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.)

9 thoughts on “Explaining Souls

  1. We all (I hope!) agree that the natural world exists, preferably without having to stub our toes to make the Johnsonian point. The question is, simply, is that all there is? The principle of parsimony (Occam’s razor, if you prefer) suggests that the burden of proof is on the person who answers that question in the negative.

    Now if the attempt to justify the addition of supernatural elements to the story depends on physical evidence (such as miracles), the supernaturalist will be asked to explain why a natural mechanism is not sufficient. If this means offering an alternative supernatural mechanism…. well, you get the idea.

    And no, we aren’t looking for “a mechanistic causal process on both sides of the point of interface”. Just one side will do. But when there’s a perfectly reasonable neuro-chemical explanation of a mental phenomenon (such as a feeling of transcendence, or an out-of-body experience), you’re going to have to do better than, “these neurons fired because the soul made it happen”. Really.

  2. I for one find more plausibility in the sort of idealism that Berkeley espoused that I do in materialism. The hope that you express in the first sentence might then be unfounded.

    Here’s a question: what is the truth-maker for Occam’s razor? (Here’s what I mean. Truths, it seems, have truth-makers. Consider this: “Franklin is blue-eyed”. This proposition does not depend upon me or the color of my eyes for its existence. But its truth does depend upon them. “Franklin is blue-eyed” is true because of me and the color of my eyes; they make “Franklin is blue-eyed” true. Upon reflection, it seems to me that all truths must have truth-makers. Truths don’t just, as it were, float free of the world. Rather they are grounded in reality, and some part or aspect of reality makes truths true.)

  3. I don’t believe that there are free-floating truths, either. In fact I don’t find it useful to think about “truths” simpliciter. There are true and false propositions (and a fair number of undecidable ones, too). Different propositions have different types of decision procedures; a proposition asserting a property of a physical object (such as the colour of Franklin’s eyes) would typically be decided an experiment; an assertion about the existence of married bachelors, or whether Pluto is a planet, would be resolved by appealing to the definitions of the terms and their logical relationship.

    So if by “truth-maker” you mean “a procedure to determine truth”, I would agree. Is that what you were after?

  4. @FranklinMason: I for one find more plausibility in the sort of idealism that Berkeley espoused that I do in materialism.

    Are you really an idealist, or this this just a back-handed way of saying that you prefer dualism to either idealism or materialism? Inquiring minds, etcetera…..

    If the answer is “yes”, my next question is, “Are chimpanzees idealists, and if so why (or why not)?”

  5. I would think that the truth-value of “Pluto is a planet” could not be determined by definition and logical relation. It is an empirical proposition. After all, that little dot of light in the sky might have turned out to be something other than a planet. But that, I suppose, is neither here nor there.

    I’m not sure what view I ought to attribute to you, but it seems as if you wish to suggest that what a proposition means consists in the procedure whereby its truth-value is fixed. I would have us distinguish between what makes a true proposition true and how we would find out what its truth-value is (if in fact we can). “My eyes are blue” is made true by me and my eyes. Now, you would find that out by taking a look, or asking a question, or some such. These procedures would reveal the color of my eyes, but they are distinct from my eyes being the color they are; and it is the latter, not the former, that makes “My eyes are blue” true. Making-true is not to be conflated with means of discovery. (Doesn’t Godel’s incompleteness theorem prove the necessity of this distinction within mathematics? From Wikipedia: “Any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete. In particular, for any consistent, effectively generated formal theory that proves certain basic arithmetic truths, there is an arithmetical statement that is true,[1] but not provable in the theory.” A statement that is true but not provable is one for which there is no procedure whereby its truth-value can be decided.)

    Back to Occam’s razor: what makes it true?

  6. I’ll come out of the closet. For me, dualism and idealism are neck and neck. In order of plausibility:


    Chimps are not idealists. Idealists hold a rather sophisticated philosophical view about the fundamental constituents of reality. Chimps are no doubt quite clever, but they don’t do philosophy. (We humans can barely manage it.)

  7. Geoff, I appreciate your taking the position that a mechanism is required on only one side. Next question: just what kind of relationship do you suppose Dennett (or you) could conceivably accept as satisfying this condition?

    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’m still probing to discover what kind of rules you consider we are playing under. You are not saying that a Schafersman spiritual mechanism is required, which is helpful. What kind of explanation of a relationship are you looking for, then?

    My position is that we can see and account for what happens on the physical side of the supernatural/natural, or soul/mind interface; and that there is causation in both directions. Body can influence soul, soul can influence body (via mind). But to “explain” what happens at the point of interface or on the supernatural or soul side is not something our minds or language are equipped to do. We don’t have analogies for it, and we don’t have processes to observe and document.

    Which is entirely to be expected. It’s not ad hoc. It’s not anti-scientific, and it’s not even irrational to suppose that there is more going on than science can access.

    I am not at all sure that this is what you had in mind, though, when you called for an explanation of this relationship such that “anyone examining the workings of a brain could observe the effects.” Can you elucidate the kind of hypothetical answer that would satisfy you, in a hypothetical case where souls actually exist?

  8. Sorry to post and run, but my work activities here in Shenzhen just got a lot more intense, and I’m not going to have time to contribute to these threads until I’m back in the US, in about two weeks.


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