That’s So Second Millennium

Episode 014 - Ed Feser’s Keynote at SCS

July 2, 2018

In this episode we begin a series of recaps and discussions of the issues brought up by individual lecturers at the Society of Catholic Scientists conference on June 9 and 10. We start with Ed Feser's keynote, "The Immateriality of the Mind."

Feser's objective was to highlight how our ability to be rational, and in particular for our thoughts to mean something unambiguous - even in the face of our inability to express ourselves in a completely unambiguous way in our spoken or written words - makes it difficult to maintain a purely materialist / physicalist view of human minds and therefore of the universe they inhabit.

At the outset he noted that rationality tends to occupy less attention in philosophy of mind and matter than two other properties, consciousness and intentionality, which seem widely taken as more difficult to explain by our contemporaries. For ancient and medieval philosophers, however, rationality was probably the clearest indication that the human mind is not some sort of solely physical mechanism.

Feser presents an argument via James Ross (Thought and the World) to try to bring this older consensus into the mainstream. It can be presented thus:

  • Formal thought processes can have an exact, unambiguous content.
  • Material signs and processes never have unambiguous content.
  • Formal thought processes must employ an element not dependent on materials signs and processes.

We discuss Feser's points and a few of our own in favor of the two premises: our inability to be sure of the content of arithmetical symbols used outside our own range of experience, the ambiguity of translating ancient languages like Linear A, and the absurdity of believing I can't ultimately know what I'm thinking about.