Soul Reflections: Apes, Anthropology, and Aristotle
The quest to know who we are cannot be separated from the quest to know who we were. Not only is this true for the human race as a whole, but also on the personal existential level. We all have a story of who we once were, and the better we know and tell it, the more we can say about who we are now. My personal past history and present identity form a unity, which is necessarily related to the unity formed by the past history and present identity of the race as a whole. The empirical narrative for the latter is complex indeed, with paleontologists, anthropologists, geologists, biologists, and most recently, geneticists, all in on the discussion. But no mere empirical narrative is able to capture all the depth of either an individual life or of the life of the race as a whole. This is not to say that the rational accounts fare much better. For more depth, philosophers must be seated at the table; but here, too, even after the most enlightened and scientifically informed philosophers from both the empirical and rational traditions have had their say, we are still dealing with what will always be, perhaps, one of the greatest human mysteries: the mystery of human origins. But as great as the mystery is, we are compelled to investigate it in the hope that we just might gain more insight into why, indeed, “we have become a question to ourselves,”1 and perhaps go on in this twenty-first century to live better lives than we did in the previous one.
The twentieth century, in fact, is a good place to begin the present investigation, since, in addition to the two world wars, it will also be remembered for two great scientific revolutions, both of which are directly relevant to the themes in this paper: the revolution in physics that marks roughly the fist half of the century, and the revolution in genetics, which marks roughly the second half. Both have had philosophical implications ranging from the absurd and the ugly to the profound and the beautiful. Not least among these implications with respect to the revolution in physics, and weighing in on the side of the profound and the beautiful, is the new insight into the nature of matter. One crucial philosophical result of this revolution is the revival of Aristotle’s conception of matter as potency. And as no Aristotelian doctrine of matter can be accepted without also appropriating, to some degree, his doctrine of form, the age old question of the soul is again back on the table—with only a few brave anthropologists willing to take it up. Thus enter the second scientific revolution, which culminated towards the end of the century when scientists specified the entire DNA sequence for the virus phiX 174 in 1980 and, of course, with teams of molecular biologists from the U.S. and Europe completing the first map of the entire human genome some twenty years later.
Just as the revolution in physics immediately spawned superficial and hasty conclusions in philosophy, only to be gradually overcome by more profound and thorough insights, such as the one that is reviving Aristotle’s conception of matter as potency, the genetic revolution seems to be following course. The immediate and still dominant philosophical fallout usually revolves around one particular stunning fact, which was discovered in the early days of the revolution, but confirmed and specified in an unprecedented way only in 1997, namely, that 98.4 per cent of the genetic material of chimpanzees is the same as the genetic material of human beings. We are genetically so close, in fact, that some taxonomists justifiably speak of humans and chimps, along with gorillas, as sibling species. One superficial conclusion was predictable enough, as scientists and even philosophers hastily and categorically excluded once and for all, so they thought, any talk of a human soul, or of any soul for that matter. Of course, the attempt to preclude serious discussions of soul and form from philosophy has antecedents, going as far back as the thirteenth century, with William of Ockham’s Nominalism, but armed with the new genetic facts, some philosophers today, following certain outspoken anthropologists, claim they now have hard evidence that any discussion of soul or form is simply unscientific. As time passes, however, and reflection deepens, the tides are beginning to turn, and just as with the revolution in physics, some of the really important insights began to emerge, somewhat surprisingly, from the physicists themselves, so, too, the deeper philosophical implications have begun to emerge from some of the anthropologists themselves. Chief, perhaps, among these bright anthropological lights, comes the work of RenÈ Girard, who brings to the discussion not only his expert knowledge of Cultural Anthropology, but also his proficiency in the disciplines of Psychoanalysis, Literary Criticism and Scriptural Exegesis. His transdisciplinary approach to the mystery of human origins produces a rich and sophisticated linguistic apparatus that sheds light on, among other things, traditional Aristotelian accounts of the soul. In the light of the work of anthropologists like Girard, and while mustering up support from philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein, the present reflections probe the nature of the new anthropological insights generated by the genetic revolution and specify how these new scientific insights may be able to sustain a revival of Aristotelian accounts of form—analogous to the way the revolution in physics has so far sustained a revival of Aristotle’s account of matter.
As the original insight for this paper came by way of this analogy, and because Aristotle’s account of form and soul is unintelligible without his doctrine of matter, it is necessary to briefly review Aristotle’s account of matter and some of the ways in which twentieth century physics has helped to recover it. First and foremost, it is imperative to understand here that none of the ancients, whether their worldviews were purely mythological, mytho-philosophical (Thales and company) or purely philosophical (Aristotelian), made the kind of hard and fast distinction between transcendence and immanence that so many of us naturally make today, and which translates into other key distinctions that determine significantly both the way in which we think and live: spirit and matter, objectivity and subjectivity, soul and body, and also the distinction between ourselves and the natural world in its entirety.2 Even the claim that someone like Democritus was a materialist needs to be qualified in the light of this point, for to read positivistic nuances into his account of soul is to misinterpret him. When Democritus says that soul is “a sort of fire or hot substance,”3 we must pay attention to the analogy, which is even more explicit, for instance, when he compares the spherical atoms, which he identifies with soul, to the “motes in the air which we see in shafts of light coming through windows.”4 We must also pay close attention to a fundamental question with which philosophers from Thales to Aristotle were occupied: the question concerning the nature of the ultimate substrate that was the origin of all observable reality in the physical world. Whereas it may very well be true that Thales initiated a new way of thinking when he approached this question without directly making reference to the myths and their gods,5 it would be wrong to interpret him as in any way rejecting them. Democritus, himself, as Aristotle tells us, commends Homer and his pregnant phrase ‘Hector lay with thought distraught’ because it rightly shows that what appears (soul) is identified with what is true (mind).6 While scholars may continue to argue about how this should be interpreted, I would point to the bigger and perhaps more important question of why a materialist would be praising the thought of someone like Homer in the first place.7 At any rate, the point is that to appreciate properly Aristotle’s account of matter, it is imperative to keep in mind that, in spite of the significant differences between his system and the thought of the Presocratics before him,8 they were all playing a similar philosophical game, according to similar philosophical rules, that had mystical undertones, on a similar philosophical field. The playing field, if not the game itself, will only be substantially altered nearly two thousand years later when RenÈ Descartes gives birth to what is rightly described as modern philosophy;9 this is the beginning of the reduction of the philosophical enterprise to a mere academic discipline, indifferent or openly hostile to any form of mysticism (wherein epistemology has pride of place), and disconnected from teaching people the art of how to live and how to die.10 Aristotle believed, however, like most of the sages of the ancient and early medieval world, that his doctrines (including his doctrines of matter and form), really did “matter” when it came to teaching people the art of how to be authentically human. And now to the “matter” at hand: Aristotle’s doctrine of matter, and why it matters. The crucial passage is the following one from his book, the Metaphysics:
By matter I mean that which in itself is neither a particular thing nor of a certain quality nor assigned to any other of the categories by which being is determined. For there is something of which each of these is predicated, whose being is different from that of each of the predicates (for the predicates other than substance are predicated of substance, while substance is predicated of matter). Therefore, the ultimate substratum is of itself neither a particular thing nor of a particular quantity nor otherwise positively characterized; nor yet is it the negations of these, for negations also will belong to it only by accident.11
The exegesis of this passage is demanding because the linguistic apparatus employed is so rich and intricate. But once sorted out, the insights are quite simple, and I would say, refreshing, perhaps even common-sensical,12 which is one reason why they not only continue to hold out against the most advanced scientific theories twenty-five hundred years later, but are even being used in new ways by the cutting-edge natural scientists themselves. What follows is a brief definition of the key terms, which I have italicized in the passage, and in the following helpful order to facilitate the exegesis: category, substance, being, accident, quality, quantity, substratum, and the very first and most important term of the passage, but which we will save for last, matter. This achieved, it will be easier to see why important contemporary physicists, as they discover it, are so attracted to it, and ultimately to see how all of this is connected to the central purpose of the present investigation: rediscovering Aristotle’s doctrine of form and soul in the context of contemporary genetics.
The term category (katÍgoria) refers in Aristotle to a list of the ten kinds of things that exist.13 If Heidegger’s fundamental metaphysical question is “Why does anything exist rather than nothing?” Aristotle’s most fundamental metaphysical question is “What does exist?” Though it is common to refer to Aristotle’s “list” of categories, with substance as the first entry, and passion or affection as the tenth, to do so is misleading since the term “list” has hierarchical implications, which, at one basic level, Aristotle wants to avoid. He insists that substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, date or time, posture or position, state, action, and passion or affection are all equally the highest kinds of things. The nature of this equality resides in the fact that each of the ten categories responds to fundamentally distinct questions about the same ultimate question, “What is there?” A further indication of this equality is the fact that in each of the ten categories, there is the same kind of hierarchical relation between what we may call ‘high’ and ‘low’ level universals and between low level universals and particulars. He states in the Categories:
When one thing is predicated of another, all that which is predicated of the predicate will be predicable also of the subject. Thus, ‘man’ is predicated of the individual man; but ‘animal’ is predicated of ‘man’; it will, therefore, be predicable of the individual man also: for the individual man is both ‘man’ and ‘animal’.14
Whereas in this passage, Aristotle is giving an example that applies to the first of the ten categories, substance, he makes it clear that the same relation between universals and universals and between universals and particulars holds equally true in all of the other nine categories. In the category of quantity, for instance, the genus ‘number’ can be said of the species ‘six’, and both ‘number’ (high level universals) and ‘six’ (lower level universals) can be said of even lower level, more particular universals: five, six, and seven. And these lower level universals can be said of a variety of particular things, that still, nonetheless, have a certain universal character as when we say ‘six’ chimps are more than ‘five’ gorillas, but less than ‘seven’ men. The point here is that the same hierarchy of universals and particulars is present equally in each of the ten categories. Only when we see that all ten categories are equally the highest and most general categories into which all entities that exist can be grouped and divided, is it then possible to appreciate fully the special status of substance and the hierarchy it has with respect to the other nine categories. There will be an opportunity in the conclusion of this paper to state another reason why this point about equal hierarchies in the categories is important, but for now the point is, again, to increase our awareness of the special status of the next key term: substance.
The term substance (ousia) for Aristotle is the first of the ten categories and is divided into primary and secondary substances. Primary refers to “that which is neither predicable of a subject nor present in a subject; for instance, the individual man. . .”15 Secondary substance refers to the species and the genus of the individual; in this case, then, the species, man, and the genus, animal. Aristotle described three types of primary substance: sensible and perishable; sensible and nonperishable (eternal) and non-sensible and eternal. The work of coming to know the first two types is the task of the science of physics, for Aristotle, while “first philosophy” or “theology” or simply the science of “wisdom” (sophia) seeks knowledge of the third type. Although the ten categories are all equally the highest kinds of things, for the reasons already discussed, it is nevertheless the case that a particular type of hierarchy emerges in the relation primary substances have to the secondary substances and to the other nine categories: As Aristotle puts it: “Thus everything except primary substances is either predicated of primary substances, or is present in them, and if these last did not exist, it would be impossible for anything else to exist.”16 This specific type of hierarchy, however, is not to be confused with the hierarchy that operates in all of the categories equally. This latter is actually the reverse of the former: for in the latter the most general, i.e., genus, occupies the highest place (high-level universals) and the particular things occupy the lowest place. Aristotle’s use of the term ‘exist’ in the above quote is the key to understanding the difference in these two types of hierarchies, since for him the most basic meaning of the term substance can be captured by speaking of it as “the support of” that which exists in particular ways, that is to say, in the other nine categories. The Greek term ousia (ουσια), in fact, is the abstract form of the present feminine participle ousa (ουσα) of the verb “to be”, which sheds considerable light on the meaning of the term being, which is the next key term to consider as we continue theexegesis of the main passage in question.
Tracing Aristotle’s attempt to define the term being (on) is very much like watching the great modern philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, attempting to define number or game. Both philosophers noticed that certain terms just cannot be defined in the ordinary sense of listing the common, essential characteristics. Aristotle recognized that the term being applied not only to primary and secondary substances, but to everything else in the other nine categories. The problem he faced was that he could not really say what the common, essential characteristics of being were when the term was applied to the entities in the different categories. He finally concluded that all one could do was to disclose how the several uses of the term being, when applied to all ten categories,were related. Thus, he used the following analogy: “Just as “healthy” is applied primarily to a man and secondarily to his diet (as a cause of health) and complexion (as a sign of health), so “being” is applied primarily to things or substances and secondarily or derivatively to (for example) colors (as qualities of things) and numbers (as quantitative measures of things). In neither case is the term applied because of a feature common to those and only those things coming under it.” 17 In the light of this, then, and to return to the basic meaning of substance, we may consider the proposition “the horse is running” and point out that the horse is the substance that “supports” the “running”. The latter cannot exist without the former, but the former can and does exist without the latter, thus the hierarchy between primary substance and the other categories.
The next three terms, accident (sumbebÍkos), quality (poion), and quantity (poson) can be dealt with briefly and altogether since only a general understanding of their basic meanings is necessary in order to fully comprehend the main passage defining matter under consideration. The term accident can simply be seen as referring to that which substance “supports”. Grammatically speaking, nouns correspond to substances, and adjectives and participles correspond to accidents. In general, quality and quantity, along with the other seven categories can be referred to as the “accidents” of “substances”.
The final term to ponder before considering the term matter itself is substratum. The main works to be investigated here are the four books that encompass Aristotle’s natural philosophy, and chief among them is the Physics. Reviewing, in the first book, the work of his predecessors he points out that while searching for the primary conditions or first principles or the simplest elements of Nature, most of them understood that these principles must be two in number, and opposed to one another in the way that the solid and the void, or rarity and density, are opposed. This particular kind of opposition was to be distinguished from contradictory opposition. Speaking in the language of propositions, contrary opposition refers to a certain kind of relation which excludes universal affirmative and universal negative propositions from both being true at the same time, though it would allow these propositions to both be false simultaneously. For particular affirmative and negative propositions, the reverse would hold: ‘some p are q’ and ‘some p are not q’ could both be true at the same time, but they could not both be false simultaneously. The relation governing contradictory opposition, however, determines that two propositions cannot both be true and that they cannot both be false simultaneously. Thus, the relation between universal affirmative and particular negative propositions, and between particular affirmative and universal negative propositions constitutes contradictory opposition. For Aristotle, since language follows thought, and thought follows reality, the relations between propositions give us true insights into the real world of existing things. So when the Presocratics in their investigation of the first principles of Nature speak of the opposition between solid and void or between rare and dense, they are speaking of contraries, not contradictories. Aristotle agrees with the Presocratics on this point, but insists that since they are contraries, there must be a third principle or substance that allows the two contraries to act upon one another. If no such third principle or substance existed, in addition to the “two” contraries in question, then it would be possible for the contraries to both be ‘false’ (non-existent) at the same time, which would exclude the possibility of change. And as one of the principle problems for the Presocratics was indeed the problem of change, with its corollary problem of the one and the many, some of them tried to account for change (as when wood becomes fire) by identifying the one common element present in each, that would allow the change to take place. Thales, for instance, represented this ‘one’ common element as ‘water’. Other represented it with ‘air’ or ‘fire’. But most of the natural philosophers settled upon different pairs of contraries, which translates into ‘two’ given first principles for any one particular change. Aristotle, however, introduced a third principle or substance, called substratum, which, in effect, provides the contraries with some substance upon which to act. He insisted on three principles for any given change wherein matter consists of the substratum, form consists of the actual change that takes place, and privation as part of the process assumed by the change itself. Aristotle explains the mode of change by saying that, as the substratum itself is composed of the two contrary components, it is what allows the two to interact—resulting in one of the contraries replacing its opposite through privation, and enduring as form.
The obscurity I have created here by introducing the term form before completing my stated method of first analyzing the definition of matter is difficult to avoid as the linguistic apparatus is so intricate and complex, but as the ultimate purpose is to eventually arrive at an understanding of form and finally soul in Aristotle, it is appropriate to at least introduce the term here in this context. Moreover, the key terms involved in the exposition of the terms form and soul are basically the key terms involved in the present exegesis. What comes now is a final look at matter followed by a brief investigation into the reasons why contemporary physicists are so attracted to it.
The term matter (hulÍ), as must be evident by now, is rich and complex in Aristotle’s linguistic apparatus. When we return to the definition in the Metaphysics quoted above and read “By matter I mean that which in itself is neither a particular thing nor of a certain quality nor assigned to any other of the categories by which being is determined,” we see that he is speaking here only of what matter is not, and is not saying anything about what it is. And this is the proper place to begin. Having gone through all the key terms in the proper order, it is clear now to see what matter is not, but it still remains to investigate what it is. This is problematic because Aristotle argued in the Categories, as stated above in the treatment of the term category, that the ten categories capture all the different kinds of things that exist. But now he clearly states that matter cannot be assigned to any of the ten categories. But if being (or to be) is determined by the ten categories, and matter is not “in” any of the ten categories, then in what sense can we say that it even exists? The above definition stating what matter is not appears in Book Seven of the Metaphysics, but in Book Nine we finally get an analysis of what matter is, and the key term that Aristotle uses to explain what it is. The brief treatment of the term substratum above hinted at what this key term is, but without naming it as such. The word, of course, is a very potent and even, intoxicating, one: the term is potency.
Aristotle’s first point while defining potency at the very beginning of Book Nine also provides the beginning of a solution to the problem of matter’s ‘existence’, as he immediately clarifies the way in which being is divided: “. . .‘being’ is in one way divided into individual thing (substance), quality, and quantity, (etc.), and is in another way distinguished in respect of potency and complete reality. . .”18 The expression ‘complete reality’ must be understood in the light of the expression ‘in itself’ in the sentence “By matter I mean that which in itself is neither a particular thing nor of a certain quality nor assigned to any other of the categories by which being is determined.” In other words, although matter is not being in the sense of ‘complete reality’, as in belonging to one of the ten categories, it is not the case that it is nothing at all either, since nothing is nothing. Thus being can also be said ‘to be’ with respect to ‘having the potential to be’ complete reality—a kind of halfway house between nothing at all and something. Thus, ‘in itself’ matter is not substance, or any of the other categories. Its ‘isness’ or being can only be spoken of as the ‘potential’ to become substance. Aristotle had good reason for this line of argumentation because in wrestling with the same problem of change that all of the other Presocratics wrestled with, he rightly detected that all previous explanations were deficient. Even in his own master’s system, he sensed deficiency. He was struck, as all before him were, of the great mystery involved in something as simple as wood becoming fire and then ash, or bread and wine, when digested, becoming flesh and blood. How could one thing become another thing without a common element present in both things to account for the change, they wondered? Some of the Presocratics refused to say that one particular thing could really become another thing, and concluded that all things are essentially the same once we can see beneath the ‘superficial’ change we observe on the surface. Others claimed that when wood becomes fire and then ash, for example, the wood is completely destroyed and something else begins to exist. For Aristotle, both accounts were problematic: the former denied the reality of radical change wherein one thing truly becomes another thing, and the latter could not account for the obvious continuity, or point of contact between any two things, that allowed for an interaction as intimate as the ones we observe, since one of the things involved in the process of change was totally destroyed.
We have seen above that Aristotle suggested a third principle or substance, the substratum, to account for change, and then identified it with matter. Now we see that this identification of matter as substance (something that exists) can only be made in a qualified way. The qualification itself, captures what Aristotle means by potency. Potency could account for both the underlying continuity and for the radical and real change in substance. In other words, and to return to our example of wood becoming fire and then ash, the principle of change (or cause of the change) after the change has occurred, cannot be accounted for in either the wood or the ash because the wood is significantly altered and cannot be said to be what it was before, and the ash is the effect of the change, certainly not the cause of it. What about the fire, in this particular example? Heraclitus’ choice of ‘fire’ to capture the ‘mystery’ involved in the reality of change still remains a mystery to us today, but his thought is probably not as far away from the thought of Plato and Aristotle as it is traditionally thought to be.19 At any rate, even if ‘fire’ could act as a metaphor here to capture the mystery of the interaction between two substances when one of these substances becomes another substance, there is still a need for a more technical and systematic explanation. Aristotle’s choice of the word potency, however, with all of its intoxicating connotations, is strikingly reminiscent of all the exhilarating nuances contained in Heraclitus’s fire. The key difference, of course, is that we actually see ‘fire’ over and above the wood as it turns to ash; and when the wood disappears, we no longer see the fire at all. But the underlying thing or principle of continuity is just that, under-lying: sub-stratum—a power—not seen—but always present—waiting to explode into complete being—to allow all else to be seen—not nothing—but not some ‘thing’ in itself—yet providing for the ‘thing-ness’ of all things—a non-material matter—an ultimate substrate—a prime matter—“an abstract latency that is modified according to an infinite variety of natural conditions.”20
It will be necessary to return to Book Nine of the Metaphysics and to Aristotle’s account of potency when we treat directly his account of actuality, which is crucial to his doctrines of form and soul, but it is now time to investigate some of the reasons why great physicists of the last and the present century were (are) attracted to Aristotle’s account of prime matter as infinite flexibility and unlimited suppleness. Forty-four years ago at a public lecture in Greece, Werner Heisenberg stated:
If I endeavor today to take up some of the old problems concerning the structure of matter and the concept of natural law, it is because the development of atomic physics in our own day has radically altered our whole outlook on nature and the structure of matter. It is perhaps not an improper exaggeration to maintain that some of the old problems have quite recently found a clear and final solution. So it is permissible today to speak about this new and perhaps conclusive answer to questions that were formulated here thousands of years ago.21
The radical alteration of outlook, of course, is a reference to the way twentieth century physics overcame the ‘classical’ Newtonian view of matter as constant and predictable. More specifically, Heisenberg’s investigations into what takes place when elementary particles collide at adequately high levels of energy led him to assert that eventually all particles are either destroyed, leaving behind just radiation, or are converted into other particles. From this observation, he concluded that there must be an underlying substratum that potentially provides for all of the different forms of matter, but which does not have any of its properties. In a particularly precise formulation of this, wherein we are able to see exactly what he meant when he stated that “it is permissible today to speak about this new and perhaps conclusive answer to questions that were formulated [in Greece] thousands of years ago,” he states:
We can say that all particles are made of the same fundamental substance, which can be designated energy or matter; or we can put things as follows: the basic substance “energy” becomes matter by assuming the form of an elementary particle.22
There we have it! One of the twentieth century’s most important physicists answering a fundamental question about matter in terms so strikingly close to those of Aristotle’s that it sounds nearly like Aristotle himself. Moreover, the work of scientists such as Michael Faraday and Philip Anderson showed analogously23 that because matter is neither a conductor nor an insulator, it only stands to reason that it is supple enough to potentially become both. There are ample examples that will strengthen the point, but as the primary aim of this paper is to address form and soul in the light of modern anthropology and genetics, the following example concerning the properties of metals shall be a way of concluding the preliminary part of this paper, which has sought to introduce Aristotle’s rich and complex linguistic apparatus, and to introducing the chief concern.
When we consider the properties of certain metals that have the exact same kinds of elementary particles and almost exactly the same number, and then observe how differently they look and act, it may be analogous to when we consider that chimps and humans have 98.4 percent of their genetic material in common, but look and act so radically different also. The metals in question are gold and quicksilver; the atomic weight of the former is 196.9665, while that of the latter is 200.59. On the periodic table they could not be closer, 79 and 80 respectively. Yet, gold outshines mercury beyond compare, and is significantly more supple. Mercury, or quicksilver as it is also called, is heavy and poisonous. One has become the very standard of material wealth and grandeur literally and symbolically, while the other’s claim to fame is limited to its use in a thermometer—often times announcing the bad news of an incurable fever! What makes these two nearly identical metals so different? What is it about them that the periodic table does not or cannot capture? Is there some unrestricted potential or super supple substratum that can take on the form of an indefinite variety of forms, humans, chimps, planets, metals, water, roses and stars, an unimaginable multiplicity—all in delicate relation to one another—somehow held together as a universe? Aristotle sensed that there was and sought to describe it in terms of matter and form, potentiality and actuality. Scientists today, especially physicists, have shown that his explanation of matter as pure potentiality is useful and meaningful; we now turn to his concepts of form and actuality and soul to see if other scientists, particularly geneticists and anthropologists, have arrived or will arrive at similar conclusions with respect to what these concepts seek to express about the mystery of the human being, and the mystery of human origins.
About a quarter of a century ago, John Gribbin and Jeremy Cherfas challenged traditional paleontological theory when they suggested in their book, The Monkey Puzzle (1982) that the common ancestor we share with the gorilla and the chimpanzee had distinctly human characteristics. They also suggested that the paleontologists had been off by about fifteen million years in terms of when this common ancestor lived, putting the date around five, rather than around twenty, million years ago. In 1997, fifteen years after the publication of The Monkey Puzzle, Simon Easteal of the Australian National University declared that in using the latest procedures in molecular biology, he and his colleagues had interpreted the DNA evidence in such a way as to confirm what Gribbin and Cherfas had already suggested, that is, that apes are descended from man, not man from the apes. Superficial commentary hurriedly pitted the biologists against the paleontologists, suggesting that the latter’s work had become irrelevant overnight. More informed investigations, of course, point out the obvious error in such claims by underscoring the fact that without paleontology, the so-called molecular clock24 is useless. It is not our concern to analyze how this molecular clock works; it is enough to say that the ticks in this clock can only be counted once a reasonably accurate date for the split between any two species has already been provided, and such a split cannot be determined without the fossil evidence of the paleontologists. The real breakthrough came in 1967 when Berkeley’s Vincent Sarich and Allan Wilson, building upon the work of George Nuttal and Paul Ehrlich, eminent biologists of the late nineteenth century, and especially upon the work of Morris Goodman in the late 1950’s, began to count the ticks of the molecular clock beginning with the split between Old World monkeys and apes, which the fossil evidence had reasonably situated at about thirty million years ago.25 Simply speaking, the counting had to do with comparing monkey proteins with ape proteins. When the counting was over, Sarich and Wilson claimed that gorillas, chimps, and humans, all shared a common ancestor as recently as about five million years ago. The 1980 specification of the entire DNA sequence for the virus phiX 174, which led to the completion of the first map of the entire human genome some twenty years later, seems to have vindicated the findings of Sarich and Wilson, as well as improved upon the accuracy of the date of the existence of the common ancestor that humans, chimps and gorillas all have in common, putting it between 3.6 and 4 million years ago. The new date stunned the scientific world because according to reliable fossil evidence, our ancestors may have learned to walk upright well before this date. In the light of this new evidence, Gribbin and Cherfas began searching for additional evidence to show that the common ancestor was probably more human like than ape like.26 Whatever the case may be about the nature of this common ancestor, the stunning genetic fact remains that chimps and humans and gorillas are genetically as close (or closer in the case of chimps and humans) as the goat is to the sheep or the zebra is to the horse.27
How ought such theories and facts to be interpreted when it comes to the questions concerning personal, existential and general racial identity raised in the introduction of this paper? More pointedly, can an Aristotelian doctrine of form or soul hold out against such theories and facts? My hunch is that just as the new physics has vindicated Aristotle’s doctrine of matter, modern molecular biology will eventually vindicate his doctrine of form and soul. My original intuition was admittedly so general as to appear naÔve: I simply reasoned that if it were not for the new physics, we would never have had the breakthroughs in molecular biology that we have had. I then reasoned that if the new physics really does vindicate Aristotle’s doctrine of matter, then the breakthroughs in molecular biology, which are essentially dependent upon the new physics, must also be intimately related to Aristotle’s doctrine of matter. I thus concluded that since Aristotle’s doctrine of matter necessarily presupposes and includes his doctrine of form, then both modern twentieth century physics and modern molecular biology, which depends upon it, also accepts, perhaps unwittingly, Aristotle’s doctrine of form and soul. What follows, then, is first a brief summary of Aristotle’s doctrine of form and soul followed by an attempt to show, in the most general terms, how the findings of modern molecular biology regarding the extremely close relation of our species to the apes, may be commensurate with Aristotle’s doctrine of soul, and more specifically, the human soul, while making references to the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein and RenÈ Girard.
Now that much of Aristotle’s linguistic apparatus is already in place, an analysis of the term form (eidos) will allow us to begin using this apparatus to shed light on our main subject, and to clear up some of the remaining ambiguity that still inevitably surrounds the term matter. I have twice used the adjective ‘prime’ to qualify the term matter in my above analysis, but will now introduce the adjective ‘secondary’ and begin referring to Aristotle’s distinction between ‘prime matter’ and ‘secondary matter’. This distinction becomes most intelligible when we consider the perennial problem of change, so let’s reconsider this problem, but this time in the context of a specific change: the one I have in mind is the change that took place when Michelangelo sought to ‘free the figure of Moses imprisoned in a marble block’, as I believe he himself put it. The marble itself, whether in the form of a block, or in the form of Moses, is what Aristotle calls ‘secondary matter’, which remains what it is while the form changes from block to Moses. Since something substantial remains and endures while the great artist chisels away, namely the secondary matter (marble), Aristotle calls this kind of change ‘accidental’ change. We have already considered the meaning of this term above, and the relation of accident to substance in the context of the ten categories should be borne in mind here. Now in an accidental change, what changes is the ‘accidental form’ while, as we’ve said, ‘secondary matter’ remains essentially what it is. Consider now what happens if the Vatican allows a new artist to work on the sculpture and to change it from Moses, the law giver, to the ‘nameless chimpanzee’. When the new artist unveils his work, and we behold the marble chimpanzee, rather than Moses, we would all admit that a different kind of change has taken place—different from the change that occurred when the marble first went from just a block to Moses, the law giver. Nonetheless, Aristotle would say that the change from Moses to chimpanzee is still only an ‘accidental change’ and that only the ‘accidental form’ has changed because the ‘secondary matter’ has endured; whether it is a block, Moses, or a chimp, it is still marble. But let’s imagine now that angry, chimp-hating men, outraged by what had been done to poor Moses, stormed the cathedral in Rome, tore it away from its base, called in backups in helicopters, who snatched it away and happily dropped it into an active volcano where not only the poor chimp disappeared, but the marble as well. In this case, Aristotle would say that a ‘substantial change’ has taken place since the secondary matter has changed from one substance to another substance. The term substance as the first of the ten categories must be understood here as we speak about ‘substantial change’; the secondary matter, marble in this case, as a substance qualified by the other categories, quality, quantity, etc.,has ceased to exist in the volcano and has become something else—a different substance.
When the changes from block to Moses to chimp occur, it is important to see that although the accidental form is what changes, and not the secondary matter (the marble), it is still the case that, because the marble has the accidental form, and not the other way around, the subject of the change is the secondary matter, not the accidental form. In other words, the accidental form is what changes, but the subject of the change is the secondary matter, which, because it does not change, allows for the accidental change to take place. The only time secondary matter changes is when there is a substantial change. Now when the marble chimp disintegrates in the volcanic lava, the crucial questions become: (1) what is it that changes in a substantial change, and (2) what is the subject of this change? Aristotle’s answers: just as in an accidental change it is the accidental form that changes while secondary matter, because it endures, is the subject of the accidental change, enabling the accidental change to take place, so too in a substantial change, it is the substantial form that changes, while prime matter, because it endures, is the subject of the substantial change, enabling the substantial change to take place. The analogy, then, as applied to our Moses/chimp example is as follows: secondary matter (marble) is to accidental form (Moses/chimp), just as prime matter is to substantial form. The first part of the analogy is much easier to understand because we can picture marble and its various shapes through mental images, and we can actually see and touch real marble sculptures, but we can never see or touch prime matter or substantial form. But this is the reason, of course, for the analogy.
Aristotle’s use of the term form (eidos) must be appreciated in the context of his master’s use of it. Plato’s “Forms” or “Ideas” embodied the essences of all things existing in the world of appearances. So the “Form” of marbleness, existing in a transcendent, non-physical, ‘world of forms’ somehow ‘caused’ all particular instances of marble in this present world of appearances to exist by participating as shadowy reflections of the Forms. Aristotle developed his doctrine of causality, of course, because he wasn’t completely satisfied with the causal dimensions of his master’s explanations. But it would be a mistake, I think, to forget that Plato was indeed his master and to claim without qualification that he simply rejected Plato’s theory of forms and replaced it with a doctrine of causality.28 The point here is that Aristotle’s doctrines of ‘substantial form’, and ‘formal causality’ are thoroughly Platonic at one level, and do not make sense unless we see them as fundamentally indebted to his master’s investigations—investigations that were meant to illicit further reflection—which is exactly what Plato’s best student went on to do. If it is the case that there is no ‘well-developed theory of forms’ in Plato, then it makes no sense to interpret the Metaphysics as a rejection of this ‘theory’ in order to put forth a substantially new one. In this light, it is easier to understand what Aristotle means by ‘substantial form’ when he speaks of it as a principle that actively causes any particular substance to be exactly what it is and not something else. If with Ockham’s razor, we are to cut away ‘substantial form’ in order to make things more clear and simple to understand, I am afraid that we only make the ‘thingness’ of things impossible to ever understand. Aristotle learned from his master that the cause of a thing’s ‘whatness’ or ‘essence’ could not simply be identified with the substance itself; it had in some sense to be separate from what it caused, or it could not be spoken of as a cause. At the same time, it could not be totally separate either. In other words, the two fundamental questions we can ask about any particular substanceare ‘what is it’ and ‘what is its intelligible nature”? The first question, never to be separated from the second, but always to be distinguished from it, is answered by speaking of all the ‘equal’ ways in which the substance can be described by appealing to the other nine categories. This corresponds to Aristotle’s ‘material cause’ of any particular substance, and refers to both secondary matter and prime matter, with the latter embodying the richest and deepest meaning of material causality. The second question can also be answered by referring to the other nine categories; this corresponds to Aristotle’s ‘formal cause’ which can refer to both accidental form and substantial form, with, again, the latter capturing the deepest and richest meaning of formal causality. Substantial form is the ‘essence’ of the substance that causes it to be ‘what’ it is in terms of its ultimate intelligibility. This is why Aristotle had different terms for substance (ousia) and essence (to ti Ín einai); essence, for Aristotle, is always essence “of” the substance or an active moment of substance. With Ochkam’s razor, this distinction is lost and the two words begin to mean basically the same thing, which eventually makes it difficult to see the meanings of, and the differences and relations between, secondary/prime matter and accidental/substantial form.
The essence of a substance, then, or its substantial form, can be extracted intellectually, studied, and can come to be known as a real principle of actuality that determines prime matter to become substantial form, just like the accidental form of Moses, the law giver, determined or caused marble to become one of the most important works of art in history. Just as it is the very nature of secondary matter to be actualized into Moses or the chimp or a variety of wonderful or terrible things, so it is the nature of prime matter in its unlimited suppleness to receive a variety of substantial forms. Neither prime matter nor substantial form can be seen or measured or imagined, but without the realities that these Aristotelian terms seek to describe, it is difficult to understand how what we can see and measure and imagine, like Moses being set free from the desert of marble to which he was confined, can ever be explained in a non-contradictory way. The Presocratics and Plato struggled for centuries to address the problem of change, Aristotle came probably as close as we can ever come to solving it. With this, our linguistic apparatus is nearly fully assembled, and we are sufficiently ‘warmed up’; it is now permissible to begin our primary mental exercises on solid equipment as we address the heart and soul of this paper: an analysis of Aristotle’s doctrine of soul in the context of certain questions raised by modern molecular biology. As already mentioned, this analysis shall be laced with relevant references to the thought of Wittgenstein and Girard, to garner support for the main claim: Aristotle’s doctrine of soul has not only not been undermined by some of the latest findings in molecular biology, but perhaps has been vindicated.
The opening paragraphs of Aristotle’s De Anima are of fundamental importance for our topic: “. . . up to the present time those who have discussed and investigated soul seem to have confined themselves to the human soul.”29 Aristotle’s new approach is to accentuate the continuity and intrinsic links in and among all life, plants, animals, and human. Because he is mindful of the differences in a common-sense sort of way, he is free to emphasize similarities. One never gets the feeling while reading De Anima that Aristotle is on the defensive, as one sometimes gets when reading contemporary apologies for the immortality or non-materiality of the soul. It could be argued, of course, that Aristotle was not on the defensive because the soul had not yet been attacked, for it is the case, as I have pointed out elsewhere, that modern materialism differs in kind from ancient materialism. It could also be argued that if Aristotle had to face the modern molecular facts and to confront the genetic reality of “98.4%”, his treatise would contain the kind of panicky undertones that one finds in some philosophical and theological expositions on the soul today.30 My response to such arguments is that, on the contrary, if Aristotle were alive today, I imagine he would be the first to show informed enthusiasm for such findings and then go on to show how such facts support his very conception of soul as the life principle in a body—any body: in plants (nutritive), animals (sensitive) or humans (rational). I think he would go on to show how the facts support his conclusion that the human soul differs not only in degree from plant and animal soul, but in kind too. And he would never let us forget, amidst our rightful enthusiasm for the fact of “98.4%”, that because the definite function and precise role of about ninety percent of the human genome, non-coding DNA, is still waiting to be identified and remains largely undetermined, we should always be ready for surprises.31 This latter point is in no way intended to mitigate the breathtaking breakthroughs in modern molecular biology, nor is it intended as a way of sidestepping the need to address squarely how such stunning developments might challenge traditional Aristotelian conceptions of the soul, but it is intended to be simply what it is, a fact to be considered while doing our work.
After considering the views of his predecessors, as is his custom, Aristotle begins the first chapter of Book Two by “mak[ing] as it were a completely fresh start, and [by] endeavouring to give a precise answer to the question, What is soul? i.e. to formulate the most general possible definition of it.”32 Aristotle’s ‘completely fresh start’ should in no way be compared to some sort of Cartesian methodology33 since he states clearly that it is necessary to consult the work of his predecessors so that he may profit from their insights and avoid their errors.34 He explicitly, but subtly rejects three major definitions that were prominent among his predecessors: (1) the soul “is what moves (or is capable of moving) itself”;35 (2) “the soul is a kind of harmony, for (a) harmony is a blend or composition of contraries”;36 and (3) that the soul is “the subtlest and most nearly incorporeal of all kinds of body.”37 The subtleties of these rejections cannot be fully investigated here. It is enough to say, firstly, that Aristotle wasn’t simply being polite when he says that he has decided to investigate the views of his predecessors so that he might benefit from their insights; such investigations are an intrinsic part of his methodology. Secondly, when studied closely, it becomes apparent that Aristotle was trying to walk a thin tight-rope between the tendency of Democritus towards materialism and the tendency of his master towards body/soul dualism. Regarding the latter, he emphatically states: “to say that it is the soul which is angry is as inexact as it would be to say that it is the soul that weaves webs or builds houses. It is doubtless better to avoid saying that the soul pities or learns or thinks, and rather to say that it is the man who does this with his soul.”38 Wittgenstein walks a similar tight rope some twenty-four hundred years later as he also tries to stay clear of dualism and monism, but the task has become even more difficult, almost impossible, since after Descartes, there are not only tendencies towards dualism and monistic materialism that must be dealt with, but dogmatic systems that have entire academic establishments riding on them. Though his style is not at all Aristotelian, nor should it have been, considering his circumstances, the content of Wittgenstein’s thought when it comes to the soul is:
“I believe that he is suffering.”-Do I also believe that he isn’t an automation? . . . (Or is it like this: I believe that he is suffering, but am certain that he is not an automation? Nonsense!) . . . Suppose I say of a friend: “He isn’t an automation”. –What information is conveyed by this, and to whom would it be information? To a human being who meets him in ordinary circumstances? What information could it give him? My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.39
The point is that human beings are so radically one, so thoroughly integral that the mere assertion of certitude a propos being human results in nonsense. In other words, to speak of ‘having’ a soul implies that the soul is some kind of immaterial substance that is opposed to another material substance, the body. Anything involving belief, or enjoying certainty, or conveying information, for Wittgenstein, is drastically different from an attitude that manifests a genuine and complete awareness of what we mean when we talk about “an attitude towards a soul”; this latter is “[a]n attitude that reflects the full awareness of being human.”40 At any rate, let us return to Aristotle’s De Anima.
After spending considerable time in Book One showing the contradictions involved in each of the three major definitions, Aristotle promptly begins in chapter one of Book Two to employ, in the following order, the key terms of his overall philosophical system: substance, matter, form, essence, potentiality, actuality. He first points out that “one determinate kind of what is, substance,”41 can be recognized in three different ways: “(a) in the sense of matter or that which in itself is not ‘a this’, and (b) in the sense of form or essence, which is that precisely in virtue of which a thing is called ‘a this’, and thirdly (c) in the sense of that which is compounded of both (a) and (b).”42 Soul, of course, is a substance in this third sense, a union of matter and form—a composite of potentiality and actuality. The first critical distinction with respect to actuality is the introduction of two ‘grades’43 or degrees, which Aristotle describes by way of an analogy claiming that the first corresponds to the possession of knowledge, while the second ‘grade’ corresponds to the exercise of knowledge. He then tells us that the soul is the first grade of actuality in that it is the life principle in bodies—physical bodies that everyone by virtue of common-sense identifies as ‘things’ as substances, and which everyone likewise recognizes are of two sorts: natural bodies that are living, and natural bodies that are not. The latter are in turn the principles of all other non-living bodies. By life Aristotle means “self-nutrition and growth (with its correlative decay).44 Another analogy, comparing the state of being asleep to the possession of knowledge, and the state of being awake to the exercise of knowledge, is introduced to shed light on the first analogy so that we finally get the following fecund formulation: “the soul is the first grade of actuality of a natural body having life potentially in it.”45 Upon this definition, any sort of body/soul dualism is necessarily precluded for all three kinds of soul. As Aristotle says, “. . .we can wholly dismiss [based on this definition] as necessary the question whether the soul and body are one; it is as meaningless as to ask whether the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp are one, or generally the matter of a thing and that of which it is the matter.”46 To shed more light on what this means let us return briefly to Aristotle’s treatment of potency and actuality in the Metaphysics.
After reminding us in chapter one of Book Nine of the Metaphysics that ‘being’ can be distinguished according to the ten categories, the first of which, substance, being that category to which all the other nine are referred, he points out that the categories are only one way of distinguishing ‘being’. Another way to distinguish ‘being’ is “in respect of potency and complete reality, and of function.” 47 By ‘complete reality’ he means actuality and uses them interchangeably. Although his initial analysis of potency and actuality here is strictly in reference to motion and change in substances that are not alive, something he has already partly done in the Physics, he is quick to tell us that potency and actuality extend well beyond the realm of mere physical motion or change in lifeless or soulless things. In chapter two, we begin to get an idea of what he means by this ‘extension’: “Since some such originative sources are present in soulless things, and others in things possessed of soul, and in soul, and in the rational part of the soul, clearly some potencies will be non rational and some will be accompanied by a rational formula.”48 It is impossible here to go thoroughly through his entire discussion of potency and act in Book Nine, but there are a number of important points most relevant to our subject that are necessary to underscore here: (1) that an organic unity cannot be acted upon by itself; (2) that potency and actuality are genuinely different; (3) that to understand what potency and actuality really are and to understand their reciprocal relation, the use of analogy is better than direct definition; (4) that “as that which is building is to that which is capable of building, and the waking to the sleeping, and that which is seeing to that which has its eyes shut but has sight”49 are among the best analogies here; and (5) that potencies which involve producing change according to a rational formula can only be in living things, while potencies that produce change according to a non-rational formula can be both in living and non-living things. We shall return to this latter point below when we address the nature of the human soul, as distinct in both degree and kind from the animal and plant soul. But for now, let us return to the particularly prescient definition of soul in De Anima with which we left off above
We are apt to miss just how loaded this definition is if we do not read it in a reflective or perhaps even meditative way. I can picture Aristotle now walking and talking to his students in the revered woods of Apollo, hallowed grounds, that he carefully and intentionally chose as the sacred place to set up his school of research. I can further imagine him stopping all of the sudden to repeat this definition to his students gathered around him: “the soul is the first grade of actuality of a natural body having life potentially in it.” Soul for Aristotle is life, and life is soul. Although by definition soul is “first actuality”, the life/soul principle in a body is so rich that its potential allows for “second” and “third actuality” in the case of human beings—analogous to the way life/soul erupts from seed into fruit into wine at the level of plant life, for instance, as “it” achieves excellence by “cheering man’s heart”. I have put the pronoun in the previous sentence in parenthesis to underscore the fact that in the rich Aristotelian account of soul/life or life/soul, there is no adequate antecedent; there is no way to name “it”. Here, too, I can picture Wittgenstein telling his students: “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”50 One can never really get a hold of life/soul and soul/life “in language” as it unfolds and explodes—even at the level of “the vine”, and Aristotle is very much aware of this. The “unfolding” of human life is even more dynamic as it proceeds from life itself, “first actuality”, analogous to the state of being asleep, which though primarily receptive is not at all negative (ecstatic rest and fruitful dreams), to “second actuality”, analogous to the state of being awake, as life opens up into ethical, cultured, educated, mature, wise, life, and finally even to a “third actuality” wherein life spills over with a human excellence approaching an excellence, perhaps, that can even rival that of the ‘gods’ themselves.
Aristotle’s division of natural bodies into living (soul) and non-living is simply another way of saying that one cannot be the other, as he puts it: “body cannot be soul; for the body is the subject or matter, not what is attributed to it. Hence the soul must be a substance in the sense of the form of a natural body having life potentially in it. But substance [in the sense of form or essence] is actuality, and thus soul is the actuality of the body.”51 Aristotle’s particular emphasis on the composite nature of living bodies as the union of matter/potentiality and form/actuality in order to show how radically they differ from non-living bodies, both natural and derived, is likely to cause confusion, as it seems to imply that these latter are not composites. But, in fact, for Aristotle, they are. The wine bottle in my cellar that contains the dark, dense, red wine is an individual thing, a substance, a union of matter and form; but its form is accidental form (morphÍ i.e., shape—not eidos) that has determined the secondary matter to be the union that it is, namely, a glass bottle. But bottles are not alive. There is no life principle associated with the bottle that allows it to ascend the hierarchical scale from first grade actuality to second or third grade actuality; the most it can ever hope for is to contain a gold medal vintage some day and be there to witness the reception of the award, and the jolly consumption of the liquid it so patiently holds. Now let’s consider the wine as a thing, as a substance. To be sure, the wine is not the same kind of thing as the bottle that contains it is, but at the same time it neither grows nor nourishes itself as plants, animals and humans do. This also applies to the water from which it came, but wine ‘ages’ and water presupposes all life. Does this mean then that we can speak about the life/soul principle in/of water? This is similar to asking whether “carbon”, the building blocks for plants to produce the proteins, sugars, starches and fats upon which all organic life is based, has a soul. Is carbon alive? Is water alive? It is certainly the case for Aristotle that if we insist on speaking in dualistic terms about the soul as a ‘thing’ that a body has, then it makes no sense at all to speak of water or carbon having soul. However, even if we avoid this kind of dualistic language and use more supple and prescient Aristotelian terms, it still turns out, for Aristotle, that although water, for instance, has a unity and is a substance, we cannot by the strict definition of soul as “first actuality” say that it is also soul. The same would hold true for carbon. Of course Aristotle recognized that because substances like water and water transformed into wine provide nourishment, radically unlike the glass bottle which can never be digested, he concluded that these substances may be said to participate in soul in that they presuppose life, but, again, without assigning soul to them by definition.
All of this is clarified in chapter four of Book Two of De Anima, wherein Aristotle continues to describe the similarities and differences in and among plant soul/life, animal soul/life and human soul/life, stressing, and even celebrating, both equally in the sense that all life is meant to partake, each according to its own capacity, in the “eternal and divine [for] that is the goal towards which all things strive, that for the sake of which they do whatsoever their nature renders possible”52 What follows next is most expressive of his strong commitment to the deep and intense connectedness of all life with not even a hint of sympathy for either simpleminded dualism or naive monism:
The phrase, ‘for the sake of which,’ is ambiguous. It may mean either (a) the end to achieve which, or (b) the being in whose interest, the act is done. Since then no living thing is able to partake in what is eternal and divine by uninterrupted continuance (for nothing perishable can forever remain one and the same), it tries to achieve that end in the only way possible to it, and the success is possible in varying degrees; so it remains not indeed as the self-same individual but continues its existence in something like itself—not numerically but specifically one.53
Aristotle’s moderate realism (as distinct from Plato’s extreme realism54), his potency/act ontology, and his doctrine of causality, wherein the soul is simultaneously the efficient, formal, and final cause of the living body, together help him account for (1) both profound unity and real difference among all living things in a new and successful way, and for (2) the body/soul unity at each of the three distinct levels of life: plants, animals, and humans. With respect to (1), the powers that plants exhibit, namely, nutrition and reproduction, are also present in animals who display the additional capacities of sensation, locomotion, and appetite. Human beings, similarly, display all the energies present in plants and animals, but also show clear evidence of not only sensation, but of the power to perceive it, and then to handle it, or to deal with a particular perception of sensation in an intelligible, comprehensive, and universal way. Part and parcel of the process of processing this perception necessarily involves making decisions, which presuppose both practical and theoretical knowledge. In this, we can return now to chapter five in Book Nine of the Metaphysics and take a closer look at the point Aristotle makes (in the context of his analysis of potency and act) concerning the potencies involved in those ‘things’ capable of producing change according to a rational formula. Aristotle tells us that the effects produced by non-rational potencies are necessary—each potency produces one effect each, which is proper and necessary to that potency. But rational potencies do not produce necessary effects for the simple reason that they produce contrary effects, and it is impossible for contrary effects to be necessary. The concept ‘contrary’ entails, by definition, an element of ‘contingency’; it captures a particular type of opposition which, as we have seen above in our analysis of the term ‘matter’, (using the language of deductive logic) excludes universal affirmative and universal negative propositions from both being true at the same time, but allows them to both be false simultaneously. Thus, the propositions “All chimps have the power to perceive sensations and to process them in a universal way” and “No chimps have the power to perceive sensation and to process them in a universal way” cannot both be true at the same time, but if we were to find one chimp with this capacity, then both statements could be simultaneously false; the propositions are opposed to one another in a ‘contrary’ way, not it a contradictory way. In any case, the conclusion Aristotle draws from the fact about contrary effects not being necessary effects in rational potencies is that there must be an element of decision with characteristics that reveal an aptitude of perceiving sensations in such a way that would facilitate a processing of these perceptions allowing desire and will to take on an unrestricted, virtually boundless, quality:
For the non-rational potencies are all productive of one effect each, but the rational produce contrary effects, so that if they produced their effects necessarily they would produce contrary effects at the same time; but this is impossible. There must, then, be something else that decides; I mean by this, desire or will.55
A close reading of Aristotle’s concluding remarks on potency in chapter five reveals that he is not claiming that animals don’t decide or desire, but is simply showing how decision making and desire and will operate differently in rational and non-rational potencies. We can certainly say that animals, and even plants, to some degree, desire, but the objects of desire in plants and animals are necessary and defined: the plant ‘desires’ sun and even ‘turns’ towards it. The tree ‘desires’ water and screams out for it in withered, dry, browning leaves, but the objects of ‘desire’ are always necessarily the same. The gorilla’s ‘desire’ is so much more dynamic than the ‘desire’ of the plant that we can speak of it, as Aristotle does, as not only a difference in degree, but in kind. However, the objects of the gorilla’s ‘desire’ to protect her young, or her desire for food, are always the same—just as in the case of the objects towards which the plants move. When we come to human life, we discover that ‘desire’ is so radically different from what we find in plants and animals, that we tend to reserve the word only for human beings—and this for the simple reason that in human beings desire has no object. This latter point is not explicitly Aristotelian. It comes to us from the great cultural anthropologist, RenÈ Girard, who draws it out, I would say, from the Platonic/Aristotelian tradition, as it comes down to us through Saint Augustine. It is to this that I now turn as a way of concluding these soul reflections on apes, anthropology and Aristotle.
It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation.57
Known as one of the world’s foremost theorists on the role that violence plays in the genesis of culture, Girard has focused attention on two central and related themes: imitation and desire. Though many classical philosophers pay attention to the importance of these terms, they take on new significance in the hands of a contemporary cultural anthropologist like Girard. The relation of these concepts to each other, in particular, takes on fascinating proportions as Girard speculates on the mystery of human origins and the nature of the human being. In this, he transcends disciplinary boundaries without arguing against the need for such boundaries. In other words, Girard is also a genuine philosopher, who, while attempting to make sense of the violent origins of human culture, tries to unify as much of the latest knowledge from as many different fields as possible so that wise solutions may emerge. Armed with a solid grasp of the Platonic/Aristotelian tradition, Girard expands upon this Aristotelian insight into the centrality of imitation and desire for understanding the nature of human beings, and thus of human culture. For Girard, something profoundly intense happened millions of years ago to the pre-human creature on the threshold of being human. Whether this event is to be identified with the period of 3.6 to 4 million years ago, the alleged period in which, according to certain highly sophisticated and cutting-edge techniques in molecular biology, which, in turn aids in the interpretation of the DNA evidence, is difficult to say; and as far as I know, Girard has not pronounced on this. Moreover, I do not know whether Girard agrees with scientists like Gribbin and Cherfas, who argue that this pre-human ancestor was more man-like than ape-like. I spent considerable time trying to discover Girard’s position on these two issues, but finally abandoned the search when I realized that Girard’s fundamental theory about what happened to the pre-human creature on the threshold of becoming human would not be substantially altered by knowing precisely when it happened, nor by knowing whether that pre-human creature was more man-like or ape-like. I am not claiming that this knowledge would not be relevant or important for Girard’s theory, only that I don’t think it is essential to his theory. For the theory states that that pre-human creature, on the threshold of becoming human, lost something precisely to gain access to something else. What is lost, according to Girard, was part of its animal instinct; what it gained was an access to desire.58
Before explaining what Girard means by this, it is first necessary to point out that this does not contradict what Aristotle has said about human life displaying all the energies present in plant and animal life, in addition to new ones. Girard does not claim that the pre-human creature loses all of its animal instincts, but only part of them. Moreover, the retained instincts are somewhat diminished to make space as it were for a radically new and inexplicable power called desire. What makes it new and inexplicable is precisely that it has no essential or ultimate goal; human desire is without an object. As I have indicated above, Girard draws this out of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and then justifies the move, as it were, by developing Aristotle’s insight into the centrality of imitation from the Poetics. When all is said and done, Girard claims that since desire ultimately has no object in human beings, they must ‘borrow’ their desires from others. The term Girard coins is “mimesis” or “mimetic desire”—a desire that emerges through the imitation of others.59 As a cultural anthropologist, Girard is most interested in how, what he calls the “mimetic nature of human desire”, is the cause of violence. This had led many to conclude that he considers mimetic desire to be an ‘evil’ thing, but nothing could be further from the truth for Girard:
Even if the Mimetic Nature of human desire is responsible for most of the violent acts that distress us, we should not conclude that mimetic desire is bad in itself. If our desires were not mimetic, they would be forever fixed on predetermined objects; they would be a particular form of instinct. Human beings could no more change their desire than cows their appetite for grass. Without mimetic desire there would be neither freedom nor humanity. Mimetic desire is intrinsically good.60
Since the stated purposes of this present research are not really commensurate with an investigation into Girard’s arguments concerning “why” the mimetic nature of the human being is responsible for most of the violence in the world, I shall not explore them here. What does need to be investigated, however, is this: how can mimetic desire, which is so distinctly and uniquely human, be accounted for by the fact of “98.4%”, of which Girard is certainly aware given his up to date knowledge of physical anthropology and molecular biology? One often hears ‘educated’ people claim that we can’t really blame philosophers and scientists before Darwin, or even those before the stunning genetic fact of “98.4%”, if they over emphasized the radically superior nature of human beings as when compared to the animals. But the justification for blame begins to rise, so they go on to say, after Darwin, and peaks, as it were, when, after over a hundred years of research, scientists finally specify the entire DNA sequence for the virus phiX 174 in 1980 and, even more so, when international teams of molecular biologists complete the first map of the entire human genome some twenty years later, thus allowing the fact of “98.4%” to stand forever as the high point of the genetic revolution that ravished the latter part of the twentieth century. It is alarming when such attitudes emerge from the ranks of the ‘educated’, since, as I have mentioned above, some of the most vivid and convincing accounts of the radical difference between humans and animals come from those thinkers who strongly emphasize and closely analyze all of the fascinating similarities: Aristotle and his entire school of thought. To be sure, there were dualistic misinterpretations of Aristotle, which gave rise in the Middle Ages to unfortunate and misleading theories of the soul, and which modern science was right to reject, but to simply deny the entire tradition of “soul language” because of the problem of dualism, or to claim that the “sole question” is no longer relevant after Darwin, or after the so-called high point of the genetic revolution, is to take an irrational position.
I say ‘irrational’ because, Aristotle showed that the parts of a thing cannot possible determine that thing to be what it is. Thinkers like Girard and Wittgenstein have understood this, but many other good thinkers in our times still fail to grasp this fundamental point because their fundamental philosophical presuppositions are those of the seventeenth century mechanical philosophy. In the language of Aristotle, the ‘parts’ of things must be understood as belonging to the category of quantity, which, as we have seen, can be spoken of, along with the other eight categories, as an accident of substance. The human eye, though it is a part of the human body, cannot be said to be partially human, for instance, but entirely human. Soul as the ‘essential whatness’ of a body is not located ‘in’ one part of that body, but in all parts: “Suppose that the eye were an animal—sight would have been its soul, for sight is the substance or essence of the eye which corresponds to the formula [of what it means to be an eye], the eye being merely the matter of seeing; when seeing is removed the eye is no longer an eye, except in name” 61—like the ‘eyes’ of Michelangelo’s Moses, at which countless millions have gazed upon over the ages. Parts in the body are not the same: the eye is not the ear; the toe is not the tongue. However, all these parts are the same by virtue of the substantial human form that exists entirely in each part. This also applies to the smallest parts of the body, to cells, and yes, even to deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The parts of a thing cannot unify themselves; there must be a unifying principle which, however, cannot be many, for then it would not be a unifying principle; it must be one. The language Aristotle uses to describe this one unifying principle in living organisms is the language of substantial form, which determines a thing to be what it is as distinct from other unified things: Michelangelo is not Moses, my rosebush is not my dog. If, for whatever reason, one is uncomfortable with Aristotle’s linguistic apparatus, then the solution would be to find another one, but not to ignore the fundamental problems. Some of the best physicists of the twentieth century have come to see that the mechanical philosophy, which takes quantified material substance as its starting point and then attempts to explain the whole in terms of its parts, presupposing that the parts determine the whole to be what it is, has simply not worked. Matter, in other words, cannot be reduced simply to quantified expressions; matter is mysterious because, as Aristotle taught, primarily speaking, it cannot be seen, or measured. The molecular and physical anthropologists, too, are beginning to see, by rubbing shoulders with cultural anthropologists like Girard, who appreciates Aristotle at many different levels, that “it is not the DNA that makes up the substance. The DNA is part of a human cell, and it is already human DNA. It is the whole substance that determines the parts to be what they are,”62 not the other way around.
Further light may be shed upon this by comparing the unity of a house, for instance, with that of a living organism. The former, for Aristotle, has only an accidental unity precisely because the parts that go to make up the house are distinct substances: the roof is brick, the floors are marble, and the windows are glass. The house has a form of course, which is the definition of what a house is, but this form is an accidental form. In living organisms, however, each part of the whole is entirely part of that living organism. As stated above, the eye is fully human, not partially human, although it is a part of the whole human being. DNA is responsible for the transmissible qualities or characteristics of the human being in all its parts, but it essentially posterior to the human being; it is in no way prior to the whole human being herself or himself. Though the following analogy may be somewhat strained, it is still somehow helpful: Just as the periodic table, which deals with the parts of metals, cannot capture everything about the whole metals of gold and mercury, as seen in their radical difference, so the DNA molecule, which deals with the parts of humans and chimps and gorillas, cannot capture everything about the whole human, chimp, or gorilla. Moreover, to attempt to explain fully the whole in terms of its parts is to be sucked into an endless regression leading to absurdity, with no possible way of explaining anything whatsoever, since the parts must be explained in terms of their parts, and those parts must be explained in terms of their parts, etc., etc. The general name for this error in logic is the logical fallacy of composition, a classical expression of which is “Atoms are not solid; they are mostly empty space. Thus, since the floor upon which I am standing is made up of atoms, it can’t be solid either. Or, “Each sentence in his poem is perfect; therefore, it must be a perfect poem.”63
Nonetheless, even if we do come to see that the whole cannot be reduced to its parts, and even if we do accept that DNA is in no way prior to the whole human person and must essentially be posterior to the human being, the fact of “98.4%” is still a stunning fact since the parts of a thing are integrally related to the whole thing in an important and even crucial way. This point, in fact, is why Aristotle’s treatment of the categories should really appeal to contemporary taxonomists as they may have to adjust their lists according to the latest discoveries in molecular biology. I am referring here to a point made in the treatment of the term category above, wherein we saw that substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, etc., are all equally the highest kinds of things; this underscores, for Aristotle, just how important the other nine categories are in his act/potency, form/matter ontology. The DNA molecule is an entirely human molecule that belongs to the category of quantity in so far as it relates to the whole human being, but it is also a thing in itself with its own hierarchy. Both of these facts together combine to account for its fundamental importance. A good Aristotelian would never simply brush off the fact of “98.4%” as unimportant, but neither would a good scientist dismiss the philosophical questions concerning the non-quantifiable, invisible, mysterious realities of prime matter, substantial form, and the human soul.
Why, we may ask, does prime matter really matter? And what is so substantial about taking a position with respect to substantial form? Will the position we take really in-form our scholarship or form our consciences? Are questions about the soul really at the heart and soul of what is solely important with respect to being not only a good philosopher or a good scientist, but a good human being? And do we have, in fact, any solid philosophical foundations that can help us to measure what is even meant by the terms ‘good’ or ‘conscience’ in these propositions? My answer to all these questions is an emphatic yes—and I refer the reader to the other magnanimous achievements in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, wherein the careful reader will find all kinds of deep metaphysical, aesthetical, epistemological, and ethical connections to questions concerning the human soul that are solely momentous. Gribbin and Cherfas finally take up such questions in the concluding chapters of their ‘excellent’ little book, The First Chimpanzee: In Search of Human Origins (2001). The book is clearly written and full of little gems such as, when talking about the fact of “98.4%”, they say “. . .this became [in the 1990’s] a scientific clichÈ, like Albert Einstein’s equation E = mc2, familiar to many people but understood by few. It is usually expressed along the lines of ‘people are only 1 per cent human and 99 per cent ape.’ The truth, though, is that we are 100 per cent ape.”64 In the light of Girard’s anthropology, this latter really rings true, since the etymology of the term ‘ape’, as seen in its verbal form, ‘aping’, means precisely to imitate clumsily. At another level, however, a scientist like Girard is light years away from scientists like Gribbin and Cherfas, who, when they raise one of these solely momentous sole questions regarding what it is that makes human beings special, answer in a matter-of-fact way by claiming that humans differ from the chimps and gorillas not in kind but only in degree: “Everything you try to think of to set us apart from the chimps and the gorillas turns out, on reflection, to be only a matter of degree, not of anything uniquely human.”65 Ideas have consequences: bad ideas have bad consequences, and good ideas have good consequences. But who is to decide what constitutes a good or bad idea? Case in point: Gribbin suggested in the 1980’s that gorilla embryos produced through IVF techniques might be implanted in human surrogates to produce baby gorillas. Apparently, the aim was to “boost the declining population of this endangered species.”66 If this does not strike the reader as a ‘bad’ idea, perhaps this one will: why not produce a human-chimp embryo using IVF techniques. We could begin with human sperm and chimp eggs to produce hybrid embryos and then implant them in both human host mothers, and chimp host mothers. Then we could switch it up a bit and try chimp sperm and human eggs to produce the embryos and implant them in host mothers, both chimp and human. We could do the same with the gorillas and humans and then compare all the findings. Gribbin was so fascinated by such ideas that he wrote a piece of fiction about them in 1989.67 Today, nearly twenty years after that fiction, such ideas seem to be seriously discussed in certain scientific circles. Are these bad ideas? Are the scientists who support such research bad scientists, but good human beings, or good scientists but beastly human beings? If we differ from the chimps and the gorillas only by degree, could one then argue that such experiments are justified, especially if they are conducted for a ‘good’ reason—like boosting the declining population of an endangered species?
Again, we are back to questions about the foundations of ethics, which are inevitably linked to the questions of human identity, both of which I have made references to in my opening paragraph. The reference to ethics was merely implicit since in using the term ‘better’, when I spoke about the possibility of living better lives in the present century than we did in the previous one, I assumed that there is such a thing as an immovable (though not static) transcendent good—a living benchmark against which we can measure good, better, and best. This was one of my presuppositions, which I implicitly linked with my more explicit question of human identity and origin. I cannot treat the monumental question of the foundation of ethics here, except by way of raising the kinds of ethical questions I have just raised in the previous paragraph, which are clearly related to the questions of human identity and origin. I have only skimmed the surface when it comes to these latter themes, especially with respect to the enigma of identity, which St. Augustine captures so powerfully when he states, “I have become a question unto myself.”68 However, I have tried to address these latter in such a way as to achieve my ultimate purpose: to convince both philosophers and scientists that Aristotle’s age-old wisdom regarding the human soul is well worth receiving, and may just be the kind of wisdom that will allow fertile dialogue between science and philosophy to re-emerge once again in new and fruitful ways.
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2Of course there is a kind of body/soul dualism in Plato, but it differs in both degree and kind from the dualism that is articulated in the seventeenth century mechanical philosophy, and from the positivism of the nineteenth century that results from this seventeenth century philosophical shift.
5 This central claim was argued for quite convincingly over seventy five years ago by Francis M. Cornford in his very influential book, Before and After Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932). Whereas I think this claim is a solid one, it does lend itself to a misinterpretation of the Ionian achievement by those who push the distinction between myth and philosophy too far. Neither Thales nor Democritus must be taken too literally when they speak either about water as the origin of all things, in the case of the former, or when, in the case of the latter, soul is spoken of as fire. Perhaps we could say that, because of his tendency to exclude “telos”, Democritus ought to be interpreted more literally than Thales, but even here, Democritus’ exclusion of purpose, which may have been developed to an extreme by the Epicurians, needs to be interpreted at some sort of “mystical” level.
7Even if to support the “materialist-atheist” reading of Democritus, Homer is to be interpreted as principally a satirist, whose aim is to discredit the pantheon of Olympian gods, which, incidentally, he does quite effectively, this would not account for Homer’s other achievement: the emergence of Apollo with more credibility than ever. Thus, the question of why a materialist like Democritus would praise the work of Homer is still a legitimate one and, if anything, may compel us to modify our use of the terms “materialist” or “atheist” when we predicate these of Democritus. One thing is certain here: his “materialism” is not the anti-mystical, anti-transcendent, materialism that emerged from the seventeenth century mechanical philosophy.
8There is a sense in which the “positivistic misreading of the Presocratics began with Aristotle” himself. See Richard K. Khuri’s “Prime Matter: Its Unlimited Suppleness and Incorporeality and their Bearing on Emergence and Evolution,” International Journal of Computing Anticipatory Systems, vol. 2, ed. D. Dubois, UniversitÈ de LiËge, Belgium, 1998). Khuri’s paper, and the personal conversations we have had about it in late 2007 through early 2008 have contributed greatly to the writing of this present work. I would like to thank him for these splendid conversations, and for granting permission to use his article for this work.
10There are exceptions among the modern philosophers of course. Heidegger’s emphasis on subjectivity, permeated by a sense of mystical wonder that anything should exist at all, can, and does, give one a certain ethical orientation towards life, for instance; but I am speaking here about a general orientation. One practical trend in modern philosophy that tries to overcome this problem of “irrelevance” by hearkening back to the time when philosophers were healers and spiritual directors is in the area of what is now being called “Philosophical Psychology”. See Lou Marinoff’s Plato Not Prozac: Applying Philosophy to Everyday Problems (New York: Harper Collins, 1999).
12Aristotle himself always maintained that his philosophy simply probed the depths of certain truths about the world that ordinary, common-sense folk already know due to the collective wisdom they inherit, preserve, and develop, but for various reasons cannot quite demonstrate or articulate accurately. For a similar and dynamic expression of this position applied to a contemporary context. See James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds: Why The Many Are Smarter Than the Few And How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations (2004)
17This is the way William H. Brenner paraphrased the very difficult material in Book Four of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. See Brenner’s Logic and Philosophy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993) 27.
19Whether and to what degree either Plato or Aristotle recognized this is impossible to tell. One could imagine, I suppose, an Aristotle or a Plato misrepresenting or downplaying Heraclitus’ solution to the problem of change in order to make room for their own, but even if this could be shown to be true, it is still the case that Heraclitus, as far as we know, remained within the realm of metaphor and did not offer a scientific solution to the problem.
20Khuri, “Prime Matter” 3. On page 12 below, I attempt to state the difference between prime matter and secondary matter in Aristotle. But the best context in which to do this is in that of my treatment of the term form.
23As Khuri states, “No doubt the “matter” of conductors and insulators is not the same as the “matter” of the elementary particles; the latter is more fundamental and forms the matter;” thus the qualification here, ‘analogously’. See Kuri’s “Prime Matter,” 5.
24“Credit for the concept of a molecular clock is essentially given to Emile Zuckerkandal and double Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling. They are supposed to have been the first to realize that because mutations are random events DNA should accumulate them at a relatively steady rate.” See John Gribbin’s and Jeremy Cherfas’ The First Chimpanzee: In Search of Human Origins (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2001) 114. My close reading of this book played an important role in the idea for this paper.
28A fresh re-reading of Plato’s Sophist, and the Phaedo and Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which I undertook in preparation for this paper, has convinced me that the standard way of presenting Aristotle’s Metaphysics as primarily a rejection of Plato’s theory of forms, is incorrect. These two Platonic dialogues, in particular, show considerable hesitation when it comes to taking any sort of final stand on how the “Forms” cause individual “things” to be what they are in the present world. And Aristotle, too, on a number of occasions in the Metaphysics, the one that comes to mind now is chapter one of Book Two, when he speaks about “fire as the cause of hotness”, indicates that he certainly saw something extremely valuable and insightful in his master’s speculations on “form”
30I am referring primarily here to so much of what might be labeled as “religious fundamentalism”, which denounces the very concept of ‘evolution’ as an evil invention. Even among the most thoughtful in this movement, there seems always to be a deep seated sense of panic, and one certainly never gets anything like the kind of cool, calm, daring, confident, and open minded analysis that one gets in Aristotle.
40See Richard K. Khuri’s “MEANINGFUL AMBIGUITY AND THE GUIDANCE WITHIN: Towards the Timeless Beginnings of Philosophy” in New Frontiers of Phenomenology: Beyond Postmodernism in Empirical Research, ed. Massimiliano Tarrozzi, University of Trent, Italy.
53 Ibid., 3-8. As the famous editor, Richard McKeon, of my Random House, 1941 edition of The Basic Works of Aristotle put it in footnote 21 while trying to capture the meaning of this passage “There is an unbroken current of the same specific life flowing through a discontinuous series of individual beings of the same species united by descent” (page 561).
54Plato’s extreme realism can also be called “Idealism” in that he suggested that the “Ideas” or “Forms” were the real realities in the full sense. The other extreme would be to deny the real existence of “Forms” or “Universals” altogether, which is what Ockham seems to do in the 13th century when he calls “Universals” mere ‘names’ of things, thus we get the philosophy henceforth of ‘nominalism’. Although no system of nominalism was around during the time of Aristotle, he was aware of both the complex dualistic or monistic consequences of such a move. By claiming that the ‘forms’ of living things were “substantial” and different, he nevertheless accounts for their unity. This moderate realism, which acknowledged that the ‘universals’ were real, but denied that they had any absolute independent existence apart from actual living things, provides Aristotle with the means to more accurately account for the relation between the one and the many and between change and changelessness.
62See http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/mcm/ph/ph_01philosophyyouth17.html. Accessed on April 27, 2008 at 9:23 am.
66Ibid., 247-248. Gribbin and Cherfas report in their book here that it was Professor Stephen Seagar, Director of the Fertility Research Program at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, DC, who got all the credit for first suggesting that embryos produced from gorilla sperm and eggs could be implanted in a human host mother. But they also state that Gribbin had made a similar suggestion many years before Seagar had. Moreover, they explicitly state that, according to them, this suggestion was rather mild, compared to the idea of producing human-chimp or human-gorilla hybrids through IVF techniques—ideas which they both seem to support.