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Dialogue between scientist, priest and philosopher


To: Nancy Z.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Dialogue between scientist, priest and philosopher
Date: 8 April 2004 11:31

Dear Nancy,

Thank you for your email of 30 March, 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.'

I'm pleased to see that you have really got into the spirit of things (no pun intended!).

Your characters Concreta the scientist, the priest Epherma and the philosopher Questus say pretty much what one would expect. Concreta asks 'Where's the evidence for a soul?', Questus asks for definitions of 'soul', 'mind' and 'body', and Epherma insists that her belief in the soul is a matter of faith and does not require rational justification.

What is characteristic about the approach of philosophy?

Let's take Epherma's claim that the soul 'is within us'.

For Concreta, the claim that there is something 'in' an object, or that the object possesses some 'power' not visible to the naked eye requires empirical evidence. It was once believed that organic substances possessed a 'vital power' that was the ultimate principle of movement for all living things. (The theory was called 'vitalism'.) According to vitalism, it was impossible to synthesise an organic chemical compound from an inorganic one. In the nineteenth century, however, the theory was finally disproved with the synthesis in the laboratory of the organic compound urea, a chemical found in urine.

From Concreta's point of view, the soul hypothesis looks like the same kind of thing as belief in vitalism. It is just another theory which is not supported by the evidence. When you dissect a frog, you don't find a vital principle, just organic processes. When you dissect a brain, you don't find a soul.

Question: what is Concreta missing?

Questus gives us a clue about the answer. Belief in the soul has to do with the distinction between what is 'inside' us and what is 'outside' us. Obviously, more needs to be said here. My brain and my liver are both 'inside' me, in a physical sense, but in terms of the mind/body or soul/body distinction both the brain and liver are 'outside'. The physical parts of my body are not given to introspection in the way that my thoughts, feelings and sensations are. I know I have a pain just by feeling it. But I never knew I had a brain or a liver until I learned about these things in school.

This inside/outside distinction is the basis for the theory of mind-body dualism advocated by Descartes.

Philosophical opponents of dualism question the inside/outside distinction, or at least the use made of it by the dualist. This is one of the central issues which we will be looking at in this program.

There are dualist philosophers too (even today). Descartes rejects the popular belief (it is not clear whether Epherma holds this) that the soul is 'within us' in a spatial sense. Descartes, consistently following the line of his own argument denies that the soul or mind have any of the properties associated with physical things. The soul is not a 'breath of wind or vapour,' he says at one point. The soul is not the kind of thing that can be located at one place rather than another. What ties a particular body to a particular soul is simply their causal interaction.

As I look around my study, it *seems* that 'I' am 'in' this body. In reality, when GK's head is turned towards the window, 'I' have the experience of a blue sky. All that experience teaches me is that my experiences are dependent on the spatial location of my body. My 'I' can be anywhere, or nowhere.

Concreta, however, does have a point when she asks. 'Have you ever bumped into a soul in the dark? Met up with a zombie on a first date?' It seems that, like vitalism, the dualist theory ought to have some empirical consequences. If a person consists of a physical body plus a non-physical soul, then it seems that we ought to be able to say what it would be to 'encounter' a soul without a body, or a body without a soul.

Popular films about ghosts and spirits, or zombies and the 'living dead', make a strong appeal to the imagination, but how coherent are these views? What would count as empirical evidence in favour of mind-body dualism?

Scientologists apparently believe that the human body contains a very small physical entity, a 'rider' which is able to leave the body or migrate from one body to another. Suppose that were true. Then you could have riderless bodies and riders without bodies. No problem at all.

The trouble is, this is no help to the mind-body dualist, because the same problem of inside/outside arises *for the body of the rider* as arises for the human body. Suppose the rider is able to leave its human body and look at itself in the mirror. It can ask exactly the same question as we ask, 'Is this all I am?'

A good start - well done!

All the best,