Friday, May 8, 2009

Bodies and Souls

Edward Feser's most recent blog post is called Act and Potency; well worth the reading. The comments section has generated a couple of questions which I actually dared to try and answer. I hope Feser doesn't mind; and I hope his own answer, when it comes, will in some sense corroborate mine, so I'll know that I'm headed in the right direction. There were two questions I tackled in my post, the relevant portions of which I'll reproduce here. First up, the poster "Crude" asks:

I do have one question. How does this approach work when it comes to, say, genetically modifying plants or animals? For instance, there are rabbits that have been genetically modified to glow in the dark. Would this be in its own unique class /not 'filed' here? Would it be a first potentiality (assuming such a modification could be made while the creature is still living)? Something else?
Meanwhile, a little futher down the thread, Chen-Song asks:

Hi Professor Feser, thanks for another interesting post. I have a similar question to Crude, but even more far-reaching. For the genetic modification of rabbits, what if the rabbits are modified (say with human DNA) such that they can think like humans? I know that in this case the rabbit probably can't be called "rabbit" anymore, and is some sort of chimera, but how can that be explained in terms of act/potency?

There is a related issue I ran into a while ago: Someone posed a thought experiment about a dead brainless corpse getting fitted with a brain by a mad scientist. If the "mad science" works and the corpse is alive and thinking again, does that mean the brainless corpse had the potential to be alive? Or did the potential really somehow belong to the transplanted brain?

I have responded as follows:

Crude and Chen-Song,

Here's my two cents. Firstly, by inserting a gene into a rabbit's genome that causes it to glow in the dark (or inserting the Bt gene into a corn plant to make it pest-resistant, or whatever), we have simply appended an "accident" to its essential being. It is not really any different than receiving a tattoo or ingesting an oral fungicide; it's just accomplished using a more round-about method.

This is one good reason why genetic reductionism simply will not work. My genome is no more "essential" to me than my left arm. The disruption of my genome would be akin to the amputation of a limb: undesirable yes, but powerless to effect my essential being.

I think the confusion arises from three sources. First, the presence of an intact and functioning genome is necessary for the developmental actualization of every organism. A defect in this regard leads to rather obvious disfigurements and diseases, so it's easy to elide the distinction between "essential being" and "intact genome" if we are not fortified against this error by the rejection of genetic reductionism.

Second, because the processes of molecular biology occur beneath our level of sensory awareness and most of it is unknown to us, we imagine it to be some sort of black box which we mistakenly equate with the unseen three dimensional figures who cause the shadows to move in Plato's cave. This is what we might call "incomplete idealism."

Third, the hyped media reports of the successes achieved in genetic engineering play to the deep-seated Cartesionism with which we moderns are all infected, leading us to believe that intrinsic changes were wrought in the essential beings of plants and animals when in fact no such thing has occured. We must take the time to untangle the philosophy and the methodology of these cases before simply accepting the truth value of such statements as "Scientists Unlock the Secret of Aggressive Behavior," or some other such nonsense.

As for human-animal chimeras, the basic hylemorphic position is that human cells, or human DNA, integrated into the organism of a rabbit would subsist virtually in the rabbit, and hence would be 100% part of the rabbit not part of any human. If rabbits, or some other animal, were refitted with human brains, this would not suffice to make them rational animals; they would still be mere animals sporting human tissue.

In order to understand the case of the corpse, let's change the organs in the thought experiment. A heartless corpse certainly has the potential to live again if it received a timely heart transplant. Does the potential exist in the transplanted heart or in the heartless body? Actually it exists in neither, but only in the substantial form "human being," which requires a certain minimally intact body to actualize itself. The heart in question need not even be an organic heart, but might be a mechanical prosthesis. The same could be said of the brain. Some type of organ or device is needed to govern the body's basic metabolic and endocrinological functions so that it does not succumb to disintegration, but this need not be a brain as we usually understand the term. Thinking, on the other hand, is an activity that belongs to the soul, not to the brain. The basic fallacy here is the Cartesian notion that the brain is the ghost in the machine, the seat of consciousness inhabiting otherwise inert matter.

We would do well to remember here Leibniz's admonishment that human beings are not really born and do not really die. Their souls are created by God to be the rational form of their bodies,and are multiplied as bodies are mulitplied; but the soul remains immortal once created, is seperated from the body at death, and will one day be reunited to it. The body is "alive" only by virtue of the soul and not through some mysterious power of its own.


  1. There are no necessary arguments for "God", regardless of how often a theologian (even catholic theologians blessed by El Papa) inserts "necessary" into his arguments. One chooses to believe, or not: but those Aquinas chestnuts should not be mistaken for knock-down arguments. Kant didn't think so.

    That said, I respect Feser to some extent--at least the older Feser who did not toss Locke and Founding Fathers onto the bonfire of blas-phemy (he seems to now have decided to re-classify, and toss 'em). For that matter, I think his catholicism has a distinctly machiavellian ring to it.

  2. Hello J,

    You sound like an intelligent fellow, so I'll just say this. Those Thomistic "chestnuts" to which you refer are designed to prove the existence of an originating cause beyond our phenomenal reality. In this they are entirely successful. It is possible to assign divine attributes to this cause by other arguments, and Aquinas in gact does so. Yes, belief remains an act of faith, but not faith in a first cause - that can be proven. Faith pertains to the act of accepting Jesus Christ as the logos made flesh, the only begotten son of God. It is only through the Holy Spirit that we are able to make this act of faith, so in that sense it is not "necessary" to believe; we retain free will, after all. The supporting justification is meant to bring you in good conscience to the point where the leap of faith becomes possible.


  3. Yes, belief remains an act of faith, but not faith in a first cause - that can be proven.Kant and many other thinkers (including modern astro-physicists) would disagree with that. A monotheistic First Cause cannot be proven: it can be suggested, yet there are other plausible, non-contradictory explanations (including infinite time, however boggling). The Big Bang also relates to difficult empirical issues which Aristotle and Acquinas were not capable of dealing with.

    For that matter, any monotheistic Being also creates entropy, chaos, decay (not to say volcanoes, earthquakes, predators, plagues, etc). Were He said to exist, He plots his own destruction, or at least the destruction of his universe.

  4. "You sound like an intelligent fellow"