12 May 2006

At a Loss on God and Minds

There should be an obvious and agreed upon answer to the question, shouldn't there be? --that is, on the question: Does Aristotle rely on results from human psychology to argue that God is a mind, or does he rely on theology to reach conclusions about the human mind?

We saw that Mary Louise Gill, in her brief treatment of theology, apparently favored the first:

  1. "The Prime Mover is a pure actuality".
  2. "The Prime Mover's divine being does not differ in kind from the active being of ordinary terrestial substances".
  3. Thus, "God [sc. the Prime Mover] always enjoys the activity that we earthly substances achieve only sometimes and for a short time."
We wondered whether her premise 2. as stated was false and not Aristotelian. And in any case it should presumably be revised to read something like:
2'. The Prime Mover's divine being does not differ in kind from the pure actuality of a special class of terrestial substances, viz. human minds.
And if you balk, perhaps, at this reference to minds as substances, recall NE I.6 1096a24-27:
e1ti d' e0pei\ ta)gaqo_n i0saxw~jle/getai tw|~ o1nti (kai\ ga_r e0n tw|~ ti/ le/getai, oi[on o( qeo_j kai\ o( nou~j, kai\ e0n tw|~ poiw|~ ai9 a)retai/, kai\ e0n tw|~ posw|~ to_ me/trion, kai\ e0n tw|~ pro&j ti to_ xrh&simon, kai\ e0n xro&nw| kairo&j, kai\ e0n to&pw| di/aita kai\ e3tera toiau~ta), dh~lon w(j ou)k a2n ei1h koino&n ti kaqo&lou kai\ e3n:
Minds and God are the only examples Aristotle offers of goods in the category of substance.

So if these revisions are friendly, then Gill would be asserting the view that I called "God and Other Minds"--viz. that Aristotle relies upon human psychology when he holds that the Prime Mover is living and thinking.

Ross in his commentary fudges the question. "Having shown (1072a25) that there is a prime mover which is a substance and is pure activity or actuality, Aristotle assumes that it must be such as the highest activity or actuality that we know, viz. no/hsij, immediate or intuitive knowledge." Ross presumably means "concludes", not "assumes" (a sophomore's mistake!). And yet that he uses "assumes" shows that he hesitates to commit himself to one direction of argument rather than another.

Burnyeat's discussion is similarly unhelpful. He considers one of the passages in De Motu Animalium which bring together theology and psychology:
About soul, whether it is moved or not, and if it is moved, how it is moved, we spoke before (pro/teron) in our discussions on soul. Now since (a) all lifeless things are moved by something else, and (b) the way in which the first and eternally moved is moved, and how the first mover imparts motion, were determined before (pro/teron) in our discussions on first philosophy, it remains to consider (c) how soul moves the body and what the origin is of an animal's motion (700b4-9).
Buryneat devotes most of his efforts to arguing that 'before' here means only dependence in argument (in the 'order of learning'), not earlier composition. But he doesn't explain that dependence:
Aristotle refers to first philosophy because he wants us to understand both the similarity and the difference between the way the eternally circling heavens are moved by God and the way we and other mortal animals are moved by our more mundane objects of desire (cf. esp. MA 6.700b29-35) A reader ignorant of what is said in L7 would miss the message.
"Similarity and difference" is vague; and insofar as the "comparing and contrasting" is between God and animals that lack minds, it is not relevant, at least, to the question at hand. Burnyeat concludes his discussion:
Aristotle's message is that we should consider animal movement, a problem in second philosophy, in the light of his solution to a problem in first philosophy. That is what he conveys by saying, 'the way in which the first and eternally moved is moved, and how the first mover imparts motion, were determined before in our discussions on first philosophy.' This is the one instance in the corpus where first philosophy comes earlier in the order of learning.
So much for animal motion: theology comes first. But if this is indeed the only place in the corpus where first philosophy is 'earlier in the order of learning', then it must be the case that Aristotle relies upon human psychology in reaching the theological conclusion that God is alive and thinking. But how?

Are you not perplexed, as I am, that major scholars, as it seems, lack a definite view on this elementary matter?


Joel said...

Not really, scholars seem to be all over the place on just about everything.

Michael Pakaluk said...


It's not a difference of opinion that perplexes me in this instance but the lack, it seems, of any definite opinion.


Joel said...

Ah, I see.