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Scientist, priest and philosopher discuss the 'soul'


To: Mike K'
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Scientist, priest and philosopher discuss the 'soul'
Date: 2 January 2006 11:35

Dear Mike,

Happy New Year!

I am trying to clear up all my work left undone before the holidays, and your letter of 5th December was near the top of the pile. I am sorry for keeping you waiting for so long. I have been working very hard over the last two or three months and simply ran out of steam.

For your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, you have chosen to '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 key question here is what is characteristic about the philosophical approach to this question?

The scientist says, 'I would question why I should attempt to define something that I don't believe in.' Why indeed?

You can reasonably refuse to 'believe in X' because you 'don't know what X means' when you have some grounds for confidence that your lack of knowledge is explained by the fact that it is in fact impossible to give a coherent meaning to X. This is how arguments over the existence of God sometimes go. So you would say, 'I refuse to believe in God because I don't know what it means to say that an entity is infinitely good, infinitely powerful and all-knowing.'

Similarly, one would say 'I refuse to believe in the soul because I don't know what it means to say that an entity 'exists' but does not occupy space and is not subject to scientific laws'.

How can the philosopher help at this point? In the first place, by attempting to distinguish the different roles or functions traditionally attributed to the soul, in an attempt to see whether some of these can be acceptable from a scientific point of view.

The hard nut to crack is the problem of consciousness. As you say, 'to talk about soemthing physical - neurology - that corresponds with the mental is not to say that it is the same as the mental'. This is the crucial philosophical problem with attempts to 'identify' the mental and physical. When you put two things together they always remain two and not one.

How does this problem arise? Because - again, as you point out - of the way that the distinction between the mental and physical is drawn. The most important 'mark' of the mental is that 'while the physical is public... the mental is in some (very strange!) way essentially private.'

It is an immediate corollary of the definition of the mental in terms of the contrast between 'public' and 'private' that any identification between an entity which presents a face to the 'public world' and an entity which presents a face to my 'private world' can be in name only. There is no 'route' from 'outside' to 'inside' or from 'inside' to 'outside'. The two entities will always remain two, even if you insist on calling them 'one'.

This should lead us to question our concept of 'privacy'. And indeed, your scientist is happy to accept the 'bait' offered by the philosopher, 'Are you suggesting that one day my personal experience will be "discoverable" in a public, material sort of way.'

To put this in concrete terms, Richard Rorty once wrote an article in which he hypothesized a 'cerebroscope' which would enable the user to 'read' another subject's brain. A cerebroscope would be a perfect lie detector. If someone says he is in pain and the cerebroscope shows he isn't then he isn't.

(Rorty no longer believes this, and with good reason. For my take on this see my article, 'Truth and subjective knowledge' on the Wood Paths web site )

I wonder exactly what you mean by suggesting that the mind is a 'metaphor'. One possibility would be to say that 'When we talk about the "mind" what we really mean is...' and then offer some kind of reductive analysis. But what would this analysis be? Could one say the same thing about mental events or states? Is pain a metaphor? or the experience of blue?

Or maybe you mean simply that we use 'the mind' as if it was the name of an entity in its own right, whereas in reality the only entities are persons and their 'mental states'. (In a similar way, a philosopher might argue that there is no such entity as 'space', only material things which are spatially related.)

You allowed the priest the last word. Are we being too hasty in dismissing the 'ineffable'? For me, it is not so much the discovery of my own mental attributes but the realization that I am in relation to another self, another 'soul' - separated from me by a distance which is not merely spatial - that gives rise to the sense of ineffability. But more of that anon.

All the best,