A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

In Psearch of Psyche: Man the Vegetable

Psyche in search of you.

Quick Recap

This 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."
Not thick
Now, not every character in fiction needs to be "thick." Indeed, there is a writing tradition in which the character is a Greek mask: the chanson, as opposed to the roman. In the former tradition, characters represent types who perform iconic deeds; in the latter, real people move through real landscapes. A great deal of SF is in the chanson tradition, high adventure full of heroes and villains, quests and dragons, strange lands and galaxies far, far away. We're supposed to come away with a sense of having had a rollicking good time. But in the roman tradition, we are supposed to come away with the sense that we have actually engaged with real people struggling over things that matter. Thick characters fit ill in Star Wars, but are a sine qua non for "Flowers for Algernon."

In Psearch of Psoul

Our 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
Bodysoul is one thing, just as triangle and three-sidedness is one thing. Three-sidedness is the first act of a triangle because three-sidedness is what makes it a triangle.¹ All other triangular powers stem from this first actuality.² Similarly, soul is the first act of a living body because soul just is what makes it a living body "in the first place." The technical term for a what-makes-it-a is formal cause.

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 Psyche

Powers 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
The first thing to clear up is that this is a hierarchy, not a set of discrete bins into which living things are sorted. That is, the human soul subsumes the sensitive, vegetative, and inanimate powers with those powers that are distinctly human. In the same way a rectangular polygon subsumes triangular polygons, even though a rectangle is not made up of discrete triangular parts.²

One of many ways of finding triangles
in a rectangle.
We oft hear it said today that humans are animals (and therefore "nothing special, blah-blah-blah"). But that man is an animal was known to Aristotle and Aquinas -- and just about everyone before the Moderns decided that all their ancestors were stoopid. What our ancestors never supposed was that he was only an animal.

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.
parts. The triangle is "part" of a rectangle without being "a" part of a rectangle. Rectangles contain triangles in a "virtual" (or "eminent") sense.
you are a plant. No, not in the biological sense. Wait until we get there.

Washington Redskins

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

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
1. Nutrition (or metabolic control). Living things are fundamentally things-that-eat.  Digestion is the most basic manner by which living things know outside objects. The body take in the matter and discard the form. When TOF eats an apple -- a great many apples alas to judge by results -- the apples do not simply accumulate and attach to his unfortunate torso. Instead, the apple-matter is actually transformed into TOFstuff! The metabolic power thus is the primary governance over the inanimate physical and chemical substrate, recruiting their powers to the service of the animate body.

In humans, nutritive objects include oxygen (for combustion), food, and glandular secretions via the respiratory, 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.

2. Growth and Development is based on the Nutritive power. Food must be absorbed before it can be added to the body's mass.  The final cause of this power is to bring the organism to a state of maturity. You are what you eat, as the adage has it. Literally so! The matter taken in by nutrition becomes various kinds of cells of the consuming body. They are not simply accretion or addition, like the growth of stalagtites or quartz crystals or other inanimate things.

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
The differences between man and woman are thus more than simple matters of plumbing. Merely assigning them to the same task will not eliminate these differences, though this does not prevent us from so assigning them. It is also well to remember that something may be true of an entire group while not necessarily being true of every member of that group, and there could easily be individuals whose characteristics and plumbing are out of synch. There are courageous women, brutal women, domestic men, emotional men; so it may be more a matter of degree. Testosterone and estrogen are present in both sexes.²
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.
Plants are a very weird kind of life compared to animals. They may even have had a separate origin. One is struck by their relentless growing. They do little more than take in nutrients and reproduce, as sketched above. (Yes, there are humans who seem to do little else; but still...) They do not have autonomic nervous systems to harmonize their powers. Indeed, they do not possess nerve cells at all. But there are systems that function in the same homeostatic manner.

Pando is a single aspen: each "tree" in the
grove is a shoot from the same root system
There are ways in which individual plants aren't really individuals like your pet parakeets or poodles. There are fungi¹, for example, that span miles of territory, but appear above ground as isolated individuals. TOF's former son-in-law had an uncle whose tree fruited with apricots, figs, kumquats, pomegranates, and three other fruits peculiar to Jordan, because he had grafted a number of different branches to its trunk and the "tree" had accepted them all with benign indifference. So are plants living things, or are they "stuff" that lives?

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 Vegetabilis

Man, 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
Among humans, there is great emphasis on dining and copulating, sometimes to the exclusion of higher powers. The vegetative soul takes in nutrients and converts their matter into its own bodystuff, but devotes the remainder to the reproduction of the species. In this sense, reproduction seems the end, or final cause of the vegetative acts. In fact, Aristotle himself wrote that the vegetative soul might better be called the "reproductive soul."

Sacrificing rational thought on
the altar of Priapus
Of course, this leads some folks to deify the phallus, the more so if they are physicalists. The one thing that does not occur to them is that they are thereby reducing themselves to a "vegetative state."

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.

Reading Matter

  1. Brennan, Robert E. Thomistic Psychology (Macmillan, 1941) [vegetative soul: pp.10-11, 85-110]
  2. Chastek, James. "Experiments and intelligence" (Just Thomism, July 25, 2014)
  3. Chastek, James. "Notes on sexual ethics" (Just Thomism, March 28, 2010)
  4. 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
  5. Freddoso Alfred J. "Oh My Soul, There’s Animals and Animals: Some Thomistic Reflections on Contemporary Philosophy of Mind" 
  6. Freddoso Alfred J. "Good News, Your Soul Hasn't Died Quite Yet"
  7. Gilson, Etienne. The Chrisitian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, tr. L.K.Shook (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1956) [vegetative soul, pp 201-204]
  8. Lauand, Jean. "Basic Concepts of Aquinas's Anthropology" (in Filosofia, Instituto Brasileiro de Direito Constitucional, São Paulo, 1997)
  9. Pruss, Alexander R. "Aristotelian Forms and Laws of Nature."
  10. Wallace, William A. The Modeling of Nature (CUA Press, 1996) pp. 76-97
  11. --------------- Lectures on the Modeling of Nature: Lecture 4.1


  1. When I realized I have quondam read fiction based on this, I kinda snorted masala cha out my nose.

    So, at the risk of a major rabbit hole, where does laughter fit in all this? Because it strikes me in a casual, I'm-not-actually-a-philosopher, way, that laughter isn't rational but is distinctly human and involves some of the vegetative systems. Maybe later we'll get to this? Humor and the soul?

    1. Hobbes' definition has stuck with me from the first moment: "sudden glory"

  2. In the tree of Porphyry, one proprium of man is "risibilis" - able to laugh as well as to be laughed at. Chesterton and CSL thought this had sth to do with ill ease at coonditions caused by original sin.

  3. I read an agricultural article recently about a study where plants respond to the sound of parasites chewing. Plants without parasites, but which were exposed to the recorded sound or vibrations of parasites chewing, released compounds of a pesticidal nature in greater quantities than their friends not exposed to the sounds.

  4. Questions: according to this definition of life and vegetables, how would you classify viruses? Do they have vegetative souls or not? A cursory glance at the description of viruses would say not, because although they do seek reproduction and homeostasis and they grow/develop, their nutritive powers/metabolism is done externally by the host.

    Secondary questions: robots! Ok, if we had a robot that had a little factory inside it that took in gasoline and silica and made copies of itself, would we consider the robot alive? Is a plant something more than a self-replicating machine that metabolizes? Also, how much does an object have to metabolize to be considered alive. After all, I can't just eat carbon atoms or even cellulose -- I need to eat partially metabolized molecules in the form of protein, carbs and fat. Could a robot collect a bunch of nand gates, wires and solder to make himself, or would he need to start from something more basic to count as metabolism?

    Auxiliary robot question: can the soul hierarchy be disrupted? E.g can you have a soul that is an animal or rational soul without being vegetative? I feel like if I mention Angels I'm answering my own question (Actually, I'm not sure, can angels be said to be alive despite being rational beings? what is the Thomistic view on this?). Although engineering is eons away from making anything I would consider a rationals soul, could objects that are solely sensible souls be alive if not vegetative? (maybe I need to wait on the article on sensible souls to answer this question myself).

    1. I am inclined to classify viruses as non-living precisely because their powers seem to be transient rather than immanent. It seems to me that the vegetative soul is the least amount of immanence that a thing might have and still be "alive."

      My first thought regarding self-replicating robots is to say "no" because the parts of a robot have no intrinsic tendency to come together as a robot. A robot does not grow; it assembles. It is as if a human were to cast about for a spleen here, a liver there, a leg somewhere else and then concatenate these parts. A living plant takes in external matter, but converts that matter into its own stuff. I might be persuaded otherwise, but it would take some fine persuasion.

    2. On the Thomistic view, angels are alive. So is God. Take a look at ST I Q18 to see the line of thinking (he's setting himself up to say that God is life itself...way, truth, life, that kinda thing).


  5. As usual, I want anxiously for the next installment. Thanks for the discourse!

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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