Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

David Hart to Keith Ward

I while ago I had a post about Nancey Murphy (We have no souls) dealing with the question of whether we're only material beings or whether we have a distinct spiritual component non-dependant on our brains.

Today I saw a review of Marilynne Robinson's book Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self by David Bentley Hart. The book is a critique of physicalism. I haven't read her book, only Hart's review (and a review in the Washington Post which provided more details), but it seemed to me defensive towards the scary duo of determinism and reductionism, to sidestep the latest info from brain science, and to use the beauty of language to win an argument that deserves more. But that's just me - here's some of what Hart wrote ....


In Self-Defense
By David B Hart
Friday, July 9, 2010

The chief purpose of Absence of Mind — the published version of Marilynne Robinson’s splendid Terry Lectures, delivered at Yale in 2009 — is to raise a protest against all those modern, reductively materialist accounts of human consciousness that systematically exclude the testimony of subjectivity, of inner experience, from their understanding of the sources and impulses of the mind. Its targets are all the major schools of reductionism (Freudianism, Marxism, Darwinism), but also all the currently popular champions of the reductionist cause (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, and so on). It is, in simple terms, a robust defense of the dignity and irreducible mystery of human conscience, personal identity, and self-awareness; and, as such, it is a stirring success .........

Robinson’s central argument is, I think it fair to say, more or less indisputable — or, at least, it should be. It may be fashionable in certain circles, and very desirable for ideological reasons, to insist that our normal experience of consciousness is in some sense an illusion, begotten by one or another set of pre-conscious, purely material forces, which have merely dissembled themselves as personal motives, transcendental aspirations, moral principles, altruism, and so on. And it may well be the case that the “discourses of suspicion” that make these claims have spread wide enough through popular culture to have become a kind of tacit cultural orthodoxy. But, as Robinson acutely observes, there is one great problem that bedevils all the magisterial reductionist approaches to the mind, whether they be sociobiological, neurobiological, psychological, economic, or what have you: simply enough, all of them consistently prove extravagantly inadequate to what any scrupulous, unprejudiced examination of the complexity of consciousness actually reveals ........

What Robinson’s book shows perhaps most clearly is that reductionism is not a philosophy honestly distilled from experience, but a dogma imposed upon it. For roughly a century and a half, Western culture has been falling ever more thoroughly under the sway of the prejudice that modern empirical science is not only the sole model of genuine truth but also capable of explaining all things. It is a strange belief, but to those who hold it sincerely, nothing is more intolerable than the thought that anything might lie beyond the probative reach of their “mechanical philosophy.” And so the exclusion of interiority, and of the self’s consciousness of itself, from their understanding of our humanity is simply inevitable, no matter how irrational or arbitrary that exclusion may be. “Subjectivity,” writes Robinson, “is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.” ..........


There's an interesting lecture by Keith Ward on this subject - Science and the human person, which begins like this ....

Hardly anyone speaks of the soul any more. Cartesian dualism – alleged to be the view that the soul is a thing that thinks, and is quite distinct from the body – is often only mentioned as an object of derision. It is often taken for granted that the soul has been displaced by the mind, and the mind is just a by-product of the workings of the brain. Is it still possible to speak of the soul in a scientific world?

I shall argue that it is. By that I mean that what is distinctive of human persons (and of any other persons there might be in the universe) is a non-material component that we may term a ‘soul’ or ‘self’ or ‘subject of experience and action’. I use these terms interchangeably. I shall argue that the self can be disentangled from its material embodiment, then that is what gives each person a unique individuality and that it is what makes immortality possible. And I shall argue that this view is entirely in agreement with the best contemporary science ......


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