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Wednesday, May 06, 2009


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It seems (2) is the problematic premise though. Why assume it is the soul that thinks rather than the composite. It's like saying the soul is typing and not the soul + arms. The phenomena of my thinking seems inseparable from my embodiment in terms of how I experience.

As far as I can tell, the dualistic version of the argument as Bill presents it (and which I find quite convincing) assumes that there is such a thing as an immaterial self that is persistent through time and numerically singular. The same argument might not go through on a Humean account, however, which denies a robust and continuous conception of the self, identifying it with (or dissolving it into) the procession of the thoughts themselves, rather than with a substance that has thoughts as properties. If we assume a Humean notion of the self, then perhaps the idea of a composite (soul and body) thinker could work, with 'soul' suitably redefined in Humean terms. Taking into account that many thoughts have some basis in perception as mediated through or deriving from bodily processes, and assuming that there is no substantial self to own those thoughts as properties, then I don't see any particular problem in saying that the composite object thinks.

But there is an equivocation in the argument. In Bill's exposition, the self is assumed to be temporally persistent and numerically singular; whatever thinks, or, better, is the subject of and instigator of thought, cannot be claimed to be two separate objects, soul and body. That would mean that when I think, it is really two things thinking, my soul and my body, which is absurd. The soul might be deeply dependent on the body; but it is ultimately the soul that does the thinking, with the body providing the conditions necessary for that thinking to take place. The Humean gets around the difficulty of 'too many thinkers' not by claiming that the two objects can think, but by claiming that nothing is thinking at all: there are just thoughts, lots and lots of thoughts, interacting and developing in very complicated ways.

What I thought might be a neat way around the argument for the thinking soul against composite dualism probably doesn't work, or, rather, does work, but does so by making a claim almost as ludicrous as there being two thinkers: that there is no real thinker at all. So to make this post actually worthwhile, here's an excellent article by Eric T. Olson where he puts forward an argument very similar to Bill's:


I meant to delete the line "But there is an equivocation in the argument", because while there might be a sort of equivocation over the use of the term 'soul', it signifies a central conceptual difference rather than a surreptitious rhetorical shift, and so doesn't constitute a good reason to reject the Humean approach. What I meant to say was that the Humean approach as I've loosely stated it, if coherent, avoids the conclusion of Bill's argument only by adopting a premise that to my mind is much more problematic than the idea that, strictly speaking, it is the soul that thinks, not a soul-body compound: namely, that there is no thinking thing at all, neither body nor soul. There are just thoughts and their contents.


I would second Clark's observation here. At least my understanding of Aquinas on this subject is precisely that 'I' and a soul-body composite, and that is that 'I' which thinks. Not the body without a soul, and (unless somehow directly infused by God) not the soul without a body.

Mind you, I'm an amateur, but 2 does stand out to me.

Clark and Joseph,

Your points are well-taken. I need to argue for (2) if my reductio ad absurdum is to show that (1) is false, and not (2). Well, suppose I am sitting in the barber's chair thinking about a mathematical problem. Is the whole of me thinking about the problem? But this whole is being reduced as the barber cuts off hair and beard. Hair and beard have nothing to do with thinking. And if he cuts off ears and nose and feet I can still be thinking, and so on. If a soul is allowed at all, then it is what thinks. This is but a sketch of an argument that needs to be developed.

Bill, I know you've "moved past" Heidegger, but I think his ready-at-hand and present-at-hand categories are useful here. That is what is withdrawn may be was is enabling me to experience things. Dreyfus of course famously makes a big case for this. If practices (to use less Heideggarian terms) enable the more overt cognitive functions and those practices are essentially tied to being in the world, then to what degree can we make the kinds of divides you are attempting?

I'm not necessarily talking about hair and beard. But one can reasonably ask what the transcendental conditions enabling you to think about mathematics are. And can those conditions be separated from your body and context?

Of course I suspect you'll just say Heidegger is wrong. But I think this perspective has to at least be dealt with.

"That is what is withdrawn may be was is enabling me to experience things." You've lost me entirely with that sentence.

Bill's argument appears to force us to choose among the following options: (i) reject premise (1) and retain (2); (ii) reject premise (2) and retain (1); (iii) reject both; (iv) find a formal flaw in the argument, that is declare it invalid.

Bill opted for option (i); namely, reject (1) and retain (2). Thus, he is able to conclude:

(10) I am identical to my soul.

(I shall assume for the time being that consciousness and the soul are the same thing.)

Others entertained instead option (ii); i.e., the option of keeping (1) and rejecting (2) instead. The argument in favor of opting for (ii) is based upon an intuition that just like it makes sense to say that when I write, then it is the composite of soul+arm that writes (Clark’s example above), similarly it should make sense to say that when I think the composite of soul+body thinks, not merely the soul. The trouble with assimilating writing and thinking in the manner the proponents of option (ii) do is the following. It is quite possible to imagine cases when I am writing while unconscious (or sleep walking). So when I write while not conscious, then my soul is not involved in the activity and so in such cases it makes no sense to say that my writing is a composite of soul+arm: it is only my arm that does the writing. The same does not hold for thinking. We cannot imagine thinking without the soul being involved (i.e., without doing so consciously). Whatever it is that my brain is doing while I am unconscious or asleep, it is not thinking. So while writing can be done either by the composite (soul+arm) or just by the arm, it seems that thinking cannot be done without the soul. The intuition in favor of rejecting (1) thus is that since the soul component is necessary for thinking and the body component perhaps might not be, we might just as well maintain that the soul is the seat of thought. Hence, it is reasonable to maintain that I think in virtue of my soul which would force one to reject (1) and retain (2): Bill's preferred choice.

Another argument on behalf of Bill’s option (i) and against option (ii) is the following. If premise (1) is interpreted as claiming that I am the mereological sum of body+soul, then we have a problem which can be illustrated by Bill’s barber example in order to draw a different conclusion than the one he did. We need here two simple and intuitive principles of mereology:
(A) Every part of something that is a part of a mereological sum is part of that mereological sum;
(B) If a part of a mereological sum is removed, then the original mereological sum no longer exists: i.e., it did not survive the removal of one of its constituent parts.
So, suppose by (1) that Bill is identical to the mereological sum consisting of his body+soul; call this mereological sum S. Clearly his ears, nose, hair, legs or whatever are part of Bill’s mereological sum consisting of his body organs and parts. Therefore, these items are also part of S (by (A)). Now, suppose Bill’s sloppy barber cuts his hair and in the process removes his nose or an ear or whatever. Then, by (B), S no longer exists, since one of its parts was removed and, therefore, S cannot survive this change. But surely Bill survived the change. Therefore, (1) interpreted as claiming that I am a merelogical sum of body+soul is false.
Now, someone might respond that although Bill survived the mischief of Bill’s barber while S did not, to say that Bill survived the removal of one of his body parts simply means that now he is identical to a different mereological sum; say S*. So in this way one can imagine a sequence of merelogical sums each of which is identical to Bill at different times and under different unfortunate encounters with Bill’s barber. However, it is important to note that the relationship between S* and S is no different than the relationship between either one of them and the mereological sum Q consisting of Bill’s soul and the Eiffel Tower. But, surely, maintaining that Q is also some sort of a stage identical to Bill is ludicrous. So it appears to me that the proponents of option (ii); namely, those who prefer rejecting premise (2) and retaining (1), face some serious difficulties.

So are we then saddled with Bill’s solution that I am identical to my soul? I am not ready to grant this conclusion. Instead I wish to explore option (iii); namely, rejecting both premises (1) and (2). The idea is this. Instead of maintaining the troublesome mereological sum account of self-identity expressed by (1), we ought to replace it with an account which identifies me with a conscious substance or entity, call it C, which is gradually emerging and developing as a function of my body’s interaction with the environment. We can now replace premise (2) with the premise: I think in virtue of C thinking. Since C is never numerically distinct from me, we do not get the strange conclusion (7). Of course, in order to maintain such an account I have to make sense of the notion of emergence in general and the emergence of C in particular. I think there might be some hope, given the alternatives. The alternatives, let us recall, are either being stuck with a mereological sum picture which results in untenable conclusions or accepting Bill’s account which requires accepting the soul as the seat of our identity.



Thanks for the excellent comments. The notion of emergence is crucial for your thinking inasmuch as you rightly reject eliminativism and reductionism; so this is a topic I want to pursue with you in the coming weeks. Thanks for the mereological argument which makes precise something I was gesturing at.

More later. Wifey is bugging me to take her out for lunch. Such 'marital aids' must not be ignored!

Peter, you wrote:

"We cannot imagine thinking without the soul being involved (i.e., without doing so consciously)."

Are you sure about this? I must say I have no difficulty imagining it. Do we not think about things unconsciously? We've all had the experience, for example, of thinking about a problem, putting it aside, and having the answer "bubble up" into consciousness some time later. I know that the phenomenon is widely acknowledged among scientists; they refer to the "three B's" (bed, bath, and bus), where results to problems they have been working on often surface unbidden.

I must point out also (forgive the digression) that if Bill's barber had removed not his nose and ear, but his brain (a very maladroit barber indeed), we would have a different intuition about the effect.


You bring up cases of unconscious or subconscious (the "bubble up" case) processes that culminate in conscious thoughts. So the question is whether we should classify such cases as thoughts. I ask: What do we loose if we decide not to classify them as thoughts? I don't think we loose much. However, if we do not so classify them, then we can maintain the intuition that thoughts involve consciousness essentially.
Let us look at this from a different perspective. Those who reject eliminativism and reductionism will insist that unconscious/subconscious processes are not thoughts, for obvious reasons: if they grant them, they give up on consciousness as the hallmark of the mental. (that is not to say that these proceses cannot culminate with conscious thoughts) Eliminativists and reductionists, on the other hand, will obviously tend to maintain that these cases are to be classified as thoughts because then they can argue that consciousness is not necessary for thoughts.

Therefore, these cases are what is useful to call *essentially contested cases*: i.e., they mark the very difference between eliminativists/reductionists and their adversaries. Since intuitions in such cases are likely to be divided along the very same dividing lines that the original debate involves, these cases cannot be brought as counterexamples without begging the question. This argument is not a free for all license to classify every putative counterexample as involving an essentially contested case, thereby, undermining the usefulness of counterexamples in philosophical debates. While the criteria when cases are essentially contested and when not may be somewhat fluid, I think here we pretty much can tell that if we classify your examples as thoughts, then the criterion of consciousness for the mental must be given up. And if consciousness as a criterion for the mental is given up, then there is no longer two sides to the debate: materialism won.


Peter, in what way do they differ *other* than the presence or absence of consciousness? In every other way they do what thoughts do: they represent the world, they ponder, they make observations and choices, etc.

That they seem to differ in no other way does strike me as meaning that consciousness and cogitation are two different things, which can and ought to be pried apart. We have thoughts, and some of them are illuminated by, or promoted to, consciousness.

"That is what is withdrawn may be was is enabling me to experience things." You've lost me entirely with that sentence.

I was just referring to Heidegger's ready-at-hand versus present-at-hand distinction I'd referred to earlier. That is when hammering the hammer is not phenomenologically present for me but has withdrawn from awareness. It is when something goes wrong and the hammer can't function that it appears for me. So rather than present awareness explaining my ability to hammer it is my ability to hammer that explains how hammers can become present for me. (The inverse of how it is usually conceived)

This is relevant for the current discussion since the traditional way of thinking of dualism tends to reject this way of thinking by Heidegger. (Indeed, as you know, one aspect of Being and Time is an attack on the traditional Kantian and Cartesian way of thinking. Your premise (2) really is partaking of that way of thinking and so Heidegger's phenomenological analysis can be seen as calling (2) into question.

So if we ask about thinking the traditional way is to conceive of thoughts as ideals fully present to a thinking subject. However if thinking is possible on the basis of practices that aren't present (akin to hammering vs. hammer) then we having thinking vs. thoughts with thinking not being a fully present phenomena. Much like when I type I am not aware of all the things involved with my thinking. Given that we know the brain as an organ has so much to do with our thinking to eliminate the brain from thinking simply doesn't do justice to the phenomena of thinking. At best we get a series of qualia projected before us without being to really explain the practice of thinking. Which simply is more than thoughts before our awareness.

Hope that helps.

"It is quite possible to imagine cases when I am writing while unconscious (or sleep walking). So when I write while not conscious, then my soul is not involved in the activity and so in such cases it makes no sense to say that my writing is a composite of soul+arm: it is only my arm that does the writing."

Why assume that the soul is not active when you are unconscious? I recognize there is a historic sense that sees soul as awareness. The problem with this is that if true the soul should be functioning when you are asleep. I've never seen a good way of reconciling the soul's activity with unconsciousnes. If unconsciousness is affecting the soul's activity then that's a pretty strong argument that a soul is pretty significantly affected by the brain. It isn't simply that the brain isn't sending data to the soul. Underneath all of this is the phenomenology of time as it relates to the soul. A non-trivial consideration.

Anyway the strongest argument for the soul being involved in the examples you give is that when dreaming I am aware of dreaming but merely forget it nearly immediately. (When waking up you can sometimes remember that you were dreaming but it's simply not being recorded by the brain) This issue of memory and the soul is fairly important since it would imply that sleep walking, sleep writing or the like involve the soul but just not memory. How to conceive of memory and soul is nearly as complex a problem as the issue of time and the soul.

Peter, another point in favor of the distinction I am arguing for is that, as any experienced practitioner of meditation will know, we can have consciousness *without* thoughts - showing clearly that consciousness and cogitation are not identical.

In that case, then, it seems entirely plausible to imagine that we might also have thoughts without consciousness, especially given, as I pointed out above, that these unconscious processes certainly seem to have all the other hallmarks of thought: aboutness, reasoning, etc.

On the other hand, simply to insist that consciousness is necessary by definition for a process to qualify as a "thought" is indeed question-begging, as you say. But then we shall need another term for those processes that have all the other qualities that thought does, but lack only conscious attention.

This seems rather artificial to me, given that the "bubbled-up" contents of consciousness very often are continuations of thoughts that were in consciousness earlier, then went "of the radar" to run as what we programmers might call a "background thread", then resurfaced with further cognitive work having been done - quite unconsciously - in the meantime.

It seems cleaner to me to say that there are thoughts, and there is also consciousness, but they are quite different things.

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