On the alienation of/by Thomas Aquinas

– Tom Uytterhoeven –

Today we discussed two fragments of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa in the doctoral seminar (on theological anthropology and ethics; main theme: ‘Love’) I’m attending. We had prof. Andrea Robiglio as guest-lecturer. In this post I first give the question I asked about these texts, followed by the answer prof. Robiglio gave. Here’s the link to the texts of Thomas Aquinas we discussed: on the passions and on the effects of love.

My comment:
In the movie “AI” (Artificial Intelligence, directed by Steven Spielberg) a robot-boy is devised with the capacity to love his human owners as if they are his parents. This love is one-directional and one-dimensional: after a certain procedure has been carried out, the robot focuses entirely on his ’mother’ and will never develop a comparable relation with anyone else.
The movie has a dramatic turn (such is life according to Hollywood-scripts), when the robot in question has to compete for a place in his ’family’ with the biological son who surprisingly recovered from a year-long coma. Eventionally the mother abandons her robot-son, leaving him behind in a forest like once happened to Hans and Gretchen, ‘Little Thumb’ and his brothers, and Snow White. Unlike theirs, the story of this little robot boy does not have a happy ending: he goes on a quest, desperately seeking to find a way to become a real boy, so his mother could love him like before. He ends up finding his mother again in a virtual setting, lasting for only 24 hours, and created for him by aliens (hey, it’s Hollywood, anything can happen!) who study the human race eons after its demise. What they want to understand , is the complexity of human emotionality.
Reading Thomas Aquinas on love puts you in the aliens’ position: trying to understand the complexities of love from a rational point of view. When Thomas makes a distinction between different sorts of love, he resembles an alien researcher, trying to make sense of what humans unreflectively do. By doing so, he points to some features of love that seem important but all too readily forgotten: love is connected with a desire for the good, humans are capable of intellective or sentient love, love is what forms our appetite, it is through love that we are able to enter into a relation with God,… Of course, were we to be in the position of the alien researchers in “AI”, and reading those texts eons from now, we would probably wonder what Thomas was talking about. Even if we would be able to completely understand his philosophical background, we would probably try to figure out ways to translate his terminology into our own – highly abstract and logical, we are after all smart aliens – language. And then we would have to tackle difficult questions. For instance: Thomas talks about intellective or sentient love, but how does this relate to the workings of human cognition? Is ’reason’ for Thomas the same as ’rational’? If love is supposed by Thomas to have an effect on the way apse live and on what we strive for, how does this compute with the desire of us, aliens, to give priority to reason for deciding whether a behaviour is ’good’ or ’wrong’? On a more fundamental level: do the ancient words of Thomas Aquinas open up new perspectives to look at reality, to see it like we weren’t able before? Or is he merely tentatively touching on what is already in our databases?
But then again, maybe it’s just like in the movie. All the robot-boy wants, is his mother to tell him she loves him. His quest ends, all his suffering becomes worth the while, his solitude is resolved, when she softly speaks these magical words. When hearing this words uttered to him, the robot-boy smiles. For a moment, it’s like love has made him human.

Prof. Robiglio’s response (I summarize, these are not his exact words):
There are three aspects that need to be treated to answer this question. First one has to look at the meaning of the word ‘reason’ in Thomas Aquinas’ work. This is not self-evident, since Thomas uses this word in a multitude of ways, with a multitude of nuanced meanings.
A second aspect is to look at the way we understand the word ’rational’ today. If we do this, prof. Robiglio states, we will find that are current use of this word is very limited in comparison with Thomas Aquinas’ use. We tend to look at reason from a technical, functionalist perspective. Reason is the execution of a heuristic algorithm, of making logical inferences. Whatever falls out of the scoop of this algorithm is deemed irrational. That’s why we face difficulties understanding Thomas’ nuanced language: we reduced words like ’reason’ to only one of the dimensions Thomas discerns.
For the third step, prof. Robiglio pointed to the connection between words and concepts. Words are important, which is why Thomas Aquinas goes through great length to identify the different layers of meaning a word can refer to. But words can be misleading nonetheless. Sometimes one word can point to more than one concept, so different concepts are referred to by just one word. But sometimes different words refer to the same concept, so one concept is linked with different words. Mapping this out is an important task for a theologian engaging in dialogue with someone like Thomas Aquinas.
Put very short: addressing Thomas’ understanding of ’reason’ involves the recognition of a whole semantic field.

Triggered by Prof. Robiglio’s encouraging answer, I stepped back into our faculty’s library. A few minutes of searching later, I stumbled upon some interesting books on possible ways to relate Aquinas with current understandings of mind and consciousness. I have some other writing and editing assignments to clear off my desk first, but I do want to delve deeper into this. For a while now I’m struggling with the question how to connect theologians who wrote in a “non-science” environment with the concepts of our scientific age. Maybe today’s seminar has given me the impetus to take it to the next level, we’ll see. An article like this shows in which direction I’m looking, comments/suggestions always welcome:

Making Motions in a Language we do not Understand: The Apophaticism of Thomas Aquinas and Victor Preller

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