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The Problem of the Soul: Two VIsions of the Mind and How to Reconcile Them

Bo-Rin Kim's picture

The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of the Mind and How to Reconcile Them

      Contrary to the book’s title about the reconciliation of viewpoints, the author, Owen Flanagan, attempts to defend the naturalistic, scientific view against the humanistic view, which argues that the mind is nonphysical and endowed by a higher being. Flanagan argues that we are “fully embodied creatures” (6) that have nervous systems that can give rise to minds, morals and self-identity. He posits that there is a physical, scientific explanation for everything and argues against the existence of God, free will and an unchanging soul that exists beyond death.  
      Flanagan starts off his book by stating that humans are not special. He states that the humanistic perspective is flawed because it elevates humans to a special status when they are just like any other animal due to their physical nature. He argues that humans are a “complex and unusual animal, but at the end of the day, another animal” (3). Neuroscience has shown that the brain and the rest of the nervous system are sufficient enough to give rise to the mind, which humanists argue that arise from a nonphysical soul. An interesting point that Flanagan makes is that the nature of the scientific method automatically negates the humanistic perspective of mind-body dualism. The purpose of neuroscience is to show how the mind and its corresponding behaviors can be explained in terms of the brain and nervous system. Thus, scientists must assume that the mind originates in the brain and is the brain. Therefore, the fundamental nature of science negates the existence of a nonphysical mind or a soul that exists outside the body.
      Another fundamental assumption of the scientific method is that there is a cause to everything. Scientists have to assume a causal nature of the universe because their purpose is to figure out what the cause of a certain phenomena is and how it caused this event. If humans are completely physically beings, then they must abide by these natural causal laws like any other physical object. Flanagan uses this line of reasoning to discredit the existence of free will. He states that the humanistic perspective views free will as “operating outside the realm of causation” (110). In other words, people can engage in behaviors that have no cause. This, however, can only exist if the mind is not physical, which Flanagan already discredited. As the mind is of the body, it must abide by the causal rules that dominant the universe.
      Moreover, Flanagan asserts that free will in its true sense cannot be equated to voluntary action. Voluntary and involuntary actions both exist in the realm of causation; they are just caused by different things. This is an interesting distinction that I had never made. I always believed in free will, in that humans are able to make their own choices and control their own fate rather than having their destinies cut out for them by God. However, according to Flanagan, this is voluntary action, not free will, as making choices is caused by a decision in a particular situation. Flanagan also explains that voluntary action also makes the positive qualities attributed to free will, such as self-control and individuality, all possible within the scientific, causal realm.
      A significant portion of the book is spent dealing with the incompatibility of religious and scientific thought, which have opposite views of the existence of the soul. One main argument Flanagan makes against the existence of a soul is that a higher Being who could have placed this nonphysical trait in humans does not exist. Flanagan asserts that life and everything in this world was able to come into existence without the help of an Intelligent Designer. The Big Bang and evolution are responsible for bringing about the living world. Hence, as the world was able to come into existence without a Creator, there is no reason to believe in a greater Being.
      Flanagan also argues that the lack of a soul, which is unchanging and immortal, indicates that the self cannot be described using these qualities. He posits that the self is “divisible, physical, changes over time, and is mortal” (214). This opposes the Cartesian view, which sees the self as the unchanging, permanent aspect of a person’s nature that defines who they are. Flanagan argues that the self is composed of the general trends found in a person’s behavior, thoughts, and emotions and morals. The self is defined by a person’s interactions with the world, and can therefore change over time through influences from the external world.
      Furthermore, Flanagan explains that the lack of a God implies that morals and ethical rules are not innate qualities placed in humans, but have evolved over time and are learned. He makes the interesting connection between ethics and ecology, which both try to grasp the conditions that will allow life, including human life, to flourish. He argues that ethics can be derived from a study of human nature as described by the natural and social sciences and by extracting rules that encourage the development and maintenance of such human nature. These rules and morals are learned over time rather than being innate qualities.
      Many of the concepts we learned in class are reflected in Flanagan’s arguments. He definitely sides with Emily Dickinson’s observation that the brain can give rise to the mind and to all the concepts in this world. He also agrees with the conclusion we reached in our class that brain equals behavior, as humans are purely physical beings. Moreover, his definition of the self is similar to the concepts of the I-function or the storyteller. We define ourselves through the experiences we are conscious of having and by integrating these experiences together into a coherent image that defines who we are. He also notes that people are able to have unique experiences, and therefore unique selves, because each person is endowed with a unique nervous system through which they perceive the world. Applying this to our class, this means that every person has different “boxes” or different connections between the boxes that make each person interpret the same input differently. As we saw in our study of vision, Flanagan argues that the nervous system plays a large role in constructing how we perceive physical reality. The I-function is also what allows humans to be aware of and control their actions, which makes voluntary behaviors possible. Thus, free will when defined as volunteerism can be accounted for by naturalism, as the I-function arises from neural structures.
      Flanagan also addresses concepts our class did not cover. He goes in depth about how morals and ethics develop in humans through learning. Moreover, he addresses meaning in life. Flanagan asserts that humans can create meaning without God, as we are able to invent things and create concepts like language. However, he fails to address what the meaning of life or human existence would be in the absence of God. Also, while he contends that the mind arises from the brain, he does not explain how thoughts and consciousness are created by physical tissue, which is an issue we also did not cover in class.
      While Flanagan does make interesting points, I cannot agree with his stance that the soul does not exist. Even though the mind arises from the brain, dualism can still exist if the nature of the two are different, which was the original argument behind Descartes’ theory of mind-body dualism. Descartes reasoned that the mind and the body are of different essences, which refers to the unchanging attributes of an object, rather than being disconnected. Descartes actually posited that the mind and the body interact and affect each other. He found that while the body and other physical objects can be divided into subparts, the mind could not be divided. This is what makes the body and the mind different in nature and this difference creates dualism. Thus, a mind-body dualism exists in humans, which other physical objects do not have. This dualism is part of the essence of humans, and makes humans unique from other physical entities. Although the question of animals having minds is unanswered, capabilities of the human mind, such as language, have not been successfully replicated in animals that are genetically almost identical to humans, such as bonobos and apes. This indicates that the human mind is unique. Therefore, as this unique mind-body dualism cannot be derived from other physical objects, God must place it in us. The human essence placed in people by God is the soul. Thus, God and the soul exist.
      In this sense, the soul is our being. It is what allows us to be and to experience the mind and the body. It is greater than the mind and body because it is immortal. A major flaw of this book is that Flanagan equates the mind and the soul. The mind may be of the brain, but this does not disprove the existence of a nonphysical soul. The lack of free will and the learning of morals, which Flanagan asserts are due to the lack of souls in humans, may simply be because the mind, not the soul, is still limited by natural laws, as it arises from the brain. The mind has to work within the boundaries of physical laws and therefore cannot do things that are not caused or know things that it is not taught. Moreover, I know that Christian theology agrees with Flanagan that free will refers to the ability to engage in voluntary action, as God does not force us to do anything, and acknowledges that humans are born sinful and need to learn morals to become disciplined. Hence, while Christians believe in souls, they acknowledge that humans, while in their physical bodies, are limited to the natural laws of this world. However, as our souls are our being, they give us permanency in our being even though our mental selves are mortal and can change. The essence of who we are does not change. Thus, I do not think religion and science are incompatible. Religion can accommodate science, but science cannot fully accommodate religion, as religion incorporates nonphysical concepts that science cannot encompass.
      Another flaw is that Flanagan says that there is no good reason to believe in the humanist perspective, but fails to give good reasons to agree with the naturalistic perspective, as he does not provide supporting evidence. To say that the humanist perspective is invalid because science cannot study it is flawed because science is a naturalistic method of study, and as it is creation of humans, it is limited by nature. Moreover, Flanagan does not provide an argument for why the theories of the Big Bang or the origin of species through evolution are true. I think the likelihood of life having come into being by pure chance is very low. Also, I think it is highly unlikely that a complex concept like the human mind was able to develop through unguided evolution. While it may seem preposterous that an Intelligent Designer created the world, it is equally as unbelievable to think that the living world came to be simply by chance and a process of unplanned evolutionary tailoring. Moreover, without a Creator to give me a soul and my being, how is it that my set of atoms gave rise to me and not someone else? Apart from my unique experiences, personality and other human qualities that develop over time to distinguish me from others, what is it about my brain that makes me aware that I am “me” and not someone else?
      Flanagan did a good job of explaining both the humanistic and naturalistic perspectives of the mind and soul. He raised many interesting points about free will, self-identity and the nature of the mind that I never considered before. However, a more comprehensive, evidence-supported explanation of the validity of the naturalistic view is needed to adequately discredit the humanistic view of the soul’s existence. This book may be a good, thought-provoking read for those who are not familiar with the humanistic or religious perspectives. However, for those who are familiar with these views and the scientific arguments that are commonly given against them, this book may raise some good questions about the philosophy behind the soul and God, but it does not provide any new arguments that discredit this perspective.


Paul Grobstein's picture

humanism, naturalism, and the brain

"While it may seem preposterous that an Intelligent Designer created the world, it is equally as unbelievable to think that the living world came to be simply by chance and a process of unplanned evolutionary tailoring."

On what basis then does one choose between them?  Is there a necessity to choose?