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A Case for Constructive Empiricism Over Scientific Realism

George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University


1. Introduction

Scientific realism (SR) asserts that science describes an objective and real world, a world about which its theories may claim some sort of truth. Putnam describes (SR) as ‘the only philosophy that does not make the success of science a miracle,’since it explains its success in terms of its cohesion with a truthful reality. Though this has since been disputed, this quote nicely encapsulates the appeal of (SR)—it allows for an encouraging viewpoint of science. This is not to say that it is rashly optimistic; rather, it facilitates a straightforward metaphysical, semantic and epistemological theory which enables simple commitment to science’s proposed models. (SR) appears to be the most suitable theory for modern attitudes to science.

(SR) by no means enjoys universal popularity, however: a number of anti-realist ideas have risen to confront it, including those of American philosopher van Fraassen, whose constructive empiricism (CE) will be the focus of this essay.

Though (SR) and van Fraassen’s (CE) agree on semantic and metaphysical terms, they differ in their epistemological conceptions of science, namely its allusions to truth. In this van Fraassen challenges (SR)’s central cornerstone, the no-miracle argument (NMA), which serves to reinforce the theory’s epistemic principles. The (NMA) is a vital defence of (SR), and its survival against van Fraassen’s refutations is crucial to the position’s legitimacy. If (CE) is able to deny the (NMA) it would strengthen the case for (CE)’s supremacy as a philosophy of science.

This essay will aim to support van Fraassen in his (CE), proffering it as a favourable alternative to scientific realism. Sections (1) and (2) will aim to clear the decks in clarifying the (SR) and (CE) positions, while section (3) will discuss van Fraassen’s objections to the (NMA).

(1)  Scientific Realism

(2)  Constructive Empiricism

(3)  The No-Miracles Argument


2. Scientific Realism

 Van Fraassen claims that ‘truth must play an important role in the formulation of the basic realist position.’In this he was correct: an underpinning feature of (SR) in all its forms is a fundamental commitment to science as something which lays a claim to truth. That is that science reflects the reality of things, as they are and in themselves. (SR) has an important ‘dual character’ whereby ‘on one hand it is a metaphysical doctrine, claiming the independent existence of certain entities’ and ‘on the other hand… an epistemological doctrine asserting that we can know what individuals exist and that we can find out the truth of the theories or laws that govern them.’This can be condensed to the following:

(SR) holds that…

(1)  Scientific theories describe an objective, mind-independent reality and should be interpreted literally as descriptions of real things.

(2)  Scientific theories aim to provide a true account of what the world is like, and the acceptance of such theories identifies with a belief that they are true.

A full understanding of (SR) demands an elaboration of these two commitments. (1) is both a metaphysical and semantic claim. By the realist conception, the world—as investigated by science—is mind-independent and in no way subject to that which the human mind brings to it. Since the realist makes no effort to abstract the world from the investigation of science, it follows that they should interpret the discourse of scientific theories literally. This means that when a theory describes an entity or an event, it is so reflected in the objective world. A realist, then, holds that ‘what makes [a scientific theory] true or false is something external—that is to say, it is not our sense date, actual or potential, or the structure of our minds, or our language, etc.’

In addition to (1) a scientific realist must also uphold (2). The first aspect of (2) is normative, and speaks only of the aims of science, and not of its achievements or limitations. It is thus considered too weak to characterise the epistemological commitments of (SR) on its own.[ The second aspect, however, encapsulates the scientific-realist position rather nicely. The acceptance of a theory, to the realist, identifies with the belief that it is true or approximately true, entailing a positive approach to the epistemic achievements of science. This is not to suggest that the realist holds all our current theories to be true, only that they see truth as the marker of a successful scientific theory. This loose commitment to truth allows for the scientific realist to commit to theories ‘tentatively,’ or in virtue of its approximate rather than absolute truth. There is a distinct pledge in (SR) to ‘the idea that our best theories have a certain epistemic status… [that] they yield knowledge of aspects of the world.’

An anti-realist theory, then, must deny one or more of these positions. Van Fraassen, while agreeing with the metaphysical and semantic aspects of (SR), contends with its conceptions of science’s aims and what it means to accept a scientific theory. This is to say he maintains (1) while rejecting (2). (1) is to be hereon assumed with regard to (CE).


3. Constructive Empiricism

According to van Fraassen, and all constructive empiricists, ‘science aims to give us theories which are empirically adequate; and acceptance of a theory involves a belief only that it is empirically adequate.’This formulation of the normative and epistemological aspects of (CE) has earned van Fraassen the title of the ‘rehabilitator of anti-realism.’

(CE) claims that we are unable to properly account for unobservable phenomena, and that laying claim to truth in our theories regarding them is going beyond the enterprise of science. A constructive empiricist would insist that theories describing unobservable phenomena should be instead considered empirically adequate, since we are able to account for the unobservable phenomena only in terms of their explaining (or ‘saving’) the observable phenomena. This contrasts the ideas of (SR), which holds that a theory’s accounting for the phenomena entails its truth and thereby the truth of the objects it describes. Recall that when a scientific realist accepts a theory, they commit to more than just its empirical adequacy; they commit to its observable truth. (CE) does not do this, and allows for an agnostic approach to the existence of unobservables.

This can be illustrated in the example of gold. By observable means we are able to determine certain qualities possessed by gold, such as its melting point, its hardness, or its colouring. (CE) would accept theories positing the truth of these qualities, since if they were present to us under appropriate circumstances we would be able to observe them. The unobservable qualities of gold, however, such as its atomic number and molecular composition, cannot be observed in this way. (CE) would, with regard to these qualities, see the theories relevant to them as simply accounting for, or making sense of, the observable phenomena. (CE) would not agree that these theories deliver any sort of truth, in the strict sense, regarding gold’s unobservable properties.

Many believe this adoption of empirical adequacy over truth to be the more prudent, less epistemically audacious, choice.The caution of (CE), though restraining our scientific theories, allows its subscribers to remain truly faithful to the ‘spirit of empiricism.’


4. The No-Miracles Argument

As stated in my Introduction, the (NMA) is a vital cornerstone to scientific-realist thought. It was famously introduced by Putnam in 1975 (though it can be traced back to Boyd’s unpublished work) and has since been discussed somewhat widely. The (NMA) is built upon the observation of science’s extraordinary success. From our best theories we are able not only to make sense of current phenomena, but accurately predict future phenomena based on the models they present. The accuracy of our best theories can be so formidable that they become laws in themselves, to which we expect all conceivable phenomena to adhere. This is what is meant when the (SR) describes the ‘success’ of science. This does, however, raise the question of what can explain this success.

The (NMA) indicates the solution to this problem for the scientific realist. Recall this essay’s opening quote: (SR) is ‘the only philosophy that doesn’t make the success of science a miracle.’ This is because exponents of (SR) regard the observable success of science as evidence of our best theories’ truth. This idea is based on the principle that if our approved theories possessed no element of truth, their empirical success would be miraculous, since one would expect such theories to yield only false results. As far as (SR) is concerned, this observation leaves us with only two choices: to accept a theory’s congruence with the current phenomena as a miracle, or as an indication of its truth. A scientific realist would choose the latter.

To the constructive empiricist, then, (SR) would argue that we are able to secure the truth of our scientific theories—and thereby the objects they describe—on the basis that they provide the best explanation for the current phenomena. Returning to the gold example: the scientific realist would aver that because the theories surrounding gold’s unobservable properties provide the best explanation for the observable phenomena, we are justified in committing to their truth, and thereby the truth of the properties they describe. This is where the (NMA) makes reference to Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE), a notion which underpins the spirit of both the (NMA) and (SR). According to (SR), following the logical structure of (IBE) is a part of everyday life. When we experience a set of phenomena we routinely regard its best explanation as the one which is true, or at least likely to be true. The (IBE) is essential to understanding the (NMA).

The (NMA) appears to cast doubt upon (CE)’s allowing of an agnostic approach to unobservables and the theories surrounding them. Surely, the scientific realist would argue, the success of a scientific theory is a clear indication of its truth, and the truth of that which it describes.

Though a number of anti-realist authors have opposed the (NMA) this essay will for depth’s sake focus on van Fraassen’s response. He says: ‘I claim that the success of current scientific theories is no miracle. It is not even surprising to the scientific (Darwinist) mind. For any scientific theory is born into a life of fierce competition, a jungle red in tooth and claw. Only the successful theories survive — the ones which in fact latched on to actual regularities in nature.’In this van Fraassen is suggesting that our best theories appear to possess truth because those that do not simply fail to ‘survive’ the environment of scientific inquiry. He uses the analogy of natural selection to illustrate how only the theories which sport the guise of truth (those that are empirically adequate) endure the scientific process of elimination. Our ‘best’ theories, then, are simply those which best match the current phenomena, viz. those that are empirically adequate. His point here is that the success of a scientific theory need not entail its truth, since it can be empirically adequatewithout being remotely true. According to this view it would be no miracle for a scientific theory to be simultaneously successful, empirically adequate, and completely and utterly false.

This rejoinder and dismissal of (SR)’s claim to truth defends the (CE) right to be agnostic regarding the existence of unobservables and the theories which describe them.


5. Conclusion

The ramifications for (SR) as a result of this rejoinder are arguably grave. If the extraordinary success of science is unable to provide reason to believe that science is able to touch on some element of truth, then there is no way for (SR) to advance its conceptions beyond those of (CE). If our best theories are able to remain both successful and empirically adequate without referring to any sort of truth, then it becomes difficult for the scientific realist to construct any real means of deciphering where truth lies and where it does not. Here they might encounter further problems, such as that of underdeterminism, which poses that for any scientific theory there is set of empirically equivalent rival theories that are equally believable, and that belief in the truth of any one of these is ipso facto irrational. From here the scientific realist would feel himself inclined to accept van Fraassen’s supposition that ‘rationality is only bridled irrationality,’and perhaps abandon (SR) entirely.

Van Fraassen asserts that the (NMA) does not establish that the success of scientific theories is able to ratify their truth value, and it follows forthwith that (SR) is unable to support its fixed belief in unobservables from within the enterprise of science.

This leaves (SR) with the task of developing a means by which its dogmatism can be justified. Van Fraassen, meanwhile, would not only regard such measures as futile but also unnecessary, since to conceive of a successful theory as empirically adequate as opposed to true in no way inhibits the spirit of science, only absolves it of having to associate with excessive inflationary metaphysics. For these reasons, and those listed above, (CE) may be argued to be a favourable alternative to (SR).


Works Cited

Boyd, R.N. (1983). What Realism Implies and What it Does Not. Erkenntnis.

Boyd, R.N. (1971) Realism and Scientific Epistemology. Unpublished typescript.

Cacioppo, J.T. et al. (2004). Realism, Instrumentalism, and Scientific Symbiosis: Psychological Theory as a Search for Truth and the Discovery of Solutions. American Psychologist.

Chakravartty, A. (2013). Scientific Realism. Available: plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/scientific-realism/. Last accessed 12/03/14.

Chibeni, S.S. (2005). A Humean analysis of scientific realism. In: Guimarães, L. Ensaios sobre Hume. Belo Horizonte: Segrac Editora. 89-108.

Cummiskey, D. (1992). Reference Failure and Scientific Realism: A Response to the Meta-Induction. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. 43 (1), 21-40.

Duhem, P. M. M. (1954). The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fine, A. (2000). Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy . London: Routledge.

Frost-Arnold, G. (2010). The No-Miracles Argument for Realism: Inference to an Unacceptable Explanation. Philosophy of Science.

Iranzo, V. (2007). Abduction and Inference to the Best Explanation. Theoria.

Kitcher, P. (1993). The Advancement of Science: Science Without Legend, Objectivity without Illusions. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Kuhn, T.S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lipton, P (2004). Inference to the Best Explanation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Long Luong. 2013. 7 – 4 – Part Four – Scientific Realism and the No Miracles Argument (0331). [Online]. [14/03/14]. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OV-JiSAPqfQ.

Long Luong. 2013. 7 – 5 – Part Five – Scientific Anti-Realism Constructive Empiricism (0726). [Online]. [14/03/14]. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLUnwOo-ygE.

Monton, B. & Mohler, C. (2014). Constructive Empiricism. Available: plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/constructive-empiricism/. Last accessed 12/03/14.

Musgrave, A. (1988). The Ultimate Argument for Scientific Realism. In: Nola, R. Relativism and Realism in Sciences. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Putnam, H. (1975). Mathematics, Matter and Method. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richardson, A.W. (1998). Carnap’s Construction of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosen, G. (1994). What is Constructive Empiricism?. Philosophical Studies.

Sellars, W. (1962). Science, Perception and Reality. New York: Humanities Press.

Van Fraassen, B. (2001). Constructive Empiricism Now. Philosophical Studies.

Van Fraassen, B. (1989). Laws and Symmetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Fraassen, B. (1980). The Scientific Image. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Musing: Is Rule Utilitarianism Preferable to Act Utilitarianism?

Holly Morgan
University of Oxford


Utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory which states that the morally right action is the one that maximises the balance of happiness over suffering. However, ‘action’ can be interpreted in two different ways: (i) a unique action in a given circumstance; (ii) a type of action, such as ‘lying.’ (i) produces act utilitarianism and (ii) produces rule utilitarianism.

Much confusion could be generated if we did not also distinguish between two types of act utilitarianism and two corresponding types of rule utilitarianism. Normative act utilitarianism (hereinafter denoted by AU-N) is the doctrine that the right action is the one that produces the most happiness in that particular situation, while normative rule utilitarianism (hereinafter denoted by RU-N) holds that the right action is the one which conforms to a rule which, if followed generally, would maximise happiness. Practical act utilitarianism (hereinafter denoted by AU-P), on the other hand, is a decision procedure whereby the agent is required to weigh up the predicted consequences of each and every moral act that he performs and to perform the action that seems to produce the most happiness overall in that given situation. Practical rule utilitarianism (hereinafter denoted by RU-P) is a decision procedure whereby the agent is required to judge each possible act by virtue of the consequences that that type of act tends to produce; thus, the act of murder is always the wrong action by the standards of RU-P because murder usually produces more unhappiness than happiness. RU-P states that we should follow those rules (such as ‘do not murder’) that contribute the most to happiness in the long run – the consequence of the rule being in place should be more happiness than if the rule wasn’t in place. These rules are learnt through experience and established and developed by society throughout history and they must be followed even on an occasion where good consequences would best be promoted by breaking the rule. Blackburn (2008) compares RU-P to a referee enforcing rules and not worrying about the particular consequences in that case, because he knows that generally the rules are good.

But which is preferable, act utilitarianism or rule utilitarianism? Unsurprisingly, I shall argue that neither single-level act utilitarianism (AU-N plus AU-P) nor single-level rule utilitarianism (RU-N plus RU-P) is preferable, but that elements of both need to be combined in order to produce the best outcome. Moreover, a split-level approach (AU-N plus RU-P, or RU-N plus AU-P is not enough – a more complex, multi-level approach is needed.

RU-N seems to have arisen in response to criticisms against AU-N, such as that AU-N fails to recognise the intrinsic value of enforcing justice, protecting the innocent and minorities and keeping promises; the moral force of these actions, it is argued, is not wholly reducible to the happiness/unhappiness balance. Is RU-N, then, a sensible modification or an ad hoc defence mechanism? It seems the latter, since there appears to be no rational grounding for the modification other than our basic initial intuitions in particular circumstances and this leads to superstitious ‘rule-worship’. As Smart says (as referenced in Rachels 1995), so what if RU-N better maps our intuitions? It is also widely-known that the human brain is incapable of comprehending large numbers, and so we naturally underestimate the total positive effects of breaking a rule, when this is the sum of many small positive effects. For example, we intuitively think that an innocent man should not be hung in order to make the public feel safer, no matter how many people are made happier as a result, but this is because our minds cannot properly grasp the scale of the happiness produced in total. RU-N should not really even be called ‘utilitarianism’, since the fundamental criterion of maximisation subordinated to our intuitions.

So AU-N seems the correct position. However, AU-P is not an ideal decision procedure, since the calculations are themselves an action, and lengthy calculation can often waste precious time and thus decrease the utility of an agent’s response to a situation. RU-P, then, appears superior.

But we can go one step better. Hare suggests a ‘two-level’ system in reference to decision procedures, whereby we follow RU-P unless the situation is complicated and it is not clear which rule to abide by because, for example, there is more than one rule that is considered to maximise utility. In these situations, we should resort to AU-P. In reference to Williams’ ‘Jim and the Indians’ thought-experiment, Hare claims that this two-level system explains both why Jim should feel repugnance at shooting the Indian and why he ought, nevertheless, to do it.

Sidgwick proposes a similar system with regard to decision procedures, which he calls ‘government-house utilitarianism.’ Under this system, a collection of intelligent and educated people follow AU-P and they rule over the rest of the people, who follow RU-P.

Both Hare’s and Sidgwick’s systems are multi-level systems with the following format: AU-N plus RU-P, but sometimes AU-P; in other words, act utilitarianism is the correct normative description of ethics and in practice we should follow utilitarian ‘rules of thumb’ unless it seems worth calculating the consequences of our actions. Both systems seem plausible and either way, it is clear that neither rule utilitarianism nor act utilitarianism is preferable in itself, but that a combination of both is necessary.

Kant’s Account of Beauty: An Assessment

Alexander Gatherer
Cardiff University


Kant’s first two ‘Critiques,’ The Critique of Pure Reason (1981) and The Critique of Practical Reason (1988) helped secure his place as the cornerstone of modern Western philosophy. However, the two did face a serious issue. The former looks into the debate of epistemology, and gives birth to his renowned theory of the phenomenal world (that which appears to us) and the normative one (that which actually is), and he appears to us to believe the world to be causally determined. His second Critique, on the other hand, looks at ethics, and gives rise to his ideas of categorical imperatives and the Kingdom of Ends (how people should be treated as intrinsically valuable rather than as means to an individual end). It seems complex to bridge the gap between causal determinism and a firm ethical standpoint, for how can ethics be relevant in a causally determined world? It is this which Kant seeks to answer in The Critique of Judgement (1990), and what ultimately leads him to his discussion of art and the concept of beauty. It is in this discussion that he comes to the notion that ‘beauty is the form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from the representation of an end.’ In this essay I shall examine the meaning of the quote, as well as its relevance to bridging the gap between Kant’s scientific ideas and his ethical ideals. I will then go on to evaluate the quote’s adequacy as an account of beauty, concluding that while it is a robust concept of beauty and art, the questions that follow from it render it, at best incomplete.

Kant discusses how we tend to look at the world teleological way. When we look at something, such as a hammer, we look at how it is designed to fulfil a particular end, and judge it based on how efficient its design is. However, this is not always the situation when we consider items we deem to be beautiful. When, for example we look at a flower, whilst scientists may regard it from the point of view of its purpose of attracting insects and consequent pollination, many will simply appreciate its design simply because of the design itself, which we deem to be ‘beautiful’. The same can be said of a well-constructed painting. When the lines and colours are put together in a pleasing way we deem the painting ‘beautiful,’ even though we cannot pinpoint exactly why the painting is beautiful or why it has the value we place upon it. This leads Kant to suppose that art is ‘purposefulness without a purpose.’ It seems that we judge the art in a teleological way (based on its design), such as the science discussed in The Critique of Pure Reason, but not in a way that requires it to achieve any ends, which harks back to the Kingdom of Ends discussed in The Critique of Practical Reason, where Kant states we should respect other human beings for their intrinsic value, and ends within themselves, rather than means. We can therefore see how this conception of art can help bridge the gap between Kant’s first two critiques.

It is the notion of purposefulness without a purpose which stirs Kant to claim ‘beauty is the form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from the representation of an end.’ So, as discussed above, Kant is claiming that art should be respected for its intrinsic value, and has no purpose other than to be art. He is resolute in distinguishing art from craft, for when one crafts something for a specific purpose, one instantly judges it on its ability to serve that purpose, rather than its own beauty, and therefore, he believes, it cannot be classified as art. He is also eager to distinguish art from entertainment, claiming that the latter is merely agreeable, with the former providing pleasure simply from viewing it.

Several interesting questions arise from this concept of art. Many items, it could be claimed without too much controversy, could be viewed as both beautiful as well as practical, such as ornate china plates. One particularly interesting example is that of propaganda: art with the specific purpose of conveying political ideals and coercing others into adopting similar values. Such a specific purpose clearly implies that Kant would consider propaganda paintings, film etc. to be craft, rather than art. This perhaps seems peculiar, as many would be tempted to argue that paintings that show artistic skill are art. Indeed, Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, has been frequently cited by critics as one of the best films of all time, due to its innovative lighting and cinematography. Aside from propaganda, we can look at the paintings of Thomas Jones, which varied from the ‘mainstream’ landscapes that were painted to be commercial, and the paintings of more unusual scenes, such as those focusing on unremarkable brick buildings (‘Building in Naples’). Surely Kant would only deem the latter of these art, for they were painted just for the sake of being painted, whereas the former were painted for the purpose of profit, thus could not be considered to be art?

Kant attempts to circumvent this issue by bringing in the matter of ‘dependent beauty.’ This is distinguished from the kind of free beauty already considered, that with which the object has no easily identified, specific purpose, whereas dependent beauty ‘presuppose(s) such a concept [of what an object should be] and, with it, an answering perfection of the object.’ So under this conception, perhaps the propaganda as listed above could be considered to have dependent beauty, even if it lacks the free beauty that Kant holds in higher esteem. However I still consider this problematic. Kant fails to give us a defined rule as to what can or can’t have dependent beauty (for example, could an intricately carved hammer be considered art, even if its carving were designed for practicality?). Furthermore, Kant’s assertion that flowers have free beauty is confusing, as we have already seen that these do indeed have a specific purpose in nature, the colour and scent attract insects, and therefore beauty and purpose are inextricably related. Kant explains this by saying that only botanists would be interested in or observant of such a purpose. However, this, in my opinion, doesn’t align with Kant’s overall concept of beauty, in which he claims ‘that which, apart from a concept, pleases universally’. If beauty is universal, then why do most see the free beauty in a flower whereas a botanist would only be capable of admiring its dependent beauty, bound as it is by its need to be efficient at fulfilling the task it was designed for?  These notions call into question the adequacy of Kant’s account of beauty.

Closely related to Kant’s conception of purposefulness without purpose is his proposal that art must be ‘disinterested’ that is when examining art, we expect no additional desire or benefit from it other than that of the natural pleasure art provides. For example, one may look at a painting of a forest and think of how much money the various woods or land could make. Clearly, this is not a disinterested standpoint, and to see the art’s beauty, one must instead look at the painting in a ‘merely contemplative’ fashion. This notion, too, conjures several issues, as pointed out by Cooper. He refers to Bell’s concern that to have the kind of ‘pure aesthetic experience’ that Kant seems to reason as proper, we must examine a piece of artwork as though ‘it were not representative of anything’, as well as having ‘no concern for content and meaning’, as it can easily be argued that such values contradict the kind of disinterest that Kant is asking of us, even if our interest is only that of viewing a sensible landscape. This is quite clearly an issue with many paintings and novels, both of which generally strive to resemble reality in some way. Under Kant’s conception, it seems that such artwork cannot be considered beautiful, at least by the majority. Similarly, Cooper claims that, according to Kant’s conception, ‘art should not aim to be expressive of emotion.’ Again, this would require that the audience have a certain interest in the painting, or that the artist is seeking to convey such an emotion, both of which deviate from Kant’s conception of disinterest, a problem with many modern works of art which quite clearly convey and evoke emotions for many people.

It is possible to imagine certain arguments that Kant may have put across in response to these criticisms, such as, Cooper imagines, stating that ‘the feeling of the sublime – itself an aesthetic one – is an ‘outflow of vital powers’ and may be ‘regarded as emotion’. While I find this argument weak to being with (for it seems that much art raises specifically identifiable emotions in people, which don’t appear to be confused with the ‘outflow of vital powers’), Kant’s desired disinterest and ‘indifference to its objects’ actual existence’ is perhaps the more pressing flaw. This is because, while examining a cathedral, for example, one may admire its masterly crafted architecture, its inner peacefulness, or its age-old stone. Clearly, were one to find out that this is in fact a cardboard replica, the admiration for such things, and their perceived beauty, would vanish. It therefore seems that Kant’s idea of disinterestedness when examining art is, at best, incomplete, and must be adjusted if we are to continue to consider his conception of art.

Cooper suggests, and I believe somewhat effectively, that rather than ‘disinterestedly’, a more effective  way to consider art and its beauty would be through examining ‘an object ‘for its own sake.’ This would seemingly fall in line with Kant’s idea that we shouldn’t look for  material benefits from a piece of art, or what practical use we can gain from it, while at the same time permitting us to still consider representation and emotion as plausible, and arguably crucial, components of various works of art. I don’t believe this to be a complete explanation of how we should view art, for it still remains questionable as to where my interest in the object ‘for its own sake’ becomes a kind of interest that Kant would disapprove of such as in the case of propaganda – surely we can appreciate the art for its own sake while simultaneously appreciating its effectiveness in conveying certain political ideals. However, it does demonstrate how Kant’s theory can be edited to perhaps make a more robust conception of beauty.

To conclude, Kant’s conception that ‘beauty is the form of finality in an object’ conjures an interesting take on the value of art, and how it should be evaluated. Perhaps in times, when one could argue there was less pressure for art to be commercially successful or fulfil a given purpose such as in the case of propaganda, this would be an effective way to evaluate an objects beauty. However, in modern times, when art is so varied and with so many different purposes and forms, it seems as though we cannot conclusively claim that only objects with purposefulness without a purpose are the only beautiful things, and I believe that this is what causes Kant’s conception of beauty to be inadequate.

Does Aquinas or Scotus Succeed in Proving that the Soul is Immaterial?

Gill Prestidge
University of St Andrews


In this essay I am going to be arguing that Aquinas does not succeed in proving that the soul is immaterial, on the grounds that his argument results in two positions which cannot coexist, however both he and Scotus do give us a good reason to think that it might be, as several of their key premises are difficult to refute. Scholastic thought in the area of the philosophy of mind began with Aristotle and involves talk of souls rather than minds, but the soul encompasses an intellectual power (possessed only by humans), a sensitive and locomotive power (possessed by humans and animals) and a nutritive power (possessed by humans, animals and plants). Nowadays, we would probably say that these powers are the operations of the mind and brain, and scarcely mention the soul. However, our concern here is less the semantics, but the nature of the soul or mind and so I will use the term soul just as the scholastics and Aristotle do to avoid confusion.

Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy of mind is an attempt to reconcile the teaching of Aristotle with that of Christian doctrine, and therefore philosophy with theology; the primary concern being Aristotle’s non-reductive physicalism and the Christian teaching of the afterlife, for which St. Paul and Augustine are the authorities. Aristotle’s main point is that the soul is the form of the body; ‘form’ in the sense of the configuration of elements that something is composed of. He believed that the soul was this configuration and this left him with some form of non-reductive physicalism; non-reductive because, although the mind and body are not separable, they are not identical either, and physicalism because the soul is the brain’s and nervous system’s set of capacities and they are therefore inseparable. As all this is physical, there is no problem with assigning these capacities to organs in the body, but Aristotle decides that he cannot do this with the thinking aspect of the soul; there is no organ which it links to. He holds onto this belief due to a commitment to the idea that the configuration (the concept) of an object is in the mind, but the object itself is not.

However, this presents him with a tension and results in a form of dualism, whereby the intellect is formless and therefore not blended with the body, making it only a potentiality. He attempts to solve this problem by pertaining to the possibility of two different intellects: an active and a passive. The passive is where forms reside and is inseparable from the body, whereas the active (that by which we do our thinking) is separable; the active intellect depends upon the passive and so some of the intellect is immaterial and some is not.

It is from here that Aquinas begins his work. Christian doctrine teaches us that there is an afterlife and a resurrection of the body and Aristotle argues that the agent intellect is a part of the soul which survives death, for it is separable from the body. The problem is that Christian doctrine does not give us a reason to believe in substance dualism. We see this in St Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi:

But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Saviour. He will take these weak mortal bodies of ours and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same mighty power that he will use to conquer everything, everywhere.

The problem for Aquinas is that his Christian beliefs lead him towards favouring physicalism, but he also supports Aristotle who takes something of a substance dualist line; he then has to find a way of linking Christian doctrine to dualism if he is to hold onto both. As it is personal immortality that Aquinas wishes to account for, it makes sense for him to argue that the agent intellect (which we saw in Aristotle) does survive death. This agent intellect is not the human person though, for it is incorporeal and immortal, so he has not yet established personal immortality, but has cleared the way for some kind of dualism.

In Summa Theologiae, 75 ad 2, Aquinas sets out to prove that the human soul is incorporeal and subsistent, amongst other things. This is our concern as it brings out his conclusion that the soul is immaterial also. The argument is in seven key parts, but this is not where the greatest problem is, as we shall see. Aquinas writes:

answer that, it must necessarily be allowed that the principle of intellectual operation, which we call the soul of man, is a principle both incorporeal and subsistent. For it is clear that by means of the intellect man can know all corporeal things. 

This final sentence demonstrates the first of the key points; that we understand that which our senses perceive through the intellect. That which receives this information cannot itself have anything it receives information about as part of its nature and, as all bodies have their own nature, it cannot be a body either. This covers points one to three. Four states that because of two and three, it cannot be supported by an organ and therefore, five – it has an operation which the body does not. This operation is in the intellectual principle (to use Aquinas’ language) and so it must subsist; that is, be dependent on nothing and stand alone. Aquinas now concludes seven, that the intellectual principle is both incorporeal (as shown by three) and subsistent (which we see in five and six). Subsistence for Aristotle is essentially the same as being a substance. This is not in the scientific sense of the word, but much more generally – a thing, an entity. What this means for Aquinas is that his argument is becoming dualist in nature with reference to the soul. This view of subsistence applies to a notion of strong subsistence, but Aquinas also speaks of a weak one, whereby something is a part of a substance which is itself subsistent in the stronger sense of the word. An example of a weakly subsisting thing could be a hand or foot; whilst it is a thing in and of itself, its existence is dependent on the body.

So what is the dilemma? For the soul to have its own operation, it must have a particular mode of existence; that is, as an individual or as part of an individual one. This seems to make sense as it would be nonsense to say that a property, such as colour or shape, is an object’s operation; an operation can only be an action. Aquinas now makes the leap from the soul’s having its own operation to its existing independently – this is strong subsistence. However, Aquinas then says:

Since the human soul is a part of human nature, it can be called this particular thing in the first sense, as being something subsistent; but not in the second, for in this sense the composite of the body and soul is said to be this particular thing.

We now see that he is introducing weak subsistence and attempting to argue that the soul is both weakly and strongly subsistent simultaneously. Before proceeding to the problems this presents, it is important to see why Aquinas would want to argue this. We have seen that for the soul to have its own operation it must be subsistent and this subsistence must be in the stronger sense because it alone is ‘this particular thing’. Aquinas now writes that in the second sense, that is, where things that are parts of a subsisting thing are excluded, it is not the soul that is ‘this particular thing’, but the composition of body and soul. It is this composition that he wishes to hold onto which results in the need for a weakly subsisting soul. As soon as the soul is given the label of ‘this particular thing’ – the ‘substance’ for Aristotle, the human body becomes superfluous and the unity of the human being – the encompassment of spiritual and corporeal substances – is lost. Both Aquinas and Aristotle stand for the belief that one can think of and understand an object because the object’s form resides in the intellect, but preserving the unity of the human being is inconsistent with the soul having an operation which the body does not share and this threatens the original idea that the soul is incorporeal. Aquinas endeavours to give an account of the soul as a strongly and weakly subsisting thing at the same time, which is impossible, but a loss of either would undermine his whole thesis and Aristotle’s too.

It is clear that this attempt will not work unless something is given up, but Aquinas does not offer us such a solution. John Duns Scotus, on the other hand, is not convinced by Aquinas’ argument, but does seem inclined to reach a similar conclusion. Scotus, as a fellow scholastic, is determined to prove the existence of an immaterial soul, but without making any claims devoid of reason. In chapter six of Opus Oxoniense, he states that three propositions would have to be established before we could reach the conclusion that the soul is immaterial through reason. These are (I) the intellective soul is the specific form of man, (II) the intellective soul is incorruptible and (III) the specific form of man will not remain forever outside the composite. It is the first of these propositions that concerns us here, but the third I wish to come back to, as its discussion shows Scotus’ own feelings on the matter, and Scotus himself suggests that the second cannot be proven even though there might be good reasons for it. It seems that we do know the first proposition by natural reason, but this would not fit with Aquinas’ beliefs about subsistence and the incorporeal nature of the soul. Scotus is not concerned about this, in fact he aims to show the difficulties in Aquinas’ argument and rework it at the same time.

There are several sections to Scotus’ main argument for the first proposition and it presents him with two conclusions. The first premise is that all sense knowledge is sense experience of particular things and not concepts. He then adds that human beings possess knowledge that is beyond knowledge of particulars; we have knowledge of concepts, deductions and inferences also. From here Scotus takes two paths: one to reach the conclusion that this knowledge we have over and above that of particulars is our specific form, on the grounds that this knowledge is understanding and it is what distinguishes us from the animals, and the other to show that the part of the soul which understands must be immaterial. It the second proof which we are interested in and from here, Scotus demonstrates that the knowledge we call understanding is something immaterial, but no organic knowledge can be immaterial because it is only sensed if it is received. This means that no bodily organ can be responsible for said knowledge and the part of the soul which does the receiving of this knowledge must itself be immaterial.

Scotus’ conclusion seems to follow on from his premises and create a coherent and valid argument, but how are we to take ‘immaterial’ in this sense? Scotus writes:

This word “immaterial” is frequently used by the Philosopher in this connexion, but it appears to be ambiguous. There are three relevant ways in which it can be understood. 

These three ways he goes onto explain are: (I) not linked to a bodily organ, (II) not extended and (III) abstract. He explains that the argument only works with the use of the first or second sense of immaterial, but the only one we can have surety over is the third. We need to get from this abstract notion of the immateriality of the soul to an incorporeal one. One way to do this would be to question Aristotle’s mind/world identity thesis and distinguish between the concept and its content. Both Aristotle and Aquinas assume that a concept can be inferred from its content, but it could be the case that the concept (or the intellect using it) is an accident of the brain and therefore material, but with abstract content.

However, even if this move does work there is still the difficulty mentioned above with the third of Scotus’ propositions; that is, that the specific form of man will not remain forever outside the composite. This problem is in fact one of Scotus’ own. Although he considers his conclusion to be likely, he does not think that they were absolutely conclusive; it is possible that the soul cannot exist apart from the unity of spirit and body. Scotus concludes the section on a priori proof with: ‘the conclusion, then, which follows from these three propositions is not sufficiently known a priori by natural reason.’

In conclusion, Aquinas does not succeed in proving that the soul is immaterial on the grounds that he requires the soul to have both strong and weak subsistence and the two cannot coexist. It seems too that Scotus’ criticism of Aquinas is fair as it is his almost unwavering acceptance of Aristotle which leads him to such a difficult position to maintain as Aristotle’s conclusions are just as problematic. Scotus shows us that progress can be made when the original mind/world identity thesis is abandoned, but that there is still a long way to go if pure reason is to secure such conclusions. We can see that a proof of this argument has not been achieved, but that both Aquinas and Scotus have given us reasons to think that an argument for the soul or mind as an immaterial entity should not be abandoned, but constructed differently with reference to the location of concepts.


Works Cited

Aquinas, T. (1265-1274), Summa Theologica. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1947) [online] retrieved 25th May from: http://www.ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/FP/FP075.html#FPQ75OUTP1

Aristotle (ca. 350 BC), De Anima. Translated by Smith, J. [online] retrieved 23rd May from: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Aristotle/De-anima/de-anima2.htm

Holy Bible, New Living Translation, (Published in 1996), United States: Tyndale House Publishers

Scotus, J., Philosophical Writings. Translated by Wolter, A. (1987), Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company