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Dialogue on the nature of the soul


To: Giulio O.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Dialogue on the soul
Date: 16th September 2010 14:15

Dear Giulio,

Thank you for your email of 8 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.'

In your email, you said that you 'didn't have much to say about the third unit apart from the fact that I really can't imagine how the experience in paragraph 55 can ever happen.'

As indicated in the text, this thought experiment is based on something which has been investigated empirically, the so-called phenomenon of 'blind sight'. There has been quite a lot of discussion of this in the literature (sorry, I don't have the references to hand but you can look this up in Google). If even the simplest perceptual knowledge can occur when a patient reports that the 'see' nothing (say, the investigator has held up a ball rather than a cube) then we have to stretch our imagination to fit the facts. It does occur, so we have to adapt our theories to take account of it. How far this can be extended hypothetically is of course an entirely different question.

With regards to your essay, I am tempted to agree with you that 'Staging a proper dialogue between a scientist, priest and philosopher is then impossible because, after a while, the priest and the scientist would end up embracing philosophy or avoiding carrying on the conversation altogether.'

So what is there left to discuss? I think a valid question to ask, with regard to science, is *how far* the results of scientific research bear on philosophical debate. Contemporary analytic philosophers - admittedly, under the influence of Quine's famous rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction in 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' - would tend to say that philosophical debate on the mind-problem cannot be conducted in the absence of some fairly deep knowledge gained from scientific inquiry.

To take one obvious example, the possibility of artificial intelligence is something that could have been barely conceived at the time of Hobbes and Descartes. In advocating materialism, Hobbes could be accused of relying on blind faith, given that the only model for 'self-moving' bodies was the technology of clock making (Descartes claimed that non-human animals are just complex examples of clockwork).

Computer science and neuroscience are enormously fruitful sources of philosophical inquiry, which could not have existed in their absence. This interplay between science and philosophy is not a new phenomenon, of course. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was inspired by Newton's great discoveries, and can be read as a philosophical commentary on Newton.

It is true, however, that in this program I have tried as much as possible to stick to core arguments which are not greatly affected by scientific results. But I'm not claiming to offer a complete theory of the mind. Perhaps it could be better seen as a 'prolegomena' to philosophical/ scientific inquiry into the nature of the mind.

What about religion? Let's forget about traditional religion and the dogma that there exists something called a 'soul' which somehow 'survives' the death of the body. You don't have to have 'beliefs' in order to be religious, not even belief in God as a metaphysical entity worthy of worship.

An alternative way to approach religion arises in relation to the problem of other minds, and the problem of the basis of moral judgements. Martin Buber's 'I and Thou' is an attempt to respond to the challenge of explaining, or rather expressing, how our relation to other persons differs from our relations to things. Another continental philosopher who has investigated what he terms the 'ethical' basis for metaphysics from a religious perspective is Emmanuel Levinas (e.g. in 'Totality and Infinity').

A simple (possibly over-simple) way of stating the challenge is to say that proving the existence of other minds is as hard as proving the existence of God. For Buber, God is 'the Eternal Thou', although it is not easy to see what beliefs this entails, other than that our respect for others (other 'thous') requires the language of religion (though not its dogmas) for its adequate expression. What I'm basically saying is that a philosopher and a priest could conceivably have a lot more to discuss than the question whether the 'soul' exists or not.

One legacy of the materialist view is, or appears to be, that persons are after all nothing but very complex kinds of 'thing' obeying the laws of cause and effect. But in that case, how can one account for our belief that we have a moral obligation to regard others as (in Kantian terms) 'ends in themselves'? Where does this idea come from, if not from the discredited mind-body dualist theory?

Just as not all science is unphilosophical, so not all religion is dogmatic. The boundaries are blurred.

All the best,