Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What does the soul actually do? A discussion

From a forum discussion...

...As a philosophy undergraduate at my university I find myself in the interesting position of being probably the only really traditional dualist (among philosophy students) that I know of. I think a lot of Christians are moving to a less expansive view of the soul.

A good way I think of distinguishing the soul and the brain can be found from analysing David Chalmers' 'hard problem of consciousness' (Wikipedia article).

Say you have a brain that is structured in a certain way, so that it does a lot of things. The makeup of the brain can completely explain why it does a lot of stuff. The question is, could you have a brain without the brain actually feeling something like our experience of subjective phenomena? Could you have a brain that does lots of stuff without anybody actually being 'in there'? It seems that there is a kind of gap between having a brain doing stuff and that brain having a subjective awareness (note: subjective, unobservable consciousness is also referred to as 'qualia').

I would place the soul as what provides the subjective awareness. It is the extra thing, the missing piece, that transforms a brain that does stuff into a brain that does stuff and has a subjective awareness. So the soul and brain work together - the soul is the extra thing making us conscious (animals also have souls but not understanding, I would say, lest I deny animals consciousness).

(Note for readers: what is Chalmer's argument?

1. We can theoretically imagine physical bodies and brains acting roughly like we do but which have no inner subjective experiences (i.e. are not conscious)
2. If we can imagine it, then it is theoretically possible.
3. If it is theoretically possible, then there is an explanatory gap that we have not figured out between our brains and consciousness, that we need to figure out in order to fully understand why our brains are conscious.
4. For various reasons, this link is not likely to come from further scientific discoveries in understanding the brain. It can only come through philosophical speculation.

The discussion continues...)

...I would agree with the comments here that from what we can know from philosophy it certainly makes sense that this apparent 'gap' between functional states (or identity theory) and qualia could just be a result of missing, important knowledge of some kind. The 'water doesn't seem to have to equal H20 if you don't know much science, but in reality it does' type of response is a pretty good response.

So I would definitely say that it could be called an 'explanatory gap' rather than a gap that destroys physicalism... nevertheless, it is *some* kind of explanatory gap. I'm attracted to turning this 'explanatory gap' into a place for a real, dualist soul for a few reasons (soul defined as originator of qualia).

I'm quite perplexed by the libertarian free will problem, or how to have a really great kind of free will. Ultimately, any way I've read of explaining libertarian free will has fallen flat.

So in this 'explanatory gap' (provided by arguments like Chalmers') I'm attracted to placing a soul as a kind of substance that is totally unlike anything we can ever rationally talk about. The soul I see as something that draws on God in some way without being God... so from a world our reason can never access. It's because we can never fully understand this world that we a) Have free will, but b) Can never explain it satisfactorily.

That would probably be the primary reason I'm attracted to dualism... not necessarily because I'm a Christian. These days it seems that a lot of Christians are moving to a physicalist account of the mind. That sounds OK, as long as God can preserve our unique personalities when we die.

(Comment on how getting brain damaged affects personality)

...It's quite interesting the degree to which our conscious states are affected by physical states for any dualist. I think that the most a dualist can realistically say (such as myself) would be that the soul-qualia is basically the 'cherry on the top' of the 'cake' of a person, the cake being the physical brain. So we're significantly a physical brain, and the soul-qualia adds a bit of qualia.

But I add a caveat to this analogy: since we consider a person to be their mind, the 'cherry on the top' is actually the person, and the cake allows the cherry to 'sit somewhere', and thus exist in that way.

I'm not an epiphenomenalist like Chalmers. So I think that the soul-qualia, even though it's just the 'cherry on the top' does some important stuff. I think it somehow has the ability to remake the brain, which allows free will, somehow. So our qualia can influence our brain. I would say that the phenomenon of neuroplasticity is our soul-qualia exercising its free will (neuroplasticity being a very interesting area of research into how we can change our personalities by changing our patterns of thinking).

(Link - click show transcript - to account of research on neuroplasticity. This is a real, scientific area of research saying that we have the freedom, with a huge amount of effort, to 'choose' to change our basic personality, and is empirical evidence of free will.)

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