The Soul of the Matter

Most of us believe that we think, feel, act have desires, purpose and experiences. We believe that we are conscious, thinking acting persons. In fact I have often stated that what makes us human is our consciousness (learned many years ago from the good Dr Phil) – not only can we make decisions and think about things but we are aware of those processes. We are aware of some of the important processes of mind. We have little chats with ourselves as we ponder problems. We seem to be able to guide to some extent some of the activities of mind. We posit a sense of self that seems to guide these processes and as a result believe we have some opportunity to make choices about the direction of our lives.

There is however a large body of scientific and philosophical opinion which attempts to refute this concept. Eminent thinkers like Daniel Dennett, Paul Churchland, Richard Stich and others would have us believe that this is just an illusion. They argue that this first person subjective experience that seems to indicate a sense of self is merely a construct of the brain – a manifestation of the electro-chemical processes that this marvelous organ utilizes to equip us with the wherewithal of dealing with everyday life.

In previous blogs we have discussed dualism. This is a very important example of dualism (the mind-body problem) or its refutation. Dennett and the materialist reductionists believe that the physical world is all that there is and that notions of self, consciousness etc are merely illusions created by the brain.

The traditional opponents to this way of thinking have argued just the opposite. They maintain that there is something unique in human beings (traditionally in religious contexts called “the soul”) which is additional to their physical characteristics. That is to say there is a non-physical something that provides a sense of self. Some traditions believe that this is immortal and survives the physical death of the body. Discussion on this phenomenon has engaged the thinking of philosophers from Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas, Avicenna, Immanuel Kant right through to the likes of Dennett, Hofstadter and their peers.

The argument comes down to a strange dichotomy. The materialists believe that nothing is real other than what can be physically observed and measured – atoms and molecules comprise everything of consequence. The more hearty philosophers even go further, claiming that subjectivity and the self are illusions and do not actually exist.

The other camp, (let’s call them the spiritualists) believe that consciousness is the prime quality of human beings and that consciousness is not a derivative of the electro-chemical processes of the brain but is, in fact, the fundamental stuff of the universe. To them it is the physical world that is the illusion (Maya in Sanskrit).

Dr Susan Blackmore, Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth, falls squarely in the materialist camp. She believes our feelings of self are unreliable and she rejects the idea that we are persisting selves.

In her little book “Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction” she declares, “Our language spins a story of a self and so we come to believe that there is, in addition to our single body, a single inner self who has consciousness, holds opinions, and makes decisions. Really there is no inner self but only multiple, parallel processes that give rise to a benign user illusion – a useful fiction.”

Elsewhere she writes:

“The trouble is that it is very hard to accept in one’s own personal life. It means accepting that there is no one who is having these experiences. It means accepting that every time I seem to exist, this is just a temporary fiction and not the same ‘me’ who seemed to exist a moment before or last week, or last year. This is tough but I think it gets easier with practice.”

This is a hard concept for many of us to accept (and some of the internal contradictions of the above statement will probably be obvious to you).

If you are a materialist then, you believe that there is nothing other than a physical world and our notions of personal freedom and an independent self are but an illusion.

One of the most telling ripostes countering the materialists’ arguments was an essay by Thomas Nagel published in The Philosophical Review in October 1974 entitled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (If you are interested you can google this title and easily find it on the Web.)

Nagel argued that even if behaviour was determined by the physical properties of the brain, it is difficult to believe that such a causal relationship could explain our subjective experiences. It seems that our inner experiences are unique to ourselves (and even Susan Blackmore seems to have some sympathy for that notion.). Whilst we might have experiences that are analogous to others, we can never experience what others experience. Tellingly, Nagel proposed that he might be able to imagine what it was like to have membrane wings and detect the physical world by echo-location but that would only be his postulation about what it would be like for him to be a bat! It might have no resemblance to what a bat actually experiences.

In many traditions the soul is posited as the incorporeal essence of human beings. In some such traditions (but not all) the soul is deemed to survive the physical death of the body. The soul is deemed to be essential to consciousness and indeed personality. The sense of self is then a manifestation of the soul.

For the ancient Greeks humans only had life because of their souls. Someone alive was “ensouled”. Plato, following from Socrates believed that the soul was the essence of a person.

Some traditions believed that the soul is reincarnated into new bodies after death. This is the belief of many Buddhists for example. Pythagoras also appears to have established a religion based on metempsychosis (transmigration of the soul or reincarnation).

Perhaps the crucial question in these deliberations is how real is the first person, subjective experience? Daniel Dennett, the arch-materialist-reductionist, claims to be more certain about mass, charge and space-time than he is of experience. (What a contrast to Descartes’ statement “I think therefore I am” And remember this is what initiated the whole materialistic reductionist enterprise!)

Frank Jackson asserting the dominance of the physical, has written, “If mental nature is not an addition to physical nature, then the physical way things are necessitates the mental way things are. Fix the physical way things are and you have done enough to fix the mental way things are.”

Or as the materialist D M Armstrong asserts, “ I think it is true to say that one view is steadily gaining ground so that it bids fair to become established scientific doctrine. This is the view that we can give a complete account of man in purely physico-chemical terms.”

Well, as you would no doubt predict, I disagree with Armstrong. However, I suspect that the mind-body problem might never be resolved by science. I think it is a dilemma at the edge of our understanding. (Remember my references to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle referenced in previous blogs which I believe are manifestations of the limitations of the human mind.)

Next week I think I will offer you some arguments in support of the Spiritualists’ point of view. But then again, on a whim, which is obviously generated by the physical processes of my mind, a bit of electro-chemical activity and probably mis-firing neurons, I might just tell you the story of “Mucky the Turtle” instead!

11 Replies to “The Soul of the Matter”

  1. Ted, I do believe that I’d quite enjoy the story of Mucky the Turtle. So go on, mis-fire those neurons.


  2. I have an inner conflict with this topic but have been able to rationalise it to myself after a fashion. My logical side is very much materialist. The Universe came into being as a big bang and ever since then particles have been colliding and reacting based on the laws of physics of our Universe. Everything that occurs is predefined based on the laws of physics right down to our every thought and emotion. This is logical, supported by almost every physicist of note and to me at least all but beyond question. If this is the case there is no room for freedom of choice. We have the illusion of choice but what ever we decide was always predetermined. Based on this you would think there was no room for consciousness as an entity outside the Universe (something that did not obey the laws of physics) but I suggest this is not the case.

    If consciousness is non dualistic and eternal in nature, then it existed before the big bang. In this case the big bang is a creation of consciousness and not the other way round. This idea seemed a stretch to me at first but in reality it is every bit as plausible as the materialist view and no less justifiable or explainable. It has some flow on effects as well.

    The day to day events we experience are still predetermined based on the laws of physics. No matter how bad or good things are in this world they are exactly as they should be.

    There are no supernatural impacts on the world. Consciousness “created” the big bang as its last act in this perceived physical world. There is no on-going intervention in the material world or the laws of physics would not hold.

    In this model the inner self that we relate to does exist however it is not the part that is making decisions. Decisions are clearly deterministic in nature as they impact the physical world so can not be free and therefore part of our consciousness. The inner passive watcher of these thoughts is the true “fragment” of eternal consciousness that we have inherited. The fact that we observe our thoughts is what makes conscious beings (humans) different to other organisms. To go a step further this “fragment” of consciousness that we have must also be all consciousness for if it wasn’t then consciousness would not be one but many. At this level of consciousness therefore we are all one. The physical activities of the world around us including our physical form is nothing more than a grand clock work display that was created by consciousness, for consciousness.

  3. “I am, therefore I think”.

    I think I’ve been down this road before with you Ted, but what the hell, in for penny etc.

    Reductionism and science take us down the path of having a greater understanding of our physical being (real or perceived).

    Evolution (if you believe in it; I do) has laid out fairly simply how such great diversity can develop over geological time. Remember too, that man has existed as a sentient species for such a minuscule amount of the time that the earth has existed. If not wiped out by an asteroid the dinosaurs may have developed opposable thumbs and sentience and be happily blogging away on the nature of existence and whether the great dinosaur in the sky really did create them in his image.

    I think it likely that both views (Materialist vs Spiritualist) are both right and wrong. To me they can comfortably coexist as theories of our nature.

    Time and space are unlimited (or perhaps it is better to say that they have no limit), yet these positions always seem to limit both. Is there a spiritual existence that lives beyond our bodies? If so, how does a thorough understanding of our physical bodies in any way diminish that position.

    Finally, I caution against the delusion of relevance. Is it merely our ego that refuses to accept the possibility that we may in fact be little more than monkeys you can think?

    BTW: I don’t reject spirituality.

  4. Wow what great commentary! It was worth the effort writing the blog!

    It is certainly likely that this is not an either/or proposition. I personally believe that most of our human behaviour is determined. But I also believe we have some choice. Both of you Greg and Bruno would know this is one of the ongoing themes that the good Dr Phil has been trying to elaborate on for many years. So yes we are in many ways deterministically constrained but there is still a fundamental choice which we make. Then that being the case, if not everything is is determined, then there must be some notion of self which is able to go beyond the physics and make a difference in our lives. If the decision, as Phil maintains, is about how we see the world, a choice between a world view of “Fear” or “Love”, it is still a very important determinant of how we live our lives.

    And Bruno I am not in any way seeking to diminish what we have learned through our scientific investigations. Science has been a huge factor in the improvement of our lives. (You wouldn’t expect an engineer to say otherwise, would you?) But I believe that there is a limit to the province of science. There are things of great concern to human beings that will never yield to the scientific method.I believe the nature of our consciousness is one of them. And whilst I am a spiritual person, I will not put aside science. I will always accept what can be proven scientifically. It is just that I believe some of the prime interests of humankind will never be addressed by science. So, you are right Bruno and Greg. There is room for both Materialism and Spirituality.

    Sorry Ken, it was only uttered in a moment of madness (too many glasses of wine) – I am not sure I can any longer remember Mucky the Turtle.(It is a story I wrote for my children nearly forty years ago!)

    And Father Robin who is Harry Potter? I remember a Potter once – (was it Jack Potter?)I think he was an all-rounder who played for Victoria.

  5. No, not that bloke.

    The one I’m thinking about is a Magician.

    So certainly not from Victoria!

  6. Ted,

    This is where the good doctor Phil and I always end up in stalemate. My argument is you can’t have it both ways. The Universe is deterministic or not. If at any level a free decision can be made (Love or Fear) and this decision changes the way we interact with the Universe then this decision also changes the Universe. Net result is if this degree of freedom exists then the Universe is not deterministic because consciousness, “God” or what ever, is not yet finished dabbling with it’s creation. There is no free will or the Universe is not deterministic, one or the other.

    I have no problem living in a clock work Universe as I have a fantastic illusion of free will and that is good enough for me. This also does not take from the original fundamental question, what came first the consciousness or the Universe (much more interesting than chickens and eggs).

    Bruno, thanks for the dinosaurs with opposable thumbs and the dinosaur in the sky creating all dinosaurs in his likeness. Gave me quite a chuckle and lightened my day considerably. You are dead right as a species we are very egotistical.

  7. There is an infinite universe and then there is the infinite wisdom of humankind. May the two collide one day and produce another big bang so we can figure it out all over again. For me, a mere novice in this field (and way behind on my reading), whether the marterialists have it right or the spiritualists win the day, it is the journey which makes it all worthwhile and is what makes us who we are. That is not to lessen the importance of both sides of the dichotomy. For them I am thankful. If nothing else, it helps fill the head with something other than my children’s pleas for this or that, bless their little hearts. Thanks Ted for your thought provoking blogs each week. I really do look forward to them as it prompts me to take time to ponder and apply a deeper understanding of self to everyday life.

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