Episode 043: In Search of the Soul Revisited – Aristotle and Aquinas

Philosophy Philosophy of mind podcast


This episode is a very late addition to the series “In Search of the Soul,” looking at the various options that exist in philosophy of mind.

In the original five part series I was very conscious of the fact that I was leaving out the view of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, and this addendum is my penance for that fact. As promised in the episode, here are just a few suggestions for further reading, from authors who defend “hylemorphic dualism.”

David Oderberg, Real Essentialism

David Oderberg, “Hylemorphic Dualism” in Ellen Paul, Fred Miller and Jeffrey Paul (eds), Personal Identity

Edward Feser, Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide


UPDATE: Here the whole series, now that it is complete: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  Revisited 

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{ 33 comments… add one }
  • matt September 19, 2011, 12:32 pm

    A very thorough and enjoyable podcast.

    This podcast brought to my mind something that W L Craig was recently saying, in a RF podcast, that physicalism seems to make God ad hoc, that if you don’t have immaterial minds, then an “unembodied mind” seems made up since there, in his view, would be nothing close by to compare God to. Though that was a bad line from Craig, I think, the Aristotelian notion of a thing being FOR something could really put that fear to rest, if a physicalist were to be worried by such a comment (since some agent would be important from the beginning, it would have to be immaterial, etc. In order to account for the “for the sake of which” that things seem to have). I hope you can toss around some more Aristotle in the future.

  • Glenn September 19, 2011, 5:08 pm

    I’m glad you liked it, matt. Yeah, Craig’s comment does seem a little strange.

    Obviously in some sense there’s nothing very close by to compare God to. God’s pretty unique! But with a physicalist view of persons, it’s not that God is “ad hoc” or unnecessary. It’s human beings who are in some basic sense unnecessary. God is a creative intelligent non-material being, and he has created beings who have some things in common with God, but that doesn’t mean they have to be made of the same stuff. Like a craftsman who makes a bronze statue of the king.

    More to the point, if the whole point of us being like God is that we are capable of reasoning and relating, then this has nothing to do with what we are made of.

  • Glenn September 19, 2011, 5:11 pm

    Well, no sooner had I uploaded this episode than I started to think that I should have been clearer on a couple of points.

    In particular, I was talking about properties being non-material (although not being entities). What I probably should have stressed a little more clearly is that properties of physical objects are non-material inasmuch as, and in the same way that Aristotle’s forms are not material, since the form of a physical objects is like a property of that object.

    If anyone strongly objects to saying that the properties of physical objects are non-physical, then that’s OK as long as they grant that Aristotelian forms of physical objects are likewise physical. You can, I suppose, think of them either way.

  • matt September 19, 2011, 7:31 pm

    Thanks. I’m a little sheepish to admit that I hadn’t considered my own ad hocness! To be fair to Craig, it was an aside and he seemed to mean that not having any precedent for an immaterial person made the job of explaining or describing God too difficult. The big leap seems to be the move from “difficult to describe” to “so people must be immaterial substances”, which is just what you addressed with Haldane. It seems to be a weakness of apologetics, as a discipline, that certain things end up being defended as important to the coherence of Christianity, when they really might not be. At the same time, it would be difficult to simply speak of the “Godness” of God.

  • Jarvis September 20, 2011, 6:03 am

    Hi Glenn,

    Great episode. It was perfect timing for me, as I just listened for the first time to the original five episodes in the Mind-Body series. Overall, I think the entire series is fantastic.

    Question 1: You mentioned that neuroscience has successfully explained some higher-level mental phenomena in terms of the physical, or in terms of the brain. Can you say briefly what those are?

    Question 2: Do you think C.S. Lewis’ Argument From Reason is successful against reductive physicalism? Or, if not his particular formulation of it, do you think there is a successful argument from reason against reductive physicalism? It seems this is what N. Murphy was getting at in her little quip you referenced about “making noises at each other.”

    Thanks, Glenn

  • Jarvis September 20, 2011, 6:05 am

    Glenn (and Matt),

    What are your philosophical reasons, in brief, for holding that God is immaterial?

  • matt September 20, 2011, 11:50 am

    Glenn is the professional, so I’m sure his answer will be better than mine. My sorta gut reaction to the question is that material seems to, across the board, have a shelf life. It is difficult to see how a being could be God, and yet possess some very obvious imperfection like being subject to deca, entropy and things like that. Perhaps a being like that could still be very powerful, or even know just about everything important about the world, but such a beingcould very reasonably subject to the sort of investigation everything else in the natural world is subject to as well. I imagine it could be poked and prodded with the right technology and so on. This would not be the sort of thing to worship either, at least I don’t think (its important to note that even when doing the most rigorous natural theology, we don’t analyze God, we are simply analyzing the concept of God, propositions about God and ‘the like’). So, we would be incoherent to be speaking of God, if we mean a being having all these maximal qualities and saying that God is also material. It follows from this that if God exists and we would like to refer to God in some intelligible way, we would be referring to a being that is not material. In short there are certain necessary attributes of God and matter that make them mutually exclusive as substances (I hope my wording makes sense, I certainly do not mean that there cannot be interaction between the two, or that God can’t be incarnate – but even in the incarnation… Well, go look at the kenosis post).

  • Geoff September 20, 2011, 12:42 pm

    One might also think that some “thing” has to be somewhere, and also therefore, some-when.
    Being physical doesnt necessarily mean subject things like decay, biblically speaking it is only that within creation which is subject to that anyway. But to be physical is to be finite in some way.. I think.

  • Jarvis September 22, 2011, 4:42 am

    Geoff, surely all existents, including God, are “things” in the broadest sense. To not be some thing is to be no thing, right?

  • Geoff September 22, 2011, 2:45 pm


    I was not speaking in “the broadest sense”, I was specifically referring to being physical. That is to say that the thing is a physical thing, not a non physical thing.

  • Jarvis September 23, 2011, 10:37 am


    Thanks for the clarification. I was trying to be facetious; rather, I was trying to understand more exactly what you meant. It seems you are saying that God cannot be finite, and since material existence is finite existence, God cannot be material. So you are presupposing that God is infinite. What then do you mean by calling God infinite?

  • Geoff September 23, 2011, 2:09 pm


    Its all good.
    I dont think I am “presupposing” that God is infinite. I am suggesting that to be physical is to be limited in some form or another (temporally, spatially, etc). Being (I guess) Anselmian I believe it is logical to understand God to be “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”. I can conceive of that which is greater than that which is temporal, spatial (somewhere, somewhen), etc.

    Does that make sense?

  • Jarvis September 24, 2011, 1:46 am

    Hi Geoff,

    Yeah, that’s what I meant by presupposing: working from a certain definition of God that includes infinity. Don’t get me wrong: I am not questioning greatest being theology. But even on that conception of God, I don’t see that it is self-evident that being non-physical is greater than being physical. Even T.V. Morris, the consummate Anselmian, does not rule out God being spatial. So I guess my question is why is it greater to be non-physical than physical?

  • geoff September 24, 2011, 2:13 pm


    It is not necessarily true, I guess, that God can not be physical. If so, then what ever that “physical-ness” is, its not anything like anything in creation. It seems to me that if God is somewhere, then God is not “everywhere” – but then, that argument fails because the Spirit is also God, and can be everywhere.
    So, then, God can be somewhere, or everywhere, but then, God must also be “some-when”. There is a paper by Paul Helm on the net for free somewhere, in which he argues this.
    So, the argument is something like this, if God is physical, then he must be somewhere, and thats not so much of a problem. If God is somewhere, then God is some when, and if he is some when, then God is controlled by time – and we’re talking time, the same kind of time that constrains us, not some “divine measure of durations”.

    But then again, I dont really know what I am talking about:P

  • Dave September 26, 2011, 9:58 pm

    Thanks for such a wonderful podcast. Just wondering how, given your physicalism, you account for an inherited propensity toward evil? Do you believe this inclination is passed on genetically or socially or in some other way?

  • Glenn September 26, 2011, 10:10 pm

    Dave, that’s a good question to which I don’t really know the answer, but I will say this: I don’t see how saying that we are made of different stuff solves the problem, since souls (if I understand them) don’t catch or transmit viruses. I just don’t know how the dualist would account for this either, other than by saying something like “It has to do with…. the soul.” Or else, as I hope, they might give an account that doesn’t depend on dualism or physicalism being true.

  • Jarvis September 27, 2011, 12:07 pm


    I have been thinking over nonreductive physicalism a bit lately, and I want to make sure I understand your basic NR position correctly. Is it correct to say that you believe all of our mental properties can be reduced ontologically to physical properties, but not epistemically?

  • Kenneth September 27, 2011, 5:09 pm

    Dave, there was a podcast ep on Original sin a while back: http://rightreason.org/2010/episode-034-on-original-sin/

  • Glenn September 27, 2011, 5:33 pm

    Jarvis, sorry – I’m just not sure of what the distinction you’re drawing amounts to.

    One of the easiest writers to read on nonreductive physicalism is Nancey Murphy, and her work focuses on that position in a way that my podcast does not. Her article here is a good place to start, but there is more work by her online.

  • Jarvis September 28, 2011, 2:54 am

    Cool, thanks for the link, Glenn. I won’t waste your time trying to spell out the distinction I was making. By the way, did you happen to see my follow up questions to this podcast in comment #5? If you’re too busy, that’s cool. If it helps, I’m more interested in the second question about the argument from reason vis-a-vis reductive physicalism.

  • QUINTON December 7, 2011, 7:46 pm

    Glad you mentioned hylomorphism in this ep, as I recently learned about it at uni, and came out thinking, yeah I think hylomorphism makes good sense with what I believe about the nature of a person and the bible.

    So my question is to do with continuity of a person after death until the resurrection. I think you mentioned that Van Inwagon thinks we need continuity of the body to preserve ‘us’ as individuals until the new creation. For me, this deflated my enthusiasm for the power of the physicalist’s argument. It seems to be assuming that we need some remnant of our current body for continuity. If our ‘form’ according to hylo’ is what makes us unique individuals; including our DNA info, our memories of our history and experiences, why then cant God simply ‘store’ this info in his mind and then recreate new bodies for us at the resurrection, downloading our memories etc into us?
    Besides, why think we need some portion of the body? Some people get vaporized in explosions and no body part is retrieval. Additionally, every 7 years the cells of our body are complete replaced, yet we are still who we are. So it doesn’t seem to be the body cells that are important here, rather the ‘blueprint’ of what and who we are. So again, why cant God simply store this, and physicalism’s continuity problem resolved (sought-of)? I know that sounds naive because Im probably missing something important, and I know its kind of like a God of the gaps idea, but we do all believe in God here anyway right? But whats your thoughts Glenn? Im I missing something obvious?

  • QUINTON December 7, 2011, 7:53 pm

    I meant, *but* if our ‘form’ according to hylo’ is….

  • Ben July 11, 2013, 10:18 am

    Hi Glenn,

    Firstly just to say thanks for your blog and podcast! I know this is an old podcast, but I have just listened to it and have a few comments to make.

    Let me get started!

    Firstly it is more disputed, than you let on, as to whether Aristotle thought the soul of a man was immaterial and everlasting. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-psychology/active-mind.html Perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t, but certainly some commentators think he can be read in that way. Perhaps then Aquinas is taking on Aristotle’s full thought regarding man and hylemorphism, or developing his view more fully and explicitly.

    Secondly as I understand it, and am happy to be corrected, the argument given that the soul has immaterial functions, unlike the other souls, is not an argument from ignorance. Firstly the hylemorphist argues that we have phantasms, roughly the images we see the world through, however we are able to abstract from these through the intellect until we reach a form. Thus after looking at many instances of a circle we abstract in our intellect the form of a circle. For the Aristotelian, who is an immanent realist, the form is in the object itself and in the intellect of a man. I guess the Thomist, who would want to say only man has immaterial function (not sure if that’s the right word), would say this as he does not think any other animal has the ability to comprehend the abstract forms (universals of things) in their intellect. Why does he think it is immaterial? According to hylemorphism matter and form are the metaphysical constituents of substances. The form (organises, directs, forms) the matter. Matter is just potency which takes on the form (actuality) and is thus informed by it. If in the intellect we have the form of, say, a circle, and that matter just takes on a form when it acquires it, then it appears that the matter, our brain, would have to take on the form of a circle. Clearly this is ridiculous, so instead a hylemorphist would argue that the form exists immaterially, in the immaterial faculty of the soul (form). As mentioned above, this is because if it was purely physical then the matter would have to take on the form of the ‘form’ which it clearly doesn’t! I think this argument is more than an appeal to ignorance, but rather argues that the intellect could not in principle be material, given the commitments of hylemorphism.

    Since the hylemorphist thinks the soul is in some sense immaterial, they think it is therefore incorruptible and can survive the destruction of the body. Following Aristotle’s immanent realism my thought would be that this form (soul) cannot exist in some third realm, e.g. Plato, but rather either in an enmattered instance or a mind. It seems to me that the hylemorphist could argue that the person soul exists in God’s mind, a type of conceptualism. The hylemorphist should agree that you are not your soul, rather existing in God’s mind you are in some sense incomplete. It is only after the resurrection, the regaining of matter, that you would become fully you again! This may be unorthodox, but it seems like an available move to me. The hylemorphists could argue that each soul is individuated by its past histories (im sure there are other things too!)

    Anyway, just a few brief thoughts. You can let me know what you think and where im wrong! Thanks for all your work!



  • Glenn July 11, 2013, 1:57 pm

    Hi Ben, and thanks for your thoughtful comments!
    You’re right that there are some people who read Aristotle as saying (or at any rate, suggesting) that the soul may be immaterial and eternal. My own reading of the philosophical landscape is that this isn’t a majority view, but more importantly I think that the Aristotelian view that I outline here, that the soul is the form of the body and only exists in/with the body is the clearer and more plausible position (plus I’m among those who thinks this really was Aristotle’s view, for reasons that I briefly spelled out in this episode).
    Secondly, you’re quite right that “the argument given that the soul has immaterial functions, unlike the other souls, is not an argument from ignorance.” The argument from ignorance that I identified was the argument that I quoted from Professor Haldane: We don’t know how the soul could fulfil the function of contemplating the immaterial if the person were physical, therefore the person is not physical. And that most certainly is an argument from ignorance, for it reasons from the lack of explanation of how a physical being could do something to the conclusion that we are not physical beings.
    However, since you described the positive argument that the intellect must be an immaterial thing, I’ll comment on that too:

    If in the intellect we have the form of, say, a circle, and that matter just takes on a form when it acquires it, then it appears that the matter, our brain, would have to take on the form of a circle. Clearly this is ridiculous, so instead a hylemorphist would argue that the form exists immaterially, in the immaterial faculty of the soul (form). As mentioned above, this is because if it was purely physical then the matter would have to take on the form of the ‘form’ which it clearly doesn’t! I think this argument is more than an appeal to ignorance, but rather argues that the intellect could not in principle be material, given the commitments of hylemorphism.

    Again, granted that this is not an argument from ignorance. In effect it is to claim ideas must exactly metaphysically resemble the thing conceived of – so that, for example, to think of a circle is to have a circle inside one’s mind (and since one doesn’t have a physical circle in one’s head, they must have a non-physical form of a circle in their mind, ergo the mind is immaterial). In other words, you can’t think about a form unless that form is literally and metaphysically in you – since there is no difference between the mind’s contemplating a form and having (or as you say, acquiring) that form. There are two ways to go at this point: Either say that the form isn’t really material after all (thus forgetting what I think is a perfectly good metaphysical explanation of the form – the wax / seal example being a good one) or deny that contemplating a form and having a form are the same thing. Guess which one I favour!

    Since the hylemorphist thinks the soul is in some sense immaterial, they think it is therefore incorruptible and can survive the destruction of the body.

    And this is where I think things really fall apart. The perfectly good and clear explanation of the form being the thing that matter takes to form a substance (and the soul being the form) should be rejected if a person wants to say that the soul can survive the death of the body. You don’t just combine the views and press on. Here is where I throw my lot in with the Maverick Philosopher. http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2011/08/feser-defends-hylomorphic-dualism.html (with the obvious disclaimer that he endorses a substance dualist view of human beings while I do not – But I endorse his criticism of the hylemorphic view that tries to allow the soul to live on after death.)

  • Ben July 12, 2013, 12:57 am

    Thanks for the response,

    From what i gather, you are trying to say that contemplating a form and having a form are different things. I think i would agree with that. However, i would still argue that the form itself is immaterial, through our abstraction from particular phantasms, and the only reason they can be different is because we have this immaterial intellectual capacity which allows us to think about this form without it being enmattered. I would be interested as to how you would seek to explain it? (Also was your other option meant to say the form isn’t really immaterial? Im not quite sure what you meant?)

    Again im not sure why it isn’t open to the hylemorphist to say that the soul (form) which persists only persists in the mind of God until it becomes re-enmattered. It seems to me they would/could also claim that this soul (form) isn’t a complete substance, just as the form of a circle in my intellect is not a complete substance. But the the person, whos soul it is in God’s mind, become complete again after the resurrection (re-enmattering), as the soul (form) becomes united with matter.

    It might interest you that Edward Feser has 3 posts devoted to Bill Vallicella’s (Maverick Philosopher) critique of this hylemorphic analysis.




  • Ben July 12, 2013, 1:12 am

    Sorry i didn’t properly correct the first part of the previous post before it sent! So here it is!

    From what i gather, you are trying to say that contemplating a form and having a form are different things. I think i would agree with that. The things in this world that have forms (substantial) are particulars. They are composites of matter and form, and the form is only ‘in’ the object in that we can abstract it out of them through particular phantasms and then through our intellect. This difference seems similar to me as the the one drawn by EJ Lowe, 4 category ontology, between substantial universals (kinds) and substantial particulars (modes). Clearly the substantial universals are different from the substantial particulars, but it only seems to me that they are due to the fact one is individuated by matter (modes), while the others are universals since they are not individuated by matter (they are the abstraction we get from matter). If the universal was to combine with matter we would get another individual (mode), but it seems clear that the universal is a abstract immaterial concept. (You could just deny this and be a nominalist) That is why the soul must be said to have an immaterial capacity, in order to hold these concepts. I would be interested to hear how you would draw this distinction, if you allow the hylemorphist theory about normal substances e.g. plants, animals, etc. (for sake of argument).

    (Now read above from ….. Again im not sure why……..)



  • Glenn July 12, 2013, 9:52 am

    Hi Ben
    It’s clear that you’re more clued up on Aristotle than I am! You’re right about what I was saying (that contemplating a form and having a form are different things). What you’re talking about as the contemplation of the forms via abstraction, I acknowledge and simply see as information about the forms, and since I’m a physicalist (and think that a physicalist yet Aristotelian stance is coherent), I don’t find myself compelled to think that information requires a non-physical entity.

    I’ll admit to being quite unfamiliar with the contemporary literature on Aristotelian metaphysics (ah, if I could create parallel Glenns to do all this reading!). Although your summation of what Lowe says is recognisable to me: “one is individuated by matter (modes), while the others are universals since they are not individuated by matter (they are the abstraction we get from matter). If the universal was to combine with matter we would get another individual (mode), but it seems clear that the universal is a abstract immaterial concept.” I think all concepts are immaterial in the sense that I think forms are immaterial, as it is all information.

    And yes, I’ve followed the Vallicella / Feser discussion and enjoyed it very much. As much as I like Feser in general (I successfully requested him as my international PhD examiner – the lone sympathetic ear to my decidedly non-secular take on things!), one guess who I sympathise with in that disputation. 🙂

  • Glenn July 12, 2013, 1:35 pm

    Sorry, I neglected your question Ben.

    Can the form of the body persist after death in the mind of God? Well, the idea of that form can, yes. But not the actual form of this or that body, because the form of a specific thing only exists if that thing exists, and the form of me just is the form of my matter.

    This reminds me of William Hasker’s claim that the soul, although emergent upon the body, can outlive the body. I discuss that in an article over in the articles section.

  • Ben July 12, 2013, 7:40 pm

    Thanks for the reply!

    Firstly, just to say that i got the terminology wrong with Lowe! So for him Kinds (substantial universals), objects (substantial particulars), Attributes (non-substantial universals) and modes (non-substantial particulars – or ways objects are). (Sorry just had to correct myself! 😛 )

    I guess my thought regarding the mind of God was something like this. We can have in our mind the form of different paintings or sculptures we want to make. They are real so far as they are in our mind. The become (fully actual) substances when we make them, by giving them matter. When we abstract from matter we form a universal concept (form), but i guess i was wondering if God, being God, could abstract from us and form a particular, even though it would not be fully us. (Im thinking of a form as i suppose synonymous with essence or organising principle – with its own particular history.) So then our form would be particularised by our history (or something like that) but we would only be fully us when reunited with matter.

    Now i know some would say this is a highly speculative account, and i might agree with that, but i was just wondering if it would save the position of the hylemorphist!

    Thanks for all your responses,


  • Rinku Mathew March 21, 2014, 11:37 am


    Would you make a transcript of your comments available? Or is there one already published on your site of which I’m unaware?

    Rinku Mathew

  • Glenn March 21, 2014, 7:35 pm

    Hi Rinku

    No, transcripts of the podcast are generally not available. At some point they may become the basis of published work.

  • Rinku Mathew March 22, 2014, 9:03 pm

    No problem, but thanks for replying Glenn.

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