See Also: Sense and Science: An Aristotelian Perspective
Aristotle was a great philosopher, but he died well over two millennia ago. We, as the living and breathing members of the human species, must learn to move past outdated systems of thought. And yes, Aristotle's system of thought is entirely outdated. He thought he demonstrated that time had no beginning; he was wrong. He thought he demonstrated that there were only four elements; he was wrong. He thought he demonstrated that the earth was the center of the universe; he was wrong. He thought he demonstrated that space did not exist; he was wrong. He thought he demonstrated that the stars and the sun moved in perfect circles around the earth, themselves being constituted of a fifth element entirely non-existent in the sublunar sphere. With all of these errors, formerly thought to have been demonstrated, what can we expect to remain standing?
There are numerous individuals, almost if not universally religious, that fighting tooth and nail, still manage to approach the writings of this philosopher with an absurd degree of dogmatism. "Sure, he was wrong when it comes to science stuff," they might say, "but he was still right about motion, change, causality, the uncaused first cause, sensation, epistemology etc."
I assure you, there will be more responses forthcoming, but here I intend only to address Aristotle's understanding of sensation, thereby laying the groundwork for dismantling the entirety of his epistemology and his conclusion that we have immaterial souls.
As a matter of fact, daunting though this task may sound, it is not very difficult to do: Nothing more is required to come to this conclusion than to see two of Aristotle's most important claims concerning the topic and two of the most easily grasped, scientifically verifiable, claims of neurology. This same doctrine of sensation is at the basis of the hylomorphic argument for the immaterial soul, which relies on the same two premises that I here enumerate, and without them the whole of their epistemology goes caput. Indeed, even the claim of the immateriality of the rational soul loses its grounding. This indeed, is a project worth undertaking.
So let’s go ahead and enumerate some things we think we know:
It should be sufficiently clear to the reader that in the last article, (2) was tacitly abandoned as a principle in Sense and Science to manufacture a false consonance between Aristotle and neurology. If sensation arises from the disturbance of an electrical mean, and we sense by receiving electrically-charged matter, what is important for allowing sensation is not that the organ lacks the form that it senses, but that it lacks the electrical charge that it is receiving. This is a serious problem for the Aristotelian. This problem, moreover, with very little work, can be shown to produce inevitable logical contradiction.
When we say, “Nothing receives what it already has”, this is certainly true with respect to electrically charged matter (a neuron cannot receive an ion that was already within the neuron, or it would not be receiving it at all), but do we take this statement only with to ions? If so, we abandon (1). To both the ions and to the sensible forms then. To keep with Aristotle, we assume (2) is correct and then ask whether or not sensation is in the brain. If not, then we would be forced to contradict (3), and if so, we would be forced to contradict (4). But (3) and (4) are certainly true.
(1) or (2), are essential elements of Aristotle’s doctrine on sensation, being necessary for his argument for the immaterial soul and for his epistemology, yet they cannot be held without contradiction or all-out denial of fact. Aristotle was a brilliant man in the 300's BCE, but his doctrine of sensation must now be abandoned.
In sensation the “that out there” is perceived and becomes a “this in me”, wherein the “this in me” is only perceived because it remains the “that out there”. Through sensation, an animal apprehends the world outside and desires particular external things. It is through sensation that a dog can apprehend food and a man can apprehend a symphony. This is the most noble of the powers in matter and the most self-determinate of the naturally determined; of all enmattered acts, the sensitive soul is the most actual. With respect to its object, the science of sensing things is the highest of the physical sciences.
This thesis is a drawing together of what others have done in biology in order to present a more complete picture of sensation. In particular, the two main sources of knowledge of any material thing are common experience and experiments. Unfortunately, a significant number of conclusions gleaned from common experience is largely and unduly abandoned; one of these conclusions is that the sense organ must hold itself at the mean between the sensible extremes. In this thesis I will address the extent to which common experience elucidates material causes by example by presenting Aristotle’s demonstration that the sense organ must hold itself at the mean between the sensible extremes, and then draw from neuroscience to show what this mean looks more concretely.
This will consist of three parts. The first section deals with sensation formally from common experience; the second deals with sensation materially from common experience; and the third section deals with sensation generally in light of more recent discoveries from experiments.
Extrapolating these principles, the Hylomorphist concludes that always and everywhere, form (a term that can generally be understood as a property) : matter :: act : potency, and it is on this proportion that all of Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics are based. Prime matter, is the first material principle, or a principle that has no existence in itself and is in potency to every form capable of existing in matter.
Take Aquinas's third way as an example.* In a nutshell, this argument says that we know that some things come to be and pass away, so they are able to exist while it is not necessary that they exist. This cannot be true for everything, or nothing would exist, so there must be at least one extant thing which cannot not exist. If there are necessary things that are not necessary of themselves but receive their necessity from another necessary being, then there must be a first necessary being that is necessary of itself and does not receive its necessity from anything. This first necessary being, all men call god.
There are several ways of responding to this argument, but one refutation that is often overlooked is to grant the whole argument while denying only the last premise: Say it is true that there must be a first necessary being, we have no reason to think that this first necessary being would be god.