There is no such thing as a soul. Discuss [40]

Materialists would agree that there is no such thing as a soul, arguing that we are our bodies, and the sensation of consciousness can be explained solely by the operation of our physical brains.  Dualists would disagree, arguing that “I” am separate from my body and exist primarily as a soul or mind, which might even be separable from my body, surviving death.  Overall, given developments within neuroscience, materialism is the more persuasive position, so it is fair to say that there is no such thing as a soul.

Firstly, Aristotle argued that the soul is the formal cause of the body.  It makes us human and gives us our individual personality, but it can’t be separated from the body.  He used the example of a wax-seal to make his point.  Just as the shape of the seal can’t exist without the wax, so the soul cannot exist separately from the body.  Nevertheless, Aristotle did believe that the soul is a separate substance, sufficiently as to have three parts.  He even speculated that part of the rational soul, the intellect, might survive death.  In this way, Aristotle was not a straightforward materialist.  Yet Aristotle worked millennia before science gave us an understanding of the brain.  By the 1940s Gilbert Ryle was able to refine Aristotle’s model of the soul, suggesting that the “official doctrine” of dualism was based on a category mistake and that there is no separate “soul” substance.  For Ryle, just as the foreigner watching cricket makes a mistake to ask to see the “team spirit” as if it was another player or piece of equipment, so the philosopher who identifies the soul as something with separate, let alone separable, existence is making an error rooted in our misuse of language.  Today, Susan Blackmore would agree.  While she still sees the hard problem of consciousness as unsolved, she rejects dualism as unscientific.  Daniel Dennett agrees, saying that dualism is “giving up” on the future ability of neuroscience to explain why we feel conscious and separate from our bodies but are in fact only our bodies.  In these ways, it is fair to say that there is no such thing as a soul. 

Secondly, classic arguments for dualism are flawed, so that there is no evidence for a soul beyond that most people feel they have one and, as Brian Davies pointed out, “just because I feel sober doesn’t mean that I am!” 

  • Plato’s arguments for substance dualism are archaic and unconvincing.  In the Phaedo Socrates appeals to the prevalence of opposites or dualisms in nature, to our affinity with the world of forms, to recollection and to the simplicity of the soul to support Plato’s claim that we are primarily an immortal soul.  Yet what modern Philosopher will be convinced to believe that something exists because lots of things seem to have a pair… light has darkness, day has night… so of course the body must have a soul.  What modern Philosopher would accept that our soul must be indestructible because it is simple and simple because it seems not to change as our body changes.  Not very persuasive!  Also, what modern Philosopher would accept that we must be primarily an immaterial soul because we have an intuitive grasp of mathematics or logic or an “affinity” with immaterial ideas in a speculative “world of forms”?  There is no evidence for past lives, no evidence for a world of forms and no evidence for an immaterial soul.  Plato’s argument is nothing more than assertion… I think therefore “I” must be made of thought. 
  • The same goes for Descartes, the other leading substance dualist.  His argument for the soul begins with his “foundational belief” that “I think therefore I am” from which he extrapolates that “I” am primarily what thinks… being a mind and not a brain.  Norman Malcolm identified the weakness of Descartes position when he wrote “If it were valid to argue ‘I can doubt that my body exists but not that I exist, ergo I am not my body’, it would be equally valid to argue ‘I can doubt that there exists a being whose essential nature is to think, but I cannot doubt that I exist, ergo I am not a being whose essential nature is to think’. Descartes is hoist with his own petard.” Further, even Descartes suggested that the brain must contain a seat of the soul, where the mind joins the body.  His suggestion that this was the Pineal Gland, just because it is shaped like a third inner eye, betrays the unscientific nature of his argument.  Although Popper and Eccles presented a modern version of Descartes substance dualism in Critical Dualism, suggesting that the seat of the soul is in the frontal lobes of the brain and not the pineal gland, their position still fails to attract scientific support.  As Dennett said, dualism smacks of mysticism and magic and amounts to “giving up” on science. 

In these ways also, it is fair to say that there is no such thing as a soul. 

On the other hand, Popper also suggested that World Three amounts to empirical evidence for the existence of World Two – the human mind.  The fact that great works of art, literature, architecture exist is material proof of the existence of the minds that gave them shape.  It may be that the mind is not separate or separable from the brain or body, but that does not mean that it does not exist when its products are evident all around us, including on this page.  Further, HH Price and Peter Vardy argue that the existence of the soul could make sense of the full human experience, which includes dreams and paranormal experiences.  Surely it is unscientific to dismiss all those aspects of the human experience which can’t be adequately explained without a separate soul, just because they point to the existence of a soul which can’t otherwise be evidenced?  Nevertheless, neither of these arguments for a soul are credible.  Popper’s World Three could just as well serve as evidence that human brains have amazing computational power.  When a computer generates complex, unique products like Bitcoins, nobody speculates that the products are evidence that there is something in the computer that might survive if it was unplugged and disassembled!  As Ryle would have said, this is like the myth of the “ghost in the machine” – better evidence for lazy thinking and superstition than it is for the soul.  Further, dreams and paranormal experiences have been investigated by Blackmore and can be explained in terms of (ab)normal brain activity, mistakenly interpreted, or as fakes.  The fact that even when there are credible scientific explanations of such phenomena people still want to believe in the existence of a soul, and that belief in a soul remains so “sticky”, supports Dawkins suggestion that it is a meme or virus of the mind.  We find it easier to believe in a soul than to accept that we are “blind robot vehicles for those selfish molecules known as genes.”  Yet wishful thinking is no basis to believe that something exists, so there is no such thing as the soul. 

In conclusion, there is no such thing as a soul.  Ryle, Blackmore and Dawkins were correct when they identified the origins of belief in the soul as a “category mistake”, a metaphor and a meme.  What we feel when we think, the sense that “I” am not my body and the “me” that seems to stay the same as I age… these sensations are the products of the material operations of the brain, just as works of art and architecture are.

[40 minutes, A Level notes]

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