Explaining Souls


In response to one part of a comment from Geoff Arnold:

Geoff, the following is apparently your expansion of an assertion you had made earlier of “profound metaphysical problems” with the existence of the soul. [The “Dan” Geoff is speaking of here is the prominent philosopher of mind, Daniel Dennett.]

I remember attending a class with Dan in which he was discussing Descartes. There has always been this big problem with the causal relationship between a putative “soul” and the human mind. We all agree that physical phenomena (drugs, injury, hormones, etc.) affect the mind, but how does a non-physical supernatural entity like the soul do so? If it induces physical changes in the state of the brain, what’s the causal connection, and doesn’t this violate the conservation of energy? Descartes postulated that the pineal gland was the brain-soul interface. Does that solve the problem? If the pineal gland is a physical system, the answer is clearly no.

There were several (younger) students in the class who were clearly uncomfortable about this: was Dan saying that souls, and the afterlife, didn’t exist? Dan made it clear: he wasn’t making an argument about this one way or the other. What he was saying is that if someone believes in souls, and believes that souls have a causal effect on the physical world (the brain), they have to explain this relationship in such a way that anyone examining the workings of a brain could observe the effects. Otherwise there was nothing that science could (or should) say about souls.

I agree with the final sentence, the conclusion you landed on: that souls are not something science knows how to study. What concerns me is what led up to it. Maybe I’m projecting something on Dennett that he didn’t say. Steven Schafersman said this:

except for humans, philosophical naturalists understand nature to be fundamentally mindless and purposeless, and here I would agree. Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of supernatural mind and purpose in nature; the only requirement would be the demonstration of its existence and mechanism, which is up to the supernaturalist to provide. We are still waiting.

This is a strange request. I wonder if Dennett’s request for an explanation is strange in the same way. Schafersman expects an explanation of the supernatural to include its “mechanism.” But nobody proposes that the supernatural is mechanical, so if we have to demonstrate its mechanism in order to be able to assert its existence, then the rules are rigged: “All we’re asking you to do is to prove the existence of the supernatural, and show us thereby that its operation is natural. We’ll believe something other than the natural exists as soon as you admit that it’s really natural after all.” I trust you can see the illegitimacy of that kind of demand.

Does Dennett say that? I don’t know, I admit I may be projecting on him. I was aware (from Consciousness Explained) of his argument based on conservation of energy. I think it’s an interesting one that needs more work. I wonder what he thinks of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum indeterminacy, which I believe faces precisely the same problem. But what in fact is the causal interface between soul and body, the non-material and the material? How do we explain it? If we can’t explain it, does that mean it can’t exist?

I think Schafersman’s problem really is your problem, and Dennett’s as well. Let me explain. Your problem is to ask the question in such a way that non-mechanical supernaturalism has permission to be part of the answer. Otherwise your question is rigged. If you will only accept an answer that includes something like a mechanistic causal process on both sides of the point of interface, you’re asking the wrong question. Meanwhile the supernaturalist like myself “happily acknowledges that there are good … reasons why the question is unanswerable.” (I trust you will recognize the source of that allusion. Other readers may find it in Geoff’s comment.)

It’s unanswerable because we are so locked into thinking of causal relations as somehow mechanistic (physical effects, exchanges of particles, etc.) that we don’t have categories in our minds to handle the problem. I don’t see any reason to think that proves there are no supernatural causes.

(The discussion also continues here.)