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Ralph Weir, "In Defence of the Soul"

Ralph Weir asks what a culturally and scientifically informed person should think about the idea of the soul. He discusses a number of common misconceptions, and reflects on why the idea of the soul evokes such intense hostility in today's intellectual climate. He concludes by explaining why he thinks the idea of the soul is here to stay.

Ralph Weir is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Lincoln, and Associate Member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford. He is author of Metaphysics and the Mind-Body Problem forthcoming with Routledge in 2023. His recent publications include From Existentialism to Metaphysics co-edited with Benedikt Paul Göcke (Peter Lang, 2021), "Christian Physicalism and the Biblical Argument for Dualism" (International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 2022), "Bring Back Substances!" (Review of Metaphysics, 2021), "Can a Post-Galilean Science of Consciousness Avoid Substance Dualism?" (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2021) and "Does Idealism Solve the Problem of Consciousness?" (Routledge Handbook of Idealism and Immaterialism, 2021).

Quotations included in handout:

1. Here is a staggering truth: the ontology of the human person currently embraced by the most vocal Christian scholars working on this issue is a view that almost no Christians thought plausible only 100 years ago. Until recently, the dominant view among Christian thinkers has been various forms of mind-body dualism… according to which the human person comprises body and soul. In stark disagreement, many contemporary Christian scholars vigorously advance anti-dualism and defend physicalism, understanding the human person as fundamentally physical. – Brandon Rickabaugh. Alister McGraph’s Anti-Mind-Body Dualism: Neuroscientific and Philosophical Quandaries for Christian Phyiscalism. Trinity Journal 40 (2019) 215–240. P. 215.

2. The enemy has sown spiritual errors by mingling with scriptur the vain and erroneous philosophy of the Greeks, especially of Aristotle… The soul in Scripture signifieth always either the life or the living creature; and the body and soul jointly, the body alive. – Hobbes, Leviathan Ch. xliv

3. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. – Matthew 10:28 (NIV)

4. We are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord… For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. – 2 Corinthians 5:6–10 (NIV)

5. It simply won’t do to demonstrate that the NT shows awareness of aspects of human life which appear to be non-material and to conclude from that that some kind of ‘dualism’ is therefore envisaged. – N. T. Wright, Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body: All for One and One for All

6. The fact [Paul in 2 Corinthians 12] can consider the possibility that the experience might not have been ‘in the body’ does indeed indicate that he can contemplate non-bodily experiences, but… I don’t think one can straightforwardly argue from this to what is now meant, in philosophical circles, by ‘dualism’ – N. T. Wright, Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body,

7. Paul is of course clear about… an intermediate existence… But he never names the psyche as the carrier of that intermediate existence… Had the earliest Christians wanted to teach that the ‘soul’ is the part of us which survives death and carries our real selves until the day of resurrection, they could have said so. But, with [a] solitary exception in Revelation [6.9], they never do. – N. T. Wright, Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body: All for One and One for All

8. [For Maimonides] the body and the soul are one unit… body and soul are one. – Avshalom Mizrahi, The Soul and the Body in the Philosophy of the Rambam, Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal 2.2 (2011).

9. When they spoke about souls they were not speaking of things that continue to exist as ghosts of material things that have passed away. What people like Maimonides and Halevi meant, when they said that something has a soul, is that the thing is alive. – Daniel Davies, Theories of the Soul in Medieval Jewish Thought

10. In the world to come, there is no body or physical form, only the souls of the righteous alone, without a body, like the ministering angels. –Maimonides in Mishneh, Torah, Repentance 8, Chapter 8, trans. by Eliyahy Touger, Moznaim Publishing.

11. [Certain bodily goods] are only considered of great benefit to us in this world because we possess a body and a physical form… In a situation, where there is no body, all of these matters will be nullified. There is no way in this world to grasp and comprehend the ultimate good which the soul will experience in the world to come… In truth, there is no way to compare the good of the soul in the world to come to the bodily goods of this world. –Maimonides in Mishneh, Torah, Repentance 8, Chapter 8, trans. by Eliyahy Touger, Moznaim Publishing.

12. [The Egyptians] were the first people to put forward the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and to maintain that after death it enters another creature at the moment of that creature’s birth. – Herodotus, Histories, Aubrey de Selincourt trans. Penguin (1954) pp. 150–151.

13. For the last couple of generations, despite the facts that Herodotus seems genuinely to have travelled in Egypt and that he was a leading authority on that culture among the Greeks of that time, his claim that the doctrine came from there has been widely discredited by scholars. They have been, in fact, somewhat curt and authoritarian on this point, almost disapproving, as if the question should never have been raised in the first place. One says, “The Egyptians had no such theory,” without arguing the point. Another says, also without argumentation, “The Egyptians never had such a doctrine,” and “This is regarded as a closed question.” And another “[W]e now know that Herodotus was totally wrong. Metempsychosis is foreign to the Egyptians’ way of thinking.” – Thomas Mcevilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought, New York: Allworth Press (2002) p. 127.

14. The Egyptian concept of man… is not a composite of the body and soul, and death does not mean a separation of the soul from the body... To translate the ba or any of the words here discussed as “soul”... would be a matter of grave inaccuracy.” – Louis Z̆abkar Source: Journal of Near Eastern Studies, (1963) 22.1, pp. 60–62.

15. So complete is the consensus on this important point, and so authoritarian in its declaration of the “closed question”… that it is hard to believe how meagre the argumentation is. In the article that led to the almost universal rejection of Herodotus II.123 by Western classicists, Louis Zakbar argued that in Egyptian culture there was no idea to correspond directly to the Greek idea of the soul (psyche) so there could be no doctrine of reincarnation of the Orphic-Pythagorean-Platonic type, since theses were based on a soul-body dichotomy…. The curious point is that the serious replies that cry out to be made to this simplistic argument have not been made… That there is a dualism between the ba and the body, and that the ba in certain circumstances separates from the body and ascends to the sky on the death of the body is undeniably true; the dualism is there… The Egyptian’s way of conceptualizing the parts of the person was different from the Greeks’, but it does indeed involve a dualism and a separation of parts, one invisible part (call it spiritual if you will) ascending to the sky, the other visible part (call it physical if you will) remaining on or in the earth. –Thomas Mcevilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought, New York: Allworth Press (2002) p. 128–9.

16. An almost universally accepted truism among scholars of Chinese religion is that, while “Western” thought is dualistic in nature, early Chinese thought can be contrasted as profoundly “holistic.”’ – Edward Slingerland, ‘Body and Mind in Early China: An Integrated Humanities–Science Approach’ Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 81.1 (2013) p. 7.

17. [Ancient Chinese] afterlife beliefs – as well as the belief in other supernatural beings such as ancestral spirits, nature deities, or high gods – were not only widespread, but also fundamentally parasitic on some sort of mind-body dualism: these beings were conceived as minds without bodies (or possessing only very tenuous and invisible bodies) who, nonetheless, were interacted with in a manner modelled upon ordinary social interactions because of their continued possession of minds and personal essence. – Edward Slingerland, Body and Mind in Early China: An Integrated Humanities-Science Approach, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 81.1 (2013) pp. 12–13.

18. These traditions [Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas] were quite myopic; and this informed the interrogation of another cultural position which is, the immortality of the soul in Igbo-African ontology… In Igbo ontology, there is no distinction between body and soul, as the attention is on man as a complete being… Death is not the separation of body and soul as what happens at death is not explicit... Corporeal death is not the end of existence but that death is rather a gateway to another realm of existence. – Nelson U. Ukwame. Immortality of the Soul in Classical Western Thought and in Igbo-African Ontology: A Discourse in Existential Metaphysics, Ethnicities (online first) 2014.

19. The author shows that the African theory does not take a dualistic or monistic countenance; rather, it asserts a pluralism with a leaning towards a peculiar kind of monistic duality. By providing a more plausible theory with regards to the mind-body problem, with its pluralism and insistence on a reality composed of innumerable constituents, an African theory has important consequences for understanding reality. – Godwin Azenabor, African Theory of Mind-Body: An Essan Cultural Paradigm. African Quarterly 39.4 (1999) p. 121.

20. [The] rupture of earth and sky is fundamental to the metaphysics, religious creeds, overvalued rationalism, reductive science, and technological imperialism that have plagued the Greek to modern European tradition. From its inception in Platonic thought, this dualistic philosophical vision has relied on the injunction to separate mind from body. The built environment of the Anasazi… [seems] to address a unity of earth and sky… If we are to overcome our mind-body dualism, we will have to look to the sky again, not for escape this time, but because as many Native American peoples knew, its home is in the earth. – Glen A. Mazis The Sky Starts at Our Feet: Anasazi Clues about Overcoming Mind/Body dualism Through the Unity of Earth/Sky, Environment, Space, Place 3.2 (2011) 7–21.

21. A “professional malpractice of anthropologists to exaggerate the exotic character of other cultures” (Block 1977: 285) has been detrimental to the study of cultural universals… In the anthropological study of indigenous religions, a focus on differences has caused an apparently universal aspect of religion to be overlooked: the claim that ancestors influence the living and/or are influenced by the living. We argue here that such claims of communication between the dead and their descendants are universal. – Lyle Steadman, Craig Palmer and Christopher Tiller, The Universality of Ancestor Worship. Ethnology, Winter, 35.1 (1996) p. 63.

22. If our study is to become an experimental science in the full sense of that phrase, we must be able to produce the phenomena whenever we like…It is not enough to be able to detect and measure them when they do happen. – H. H. Price, 1939 Presidential Address to the Society for Psychical Research,

23. So there it is. My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. – A. J. Ayer, What I Saw When I Was Dead, The Sunday Telegraph (28th August 1988)

24. The dualism implied here is instead a kind of property dualism: conscious experiences involve properties of an individual that are not entailed by the physical properties. Consciousness is a feature of the world over and above the physical features of the world. This is not to say it is a separate "substance"; the issue of what it would take to constitute a dualism of substances seems quite unclear to me. David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind, Oxford University Press 1996, pp. 24–5.

25. The fact is that substance dualism has played a very small role in contemporary discussions of philosophy of mind…. Dualism is no longer a dualism of two sorts of substances; it is now a dualism of two sorts of properties. (Jaegwon Kim, Philosophy of mind (2nd ed.). New York: Westview, 2006, p. 51)

26. There is zero scientific evidence that… Sapiens have souls. –- Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, Vintage Digital 2016, p. 52

27. How is it, then, that when billions of electric signals move around in my brain, a mind emerges that feels [...]? As of 2016, we have absolutely no idea. –- Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, Vintage Digital 2016, p. 55.

28. The best evidence of contemporary science tells us that the physical world is more or less causally closed: for every physical event, there is a physical sufficient cause. If so, there is no room for a mental "ghost in the machine" to do any extra causal work. David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind, Oxford University Press 1996, pp. 25.

29. What has become increasingly evident over the past thirty years is that mental causation poses insuperable difficulties for all forms of mind-body dualism—for property dualism no less than substance dualism. (Jaegwon Kim, Physicalism, or Something Near Enough, Princeton University Press, 2005, 156)

30. He has a depth within him unfathomable, an infinite abyss of existence; and the scene in which he bears part for the moment is but like a gleam of sunshine upon its surface. – John Henry Newman, The Individuality of the Soul, a sermon delivered at the University Church in 1839.

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