs. 17, 26-28; Dos Wesen der Liebe, in: Hildebrand, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 3 (Regensburg/Stuttgart: Habbel/Kohlhammer, 1971), chs. 1-2.

J. Seifert, What is Life? The Originality, Irreducibility, and Value of Life (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997)pp. 83-89.