I previously posted about a podcast on what it means to be human (https://forum.samharris.org/forum/viewthread/71026/). The perspective in that podcast was derived from science, and it brought into focus the notion that our organizing entity is based in the mind, the mind ‘is’ the brain (or perhaps what the brain ‘does’), and the workings of the brain can be best explained by an empirical investigation using tools of neuropsychology, neuroscience, genetics, endocrinology and related disciplines. Even if subjectively what it is to be a human is a set of experiences, then this set is best understood by scientific methods. Speculations beyond this are pointless. There is perhaps much to recommend this approach, and the grounding on which it is based (described by Steven Pinker, and many others). Solid frames with explanatory and predictive power have resulted from it, yielding many fields for research and application. Perhaps this is sufficient.
Is something missed?
There is no room here for any romantic notions of who we are. We are a series of electrochemical reactions that take place inside an organic milieu, a milieu created by biological processes, fragile and perishable, and when it ceases to function, the scaffolding that maintains it crumbles, desiccates, and is swallowed by worms and maggots. Afterward, one may legitimately ask, was there anything of consequence there at all?
More subtly what may be lost is a sense of wonder, which the famous positivist philosopher A. J. Ayer posited as a source for many scientific ideas. Not every important discovery comes from a coldly rational application of the scientific method; there can be some discoveries that later are fully verifiable, that have origins in intuitions and metaphysical beliefs of investigators).
Is there any alternative?
One alternative is the concept of ‘soul’ that emerged in the so-called “axial age’ about two and a half millennia ago, in several regions in the world, including Greece and India, and which still animates our lives, sometimes unconsciousnessly. What essence does this ancient concept infuse back into our contemporary discussions?
Is it possible to cover this concept of soul (synthesizing hundreds of years of thought across wide geographies) in 28 minutes? I think so; you can judge for yourself.
Earl Fontainelle and Richard Seaford discuss here:
Richard Seaford’s book ‘Universe and Inner Self in Early Indian and Early Greek Thought’: https://amzn.to/2uvWO5p
A human thing has the capacity of rationality.
A human thing has the capacity of rationality.
That’s the usual English translation of Aristotle’s definition: “the animal with reason.”
That translation is seriously off, an accurate translation of the Greek is “the animal with logos.” Two different things.
The idea of the soul, scientifically purified, is not stupid. Superfluous, perhaps, but not stupid.
Consider a frozen fertilized embryo. It can more or less be frozen in its state of development indefinitely, then thawed, then implanted, and its development resumes. Presumably this is possible because all biochemical processes have been halted, suggesting that life is mechanistic; that life is at least biochemical matter in motion, and once that motion is inhibited, life ceases. Or does it? Is that frozen embryo still alive? I don’t know. If it is, and if life is biochemical motion but all biomechanical motion has been halted, then perhaps the embryo is ensouled in some way; that “soul” is what it means to still be alive when biochemical motion ceases. For after all, once thawed life resumes. What “ensouled” means beyond this placeholder for resuming or maintaining life is admittedly unclear, but if the embryo is alive even though all biomechanical motion has ceased, or if it has been brought back to life after all biochemical motion has ceased, then life may not be just the biochemically mechanistic. It could be something else too. Descartes thought this, and boiled down it amounts to his intuition that human beings are both soul and body.
Now consider this as an experimental test of the biochemical definition of life and this “something else”: freeze the embryo to absolute zero—or to as near it as possible, that way virtually all atomic motion ceases as well, not just biochemical motion. Is that embryo still alive? Could that frozen embryo still be thawed, then implanted and grow? If it could, that would rule out that life is atomic motion beneath biochemical motion—one recourse for an explanation of life outside of an ensouled, biochemically frozen embryo. So what now? Is life a configuration of atoms into a configuration of biochemical molecules that could move, even absent any actual motion—a notion that doesn’t get one very far? Or is it “soul”? Is it “something more” than just “matter in motion”—as it must be in this experiment because all material motion has ceased? I don’t know, but for a frozen embryo to be alive or resurrected back to life if dead, these questions don’t seem stupid, and the idea of a soul, properly understood in light of them, doesn’t seem stupid either. “Soul” may just be the name for a phenomena that we can’t yet explain, but that definition is not all that far from Descartes, who was a devoted mechanist as well. It’s also not all that far from sensible religious sentiments either, once the supernatural is purged.
In any case, “soul” as a place holder for a mystery that we do not understand isn’t stupid when it simply asserts a mystery when all available scientific explanations fail. At least this occurs when one ponders the mystery of frozen embryos. Perhaps, it could be argued, this is a mystery we should respect and not just treat as a commodity to be used—a reason for caution when it comes to embryonic stem cell research. Maybe there is something to drawing out our own moral limits when it comes to what we are willing to fiddle with absent good scientific explanations. One doesn’t have to believe in anything spooky like an eternal soul descending into an embryo to think that. All it takes is a willingness to set aside expedience for a framework that might be equally important, a framework that sees “soul” as a placeholder for a scientific mystery, one central to what it means to be alive.
Lastly, consider this. Say one defines life in terms of atomic motion within biochemical molecules—a definition we need to consider if frozen embryos are still alive. Then we “kill” the embryo by freezing it to near absolute zero. Or say we define it in terms of biochemical molecules in motion and leave embryos frozen at higher temperatures. They would be dead. Or even just say we don’t define life and say the frozen embryos are in any case dead. In using them then are we not killing and bringing back to life—a notion that seems no less momentous than “soul” is problematic? Do we now have the power to dish out life and death? Under both stipulations, it would seem so. If it is so, isn’t that a power we should exercise cautiously, even if we’re only talking about proto-human beings here? Maybe what makes us alive is a complete mystery, and “soul” properly understood expresses that mystery, especially when “dead” things come back to “life.” Maybe for the sake of that mystery it is not stupid to think of ourselves as ensouled, that way we aren’t so arrogant as to meddle without reserve processes of life and reproduction that we don’t really understand. Maybe despite it’s historical supernatural spookiness, something about “soul” is driving at this mystery, the mystery that is the heart and soul of science…
Again, I don’t know, but these possibilities don’t seem as stupid as the New Rationalistas and their “scientism” would suggest. “Soul” inserts itself right in the heart of science when it comes to the question of life, as a mystery, not an immaterial substance. Like I said, the notion may be superfluous, but the instinct to postulate isn’t stupid. It could just be a recognition of the limits of understanding, limits that require their own measure of respect.
Dear Analytic philosopher:
I agree with this: “‘soul’ as a place holder for a mystery that we do not understand isn’t stupid when it simply asserts a mystery when all available scientific explanations fail.”
The frozen embryo example is interesting; you raise the question about the ‘reversibility’ of certain types of death, and whether this notion needs to be incorporated in true death’s definition (I am reminded of “True Blood” in concept of the true death of vampires). We can probably make other moves as well that fine-tune our definitions, but I think the point you are making would withstand those sorts of moves.
There is something mysterious.
I have wondered sometimes about other examples that explore the boundary questions similar to those your frozen embryo example brings up: a person in a deep coma, a robot with generalized artificial intelligence, the so-called ‘near-death’ scenarios that sometimes occur in operating rooms, very young children (<1 year) prior to onset of rationality (this I concede is a debatable point), chimeras, certain mammals with what appears to be rudimentary language abilities, etc.
I think we are closer to the mystery than we are to rationality. We are drawn to it in our music, art, drama, fiction, poetry.