Monday, October 27, 2008

What is the Soul?

Some interesting questions came up in a religious studies class that I'm taking, and I'm not sure how to answer. One of the main question boils down to: what exactly is a soul? We've been discussing it for a while, and I think it's been a bit one-sided on the reductionist side on what is meant by "soul." What does it include? Memory? Consciousness? Language? How do we know it's there? The reductionists say that there really is no such thing as the "soul" in the traditional sense, and that all these things we attribute to the soul have been explained by neuroscience. I've tried researching it, but I'm not even sure where to start.

24 comments:

Daniel Kim said...

The following is another question that Kevin asked, but I thought I would post it as a comment here, because it is very much related to this question regarding the soul.

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A couple of weeks back, there was a Friday night bible study on the hybrid nature of man as both a physical and spiritual being. First of all, as a Christian, I completely agree with this concept. I think, intuitively, humans know that there is more to life than just physical interactions of non-rational particles, and our longings for eternity also attest to the fact that we do not belong to the physical world. Moreover, there is also historical evidence (witnesses to biblical miracles) that suggests that supernatural occurrences are possible. I do not contest the existence of the two distinct states, but my questions stem from the interaction between nature and super-nature, in which the boundary between the abstract and the concrete smear. To what extent and how do the body and the soul interact? And is there any way to explain this interaction? In other words, aside from intuitive and retrospective knowledge, is it possible to capture this interaction through (scientific) observations? I realize that the last question could be flawed because science only deals with physical matter. But surely, if the body and soul, brain and mind, are to interact, then there should be a supernatural and natural explanation for this hybrid interaction. For example, a supernatural explanation would that the soul wills the body to act. But there seems to lack natural explanations that consider the mechanism of this process. I think the failure to resolve this interaction have caused people to disown the possibility of God all together. Some atheists believe that consciousness--let alone free will, souls, and God--is an illusion, which I think is an unfair and cheap answer. Others believe that consciousness “somehow” arises from firing of neurons in the human brain, and therefore, we do not need the concept of soul and God to explain the interaction between the abstract, rational mind and the physical, non-rational brain (since molecules are non-rational). But “somehow” is vague, and it is why I am not satisfied with the statement that the body and the soul “somehow” interact. Is there another answer?

Daniel Kim said...

Okay, I have the potential to really nerd out on this question and become irrelevant, because the whole mind-body problem is one of my favorite topics. So I will try not to.

I think there are so many problems with claiming that our consciousness does not exist or that it is a mere by-product of the brain.. One of the bigger problems is that it's self-refuting.. But that's for another comment, so I am going to try not to nerd out and just try to ask a simple question that can move the discussion further along.

You asked if there would be a "natural" side of the explanation to how our soul interacts with the brain. Well, let's do a short experiment right now. To make this fun, I hope that you go along with me and actually do the thing that I am telling you to do.

1) Decide in your mind right now that you're going to lift your right arm. But don't do it yet.
2) Have you decided? Well, now, do it.
3) You have lifted your right arm just now. Now, what is the naturalistic explanation of how your arm just went up?

That's the question that I want to try to answer through our discussion. Let me start it off..

a) My right arm went up because my right shoulder muscles contracted.
b) My shoulder muscles contracted because my muscle fibers received a signal from my nervous system which caused the muscle fibers to use ATP to traverse along each other, causing it to contract.
c) the signal came from the regions near my neck, which can be traced to my spinal cord, up to the brain.
d) The brain sent that signal because the brain neurons fired, sending a signal down.
e) The brain neurons fired because ...

Here's where I want to end it. The brain neurons fired because they received some kind of an impetus signal that got processed, causing them to fire - but what sent that impetus signal?

What would a naturalist say?
What would a supernaturalist (or someone who believes in a soul that is above nature) say?

Hope that this will guide our thinking about this issue..

Kevin said...

To continue the thought experiment:

A supernaturalist would say that he looked at your post and consciously decided to wait and then raise his arm. This conscious decision that occurs due to free will "somehow" stimulates the firing of the neurons. (Forgive me, but I still don't think I understand how the free will exactly moves the body. I agree that objects do not move by themselves, and thus, a will must move the object--in this case, the neurons. But how does the will move a physical object when it exists in the spiritual realm?)

(I think) A naturalist would say your post provides an external stimulus which interacts with my mood, my past experience, my nature, and other inputs and the sum of these forces results in the output or the action. Therefore, the action is determined. I am not sure on the details of brain processes, but I think that neurons would have to fire after the initial stimulus in one region of the brain where thinking occurs, produce a delayed response, and fire again at a later time in another brain region that controls kinetic action. In this case, the ability to choose, or free will, is only an illusion because it cannot have happened any other way.

Daniel Kim said...

Great reply, so let's think through this.

What sent the signal for the neurons to fire?

The supernaturalist would say: "I" did. I willed it, and the neurons fired.

The naturalist would say what you suggest above... that there is no free will and that this whole free will business is an illusion.

Given these two answers, some people would simply say that it takes much greater faith to be a naturalist, because they are denying THE axiomatic knowledge that we have. Put simply, you would just say, "man, if this free will is just an illusion, then it's a darn good one.. because it really really feels like it was me that just lifted my arm.. but you the naturalist are telling me that I'm wrong." J.P. Moreland calls this a recalcitrant fact.. If a worldview denies that you have any freedom to change your mind, that worldview is simply wrong, because you simply "know" that you can change your mind without having to explain how.

I think in your question, there is a basic assumption that in order to understand the free will, you need to understand "how" free will interacts with the brain.. Well, I am not sure exactly what you might be looking for, but how about this? I will my arm to go up, and that will causes a set of neurons to fire.. Would that suffice to describe "how" the soul interacts with our body? If you're not satisfied, then ask yourself what you're actually looking for.. Because if you're looking for a further explanation backwards in physical terms, then you are only pushing the problem further back. At a certain point, the soul, which is a non-physical entity, has to simply cause something physical to happen.. and that connection point is not explained in physical terms. Does that make sense?

Anyway, let's move this discussion along.. You said that a naturalist would say that free will is an illusion, right? Put in another way, a naturalist would say that what you're thinking and believing is simply a by-product of your brain, and that's pretty much it.

I want to invite you to think about the statement: "What you think and believe are a by-product of your brain chemistry and activity, and there's nothing more to it than that."
Do you see something self-refuting with that statement?

I think this discussion is a very important discussion about which a lot can be said (and a lot has been written about), so I encourage you to think through this issue... Because I think this issue of "knowledge" is really a huge problem for naturalism.

Kevin said...

It is self-refuting because if my beliefs and thoughts are a by-product of my brain, well, then my brain has caused me to believe in a free will. Naturalists cannot say that people are wrong for believing in certain ideas because they are simply predetermined to believe in different things. In addition, beliefs and consciousness cannot come from only chemicals in the brain because molecules and atoms do not have beliefs and are not conscious of where they are going. It is therefore as illogical to say that rational thought can come from non-rational factors as it is to say that something can come from nothing. I think this is also a solid basis to discuss the original question: what is the soul?

As for my question of body and soul interaction, maybe I am just trapping myself in physical terms, but I am inclined to think that there is a certain process to it. I appreciate your patience, and I hope to articulate my question better. You said the connection point between physical and non-physical cannot be explained in physical terms. But since there is a physical effect from this connection, doesn't that call for a physical cause? Neurons do not fire without reason: there needs to be a ion gradient; ATP builds the gradient; etc, etc. This is sounding like an infinite progression (or regression), but each step can be explained by physical causes. At a certain point, the soul would jump in and will the physical matter to start the whole process. At this point, even if it is on the level of strings, doesn't the soul have to ignite the chain reaction? Obviously the presence and the absence of a soul makes a difference. So how does the soul enter into the natural system? (Note to Daniel: Perhaps this should continue as a private discussion. For the sake of others, I think it may be best to move on. Thanks for your explanations, though. They have been helpful, and I concede that there is a certain absurdity in the physical explanation of dualism. But simply put, I am curious, as it seems to have driven modern philosophers to search more than scientific philosophies.)

Daniel Kim said...

You are right in seeing the self-refutation of naturalism. But you can go even further. Since they are saying that all your beliefs and thoughts are a by-product of your brain, that means not only they can't others are wrong about believing something, but they can't even claim that their belief is right. How would they possibly know if their belief is right? After all, their belief is just a by-product of their brains, and they couldn't have thought otherwise. When they say that they know something, they are saying that they have thought through the logic and merits of the argument and came to a conclusion. However, under tha naturalistic position, they are saying that all that's happening is their brain happened to fire a certain way (and there is no "right" way or the "wrong" way that a brain fires - that would be as absurd as saying that there's a "right" way that a billard ball bounces around and there's a "wrong" way, since the billiard ball always follows the laws of physics). So if that's the case, how are they claiming that naturalism is true? All they can say is that their brains fired a certain way, and it spit out the sentence, "naturalism is true" - in which case, it would be absurd to conclude that naturalism therefore must be true. That's the classic self-refutation of naturalism - that it gets rid of knowledge.

Regarding your other question, agreed that this can be taken off line.

Anonymous said...

Nice discussion Kevin, Daniel!

Let me comment on a few points made by Daniel in his last comment:

" So if that's the case, how are they claiming that naturalism is true? "

- Well, this depends on what you mean by 'true'. If someone denies that truth corresponds to facts (i.e. correspondence theory of truth) and argues that truth is epistemic in nature, naturalism can be 'true' even in the aforementioned scenario. We Christians typically argue that truth corresponds to facts, but of course if someone denies this then they can mean something entirely different by claiming 'X is true'.

" All they can say is that their brains fired a certain way, and it spit out the sentence, "naturalism is true" - in which case, it would be absurd to conclude that naturalism therefore must be true. "

- Well, it may not be so absurd if they're convinced that propositions need not correspond to some external fact to be called 'true'.

" That's the classic self-refutation of naturalism - that it gets rid of knowledge. "

- Plantinga argues for something like this in his influential paper 'Naturalism Defeated'. Of course it's quite controversial, and not everyone accepts it. Such is the way of philosophical discourse. (I of course think Plantinga's paper is great and his conclusions are true. :)

- Very few things can be self-refuting, since often what makes something 'obviously true' or 'obviously false' often depends on arguing for or accepting some ancillary definition/viewpoint.

Of course I have full confidence that my faith in Jesus Christ is not based on mere whim and superstition and is reasonable in every sense of what it means to be 'reasonable', but of course this doesn't mean that the naturalist is being unreasonable in his disbelief in God since he lacks something we Christians have - access to God. We Christians believe that sin prevents us from seeing God, even when our cognitive faculties are working properly.

Anyways, I'm sorry for straying so far from the topic of 'What is the Soul' and hope this hasn't become too much a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

Your brother in Christ, Joe

- former speaker Gracepoint Worldview Camp
- missionary to Japan
- joseph.kim at cbijapan dot org

P.s. feel free to delete this comment for any reason. :)

Daniel Kim said...

Thank you, Pastor Joe, for commenting! I feel privileged to have you as a part of these conversations.

Mark B said...

Wow, I can't believe I missed this cool discussion!

Regarding body-soul interaction, this may be something that we never fully understand. Although Western science demands a completely naturalistic explanation, I think that our current scientific understanding hints that the natural and supernatural aspects of our universe are very tightly intertwined and exceed the limits of our understanding.

If you really want to make your head swim, do a search on "dark matter" and "dark energy." Although these things are theorized to exist, perhaps to the extent that they are the glue that holds the very fabric of the universe together, no one really knows what they are. All that can be said of it is that it has gravitational effects on visible matter.

Now I didn't mean to digress about the question regarding the link between body and soul. All I wanted to do was point out that there is a great deal about our universe that we simply don't understand and can't explain. Even as a scientist, I think it's ok to concede that we're never going to understand everything. That's not to say we can't do research, but we should always do it with humility and admit our lack of understanding.

I'll leave you this this: A supernatural God created this natural world. We know that the supernatural can intervene in the natural because we as Christians believe that miracles can and do happen. We believe in a God who is intimately involved in his creation. Might this mean that there are supernatural causes that keep all things that we consider natural in balance? That's my speculation. I'm curious to know what others think.

Daniel Kim said...

Not only scientifically, there is also an area of philosophy that talks about this whole issue of the continual "contingency" in existence. I remember learning about it in class and saying to myself, "wow, that kind of makes sense how God would need to be there to continue our existence", but of course, I totally forgot about it. If any of you know about contingent existence, please comment.

The bit that I do remember about that was something like:
An object exists, but it does not have to exist.
It is assumed that the unnecessary object began to exist.
If the unnecessary object began to exist without any reason (atheistic position), then it follows that it can cease to exist for no reason.
.. and the logic continues, which I forgot now.

Wynn said...

I can see how naturalism refutes itself, but I imagine that the argument of the naturalist would be that the fact that naturalism is self-refuting doesn't make it false. Drawing on analogy, if a crazy person assumes that he's crazy, he can't prove to himself that he's crazy, because it would be a pointless pursuit, since he can't trust his logic. If he assumes he is sane, he has a higher chance of convincing himself of his sanity - it might not make sense logically, but it might make sense to himself, a crazy person, and to his crazy like-minded friends.
He might or might not believe that he's crazy, but it would not change the fact that he IS crazy. Right?

Wynn said...

Also, I'm not sure if this is the thing you were talking about, but George Berkeley talked about it in his philosophy of immaterialism. He claims that only minds exist, and all the material world exists only in minds. So the way that objects "exist" when no one pays attention to it is that they exist in God's mind. On second thought, this probably isn't what you're referring to, is it?

Daniel Kim said...

Regarding Berkeley's philosophy, that's a different issue from the contingency of existence that I was talking about.. perhaps the whole philosophy of immaterialism belongs in another post.

Regarding the self-refutation of naturalism, yes, your analogy makes sense. Naturalism's self-refutation is only self-refuting when naturalism claims to know something. But naturalism might still be ontologically "true". It's just that naturalist cannot claim to know that it's true. All that they can say is: "My brain chemistry spits out the answer that naturalism is true, so I just hope that that answer conforms to reality."

But put in a more negative way, one could say this: if naturalism cannot have epistemic access to know something to be true or not, then why would you claim that it's true? Might as well claim that naturalism is false, since you're claiming to know something. That seems like a more reasonable belief.

Wynn said...

What about if they say, yes, Naturalism is self-refuting in that it damages the credibility of our logic. But, we have to take the assumption that we are rational a priori, otherwise we can't argue anything. In other words, we shouldn't need to prove that we are rational under the model that we theorize. This seems to be the step that Descartes made in his argument on the existence of God and the soul. For us to have any basis in arguing about our origins, the existence of the soul, of God, etc., we must at first establish as one of our major premises that we are logical.

Also, I don't know if this is diverging, but some friends and I were talking about the existence of the soul, and a question came up. If the soul can be demonstrated through our ability to decide what we do (i.e. raising one's arm), doesn't that mean animals also have souls? This ability is not special to us, since animals can also decide to do things.

Daniel Kim said...

Sure, you can start with the a priori axiom that we are logical and rational. But what if the conclusion of a particular worldview N is that logic and rationality don't exist? I'm not saying that the particular worldview N makes rationality difficult to prove. I'm asking what if the worldview N actually makes the belief in logic and rationality completely false, because worldview N dictates that logic and rationality are illusions, and they don't actually exist?

BTW, regarding Descartes, his worldview conclusions did not destroy rationality, therefore in the end, it turned out that he was justified in his assumption of rationality. But that is not so with naturalism.

I think things can get confusing, if you think about rationality since it's such a basic axiomatic assumption that we have, so let's try this exercise:

"If theory B is true, then I can't write anything."

What do you think about the above statement? If the above statement were true, is there a conclusion that you can draw about the validity of theory B?

Wynn said...

Hmm...I'm still not sure. Could you perhaps clarify that analogy? "If theory B is true, then I can't write anything." Is this parallel to "if Naturalism is true, then our beliefs may not be rational?"

And I've read a portion of the paper by Plantinga, and so far I think the biggest problem of the argument is that he assumes that our beliefs are "invisible to evolution." I think a naturalist would really disagree with that statement, and argue that evolution selects organisms that have a set of beliefs (at least about the physical world) that is most consistent with and is the best representation of reality. For example, let's take a look at the belief of object permanence - the belief that objects don't cease to exist when you can't see them anymore. You can make the argument that organisms without this belief would be at a disadvantage. Organism A has this belief, while organism B doesn't. So when a piece of food rolls away, A will try to find it, while B thinks the food had suddenly disappeared, and makes no further effort to find it. A lives and B dies. So the system of beliefs a creature has can give it a selective evolutionary advantage. Therefore, the Naturalist can conclude, it is quite plausible to believe that we are rational animals, in a way that is consistent with the Naturalistic worldview.

Also, I don't know if this merits a new thread, but I'm a little confused on the Biblical view of the soul. Is it more monism or dualism, or something in between?

Daniel Kim said...

Let's take it a step at a time. Regarding rationality being an evolutionarily advantageous property, J.P. Moreland said that evolutionarily speaking, ONLY the resultant behavior is advantageous, not the rationality itself. Natural selection doesn't care if the organism A has an actually accurate access to reality. It only cares that you behave in a way that will be advantageous for your survival. An example he gives is this: if a rabbit sees a wolf coming, the rabbit does not need to actually see a wolf coming. It can see a blade of grass coming, as long as it also has the characteristic of wanting to run away from the blade of grass. Then that rabbit will survive. So natural selection does not get us "accurate assessment of reality"... it only gets us "behavior that will increase survival"... By the way, one could argue that many times, an inaccurate perception of reality (where subjective reality can be manipulated to fit whatever increases my survival) can increase my survival.

Anyway, let's go back to the issue of the self-refutation. Before you go ahead and try to see what the parallel might be, I was wondering if we could settle the statement: "If theory B is true, then I can't write anything".

Is there a conclusion you can draw from the above statement regarding the veracity of theory B? Just think about the statement "I can't write anything".

Wynn said...

Okay, so the statement "If theory B is true, then I can't write anything." I see that you've written something, meaning the latter part of that statement is false. Therefore B is not true.

Daniel Kim said...

Yes, as you have said, if the necessary conclusion of a theory is a self-refuting idea, then we can conclude that the theory is false.. So when I say, "If theory B is true, I can't write anything" -- you recognize that theory B cannot be true, because the statement "I can't write anything" is self-refuting.

Now, let's look at another statement:

"If theory C is true, then I can't know anything."

What do you think about the above statement?

Wynn said...

Well, that statement becomes a paradox, because if that statement is true, and I have knowledge of it, then the conclusion is false, and therefore the premise is also false. But as for Naturalism, wouldn't it be more like "If theory N is true, then my way of thinking evolved to fit my survival needs?" It would not really be contradictory or paradoxical in the same way as the last statement, since a mind shaped by evolution does not necessarily mean a mind that is irrational. How would you prove that evolution would necessarily produce irrational minds?

As for the rabbit example, what you're describing when you say "inaccurate picture of reality" is some sort of paranoia, am I right? The claim is that this inaccurate perception of reality would help an organism survive. But we have people like this, and we see that it actually doesn't help survival because it would interfere with the social interactions with other people, such as in schizophrenic patients. An organism with a certain degree of paranoia might be less social, and would be less likely to reproduce, not to mention the toll that stress would take on its body, given that it runs away from anything that moves. I'm not really a bio major, so this is all speculation. But this is what I would imagine a Naturalist would say.

Daniel Kim said...

You mentioned a lot of good counter-points regarding the paranoid person, etc.. and I would love to get into that, because I think you're begging the question by assuming a priori that your perception is accurate and the paranoid people's perception is wrong, when that's the very thing that you're trying to prove.. But let's hold off on that, and let's try to take this from the top...

>> How would you prove that evolution would necessarily produce irrational minds?

I don't have to show that Naturalism/evolution necessarily produces irrational minds. I only have to show that if Naturalism is true, then I can't know that a particular "belief" that I have is actually true.. because, after all, that belief is only something that my brain organ spit out, and I had no say in the matter. It could have just as well spit out another answer that's completely opposite, and I would have no choice but to believe it. Right? Rationality or irrationality don't even enter into that equation. Given the above scenario, you have no choice but to believe what your brain spits out. So in what sense can you trust that your brain is telling you an accurate description of reality? I know that you would say, "evolution selects for true beliefs." So perhaps the following would help:

Okay, let's take a look at all the alphabet soup of letters that are written above in this thread. According to Naturalism, what are all those letters? A Naturalist would say that all the letters that are preceeded by the letters "Wynn" at the top -- they are the product of your brain spitting things out. All the letters preceeded by "Daniel Kim" is the stuff that my brain spit out. Let's assume that you actually believe everything you said, and that you're a Naturalist. If Naturalism is true, our brains spit it out, and we couldn't have done otherwise. And the fact that we believe our statements is also something that have been dictated by laws of physics. Hope that's clear so far..

Are we on the same page up to this point? Didn't want to move forward before making sure that we're on the same page. Let's try to stay on topic, so please refrain from introducing new topics. (but of course, according to the Naturalist account, you don't have any control over that..)

Wynn said...

Yes, so far we agree.

Daniel Kim said...

Great. It's always good to start off with a point of agreement..

Now, according to Naturalism, how do we know which one of our differing claims is actually true? It would not help to appeal to evolution selecting for true perceptions, because my brain is also a product of evolution. So if two brains created by evolution are spitting out logically incompatible statements, then how would a Naturalist determine which one is actually true? If evolution selects for true perceptions, there's something seriously wrong here, because there's two different claims here by two different brains selected by evolution. Which brain is "malfunctioning" and spitting out a false perspective? He might say, "yours!" but how in the world would he know that, under his own Naturalistic worldview? (because even the statement "yours!" was something that his brain spit out). Why would he trust his brain's output over my brain's output?? 1) Maybe he can claim that by sheer luck, his brain output happened to match with reality better. Or 2) maybe he can claim that his brain is more evolved than mine. Neither claim can be substantiated in any way - they are just dogmatic claims, so he can't possibly know them. If he claims that he is right and I'm wrong, that would mean that my brain's output (which has been selected by evolution) is not accurate to reality.. but if my brain's output can't be trusted even though it's a product of evolution, how can he trust his own brain's output, which is a product of the same process that produced my brain? So deferring to evolution will not help you in gaining confidence about the truthfulness of your beliefs.

We sort of went off-topic to talk about evolution, but that's pretty much why people say that Naturalism gets rid of knowledge... it's integrally related to the fact that Naturalism gets rid of any meaningful sense of free will, including the free will to believe/disbelieve certain truth claims. Does that make any sense?

Wynn said...

Oh, I see what you're saying. It's not self-refuting in a sense that Naturalism (N) is ontologically inconsistent with the claim that human logic makes sense and reflect reality as it really is (L). But Naturalism is self-refuting in the way it makes one agnostic about one's own logic if one holds that Naturalism is true. So the leap of faith required to build that worldview is to assume both N and L are ontologically correct.