PM5331: In defence of belief in the existence of the soul

In this essay I would like to defend my belief in the existence of the soul. This is not a popular belief among those who subscribe to 'rationalism' - they commonly think it is supersititous, without justification, wishful-thinking, contrary to science, etc. I wish to provide an alternative view. This is a rough draft, I would welcome constructive criticism or reasoned disagreement.

Three basic views of mind/matter relation

There are three basic views on the relationship between mind and matter:

  • materialism - matter is the fundamental reality, the ultimate existent. Non-material things exist only through being somehow expressed in or through matter. A computer analogy might be given - mind is the software, matter the hardware; the hardware can exist without the software (e.g. a computer with no software installed), but the software cannot run without hardware.
  • idealism - mind is the fundamental reality, the ultimate existent. Matter only exists because mind exists; material reality is a byproduct of mental reality.
  • dualism - mind and matter are both equally fundamental, one cannot be reduced to the other

Now, most deniers of the soul are materialists. (An exception might be Buddhists, who deny the soul on account of anatman, yet do not commonly hold to a materialist worldview -- but I will not mention this view any further.) Those who believe in a soul are idealists or dualists; although most people when they think of 'soul' are thinking of it from a dualist perspective.

 Why reject dualism

Now, dualism has the difficult problem of explaining how mind and matter seemingly interact, if they are two independent substances. And I don't think dualists have ever come up with a good explanation of this. Whereas, materialists and idealists do not have the same issue -- they reduce one to another, and clearly if A is reducible to B, A may seem to interact with B (even if ultimately, all interactions of A with B are ultimately explainable as interactions of B with B). The difference between materialists and idealists, is in which direction the reduction goes -- from mind to matter or from matter to mind. So for this reason, I reject dualism.

This leaves two choices, materialism and idealism. And I choose idealism.

Idealism does not imply unreality of matter

Before I go further, I want to clean up a misunderstanding about idealism. Idealism is frequently identified with the viewpoint that matter is unreal, that mind alone is unreal. Now, some idealists have indeed claimed this; but I don't agree with it. To me, matter is entirely real -- but it is real for what it is. To me, material things are patterns which exist in the experiences of minds -- since those minds are real, and hence their experiences are real, and thus patterns in those experiences are real, therefore matter also is real. But to me, the reality of matter is dependent on the reality of mind (rather than, as materialists claim, the reality of mind being dependent on the reality of matter.)

Demonstrability of the soul

Materialists often object -- demonstrate the existence of the soul: you cannot demonstrate it, not even in principle, so we ought not to believe in indemonstratables. And this argument has some force against dualists. But I cannot see how it can succeed against idealists -- how can we demonstrate idealism? Well, how can we demonstrate materialism, either? It seems to me there is no proof either way -- there are some arguments I think, but they are more persuasive or conclusive. If we cannot demonstrate either conclusively, then either we must withhold judgement, or follow some merely persuasive line of argument. But I often think many materialists treat their own position as the default assumption, which does not require any proof -- and any other position must carry the burden of proof. Why should I grant them that?

Arguments for idealism

I think there are some reasons to think idealism might be true. None of these are conclusive.

Sceptical hypothesies

One argument relates to the possibility of sceptical hypothesises -- the Cartesian evil genie, the brain-in-the-vat, Nick Bostrom's simulation hypothesis. If any of these were true, then the material reality we know would not be the real material reality -- but the mental reality we know (of our own inner thoughts and sense experiences) would be the same. Materialism founds itself on a reality which, possibly, is a fake. Idealism founds itself on a reality which could not possibly be a fake -- any of these sceptical hyptohesises pose a grave issue for the materialist, were they true, but not an issue for the idealist.

Nested simulations and infinite regress

If we consider in particular the simulation hypothesis, Bostrom mentions in his seminal paper (Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?) the possibility of nested simulations, of virtual machines. If we proved this material reality was simulated, we and find another reality in which it is simulated, we still don't know whether that other reality is simulated or not. We can never be sure we have reached the 'real' world. So the foundations of our worldview are always shaky. Whereas, to an idealist, they do not care how many layers of simulations there are -- even if there were infinitely many. To an idealist, an infinite layering of simulations would be fatal -- there would be no ultimate material reality to which mental reality could be reduced, only an infinite regress of simulated material universes.

Definining the universe-simulation relationship

As an idealist, I believe in souls and their experiences. Universes are groupings of souls having certain correlations between their experiences. Two souls are in the same universe if their experiences correlate, directly or indirectly. Direct correlation can be what we call both looking at the same material object at the same time, or at differing times -- in an idealist interpretation, a strong (but not absolute) ammount of commonality between a subset of each soul's experiences. Indirect correlation refers to where we lack common experiences directly, but have them transitively -- I have never been to London, so I would have little or no commonality of experience with someone who has lived there all their life (save maybe watching the same TV shows, etc.) But I have many family and friends who have been there, with whom I have other commonalities of experience, and who would have some experience-commonalities with the life-long London-dweller (say, walking along the Thames Embankment). Thus, I can interpret the simulation relation between universes (one universe in terms of another) simply in terms of souls in the simulating universe having certain experiences which have some commonality with the souls of the simulated universe. They might be watching us on their computer screen, clicking on things to make us do stuff. That they are in separate universes, and one is simulating and the other simulated, is a function of the type of correspondence between the differing experiences (e.g. watching things on a computer screen v.s. seeing them with one's own eyes, doing things yourself for what you feel are your own reasons v.s. causing someone else to do them).

To be simulated not a property of the simulated, only of the simulator

The conclusion I would draw, is from an idealist perspective, if universe A is simulated in universe B, that is not actually a property of universe A, only a property of universe B. Universe A is exactly the same whether it is simulated or not -- it could be the way it is regardless of whether or not it was simulated in some other universe. But for A to be simulated in B, B must be a certain way, and if it was not that way, A would not be simulated in it. Thus, whether or not are universe is simulated in another is not something we should care about -- it is not a property of our own universe, only of another -- unless, at some point, the simulators chose to reveal themselves to us. So, for a materialist, whether our universe is simulated or not is a big deal -- if it isn't, then they have found the ultimate/fundamental reality in matter -- if not, then this matter is an illusion, and (by faith!) some other real matter exists inaccessible beyond it, giving this matter its reality. But to an idealist it makes no difference. This is a reason I think to prefer idealism.

Branching simulative hierarchies

(I should also note, that universe A could be simulated in both universe B and universe C. An idealist could not care less; for a materialist, this is a fatal quandary -- unless, maybe, B and C are both ultimately simulated in D. But if B and C are unsimulated, or have no overlapping in their simulation trees, then materialism is doomed, but idealism does not care.)

Perspectival argument

A rather different reason to prefer idealism -- materialism privileges the third person perspective, idealism privileges the first person perspective. Materialism claims the first person perspective is ultimately reducible to the third person perspective; idealism denies this, but says the third person perspective is ultimately reducible to the first person perspective. Materialism likes to make I-less statements about the world; but, an idealist will argue, in reality there is no I-less statement -- everything I know is mediated to me by my own existence. To an idealist, what the materialist is doing is a sleight of hand, trying to hide the I away, but the I cannot be hidden.

Argument from the relationship of ontology and epistemology

Idealism claims that ontology recapitulate epistemeology; materialism claims they are inverted. Idealism: the I comes first in knowledge and in being; Materialism: the I comes first in knowledge, but the it comes first in being.

Argument from extinction

To a materialist, the self almost certainly does not survive death. To an idealist, it probably does. Personally, I believe that the soul by its nature cannot be destroyed, cannot cease to exist, and must endure forever -- although, not all idealists will agree with me. But, even if an idealist holds the self can cease to exist, there seems no particular reason to presume that the extinction of the self occurs at the same time as the extinction of the body; whereas, for a materialist, there are very strong reasons to assume the extinction of the self and the extinction of the body occur at the same time.

Experiential criterion of meaning

But for me, I have grave problems with the idea that the self can cease to exist. Let me put it this way -- I know what sentences mean, because I know what experiences I would have if they were true. I can't of course enumerate every possible experience I might have were that sentence true; but at least, I can give some examples of experiences I might have, and I can feel confident that for many (but maybe not all) such experiences, if I were to have them I could correctly identify them as a sign of the truth of that sentence. Take the sentence "Fred dies" -- if that were true, I might expect to maybe see Fred get very sick, or see Fred involved in an accident; to maybe feel Fred's body, as cold and hard and lifeless; to go to Fred's funeral, to witness his burial or cremation or whatnot. Take the sentence "I die" -- well, maybe I might see a freight train approaching, a few feet in front of me. Although, any such evidence of impending death, although it could be very strong, is maybe not an absolute guarantee I am going to die. I could die in my sleep tonight, with no warning whatsoever. I could experience undergoing some almost surely fatal accident; yet by incredible odds, survive it. (Consider those who fall from great heights -- from enough height, death is almost certain -- but in a few rare cases, people have survived falls which are almost always fatal. So, if I experience such a fall, I can consider it quite likely I am about to die, but there is still some small chance I might none the less live.) So, experiences of impending death cannot be absolutely identified with "I die", since although they are strong evidence I am about to die, at least some of them I might experience yet nonetheless live; and I might die without experiencing them at all.

Now, suppose there might be some shape or form of afterlife -- some heaven or hell, some reincarnation. If I found myself in heaven or in hell, or undergoing the process of rebirth, it would be fair to conclude I had died. So, these experiences which I might have (in the sense of logical possibility), are experiences corresponding to "I die".

But, suppose there is no afterlife, that death is extinction; and suppose that I die in my sleep, or by some process which I might have survived (e.g., if I am shot and lose consciousness, I cannot conclude from that experience whether I am about to die or not, since either could happen.) In these circumstances, I die without any experience to indicate that I am dead. So, "I die" is true, but I cannot have any experiences which might indicate this. Based on the principle that, since I know what sentences mean because I know what I would experience were they true, I cannot actually know the meaning of the sentence "I die, without convincing forewarning experiences, and there is no afterlife". So, if I do not know what this sentence means, I cannot really assert it -- if I make claims which I do not know the meaning of, I am not really claiming anything, just pretending to.

I have been deeply troubled with the thought that I might die at any moment, with absolutely no forewarning. I might die with some forewarning, however brief -- I experience getting shot or stabbed or run over by a bus. But I might die in my sleep. Maybe terrorists have placed a nuke in the building I am in, about to detonate, and upon detonation I will be vapourised with no idea anything untoward has happened. Now, if there is an afterlife, I will find out -- where am I? what happened? "Welcome to heaven, you just got nuked!" But if there is no afterlife, by life will suddenly end in an instant, with absolutely no idea. I imagine myself sitting on a nuke and pressing the button -- in microseconds, far faster than I can think, I am reduced to plasma. The nuclear suicide thought experiment. The idea that my conscious awareness might have such a sharp discontinuous ending is deeply disconcerting -- this feeling suggests to me something must be wrong with any theory that would imply such an outcome.

Argument for the incessability of the soul

I believe in the incessability of the soul, based on the following argument:

  1. I know the meaning of a statement if I know what it would be like for it to be true
  2. I cannot know what it would be like for "I (will) cease to exist" to be true (any experience which might be compatible with it, such as dying, is also compatible with its falsehood, i.e. dying followed by an afterlife)
  3. Hence, by 1 and 2, I cannot know the meaning of the statement "I (will) cease to exist"
  4. If I cannot know the meaning of a statement, I cannot assert its truth
  5. Hence, by 3 and 4, I cannot assert the truth of the statement "I (will) cease to exist"
  6. But I can assert the truth of the statement, "I will never cease to exist" (by (1), I know, very broadly speaking, what experiences I would expect to have were this true)
  7. If I can assert X but cannot assert not(X), I must assert X [The inability to assert the negation of a statement, combined with the ability to assert the statement itself, is sufficient justification to assert that statement, and I rationally ought to assert it]
  8. By 5, 6 and 7, I will never cease to exist.

(Somewhat external to the topic of this essay, but let me add - I believe the soul is incessable, but I also believe it is necessarily finite - thus, it must repeat endlessly in circular time. I believe souls can neither commence nor cease existence, but that they can merge and divide, and I believe there is one single soul at the begining-end of time, from which every soul has divided and into which every soul in the end shall return -- and this soul I know as the Goddess Maratrea.)

Arguments from faith

(My arguments in this section are derived, at least a bit, from the ideas in Robert M. Adams The Virtue of Faith; and also from some essay by a Catholic which was included in at least one of the editions of Paul Edwards' A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, which I forget right now.)

Rational justification of faith

There can be rational reasons to believe in the truth or falsehood of a proposition. But sometimes, reason cannot lead us to conclude either way. What are we then to do? One option is to withhold judgement; another, is to choose a side based on extrarational reasons.

In other cases, there the weight of evidence may weigh to one side rather than the other, yet still not be overwhelming. Consider someone accussed of murder who protests their innocence. Objectively considering the evidence, we may conclude that it is suggestive of their guilt, but not absolutely convincing of it. What should we then believe? Should we believe whatever the evidence more strongly suggests, even if the weight of evidence is only slightly in one direction -- 50.1% chance of guilt, 49.9% chance of innocence, they are guilty!. Or should we set a higher standard? But, surely we should not insist upon absolute certainty -- for if absolute certainty is needed to believe everything, there would be little or nothing one could believe; it is very hard to live without believing in anything, one tends to believe in things anyway even if one believes one ought to believe in nothing. But if more than 50.1%, and less than 100% (or even 99.999999%), where to draw the line? That is hard, even impossible to answer.

And, should we be purely rational in our beliefs? Or should we permit ourselves to follow non-rational considerations? For example, when deciding whether to believe in someone's guilt, do we consider only the objective evidence -- or do we give heed to the fact the accussed is a dear old friend, who we feel we ought to believe on account of our friendship? That is not to say we should complete ignore reason and evidence; if the evidence is overwhelming, we have to believe in their guilt, and our relieved of any responsibility from our friendship. But, where the evidence is of a moderate nature, not strongly going either way, it seems reasonable to give consideration to extra-rational considerations in deciding what to believe.

Relationship between ethics and rationality

But this raises the question -- what ought we believe? What is rational? There is not a single standard of rationality; there are multiple competing standards of rationality. Which one is correct?

This is like the question, what is the correct standard of morality? There is not a single standard; which to adopt?

Indeed, I believe in a fundamental link between morality and rationality. Both are concerned with oughtness (what ought we do, what ought we believe), and valuation (good/evil, rational/irrational). Believing is a type of doing, and therefore rationality is a part of morality. There are various parrallels between morality and rationality -- for example, I ought to do what will most likely produce the good -- if I do something, which under usual circumstances would surely result in great evil, but by pure extreme luck, is instead harmless or even greatly beneficial, in an important sense my action was still wrong. (i.e. frequently, good intentions, and compliance to rules are generally for the good, are ethically what counts, since most commonly they produce good; if, perchance, my good intentions and rule-following produced great evil, I may have done nothing wrong; and if, perchance, my bad intentions and rule-violating produced great good, I may still be morally culpable for them.) The rational analogue is believing in justified rather than true propositions. Rationally is not believing in what is true, it is believing in what the evidence justifies. If I believe in something for no good reason, then I am being irrational, even if perchance what I believe is actually true. Better to believe a falsehood for good reasons than to believe a truth for bad ones, thus advises rationality. I think one could point to other examples of parrallelism between rationality and morality, which indicate they are ultimately one organic whole.

There seem to me to be three basic views, to which I will subscribe the following (likely highly inaccurate) labels (but I cannot think of any better):

  • "premodernism": strongly believes in the objectivity of ethics, and the objectivity of factual truth, and the objectivity of rationality (and even the objectivity of aesthetics!)
  • "modernism": strongly believes in the objectivity of factual truth and of rationality. Sceptical of the objectivity of ethics, or often even rejects it entirely (moral non-realism). (The idea of objective aesthetics seems laughable.)
  • "postmodernism": denies the existence of objectivity. Aesthetics isn't objective, ethics isn't objective, rationality isn't objective, fact isn't objective.

Rationalism (atheism, materialism, secular humanism, freethought, etc.) tends very strongly to the modernist position. By contrast, I am nearer to the premodern position.

The problem with the modernist position, is that the many arguments which can be levied against the objectivity of ethics or aesthetics often apply equally well to the objectivity of rationality or of fact. People point to widespread disagremeents in questions of ethics -- and gloss over widespread disagreements in questions of rationality or fact. People chant the slogan "Is does not imply Ought" against ethics, forgetting that rationality is equally an oughtness (what ought we believe), and so if this slogan succeeds in slaying ethics, it can slay rationality also.

My conclusion is, if rationality and ethics (and even aesthetics and fact) form an organic whole, then it makes sense to mix both rational and ethical or aesthetic reasons in seeking justification to our beliefs. If reason and evidence cannot decide a question, or cannot do so conclusively, we can turn to other resources -- which idea more conforms with our moral duty? which idea is more aesthetically pleasing? (I dare say many theoretical physicists consider aesthetics in choosing what to believe.) I still think there is some hierarchy -- when reason and evidence are strong, they override other considerations. But when they are moderate or weak or lacking, they are only one consideration among many.

And surely this is a more honest approach to ourselves? We are not perfectly rational beings -- we do believe things for extra-rational reasons at times. Sometimes our doing so is wrong, but surely it is not always wrong. Surely it is better to be honest about human nature, and not set for ourselves an impossible goal of perfect rationality, but acknowledge that extra-rational belief-formation is an inescapable part of our humanity -- and while it has some bad consequences, it is not always bad.

Faith as applied to an afterlife

It is morally and aesthetically more pleasing to believe in an afterlife than not. There is much suffering in life, for which there seems to be no compensation in this life. To suppose there is some compensation for that suffering in another, makes life more meaningful -- therefore by faith, if reason and evidence do not prevent us from doing so (and this requires not a mere absence, but an actual presence) -- then we ought to believe in what makes life more meaningful.