Immateriality of the Intellect, the Real Reason

In the Commentary on the Metaphysics Aquinas drops another thought grenade, saying

“For the intelligible object and the intellect must be proportionate to each other and must belong to one and the same genus since the intellect and the intelligible object are one in actuality.”

The intelligible object, that is, the universal, is not a material thing. Think of your knowledge of the Pythagorean Theorem: is it a physical thing? Does it have atoms? Molecules? What is it made of? Certainly not anything material. And yet the mind, which, it is argued, is merely the brain, can know it.

What does “know” mean in this context? It means, according to Brother Thomas, that the mind and its object become unified. “One in actuality,” as he says it. The mind has to make real contact with the object, or there is no real knowledge.

The medievals and Aristotle thought that the mind was immaterial because it had to be for the possibility of knowledge.

Materialist objections: there isn’t anything that exists beyond the material world. Ok, fine, but this forecloses the possibility of knowledge in the sense that we used to understand it.

  • If there is knowledge, then the mind is not immaterial.
  • If the mind is material (aka just the brain), then there isn’t such a thing as knowledge.

I’m with Aristotle on this one. Yes, the soul is the form of the body, and it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to think of it apart from the body. “We are our bodies” as Gabriel Marcel says. And yet, there is some power of the soul which is not bodily, and this is required because we can actually know things. How can this be? I don’t know. See On the Soul and tell me what you think.

Well-drilling and Angels

I got to watch a crew dig a well recently. I had never seen it done before, and I stood off to the side and watched them work. Four men acted as one, with very few words. They all knew what to do without having to communicate.

There were little techniques, too. The man running the drill wouldn’t look you in the eye when he spoke to you, because he only had eyes for the drill when it was running. He would listen, too, and would know what was deep beneath the earth by the sound that the drill made. Another man would use his shovel to catch the debris thrown up out of the shaft and would inspect them. Occasionally he would smell them. I myself noticed that when they got close to water, the odor changed to the scent of caverns. When the water came, they would taste it. The boss would stand estimating the flow rate. Would this be the a productive well or not?

There was beauty in the activity. Scott and I, along with Thomas Mirus read a book by Jacques Maritain about art. Every productive human activity counts as an art, although it’s not all fine art. As an art, it has a habitus, a way of being that makes the artist/crafstman "connatural" with the activity. You start to know what’s to be done without really thinking about it. Rather, the thinking is so much a part of you that you might not even be sure you’re doing it.

"Why did you do that thing?" "What thing? Um, I’m not really sure. Let me think about it." After a little while the craftsman will like give you a good, rational reason for the ‘thing’ that he did. It’s rational but has become so accustomed that it’s more like an intuition or gift from the gods.

St. Thomas Aquinas says somewhere that the higher levels of the lower levels of being approach the lower levels of the higher levels of being. In other words, the best of animals approach the lower levels of human activity. A good dog can almost seem human. This holds true for us as well. The best and highest of human activity approaches the activity of those above us. We used to call them angels. If that’s a bridge too far for you, just imagine aliens or demigods, or suppose "what if there were such things?" You can approach the angelic.

The way to do this is to get really good at something. The better you get at it, the more your reason becomes intellect. By that, I mean that you go from having to think slowly and discursively through premises and conclusions to the stage of grasping the whole truth in one simple intellectual act. If there is a God, this is how He knows, in one eternal intellectual act.

This is why I watch people who are good at their crafts. It’s like spying on higher beings.