Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Brief book review: A Brief History of the Soul by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro

I recently finished Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro's 2011 book "A Brief History of the Soul". I got to know of this work from a lecture by J. P. Moreland. Here's a brief review.

The first few chapters of the book take a mostly historical approach to the soul discussion- starting with writings of Plato and Aristotle, moving on to Aquinas and Augustine, then Descartes and Leibniz, and finally Locke, Reid, Kant and Hume. These chapters are meant to serve as something of a scaffold to discuss the different arguments historically presented for the existence of the soul, as well as some arguments against. The most important chapter among this bunch was the one on Descartes. With Descartes we first have a clear conception of a soul "model", with some precise data on its modality and capacities, as well as delineation of some key lines of evidence. All of this discussion is very historically contextualized, however. And that's my one- and perhaps only- major gripe with the book, the evidences for soul's existence aren't dealt with separately in exclusive chapters, but rather in the context of historical discussions. I got the feeling that in trying to write a history book, the authors incorporated as much apologetics as they could.

What the book is particularly useful for is its criticisms of arguments against substance dualism (the thesis that a soul, as well as a body, dually constitute a human person). The authors have a large chapter dealing with the so-called "interaction problem"- arguments based on the problem of how a non-material soul can interact with the material body. After dealing with a number of objections under this heading, the authors conclude these objections don't furnish decisive evidence against the soul's existence, or only do so for those who are already committed materialists. I find their presentation reasonable and compelling.

The authors also deal with other scientific, popular, and academic objections, which are:

1. Brain region-mental state correlation studies (red herring for a dualist-interactionist)

2. Wittgenstein's objection based on "private language" (the authors show, by means of reduction ad absurdum, that the argument if successful not only cuts against mental knowledge but knowledge about physical objects too)

3. Ockham's razor arguments due to the likes of Dennett and such (the naturalist arguments involve denial of first-person experience and are completely absurd)

4. The problem of conservation of energy in the soul's interaction with the body (the authors don't reply themselves, but rely on extended quotations from physicists like Robin Collins)

5. The argument from "causal closure" of the soul, or the argument that postulating the existence of the soul violates scientific methodology (the authors deal with this one in quite a bit of depth).

There are other arguments they deal with as well, such as the so-called "ghost in the machine" objection which says the soul's existence is too radical for our ontology, argument from evolution which, if anything, ends up proving human exceptionalism, and a few others.