The soul is dead – long live the soul

This post is also available in Dutch.

Where do modern philosophers stand on the topic of the soul? Radboud University’s Marc Slors explains.

Aretha Franklin, crowned Queen of Soul.
Image courtesy of nico7martin (CC BY 2.0).

Radboud Reflects asked me to give a public lecture on what contemporary philosophy and science have to say about the soul. The problem with this request is that an immaterial soul plays no role whatsoever in contemporary philosophy and neuroscience. It doesn’t fit a scientific worldview and it doesn’t explain anything. So it appears as if my talk would be over in a few minutes.

Luckily, however, the history of philosophy contains more than one notion of the soul. Most of us think of the soul as an immaterial entity that can exist independently of the body. This is the soul of religious traditions and the philosophy of René Descartes. Aristotle, however, had a completely different view of the soul. The Aristotelian soul is that what makes material bodies living, sensing, self propelling, thinking and socially interacting things. It is an integral part of the human body as we know it and cannot exist independently of it. So there’s a start.

21st century soul
The Aristotelian notion of the soul is reflected in a number of 20th century positions in the philosophy of mind. Philosophers such as Daniel Dennett argue that we ‘see’ the mind in patterns of behavior. Phenomenologists argue that we ‘see’ the mind in facial expressions and bodily gestures. Enactivists argue that cognition basically is intelligent interaction of the body with its environment. In these diverse approaches, the mind is not the puppeteer that controls the body. It is not the ghost in the machine, nor its material successor, the brain. It is present in—not behind—our rational, emotional, intentional, communicative behavior. It is not realized by the brain, but by interactions of the brain and body with the material and social environment.

Interacting with other souls
This present-day version of the Aristotelian soul is alive and kicking in philosophy and science. But it is faced with one recurrent skeptical (Cartesian) objection: even if a being walks and talks as if it is minded, it is, according to many, possible that ‘the lights are not on’ inside. What this skeptical option assumes is that describing something as ‘minded’ is ‘mere projection’. This is a mistake. Projection is what we do from a detached, observational perspective. We usually see behavior as emotional, intentional, communicative and rational, however, when we interact with others.

What makes interaction different from observation? Two factors are crucial. One is body language: facial expressions, gestures, voice intonations, etc. The other is reciprocity: in ascribing a mind to others we realize that they see us as having minds and that they realize we see them as seeing us as having a mind, etc. Suppose you interact with a person such that this reciprocal and recurrent mind-ascription is clear. Suppose, on top of that, that this person displays appropriate facial expressions, voice intonations, and gestures. Does it make sense to ask, seriously, whether the lights are on inside this person? Arguably not.

This is why we should reject the idea of the Cartesian soul and its material successor. The Aristotelian soul is a much better idea.

This blog was written by Marc Slors, based on his public lecture at Radboud Reflects on 1 September 2015. Slors is Professor of Philosophy of Mind and Cognition at Radboud University Nijmegen.

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