Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dialogue between scientist, priest and philosopher (1)

To: Peter P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Dialogue between scientist, priest and philosopher
Date: 7 November 2001 14:06

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your e-mail of 28 October, with your first assignment for the Philosophy of Mind program, 'A dialogue between a Scientist, a Priest and a Philosopher'.

You asked if 'The Philosopher' accepts short stories. I don't know, as I am not on the editorial team. You'll have to ask Martin Cohen, the editor. However, I would be prepared to consider a short story submission to the Pathways e-journal. Try to keep the word count below 1200, if possible.

Now, I've read your dialogue.

Good. I was gripped. I could believe that these were real people. What about the philosophy?

Much of the dialogue is given over to Joe's idea of the soul as 'simply a tendency for decision and choice, strengthened and matured (hopefully) over time'. Though intellect and emotion 'feel more a part of me than other things...if you ask me if that is what enters heaven to bask in the Supreme Presence I have to say no.'

Now, there are two questions here. The first is what we are, essentially; the second question is what we will be after we have entered heaven. The Cartesian theory makes it look as if these are the same question, but they need not be. It is consistent with the mystery at the heart of Christian and Jewish (I don't know enough about Islamic) belief to assert that in heaven our selves will be transformed in a manner in which we cannot conceive from the vantage point of our present situation. It does not follow that what I essentially am, is the entity that will be in the future, when I no longer enjoy an embodied existence.

The main difficulty with identifying the self with a 'tendency for decision and choice' is that the very act of choosing implies the availability of reasons for action, for doing A rather than B. I would not accept the sharp dichotomy between 'reason' and 'emotion'. Everything we do, we do for a reason. This applies in the problematic case of 'weakness of will', where we apparently choose A when we have a stronger reason to choose B. I say 'apparently', because it seems to me incoherent to posit a 'power of choosing' which operates independently of our capacity for practical reason.

From the priest's reference to confessionals, I guess this is in fact the heart of the theory of the soul as a bare 'power of choosing'. On the analysis I would give, there is no need to posit such a power existing independently of an agent's capacity for practical reason. In order to understand how there can be so-called weakness of will, we have to look closer at how the things we 'know' enter into our deliberations, understand better the modalities of doubt and self-deception which lead us to act 'irrationally'.

You also say some things about faith and reason. The thing to say is that to be rational is not to demand one hundred per cent proof, but rather to seek the best explanation, in the light of our experience and knowledge. The best explanation has a higher probability of truth than any alternative explanation. However, it is logically possible - and on occasion proves to be the case - that what was the 'best explanation' given the knowledge we possessed at a given point in time, turns out to have been false, and an explanation which at the time would have been totally far fetched turns out to be true. ('True' and 'false' here refer simply to the judgements we would make now, which in turn might be overturned; as one might say, 'It is true that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light', meaning, 'This is the theory we now hold.')

The 'Aristotelian' point seems close to the idea of people like Daniel Dennett ('Consciousness Explained') that the self is essentially different from the body in the way that a computer program is different from the hardware that it runs on. In theory, the G.K. or P.P. program could run on a silicon brain. In the book just mentioned, Dennett does in fact suggest that this would be good materialist grounds for believing in the possibility of eternal life (though as you will gather from the program it raises acute problems for the notion of personal identity). Aristotle's theory of the soul as the 'form' of the living body has to be understood in the context of his hostility to micro-structural explanation, of the type first offered (in logical outline) by the Presocratic 'atomists' Leucippus and Democritus. Things get interesting when we recognize that unseen processes going on in the brain 'explain' a human being's capacity to function in characteristically human ways.

All the best,

Geoffrey