Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Who says we haven't got soul?

There are a number of contentious moves in Stephen Asma's discussion of teaching about "the soul." Asma basically takes talk of the soul to be discredited by natural science and recommends that we guide students who want to retain "soul talk" to interpret it in normative or non-descriptive terms. It's a sort of irrealism about soul talk, where "I hope her soul is at rest" turns out to be emotive, something like "I think Grandma deserved to live a tranquil life" (or some such).

But I'm not so convinced the pedagogical situation is as Asma depicts it in the first place. He writes:

No self-respecting professor of philosophy wants to discuss the soul in class. It reeks of old-time theology, or, worse, New Age quantum treacle. The soul has been a dead end in philosophy ever since the positivists unmasked its empty referential center. Scientific philosophy has shown us that there's no there there.
As I said, there's both contentious philosophy and contentious history of philosophy in Asma's remarks. The positivists were responsible for "unmasking" the soul? Not Kant or various post-Cartesian philosophers? And never mind that Asma's revisionary proposal that soul talk be treated as non-descriptive or aspirational has a decidedly positivist feel to it!

My point is simply that plenty "self-respecting" professors of philosophy want to, and do, discuss the soul in their classes. For one thing, if you teach history of philosophy, you can't avoid it. I'm teaching ancient Greek philosophy now and can't imagine not discussing the soul.

What Asma misses is that though the word "soul" doesn't have much traction in philosophy these days, we continue to investigate (and teach about) the soul under a different vocabulary. Whether the mind is reducible to the brain remains a central question in the philosophy of mind. Whether there is a self that persists through time, and if so, the relation of that self to the physical body, is a central question in debates about personal identity. This vocabulary, and these debates, are descendants of the somewhat musty, religiously inflected "soul talk" Asma suggests we need to recast. Admittedly, philosophers of mind tend not to talk of the "immortality of the mind," but if one thinks that the mind is not reducible to the brain, then a precondition of the "soul" (i.e., one's consciousness) being immortal may be met. Likewise for personal identity: If one thinks that a person can survive dramatic physical changes, then a precondition of the "soul" being immortal has been met. So "the soul" isn't dead in philosophy. Nor is it dead in philosophical pedagogy. It's simply been retranslated into other philosophical idioms.


  1. Michael, I am pessimistic about your optimism. If these phenomena (consciousness, personal identity, etc.) are described as soul-related concerns, then introducing soul-based explanations for these phenomena is awkward. E.g., if someone calls her 'consciousness' her 'soul' then its harder to evaluate whether this mental life result from (a) our brains or (b) *souls,* i.e., some kind of immaterial substance, at least one common concept of the soul. So since "souls" can be seen as theoretical postulates developed to explain things, it seems to me to not explain those things using soul-based terminology.

  2. Nathan: I agree that we have reason to be skeptical that soul talk will solve, or be a viable answer to, these philosophical questions. In fact, I share with Asma the sense that soul talk is something of a dead end. Still, I think he's incorrect inasmuch as we can continue to ask and teach about philosophical questions for which soul talk is a kind of answer.

  3. I admit that I often look forward to the chance to talk about souls in undergrad courses. It invariably comes up in the struggle to articulate the thing that divides all and only the humans from the non-humans that explains why we matter morally and they don't (put appropriate quotes around 'explains'). I tell the students that I've invented a soul-detector. Here's how it works. Place your hand on the desk, palm up. Take a sharp pencil. Plunge pencil into the hand until it hurts. If it hurts, you've detected a soul. If it doesn't, keep trying.

    Some of the kids get it and they say that I've only invented a mind detector. If minds require souls, they concede, I've invented a detector but they think that that's false. Some say that minds do require souls. To the first group, I ask why having a soul matters to morality since there can be minds without souls. To the second I remind them that they think animals have souls because they think animals have minds. It's a pretty good day of intro ethics, actually.

  4. I think teaching about the soul, particularly in undergraduate courses, is essential. Not because it's the hottest topic in philosophy, but because it's culturally alive: in the minds of students, in the plots of film, and in the prayers of our (creepy) neighbors. Like it or not, soul talk matters.

  5. Locke is especially good on this and provides some good arguments for not identifying the soul with the mind or the person.

    I do worry about folks who think that mind talk and person talk is just disguised soul talk. For one thing, as has been pointed out (and as Locke's work exemplifies) there is a long historical tradition of making distinctions among these things.

    The other reason why I worry about this is that often those who propound it are arguing for some kind of eliminativism about mind and they are using eliminativism about souls to motivate that.

    But there are plenty of philosophers of mind (say, me) who are complete eliminativists about the soul (e.g., because it has no causal powers) while having robust theories of mind (non-reductive physicalism, functionalism, property dualism, etc).

    If you are going to use eliminativism about the soul to motivate eliminativism about the mind, you first have to do the work of justifying the position that 'soul' and 'mind' are just notational variants. From my point of view, neither history nor philosophy can motivate a plausible argument for this.


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