Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Scientist, priest and philosopher discuss the soul

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your email of 24 September, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Write an imaginary dialogue between a scientist, a priest and a philosopher concerning the nature and existence of the soul, illustrating what is characteristic about the approach of philosophy.'

The first thing I note about your dialogue is that the Priest equates the religious attitude with dogmatic belief in a non-physical soul which survives the body after death. There are a number of arguments which one could put forward for why one would want this, but perhaps the strongest (as you indicate) is that it satisfies our sense of justice, as in the story of Lazarus. However, one might question whether the religious attitude as such, or the sense of the numinous or of the holy which religious thinking seeks really requires this.

The way you characterize the attitude of the Scientist suggests to me, on the other hand, that further scientific inquiry could discover that Christian doctrine is correct, and there indeed is such a thing as a non-material soul. Or could it? There are two alternatives here:

The first alternative is that the very nature of scientific necessarily inquiry defines all existing objects as 'physical'. Gravitational fields are not visible in the same way as stones or stars are, but the behaviour of stones and stars under the influence of gravity is observable and measurable. So, by a similar line of reasoning, anything whose influence can be observed is necessarily part of the physical world. If investigation of the brain yields the result that the brain does not have the capacity (as advocates of AI once mistakenly thought) to produce thoughts and perceptions but rather acts as a mere relay mechanism or amplifier, as Descartes believed, then the unobservable entity acting upon it becomes a part of the physical universe (and hence questions can be asked regarding cause and effect, the conservation of energy etc.)

The second alternative is that on the discovery that 'the brain does not have the capacity... to produce thoughts and perceptions', science would come to a sudden halt. It seems to me perfectly conceivable that one could discover, through scientific inquiry, that the universe as we know it is not ultimately amenable to scientific inquiry. Of course, we are nowhere near that yet. Nor would it constitute a 'proof' of the existence of a non-physical soul.

So what is characteristic about the way that philosophy approaches the problem? What does philosophy have to offer?

I don't think that the question does resolve on the possibility or otherwise of discovering how the brain works. That is to say, the argument in this program is that the question can be resolved by pure philosophical inquiry. (Not all academic philosophers are agreed on this point: many would now argue, following the work of W.V.O. Quine, that there is a continuity between philosophy and science. My own view is that this connection has been somewhat overstated.) Arguably, a negative conclusion regarding the traditional doctrine of the soul does not entail the rejection of religion but only a particular, narrow construal of what it is to be religious, or have the religious attitude.

You have Phil state that, 'Philosophy voluntarily restricts itself to the search for truth through the disciplined use of reason and logic... It... works its way through the question using reason to examine relevant ideas, assumptions and experiences.' This doesn't tell me very much. Later, you say that 'the philosopher will begin with the physical world and the human experience of it.' How does this differ from the method of the scientist? The physicist or neurologist investigate the physical world; the psychologist investigates human thought and experience.

In a couple of places Phil says, 'Dr Klempner suggests...'. What is the point of these suggestions? Are they just hypotheses that one might consider as part of an empirical inquiry? (in the spirit of considering every angle, every possible interpretation of the data).

If there is anything characteristic about the approach of philosophy it is in the fact that the philosopher starts further back. The philosopher refuses to accept, e.g., the psychologist's assumption that we know what we mean by 'thoughts', 'experiences', 'feelings' so let's go and investigate them. We don't have ready-made 'data'. What we have, at the start of the inquiry, is rather the things we are 'tempted to say', the images, metaphors, inchoate beliefs which cluster around the idea of an 'inner' life. The very idea of a distinction between 'inner' and 'outer' is in question. We can't assume that all there is to the problem is discovering how these 'two' items are related.

Reason and logic are central because the philosopher seeks proofs. At one time, it was thought (by Descartes) that one could prove, logically, the existence of the soul. Kant demolished Descartes' argument, and, in so doing, emphasized the importance of negative critique (in this case, grandly called the 'Paralogisms of Pure Reason'). This idea is further developed in Wittgenstein's later work, where he talks of the philosopher seeking to 'show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle'. In short, what the philosopher questions is whether we even understand what we are saying when we make statements about the 'inner' or 'mind' or 'soul'.

All the best,