Scientists have discovered that we can make rats forget or remember something by turning a switch on and off. This is not really unusual. In fact, to Aristotle, this would not be surprising. He believed that people were bodies and souls together. Four hundred years ago, Descartes disagreed. He thought that people were souls stuck inside bodies. Since remembering is something bodies do, souls have nothing to do with memory. Memories can be described in a mechanical way. A philosophical examination of memory shows that this is not true: Descartes was wrong.
The experiment allowed the researchers to prevent rats from moving new memories into long-term memory. It also allowed them to mechanically move the memories (with a computer) rather than using natural methods. Since human brains and rats brains use similar methods of remembering, scientists believe that eventually we will be able to help people remember better with mechanical aids. It would be very surprising if this were not true.
All of this does not show that memories are merely mechanical (as Descartes claimed). Memories are all about something or other. Your memory of yesterday’s dinner is about the dinner. All memories are about things. Nothing mechanical is about something because it is mechanical. Consider a series of bars on the ground that spell out “I WAS HERE”. The message is about something. But the bars do not form a message because they are bars. They form a message because of their arrangement. Like the researchers, we might be able to move the bars from one place to another mechanically, but that does not mean we can create a message mechanically. So this story does not show that memories are mechanical. Furthermore, we have a good philosophical reason to believe that no memories are mechanical. That means that Aristotle was right (again) and Descartes was wrong.
What does that mean for us? It means that Aristotle may be right. Maybe we do have souls. This scientific evidence does not prove anything different. If we have souls, perhaps it is worthwhile to ask whether they are eternal (as Aristotle believed).
Aristotle is one of the most important philosophers and thinkers in history. He was the first to investigate logic. He promoted systematic observation and thought in biology, physics, law, literature and ethics. He was the first to systematically think through and develop a philosophical system that explained everything that the people of his time knew. He was a scientist, an ethicist, a philosopher and literary critic. His science lasted for over 1,500 years without significant challenge. His philosophy, logic and understanding lasted just as long.
Today, most people do not know who Aristotle is or why he is important. We do not believe that everything is composed of earth, air, fire and water. We do not believe that the stars, planets and sun orbit the earth. We do not study Aristotle in school or study the works of his followers. All of this is true, but there is much we can still learn from Aristotle. There are three areas that are of importance. First, we can study the art of conversation or dialectic. This teaches us how to defend our opinions, discover true opinions and distinguish between the truth and falsehood in other people’s beliefs. Second, we can learn the timeless portions of Aristotle. This includes his understanding of human beings as partly material and partly immaterial, his understanding of causes in nature and his understanding of virtue. Third, we can learn from Aristotle’s method. He was willing to learn from anyone and criticize anyone. All that mattered to him was whether what someone said was true.
I want to suggest one more reason that Aristotle is important. Aristotle is important because he corrects many of the errors of the modern world. During the scientific revolution, Galileo rejected the philosophy of Aristotle. Galileo was wrong. This error led to a gap between philosophy and science that has continued ever since. Galileo, Descartes and others supported a mechanical understanding of nature that separated ethics and immaterial beings from the world. This division led, eventually to our current understanding of the world. Our current understanding of the world allows for and encourages us to do things that would be unthinkable for our ancestors. We riot in Vancouver over a lost game, shoot people at schools in the US because life is meaningless and deal with politicians that don’t seem to be able to do anything right. Perhaps it is time we returned to Aristotle.