Energy, information or something like consciousness may in fact be the real basic stuff of the cosmos
The question: Can spirituality exist without religion?
Nicholas Humphrey's new book, Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, has to be about as good as it gets when it comes to a certain kind of account of what's up inside your head. If you hold to his reductionist assumptions, it may well prove a satisfying read. If you don't, it'll engage but that's probably all.
What might interest readers of Cif belief is how Humphrey discusses life in a "soul niche". Fish live in a water niche, bedbugs in a blanket niche, humans live in a soul niche; the "territory of the spirit". This is the magic of human consciousness. To have soul is to enjoy the beauties of the cosmos, the responsibilities of free will, the comforts of prayer, the illusion of life after death. Evolution must have concocted such a grandiose dream-world for us for a purpose – probably, according to the author, to make us feel special. That encourages us to give of our best and so is good for our survival and the survival of others.
If you're like me, you'll wonder whether this damning with faint praise is a reductionist psychologist's way of having his cake and eating it. Hence, in one paragraph, the soul is celebrated as the word that informs us we can transcend our material existence: it's too rich a literary theme for an effective writer such as Humphrey to pass by. And yet, in the next, it is mocked as an opinion almost all people have of themselves – though not the author or you, wise reader.
I'm not taking offence, as if this were an attack on my deepest hopes and consolations. Rather, it seems to me to be an intellectual shame, as there's a lot more to the notion of the soul than Humphrey gives credit.
Aristotle provides a starting point. For him, the soul is not associated with magical thinking, but with the puzzle of being alive. Whatever it may be, the soul is the placeholder for that which gives living form to animate matter. Plants have souls, as well as animals – though of different kinds. Humans have a special kind of soul, on account of the capacity for abstract thought.
Aristotle, the sage of Stagira, might appeal as a resource in modern debates about consciousness because he was markedly non-dualist. He thought souls need bodies as much as bodies need souls. To separate the one from the other makes no more sense than arguing about whether a candle persists if the wax is melted. But if Aristotle is not a dualist, he is not a reductionist either, because, at the same time, a candle clearly has more to it than just its wax, just as living things have more to them than their matter.
There are further elements to Aristotle's approach that might commend it. One is that his middle path makes it pretty hard to say what it is to be a person. You can't just turn inwards and describe what you experience, as many working on consciousness since Descartes tend to do. This is because to be a person is also to be a body, and so we must incorporate into our view of ourselves our relationship with others, with culture, with the world.
All in all, a more sophisticated exploration of the notion of the soul opens up all kinds of possibilities that Humphrey's warm but dismissive approach thwarts. For example, the theologian Thomas Aquinas was thoroughly Aristotelian when it came to what it is to be human. But that does not prevent a case for postmortem existence. Roughly, both note that the human soul is characterised by abstract thought, like mathematics. But abstract thought is, presumably, immaterial. So perhaps that element persists after the body perishes. This does not straightforwardly mean that I survive: "my soul is not I", as Aquinas put it. But it might complicate brusque denials of immortality. An analogy might be drawn with the various conservation laws of modern physics: energy, momentum and information change but aren't destroyed. Maybe death is a little like that. At one point, Humphrey asserts that nothing in the natural world is eternal. That's not so easy to say if you're a physicist.
To put it another way, perhaps it's time to consider the possibility that the hard problem of consciousness is not primarily to do with consciousness, but is to do with materialism. Perhaps consciousness is thought hard from this point of view because, in fact, energy, information or something quite like consciousness is the basic stuff of the cosmos? Matter might be the epiphenomenon, not mind. As Keith Ward entertainingly puts it in his new book, More Than Matter?: Is There More to Life than Molecules?: "Minds are not illusory ghosts in real machines. On the contrary, machines are spectral, transitory phenomena appearing to an intelligible world of minds."
You don't have to be spiritual or religious to entertain such thoughts. Physicists do so quite routinely these days. It's hardly avoidable when you deal with subatomic particles – the stuff of "matter" – as waves of probability rippling across fields of energy.
Wednesday, February 02, 2011
Mark Vernon - Mind may be more real than matter
Galen Strawson recently trashed Christopher Humphrey's new book, Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, which resulted in a rather interesting (if immature) discussion of the book and the reviewer. Mark Vernon is much friendlier to the book in his Comment Is Free column this week - which looks at the possibility of spirituality without religion. Maybe this s is how the Guardian makes Humphrey feel better.