Today’s Aquinas: Intelligence is Immaterial

Today’s Aquinas: Intelligence is Immaterial March 2, 2015

ThomasAquinas We’re blogging through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae, sometimes called his Shorter Summa. Find the previous posts here.

So far, Thomas has shown that God, the First Mover, must be One, infinite in power and goodness, and the source of all that is good in creation.  The next step is to show that God is Person (or, ultimately, Persons); and for Thomas, a person is that which possesses intellect and will: someone, you might say, with whom you could have a conversation.

Thomas divides human reason in two, sense and imagination on one side and intellect on the other.  Sense is what allows is to see and remember a triangular shape, and to picture it in our heads.  It begins with our sensory perceptions, but also includes the faculties of memory and imagination, which is the ability to assemble images from the bits and pieces of things we’ve seen: a golden apple, for instance, or a unicorn.  Intellect is what allows us to abstract from that triangle the essence of triangularity: to say, a triangle (species) is a plane figure (genus) with three straight sides and three angles (specific difference); or that a unicorn (species) is a horse (genus) with a horn (specific difference); or, alternatively, to recognize that chihuahuas and great danes are both the same kind of thing despite all evidence to the contrary.  Among the animals here on Earth, we alone possess intellect.  And so, because God possesses all good things in an eminent way, so therefore, must God:

We must go on to demonstrate that God is intelligent. We have already proved that all perfections of all beings whatsoever pre-exist in God superabundantly. Among all the perfections found in beings, intelligence is deemed to possess a special pre-eminence, for the reason that intellectual beings are more powerful than all others. Therefore God must be intelligent.

You might dispute that intellectual beings are more powerful than all others.  Elephants are stronger than men, tigers are fiercer perhaps; but no animal other than man has ever worried about destroying all life on Earth—or needed to.

Next, Thomas makes an argument at which my mind boggled the first time I read it:

Moreover, we pointed out above that God is pure act without any admixture of potentiality. On the other hand, matter is being in potency. Consequently God must be utterly free from matter. But freedom from matter is the cause of intellectuality. An indication of this is that material forms are rendered intelligible in act by being abstracted from matter and from material conditions. Therefore God is intelligent.

By now the notion that God is pure act, unchanging, should be a familiar one; and since matter, in Thomistic philosophy, is that which supports change, God is necessarily immaterial.  So far, so good.  The problem comes with the bolded statement.  How can freedom from matter be the cause of intellectuality?

This is at the root of the best argument I’ve seen for the immortality of the human soul: that the ability to look under the surface of things and abstract from them their essential forms, to understand them as you and I understand that a triangle is a shape with three sides or a unicorn is a horse with a horn, is something that mere matter cannot do.  The human intellect, in a sense, becomes the thing understood in the moment of understanding.  That is how it is able to turn the thing around, investigate it, and ponder its properties.  But the intellect can, in that sense, become anything at all: a mouse, a mountain, a galaxy, without taking on the matter of the thing pondered.

This is a deep topic, too deep to fully address here, and I am surely not doing it justice.  But consider the words you are reading: not their meanings, but their shapes in pixels on the screen, or in ink on a page.  Such markings have no inherent meaning; they are simply a way for one intellect to pass meaning to another intellect by means of agreement about chicken scratches.  (That’s what learning to read and building vocabulary is all about: learning what chicken scratches go with which meanings.)

Now, our memories are surely “written down” as chemical or electrical changes in our brains.  And as with physical marks on a page, so with the physical marks of memory in our brains.  They are meaningless unless interpreted by the intellect that “wrote them down”.

And for Thomas, for a being to be immaterial it must necessarily be intellectual; there’s nothing else left.  Immaterial being isn’t some kind of ectoplasm, matter by another name; an immaterial being can only operate in those ways that do not require matter.  A purely immaterial created being—which is to say, an angel—cannot be green or blue or red or white: because color is a property of the material world.  An angel might still appear to us as green or blue or red or white because if it is to appear to us it has to manifest itself in the material world in some way, and any visible way implies color.  But that’s no more the angel we’re seeing than it’s Van Gogh we’re seeing when we look at his self-portrait.

Finally, Thomas provides a third observation:

We proved, further, that God is the first mover. This very perfection appears to be a property of intellect, for the intellect, we observe, uses all other things as instruments, so to speak, in producing movement. Thus man, through his intellect, uses animals and plants and inanimate objects as instruments, of a sort, to cause motion. Consequently God, the first mover, must be intelligent.

God works through other things; He uses them as instruments, which is to say as tools, as intermediate causes, so as to achieve His ends.  We do the same, and it is our intellects that drive the process.

Here’s how it works:  I perceive the things about me, and that I’m hungry (sense).  Looking at the things around me, I understand that the coffee is good to drink, that the eggs are good to eat, and that the dishwashing liquid is not for internal use.  To no longer be hungry, I reason, I should eat the eggs and drink the coffee.  But, I also know that I’m about to go to get blood drawn and have to be fasting for the tests to be accurate, and so I choose to remain hungry, and  then eat after the blood test.  And in that way, my intellect, directing my sense and my will, uses them to achieve its goal of not having to go back and get blood drawn a second time on another day.

This differs from animals.  A dog will sense its food and its hunger and go eat the food; that’s what dogs do, unless they are prevented.  It would never be able to say, “I’m about to go to the vet for an operation which will make me feel much better in a week or to, and if I eat now my master will have to put it off; I’d better wait and eat later.”

In short, we (through our intelligence) possess a greater capability to use other beings instrumentally than the animals do; and given that God is the instrument-player par excellence, He must also be intelligent.

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photo credit: Public Domain; source Wikimedia Commons

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