Comments on John Haldane’s “The Soul”


Alexander R. Pruss


           Yea, and amen.  I am inclined to think everything John said is true, when interpreted appropriately.  So what I am going to do is two things.  First, I will critically comment on the third of the arguments for the immateriality of the soul.  Second, I will give a different argument for the immateriality of the soul that at the same time should somewhat clarify what alternative to dualism and materialism that John and I find plausible.

           Argument 3.  Premise 3: “No materially instantiated property is universal.”  This is ambiguous.  One could read it as: “No property that has a material instantiation is universal.”  But then this is false.  After all, the instantiation of a property is just something falling under it!  Horseness has a material instantiation, namely Bucephalus, and yet horseness is a universal.

           Alternately, one might read it as follows: “No material instantiation of a property is universal.”  But, again, the instantiation of a property is just something that falls under it.  Moreover, every material thing falls under some property.  Thus, on this reading, the premise is true if and only if: “No material thing is universal.”  This, no doubt, is true.  Dogs, tables and photons are not universals.  Though, parenthetically, we might wonder why not?

           Does the argument work on this reading?  (1) Thinking is essentially constituted by the exercise of concepts.  (2) Concepts are universal things.  (3a) No material thing is universal.  (4a) Therefore, concepts are immaterial.  (4.5) Hence, thinking is essentially constituted by the exercise of immaterial things.  So far we’ve got a valid argument.  Moreover, premises (2) and (3a) seem quite plausible.  We have two questions now.  First, whether (1) is true.  Second, whether it follows from (4.5) that thinking is non-material.

           Note that I’ve replaced Haldane’s “thought” by the less ambiguous “thinking”.  One might, after all, think that “thought” is just a proposition (which one thinks) but then the conclusion wouldn’t be that interesting.

           Somewhere in this neighborhood (4) becomes relevant, but I don’t understand (4).  On my reading of “material instantiation”, all I get from (4) is that the occurrence of concepts in thinking cannot involve the material things that fall under them, so that the occurrence of the concept horse does not involve any material horse.  This is a truism, and I don’t see it as helping to get to the final conclusion.  But maybe what I am going to say will be a way of getting around this.

           Premise (1) is unclear.  What is the exercise of a concept?  One might think that the exercise of a concept is just the causal effect of a concept’s activity.  Thus, thinking involves the causal impingement of concepts on our minds or something like that.  Now, if this is the account, then the conclusion (4.5) is only that thinking is constituted by the effects of immaterial things on our minds.  But it does not follow that thinking is non-material, since immaterial causes could have material effects—a dualist cannot deny this!  Admittedly it’s sort of strange to think of a concept as having a causal role, but it is not obvious this is absurd.  For instance, Leibniz thinking that concepts were thinkings in the mind of God and were causally efficacious through influencing God’s decisions.

           But actually we don’t want to say that thinking is just constituted by the effects of concepts.  The thinking had better represent the concept, and not all effects represent their causes.  The problem here is analogous to the problem of thinking that perception is just constituted by the effects of things upon the senses—not all effects are representative, and as the history of modern philosophy shows, the concept of representation is a deeply suspect one.  Thus, and this is certainly in a medieval spirit, we might just want to say that the mental exercise of a concept just is that concept.  If so, then our argument is that thinking is essentially constituted by concepts, concepts are immaterial, and hence thinking is essentially constituted by immaterial things.  It certainly now follows that thinking is non-material. 

But now our conclusion becomes ambiguous.  What does it mean to say that “thinking is non-material”?  This could mean that thinking is not a material substance, some kind of a fluid in the brain perhaps.  But nobody seriously thinks that!  Rather, the materialist thinks that the connection of thinking with material substances is subtler.  Perhaps thinking is a material event.  This could be understood in two ways.  Either thinking is a token or a type of a material event.  If it’s a token, this does not help the materialist: we can take “material” in the argument’s premises widely enough to include material events and surely no material event token is a universal.  Suppose now that thinking is a type of material event.  Now, types are abstract entities.  We’ve got a problem here.  For we think that my mind causes my thinking.  But even if our metaphysical liberality lets us consider abstract entities to be causes, it is really dubious to think of them as caused.

Or perhaps the thinking is not an event, but a certain functional arrangement of a material thing, viz. my brain?  But again we can ask: Are we talking of a type or a token?  If a type, then thinking is an abstract entity, and hence I can’t cause it.  So it’s a token.  But what is a token of a functional arrangement?  Is it not just the functionally arranged substance qua functionally arranged?  If so, then we’ve gone back to the already dismissed view that thought is a material thing.  Or is the token of a functional arrangement something like a special kind of trope?  But now we have a problem.  For no trope is a universal, and plausibly no part of a trope is a universal—if it should make any sense at all to talk of “parts” of tropes.

So there is indeed a problem, at least on several ways of spelling out the materiality of thought.  No doubt after hearing this, the materialist will just deny the initial premise as I read it: Thinking is not constituted by the occurrence of concepts.  Rather, it is some kind of a presence of concepts that constitutes thinking, but the concepts are not themselves constitutive of thinking. 

This view has the advantage that we tend to think of the thinking as a particular and we might think that a particular cannot have universal parts.  Thus, concepts cannot be parts of thinking.  But actually there is nothing that absurd about a particular having universal parts.  Assume mereology.  Consider the mereological sum of redness and the concept of the Empire State Building.  This mereological sum, plausibly, is a particular: at least, it’s not a universal.  The mereological sum of two concepts is not a concept, just as the mereological sum of two humans is not a human.  But yet its parts are universal.  So there need be nothing absurd about the view articulated earlier on which concepts themselves enter into the constitution of thinking.

But let’s consider the idea of the presence of concepts.  Concepts are not spatiotemporal entities.  Thus, they’re not present in a straightforward sense.  Nor are they present here by being instantiated.  There is, alas, no chest of gold in me when I think of a chest of gold.  Nor are they merely present causally—we’ve already discussed this.  It seems that they must be present through being in some way represented.  But we all know the troubles that representation theories lead to.

Enough of that.  A touchstone of Richard Gale’s philosophical oeuvre is that our ontology should not be bifurcated from what matters for leading our lives.  We do not want to see ourselves as metaphysically such as to undercut what matters to our lives.  Ethics, broadly construed, and metaphysics go together.  This is Richard’s humane pragmatism.  I am now going to sketch an argument for the immateriality of the soul in this humane spirit.  What is particularly interesting about this argument is that it is simultaneously an argument against materialism and against substance dualism.  Thus, it should clarify the Thomistic via media that John Haldane and I are both attracted to.

If substance dualism is true, then it is plausible that I just am a mind.  Why?  Well, the alternative is that my mind and body are both parts of me.  But this is implausible given substance dualism.  For openers, I am one thing, not two.  Secondly, surely my mind thinks and surely I think.  But if I am not a mind, then there are two things that think, one of which is a part of me, and they both think the same thoughts.  It is, however, deeply implausible to suppose that a part of me thinks the thoughts I do: then it seems like in me there is another thinker.  It means, too, that should we ever find ourselves in a democracy that involves immaterial beings, I should get two votes, because there are two thinkers here and they both think alike, whereas the immaterial beings get only one.  Furthermore, if I think, I think in virtue of a part of me.  But then thinking is not something that is primarily my activity, but it is primarily the activity of something other than me.  Moreover, if my body were to perish while the soul substance were to continue existing, surely I would survive.  But if my soul substance is but a part of me, then of the two thinkers here, me and my mind, only one would survive, viz. my soul.  Or else two thinkers would end up merging, which also seems weird.

In any case, there is a pull, and I think a rational one, towards thinking I am my mind, or stuff physically close to the mind, if dualism is true.  For similar reasons, there is a pull towards thinking that if materialism is true, then I am my brain, or a part of it, or a pattern of activity of it, or in some other way bound up with it.  Surely my brain is capable of thought and actually thinks.  And yet so do I.  Are there two thinkers?  Does a brain a vat deserve exactly half of the voice in a democratic society that I deserve?  If my body, apart from my brain, dies, do the two thinkers merge into one thinker?  Or do I perish?  Surely not: if I were made a brain in a vat, it would be me.

In any case, both dualism and materialism pull one towards the view that most of my body is not a part of me.  A psychologist I know uses the word “dualism” to include anybody who thinks of the mind and the body as significantly different.  It does not matter here whether the duality is of ego and body, or brain and rest of body.  Both dualities lead to an unfortunate attitude towards the body, at least below the neck.  Our relation to our bodies is apt to be seen as a relation of one entity to another.  We own our bodies: they are not a part of us.  Yet that is not how we see things.  When a man kisses a woman on the hand, he does not just kiss her hand: he kisses her on the hand.  Rape is not just a property crime.  The battle cry of abortion supporters “This is my body” would be empty of much of its rhetorical force and all of its argumentative force (not that I think it has much) if it were seen as analogous to “This is my house.”  The law considers battery to be a deliberate physical contact with the body of another person who does not desire such a contact—it does not matter whether the contact causes any harm or pain.

All of this suggests that our practical attitudes towards ourselves are that our bodies are very closely united to us.  If we think of our personhood as closely tied to mind, and if we think of the body as closely tied to us as persons, then we are going to see this.  In fact, we feel as if we were everywhere in our bodies.  And yet, as the intuitions about materialism and substance dualism suggest, we are primarily in our minds.  All this suggests the following as a metaphysical description of how we would have to be for our attitudes to ourselves to be appropriate:

(A) Our minds are present throughout our bodies.


           (B) No materially constituted object is present throughout our bodies.


           (C) Our minds are not materially constituted objects.

Both the substance dualist and the materialist are unable to do justice to the intuition that we are precisely where we are throughout our bodies.

           But what a strange view (A) is.  It may be what our value-laden intuitions require, but it seems bizarre.  Perhaps we should instead go for:

           (A*) We are our bodies.

But that doesn’t do justice to our intuition that there is some special way in which we are minds.  We are both minds and bodies.  Our minds are not just parts of us.  In one sense, they are who we are.  And yet in another sense we are our bodies.  Moreover, if we just in the most straightforward way are our bodies, then since what we are is persons, then as a person I am diminished when I lose weight.

           Is there any view, then, which makes sense of (A)?  I think so.  Consider.  Our bodies are all made of material things.  But we can make a distinction between a material entity, say an electron, as such, and that in virtue of which the material entity has the patterns of behavior that it does.  It was fashionable in the 20th century to say that that in virtue of which the electron has the patterns of behavior it does is the laws of nature.  It used to be fashionable to say that it was the electron’s essence.  But on both views, the parts of our bodies have an identity independent of us or at least our minds: this identity comes from their essences or from the laws.  And then each part of the body considered as just constituted of material things has its own identity independent of our minds.  This is a dualism, and a way of the mind not being present everywhere.

           The radical Aristotelian solution is to say that all the patterns of behavior of our parts are due not to the laws of nature or to the essences of the particles making up the parts, but due to our souls.  My soul is that entity which gives all the electrons in my body their identity, their characteristic patterns of behavior.  If you think this is bizarre, note that it does not seem any more bizarre than thinking of global laws of nature in a realist sense.  For it is in virtue of there being such laws, it is said, that all the electrons in the universe behave as they do.  On the Aristotelian solution, the laws are just more local: one thing enforces the laws in my body and another in yours, though as it happens (perhaps by divine providence) these laws are at least roughly the same in type.  Thus, my body parts are in no way independent of my soul or mind.  My soul or mind is that in virtue of which they are constituted as the objects they are and hence it can be reasonably said to be present where they all are.  And hence when I look at Richard, I see Richard, someone with a united mind and body, and not just Richard’s body.