The Problem of the Soul

Tom Clark
Book Title: 
The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of the Mind and How to Reconcile Them
Book Author: 
Owen Flanagan

Although we live increasingly in an age of science, our notions of self and mind remain largely supernaturalistic. In The Problem of the Soul, Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy, psychology, and brain sciences at Duke University, takes the unpopular position that this is wrong.

(New York: Basic Books, 2002 ISBN 0-465-02460-2. Published May 28, 2002 $27.50 Hardcover, 352 pages.)

Although we live increasingly in an age of science, our notions of self and mind remain largely supernaturalistic. Central to most religious conceptions of ourselves is the idea that persons possess a soul, an immaterial essence that persists after the physical self disappears. If we are not religious, we might suppose that in addition to being bodies, we are also mental agents, in that consciousness and choice depend on something non-physical above and beyond the brain. Further, it is widely believed by the religious and non-religious alike that we have free will, the power to choose without ourselves or our choices being entirely determined by natural causes and circumstances.

In The Problem of the Soul, Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy, psychology, and brain sciences at Duke University, takes the unpopular position that all this is wrong. There is a conflict at the deepest level, he says, between traditional mind-body dualism and the scientific truth about the self, which is that we are entirely physical animals, inseparable from the natural world. He wants us to reconcile this conflict by abandoning supernatural conceptions of ourselves and replacing them with a better, naturalized image that finally gets the facts right after centuries of misdirection about the soul.

Following Antonio Damasio in Descartes’ Error, Flanagan argues that we’ve inherited a "philosophically diseased" picture of the self, bequeathed to us by Descartes, who supposed that the mind was a categorically separate non-physical entity, issuing commands to the body via the brain’s pineal gland. Such metaphysical dualism found fertile soil in the religious tenet that human beings, made in God’s image, have incorporeal souls which act outside natural laws, making us the freely willing originators of our choices.

To cure these long-standing misconceptions, Flanagan offers us philosophical therapy, mounting a strong, uncompromising attack on both secular and religious beliefs supporting the soul, and articulating what more cautious academics dare not say. There is little question that science is on his side, since neuroscientific explanations of perception, cognition, and behavior leave less and less of a role for a separate mental agent riding herd on the body. The brain and its supporting nervous system seem quite capable of doing all that the soul traditionally was supposed to do, with the exception, of course, of making choices that somehow circumvent causality.

That the brain can’t do this shouldn’t disturb us, Flanagan says, since the very notion of an uncaused chooser, whether immaterial or material, is irredeemably incoherent. But it is here that many will part company with him, since incoherent or not, the idea that we have free will seems essential to our self-image. Many scientists, along with most laypersons, will be reluctant to concede that we don’t have the special freedom ordinarily thought necessary to make us moral agents, deserving of praise and blame.

Flanagan seeks to deflect such concerns by showing that a naturalized self still has all that should matter to us about human agency. We retain our individuality, remain rational, are capable of self-control and effective action, and can still be held accountable for our wrongdoings and rewarded for our virtues, even if we aren’t God-like first causes.

We must also naturalize ethics, since with God out of the picture we are deprived of theological answers to questions of meaning and morality. Avoiding both scientism and relativism, Flanagan finds that ethics and its goal of human flourishing need not be based in anything beyond our shared human nature, which is cooperative and altruistic as well as competitive. He argues that our "proto-moral" capacity to express sympathy, guilt, pride, anger, affection, and other emotions contributed to reproductive fitness by helping to build stable, resilient social groups. To satisfy our desire for lives that transcend mere survival, we can reflect and improve upon our innate moral dispositions.

Apart from our biological nature, there are no absolutes or foundational certainties in Flanagan’s naturalistic account of what it is to be human, to be moral, and to discover meaning in life. To buy into it, the reader will have to agree that science should overrule our ingrained Cartesianism and our religion traditions (except for Buddhism, which Flanagan accurately portrays as largely naturalistic) in deciding who we really are. But in a culture that countenances all manner of irrationalisms and that positively celebrates the will to believe, whatever the countervailing evidence, it’s likely that readers will discount his arguments in droves.

There’s also the difficulty that, despite Flanagan’s reassurances, the thesis of this book will strike many as risky and demoralizing, even more dangerous than the pan-selectionism championed in Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. But, he argues, the benefits of admitting the truth of our natural nature far outweigh the risks of demoralization, and as a philosopher going public, it’s his job, after all, to expose bad arguments, even if they protect cultural shibboleths.

A self-described practitioner of Buddhism, Flanagan is personally and passionately engaged in his project to transform our ideas about the self and its freedom. In autobiographical sections of the book, he uses his own, sometimes difficult, life to illustrate what being a fully natural self means. His writing is lively and rarely circumspect, and scientific and philosophical technicalities are clearly presented and leavened with enough anecdotes to make them fully digestible.

The book closes with a useful bibliographic essay on further sources which recapitulates the main ideas in the context of others’ work. But generous as Flanagan is in citing his influences, his book is revolutionary in its explicit, synoptic treatment of the emerging conflict between dualistic and naturalistic views of ourselves. The social and personal consequences of naturalism, should it gain a foothold in our cultural consciousness, are likely to be far-reaching. Retributive motivations for punishment, for instance, seem to lose much of their justification if we no longer suppose that we have contra-causal free will, and Western radical individualism likewise might be tempered by naturalism. Although he may not be widely appreciated for his efforts anytime soon, Flanagan is among the very first to chart territory that will become increasingly familiar to us as we discover, in the light of science, a tenable conception of what it means to be human.

 TWC, August 2002