Friday, September 23, 2011

Do You Have A Soul? [Part 1]

[This series is written by an amateur hobbyist of philosophy and psychology. I record what I come to know here mainly for the purposes of archiving and for the reading pleasure of those interested. That said, enjoy!]


The apparent answer is: yes! Of course I have a soul!

And souls are funny in that way.

Psychologist (and professor at Yale) Paul Bloom was once putting one of his children to bed when the child quipped:
"You can put me to bed, but you can't make me go to sleep. It's my brain!"
Professor Bloom got interested and later wrote a book entitled Wired for Creationism, where he arrived at the conclusion that we are somehow wired for the dualist view no matter what we grow to think later on in life.

Now before I start to be too confusing (and trust me, there is a lot of confusion ahead of us); let's just review: Physicalism (sometimes also referred to as materialism) and dualism are the two main worldviews that are in current contention to solve what is commonly known as the mind/body problem.

The mind/body problem, one of the most ancient unsolved problems of philosophy of mind, has two concerns [as Scott D. Brisbane puts them]:
"The first concern is whether a human is made of only one component, such as matter, or two components, such as mind and matter. The second is, if there are two components and they affect each other, then how do they interact?"
Now, the first worldview on the problem is physicalism: The human person is made of only matter. As cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky once put it, "we are machines made of meat". Therefore, under this worldview, we can account for all our mental phenomena in purely physical (or materialist) terms.

The next view is dualism. As the name implies, under this worldview a human is dual in nature; composed of a material and immaterial part (sometimes called the soul). The nature of the interaction of these parts is then immediately called into the question.

This area is a huge one in the study of philosophy of mind and it attempts to answer one of the most interesting questions about ourselves: what we truly are.

How We'll Go About This:

Now while you may already have a certain belief about the matter (let's say from a religious background), what I'll be attempting here is to present cases for the existence of the soul and cases against the existence of the soul.

We'll be all Cartesian about it!

We'll put all our beliefs in the soul, no matter what they are, into direct questioning and we'll try to follow the evidence where it leads. I think that will be quite fair to the rationality of both of us!

So let's start with the worldview I currently hold. I am very much a dualist. But let's see if I'll still be one by the end of this!

I'll present two arguments, one for dualism, and one against computationalism that I find rather compelling on this post. These aren't the only reasons I believe in the soul. Philosopher of religion and theologian William Lane Craig was once asked if he thought his faith would be destroyed if someone destroyed the arguments for God. His reply was quite witty and it's the view I hold while presenting my case for the soul
"No. Partly because my faith does not rest on arguments but mainly because I have other arguments!"
Similarly, my belief in the soul is based on faith in the truth of a particular religion, namely Islam, that dictates the existence of the soul and the body as separate entities. My rationale however is not based on my faith at all. Rather my rationale for explaining why the soul exists is entirely independent of my faith. So, without further ado, let's start with our first argument!

The Arguments:

One last thing: The correct form of putting forth arguments is via, usually, numbered premises and conclusions. For ease of reading though; we'll keep things simple and basically talk ourselves through the arguments.

The Argument from Intentionality:
The beautiful bit about the argument from intentionality is simplicity. First, let's find out what intentionality is!
the distinguishing property of mental phenomena of being necessarily directed upon an object, whether real or imaginary
What we mean when we say "intentionality" is really the "about-ness" or "of-ness" of mental thoughts. Every thought you think about is always "about" or "of" something.

When I look at a beautiful painting and I think "How beautiful", my thought is entirely about the painting.

This interesting property, you can easily find, is very much a distinguishing property of mental phenomena. No physical object can really be "about" any other physical object. There is no meaning to such a statement though we will raise an objection to this particular conclusion on upcoming posts as this particular issue of what exactly can we call "meaningless" is not exactly the easiest thing to conclude.

Simply put, however, "about-ness" and "of-ness" are simply not within the language of the material. You can't reduce it to anything that relates to our brain and central nervous system. It follows, therefore, that since mental phenomena are always "about" something, these mental phenomena must be non-physical or controlled by something non-physical.

Note how this argument simply points out a flaw in the claim that "every mental phenomenon can be explained in physical terms". This claim is what's referred to as a universal quantification; to disprove it you simply need to find something within mental phenomena that is not explained or reducible to physical terms, a counterexample. In our case, that something was the property of intentionality.

The next argument we'll view is not so much a case for dualism as it is a case against what is referred to as computationalism or the computational theory of mind ( i.e: that thought is a form of computation and that our mind (if we define mind as our ability to think, have ideas, etc.) is basically a very awesome information processing system).

John Searle's Chinese Room Thought Experiment:
The cool thing about thought experiments is that they usually speak for themselves! This one here is no exception! So, faced with the computational theory of mind, philosopher John Searle proposed this thought experiment in 1980 [copied from Wikipedia; whoever wrote it there made it quite understandable!]:

Searle's thought experiment begins with this hypothetical premise: suppose that artificial intelligence research has succeeded in constructing a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese. It takes Chinese characters as input and, by following the instructions of a computer program, produces other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose, says Searle, that this computer performs its task so convincingly that it comfortably passes the Turing test: it convinces a human Chinese speaker that the program is itself a live Chinese speaker. To all of the questions that the person asks, it makes appropriate responses, such that any Chinese speaker would be convinced that he or she is talking to another Chinese-speaking human being.
The question Searle wants to answer is this: does the machine literally "understand" Chinese? Or is it merely simulating the ability to understand Chinese? Searle calls the first position "strong AI" and the latter "weak AI".

Searle then supposes that he is in a closed room and has a book with an English version of the computer program, along with sufficient paper, pencils, erasers, and filing cabinets. Searle could receive Chinese characters through a slot in the door, process them according to the program's instructions, and produce Chinese characters as output. As the computer had passed the Turing test this way, it is fair, says Searle, to deduce that he would be able to do so as well, simply by running the program manually.
Searle asserts that there is no essential difference between the role the computer plays in the first case and the role he plays in the latter. Each is simply following a program, step-by-step, which simulates intelligent behavior. And yet, Searle points out, "I don't speak a word of Chinese." Since he does not understand Chinese, Searle argues, we must infer that the computer does not understand Chinese either.
Searle argues that without "understanding" (what philosophers call "intentionality"), we cannot describe what the machine is doing as "thinking". Because it does not think, it does not have a "mind" in anything like the normal sense of the word, according to Searle. Therefore, he concludes, "strong AI" is mistaken.
Note how Searle's thought experiment has potential for providing some strong philosophical support to the argument from intentionality. It's one of the reasons why I find it very cool!

On upcoming posts we'll be reviewing objections to both of this post's arguments, viewing the argument from phenomenal qualia as a case for the dualist view as well as going through some arguments in favor of physicalism.

Take care,

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