Philosophy: March 2004 Archives

Soul Creation

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Evangelical Outpost has sparked an interesting discussion on whether the human organism is fully existent at conception or at a later time, including whether the soul is present at conception. Since it tied in nicely with some of what I've been working on possibly for my dissertation, I had to throw in some of my own thoughts on problems with the soul having existed since conception. I'm hoping someone has some nice responses to those problems, though, since it might help getting my stalled project back off the ground.

Professor Mike Adams has been banned from discussing his political views with colleagues who might be offended by them. Then he notes the clear hypocrisy here. The very same colleagues who are offended by his views, who want him no longer discussing them, offend him regularly with their own. He lists some good examples, which I won't repeat here (so that you might actually go look at what he says rather than relying on me to give you all the goods -- trust me; it's good; many of them would offend the average American, though not necessarily all for good reasons).

This raises some questions I've been wondering about for a while but haven't come up with anything good to say yet. What is it about other people's making us uncomfortable that makes us assign moral blame? I want to allow for some cases where there really is blame and others where there isn't, with some that aren't clear. I'm not sure how to divide these up, however. (I should say that much of what follows is even more off-the-cuff musing than is common in blogs. I really haven't thought much of this through in a systematic manner.)

Mark at Hyleninja suggests that, with a few tendentious premises (one extremely tendentious, given the thousands of years of work on the problem of evil, another less so given theism but still weird), we can get the conclusion that this world isn't the actual world, just one world among many that God considered, and thus we're just God's thoughts. I think this view makes a lot of sense, at least on some readings without these premises. In fact Berkeley had similar enough views, and Malebranche wasn't far from this sort of thing. My friend Wink (who sometimes comments here) at least at one point wanted to say that we are in fact God's thoughts, but not in the way Mark's post offers. Wink's view is that God's creative powers are something like storytelling, and God is telling a story through creation. We're the characters in the story, and he's writing our lives out (though in the story we have freedom, which was one of the motivations for this metaphor -- which I think he took to be not a metaphor at all but more proximate to reality than the way we often think). In a way, if this view is right, then we are God's thoughts, but it's not as if there are realities that God did create while not creating us, as Mark's proposal goes. According to Wink's view, God did create us by thinking about us, and the only thing that makes us real is that God is still thinking us. It gives new meaning to the doctrine of continuous creation.

I believe it was Ryle who, in defending his outright silly view that mental properties are merely properties of our physical bodies, i.e. our behavior, insisted that their must be some sort of motion that we do, even if undetectable, to correspond to our innermost thoughts. It's true that some people do this, but most people don't move their lips when thinking. This was rightly seen as special pleading.

NASA scientists have now shown that Ryle was right on one thing. When we're about to talk, some sort of behavior in our throat preceds our mouth's uttering of words. These motions can now be analyzed and given content. Computers can now tell what you're saying subvocally even if you don't move your lips or face.

Now this doesn't really rescue Ryle. His version of behaviorism is demonstrably false, which is shown by a number of cases:

1. The in-principle possible perfect actor spends an entire life acting out the behavior that accompanies certain mental states without ever having them.

2. The in-principle possible muscle relaxant that doctors believe to be a perfect pain-killer. They never see the effects of the pain caused by the operation, because every measurable muscle in the body is temporarily frozen somehow, preserving life and feeling. Then the drug's amnesiac properties kick in, and the person forgets all the pain caused by the operation, so no one ever finds out through behavior that there was any pain. Yet there was.

So Ryle was wrong that pain or other mental states can be viewed as simply behavior or dispositions to behave in certain ways. However, the irony is that that the most ridiculed element of his defense of such a ridiculous view has now at least partially been vindictated.



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