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Exploring the pre-philosophical idea of the soul


To: Charley C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Exploring the pre-philosophical idea of the soul
Date: 4 April 2003 11:01

Dear Charley,

Thank you for your e-mail of 28 March, with your revised essay for Philosophy of Mind units 1-3 in response to the question, 'Explore the different facets of our ordinary, pre-philosophical idea of the soul, giving examples that relate to your own experience. What impact does philosophical inquiry have on those ideas?'

I am going to approach this by looking at the questions which you raise at the end of your essay. I have tried to be as faithful as possible to what I take to be your meaning:

1. Given that neurophysiology seeks to explain the mind and mental functions in physical terms, what remains of us that is distinctly 'mental' as opposed to 'physical'?

2. In what sense, if any, within the context of physicalism, can we speak of mental events causing physical events? (as when we form an intention to do X, and then carry out the action X, or when we bring about an improvement in our state of health by 'positive thinking').

3. How does our view about the relation between mental and physical impact on our view about how (or whether) it is possible to have knowledge of another person's mental states?

We need to think each of these questions through twice, because our interest is not just in coming up with the best philosophical theory, but also understanding how these questions appear to the , naive, unreflective, possibly culturally conditioned view of the mind or 'soul'.

When I call this view 'naive' I am not denigrating it. I agree with Wittgenstein that the way we normally speak of mind and mental acts does not contain any intrinsic error. The error comes on only when we begin to reflect.

The possibility of a physical explanation of consciousness certainly looks like a threat to the existence of 'mind'. Some philosophers too are quick to draw this conclusion. According to the eliminative materialist, we are only under illusion that there exists something called 'mind'. Our very language is riddled with error and illusion. 'Folk psychology' is not a source of knowledge but just a practical makeshift which does not yield genuine truth.

However, a distinction needs to be made between the language we use to talk about mind, and our uncritical, common sense 'philosophy' of the mind. These are difficult to untangle. Our culturally conditioned 'view' encompasses both. I want to say that the language can be right, can be an indicator of truth, even though the philosophy - naive dualism - is ultimately wrong.

Regarding question 2, there is a debate amongst philosophers of mind concerning the way we view causality. Even if mental processes are realized in physical processes, it remains an open question whether we view mental events as causally efficacious, or alternatively view them as mere by-products of physical processes which have no causal role. It may surprise you that within physicalism there is room for a view which says, e.g. that my decision to write this letter today is related to my typing these words as cause to effect. Looking at my brain processes, you won't see 'the cause' of these computer keys being tapped. The connection is only apparent at a much higher level, the level at which we conceptualise events using the concepts of intention, belief, desire.

Question 3 is really a lynch pin around which much of the discussion in this program revolves. It is crucial to our proper understanding of mental concepts that we grasp that they can be applied to yourself or to others, and that these two uses are finely integrated. It is only because you are able to apply these concepts to others that you are able to apply them to yourself.

One aspect of your essay which especially interested me was the idea that a sufferer of Parkinson's Disease 'looks out' onto the world in a way which almost mimics the Cartesian dualist view. Descartes notes in the Meditations that 'I am not lodged in my body as a pilot in a ship'. What he meant by that is that mind-body interaction is so seamless that we are normally not aware of issuing mental 'commands' and then waiting for the body to 'obey'. Descartes would be the first to draw the conclusion that the possibility of 'slippage', of failure of mind to connect with body in the expected way is proof of dualism. Yet, ironically, it is phenomena such as these, where physical conditions impair brain function, which constitute the strongest empirical evidence for physicalism.

All the best,