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The Return Of The Soul

By James Moore

Despite the ever-increasing amounts of simulation that we experience and the huge amount of time that people are spending in virtual spaces, most of us would agree that the universe is physical, it’s measurable, and we experience it as conscious human subjects. It seems pretty obvious that the physical nature of the universe is entirely settled from a philosophical point of view. Human consciousness itself is nothing more than a process that can be observed taking place inside our physical brains. Anyone with the slightest general knowledge of brain science would know that if you place someone in an MRI scanner and make them sniff an odor, or listen to some music and so on, you can detect their neurons firing in certain patterns. There – you’ve seen their consciousness – it’s in front of you on a monitor screen.

Admittedly, it is not known exactly how a subjective conscious experience actually manifests inside a brain at a neural level, but that doesn’t matter. We can truthfully say that we have seen the brain working, at least at a higher level. We don’t need to know exactly what every neuron is doing, and at present it doesn’t seem like we’ll ever be able to know how consciousness works at the basest level.

Given the understanding that we have of matter in the universe, and our conviction that our very personal mental and bodily existence is essentially a physical phenomenon, and that every single thing has some sort of physical quality down to the tiniest sub atomic particle, it must follow that any thoughts about the possibility of immaterial substances would be idiotic. Physicalism is true, monists are in the right and the possibility of dualism is laughable.

Physicalism is a philosophical position that argues there is only one type of stuff in the universe, physical stuff. Dualist philosophies generally argue that there are two types of stuff in the universe – physical stuff and mental stuff - the stuff from which all our souls are made, immortal or otherwise.

As a typical non-religious inhabitant of 21st century Western Europe I’m confident that there is obviously no such thing as immaterial mind substance or souls. The existence of a substance from which souls are made - a substance that has no properties in the physical world - would be ridiculous. Yet, despite my ridicule, there appears to be something immaterial in our consciousness, and it is something that is connected to phenomenological experience. The problem that physicalism is faced with in this respect is known as ‘the hard problem’. (Chalmers 1995, 202)

Physicalism can explain the systems, in a reductionist fashion, that perform certain functions which enable us to sense phenomenal events. For example it can show how a conscious human can hear music and the whole process can be explained clearly. It begins with a person’s ear sensing airborne vibrations from a loudspeaker or an instrument, triggering receptors in the ear that start nerve processes. Signals are sent along the nerves towards the brain, activating neurons in certain patterns to give rise to the subject experiencing the music.

However, physicalism doesn't adequately explain how the physical systems have experiences of the phenomenal event. The objective explanation of specific neurons firing in response to hearing music, which can be observed using scientific methods, gives no indication of what it is actually like to be a human listening to music. It doesn't convey the explosion of sensations, associations and internal images that might fill somebodies conscious experience as they listen. A person might experience things that are entirely missing from the physicalist explanation of listening to music. The experience of a sound in itself is a direct raw feel of a sensation, an experience that is most easily described in language by using the term 'there is something it is like'.

In his paper titled ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, Thomas Nagel argues that ‘there is something it is likeness’ is a central part of being an organism. His argument is that it could only be agreed that an organism has conscious mental states, "if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” (Nagel 1974, 436)

Nagel uses the example of a bat to illustrate that to have conscious experiences means that there is something it is like to be the subject of those experiences. He explicitly argues that reductionist analysis of the mental states and physiological systems of a bat do not reveal subjective experience. Any analysis we make cannot include the bat's experience of mental phenomena and therefore, physicalist explanations of what is it like to be a bat fail because the analysis leaves something out. Nagel states that the phenomenological aspects of experience must be accounted for within physicalism (Nagel 1974, 437).

It becomes apparent that all I can really do from an individual human's point of view is extrapolate from my own position and try to imagine what it would be like for me to behave like a bat. I can fairly easily imagine myself being small and furry, living in a cave amongst other bats, hunting insects in flight, ‘seeing’ sounds through echo-location and so on, but it's impossible for me to actually fully experience what it's like for a bat to be a bat. I can't modify myself appropriately enough to enable me to hold the point of view of a bat - and if I could, I would no longer be a human - and so my ability to retain two positions, the point of view of a human and the point of view of a bat, and to compare these two positions, is impossible (Nagel 1974, 439).

Nagel’s thought experiment gives us an example of how physicalism can fail to provide a full account of consciousness through its inability to explain subjective experience. Consciousness is presented as a mental phenomenon that doesn’t seem to be reducible to a material nature. It appears that explanations of consciousness in a physicalist universe would require us to abandon any belief in subjective experience, which is absurd. Perhaps the existence of immaterial soul matter isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.

An objection to Nagel’s argument would be that there is no subjective fact of what it is like to be a bat, and therefore the inability to be able to grasp this fact is inconsequential. The American philosopher William Lycan levels this objection at Nagel's premise that there are intrinsically perspectival facts (Lycan 1987, 81). Lycan argues that the experiences that a bat has while it's receiving sonar sensations are admittedly different to the experiences of a human examining the bats physiology, but nevertheless, the same fact is being apprehended by both the bat and the human. Both are observing objective information about the environment being transmitted to the mind of the bat. Each subject, the bat and the human observer, are in a different functional state in terms of their sensory inputs, but the world they are both situated within and experiencing is an objective fact.

If we acknowledge that different functional states in terms of sensory input are experienced by a human and a bat, but recognise that the sensory input comes from an objective fact, then Nagel’s argument is shown to be unsound - his premise that there are intrinsically perspectival facts is untrue. Therefore, physicalism is safe – there is only one type of material in the universe and souls are ludicrous.

But then again, perhaps they’re not. Notwithstanding the fact that a physical account can be seen to explain all there is to know about experiencing qualia, something remains missing from this physical account. As mentioned earlier, every physiological system involved in the act of listening to music can be explained from beginning to end, yet it can still be argued that something is missing, even when we include the acknowledgement that different subjects inhabit different functional states in terms of the sensory inputs.

In 1986 the philosopher Frank Jackson published a paper called 'What Mary Didn't Know'. It presents a thought experiment in which the protagonist Mary lives in an entirely monochrome black and white environment, yet she's an expert on colour. Mary lives, essentially as a prisoner, in a colourless environment, however she has studied all of the science in relation to how colour is seen, how it exists in terms of visible light wavelengths, different factors of absorption and reflection by coloured objects, and how that coloured light interacts with the retina of a human eye and is transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. In terms of physicalism, Mary has complete knowledge - she apparently knows all there is to know about colour, but she has never experienced it.

In the experiment, Mary is released from the sealed monochrome environment and sees colour for the first time. She unarguably gains something. A new experience that she could not have when relying on purely physicalist facts about the world (Jackson 1986, 291). So, it seems that physicalism has a nagging problem - there is something more to know - something integral to conscious experience that exists beyond all the physical facts. What is this thing that Mary gains when she first looks at the world in colour? It’s not something physical. Is it connected to her soul?

Chalmers, D.J. “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2: pp200-219, 1995.
Nagel, Thomas (1974). 'What Is It Like to Be a Bat?' Philosophical Review 83.4 (Oct. 1974), pp435-450.
Lycan, William G. (1987). Consciousness. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Jackson, Frank (1986). 'What Mary Didn't Know' The Journal of Philosophy Vol. 83, No. 5 (May, 1986), pp291-295.

Chalmers, David J. (1997). 'The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory'. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chalmers, D.J. 'Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness'. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2: pp200-219, 1995.
Gulick, Robert van (2017). 'Consciousness'. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, California: The Metaphysics Research Lab, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University.
url: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/consciousness/
Jackson, Frank (1986). 'What Mary Didn't Know' The Journal of Philosophy Vol. 83, No. 5 (May, 1986), pp291-295.
Jackson, Frank (1982). 'Ephiphenomenal Qualia' The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 32, No. 127 (Apr., 198), pp127-136.
Lycan, William G. (1987). 'Consciousness'. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Nagel, Thomas (1974). 'What Is It Like to Be a Bat?' Philosophical Review 83.4 (Oct. 1974), pp435-450.

James Moore:

"I'm an artist based in Cardiff and I studied Fine Art at Manchester School of Art and Chelsea School of Art. My paintings explore our snowballing detachment from the real world within a visual culture of ever increasing simulacra. The scenes that I depict have surrealist qualities, drawing on the aesthetics of the dream image and collage, and they are largely the product of virtual spaces and mediated imagery more than any directly observed reality. I montage painted imagery into the pictorial space, playing with the pressing media through which our visual landscape is composed. My work is an exploration of hypereality, representation, virtual imagery, mimesis and simulacra, and how the interplay of these things can be explored in the conventions of painting. I'm particularly interested in JG Ballard's writing and especially his ideas around mind as a state of landscape and inner-space, rather than outer-space, being the major frontier facing humanity."