Can a Person be a Soul? - Alva Noë | Closer to Truth

Can a Person be a Soul? - Alva Noë

Alva Noë - Philosophy of Mind

Alva Noë

Alva Noë is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. The main focus of his work is the theory of perception and consciousness.

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Alva
Noë

Philosopher, UC Berkeley

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Alva, everything that my self cries out to be is some sort of a soul. Certainly religious upbringing maintains that feeling. Everything that I’ve learned in neuroscience, through my early career as a scientist, tells me that that’s absurd, that only the material is real. How can a philosopher begin to look at this question about a person being, at least in part, a soul or a spirit?

Alva Noë:

Well, I find it very difficult to start with – even to start with your question, because I just don’t see the obstacle. I don’t – don’t see the problem. It’s certainly true that there are – there’s nothing that science is teaching us about how we are that supports different religious fables about what we’re supposed to be. Magic is not substantiated in science, or in philosophy. But putting those fighting words aside, I see that precisely what we’re doing here. We, scientists and thinkers trying to understand the nature of consciousness, is to try to understand what a person is. And a person is not a brain. A person’s not even a brain in a body. A person is a living being, with thoughts and feelings and hopes and aspirations and commitments, bearer of memories, and so on.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

That would seem to support the traditional view that a person if – goes beyond a brain, needs a brain to be sure, but is something other than a brain, and that other is some immaterial stuff, call it a spirit or a soul, or whatever you want, that needs to be messing around in there.

Alva Noë:

The fundamental category here is that of the person, or that of the agent. I object to the idea that we are what we are because of a brain inside us, and I object to the idea that we are what we are because there’s a soul inside us. We have a certain nature that we need to understand, and it's a sort of – it’s a categorical issue. What category are we interested in?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

I think you’re starting in a good place. What is the person? Let’s start with that. Okay, what does an entity have to have to be a person? What are we defining personhood as characterized by?

Alva Noë:

John Locke said that person is a forensic concept, by which he meant, forensic is a term that means "of, or pertaining to, the law." But what he meant was that where we’re interested in persons, we’re talking about entities where the question of action and responsibility for action comes in.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

I think that’s a legitimate point. Intent, actions, feelings, emotions, desires, attitudes. When we say person, we mean those kinds of things, as well as sensations and movement.

Alva Noë:

That’s right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So the question is, how do we get all of those kinds of, what seems to be very special kinds of non-physical things, without having some sort of a immaterial something as part of it?

Alva Noë:

Well, to say that they’re non-physical doesn’t mean to say that they’re some other special kind of thing, as if we can group things into things that are physical and things that are not physical.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

It’s a common perception. So—

Alva Noë:

What we mean – what we mean when we say they’re non-physical is that physics doesn’t tell us how they work. Physics doesn’t tell us about how a lot of stuff works. Physics doesn’t even really tell me how my computer works, even though I understand how my computer works. I understand it at a more abstract, higher level of its – of its engineering. Not that anything about its engineering is inconsistent with physics, and I see no reason to think that there’s anything about the human mind or consciousness which is inconsistent with physics, with the fact that we are creatures in a physical universe.

But the questions, you know, how do we think, how do we feel, how do we understand, how do we learn, how do we grow, how do we develop, how do we make choices… Those are not questions that we can understand… From the standpoint of physics. And that’s the sense in which these are not physical. They’re not – the point is not that they’re not physical in the sense that they’re magical, or in the sense that they’re supernatural. They’re perfectly natural. Nothing is more natural than the feelings a person has. And it belongs to our nature. And the thing, I think, that is so important about the – the acceptance of consciousness as a topic in the last 50 years in – in cognitive science more broadly, or in cognitive neuroscience more narrowly, in philosophy most generally, the thing that is so important about the acceptance of this notion of consciousness is that it’s – it’s taking seriously this aspect of nature, that we don’t understand. There was a time when we didn’t understand physics either.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Sure.

Alva Noë:

And there have been revolutions in our understanding of physics. We are now trying to understand our human nature. And the key to doing that is understanding our animal nature. And animals bear – have a lot in common with plants. You know, the modern-day version of the mind-body problem starts with Descartes. Descartes said, mind and body are different, somehow they interact, how the heck does that work? And in answering those questions, he actually begun to do what we now think of as primitive, but nonetheless bona fide work in neuroscience. He actually dissected bodies and thought about the interconnections between cords running along the arm and areas in the brain, and the mechanics, the dynamics of the system. But in some ways, we really need to go back to Aristotle.

Because Aristotle recognized that everything has – has a functional organization. And that there’s a continuity. There’s continuities that run across different kinds of beings. Plants and animals both participate in the functions of nutrition. They both have what you call nutritive souls. By which he just meant, they made use of resources around them to grow and develop. Animals, unlike plants, are mobile. And they actually move around and hunt out sources of – of food, and they hunt out their sexual partners. To do that, they need a range of skills. Skills of mobility, but also they need to pay attention to what’s going on around them, they need to avoid predators and – and use their sensory organs, so they have sensory organs. And so there is a way in which one can tell a kind of – a functional hierarchical story, which I think is very plausible. It makes a lot of sense in evolutionary terms. It takes us back to – to Aristotle. And a way of thinking about nature in terms of the organization of the stuff around us.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

It would seem that you are desperately trying to preserve the – the substance of the things that we think are important to a personhood, our attitudes, our feelings, our emotions, our intents, our beliefs. These kinds of things that can seem to be reduced to spins of electrons and things at the most fundamental level of physics. But ultimately, many people say they can. I mean, maybe there are merging qualities, but fundamentally, if this is all material, then everything we’re talking about in personhood really are reduced to purely physical movements in one way or another. And it’s an artificial distinction to try to preserve these as something special.If you’re going to reject immaterial souls or spirits in whatever form, then we’re left with the physical world, and you may try to pretty it up in some way, make us feel better, but the reality is, we’re purely physical, and there’s no difference between our sense of consciousness and – and the physical world. Anything. This table.

Alva Noë:

In one sense, I admit that there’s nothing special about our sense of self, or our – or our mental lives. I believe that our sense of self and our mental lives are part of our nature, and we’re part of the natural world, and it should all be comprehensible. One option is to deny that – is to deny the phenomenon. And I think – I don’t see why one would do that. But there are – there’s a school of philosophy called eliminatavism, that tries to eliminate this and say it’s all just basically a kind of folk tale, stories that we like to tell about each other and it has no reality to it. I don’t – I don’t believe that. But as far as reductionism, the bottom line there is that nobody actually has provided a reduction, a satisfactory reduction of these other things. So until the day that somebody can show me how my – my appreciation of baseball is actually a neurological and molecular fact about me, until that day, I see no reason to believe it. Certainly there’s no a priori reason to believe that my thoughts are just neural events.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So you want the - the results of a spiritual soul or spirit, but without having to take the baggage of all of its metaphysics, or religious connotations. You’re trying to have it both ways.

Alva Noë:

And we can have it both ways, because the things – the – you know, I don’t believe in – in the idea of sort of life after death, I don’t believe in an eternal soul, but one can – one can make those negative claims and think it’s perfectly obvious that our mental lives are not the subject matter of physics. That’s an apparent – there’s an apparent conflict there. You don’t need religion to feel the value and beauty of human existence.