Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Arguing in the Void: What's wrong with Coyne and Carroll's arguments against the immortality of the soul

... Meanwhile biologist Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution is True has been voicing his Amens and Halleluiahs over Sean Carroll's scientistic attempt to dissect the issue of the immortality of the soul:
Those who specify the existence of souls and afterlives in this scientific era must do more than issue fuzzy-minded gobbledygook. They must specify more precisely what they’re talking about, and how it’s supposed to work. If we’re supposed to survive after death, what part of us survives, and how? And what is this soul, exactly? We’re no longer in the Middle Ages, so theologians who make empirical claims must be empirically specific.
Well, I'm not sure what counts as bona fide "fuzzy-minded gobbledygook," but Coyne's definition apparently does not include treating non-scientific questions as if they were scientific ones.

But, as I pointed out in my post on Carroll's original article, the major problem is simply that the scientific materialists who leave their discipline and start prognosticating on philosophical and theological topics are simply unfamiliar with the history of the discussions on the subjects on which they are opining. This causes them not only to make a hash of the whole thing, but to think that the questions they are asking have never been adequately answers.

In the present case, the discussion goes back to the pre-Socratic philosophers, through Plato and Aristotle, continuing on to St. Thomas Aquinas and into modern times--a fact about which Carroll and Coyne seem completely unaware. It's as if a philosopher had attempted to speak on the issue, say, of DNA, but had never heard of Watson and Crick.

In fact, we can go back almost 700 years and find St. Thomas Aquinas dealing with essentially the same issues, which he attributes to philosophers living over a thousand years before his own time:
The philosophers of old, not being able to rise above their imagination, supposed that the principle of these actions [knowledge and movement] was something corporeal: for they asserted that only bodies were real things; and that what is not corporeal is nothing: hence they maintained that the soul is something corporeal. (Summa Theologica, Question 75, Article I)
The materialism of Coyne and Carroll is not, as you can see, a new thing.

In fact, the questions Coyne asks were answered by Aquinas and others. But he acts as if he knows nothing about them. Has he gone back and read Question 75 of the Summa Theologica? Has he bothered to consult Book II of the Summa Contra Gentiles? Maybe he wouldn't agree with Aquinas. Maybe he would think the arguments invalid. Maybe he would even think Aquinas' entire way of addressing the questions is outdated. But the problem is Coyne and Carroll are clearly not even aware of them.

They also seem unaware of the discussions in Plato's Phaedo, in Moses Mendelssohn's Ph├Ądon, in Descartes, Locke, Kant, and Pascal--or in Hegel and Spinoza. At least the philosophers who dissented from the view that the soul is immortal (and immaterial), like Lucretius, Hobbes, and Hume, knew what they were criticizing.

But what does Coyne do instead of actually looking to see how Christian thinkers and other philosophers have answered these questions? He makes things up:
Of course theologians will respond to all of the above like this, “We don’t have to tell you what souls are, or in what form you survive after death. We just know it’s true because we just know that there’s a God and that he allows these things.”
This is not what Christian thinkers have argued and it is not what philosophers have argued. This is just silliness--coming, ironically, from someone who presumes to lecture other people on intellectual integrity.

This is a consistent problem with the New Atheists: they just simply ignore the best arguments against their positions and instead either cherry pick the worst arguments or simply make stuff up.

18 comments:

Singring said...

'This is a consistent problem with the New Atheists: they just simply ignore the best arguments against their positions and instead either cherry pick the worst arguments or simply make stuff up.'

It strikes me as very odd that you continually assert that there are 'best arguments' about souls and list philosopher after philosopher who apparently has given rock-solid arguments to show what they are and what they do, but you never ever mention those arguments in your posts.

In fact, you directly quote Coyne asking what exactly souls are and what they do and then spend the rest o your post studiously avoiding precisely those questions.

It should be patently obvious to anyone that the arguments from the past regarding souls have not garnered any kind of support in academic cricles - the majority of philosophers today are atheists or agnostics, the vast majority of scientists are atheists and yet somehow you alledge that the issue of souls has been settled and Coyne just hasn't got the memo.

If this is so, then it should be easy to tell us what a soul is in just a couple of paragraphs. After all, a scientist can tell you exactly what DNA is in a sentence, maybe a paragraph if you want it down to the elementary partciles. The structure of DNA has only been known for about 50 years and yet every scientist agrees what it is made of, how it looks and what it does.

'Souls' have been talked about for over 2,000 years, yet through the ages philosophers (even those who agree it exists) can't agree exactly what it is and can't describe what it does. Your assertions to the contrary are nice, but I for one would just love to read a simple, coherent, positive definition of what a souls is and how it interacts with the physical world. With 2,000 years of hard, philosophical study of the issue it should be rather trivial to do so, no?

Anonymous said...

We may know something with certainty but indistinctly. We know for certain things change but what is change?

Describe matter distinctly Singring, that stuff that DNA is made of, including its origins.Dr. George Whitesides of Harvard University, who has the highest Hirsch-index rating of any living chemist said, “The origin of life is a total mystery.”

Explain how an electron may have both wave and particle nature?

We know for certain living things require an animating principle that directs efficient causes to their particular ends and we call this simply anima or soul. Someone might correct my analogy but it is like a fundamental principle of practical reasoning 'it is wrong to murder' no moral reasoning can occur without accepting this principle.

Justthomism and Edward Feser will help if you want to widen your reading.

Andrew said...

Singring

Do you believe that we have a will that is not entirely explained by matter and energy? (i.e. cannot be reduced to appetites/stimulus-response or other material explanations)

Singring said...

'Describe matter distinctly Singring, that stuff that DNA is made of, including its origins.'

I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'distinctly'. Matter as we knew it and define it originated at the big bang. I don't know how the Big Bang happened and I never claimed I do.

But how exactly does that show that philosophy or theology has an answer to that question?

It doesn't.

'“The origin of life is a total mystery.”'

I disagree with this statement, but let's just accept it at face value...so the origin of life is a 'total mystery'.

Read the sentence again. And again. And then tell me how you get 'the origin of life shows there is purpose/souls/laws of logic' - whatever assertion you want to make. It constantly amazes me how theists will quote a scientist saying 'X is a total mystery' or 'we don't know how or why X happened' and then somehow come away thinking that this automatically means that 'therefore, souls exist' or 'therefore, God exists'.

It is absurd and I wish Martin would join me in telling you so. If you want to argue for something, then that's what you do. Arguing agaonst some other proposition does little to nothing in this context.

'Explain how an electron may have both wave and particle nature?'

This is a consequence of the solutions to quantum mechanics. Why do particles behave according to quantum mechanics? I don't know. Please explain how that means souls exist or are immortal.

'We know for certain living things require an animating principle that directs efficient causes to their particular ends and we call this simply anima or soul.'

Once again, we have a bald assertion leaping straight out of the middle-of-nowhere. Can you please quote one peer-reviewed article on biology that makes mention or invokes or argues for an 'animating principle' of the kind you envision?

I am a biologist and I have never heard of any accepted biological theory which postulates or requires that living things require an 'animating principle' whatever that is. The majority of biologists and scientists in general are atheists who do not believe in souls - so where do you get this claim that 'we know for certain' that living things require an 'animating principle'. Its complete nonsense and since evn the majority of philosophers are atheists, this zany idea hasn't even been able to garner a foothold in philosophy departments.

Singring said...

'Do you believe that we have a will that is not entirely explained by matter and energy? (i.e. cannot be reduced to appetites/stimulus-response or other material explanations)'

No.

Martin Cothran said...

ANDREW: "Describe matter distinctly Singring, that stuff that DNA is made of, including its origins."

SINGRING: I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'distinctly'. Matter as we knew it and define it originated at the big bang. I don't know how the Big Bang happened and I never claimed I do.

Singring, I think what Andrew is getting at is that you demanded of me, in a previous comment, that I give you all the particulars about the soul in order for you to accept that it exists {despite the fact that I was not trying to establish the existence of a soul, only that the argument that there can't be souls is not a sound argument)

Yet you do not have the particulars on these things you say you believe in, such as that there was a Big Bang, and that electrons are both waves and particles.

Why do you have one standard for belief in the soul and an entirely different (and apparently lower) standard for your scientific beliefs?

Singring said...

'Why do you have one standard for belief in the soul and an entirely different (and apparently lower) standard for your scientific beliefs?'

Martin, you once again have completely misrepresented what I have said and the entire question in general.

I do have testifyable, empirical evidence to support my beliefs in what DNA is and what an electron or a proton is and what they do.

What Andrew did - instead of even attempting to answer any of the questions I raised and justifying his own position - was to ask me to describe the origins of matter - something I have never made any claim to knowing. Now I don't know about you, but I'm pretty honest when it comes to things I don't know about - studying science will do that to you - and I can state with some confidence that I dnot know where matter - i.e. the universe - came from (though I am told that physicists have some rather nice hypotheses). However, I think we can both agree that the universe in fact exists and that we can conduct some fairly objective tests that establish this fact with some certainty (don't you go solipsist on me, Martin).

So that's great - we both agree that the universe exists (at least I hope so). With that established, I can make the claim for example, that something called DNA exists within the universe. It is composed of the matter of the universe - that we both agree exists - in such a manner that certain atoms are arranged in a certain way etc etc. I can give a clear definition of what atoms are required, in what quantity, how they have to be arranged, how they interact and what the end result is (i.e. a DNA molecule). Moreover, I can conduct experiments that you can reproduce on your own that will validate each and every claim I make with regards to DNA - with the exception of the origin of its most basic components - which I admit I don't know the ultimate origin of, cannot demonstrate it and consequently make no claims to that effect.

So far so good.

Now along come you and Anonymous who make an additional claim - namely, that these 'things' called 'souls' exist in addition to or outside of the universe or in some other nebulous way (we still haven't heard a coherent definition, unfortunately).

Yet, unlike my claim about DNA, instead of even so much as giving a definition, let alone a record of what these souls do, what they are composed of, how they interact with matter or other souls or a testable account of where they come from, you and Anonymous just resort to the usual sleight of hand of ignoring all of these questions, repeatedly asserting that whatever you say about these undefined things is true and pretending as if the fact the we don't know how X came about, we can definitiely say that Y exists.

I'll ask you again, Martin.

What is a soul and how do you know?

No talk of origins required - a couple of sentences will do.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

I do have testifyable, empirical evidence to support my beliefs in what DNA is and what an electron or a proton is and what they do.

You say things like this as if you are completely unaware of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory, arguably the dominant one in the field.

You constantly equate descriptive and predictive power with knowledge of the nature of the thing being studied. Yet this is precisely what people like Neils Bohr deny that quantum theory can do.

"Physics is not about how the world is, it is about what we can say about the world."

As Paul Davies explains, "Quantum mechanics enables us to relate different observations made on, say, an atom. The theory is to be regarded as a procedure for connecting these observation into some sort of consistent logical scheme--a mathematical algorithm. Use of the word "atom" is just an informal way of talking about that algorithm. It is a helpful means of encapsulating that abstract concept in physical language, but that does not mean that the atom is actually there as a well-defined entity with a complete set of physical attributes of its own, such as a definite location in space and a definite velocity of space."

Heisenberg says the same thing: "In the experiments about atomic events we have to do with things and facts, the phenomena that are just as real as any phenomena in daily life. But the atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than of things or facts."

"Quantum theory," says Roger Jones, summarizing Bohr's view "tells us nothing about continuously existing elements of physical reality. It tells us only the results of specific experiments."

You can go on and on about your experimental evidence and how your predictions work in a scientific model and infer from that what that physical reality is objectively like, but the people who actually developed quantum theory seem to say exactly the opposite of that.

Singring said...

'You say things like this as if you are completely unaware of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory, arguably the dominant one in the field.'

No, Martin, I do not. Just because the definition of an electron incorporates the fact that it behaves like a particle in some situations and like a wave in others does not mean I don't have a definition of what an electron is. The definition simply is that it is both a wave and a particle - each a property that we can test and measure. You may not like the the idea that an electron has such properties, but we can experimentally test that it in fact has those properties.

Meanwhile, we are still waiting to hear what - if any - properties a 'soul' has.

"Physics is not about how the world is, it is about what we can say about the world."

But Martin - this applies to any statement at all. You could say the same thing about biology or chemistry or any kind of endeavor to make statements about the physical world. How do we know that a sperm fertilizing an egg is really how the world is rather than what we can say about it?

At the very best, this leaves you with a quasi-relativist world-view, something I can hardly see you adopt. Yet, somehow, you seem to think that you can just pull the rabbit of metaphysics from a hat as if it somehow followed from the problems you perceive in empirical research. Your argument goes something like this:

'A flower might actually be something completely different than what science tells us. Therefore, (insert metaphysical claim of coice here) exists/is true.'

It should be obvious that this is absurd.

'...but that does not mean that the atom is actually there as a well-defined entity with a complete set of physical attributes of its own, such as a definite location in space and a definite velocity of space."'

Just because an atom is not 'there' as a well-defined entity with a definite location and velocity in space does not mean that it is not there at all, it does not mean that it has no velocity at all, it does not mean that it has no defined location at all. Yet somehow you insist on pretending that this is exactly what it means.

Now since you are making these grand assertions, please tell us - if atoms aren't really 'there', then what do you consist of? What does your computer exist of? What does the ground under your feet consist of? Fairy dust?

'You can go on and on about your experimental evidence and how your predictions work in a scientific model and infer from that what that physical reality is objectively like, but the people who actually developed quantum theory seem to say exactly the opposite of that.'

This from someone who constantly - and without a shred of empirical evidence - infers how reality is objectively like from 'logic' based on arbitrary premises because his 'intuitions' tell him so.

Martin, I can't count how many times I've stressed that science can never provide us with purely objective truths in any way, shape or form. All it can do is give us our best approximation based on the evidence. This is precisely what quantum theory does with rather counter-intuitive results and this is precisely what all of these quotes are referring to, despite your protestations to the contrary.

And still not a word on what a 'soul' is, nor any hint of an argument for their existence.

Singring said...

On a more general note:

Have you noticed that you are now actually arguing for exactly the position you previously told Peter (I think that was his name) was false?

AS far as I can tell, you are now saying that you think that particles are not real - i.e. that they have no objective reality. Yet we can still do experiments on them - we can test the effects they have on things that you would say do have an objective reality (at least I presume so), for example a solar sail or a vial of water.

So why don't we have experimental evidence of 'souls', which, apparently, also have no physical reality? Or do 'souls' - or particles, for that matter - actually have an objective reality after all?

Singring said...

Martin, I was browsing through my 'Quantum Theory a very short introduction' by Polkinghorn and I will wager a guess that this has been your primary source for your quotes by Bohr and Heisenberg. Interestigly,you do not cite the author's esponse to the Heisenberg quote:

'I would disagree with Heisenberg in thinking that this fact makes an electron 'ot as real' as a table or a chair. The electron simply enjoys a different kind of reality, appropriate to its nature. If we are to know things as they actually are,we must be prepared to know them as they are, on their own terms....'

thus nicely supporting what I have been trying to explain all along. The following paragraphs elaborate on this point,saying that 'lmost all physicists want to insist on the reality, appropriately understood,of electrons.'

That hardly sounds like the view of phyicists you alledge.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

On the same thread you accused me of misrepresenting your opinion (which I didn't) You misrepresented the question Anonymous asked and now you misrepresent me.

You attribute to me all the views I quoted quantum physicists saying. Where did I say I believed these things?

Singring said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Singring said...

''Where did I say I believed these things?'

Are you now saying that you believe that particles like electrons or photons have an objective physical reality?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Are you trying to misinterpret me in the other direction in order to make up for your original misinterpretation?

Singring said...

'Are you trying to misinterpret me in the other direction in order to make up for your original misinterpretation?'

No. You protested that I was misrepresenting your views on the objective existence of particles and so I asked you directly to clarify your position and correct me if I was wrong.

You apparently are refusing to do so by going back to your perennial and non-commital 'don't answer questions, just ask them' game that we know so well. For someone who on an almost daily basis makes assertions about how the world really is and how it definitely is not you have a surprising penchant for avoiding to answer any kind of direct question regarding your claims.

You have not given a definition of a soul yet you constantly make assertions about it. You have not told us what you think you yourself are made of - a rather pressing question seeing as you have apparently advanced the position that electrons. for example, (and I recall you have made the same claim about atoms previously) have no objective reality to them.

But no, you now say - that's not what you meant at all. Fair enough - then what did you mean?

The best I can make of your recent posts is that you believe that an electron, for example, is both objective real and not objectively real at the same time.

That is a remarkable new interpretation of quantum theory that I must confess I have not come across so far.

Thomas said...

Singring,

If you're asking what people mean when they talk about the soul, you're going to get different answers. But you seem to be under the impression that Christians generally believe in the soul as something other than a physical principle or activity; something like the Platonic soul that always did exist and always will exist, that is by nature eternal. This view of the soul as an immaterial entity was condemned by the Christian Church as heresy in the Originist controversy.

The Christian view has for the most part been much more like the Aristotelian view, which I will outline:

The soul is the physical principle that distinguishes life from non-life. The soul is what we point to when say something is alive (though some of us may have a vague understanding of it). This something is always embodied.

Aristotle defines soul as the ability of a body to carry on the sort of determinate activity that makes the living thing what it is. Plants do this exclusively through their nutritive faculties--they keep themselves alive through metabolic and they keep their species alive through reproduction. The ability to do this is what Aristotle calls soul, and it has both a material and formal aspect. The material part has two aspects: the "pure" matter (e.g., atoms) and the organic structures that make an activity possible. The formal part analyzes what modern philosophers might call the "existential" side: the way in which the activities of a plant are designed to preserve its form (i.e., its determinate capabilities to live).

The animal soul has an additional capacity: perception and motility. These activities preserve the animal and make the animal an animal. The rational soul implies several faculties, and Aristotle never gives a full list of them. However, among these faculties are imagination, practical reason, and contemplation. The animal soul and the rational soul bring up a number of further complexities.

Anyway, the important point is that Aristotle emphasizes these abilities are bodily (which is different than saying they are simply material bits). He points out that one could no more talk about a soul separate from a body than one could talk about the cutting of an ax apart from the ax, or the seeing of the eye apart from the eye.

That the soul must be embodied to be fully realized is no problem for Christian theology, of course, because Christians do not maintain that souls naturally exist after the death of a body. The concept of the afterlife is not an immaterial one; it involves the resurrection of the body--one of the most basic articles of Christian faith.

Singring said...

Thanks Thomas, I appreciate your effort to advance a positive description of 'souls' and I am glad you acknowledge that many Christians give quite different meanings to the term, which is one of the reasons I asked for a definition - we have to know what we are talking about before we can talk about it.

Now as to the substance of your post:

'The soul is what we point to when say something is alive (though some of us may have a vague understanding of it).'

Fair enough. I trust I don't have to tell you that this is either question begging (what is this 'principle'?) or, and I think this is the more appropriate interpretation of your description, simply a matter of semantics. Maybe you prefer calling something that is alive to be something that has a soul. That's great, but it is no different from someone saying that he likes to call something that is alive something that is animate. If you want the term to go beyond simply being a replacement for the term 'life' or 'alive', you should associate it with certain qualities that go beyond those terms. You are welcome to call things that are alive things that have souls - but then whence this claim that souls outlast death, for instance?

'Aristotle defines soul as the ability of a body to carry on the sort of determinate activity that makes the living thing what it is.'

Again this is simply semantics. Scientists have long found ample and sufficient natural explanations for the ability of a body to carry on the determinate activity that makes it what it is. So I can't see how simply labeling it 'soul' instead of 'life' tells us anything new.

'The ability to do this is what Aristotle calls soul, and it has both a material and formal aspect.'

Science can give a very extensive account of how a plant develops, grows, reproduces without ever referring to any 'formal' aspects. As such, 'formal' aspects are unnecessary assumptions that need better support than merely asserting that they are there.

'The formal part analyzes what modern philosophers might call the "existential" side: the way in which the activities of a plant are designed to preserve its form (i.e., its determinate capabilities to live).'

Again, science has given us an account of this apparent 'design' that does not require any 'formal' or 'existential' aspects - evolution.

'The animal soul has an additional capacity: perception and motility.'

There are immotile animals (a very great many, actually) and motile plants. Plants perceive a multitude of stimuli, in some cases more than animals. I hate to say it again, but science has progressed somewhat since Aristotle's time and I must say that to a biologist, talk of animal souls that are distinguishable from plant souls because of their capacity for perception and motility seems - to put it mildly - 'quaint'.

'...Christians do not maintain that souls naturally exist after the death of a body...'

There it is again: you give an elaborate account for what you call a soul, but then just pass over the very question that is at the heart of this discussion. If Christians do not maintain that souls naturally exist after death - then how do they exist?

Then what does the soul become after death? Supernatural? That is aonce more a question-begging negative definition. So we're back to square one. Even if you maintain that souls are embodied before death and at some point after death, in the form of the resurrection body - what happens in between? How can something that is embodied become disembodied and then embodied again? How can it carry with it the personality, character, memories of the one who died? You appear to resort to the tried and true 'its supernatural' answer - which unfortunately tells us nothing, is arguably incoherent and is not even positively defined.