Posted by: dacalu | 2 March 2012

Mind, Soul, and Body

Tonight I would like to respond to a couple very well expressed, well thought out objections to the last few posts.  If you’re genuinely interested in whether I’m a dualist, I addressed it last May (  For a more subject specific response, let me say that I have two operational systems for understanding the universe – one of atoms and one of agents.  I have great hope that they may one day be reconciled, but they’re not yet and, in the meantime, I’m unwilling to give up either.  Both provide utility.

My friend Spencer H. writes:

merely to point out that some areas of science are concerned with human behavior and its motivations’ and to posit faith-based notions of “souls” or “free agency” to explain that behavior is an uncomfortable overlap for me. Positing reinforcement schedules and the like as Skinner did are at least testable hypotheses that can be experimentally supported or negated.

Well said.  First, let me respond that I never claimed “souls” or “agency” to be faith-based (and a I never claimed “free agency” at all).  For some reason, many people assume that I mean supernatural or at least ontological souls and lump baggage in.  I would say in a strict sense that I do believe souls are faith-based, because for me faith means trust in a person – thus I invoke the experience of other selves when I talk about soul or agency.  I do not mean, however, faith as opposed to reason.  I try to avoid that definition of faith altogether.

But let us avoid semantics for a moment and deal with the argument.  Can’t we just say that human actions are determined by genes, environment, conditioning, hormones, or some combination of the four?  The answer is no, absolutely not.  This is not “agency,” but mechanism.  Agency is the word meaning non-mechanistic (allowing that another event may have occurred, but did not).  Determinism is perfectly explanatory, but does not allow us options.  One may, with impeccable logic, claim that our actions are fixed by previous events/conditions/external forces, however, this eviscerates will, morality, law, and reason as I explained before.  It’s logical but useless practically.  If you wish to convince me, or even yourself, of a truth, you must posit that I (or you) could have thought otherwise.


My friend John M. writes:

So here is what bothers me. We have neatly separated agency from mechanistic determinism, that is we have separated mind form “particles and universal forces.”

Nope.  I never equated the agent with “mind” in the Cartesian or popular sense.  I do equate agent with “soul” in the Aristotelian, but not Thomist sense.  So far, all we have is the experience of agency and the construction of the category “self” or “soul” as the seat of agency.

And yet, the mind seems to be built with and rely upon these particles and universal forces.

Great point.  I’ll say again, I do not claim that they are independent or unrelated.  There is an underlying thing itself, which we model using atoms and agents.  Currently the two models are incompatible, but we know they represent some integrated substance.  One might imagine a moon of Saturn, for which we have infra-red and visual images.  We might trust both as being informative even if we cannot interpose the two images.  They reveal different things about the surface and subsurface.  We know they both speak to the same object, but in different ways.  Another metaphor invokes a cement aquarium with tiny windows.  You can see the same landscape, but from completely different angles.  Though you know, spatially, that you are looking at the same objects, you see them from different angles through murky water.

I suspect that the agent is built of atoms, or better yet, instantiated in atoms.  I know that there is a strong correlation between the two.  Correlation is not identity and it is not causation.  That’s a step too far.  One day we may understand one to be reducible to the other.  At present, we do not.

By experimentation – say with that third shot of tequila – one can easily discover that agency can be diminished or even temporarily removed. One could argue, of course, about the choice to have a third shot, but a cancerous growth in the brain is an equally effective if far more tragic example.

Agreed.  Excellent experimental point.  One may use physical means to impact agency.  Psychosomatic illness suggests that agency may impact physical bodies as well.  In both cases the lines of causation are blurred.  It’s entirely clear that physical damage can impair agency, or at the very least an agent’s ability to communicate with other agents.

I have not claimed free will or free agency – something I’ll get to in a couple days.  I believe that all agents are constrained by the bodies they inhabit.  Nonetheless, I don’t think they are completely constrained.  I don’t think they are determined.  Rather I think everyone capable of some choice, no matter how small.  Is that parsimonious (simple)?  Maybe not.  Once again, it is practical.  I experience my own and others’ agency.

If we are to reason about theology from the axiom of a mind distinct from the mechanistic workings of science, and particularly if we are to imbue this mind with the exalted attribute “the image of God,” we must quickly face the question of the interactions between the two.

Sadly, we don’t understand the connection.  That doesn’t mean we can’t use the theories.  There are many examples in science of models that make predictions without knowing why they work.  Other examples like the Bohr atom (electrons orbit the nucleus like planets orbit the Sun) we know to factually false, but predictively accurate.

Finally, let me say this:  It’s not a question of data which we invoke agency to explain.  Agency is the data.  We experience choices and cannot deny that.  All the models are subject to some flaws.  We want the least inadequate explanation.  For me, that is either Augustine’s idea of the soul –

“I think, therefore I am.  And if I am mistaken, who’s mistaken?” –

or the Buddhist recognition of the absurdity of the question –

“What I?”

The irrational response is to start with an ontological assumption of strict materialism and then ignore the data because it doesn’t fit our assumptions.


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