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Brian Cooney
Stodghill Professor of Philosophy

Department of Philosophy
Centre College
600 West Walnut St.
Danville, KY 40422-1394

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Brian Cooney


B. A. Classics Saint Louis University 1965
M. A. Philosophy McGill University 1969
Ph. D. Philosophy McGill University 1972


University of Notre Dame Assistant Professor 1971-72
University of Texas at Austin Assistant Professor
Centre College

Assistant Professor
Associate Professor


Ph.D. Dissertation: The Development of Cartesian Metaphysics: Descartes, Malebranche, and Geulincx


A Hylomorphic Theory of Mind, Peter Lang Publishing, 1991.

The Place of Mind, Wadsworth Publishing Co.,1999.

Posthumanity--Thinking Philosophically about the Future, Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.


John Sergeant's Criticism of Locke's Theory of Ideas, The Modern Schoolman, January, 1973, 143-58. Reprinted in Essays on Early Modern Philosophers, ed. V. Chappell, Garland Publishing, 1993.

"Descartes and the External Darkness," The New Scholasticism, Summer, 1975, 251-79.

"Arnold Geulincx: A Cartesian Idealist," Journal of the History of Philosophy, April, 1978, 167-80. Reprinted in Essays on Early Modern Philosophers, ed. V. Chappell, Garland Publishing, 1993.

"The Biological Basis of Mind," International Philosophical Quarterly, December, 1978, 395-412.

"The Neural Basis of Self-Consciousness," Nature and System, March, 1979, 16-31.

"Dennett's Fictional Selves," Southwest Philosophy Review, January, 1994, 117-124.


"Self-Instantiating Information," presented at APA Pacific Division meeting, March, 1978.

"Hylomorphism and Modern Biology," presented at KPA meeting, April, 1981.

"Hylomorphism and the Philosophy of Mind," presented at Mid-South Philosophy Conference, February, 1988.

"Dennett's Fictional Selves," presented at The Southwestern Philosophical Society meeting, November, 1993

Reply to "The Significance of a ‘Trivial’ Thesis,” (paper on Quine by Kelly Becker), KPA, November, 1999

"On Defining Life,” University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, April, 2003

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[The following is a somewhat modified excerpt from the Introduction to A Hylomorphic Theory of Mind. It explains the concept of a self-instantiating system, a concept central to that book and also to my most recent book Posthumanity--Thinking Philosophically about the Future. My earlier book stressed the relationship of this concept to Aristotle's notion of substance.]

    My purpose in this book is not to add to the seemingly interminable debate between convinced materialists seeking to dismiss the usual (and often Cartesian) objections to their position and those who claim the materialists have not succeeded. Instead, I wish to exit from the house that Descartes built by attacking the common assumption of his dualism and of contemporary materialism: the materialist account of living systems and animal sentience. Cartesian dualism suppressed life and sentience - two of the four ontological domains making up the world as interpreted by most citizens of the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. According to this traditional scheme, plants (unlike rocks) were alive because they were self-maintaining and self-replicating. The life of animals had the added features of sensation, appetite, and motion. Human life was distinguished from that of animals by the increments of thought and language. Descartes had trouble locating human sentience in his reduced scheme. He finally let it straddle mind and matter as partly a physiological mechanism, and partly a “confused” mode of thought arising from the “mingling together” of mind and body. The traditional scheme strongly distinguished life, sentience, and thought; but did not merely juxtapose them in sentient or thinking organisms. Instead, it treated sentience and thought is successively higher differentia of life as genus–as ways of being alive.

    It is the genus life, then, that has to be the focus of an attempt to bypass the lasting constraints of Cartesian dualism. As an alternative to the materialist account of this genus, I will argue for a position which I will now characterize briefly in itself in terms of its historical origin, and by contrast with materialism.
My account of living bodies centers on the concept of a self-instantiating system. Such a system remains identical through time by making itself at each point in its duration an instance of the same kind of system. It does so by responding to changes in its internal and external environment in such a way as to maintain its capacity to respond in the same ways to the same kinds of changes. That is, its continuity through time and change consists in actively retaining its characteristic repertoire of adaptive responses. Continuing as the same kind of system does not imply that there are any other systems of the same kind or species, but only that each successive instance of the single system is of the same kind.

    Every developed organism can be understood as a self-instantiating system. This concept is sufficiently general to be applied both to genetic regulation of metabolic responses in a unicellular system, and to the kind of control exercised by the brain over internal bodily adjustments and external behavior. In both cases, the organism contains a control system that enables it to detect relevant changes in its internal or external environment, select responses to these changes, effect the responses, and be guided by the results of its responses (feedback). However, possessing such a control system is not a sufficient condition for classifying a system as alive. Many American homes contain a climate-control system that carries out the functions just listed. In one type of thermostat there is a bimetallic strip anchored at one end, and free at the other end where it is at a small distance from an electrical contact. Because the strip is composed of two metals with different expansion rates. it will bend as the temperature changes. Thus it can detect temperature changes. if it bends enough to reach the contact, it will turn on the furnace or air conditioner which then effects the system’s response. If the effect of this response on the ambient temperature is sufficient, it will cause the bimetallic strip to bend away from the electrical contact (feedback), terminating the response. The selection of a cooling or heating response is made according to a norm established by the temperature setting (which, by altering the distance of the strip from the contact, changes the threshold temperature).

    Thus the role of the thermostat, like the role of the genetic material in a bacterium or the brain in an animal, is to monitor the state of an environment, detect a departure of this state from a norm, and respond by bringing the environment back to the norm. The components of the thermostat are organized in such a way as to embody the equivalent of a hypothetical prescription: If the temperature exceeds or falls short of x degrees, then initiate the cooling or heating response. We can refer to this organization of the thermostat components as stored information (a term which I will explain at length in chapter two). The structure of a bacterium’s DNA molecule, and the neuronal organization of the brain are also cases of stored information that enables the organism to detect relevant events and select appropriate responses.

    Despite the similarity between a thermostatic system and a biological control system, we are not inclined to think that something alive is breathing through the household duct work. The control functions of an organism or self-instantiating system differ from those of a thermostatic system in kind as well as complexity. An organism has what can be called an adaptive control system. Its norm is the continuity of the enclosing organism, or the preservation of the repertoire of responses specific to that kind of organism. The disanalogy with a thermostatic system is apparent. Neither it nor the structure enclosing it are self-maintaining. Suppose that the climate-control system were also capable of monitoring the state of its working parts, and could respond to changes in its internal and external environment by activities such as cleaning and repairing itself, transforming unfinished materials into replacement parts, and altering its own temperature setting, all in such a way as to preserve its capacity to do these very things. It would then be a living, self-instantiating system (whose repertoire included climate-control), rather than just a servomechanism for human organisms in their self-instantiation.

    Given a suitable inner and outer environment, as long as the organism continues to have the same kind of stored information in its adaptive control system, its responses enable it to persist through time and change as numerically the same individual. This temporal continuity does not depend on the continued presence of any of the individual physical components which happen to be present in the organism at any point in its duration, As long as these are replaced by the right sorts of components (either the same or functionally equivalent sorts), and are replaced in such a way as to leave uninterrupted the organism’s repertoire of adaptive responses, even a total replacement of all physical components would be consistent with the identity of the organism over time. It is noteworthy that unicellular systems do constantly decompose internal structures and rebuild them with new materials, and that most component cells of multicellular organisms are regularly replaced with newly grown cells. As a self-instantiating system, an organism should be understood not as a collection of physical components, but rather as a persisting repertoire of responses embodied in an uninterrupted succession of collections of components.

    The concept of a self-instantiating system is a development and transformation of Aristotle’s notion of substance. He used the Greek term ousia (usually translated as substance) to designate what is a basic existent or paradigm case for the application of such terms as being and individual. A major purpose of my book is to shift the current ontological paradigm away from the particulate objects which were the focus of early modern, pre-biological science, and to the kind of system studied in recent biology. For this purpose, it is appropriate to look back to Aristotle, because he saw as a central phenomenon of nature the sort of organization and activity characteristic of living systems. However, my book is not intended to be a defense, or even an exposition, of the metaphysics of the historical Aristotle. Instead, I wish to acknowledge that I have borrowed and often altered major elements of his theory (as I understand it) in order to gain a philosophical perspective appropriate to modern biology.

    Aristotle’s material substances were composites of what he called matter and form. In a living substance form was an organizing principle. It endowed a quantity of matter with a set of structures and activities that enabled the organism to persist through sequences of allowed changes in such a way as to retain the capacity for its essential activities. In other words, the form of an organism enabled it to continue to exist as that organism by securing its continuity as that kind of organism. Thus there is a functional resemblance between the form of a living substance in Aristotle, and the information stored in the adaptive control system of an organism Both can be understood as intrinsic components which enable a living system to be what I have called self-instantiating. In my theory, the correlate of Aristotle’s notion of the form of a living substance will be called self-instantiating information.

    The self-instantiating information present throughout the life of an organism typically outlasts a large percentage of the physical components once present in the organism. As information, it could survive a gradual but complete turnover of all components, since it is nothing but an ordering of kinds of components, and is not essentially bound to any particular instances of those kinds. In this sense, it is really distinct from the actual collection of physical components which embodies it at any particular time in the life of the organism. Self-instantiating information is an objective, really distinct ingredient of living systems. It is something which is there in living systems, just as truly as physical components are there. And it is absent in non-living systems. Furthermore, it is the ingredient which is responsible for the most distinctive characteristic of a living system: adaptive control.

    Yet this real distinction of self-instantiating information and its physical embodiment is nothing like a Cartesian substance or stuff dualism. Descartes claimed that mind and body are really distinct because each is conceivable by itself and capable of existing by itself. However, self-instantiating information could not exist unless embodied in one of the successive configurations of physical components constituting the organism. Neither this succession of configurations, nor the embodied information, could exist without each other. Nevertheless, this information is a nonphysical entity in the sense that it is irreducible to those components of the organism that fall within the domain of physical science. However, because it must be embodied in the physical components of the adaptive control system, it can evolve together with those components. Unlike a Cartesian mind, its immateriality does not detach it from biological evolution.

    As I will explain at length in the relevant chapters of this book, sentience and thought are evolutionary modifications of the function of self-instantiating information. In all organisms, this information is transiently or permanently affected by signals from the environment. These signals elicit adaptive responses to changes in the environment. This effect of a signal may seem, at first glance, to be inconsistent with the continuity of self-instantiating information. However, this information is to a great extent the functional equivalent of an array of interrelated hypothetical prescriptions for which signals mark the actual occurrences of antecedents. The detection of these occurrences and the effecting of appropriate responses (the consequents of the prescriptions) does not change the prescriptions themselves. Thus the self-instantiating information would be the same before and after the signals, even if the latter form lasting records. Sentience occurs when self-instantiating information is embodied in a brain, and the signals that affect it are patterns of neural events isomorphic with environmental events.

    An organism, by means of its self-instantiating information, does for itself what our concepts must do for inanimate systems. The informational ingredient of the organism’s adaptive control system, by establishing a zone of control and maintaining a boundary for that zone, generates the system’s spatial extension. Also, by determining which responses will be given to which sorts of change, and by doing so in a way that maintains a repertoire of responses, it creates the temporal extension o[ the organism as an uninterrupted succession of instances of that kind of organism. Inanimate bodies, by contrast, do not have an intrinsic source of their spatiotemporal unity. They are instead collections which happen for a time to satisfy the specifications of some concept of an observer. Only living things are natural individuals; inanimate ‘individuals’ are conceptual artifacts.

    Descartes condemned Aristotelian metaphysics and natural philosophy as an obstacle to the progress of what came to be called the scientific revolution. This condemnation was one of the more important events in modern intellectual history. It both expressed and reinforced an atittude which was gaining ground among philosophers and scientists in Descartes’ time, and which is widespread to this day. This attitude was in important respects justified. Aristotelian academics insisted on a hylomorphic account of bodies and their behavior. However, the reasons outlined above for the applicability of the hylomorphic concept to the contemporary account of living systems make equaIly clear that this concept is not applicable to inanimate body. Moreover, Aristotle’s concept of matter was vitiated by a qualitative account of the fundamental properties of bodies. The function of substantial form or self-instantiating information, as explained above, presupposes and indeed harnesses the mathematically expressible regularities of physical being. It was these regularities which the seventeenth-century scientists were beginning to discover. Their enterprise conflicted with the Aristotelian academics’ insistence on a misapplied notion of substantial form and a problematic concept of matter. Thus anti-hylomorphism served its purpose in the seventeenth century in helping to unseat an academic establishment which was resisting new ideas and methods in science. But it is now, I believe, a prejudice which has outlived whatever usefulness it had for scientific progress. It now contributes to the persistence of a dated philosophy of nature which is incapable of accommodating the distinctive features of living systems revealed in contemporary biology. This in turn makes it especially difficult to understand human nature as part of the natural world studied by the various physical and life sciences.

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The GOP's low road to 'prosperity' May 5, 2011
Attack on social programs rooted in flawed ideology April 7, 2011
The rewards of labor in America March 17, 2011
Feeding the giant vampire squid Feb. 23, 2011
Obama, Repulicans not tackling deficit Feb. 4, 2011
The Morality of Rugged Individualism Dec. 28, 2010
Are wealthy more deserving than the rest of us? Dec. 22, 2010
A torn social contract Nov. 22, 2010
Hiding in plain sight; the abysmal record of the GOP Oct. 26, 2010
The great American tax cut circus
Sept. 27, 2010
Anti-government propaganda fueled by ignorance
Sept. 7, 2010
The GOP wants to double down on trickle down
Aug. 6, 2010
Extending rights to corporations undermines democracy
July 1, 2010

Rand Paul and the anti-government scam

June 14, 2010
Democracy in the workplace is a viable alternative
May 14, 2010
Denmark: Land of the free
April 7, 2010
Democrats and Republicans serve a predator state
March 10, 2010
Obama is the Establishment Feb. 13, 2010
The Sad spectacle of the U.S. Senate Dec. 10, 2009
Militarism is distorting and bankrupting America
Nov. 12, 2009
McConnell tries to deceive seniors on insurance reform
Oct. 14, 2009
Who's afraid of government health insurance, and why? Sept. 9, 2009
Can we get real health insurance reform? Aug. 11, 2009
Is the national GOP running amok? July 7, 2009
An open letter to Sen. McConnell May 7, 2009
Unionization would rebuild economy, strengthen democracy Mar. 5, 2009
Can We Get Beyond Market Fetishism? Jan. 25, 2009
Israel Does It Again: America Responds in Usual Fashion Jan. 5, 2009
Pride and Patriotism Dec. 8, 2008
Citizen Obama Nov. 12, 2008
The McCain Myth Oct. 17, 2008
McCain and Palin are Unbelievable Sept. 23, 2008
In Memory of Labor Day Sept. 5, 2008
Republican Privatization Agenda is Anti-Democratic Aug. 19, 2008
Do the Rich Deserve their Wealth? July 8, 2008
Reflections on the Fifth Anniversary of the Iraq War Mar. 23, 2008
Is Bush a War Criminal? Jan. 18, 2008
The Dishonesty of Ernie Fletcher Oct. 16, 2007
The Church of the Invisible Hand
Sept. 17, 2007
Why does Bush fear the International Criminal Court? Aug. 14, 2007
America's Behavior Contradicts Stated Role Aug. 6, 2007
Winning One for the Gipper July 10, 2007
American Plutocracy June 12, 2007
'Day of Reckoning' Ahead for Bush, Republicans Mar. 30, 2007
We Need Single-Payer Health Insurance Feb. 15, 2007
The Wealthy Should Pay More Taxes Jan. 12, 2007
The Catastrophe in Iraq Dec. 28, 2006
Do Republicans Care about the Working Poor? Oct. 30 , 2006
Does America Torture? Sept. 27, 2006
What Does President Bush Mean by Freedom? Aug. 23, 2006
What Does "GOD FAMILY COUNTRY" Mean? July 24, 2006
Equality for All Men Is Still a Dream July 7, 2006
Enforce Existing Immigration Laws June 13, 2006
Bush One of the Most Dangerous Men in the World May 10, 2006
Bush's War on Terror is Mostly Rhetoric March 7, 2006
Have Americans Traded One King George for Another? Feb. 3, 2006
Public Should Demand Independent Investigation of Torture Dec. 28, 2005
The Case for Impeachment Nov. 23, 2005
Norquist's Anti-tax Pledge is Foolish, Irresponsible Oct. 28, 2005
Is Competence a Republican Value? Sept. 28, 2005
Intelligent Design is Unintelligent Science Sept. 6, 2005
America's Corporate Elite Aug. 5, 2005
















Guest column: Who's afraid of government health insurance, and why?
Contributing writer
September 9, 2009

At the 1980 Democratic convention, Ted Kennedy said, “Let us insist on real control over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family's health shall never depend on the size of a family's wealth.”

In 2008, soon after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, he spoke the same message to the Democratic convention: We must “guarantee that every American … will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not just a privilege.” As he wrote in the July 27 issue of Newsweek (a month before his death), “This is the cause of my life.”

Kennedy was both an eloquent idealist and a very hard-working master of legislative procedure and detail. The passionate concern this wealthy senator had for the less fortunate distinguished him from most of his colleagues.

The clash between his vision of the role of government and that of conservatives was not over the size of government. Conservatives frequently pretend they are against “big” government, but the facts say otherwise.

For instance, as the conservative Washington Times (10/19/08) said about George W. Bush: “No president since FDR — who offered a New Deal to pull the nation out of the Great Depression and then fought World War II — has presided over as rapid a growth in government when measured as a percentage of the total economy.”

A nation of 300-plus million people with the world's largest economy is going to have a big government no matter what. The real issue is whether its government concerns itself with the well-being of all its citizens or only a privileged subset.

It is clear where the heart of the Bush administration was. Thanks to his economic and fiscal policies (including huge tax cuts for the rich), we had eight years of a growing divide between the wealthiest 10 percent and everyone else.

The current health insurance debate is part of a war now being waged over whose interests the federal government will represent in the post-Bush era. It pits the bloated profits of a grossly inefficient health care industry over against the need of all Americans for secure, affordable health insurance.

Private health insurance profits

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, private health insurance profits and underwriting and marketing expenses amounted to $62 billion more in 2003 than what health insurance would have cost if we did not rely on for-profit insurers. The excess cost for 2006 was $54 billion.

Moreover, the administrative expenses for Medicare have increased by billions of dollars now that it has to deal with the multitude of private for-profit insurers servicing Part D (drugs) and Medicare Advantage plans that are private replacements for Parts A and B of Medicare. Government payouts for Advantage plans average 14 percent more per patient than traditional Medicare.

It costs us tens of billions of dollars each year to have for-profit health insurers do nothing for health care. It's as if, when you're with your doctor in the examining room, a third person shows up and demands a payment just for letting you in.

Everyone needs to ask themselves just what they get for the huge extra costs of for-profit health insurance. Is it better than Medicare, which is a “government run” plan?

Health insurance that is “government administered” and “similar to Medicare” was favored by 67 percent of respondents in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in April and 72 percent in a more recent CBS News/New York Times poll.

President Obama made a serious strategic error when he ruled out the single-payer option at the very start of the health care debate. Instead, he advocated a “public option” — a nonprofit, government-run, self-financed plan that would compete with private insurers.

This public option is supposed to test the conservative claim that for-profit insurers are worth having. If they can do a better job of insuring people, they will successfully compete with the public option. If not, then they should suffer the fate of losers in a competitive market.

By taking single-payer off the table, Obama in effect moved the public option to the “radical” side of the alternatives under discussion. It then became inevitable that “moderate” legislators would try to compromise it away.

If these so-called moderates kill or dilute the public option, and we use public money to subsidize insurance premiums for the uninsured, the effect will be to throw 47 million new customers at the for-profit insurers. This increased demand for an already over-priced product will only worsen the medical inflation rate.

What is at stake in the health care reform debate is whether we continue to have a government that ranks corporate profits higher than the health and well-being of all Americans. It would be truly revolutionary, and count as real change, if we could legislate Ted Kennedy's call for affordable comprehensive health insurance as a right for all.

Brian Cooney is the Stodghill professor of philosophy at College.

Copyright: 2009