What would an Immortal Soul be Like? - Ned Block | Closer to Truth

What would an Immortal Soul be Like? - Ned Block

Ned Block - Philosophy of Mind

Ned Block

Ned Block is an American philosopher working in the field of the philosophy of mind who has made important contributions to matters of consciousness and cognitive science.

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Ned
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Philosopher, New York University

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Ned, in the classical solution to the so-called mind-body problem, what is the relationship of the mind to the body or the brain, the traditional answer for millennia, the common answer among normal folk today, and the sophisticated answer among many theologians, virtually all theologians and many philosophers, is that there must be some immaterial substance that must in somehow relate to the brain in some way that produces the mind. That you need something immaterial, call it what you will. As a philosopher, how do you look upon that kind of explanation?

Ned Block:

Well, I think it's the explanation of despair. If you can't find anything material to explain personal, what makes a person a person, you try out something immaterial. The soul is just a name for something we don't understand. So far, I'm holding out for things we can understand that fit into our picture of the physical world.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Let me take the opposite view. And the opposite view is that everything you said is true, with a minus sign. That if you look at every religious tradition in human history, it was the absolute common perception, among everyone, that we have this immaterial self. That we are this material self, or that it's certainly a significant part of me. And it's only recently that when we study the brain, sure we have the needs for this sort of thing in terms of sensory inputs and it does a lot of things, a lot of correlations, but the essential self is still, is still immaterial. And this is commonly believed by billions of people. Can so many people be wrong? And they don't look upon it as a despair. They look upon it as enlivening and exciting and future, and they look upon reducing everything to a brain, that that's despair. You're the one providing the depression.

Ned Block:

Well, it is true that we, that the world not of consciousness is not solved. We do not understand why the physical basis in experience is the physical basis of that as opposed to some other experience. And that can give comfort to this dualistic point of view. But we have resolved other cases where it looked like some immaterial substance was responsible. It was thought that mold would spontaneously grow out of nothing. And it was thought that the act of reproduction required a miracle in order to explain how things could be, how beings, biological beings, could be reproduced so perfectly. But we now understand those phenomena in a physicalistic way. So it's that understanding of one mysterious thing after another in a physicalistic way that I think gives us at least some degree of hope that the one remaining mystery, consciousness, will be solved in that way too. I think it would certainly be a mistake to be confident that it won't be solved in that way.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Let me give you a thought experiment, and I'm going to talk to you as a philosopher. And if suddenly it were demonstrated that there really is some immaterial substance that you needed, and it would be impossible to describe consciousness. And you were convinced of that, but just that fact. As a philosopher, what are the kinds of questions that you would then have to begin to ask to really understand what that meant?

Ned Block:

Okay, well suppose that we find a bush that is burning and not being consumed and we examine it very carefully and we all agree that that's what's happening. It goes on and on, nobody can ever understand it. Eventually you have to think well, okay, something supernatural is going on. Then what I would want to know, what are the principles of that supernatural phenomenon? Is it something we can understand in a rational way, that works in a way that makes sense? It has, works according to some laws? Maybe it's a form of nature that we haven't encountered yet. Does it work by some kind of a mysterious whim of a higher being, or does it actually have laws that it follows?

So if there is something beyond the physical, the first question I would want to know is does it have an organization that is something like the physical, level or organization of the physical, working in a law-like way?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And how about the ability of something that's immaterial to interact with something that's material?

Ned Block:

Sorry, of course that, too. Maybe even more important [inaudible]

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And how do you begin to think about that issue?

Ned Block:

Well, I think the issue of the laws of it are probably important, that is, the laws of the immaterial, are important to understanding the interaction. But obviously we'd have to look at those to get it.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, because the only reflection of it you'd have would be its effect on the physical, so it begins to be very circular. These arguments are important, because by making the assumption that the nonphysical exists, and then asking questions about it and you find some incoherencies, then maybe the whole argument is very tenuous. I mean, so that's a good way to search out some of the solutions.

Ned Block:

Yeah, I think it's important to emphasize that we have absolutely no reason to believe anything immaterial exists.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, whether I would agree with that or not, there are, the majority of people do not agree with that and they don't agree with that for a whole host of reasons in terms of their own personal experience, their own religious belief, the historical tradition of their culture, and they would say, whether it's miracles or just experiences that are clearly nonphysical to them — And they would say this overwhelming body of traditional data is sufficient to swamp all of your technical scientific issues.

Ned Block:

But look, we're making inroads in explaining those things that seem mysterious. For example, most recently it has been found what the out of body experience is in the brain, to the point where certain kind of brain stimulation is thought to be a reliable way of producing that out of body experience. So it's just a different kind, an unusual kind of experience, which as far as we can see is identical to, or at least subserved by, a brain process.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So you would argue that all of the experiences that people have felt as religious or out of body experiences, are ultimately derivable to some aspect of brain function. You're not minimizing it in terms of the person's life and all of that, but just looking at it as a philosopher and as a scientist, that by all of that being reduced to the brain, they're just expressions of the physical world and really an illusion in terms of their representation of reality, even though to the person it may feel very real.

Ned Block:

Yes. I completely agree with that. I hold open the door. I'm not going to close the door on the need for something supernatural, but I think we have no reason to believe in it now. All the progress we've made in explaining what appears to be something supernatural in natural terms, leads me to be optimistic that we can explain everything in naturalistic terms.