Monday, May 17, 2010
Asma, Stephen T. "Soul Talk." CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION May 2, 2010.
No self-respecting professor of philosophy wants to discuss the soul in class. It reeks of old-time theology, or, worse, New Age quantum treacle. The soul has been a dead end in philosophy ever since the positivists unmasked its empty referential center. Scientific philosophy has shown us that there's no there there. But make no mistake, our students are very interested in the soul. In fact, that is the main reason many of us won't raise the soul issue in our classes: The bizarre, speculative, spooky metaphysics that pours out of students, once the box has been opened, is truly chaotic and depressing. The class is a tinderbox of weird pet theories—divine vapors, God particles, reincarnation, astral projections, auras, ghosts—and mere mention of the soul is like a spark that sets off dozens of combustions. Trying to put out all these fires with calm, cool rationality is exhausting and unsuccessful. Lately, perhaps sparked by Dan Brown's best seller The Lost Symbol, I have had to repeatedly extinguish confident student dogma assuring me that "noetic science" has "proven" the existence of the soul. Since the early 1900s, a handful of marginal experimenters have tried to weigh the soul—by arranging dying people on scales and taking their weight before and after the moment of death. Nothing even vaguely suggestive was discovered by that experimental approach, except a very high degree of wishful thinking. One humorous and underreported "finding," made by an Oregon sheep rancher and earnest amateur scientist, was the discovery that sheep actually gain a little weight as they die. It's hard to know where to start with all this. Even if we could show that some energy was leaving our bodies at the moment of death, it can't really be a surprise, since thermodynamics tells us that energy is always being exchanged through physical systems. When I die, the slowing of my thermodynamic processes will become irreversible; my local entropy will increase. When I die, my energy will go on. But, of course, we can't get too excited by that fact, since we're talking only about heat and the chemical transformation of my decaying flesh, taken up and conserved in new organisms and physical systems. The conservation of energy doesn't give us any conservation of consciousness or any continuation of personal identity. And personal continuity is the hope for most soul proponents. But if we could set aside all the problems with these badly controlled and executed experiments—if we could create highly precise measurements—we would still have the more challenging issue of coherence. Most people's concept of the soul includes the idea that it is incorporeal or immaterial (this is how the religious traditions have conceptualized it), so how could an incorporeal entity have any weight or mass or volume, any of the spatial properties we assign to matter? Thinking that the soul has weight seems like a category mistake—like saying the number 4 weighs 30 pounds, or the color blue smells bad. Weighing the soul, or searching for the soul in the brain, seems like a similar mistake. Science seems entirely justified in its soul skepticism. But if such speculative metaphysics is bracketed out of science, then what is left of the soul issue? What remains of soul talk? Is it merely folk language that has been replaced by more-accurate descriptions of the human experience? One response is for believers to rush headlong into a faith-based rejection of rationality and just hold fast to the traditional soul idea; another is to give it a New Age paint job with quantum-energy talk. Our students are very enticed by that response, partly because they see no other avenue for preserving their meaningful soul language. But lately I have been offering them a fresh alternative. Instead of asking whether we can verify the soul's existence—find some empirical evidence for it—I suggest a Wittgensteinian approach. Following the Austrian philosopher, I ask: How do people actually talk about the soul? How is soul talk used in ordinary language? And here we find that the soul is alive and well in certain kinds of expressive language. . . . Read the rest here: http://chronicle.com/article/Soul-Talk/65278/.