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Sunday, September 20, 2009

First, Second, Third Person Philosophy

First, Second, Third Person Philosophy
[now pp. 9-14 in Das Wagnis, ein Mensch zu sein: Geschichte - Natur - Religion]
During the US presidential campaign in 2008, a character was popular as "Joe the Plumber". He was to be the epitome of the working class that was coveted by the candidates. These elections being history now, it remains remarkable that American national economy was personified in this plumber from Ohio. Even if we leave aside the mechanisms of media democracy, it is strange that a single person was taken to represent the intentions of the candidates and/or of the electorate. Most likely those who 'used' Joe the Plumber were unwilling to discuss economic issues in theoretical, abstract terms, which prescind from individual people. One might think that an abstract idea was illustrated with the help of an individual. But the parties involved conveyed the image that personifying economy was the limit of their theoretical thinking. The proverbial plumber relieved politicians and commentators from conceptualizing. At least, they did not trust the audience to grasp the political problems conceptually, that is, objectively.
The same can be observed in philosophical debates. Frequently philosophers present their arguments by calling persons into action: the dualist, the monist, the Platonic, and others. It has the appearance of a Platonic dialogue that allows the opponents to voice their opinions. If that were the case it would be truly philosophical, because Plato had personified philosophical problems in Socrates and his interlocutors. Historic or fictional persons served to illustrate philosophical problems. In Plato, this was not just a literary ploy; he positively maintained that some philosophical problems can only be treated in the process of thinking as depicted in speaking, that is, those problems cannot be addressed in the form of propositions. Socrates is what you get when you philosophize, if you are Plato. Since no reader of this sentence is Plato, it easily translates into: Plato's philosophy created the character of Socrates. The difference between both statements is that the first seems to include the reader,[1] whereas the second is merely factual. The you-mode appeals to the reader who – depending on the context – may take it as an encouragement, critique, or any other psychological involvement that oversteps the limits of factual exchange. Oftentimes such overtones divert from the facts.
Modern scholarly parlance enjoys tying entire packages of arguments with one name: "Rawls says", "With Habermas", "As Thomas Nagel said". In those cases the argument is not abbreviated but labeled with a name without taking pains to actually think the argument. The reader, too, is not expected to recapitulate the argument. It is an extreme case of an argument from authority, for when referring to an authority it is rhetorically presupposed that the audience has familiarity with it or at least would be able, any time, to reproduce the doctrine of the authority. Therefore the question arises whether reference to philosophical plumbers allows returning to an objective treatment of the same problem. Does reference to some "monist" or "compatibilist" really invite to rethink the pattern of their thought without personifying? Probably not. For the sake of experiment, let us translate the third person into the second, and then into the first person: "The Dualist is my opponent; i.e., you, my opponent, hold this or that belief, which I am about to refute. Hence follows that I, first person, argue thus …" Here is an example from Imre Lakatos, speaking about the high frequency of simultaneous discoveries in sciences:
For this problem vulgar-Marxists have an easy solution: discovery is made by many people at the same time, once a social need for it arises. Now what constitutes a 'discovery', and especially a major discovery, depends on one's methodology. For the inductivist, the most important discoveries are factual, and, indeed, such discoveries are frequently made simultaneously. For the falsificationist a major discovery consists in the discovery of a theory rather than a fact. Once a theory is discovered (or rather invented), it becomes public property; and nothing is more obvious than that several people will test it simultaneously and make, simultaneously, (minor) factual discoveries.[2]
The objective problem of factually overlapping activities is addressed using labels. In each case, not the argument, only the result is presented. A scholarly book presupposes some familiarity with the theories in question. Nevertheless, no effort is made to explain how and why the various "–ists" came to their conclusions, although this is a book on methodology of science and within it a section on history. Since the argumentative framework of each proposition is reduced to a historic tab, the book should be shelved as scientific fiction. Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis could stand next to it, because Lakatos also advocates research programs. The only difference is that in the quoted passage he applies the program pattern retrospectively to the history of science. The key problem in this example is the fact that there is an asymmetry between premises and conclusion: The premise is personified, the conclusion factual. The personified premise ("-ists say") abbreviates the objective and theoretical reasoning to the extent that it is not recognizable and, therefore, the conclusion can only be judged on the basis of the reader's and the author's framework.
The third person rhetoric turns out to be a first person argument. Invoking a party, school, or any –ism reveals itself as directing the view to the speaker. This is where the philosopher's and the politician's strategies converge: both are mainly interested in themselves. Unless you are Plato, and unless you truly believe that thoughts are the only reality and cannot be reported otherwise than by ascribing them to an individual person, to argue with reference to people, rather than ideas, concepts, problems, things, or anything else objective, is nothing but egocentric conceit. Egotism is not necessarily a philosophical flaw, depending on the philosopher. But the contrast between thinking of persons and thinking about objective issues is worth exploring, especially if some arguments go simply wrong due to the misled style of thinking.
Incidentally, there are historic reasons for this fashion of personalizing a message. Humanist thinkers of the Renaissance drew the conclusion from the Scholastic style of philosophical and theological inquiry that no reality can have an impact on the human person that has not been personally processed in thought. Consequently, they also refrained from presenting insight in a systematic way and preferred writing poems, letters, invectives, etc. Later thinkers, well trained in Scholastic debates, adopted this turn of perspective and aimed at reassuring the audience that every single idea they were purporting had been thoroughly thought through. Ever since Giordano Bruno a philosopher would claim his own personality as first and ultimate witness for the truth of his teaching. With René Descartes the "I think" became a touchstone of philosophical quality. However, Bruno and Descartes, and certainty Kant and Hegel, not to speak of phenomenologists and existentialists, they all aimed at absolute trans-individual reality. (With the exception of the nihilist rejection of reality beyond human existence, as in Nietzsche.) They wrapped their insights in the first-person rhetoric, because to claim an objective reality was (in the wake of nominalism and voluntarism) suspect of begging the question. Therefore they would eclipse from their arguments that world, which they were to enquire. Subjectivity, the power of the personal mind, was the only accessible source of knowledge. Of course, they all had to presuppose the structural identity of everyone's mind and thus the communicability of first-person ideas. At this point it is inevitable to refer to persons and schools, because the object of this paragraph is the history of the structure of the first-person argument. To sum up, modern philosophy's battle cry is: Truth is what I think!
Again, if the process of reasoning is the topic of a thought it can be convenient to depict it with the help of a person. Objectified presentation can even go wrong if the question is, for instance, whether love is a person or a thing, and if the outcome is that it consists in the transition (as Plato taught). The thrust of the argument, here, is that reification is misleading, and therefore the argument itself should rather not be objectifying. First-person arguments occur frequently in psychological epistemology: problems of cognition, specifically those of sense perception, offer themselves to expressions in the first person. At the same time, there is no need to move over to a second person. Yet it might be useful to refer to third persons. In empirical psychology and pedagogy people are observed or act as test persons for the sake of exemplifying a theory. Unfortunately, this is not the case in many philosophical treatises, which either do not really illustrate any theory with the help of real or fictional people or conceal stratagems under the veil of personalized arguments.
An interesting example is Daniel C. Dennett's usage of persons. In his Consciousness explained he promises to "explain the various phenomena that compose what we call consciousness" and then continues: "it is very hard to imagine how your mind could be your brain … In order to imagine this, you really have to know quite a lot of what science has discovered about how brains work, but much more important, you have to learn new ways of thinking."[3] Of course the rhetoric is that of college teaching, suitable for an introduction. But Dennett also addresses directly the question of personal perspective. Since Descartes had used the first-person perspective that had fostered the notion of consciousness, experimental psychology preferred third-person perspective, in which "only facts garnered 'from the outside' count as data" (70). So, if the author is aware of the tricks of personalized presentation, why does he use the second person in describing the problem of understanding mind and brain? According to Dennett there is no consciousness. Mind is nothing but brain. Science is the objective authority ("quite a lot") concerning the workings of mind and brain. In spite of this reductionism, in the quotation there is imagination, there is learning, there is creativity, and – surprise! – there is thinking. How is such a performative contradiction possible? If "just rhetoric!" is the answer, then the author has put off at least one reader. Playful promises make the objectivity of the science dubitable. Obviously, the second-person appeal undoes the strong factual claim of a reductionist psychology. Perhaps, we should leave it at that.
A second example from philosophy of mind comes from John R. Searle. In his book Intentionality Searle confesses to despise "all this distinguished past", for, as he states bluntly, that his "only hope of resolving the worries which led me into this study … lay in the relentless pursuit of my own investigation."[4] First question: What makes John Searle believe that any reader cares about his worries? Why should readers be distracted from their own worries by worrying with and about Searle? After all, even to his contemporaries Searle was "distinguished past" once his book was out. This is a double attack of the philosopher: first he discards history; then he waves his own white flag for fear of being overlooked. On the other hand, second question: If philosophy is done by persons who successfully worry, why are those of the past to be discarded? Because they don't listen? But why not listen to them? Searle's worries are the heritage of European philosophy and should be treated according to its standards. The argumentative figure of 'the philosopher as the sole guarantor of his philosophy', as described above, is patent. In this sense the 20th century thinker is just mimicking Descartes on his retreat in Ulm. But is he also justified to do so? That is: does his argument gain by neglecting the past, given that this neglect has its history? Searle's rhetorical gesture is that of captatio benevolentiae. Such an opening is always risky, because it can go wrong, and as a rhetorical figure there is no second chance to repair it. So, the question is this: why does a philosopher have to covet the sympathy of the anonymous audience? To cover up the weakness of the argument? Or a hidden agenda? Again, the gesture is suspicious. But, perhaps the audience is not at all anonymous but a well defined group of colleagues and students. The implicit reader is to be an accomplice? All this has nothing to do with philosophy, it can happen in any corporation, business, association, etc. First-person philosophy can push beyond the fringes of philosophy.
Here I need to take up the cudgels on behalf of history. When dealing with philosophy of mind or with any other problem within the realm of anthropology, the philosopher is part of history and history is part of the problem. The very idea of relating to the world, which is at the core of intentionality and, generally, of philosophy of mind, this thought has evolved over a long way. The way 21st century thinkers worry about it started somewhere and sometime in the evolution of humanity and had significant leaps and detours and fallbacks and turns. Descartes is one of them. So far, present day philosophy of mind is just one station on a way. Each philosopher pushes it further, some try shortcuts, some explore dead end streets. But the question of mind, thinking about thinking, is genuinely human. Radical denial of the anthropological essence of thinking about thinking defeats itself; it is a performative contradiction as any skepticism. Everything human has a history (as far as anyone can look back). To think about the human mind, therefore, requires thinking about what others have thought. Right or wrong: what others have thought is thinking. If, as Descartes and Searle pretend, the past is distinguished as being superfluous, how was it possible that the past thinkers did not think as "I" (Descartes, Searle) think? What, if at all, did they think? Concepts like mind, consciousness, awareness, pain, reality, relation, organism, etc. have a meaning that cannot be makeshift wisdom. Such a thing does not exist. For philosophers, third-person psychology is thinking the past.
Philosophical plumbing hopes to encapsulate a problem in a person: I, we, you, he, they. Philosophical history liberates, at least, from the pressure to flirt with the audience or to expose one's own flaws (for no philosopher is right who does not take conceptual risks). Matters of science, as much as they belong to science, are definitely exempt of personal components (pace Michael Polanyi). Even if the philosopher is the only object truly known, the object remains objective, and true propositions cannot be thought of as true only in personal perspective. To say otherwise would make the personal perspective an objective truth. Therefore, to defend, for instance, the identity of mind and brain as a solipsistic insight or as a party game; to summarize in a falsifiable proposition the allegedly idiosyncratic take on science of some people; to rally for economic plans on the back of some chap from Ohio; all this is misleading. Philosophy starts with careful reading and goes a long way with it.

[1] A peculiarity of the English language facilitates the transition from factual statements to second-person allocutions: the generic "you". For instance in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, IV 2: "Every true man's apparel fits your thief: if it be too little for your thief, your true man thinks it big enough … "
[2] Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978, 115.
[3] Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Boston: Little, Brown, 1991, 16.
[4] John R. Searle, Intentionality. An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. ix.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Michael Polanyi and His Debate with Alan M. Turing

The Immortality of the Intellect Revived:
Michael Polanyi and His Debate with Alan M. Turing

By Paul Richard Blum

[Now pp. 269-279 in Das Wagnis, ein Mensch zu sein: Geschichte - Natur - Religion

and in

Knowing and Being: Perspectives on the Philosophyof Michael Polanyi. Edited by Tihamér Margitay. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 12 Back Chapman Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2XX, UK. ISBN (10): 1-4438-2062-8]

For a machine is a machine only for someone who relies on it (actually or hypothetically) for some purpose, that he believes to be attainable by what he considers to be the proper functioning of the machine: it is the instrument of a person who relies on it. (Polanyi 1974:262)

When I read this passage in Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge, it struck me as a proof of the immortality of the soul by way of operation. The purpose of my paper is to explain that. I will first explain the context and importance of this passage within Polanyi's philosophy of cognition, and then I will explain the context of the debate about the immortality of the soul.

The quoted passage appears in the chapter "The Logic of Affirmation". The philosopher starts with considerations concerning the usage of language, especially the distinction between the confident or direct use of a word and the skeptical or oblique employment of language. What we know elsewhere as the relationship between language and metalanguage (Polanyi will refer to Tarski in due course) is presented here as a distinction necessary for proving the existence of personality in knowledge as being manifest through assent to the "substantial character" of any utterance. Hence follows his emphasis on the awareness ("watching") that takes place in the act of speaking: "The formalization of the meaning relies therefore from the start on the practice of unformalized meaning." (250) One could think that Polanyi puts a wedge between the mind and its objects (i.e., everything that is intended, understood, and referred to). Of course that's not appropriate: Polanyi circumscribes the process of understanding through language as a transition from the non-formalized towards the form. Now, 'the form' is obviously not some kind of Platonic idea or Aristotelian essence, it must be the process -- or the product of the process -- of the buildup of meaning.[1]

On the side of the thinking subject we have the "act of confidence", i.e., that which makes knowledge personal, as the book again and again explains. Words are used obliquely, when we elevate the object of our utterance to metalanguage -- in writing visible by putting quotation marks around terms. This skeptical use of words is a reflective act intended to repair the unavoidable insecurity of confident utterance. For the confident utterance always runs a risk of misplacement (250-251). Therefore confidence and insecurity coincide in the person who dares to put forward a statement. In the next step, Polanyi describes the strategies of oscillating between direct and oblique speaking as loops ("indefinite and futile regress", 252) that never can escape the basic fact, according to which language appears to be a tool of the act of confidence: "… only a speaker or listener can mean something by a word, and word in itself can mean nothing" (252). Polanyi observes that the loop to capture precision by means of words is "logically meaningless" and a fallacy for the very reason that words are instruments of meaning but neither the meaning itself nor the person that means, whatever is meant (252). At this point I may remind of Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) who described with his own terminology the impossibility to attain precision with the same concepts that need to be sharpened.[2]

In the next chapter we learn that in a critical epistemological operation the act of an assertion-of-fact may be tentatively separated from the asserted fact. Polanyi suggests to separate the act from the fact in an assertion and to compare the fact with experience. However, he does not speak of 'fact' but of the sentence uttered in an assertion. Therefore he is not endorsing an empirical verification but invites to exercise a phenomenological process, namely, to watch the assertion as-though-it-were-not-asserted. The content of the affirmation is scrutinized without the act. "If as a result of this test we decide to renew the act of assertion, the two parts are reunited and the sentence is reasserted." (254) Obviously, such verification is a self-referential process rooted in the knowing person: "It is an act of tacit comprehension, which relies altogether on the self-satisfaction of the person who performs it." (254) Assertion, in so far as it produces a statement held to be true, is a personal act that nods towards a state of affairs that is given in a non-stated statement, after assent had been withheld. However, we should scratch out any temporal notion, for phenomenologically speaking the mental experiment described here is the essence of assent and not its gradual product. Conversely, we may infer, negation is the sustained withholding of the tacit comprehension.

After these premises there is no doubt that thinking, affirming, or claiming anything, originates in a fuzzy subjectivity, called the person, that shapes itself in the act of understanding, uttering, affirming. At this point Polanyi addresses the question of thinking machines. This question was a highly debated issue in the middle of the 20th century. In his terminology, as said before, formalization is the act of shaping that, which is understood, and presupposes a level that is itself unformalized. He now describes the operation of a computer as follows:

… a formal system of symbols and operations can be said to function as a deductive system only by virtue of unformalized supplements, to which the operator of the known system accedes: symbols must be identifiable and their meaning known, axioms must be understood to assert something, proofs must be acknowledged to demonstrate something, and this identifying, knowing, understanding, and acknowledging, are unformalized operations on which the working of the formal system depends.... These are performed by a person with the aid of the formal system, when the person relies on its use. (258)

In this train of thought, a computer is de facto defined as a formalized version of operations, which in an originary way are prior to formalization. "The legitimate purpose of formalization lies in the reduction of the tacit coefficient to more limited and obvious informal operations." (259) As Polanyi explains elsewhere in the book, 'the tacit coefficient' is the contribution of the person in the act of knowing, meaning, etc., for instance, the confidence in a statement. Therefore, the act of entrusting calculations to a machine is nothing but "shifting confidence" (260) from the personal utterance to the correctness of the operation as formalized thinking. It is at this point that Polanyi made the statement quoted at the beginning: "For a machine is a machine only for someone who relies on it (actually or hypothetically) for some purpose, that he believes to be attainable by what he considers to be the proper functioning of the machine: it is the instrument of a person who relies on it." He further explains it by the following set of parallels[3]:






functions, purposes etc. entertained by the mind


Neurological model of subject

Intellectual purposes attributed to the subject by the neurologist

In this analogy between brain and machine it is visible that computing, i.e., the calculating operations of the computer, are not only presented as thoughts entertained by a mind, but as the operations of the brain. 'Mind' in the computational sense can be seen as mechanical functions only if investigated by a thinking subject that is not the thinking mind itself: for instance a neurologist. Neuroscience looks at the mind as though it were a machine, and not the other way around, at a machine that operates itself as though it were a mind. To treat a computer as though it were a mind was, indeed, the challenge of the notion of 'thinking machines'. We have not yet arrived at immortality, but we have reached the interface between machine and mind that was important to Polanyi and his contemporaries. His statement underscores the dependence of the machine on the subject, which itself may be a machine, if and only if looked at it in this mode and perspective. As we saw, his motivation is logical (and of course also anthropological) in that he emphasized (through the mental experiment of withholding affirmation) the indeterminacy of the mind in judging and exercising its operations. Polanyi comments upon the tripartite diagram with the explicit warning that the neurologist's focus of interest does not at all represent personal "functions of the subject's mind" (262-263). The mind operates in the act of cognition in the same way as words acquire meaning in the act of speaking, but the analogy points to the unspecified level both in thinking and in speaking before the understanding or before meaning.

On October 27, 1949, an interdisciplinary discussion on "The Mind and the Computing Machine" took place at Manchester University in England (Hodges 1983: 415). A typescript of only five pages summarized some of the issues.[4] One of the participants was Alan Turing, who maintained that a "machine may be bed with incompatibles, but when it gets 'contradiction' as a result, there is then a mechanism to go back and look at things which led to the contradiction." We may note that he is describing the operation to withhold an assertion and compare the outcome as though it were not asserted, and -- in this case -- to deny the sentence, which then is the same as to decide not to repeat the assertion. A participant of this discussion, Geoffrey Jefferson, objected that this is (a) an "argument against the machine", probably because he thought that a machine is not able to go back of itself to the origin of an incompatibility. He further doubted that even intelligent beings would necessarily perform this control act; he asked (b) whether "human beings do this kind of thing?"[5] To that Turing answered: "yes -- mathematicians". Turing is on the way to mechanize human thought: he concedes that only mathematicians would care to repeat the operation backwards in order to find out the flaw in the calculation after having maintained that a computer would do what Descartes had strongly suggested to do.

It is a Cartesian rule to view inferences as operational chains. However, we know what followed – rationalism wed with mechanicism. To Descartes the mind was a ghost in a machine. In Polanyi's terms, Turing answered like a neurologist who switches his attention from thinking to objectifying mind and its outcome.

The transcript of the discussion reports that after Turing had confirmed that, indeed, mathematicians do check the operations for flaws, someone muttered: "are mathematicians human beings?" This was probably meant as a joke but it mimics the reversal of perspective, for Turing now explained that he was thinking of "the kind of machine which takes problems as objectives, and the rules by which it deals with the problems are different from the objective," thus clearly aiming as dissecting the problem into manageable units: problem-objective-rule. He explicitly referred to Polanyi who had made the distinction "between mechanically following rules about which you know nothing, and rules about which you know." At this point Polanyi intervened by saying that the rules of conduct or behavior are different from logical rules. Turing now emphasized the parallel between conscious working and routine: "a machine may act according to two different sets of rules", the conscious method vs. the habitual method. Although there seems to be consensus so far, Polanyi now doubted that "the semantic function can ultimately be specified"; and he stated firmly: "whereas in point of fact a machine is fully specifiable, while a mind is not." The so-called specification must mean the illusion that the computing entity (brain or machine) can be fully programmed and therefore, by extension, also the mind. Turing replied "that the mind is only said to be unspecifiable because it has not yet been specified; but it is a fact that it would be impossible to find the programs inserted into quite a simple machine -- and we are in the same position as regards the brain. The conclusion that the mind is unspecifiable does not follow." (Emphasis in the transcript.) He seems to make a very important concession, namely, that it is impossible to find the program a posteriori, while he believes it to be possible to program the machine completely, a priori. Polanyi answered that this "should mean that you cannot decide logical problems by empirical methods. The terms by which we specify the operations of the mind are such that they cannot be said to have specified the mind. The specification of the mind implies the presence of unspecified and pro-tanto unspecifiable elements." He finally adds that "acceptance as a person implies the acceptance of unspecified functions".

It is well known that this dialogue prompted Turing to publish his famous paper on "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" (1950; Turing 1982) suggesting the later so called Turing Test, as it is obvious that it guided Polanyi's treatment of the question of acceptance in his book on Personal Knowledge. There the author refers on purpose to Turing's "speculations" that made him famous. Polanyi translates Turing's opening question "Can machines think?" into "the experimental question, whether computing machines could be constructed to deceive us..." (Polanyi 1974:263 note 1). Without entering the debate about the Turing Test it is sufficient to say that Turing makes a machine

· suspend its judgment, when it returns to previous stages of an operation if the result of it turns out to be contradictory

· operate upon itself, if it is fully 'specifiable'

· transform a posteriori experience into purposes.

All those pertain to 'personal knowledge' in Polanyi's view.

In order to come to the immortality question, it must be emphasized that Turing and Polanyi agree upon a certain dualism, in Turing's terms the distinction between conscious and automatic. It is clear that automatic actions are such that they work apparently the same way as conscious actions -- only without thinking.[6] Remember that Aristotle had stated as a fact of definition that technique does not deliberate and that a musician comes to perfection through practice, rather than deliberation.[7] Remember also Thomas Aquinas's proof for the existence of God, The Fifth Way, where he says that an arrow hits the target as though it were purposefully going after it (Summa th. I 2.3). Automatic action without consciousness is nothing new in philosophy. Where Turing and Polanyi disagree is the possibility -- even in theory -- to program a machine so that the machine operates responsibly in a variety of senses of the word.[8] Polanyi emphasizes that behind every determination is a realm of indeterminacy, behind every form is what is forming. It is hard to avoid at this point to see 'the person' that Polanyi invokes in terms of the absolute.[9] Given the possibilities and options of mechanized thinking the question at stake is whether thinking is something mechanical.

Modern thought since the revival of the geometric method is not anymore described as a correspondence between things and thoughts, but as operations that are controlled -- by whomever. Although the question of accordance between propositions and states of affairs has been debated again and again, the means to control and assess such concord are always operational. This is the case with Descartes's four rules of inference, this is the case with modern geometry that does not inquire into the essence of geometrical proportions but into their construction, as Kant among others has convincingly shown. The fallacy committed by Turing, at least from the point of view of Polanyi, consisted in transferring the orderliness of the operation into the essence of the operation. Going back to the origin of the 'contradiction!' is the operational aspect of assent or denial. Polanyi stresses that the operation is not its own origin. This is where the dualism has to be found. Traditionally speaking this dualism is that between mind and matter, which dominated the debate about the immortality of the soul.s

The question of the immortality of the soul has an ontological and an epistemological side. Of course, it had always been interesting for the ontological aspects, the question being, whether humans have an eternal life. However, epistemology has been the battlefield of this debate, because it is the operation of the mind/soul that at best manifests features that allow conjectures of immortality (cf. Blum 2007 with copious reference to primary and secondary sources). The question, as everybody knows, goes back to Aristotle, who had pondered the option that the human intellect could be separable from the rest of the soul and the living being (De anima III 5), thus bestowing the thinking power with the ontological status of a spirit in materially untainted action. The mixture between metaphysics and epistemology continued into the Renaissance, with added urgency from Christian doctrine. Those were the most common solutions to the problem:

Platonism: the human mind is the interface between the spiritual and the corporeal worlds, but it stays on the spiritual side. The corporeal world may be what it is, at any rate, the mind cognizes bodily things by way of recognition of forms in the mind itself that correspond in some way to the objects seen (Ficino 2001-2006, vol. 2; Platonic Theology lib. 8). This is in brief terms innatism. The epistemological problem is obviously the impossibility to verify the objects that are supposed to be cognized. However, the soul is exclusively busy with perfecting itself and purifying itself from any contingency (and it is only purification why the mind engages in cognition). Therefore the critical scientific question cannot be addressed with Platonism. But immortality is guaranteed, because the mind remains un-entangled with mortal objects, and especially if it purifies itself it works its way up to the level of Angels and other immortal beings. The Platonic answer to the question of immortality, therefore, is an essentialist answer, whereby the description of the functions of the mind appears to be purely apologetic. Still, there is some epistemological merit, if the cognitive operations are analyzed as shaping sensual reality.

Aristotelianism: the human mind processes data delivered through the senses. The question is: Can the human mind think anything that has not been delivered by the lower functions of the soul? Two answers are possible: no, the mind processes only sense data, and thinking is nothing but building up higher and higher levels of complexity in ideas that allow understanding reality in more and more complex ways, to the effect that the illusion of an independent life of the mind can arise, but still is an illusion. This is in bold strokes John Locke's sensualism. In terms of essence it is clear that the human mind is contiguous with the soul and the soul is contiguous with the body, basically a surface phenomenon of bodily functions. The soul is not the root of things but the most complex matter possible. In terms of epistemology, the argument is that if the mind were not cognate with the senses, and if the senses were not bodily, then nothing could be known. This is the solution entertained by Aristotelians like Pomponazzi (1525), although he was not alone. The second answer to Aristotelianism is yes, the mind thinks not only sense data but also purely intellectual objects. To be sure, even the sense data are not processed as such, but as abstractions. Therefore sense perception does not provide a valid argument against the purely spiritual nature of mind.[10] This answer is in reality a hidden Platonism. What needs to be clarified is: where does the mind get its criteria that allow processing all those wonderful sense data? Skepticism and criticism ensued.

The basic distinction between the solutions of the immortality problem is that between an essentialist versus an operationalist approach. The Platonists defined the soul a priori as spiritual and therefore as immortal. All the pains, taken by Marsilio Ficino in 18 books of the Platonic Theology to prove the immortality of the soul, were invested in proving that the soul is spiritual. However, many of his arguments circumscribed the operations of the soul with heightened attention to its cleanness of any material impact. Therefore, it is still safe to say that the Platonists approach is essentialist: whatever the mind does, it is spiritual by definition, and hence immortal.

The operationalist interpretation of the soul entangled the soul hopelessly in matter. It was the way of operating of the mind that seemed to prove that the mind is not separate from its body and hence subject to its fate. As I said, the compromise solution, although given already in Aristotle, according to which the mind is well able to process immaterial thoughts, does not gather its argument from the operation of the mind, but from it substance.

One more complication came into the equation, namely the distinction between actuality and potentiality in Aristotle's psychology. In the famous passage of On the Soul III 5, he had speculated that, if the intellect is in potentiality to its objects, there might be an actual intellect. Arabic interpreters labored much about this passage. For our purposes we need not enter the debate of the unity of the intellect, namely the question whether there is one and only one potential/actual intellect, of which all individual minds are nothing but instantiations.[11] Many philosophers distinguished within the human intellect an active and a passive or potential part. The passive part is the one that receives and processes information from the lower parts of the soul. It does so, however, under the guidance and control of the active intellect (cf. Blum 2007: 221). I hope it is obvious what I'm aiming at. The mechanicist interpretation of mind, which is the one that lends itself to computerization, focuses exclusively on the passive intellect of medieval branding. Polanyi's objection aims at vindicating the active intellect. The active intellect is active in so far as it controls the operation of the passive intellect, and since the passive intellect has to be tainted by the objects it processes, namely, sense data, the active intellect sets the rules of the game without being involved – in Polanyi's terms, without being specified.

Now, the whole pre-modern and early modern debate about the active and passive intellect was aimed at securing immortality to the individual. As the Platonists had established, mind can only be immortal if substantially independent of senses. The Aristotelian theory of the agent intellect was always vulnerable to the operationalist attack, which identified the intellect with the machine that processes information. The only way out is to show that in thinking about things there is a component that not only remains independent in some way, but actively performs the operations that look as though they were mechanical. That's what Polanyi did.

Under the conditions of Kantian criticism, once it was liberated of its radical skeptic and of its psychologist garb given to it by Neo-Kantianism, and under the conditions of phenomenology that scrutinizes the availability of reality in thinking, it was possible for Polanyi to aim at the core of the mind without recourse to psychologism and without lapsing into the mechanistic fallacy that had haunted Aristotelianism. For Neoplatonists the mind was immortal in spite of its operations. For Aristotelians the operations of the mind make it look like matter. Turing seems not to have been aware of the problem, for he seems to think of consciousness according to the model of a loop, a control procedure that needs to be programmed. In the same way as the Platonists would have told the Aristotelians that their epistemology misses the point in the metaphysics of the spirit, in the same way Polanyi appreciates the computerization of mental processes but warns against overstretching its claims. It is exactly because of the operation of the mind, which follows a controllable set of rules, that Polanyi emphasizes personality. Personality means: a priori independence from the rules set and authorship of the same rules are necessary for explaining the operation of the human mind. In being independent it must be free, which traditionally is termed to be immortal.[12]

With these considerations I hope to have shown that the debate between Turing and his opponents repeats a problem that was important in the history of the philosophy of mind or intellection. Polanyi in responding to Turing's challenge exposes to the reader the mixture of metaphysical and epistemological claims included in the seemingly technical question: "Can computers think?" and he brings the traditional solution (operationalist vs. essentialist) further by showing that operation insofar as it is intellectual originates from beyond the area and objects of operation (brain or computer). Polanyi thus helps interpreting (for those interested) the immortality debate of early modernity as a fallacy that identified the thinking subject with its means of thought, although a brain is a brain only for a mind that thinks with it.

Works cited:

Blum, Paul Richard. 2007. "The Immortality of the Soul", in James Hankins (ed.). The Cambridge companion to Renaissance philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 211-233.

Bruno, Giordano. 1998. Cause, principle, and unity, ed. Richard J. Blackwell. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Cajetan, Tommaso de Vio. 1514. Commentaria in libros Aristotelis De anima. Venice: Scotus.

Cusanus, Nicolaus. 2001. Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises, trans. Jasper Hopkins, Minneapolis: Banning (2001), 2 vols. (

Ficino, Marsilio. 2001-2006. Platonic theology, ed James Hankins. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 6 vols.

Polanyi, Michael. 1974. Personal Knowledge. Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Chicago: University Press [1958/1962].

Pomponazzi, Pietro. 1525. Tractatus acutissimi, utillimi et mere peripatetici. Venetiis, Scotus, 1525; reprint Casarano: Eurocart 1995 (fol. 41r-51v: De immortalitate animae).

Popper, Karl R. "Language and the Body-Mind Problem". Proceedings of the XIth International Congress of Philosophy. Brussels, August 20-26, 1953, vol. 7, Amsterdam/Louvain: North Holland/Nauvelearts, 1953, 101-107 [reprinted in his Conjectures and Refutations, 1963:293–298].

Turing, A. M. 1936. "On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem." Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, Series 2, Vol.42 (November 1936) 230-265 (

Turing, A. M. 1982. "Computing Machinery and Intelligence." in Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel Clement Dennett (eds.). The mind's I: fantasies and reflections on self and soul. Toronto: Bantam Books, 53-67.

[1] Polanyi 1974:250: "The formalization of meaning relies therefore from the start on the practice of unformalized meaning."

[2] Cusanus 2001, Idiota de mente 3, p. 542: "By means of a very lofty intellectual grasp, enfold into a coinciding both naming and being named, and all will be clear. For God is the Preciseness of whatsoever thing. Hence, if someone had precise knowledge of one thing: then, necessarily, he would have knowledge of all things. Likewise, if the precise name of one thing were known, then the names of all things would be known, because there is no preciseness except with God. Hence, if anyone attained unto a single instance of precision, he would have attained unto God, who is the Truth of all knowable things." Precision is the overall topic of this work.

[3] Polanyi 1974:262; I combined two tables into one.

[4] I used the version available at -- this site is maintained by Andrew Hodges.

[5] Jefferson as a neurosurgeon seems to have entertained an ambiguous anthropological position, for he had advocated frontal lobotomy (which seems to imply mechanistic approach to brain/mind, as described by Polanyi) but also had famously praised nobility and infinity of humankind in a 1949 speach (Hodges 1983: 405).

[6] Cf. Turing's definition of an automatic machine Turing 1936, p. 232, § 2: "If at each stage the motion of a machine … is completely determined by the configuration, we shall call the machine an “automatic machine” (or a-machine). For some purposes we might use machines (choice machines or c-machines) whose motion is only partially determined by the configuration … . When such a machine reaches one of these ambiguous configurations, it cannot go on until some arbitrary choice has been made by an external operator." Obviously, choice is due to ambiguity and made by a thinking subject that is not the machine itself.

[7] Physics II 8, 199 b 28, and Nicomachean Ethics I 6, 1098 a 9 and II 1, 1103 a 34. Giordano Bruno (Bruno 1998, De la causa II, p. 41) had stressed the absence of deliberation by paraphrasing: "This is what Aristotle himself shows with the examples of the perfect writer or perfect lute player … : for great musicians and writers pay less attention to what they are doing than their less talented colleagues, who, because they reflect more, produce work that is less perfect and, what is worse, not free from error."

[8] Compare also Karl Popper's description of a machine, which perhaps was an indirect reply to Turing: "A wall-thermometer may be said not only to express its internal state, but also to signal, and even to describe. … Yet we do not attribute the responsibility for the description to it; we attribute it to the maker. … We do not argue with a thermometer." (Popper 1953:104-105).

[9] The last two paragraphs of Personal Knowledge seem to invoke a super-individual 'person' evolving over time (perhaps akin to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) "a cosmic field which called forth" all individuals perhaps not different from the Christian God. ("God" is he last word of the book.)

[10] This position was defended by Cardinal Cajetan (Thomas de Vio) in commenting upon Thomas Aquinas, Summa th. I 75-76 (Cajetan 1514: lib. 3).

[11] Polanyi 1974:405, could be read as a version of this, averroistic, notion: "… the centres of the phylogenetic fields of which individuals are offshoots … But we do know that the phylogenetic centres which formed our own primeval ancestry have now produced … a life of the mind which claims to be guided by universal standards." This is beyond the purpose of the present paper.

[12] Polanyi 1974:405: "… the centres of the phylogenetic fields of which individuals are offshoots … may endure for ever … ."

Milton, Girard, and Satan on the Human Condition

Satan and the Human Condition: John Milton Read in Terms of René Girard

Now in Das Wagnis, ein Mensch zu sein: Geschichte - Natur - Religion
Studien zur neuzeitlichen Philosophie
Reihe: Philosophie: Forschung und Wissenschaft
Bd. 31, 2010, 336 S., 39.90 EUR, br., ISBN 978-3-643-90032-6