Discussion by: ArmchairCat
I’ve come to ask you folks for a bit of advice and information, but let me give you the context before making the request.
I’m in a medical ethics course at a private Catholic university. In almost every way, the quality of education here is phenomenal, and that includes the classroom experiences of critical thinking, unrestrained yet respectful debate of ideas, and due academic rigor in research and paper-writing. Yet as it turns out, my current ethics professor subscribes to the natural law philosophy borne of Catholic theology, and this framework structures and determines the course. More positively, the professor welcomes evaluation of that framework from other perspectives in the pursuit of debate and the examination of how arguments are devised and developed. All in all, no complaints on my end.
Anyway, we’ve come to a discussion in class about the apparent proofs of human spirituality/immortality, and one of the lines of argument presented deals with the metaphysical existence of ideas and concepts. In an extremely simplified sense, the claim is that because we experience abstract – immaterial – “things” (e.g. concepts, logic, the mind itself – almost like Platonic Forms, and yet not), we know that humans are more than just material creatures, and then the theological implications of that are laid out. Basically, we can’t point to a chunk of matter extended in space and say, “That thing there is an idea,” and so immateriality and spirituality necessarily follow.
Now, as a budding student of neuroscience, I can only say so much when we cover this material. I can point out, for example, that thoughts (if not ideas, specifically) have their form in particular patterns of electrical activity across the neocortex, but that isn’t exactly a response to the claims.Thoughts themselves, instantiated in neurons, are not the concepts themselves – they’re only referents. It’s like how if you write “balloon” on a sheet of paper, the shapes made of ink are not themselves the concept of a balloon (nor an actual balloon), only physical symbols that mean it. Abstracts, believe it or not, are abstract.
So I was hoping that some of you folks might have come across in your readings, those of you who are philosophically inclined, authors who treat this problem of metaphysics in an intelligible way. What, precisely, are concepts/abstractions, and what are the ways philosophers have reconciled them with physical reality? I’m afraid Google, keyword searches in library catalogs, and dustjacket summaries are too time-consuming and unreliable a way for me to ferret out what I’m looking for given the rest of my courseload, so I’m seeking the insights of people who may have already tread this path. If anyone here can recommend a good article, blog, book, or whatever, I’d sure be grateful!