But what about the Sea Star?

Posted by on July 11, 2011

In De Anima Aristotle explicates a conception of the soul in which “the soul is neither a material part of an animal, nor some immaterial thing capable of existing in separation from the body” (AGP 652).  Aristotle’s theory attempts to both resist and steer a middle ground between some materialistic Presocratic theories and the Platonic conception of a tripartite soul.  His theory develops a soul that has parts like Plato’s but the soul is something immanent in the body.  In this paper I will discuss Aristotle’s idea of an inseparable soul from the body, while explaining the relevant parts of the soul.  Aristotle’s ideas on the nutritive soul will be shown to advance from Empedocles theory of fire being the unqualified cause of nourishment and growth, while also discussing how Aristotle surpasses Plato’s own ideas of the soul.  Lastly, two problems with Aristotle’s account of the soul are discussed which illustrate tremendous gravity and consequence to his theory.   The first problem discussed, that of dead bodies, is tied to his inclusion of homonymy in describing the form-matter relationship of the soul and body.  The second is the difficulty in explaining the phenomenon of Sea Stars asexual reproduction by fragmentation consistently with Aristotle’s theory.  My argument is that while the first problem has an academically engineered possible solution, the latter presents a problem to which there may not be a clear solution.

Aristotle grounds his theory of the soul to explain the difference between living and not-living things or the inanimate and animate. In general, inanimate things are those that never gain or lose some principle capacity that is central to their being a natural thing and doing what is natural for them to do; animate things are the vice-versa.  For example, if you cut a rock into pieces what you get is smaller pieces of rock that maintain the general property of being a rock, but when you cut a cow, pig, or human in half you destroy the principle unity of its bodily structure and it dies as a consequence.  Therefore, Aristotle establishes that the “soul is the first actuality of a natural organic body,” (AGP 813) such that it is “an organizing principle that enables a living thing to go about its business of living” (AGP 652).  Since the actuality of something and what it actualizes is one, Aristotle determines that it does not make sense to discuss whether the soul is different from the body.  To explain this concept he provides the example of an eye and sight.  If the eye is understood to be an animal, sight would be its soul.  Seeing is actualized by sight through the matter of the eye, for the soul is the essence and form of the “specific sort of natural body that has in itself a principle of motion or rest” (AGP 814).  This is to say that the capacity of sight can be actualized through the proper matter eye, because there is an inherent principle in the body that allows for motion that initiates the actualization.  Then, if there is no capacity of sight, such that a person loses sight in their eye, the eye is “no longer an eye, except homonymously” and since “we must apply this point about the part to the whole living body. The sort of body that is potentially alive is not the one that has lost its soul but the one that has it” (AGP 814). This creates the problem of dead bodies due to the inclusion of the idea of homonymy with the form-matter theory Aristotle develops.

Homonymy is not compatible with Aristotle’s form-matter theory in the sense that Aristotle wants to use form-matter theory as a soul-body relationship.  To demonstrate this I will use the example of play dough.  To start with there is block of play dough which is played around with and made to be enformed with the shape of a bracelet.  Sometime later the play dough is taken apart and then enformed into the shape of a hammer, and the same process again but this time into the shape of a bowl.  In process of being changed and generated into different shapes, the play dough is found to be only contingently enformed into the shape of whatever is created.  What is play dough persists through the whole shaping process, but it is not essentially bracelet or hammer or bowl shaped.  Contrastingly, when Aristotle talks about a soul enforming a body it is essentially enforming, not contingently (412b16-18, AGP 814).  This means that when Aristotle says “the sort of body that is potentially alive is not the one that has lost its soul but the one that has it,” and compares it to an eye losing its sight but being called an eye homonymously, Aristotle means that the body, the matter, is not being enformed by the soul in the same way the play dough is by the shape of a bracelet (AGP 814).  Aristotle states that the body can only be potentially alive if it essentially enformed by the soul such that being alive entails being ensouled.  This cannot be the form-matter theory properly because the form-matter theory provided by Aristotle requires matter to be enformed contingently, such that whatever is play dough will be so no matter how it is enformed.  If matter is to be contingently enformed, then in this case bodies must be as well.  So when Aristotle claims that the dead bodies, those that no longer have souls, are homonymously bodies, this would mean that they are bodies in so much as they relate to matter and the way it is enformed.  This necessarily entails that these bodies are enformed bodies and therefore alive bodies.  This seems to create a major contradiction such that human bodies are both essentially and contingently enformed.

It would appear that Aristotle is contradicting himself if it wasn’t the case that one could find functional determination in some of his other works where “everything is defined by its function and potentiality,” and that when something has lost these they should not be called the same thing but a homonymous thing (Meteorologica 390a10-15; Politics 1253a19-25; AGP 748, 894).  Aristotle is able to use this to classify things according to their functions.  This is why a soul less body and a dead body are homonymously human bodies, because they have lost their functionality.  This hasn’t solved the contradiction but at least provided a logical reason as to why Aristotle insists on homonymy when his form-matter theory of the soul and body seemed to be working perfectly fine without it.  To solve the contradiction then, we would to have create some type of non-visible body that can be enformed contingently within and contrastingly exist along with the organic body that is found in De Anima (412b).  I am not able to come up with examples of the type of matter this would be like, but I would assume the matter would have to be of the sort I just mentioned.  Considering that Aristotle is able to come up with such a conception, he would be able to solve the contradiction, but with unnecessary variables that complicate a form-matter theory that seemed to be much simpler and well formed without it.  This issue of asserting homonymy along with the form-matter theory of soul will continue to unnecessarily complicate things, unless Aristotle decided to abrogate the assertion.

Having established that the soul is inseparable from the body, Aristotle begins to elaborate on the four principles of potentialities that define the soul: nutrition, perception, understanding or mind, and desire.  He first establishes that every living thing must have a nutritive soul since it is “the part of the soul that belongs to the plants as well as the animals” (AGP 815) and “it is the first and most widely shared potentiality of the soul” (AGP 818).  The functions of the nutritive soul are generation and the use of nourishment, because the natural function of all living things is “to produce another thing of the same sort as itself…in order to share as far as it can in the everlasting and divine” (AGP 818).  All living things are perishable things unlike the everlasting and divine which continually exists.  Therefore, in order to “share as far as [they] can in the everlasting and divine” living things natural function is to propagate something that is not exactly “one with <the parent>” but is similar to it (AGP 819).   The nutritive soul, then, explains generation and nourishment through the three components of nutrition.  The three components are: “what is nourished, what it is nourished by, and what nourishes” (AGP 821).

In this discussion of the nutritive potentiality of the soul, Aristotle challenges the view of Empedocles by stating that “fire is a sort of joint cause, but not the unqualified cause” of nourishment and growth; the soul in its nutritive aspect is the unqualified cause because “the size and growth of everything naturally constituted has a limit and form,” whereas fire grows without limit as long as it has fuel (AGP 820).  Another way to say this is that which is nourishment, or food, is definitively related to an ensouled thing, because if the ensouled thing “is deprived of nourishment it cannot exist” (AGP 821).  Therefore, the nutritive principle in the soul is a potentiality that preserves the ensouled thing.  If nourishment is not provided, then the ensouled thing cannot realize its purpose which is to propagate.  Finally, Aristotle encompasses Empedocles concept of fire by stating that nourishment must be digestible and “the hot element produces digestion,” therefore “every ensouled thing contains heat” (AGP 821).  This reasoning by Aristotle allows him to reject any attempts of materialistic reduction of life, since he just proved that both nourishment and generation/growth are directly related to an ensouled thing and that fire is just a part of that process, not the main cause.  Whereas Empedocles idea simply stated fire to be the cause and provided a reason why, Aristotle by explaining his theory goes beyond simply stating the cause, the reason and goes as far as to provide the details of the process.  In this sense Aristotle’s theory also surpasses Plato’s theory.  Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul, as the soul conflicting with the body, could never provide a legitimate explanation of how the soul is also responsible for non-mental vital functions of the body.  Aristotle is easily able to do so because the soul is immanently a part of the body, making the form/the soul the actuality and the matter/the body the potentiality.

As far as what perception is, Aristotle determines that perception to be the capacity of the soul that differentiates an animal from a plant, as he explicitly states that “for whatever has perception…is said to be an animal, not simply to be alive” (AGP 815).  The purpose that perception appears to serve is that it allows an ensouled thing to obtain nourishment (414b, AGP 817), and from what we have understood earlier nutrition is received so that an ensouled body may mature into its adult form and realize its purpose by propagating.  Aristotle goes into an intense and long discussion on how perception occurs, but the main idea about perception is found in the following: “The perceiver is potentially what the perceptible object actually is already….when it is being affected, then it is unlike the object; but when it has been affected it has been made like the object and has acquired its quality” (AGP 23).  If we understand the “perceiver” as the subject of perception (S), and the “perceptible object” as the object of perception (O) we can break this down into three simple parts:

a.)    S has the capacity necessary to receive the O’s perceptible/sensible form
b.)    O acts upon that capacity of S by enforming it
c.)    From a.) and b.), the S becomes like the O

There are several different ways to understand exactly what Aristotle means by “S becomes like O.”  A literal interpretation of this would be that my eyes become white when I perceive Homer Simpson’s plain white shirt, because there is some shared quality between the whiteness on Homer’s shirt and the stuff that makes up my eye that causes my eye to actually become white.  There are other interpretations available as well, such as the eyes perceiving the white shirt as a perceivable form and not literally the eyes becoming the perceivable form.

Human beings are exceptional in that they are perishable bodies that have reasoning and understanding, and therefore “have all the other parts of the soul” (AGP 818).  The intellect or mind is described as the part of the soul “by which the soul has knowledge and intelligence” (AGP 827).  How understanding comes about from this mind or intellect is described as being similar to perception, so I will avoid redundancy here by stating that in the above-mentioned three steps explaining the process of perception replace the words “perception” with “intellect” and “perceptible/sensible” with “intelligible.”  After this point, Aristotle, peculiarly, abandons his consistency in stating that the soul is defined by its capacities, when he mentions that the intellect cannot be mixed with the body, because if it did it would “like the perceiving part, have some organ, whereas in fact it has none” (AGP 827).  This seems to contradict the form-matter theory Aristotle has been presenting so far because the soul has been the capacity while the body the potentiality, but how can there be a potentiality if the proper organ is not there in the body through which the capacity can be realized?  This is another major problem with Aristotle’s account of the soul, but is not the one I will analyze because there is one that I found in my studies to be drastically more exciting, that of the problem of the Sea Star.  In any case, insofar as I can tell why Aristotle makes this move is to appropriate to the “everlasting and divine” something that uniquely belongs to it, namely the separable unaffected intellect that is distinct from the affected and perishable intellect soul of a human (430a10-35, AGP 829).

Desire is the last of the parts of the soul and it is described as the “potentiality of the soul that moves us” (AGP 830).  What is required for animal movement in this case is “desire and thought concerned with action” (AGP 830).  This is the case such that desire is what causes us animals to move, while animals need rational or perceptual appearances that are shared by other animals in order to have desire.

At last, the problem of the Sea Star.  Regardless of whether or not Aristotle was aware of Starfish or Sea Stars, the problem is that these organisms reproductive nature (asexually by fragmentation) appears to conflict with Aristotle’s claims about the soul.  Aristotle’s conflicting claims are as follow: that the soul cannot be separated from the body, that the soul is strictly the various capacities of life that he outlines as nutritive, perceptive, intellect, and desire, and lastly that one of the functions of the nutritive soul is generation, “for the most natural of all functions for a living thing…is to produce another thing of the same sort as itself” (AGP 818) since it cannot continuously exist to share in the everlasting and divine.  Let me clarify.   At the beginning of the paper we understood the difference between inanimate and animate through the analogy of a rock and an animal.  When the rock is cut in half it maintains its “rockiness,” but when an animal is cut in half it loses what makes it a living organism, namely its soul or the principle capacities.  This is not the case with the Sea Star.  When a Sea Star is cut in half, the two halves regenerate into two whole new Sea Stars, one of which is the clone of the parent.  Aristotle claims that what makes something living is having soul and “that the soul is not separable from the body” (AGP 814).  Normally when any organism’s body is separated, the ensouled organism loses its natural capacities or soul, and it consequentially dies.  Yet, Sea Stars only seem to regenerate their bodies and multiply into more bodies with their separated parts.

At this point, we arrive at some very peculiar and fascinating questions.  The first question is that, since a Sea Star when cut regenerates into whole new clones of the Sea Star, when the Sea Star’s body is being separated into pieces, is the soul of the original body also being separated along with those pieces? If so, does this mean that Sea Stars contain some everlasting soul, therefore an infinitely divisible and imperishable soul? Secondly and related to the first question, are the new Sea Stars being generated from the separated parts the exact same as the original Sea Star, since this is a form of generation unlike reproduction that other animals, plants and even Sea Stars undergo?  Aristotle strictly claims that “what [a thing] generates is not itself, but something else of the same sort – for its own substance already exists, a thing does not generate, but preserves, itself” (AGP 820).   The Sea Star creating clones seems to be completely contradicting this statement by Aristotle.  Again, consequently have Sea Stars in this amazing biological feat accomplished a “share in the everlasting and divine” (AGP 819) by continuous self-existence? Lastly, since this form of generation exemplifies a different part of the soul or a different capacity of a living thing, where would this “regenerative soul” lie in Aristotle’s taxonomy? Does this place the Sea Star above the human being, because it possesses a remarkable ability to generate and preserve exactly itself? Or if not higher than a human being, since it can be said that human beings have the ability to manipulate plants and animals including Starfish due to their intellect, then maybe at some place closer in taxonomy to human beings than any plant or animal?

While I am not sure how Aristotle would answer all of these questions, I believe that if he had the same scientific knowledge that we do know, he could provide a partial explanation toward the first question posed, while still being troubled by the consequences of the potentiality of a “regenerative soul.”  We know now scientifically that a Sea Star can only regenerate if some part of the central nerve ring is intact in its chopped off part.  Therefore, Aristotle could state that the capacity of the “regenerative soul” is related to this “organ” or system of the Sea Star; thus, if the Sea Star is cut at its ends the chopped off parts would not grow into new Sea Stars, and the capacity of the “regenerative soul” would be actualized through the system of the central nerve ring that would work to restore the cut off region.   While this answer would sufficiently tell us how the capacity of “regenerative soul” works, much like we can discuss the eye, pupils, and sight in human beings, it does not explain if the same soul is persisting through the new Sea Stars.   Nor does it provide a legitimate response to the consequences of an organism being able to continuously exist and so possibly sharing in the everlasting and divine.  This seems to be an odd problem, yet a necessarily induced one by Aristotle’s claim about the soul.  We do not say that the exact same soul exists in the child of a human parent, since the slight differentiation in the actualization of the intellect could be explained by the bodily composition and workings of the combined DNA of the mother and father.  Sea Stars, though, due to their unique regenerative ability, leave us with a puzzling problem in terms of Aristotle’s account of the soul.  At the moment, I cannot determine exactly how Aristotle would answer the rest of the questions posed, but at the very least I can say that Aristotle would have to integrate the potentiality and consequences of the regenerative ability of Sea Stars into his theory of the soul and its parts.

Aristotle’s conception of the soul is vastly advanced from the previous theories of the Presocratics through Plato.  His theory of the soul provides for a much more unified understanding of the soul and body in which the soul does not account for any special mental functions distinctly from those of non-vital mental functions of the body.  Thereby, Aristotle avoids the inconsistencies which plagued Plato’s theory of the soul; although, he leaves a few unique ones of his own.  While the academically recognized problems with Aristotle’s account may have some plausible counter arguments that concede that Aristotle is not self-contradictory and indefensible, I am still left pondering how he would have responded to the issues concerning a Sea Star’s reproduction and it naturally cloning itself.  In so far as Aristotle is considered by some to be “without equal in the history of human thought” (AGP 654), I am sure he would have some creative solution.

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