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

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Translation of Thomas Aquinas

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Do something logical in his honor. 

Now properly speaking, it is the feast of his translation; that is, when his remains were moved (28 January, 1369) from the site of his death to the Dominican Church in Toulouse.  Just as the Marines do not leave a man behind, neither do the Dominicans. 

The feast was initially celebrated, as is traditional, on 7 March, the data of his death, and is so-listed in older missals.  However, this resulted in what is called a "clashing of feasts," since 7 March was also the date on which Perpetua and Felicity were martyred.  The Feast of St. Thomas demoted them to a Commemoration.  So in 1969, Tom was moved to his translation date and Perpetua and Felicity restored to a place of greater honor.  (They are, after all, among those mentioned in the roll call of the ancient Roman Canon used in the Mass.) 

Oddly enough, there were no festivities in the streets today.  But then this is no longer the age of reason that the middle ages were.  There is a humorous comment on that situation, here

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However, the Angelic Doctor keeps turning up in odd places, often accompanied by his old pal the Stagerite.  Today's unexpected appearance is here: Nonlinear Brain Dynamics and Intention According to Aquinas

The author, in the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology at UC-Berkeley, contends that, inter alia, no extant philosophical system better fits with the findings in nonlinear brain dynamics than that of Aquinas.  Unlike Plato, who conceived of perception as passive, receiving sense impressions as the wax receives the imprint of the signet ring, Aristotle conceived of perception as active.  The intellect defines and actively seeks objects via its animals powers of sensation and motion; then the "inner senses" take the stimuli of the outer senses and form them into an ymago or phantasm, stored by the "mnemonic power" and manipulated by the "imagination."  The intellect reflects on these ymagos presented by the senses/imagination and abstracts universal forms from them.  The Aristo-Thomist model is shown to the right in a chart devised by William Wallace. 

Ever since the Renaissance, science has proceeded on the squishy basis of a revived Platonic worldview.  Hence, the plethora of idealists floating about.  Freeman writes:

[Plato's] passive model of perception is entirely appropriate for unidirectional causality, in terms of conditioned and unconditioned reflexes, neural networks, and the chemistry of neuromodulators, because brain structures and operations are seen as determined by genes and developmental processes.
Perception is thought to work through the imprint of meaningless objects and events from the environment, called information processing.  Mental contents are seen as formed by neural connections that are determined by genes, and modifi ed by learning from stimuli, particularly during critical periods of growth. Representations of objects and events are stored in memory banks as ideal forms, each having attached to it a label as to its value for the organism, and they are used to classify new inputs by retrieval, cross-correlation, template matching, error reduction, modifi cation of wiring in neural networks by Hebbian synapses, and assignment of value by passage through the emotional generators of the brain. Questions of how the brain can a priori create its own goals and then find the appropriate search images in its memory banks are not well handled. The loss of the Cartesian pilot has left a large gap in the theory, because no one wants a homunculus, but no one has a replacement.

Beginning early in the 20th century, gestaltists and others began to revive interest in the wholeness of things rather than the reductionism of parts and components.  About mid-century there was " sharp break" in mathematics, physics, and chemistry which incorporated things like the source of value in action, and the importance of pre-existing goals and expectations.  These non-linear dynamics are sometimes referred to (incorrectly) as chaos theory.  They include such things as self-organizing systems and emergent properties -- which perceptive readers will recognize as Aristotle's formal causation returned from its 17th century grave. 

He goes on to say that "I was led to [Aquinas'] work by pursuing to its roots the concept of intention, which I found necessary to fi ll the explanatory gap between my electrophysiological data and the goal-directed behavior of animals." 

For those who insist on material causes as to how humans differ from other animals, the existence of art, science, music, et al. being an insufficient 2x4 to their crania, the following is interesting:

The term koniocortex", from Greek κονιος, dust, denotes a type of neocortex found only in humans. It has amorphous distributions of nerve cell nuclei so numerous as to resemble grains of dust, and it has no direct connection to underlying basal ganglia (striatum and thalamus). Thus it is detached from sensory input to a degree not found in other animals.

So there is a part of the human brain, something like dust on the brain, detached from sensory input.

Freedman goes on to compare the immediate flash of the inputs in the brain that one sees in MRI scans to the transient phantasms.  "The separate and immediate impacts of repeated stimuli onto receptors, and through them into the brain, do not establish in the brain either the actual forms of those stimuli or their derivatives as episodic memories.... If the brain were to collect and save all of those impressions streaming in from all senses, the brain could not know anything."  When people perceive an object repeatedly, from different angles or at different times, the patters in the brain differ.  How than can we receive the impression of a single, unified object?  Well, by abstracting forms.  These forms constitute knowledge about the stimuli, but they do not exist in the stimuli.  Contrary to the earlier Platonic-passive model, the "vivid images" received by the brain are "records of the contexts of experiences" and not like photographs or tape recordings.

The whole thing makes for interesting reading.  Hopefully, we are getting back to realism and away from idealism in our philosophical grounding. 

The Brain Does This or That

My impression is that Dr. Freedman is coming to Thomas with a tabula rasa.  He seems genuinely uninformed on the philosophy.   I've forwarded the article to an Aristo-Thomist professor, and will wait to see if he has anything to say on it. In particular, Freedman frequently uses forms like "the brain does X," an error he could not make in Latin.  Latin possesses in declension the instrumental case which designates "that by which something is done."  We don't say the leg walks, but that the person walks using the leg.  So, except when he writes of actual neurological activities, replace "the brain..." with "using the brain, the person..."



Anyone remember Campbell's "Cloak of Aesir" or Heinlein's The Day After TomorrowBattlefield holograms are coming soon to a battle space near you. 

What is the answer to nerve gas?  Ban it?  No.  Learn to live with it.  Mutant Enzymes Created Through "Artificial Selection" Protect Against Nerve Gas.  Shades of my short novel The Washer at the Ford, although there it was protection against radiation. 

When foxhunting is outlawed, what comes next?  This

When the TSA becomes more intrusive, annoying, and officious, Congressmen swing into action by asking for special treatment for themselves. 

When does a fetus become a human being.  After it has been born?  Think again.  (Grand jury findings here.)

What was that definition of a "species," again?  Two populations that are capable of interbreeding.  New evidence of Neanderthal races interbreeding with Sapient races:

Behold!  The Mutant Baby Megamind of Planet Mongo!  Oh, wait, no.  They're just doing Brain Scans of Newborns that were not aborted and have found that when one hears its mother's voice, it's brain lights up like a Christmas tree.  It recognizes its mother versus other female voices.  There is a great mystery here.  When and where did this baby hear and remember that voice?  Well, you may suppose that it heard the voice vibrations transmitted through the mother's bodily organs and the amniotic fluid.  But this poses a great mystery.  How did an actual human being remember something that was only heard by a non-human fetus?  There must be a scientifical explanation. 

But the forces of law and order are ever alert.  They may be slow on the uptake in West Philadelphia, but the UK bobbies are all over it when something really heinous is underway.  For example, a teacher allowing two 15-year old boys to use a snow sled.  Can't have that now, can we?  We are horrified to read that the teacher "failed to carry out appropriate risk assessments and failed to provide a written risk assessment." Oh, the pity!  Oh, the humanity!  "He didn't ensure pupils were wearing protective headgear and clothing."  The miscreant was promptly fired and the reprimand will be on his permanent record for two years.  The safety of the children of Britain is in good hands.  Their childhood, however, is not. 

Meanwhile, the Sandinistas (remember them?) are back, and busily invading Costa Rica.  The Washington Post notices that our president does not notice.  (The Sandinistas never went away, actually.  After they lost the election back in the day, they simply refused to give up the police ministry and the military, being unclear on the concept of "election, loss of.") 


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