Surely by now we’ve outgrown the body?
Friends (and enemies) of mine have been telling me how much they enjoyed the debate ‘Is There a Ghost in the Machine?’, which I chaired at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival and which tackled the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness head on, as it were. But some of these friends (to say nothing of the enemies) have reservations. Was it really necessary, they ask, to dedicate a significant part of the debate to asking whether human beings have souls? Surely ’soul’ is a mystifying category, which obscures or distracts from the difficult task of elucidating the relationship between the body and the mind?
Certainly, the concept of the soul received short shrift at our debate. The one speaker on the panel who believed unambiguously that humans have souls, the philosopher Richard Swinburne, seemed to define the term in such a technical way that I suspect even he might have been better off using the term ‘mind’ instead. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought this recently – the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey says humankind occupies an ecological ’soul niche’, but if you have to justify the word ’soul’ by grounding it so rigidly in natural science, then perhaps you have no business using the concept to begin with.
So how, if at all, might the concept ’soul’ be useful? I think it’s useful precisely because of the aspect that defies natural science and seems to embarrass some of the concept’s exponents, namely the way it conveys a notion of transcendence or transformation.
Such a notion seems valuable, not least because few of the people I’ve debated consciousness with are comfortable thinking of themselves as mind/body dualists (there are notable exceptions such as Professor Swinburne). The question that then presents itself is how best to account for the apparent distinction between our consciousness and the tangible world we occupy – the former cannot exist without the latter, but the latter seems inadequate to explain the former.
Martha Robinson, who laid the groundwork for our ‘Is There a Ghost in the Machine?’ debate with a provocative (and popular) piece on this website entitled ‘Surely by now we’ve outgrown the soul?‘, tries to escape dualism with a crude (and depressingly popular) version of materialism that regards all phenomena as either already explicable by the natural sciences, or simply awaiting such explication. Her mantra throughout the Battle of Ideas debate was that humans are ultimately ‘meat’, and that anyone who says otherwise is a dualist (whether they realise it or not) and has failed to reconcile themselves to their ‘meatiness’.
But even the likes of Robinson, looking down on our delusions from their materialist high ground and shaking their heads sadly, need recourse to a concept that fulfils the function of bridging mind and body, thereby giving the lie to the supposed unity of these two things. One concept that often fulfils this function is ‘emergence’, the process whereby complex outcomes arise from simple initial rules, and the (al)chemical means whereby quantity (billions upon billions of neurons) supposedly becomes quality (thought). For all the problems associated with the concept ’soul’, there are as many illusions associated with the concept ‘emergence’, if not more.
There are other strategies besides ’soul’ and ‘emergence’ with which we can try to escape dualism. At our Battle of Ideas debate Raymond Tallis made a case for ‘ontological agnosticism’, whereby the mind/body problem can be held in view in all its apparent intractability rather than being parked in a category that then fails to stand up to scrutiny. The psychologist Stuart Derbyshire had an even more compelling strategy, whereby consciousness is understood as a dynamic process inherent in human sociality rather than a static object of study inherent in the individual human brain.
Perhaps here finally is an approach that can do the useful work of the category ’soul’, without the attendant mystification. Such an approach might even be worthy of the name ‘materialism’, albeit quite a different materialism to that proposed by Robinson.
Robinson’s more vulgar materialism does, however, present us with an interesting challenge, namely how best to reach an accommodation with our embodiment – our ‘meatiness’, as she would have it. Embodiment isn’t all bad news – I suspect that if I lacked a body, I’d have missed out on several of the most enjoyable experiences of my life to date. And this is a point that can be made not only in Robinson’s scientific terms, but also in spiritual terms – at a Battle of Ideas debate on morality, the Catholic philosopher David Jones pointed out that if we deprecate our bodies, we risk coming to hate them.
So we can’t get by in life without confronting the fact that we are embodied. But to stop there is to do our consciousness a disservice. Your body and mine are individually circumscribed, but your consciousness and mine are not. As you read this article, thoughts that began in my mind are finding a home in yours, and your meat didn’t even have to be in the vicinity of mine for this miraculous occurrence to take place.
Martha Robinson argues that we have outgrown, or should outgrow, the soul. I think it’s of greater significance that we have outgrown, and should further outgrow, our bodies.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Sandy Starr is Communications Officer at the Progress Educational Trust and chaired three debates in the Battle of Ideas festival’s Battle for Our Brains strand – Is There a Ghost in the Machine?, Designer People: Is Technology Making Us Less Human?, and Life off Earth: Are the Aliens Out There?Tagged in: consciousness, mind, Nicholas Humphrey, philosophy, Richard Swinburne, soul, soul niche
Recent Posts on Battle of Ideas
- After 30 years (tonight), little hope for Union Carbide’s Bhopal victims and contamination
- India at last commemorates, with Britain, its role in the ‘forgotten’ 1914-18 war
- Narendra Modi merges myth and reality to say plastic surgery fixed Ganesh’s elephant head
- Where foraging’s concerned, there’s no such thing as a free lunch
- An open letter to Melanie Phillips
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter