Surely by now we’ve outgrown the body?

Sandy Starr

3168157 298x300 Surely by now weve 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?

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  • Nobody

    I think therefore I am (I think).  I have an internal monologue that tells me so.  I understand that other people call this a “mind” and it pleases me to agree with them – they say they have one as well and I’ve no reason to doubt them.  I can only speak for myself.  

    I have a personality that has been shaped by my life experiences – my successes, my failures, my interactions with others. I have memories of sights, sounds, smells and tastes – more memories than I’m conscious of.  My conscious memories only exist from the time that I began to acquire language.  These are the things I know – or think I know.  

    My mind is just the software my body needs to function in the physical world.  I’d like to think that there might be a “collective unconscious” to which we’re all connected rather than everyone having a separate ”immortal soul” – if that’s what you mean.  I don’t suppose it matters really.  

  • JaneJH

    Could it be this is another transhumanist article. For those who see no use for the human body or the human being – I wonder what their solution is?

    I’m in agreement with the following statement:

    “Human genome projectic is an archontic fantasy in which human beings, under the name of science, are actually acting out an archontic agenda. What is transhumanism? It is the archontic agenda which is blindly compelled to think that we can make something better out of ourselves than nature has made us.

    Huge illusion and that is the trap of the transhumanist agenda that believes that we can make something better out of ourselves than nature made of us is a huge delusion and a lie. Those human beings who commit themselves to that lie and get obsessed with it and involved with it will be in turn in the process carving out the own annihilation. That lie is so deeply wrong, so erroneous that when they go deeper into science to fulfil they are actually going deeper into their own destruction.

    The ultimate danger humanity is facing today is `intra-species’ predation.  There is part of the human species that has split off and become pathologically, criminally murderously insane…”

    John Lash interview on Red Ice Radio

  • P

    I guess it doesn’t prove anything to your way of thinking. But, to reply to someone’s earlier post, talk of “soul” isn’t any sort of hypotheses.

    I quote Andyman 64 -

    “The use of the word in this way in the English language was quite common until recently.He was a jolly old soul.Many souls were lost at sea etc.”

    It’s relatively easy to find out what soul is. You need only compile a list of common uses in the language, and ask what it’s all about.

    But you need to exclude uses by bad philosophers who have an axe to grind.

    Soul is most often a synonym for “person” often when considered as a centre of moral life.

  • BrianLuxury

    Where does the girl come from?

  • PaulThomasHopkins

    Soul or Consciousness? Is a jaffa cake, a cake, or biscuit? If we eat it as a cake do we miss out on it’s biscuity nature? If we eat it as a biscuit, something of the Proustian is lost, is it not?

  • muggers

    Check out the big brain on Sandy Starr!
    “I have too much IQ, therefore I think”

  • IG Bison

    In the messes made with the word ‘soul’ it seems to me that Socrates / Plato has a lot to answer for. The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers came up with a perfectly good working technique whereby they conceptualised observable objects as behaving entirely independently of personified, supernatural influences and argued about how those conceptualised objects might interact to give rise to the observable world. Okay, they didn’t get as far as hypothesis testing, but they were on course.
    Then along comes Socrates – or Plato, using Socrates as his mouthpiece. Seriously, Socrates should have listened to Parmenides when Parmenides said to him that the Good, the Beautiful and theJust were all very well but what about mud, dirt and hair? But no, Socrates wasn’t having any – he would have it that what we experience as most valuable should be the exclusive object of his intellectual excursions. And that which we experience as most valuable are experiences of, for example, the Good, the Beautiful and the Just, which Socrates / Plato turned into conceptual objects, as if they were ‘out there’ to be argued over. So we have this thing called the Good, and this thing called the Beautiful and this thing called the Just – and, of course, this thing called the Soul.
    Add a dash of monotheism and the confusion is complete. The soul becomes an object to be possessed, improved upon and judged, or latterly – on the basis of a complete lack of evidence for its material existence – rejected. Consequently we have completely forgotten that we are experiencing subjects and that our experience is not an object but the primary fact of our being. So confused have we become that the monotheism without God that we call Science has entirely sidelined the experiencing subject and confined it to a tiny mental reservation labelled ‘qualia’, where the quales sit quaking lest Desperate Dan Dennett come along and stomp on them.
    But qualia is all there is – including the qualities of boundedness, weightiness and tangibility that define the material world and the qualities of meaning and reassurance we experience when we wake from unconsciousness (when the world is not) and find the continuity of the material world and our identities sustained (when the world is). The Hard problem of Consciousness is only a problem for the rational intellect, which is determined to turn every experience into a determined conceptual object. The real problem is not the Ghost in the Machine but the Machine in the Ghost and what-on-earth that Machine – which Science presumes to call Reality – is really about.

  • Arissasbel

    Are We Souls With A Body?

    It is beneficial and in our best interest to understand and think of ourselves as “souls with a body” and not bodies with a soul. When we leave the earth and arrive out there, we are the same person out there that we were while here on earth. Nothing much has changed during that process with the exception; we are telepathic but this is just a computer facilitated form of communication. Telepathy is basically the same as verbalization and we get used to it very quickly once we arrive out there, Solamenta.

    It is from much hard work in learning to see ourselves for who we truly are that we also, finally understand that our beliefs are the bane of mankind! Our primitive beliefs keep us from the truth. Truth can only be discovered by the exploration and hard work of the individual. However, when we leave the earth and for those whom have committed horrible crimes… particularly against the innocent, it is not a happy homecoming as they are met, by their victims and their families.

    Read article in its entirety…

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