Book Review – Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide by Edward Feser
To start off, it might seem a bit out of place for me to review a book about a medieval philosopher here on The Value of Saintliness. However, there are some reasons I think it fits in nicely and snugly. I’ve mentioned before that I was interested in classical theism and hylemorphism, and this is directly a result of my contact with Edward Feser’s blog and his book Philosophy of Mind. I think that the ideas expressed in Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide would resolve so much of the nagging doubts many modern psychologists may have (or at least, should have) with the brain and mind in general as they do their research. In fact, this is Feser’s main point: that the metaphysics begun by Aristotle and perfected by St. Thomas Aquinas is neither outdated nor refuted by modern science, and even offers elegant solutions to many of the quirky problems that modern materialism causes, such as the “hard problem of consciousness” and the seemingly arbitrary nature of causation. However, it’s not just what Feser says, but how he says it. Feser’s writing is clear, sharp, and manages the arduous task of reducing complicated philosophical ideas in ways that a guy like me can understand, without watering down their power.
Now I’ll be the first to admit to all of you, I’m not a philosopher. I’m a psychologist-in-training. So I apologize if I commit any grievous errors in my explanations of Feser’s philosophy (and I welcome any comments or corrections anyone might offer). However, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide left an impression on me because, while Philosophy of Mind was a simple explanation of the various theories of consciousness that have been put forth, Aquinas is more of an attempt at persuasion. The main idea is that the “problem” of consciousness is not actually in our skulls at all, but is rather caused by our view of nature itself. And while a good portion of the book was given to Aquinas’ Five Proofs and his ethics, it was his chapters on metaphysics and psychology that I’m going to focus on here. I think it would go a long way in helping psychologists make more sense of their current cognitive models, if psychologists are willing to give up their sacred cow of materialism first.
Psychology as a Hard Science
In the 20th Century, psychology has had a heck of a time getting admitted into the Hard Sciences Club. At first, psychology was synonymous with Sigmund Freud, leather couches, Oedipus Complexes, and psychosexual stages of development, and this image has haunted psychology ever since. Even today, if you approached a random person on the street and asked them to name one famous psychologist, there is really no question that the response would be Sigmund Freud (or perhaps Dr. Phil, but for the sake of the psychologists reading this blog we won’t even entertain that possibility). This is the sort of thing that makes modern research psychologists want to tear their hair out, because it represents the past origins of psychology that we’ve all tried to distance ourselves from.
This is not to say that we haven’t made a valiant effort to keep everyone from thinking we just charge people to sit in leather couches while we wave pocket watches at them. In order to establish psychology as a harder science, psychologists have quantified everything they can, measured reaction times in laboratories, and slowly pushed things like hypnosis, psychoanalysis, and Rorshach Tests out of our methodologies. I’ve been to four different universities now as a student, and only met one young researcher that considered himself a Freudian (and he admitted that on more than one occasion his presentations at conferences were audibly laughed at). It is not an easy task to get research published in the top psychological journals, and I believe our statistical methods are getting better and better.
That having been said, ever since I started learning about the brain, I was never able to shake the nagging doubts that I’ve had about some of psychology’s doctrines. Professors have been assuring me since I started studying psychology that the mind is solely an emergent process of neurons. This means that everything I feel, think, and experience can be explained essentially by the motion of bits of matter and nothing more. Color, timbre, acoustic volume, emotions, and even time were actually just emergent processes of sodium channels opening and closing, neurotransmitters being released into synapses, action potentials, etc., and these were actually just emergent processes of certain configurations of atoms.
Now I don’t blame psychologists for toeing this line, because, in an attempt to fit in with the Cool Kids of physics, biology, and chemistry, psychologists had to adopt unquestioningly not only the methods of modern science but also the metaphysics of those sciences. Meaning that, deep down at the lowest level, the universe is composed of bits of matter, and it is the different configurations of those bits of matter that give rise to reality as we know it (Dr. Imants Baruss calls this a “pebbles in a box” schema of reality). Things like color, timbre, acoustic volume, and the like (philosophers call these things qualia) don’t actually exist “out there” in the universe at all, they are just the result of a bajillion tiny billiard balls bumping into each other in brains.
It works for physicists and chemists because they don’t have to refer to qualia at all in order to do their equations. They deal solely with inanimate objects bumping into each other. And so these scientists said to themselves, “Well, yes, qualia seem to represent something very odd and new and different entirely, but since reality is just bits of matter bumping into each other, the brain is no different. Since psychology is a harder science now we’ll just dump it on them. While it may seem like a mystery now, science has explained most of the universe in terms of bits of matter bumping into each other, and the final step is to explain consciousness in the same way. Bits of matter bumping into each other is all reality is.” And this is how psychology inherited the “hard problem of consciousness.”
The Real Implications of Modern Materialism
In most ways it is a squandered inheritance, because actually I don’t think psychologists know what the hard problem of consciousness is. In fact, I would say that 99% of academic psychologists don’t know what a quale is at all. However, the vast majority of them will still tell you that the brain is composed of bits of matter and nothing more. They assume the issue of what reality is has already been dealt with by science, and science passed it to psychology, and there’s nothing else. There is no room for a soul or a self at all, and we don’t actually need one. Now this is what I think represents the thinking of most psychologists, but I can’t help but think that more than one of them have, like me, scratched their head and realized what the actual implications of this materialist metaphysics actually is. Furthermore, I am hoping I am not the only one to notice that the models we use in psychology fall apart under close scrutiny, if materialism is true.
When I point out these problems to materialist psychologists, often the conversations go something like this:
Them: Listen, there are no dualists in psychology anymore. Dualism is dead.
Me: But we still have to speak in terms that don’t make sense in light of strict materialism. We have to talk about motivation, meaning, purpose, personal identity, and a “unity” of consciousness. We have to refer to the qualia of visual perception, taste, and sound, even perception of balance. We constantly have to refer to intentionality and subjectivity. How do you get that with materialism?
Them: But the brain is incredibly complicated. There are so many neurons, synapses, connections, etc. It’s an incredibly complicated organ.
Me: It doesn’t matter how complicated it gets, if the universe is all objectivity and bits of matter then there shouldn’t be any subjectivity and there shouldn’t be any qualia.
Them: I don’t think you really appreciate how complicated the brain is. It’s really, really, really complicated.
And so on. It’s just a strange vacillation between an appeal to how complicated the brain is and how big the system is, hoping that somewhere in the dark, twisting corridors of the labyrinth that is our minds qualia are in there hiding, and pulling the levers that control us. But when you actually pin a materialist down they may just admit that qualia simply don’t exist, and can’t exist. There’s no sense in trying to explain the subjective by an appeal to the objective. All there is and all there ever will be is objective bits of matter bumping into each other, and we’re deluding ourselves to think that we have a self at all.
Edward Feser has pointed out an essay written by Alex Rosenberg, a believer in this kind of materialism, called The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality that really goes over the implications of this kind of reality. The current materialist metaphysics implies that there is no inherent meaning, teleology, intentionality, free will, or real value in the universe whatsoever. Even our ideas about meaning are simply meaningless. These are not emotional reactions to the idea that the universe is nothing more than matter, these are the inescapable logical implications of a solely material universe. There is no such thing as meaning at all, and there never could be. Folk beliefs such as value, purpose, personal identity, meaning, intentionality, and free will, and qualia such as color, timbre, etc., are, at best, useful fictions, and at worst, delusions. The universe, built from the ground up with just bits of matter, hasn’t given us the tools to build meaning, value, and qualia at all. If you’re skeptical that materialism actually implies all this, by all means, read Rosenberg’s essay, and maybe this. Or even this.
Similarly, materialist metaphysics imply that when I’m wondering about my grandma in Salt Lake City, the matter in my brain isn’t actually “directed to” an objectively real being who is my grandmother in a real place called Salt Lake City. In fact, the matter in my brain can’t really correspond to, or be directed toward, anything outside of my skull. To imply that the matter in my brain has anything to do with a real grandmother in a place called Salt Lake City is to give it extended properties that materialism does not allow matter to have. It’s just bits of matter. It doesn’t mean anything, and it doesn’t refer to anything. It just moves around according to the patterns of behavior that matter tends to exhibit.
But it doesn’t end there, folks. It also implies that our hearts are not really made to pump blood, and our cerebellums are not really made to help us with our motor skills. Because that would imply a purpose to a heart and a cerebellum, and at bottom, we are not justified in even assigning purpose to anything. A heart and a cerebellum are just different configurations of matter selected out of an almost infinite number of variations in an unguided series of trial-and-errors of evolutionary biology. To imply that they have a purpose – to pump blood, to help an organism pass on DNA, etc. – would imply that objects are directed towards purposes, and materialist metaphysics do not allow this.
These are the metaphysical tools that modern psychologists have been given to work with. So I can’t blame psychologists for not thinking about it much. We can’t afford to. Why? Because we’re busy being psychologists.
Except everything psychologists deal with, from the different parts and functions of the brain, different stages of information processing, beliefs, attention, internal motivations and drives, color perception, acoustic perception, understanding of concepts, stereotypes, and even issues of people finding meaning in their lives, are incredibly strained notions under a materialist metaphysics. Do you see the paradox here? Psychology has been forced to adopt the metaphysics of modern science, when the metaphysics of modern science calls intrinsic purpose, meaning, and motivation simply meaningless. What does it mean for a psychologist to say that people are motivated to seek belongingness in a social group if motivation or goal-directedness don’t actually exist? From the point of view of materialism, psychologists are using delusions to study delusions.
Enter Edward Feser and his book Aquinas (“Finally!” I’m sure some of you are saying). One of Feser’s main theses in the book is that all the so-called “problems” of human consciousness only became problems when science adopted its current materialist metaphysics. If everything in the universe can be explained by reference to bits of matter bumping into each other, then we are left with a colorless, odorless, tasteless, emotionless, meaningless, purposeless universe of stuff. There are no facts other than physical facts. But then why do we think that colors, odors, emotions, purpose, and meaning exist in the universe? Why do I think that, when I’m wondering about my grandma in Salt Lake City, my thoughts actually point at a real being who is my grandmother in a real place called Salt Lake City that exists outside of the matter in my brain?
In fact, according to Feser, Aristotle and Aquinas would have been quite befuddled by these problems, because according to them, the universe is not just matter bumping into matter. For them, the objects of our experience are combinations of matter and form. So in a modern materialist view, an acorn is simply a configuration of atoms, and its behavior and properties can be entirely explained by reference to the behavior of atoms. Aquinas, in keeping with Aristotle, would have disagreed. In order to fully understand an object, he said there are really four irreducible causes that need to be examined: not only the material and efficient causes, but also formal and final causes. On an Aristotelian-Thomistic view, an acorn is not just composed of atoms, but also brown-ness, hardness, and roundness which are irreducible characteristics of the acorn. Not only is an acorn composed of matter and form, it is also directed at a certain range of possibilities – in this case, it could grow into an oak tree.
So Aquinas suddenly makes purpose intelligible again. When someone strikes a match, the inevitable result is that the match produces fire and heat (not frost and cold). This is because the properties of a match are directed towards a certain end result – combustion. In the world of our experience, certain actions inevitably lead to certain consequences, so much so that we take these patterns completely for granted. But think about it. Science describes the behavior of electrons – little bits of stuff with a charge that always seem to behave the same way no matter which electron you’re talking about in the whole universe. An electron on one side of the universe will behave like an electron that is powering your computer right now. Since I was a child, I always wondered to myself, “What exactly is in the electron that always knows what to do? Why are all electrons playing by the same rule book?” On a modern materialist view, this is a genuine mystery. There is no necessary reason why electrons should always flow through copper wire, and play by the same rules all the time, just like there’s no necessary reason why a brick thrown at a window will always break the window. The fact that effects seem to regularly follow their causes in such a predictable way is simply a comforting coincidence. But on an A/T view, the electron and the brick by their very natures are directed towards certain actions in any given situation. And so are we.
Now I’m not going to go into all the philosophy of Feser’s book, since I’m not a philosopher. You’re probably still wondering why these things resolve the issues of qualia, motivation, intentionality, etc., and for those of you thinking this, I only suggest that you get the book. But for me, just an explanation of the four causes has allowed me to rethink the way the brain works in a way that has resolved considerable tension in my mind. It’s not that neurons, synapses, grey matter, etc. are unnecessary to describe what our minds do. On the contrary, these things are vital parts of what makes us who we are and how we think. However, our minds can’t be solely reduced to neurons, synapses, and matter. Science tried to “eliminate” purpose and form from reality and then they’ve shoved the inevitable dilemmas this causes onto the shoulders of future psychologists and neuroscientists who have, in turn, either ignored the dilemmas because we couldn’t function if we had to deal with them, or tried to explain them away with vague labels. However, Aquinas is giving psychologists more tools to work with when we talk about consciousness, intentionality, and qualia, and build models of brain processes. Suddenly, it makes sense to say that the cerebellum exists for the purpose of motor control, because the universe now has room for all the purpose, directedness, intentionality, and meaning we observe in it every day. We don’t have to say there’s something inherently magical about the lump of fat in our skulls that causes color, sound, and teleology in the universe. It’s the universe itself where all of that happens. Our brains just help us recognize it. And the magic of Feser’s book is that he puts it in a way that a non-philosopher like me can understand, without watering down the power of Aquinas’ philosophy.
Now there may be some of you that are hoping that, by arguing that materialism is false, Feser is proving that our bodies are inhabited by ghostly semi-transparent ectoplasm that sort of looks like us and rises out of us when we die. If this is the case, prepare to be disappointed. While Feser still argues, just as Aquinas did, that we have an immaterial intellect that is responsible for our ability to direct our bodies towards goals and comprehend universals such as humanity and triangularity, etc. (and this intellect continues on after we die), it hardly resembles anything from Ghostbusters. Feser is arguing, through Aquinas, that there is room for the soul in psychology, it’s just that this soul may not be exactly what you think it is.
Since I’m not a philosopher, I’m not going to tell you that I know Aquinas’ arguments are water-tight. I don’t have the credentials to show that, and even if I thought I could explain it or critique it, this would require a book at least the size of Aquinas, not a simple blog post. However, I’m at this point convinced. I have read so many different theories of consciousness that simply didn’t make enough coherent sense for me to base my psychological work on. However, I do think that Aquinas’ philosophy would have a definite pragmatic appeal for the modern psychologist. Talking about the mental in materialistic terms causes a great deal of cognitive dissonance, whether psychologists have given this a lot of thought or not. It is a strain. Looking at brain processes through the lens of hylemorphic dualism completely removes that strain, and for that reason alone, it is worth at least an honest investigation and consideration. Aquinas gives us exactly that.
Will a book like Aquinas change the face of psychology forever? Probably not. Feser is waging a battle in philosophy foremost, and psychology is still trying their best to be a part of the Cool Kids of physics and chemistry. However, for budding psychology students like me, who just can’t seem to make sense of the current models of consciousness offered by the likes of Dennett, Pinker, or the Churchlands, Feser has given me a new alternative that makes psychology – and the universe – that much more meaningful.
 Which I believe is actually a shame. Hypnosis and psychoanalysis might be unverifiable and hard to quantify, but actually there have been plenty of people who were helped by such therapies.
 Yes, there is an idea floating out there that time itself (or rather, the time we think we experience) is actually an emergent property of the brain, or even a social convention based on mutually-agreed-upon parameters such as clocks ticking, etc.