|Psyche in search of you.|
Quick RecapThis series began with a brief reflection on a comment made by Thomas Disch shortly before his tragic suicide. Disch had said that to "deepen his fiction into art," he would have to return to Catholicism, which he was unwilling to do. Wondering what Disch might have meant by this, and rereading (for the first time since college) Robert Brennan's text Thomstic Psychology, TOF speculated that he might have meant a "thicker," more insightful depiction of characters, for the modern view of human nature is astonishingly thin. You have no will, no mind, not even a self.
Jody Bottum, to whom the remark was made, informed TOF that the remark was more broadly meant:
"I think that Tom may have meant less something about the characters in his fiction and more about the metaphysically rich universe, the world of living and cosmically charged symbols, that is one of the things that makes Wolfe so fascinating—and one of the things Tom missed in his own sci-fi: He knew he could draw genuine characters, and he also maybe understood that he couldn't make them matter in a cosmic sense." [Emph. added - TOF]True dat, as the philosopher said. If real life itself is held to be empty, meaningless, valueless, it's hard to see how fictional lives could matter much more. What price, a "thick" character in a "thin" universe. Mr. Bottum went on to say that:
"A cosmically rich, metaphysically thick universe is not unrelated to the rich, thick psyche you want to see in fiction."
In Psearch of PsoulOur first episode in this little journey covered some basic concepts underlying psyche/soul. Man is not some Cartesian "ghost in the machine," not a soul "trapped" in a material body (as Plotinus complained). The soul is the substantial form of a living thing, not the thing itself. As Aquinas put it, "My soul is not 'I'." Man -- indeed, any living being -- is a substance compounded of body and soul, a synole. Or we might say a bodysoul.
|The soul of a triangle|
Just as one must have information before one can use it, the body must have a living form before it can exercise the life function of that form.³ But to receive such a form, the natural body must have "in the depths of its material bosom" the potentiality to live. Hence, soul is "the first act of a natural body that is potentially alive." [Brennan, pp 6 et seq.] The two modern philosophies in opposition to this Thomist view are dualism, which holds the soul (which they call "mind") to be a substance in its own right, independently of the body, and physicalism, which holds that the body is all there is. Both assumptions make for thinner characters.
Dualism denies our essential embodiedness and animality, while physicalism cannot account for the self that tries to study itself. In both cases, the human self is isolated from its physical surroundings and can very easily come to see itself as the sole source of whatever value and significance is had by an otherwise meaningless corporeal reality. In short, the last four centuries, despite the splendor of their scientific achievements, seem to have left many in confusion about just what human beings are ..." [Freddoso, Good News, Your Soul Hasn't Died Quite Yet]
1. triangle. To be a triangle you must be clever. You must know all the angles. Lulz! Fortunately, there are only three.
2. first act. Do we really need to stress that "first" need not mean prior-in-time? Do we?
3. form. Hence, in-form-ation.
The Three Faces of PsychePowers are grasped through their acts, and acts are grasped through their objects. Man's acts are directed to three orders of objects: nutritive objects, sensitive objects, and intelligible objects. All of these objects are "known" in some fashion, although we usually reserve the word "cognitive" for the knowing of sensitive and intelligible objects. From these three orders we can grasp the powers of human anima: the nutritive, sensitive, and rational. Plants possess the nutritive powers only; animals, the nutritive and sensitive. Humans possess all three:
- threptic (vegetative) soul
- aesthetic (sensitive) soul
- dianoetic (rational) soul¹
|One of many ways of finding triangles|
in a rectangle.
It's not a question of whether you are a human or an animal. You are a human and an animal... and a plant³ and a bag of chemicals!
With these preliminaries in mind, we are ready to begin.
1. dianoetic. Did L.Ron Hubbard read Aristotle? The mind boggles.
2. parts. The triangle is "part" of a rectangle without being "a" part of a rectangle. Rectangles contain triangles in a "virtual" (or "eminent") sense.
3. you are a plant. No, not in the biological sense. Wait until we get there.
Man, the Vegetable
The maintenance and functioning of a living body is the job of the nutritive or vegetative soul. For some living things --plants-- this is all she wrote. A plant lives, but cannot be said to pursue the self-examined life. But to say that man possesses the powers of the vegetative soul does not mean he is a vegetable in the botanical sense any more than his possession of the inanimate powers of carbon makes him a lump of coal. Although, TOF has known a few humans who might qualify on both counts.
TOF will not bore you with minute description of the human body and its various systems -- although some of those body parts are anything but boring¹ -- but will content himself with enumerating the threptic powers. For one thing, he has wanted to use the word "threptic" in a sentence. But also because this is the substrate for all living bodies.
Plant natures are more complex than inorganic natures. The inorganic powers mentioned in the previous post control the atomic and molecular structures; but these are now part of the plant, and act as parts not as wholes in themselves. (Recall that an electron in an atom acts differently than a free electron.) Plants have systems and functions of their own that incorporate and govern the inanimate parts. There are four basic powers.²
Clarifications:1. Unboring body parts. No, not that body part.2. four basic powers. Aristotle enumerated three, shown in the "numerator". Wallace added homeostasis, following Brennan who discusses the autonomic nervous system as the "integrator" of the nutritive powers.
|Not how eating works|
In humans, nutritive objects include oxygen (for combustion), food, and glandular secretions via the resperatory, digestive, and endocrine systems. The matter is broken down and distributed to the body via the circulatory system, and the excess is carried away via the excretory system.
Because the brain (and other organs) depend upon adequate blood flow, etc., man's conscious life is conditioned by the soundness of his circulatory system. Some Late Moderns presume that because low blood pressure or other nutritive evils¹ affect man's thinking that man's thinking is a physical state. As usual, physicalism gets half the picture.
|The arrows indicate transient acts (outside the organism)|
and immanent acts (within the organism)
3. Reproduction is the "output" end of the vegetative soul. The term of the reproductive function is "the nuclear conjunction of two gametic cells," which propagates the body, or material component of the human substance, in the likeness of the parents. (Both father and mother contribute equally to this new being. The father's contribution is shorter but more mobile; the mother's is longer and more sessile.) But the physical process informs the totality of human life and is associated with its "desires, ambitions, hopes, frustrations, ideals, and even his final salvation." [Brennan, p. 97]
The testes and ovaries not only produce sperm and egg, but also secretions like testosterone and estrogen that impress male and female characteristics on every cell of the body:
- Manliness, courage, enterprise; but also violence, brutality, callousness
- Womanliness, domesticity, tenderness; but also instability, emotionalism, vacillation
4. Homeostasis is the power whereby an organism maintains its stability while adjusting to the environment in ways that are best for its survival. There are a number of systems within the body for accomplishing this, but a primary one is the autonomic nervous system. through which all the various vegetative acts are harmonized. We could not possibly regulate our heartbeat, blood pressure, peristalsis, glandular secretions, breathing, tumescence, and similar activities by conscious effort and will. And so there are reflex arcs throughout the body that work spontaneously to balance and harmonize these acts. The nerve impulses of this system do not usually result in consciousness and have no necessary connection to man's mental life. Few plants exhibit consciousness. [Brennan, p.99]
1. evils. Evil is defectus boni, a deficiency of a good. Low blood pressure (etc.) is a deficiency in the nutritive powers and therefore an evil. The opposite of a defectus is a perfectus. Per-fect means "thoroughly-made." That is, no power appropriate to the natural body is lacking.
2. both sexes. In a psychological test, subjects spent a certain amount of time in a waiting room. When finally called in by the psychologist, they were asked to describe what they had seen in the waiting room. The women would describe the lamp, the table, a title of a book on the table, the color of the drapes, and so on. The men would say, "a bunch of stuff."
3. autonomic nervous system. The autonomic system integrates the vegetative life of man while the cerebro-spinal nervous system integrates his animal life. But nerve impulses are identical as such and they belong to the vegetative soul. It is their location within the overall system that determines what they do. Note again the primacy of form over matter in making something actual. More on this when we get animalistic.
Food for Thought
|How many individual organisms? Maybe one.|
|Pando is a single aspen: each "tree" in the|
grove is a shoot from the same root system
There is even a weird way in which plants do exhibit a proto-consciousness. When plants are kept in a laboratory (or office) and watered regularly, they do not send their roots out deeply or widely. In effect, the plant is using the grad student (or secretary) as an extension of its roots, so the roots themselves need make no special effort. So while the plant cannot be said to "know" in the rational or sensitive manner, it does "know" in the nutritive manner and reacts accordingly:
While arguing that plants have intelligence (though an Aristotelian would call it sensation), Anthony Trewavas claims that one of the main reasons why “plant intelligence” was so difficult to discover is that plants in a laboratory do not display the behavior that is so forceful in arguing for such intelligence. After all, plants in a lab live in a stable environment, with all their needs catered to by grad students, and are subject to (at worst) only contrived and isolated stresses. Lab-plants are cut away from the hurly-burly of live, complex environments and look stupider than they are as a result. [Chastek, 2014]In a similar fashion, Pavlov's dogs used Pavlov as a "sixth sense" for detecting food -- "even if he proved to be less than a perfectly reliable instrument. What appeared to be conditioning of the dog was equally the dog’s assumption of a person into his nervous system." [Chastek, ibid.]
All of which may give us some insights into the possible nature of "intelligent plants" for SF purposes. Plants may not know abstract concepts; they may not even know concrete percepts. But they do "know" food and water and nutrients and sunlight.
1. fungi. In current thought, fungi are classed as a separate kingdom from plants, though when TOF was the TOFling, they were both considered "plants." For purposes of psychology, "vegetative psyche" and "plant" are being used for both. Closer analysis may make useful divisions between the fungal soul and the plant soul, but psychologically, it would not seem to matter very much.
Summa VegetabilisMan, in addition to being a bag of chemicals, is also a plant; that is, his soul incorporates the powers of the vegetative soul. These mediate, through the metabolic power, the physical and chemical powers of his inanimate part, which in turn provide feedback "upwards" through his homeostatic power.
The transient acts¹ of eating and reproducing are thus the most fundamental acts of any living body, from bacterium to human. The immanent acts of homeostasis and metabolism are less overt and in any case, among rational beings, not readily subject to the intellect and will -- though some yogis may demur. There is an interesting parallel to the four inanimate powers, among which gravity and electromagnetism are "long range" while the radiative and nuclear forces are "short range."
|The nutritive power at work|
|Sacrificing rational thought on|
the altar of Priapus
Many Late Moderns abandon the higher powers to concern themselves obsessively with eating and reproducing. Usually condemning the indulgence of the former for triggering an "epidemic" of obesity while praising the indulgence of the latter despite an "epidemic" of single motherhood. Go figure. A great deal of modern fiction seems fixated on Homo sexualis, often to the exclusion of much else that makes him human. But a man so obsessed is likely to be one-dimensional: a type, the satyr or the nymph.
A human who is bereft of higher powers is reduced medically to "a persistent vegetative state" in which the body can do little more than take in nutrients, digest, circulate, and expel. A number of scandals have established that such people are also capable of reproducing. IOW, no conscious awareness is required for them to ready the necessary equipment. This leads some folks to contend that such people are no longer True Scotsmen, I mean, true humans, and their nutritive lives may be terminated as convenient. However, much the same is true of a sleeping human, so one better hope that the people with such beliefs do not slumber. We don't say that people who have lost their eyes or legs have lost their humanity; so why suppose that people who have lost their reason -- or even their senses -- have done so?
Next time: Day of the Triffids!
1. Transient acts are acts originating or terminating outside the body. Immanent acts are those originating within the body.
- Brennan, Robert E. Thomistic Psychology (Macmillan, 1941) [vegetative soul: pp.10-11, 85-110]
- Chastek, James. "Experiments and intelligence" (Just Thomism, July 25, 2014)
- Chastek, James. "Notes on sexual ethics" (Just Thomism, March 28, 2010)
- Cohen, Jonathan D. "The Vulcanization of the Human Brain: A Neural Perspective on Interactions Between Cognition and Emotion." (Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Fall 2005), pp. 3–24
- Freddoso Alfred J. "Oh My Soul, There’s Animals and Animals: Some Thomistic Reflections on Contemporary Philosophy of Mind"
- Freddoso Alfred J. "Good News, Your Soul Hasn't Died Quite Yet"
- Gilson, Etienne. The Chrisitian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, tr. L.K.Shook (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1956) [vegetative soul, pp 201-204]
- Lauand, Jean. "Basic Concepts of Aquinas's Anthropology" (in Filosofia, Instituto Brasileiro de Direito Constitucional, São Paulo, 1997)
- Pruss, Alexander R. "Aristotelian Forms and Laws of Nature."
- Wallace, William A. The Modeling of Nature (CUA Press, 1996) pp. 76-97
- --------------- Lectures on the Modeling of Nature: Lecture 4.1.