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Dawkins on the Soul

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“There\'s a cheap debating trick which implies that if, say, science can\'t explain something, this must mean that some other discipline can. If scientists suspect that all aspects of the mind have a scientific explanation but they can\'t actually say what that explanation is yet, then of course it\'s open to you to doubt whether the explanation ever will be forthcoming. That\'s a perfectly reasonable doubt. But it\'s not legitimately open to you to substitute a word like soul, or spirit, as if that constituted an explanation. It is not an explanation, it\'s an evasion. It\'s just a name for that which we don\'t understand. The scientist may agree to use the word soul for that which we don\'t understand, but the scientist adds, "But we\'re working on it, and one day we hope we shall explain it." The dishonest trick is to use a word like soul or spirit as if it constituted an explanation.”

Richard Dawkins: Is Science Killing the Soul?

dawkins on the soul
Dawkins on the Soul
  • The soul is a mythological concept invented to explain what we do not understood – the mystery of consciousness.
  • To invoke the soul is ‘not an explantion but an evasion’
  • Dawkins – we will be able to explain consciousness in the future, we just can’t yet. (Cf. Watson and Crick’s breakthrough in genetics)
Is consciousness something which we can ever hope to explain in scientific terms or is it somehow fundamentally different from other more scientific mysteries?
the mystery of consciousness
The Mystery of Consciousness
  • Our grasp of what it is like to undergo phenomenal states is supplied to us by introspection. We also have an admittedly incomplete grasp of what goes on objectively in the brain and the body. But there is, it seems, a vast chasm between the two. It is very hard to see how this chasm in our understanding could ever be bridged. For no matter how deeply we probe into the physical structure of neurons and the chemical transactions which occur when they fire, no matter how much objective information we come to acquire, we still seem to be left with something that we cannot explain, namely, why and how such-and-such objective, physical changes, whatever they might be, generate so-and-so subjective feeling, or any subjective feeling at all.
Let us imagine that Mary has lived in a purely monochrome environment for her entire life (she has never seen a coloured object). Nonetheless, since being a child Mary has studied all the physical facts about colour. She knows, for example, all about the complicated brain processes involved in seeing red. She understands the wave lengths involved and knows all about the chemical composition of red objects.
  • Let us imagine that one day Mary is let out of her monochrome prison and, for the first time sees a ripe tomato. Will she learn something new about the colour red that she did not know before? Is there an irreducibly subjective aspect to conscious experience which no physical facts could ever hope to explain?
the problem of explaining consciousness
The Problem of Explaining Consciousness
  • Dawkins is wrong to think that consciousness, like any other mystery, is something that science will one day be able to explain.
  • As Frank Jackson’s thought experiment shows even the most exhaustive description of the physical facts surrounding conscious experience cannot hope to explain the irreducibly subjective character of conscious experience (qualia)
  • We haven’t got another Watson and Crick on our hands!
soul one and soul two
Soul One and Soul Two
  • Soul One: the traditional view of a principle of life, a real separate thing that is spiritual and contains personality (i.e. the dualistic/Platonic view) → this is what Dawkins is rejecting
  • Soul Two: there might be a place for talking about the soul in a metaphorical/symbolic way (i.e. high development of mental, intellectual faculties) → there is room as long as we are clear that this does not refer to a separate thing (i.e. avoid dualism at all costs!)
dawkins and life after death
Dawkins and Life after Death
  • A monist who rejects the idea of a soul – therefore he rejects the idea of an after life
  • Dawkins argues that we are incredibly lucky accidents and therefore should live life to the full rather than relying on the false comfort that we could survive the death of our body.
  • Dawkins argues that the consolation religion provides can only truly be consolation if religion is true and we are able to survive death. Dawkins says death should not be feared. It is the ‘extinguishing’ of our consciousness and it will be no different to the time before we were born. We will not know about it or experience it.