Essay – Critically assess Dawkins’ view of the soul

Critically assess Dawkins’ view of the soul

The essay below was written by hand in timed conditions of 45 minutes.

The biological materialist Richard Dawkins has two views of the “soul”. Some of the problems which are raised by his definition surround his scientific prejudices and his hard materialism which is best described as a form of reductionism. His views will be demonstrated to be unfounded and difficult to defend.

Dawkins, as an evolutionary biologist, is looking for a physical explanation for the universe and life in general. He uses the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definitions as his starting point for his view of the “soul”. He describes “soul one” (his first view of the soul) as the “non-physical vital principle”, “animated by some anima. Vitalized by a vital force. Energized by some mysterious energy. Spiritualized by some mysterious spirit” or as Julian Huxley described it: a form of vitalism, the “force-locomotif” of the body. His view is the science has either killed the soul or is in the process of killing it. He suggests that this view of “soul one” is circular and non-productive. Using Pinker he backs up his view suggesting that the body is not animated by a godly vapour or single wonder principle.

The difficulty with holding this view is that this idea of the soul is not an entirely fair one. He appears to want to miscategorise this “essence” as some mysterious substance. Firstly he uses the OED and not the philosophical encyclopaedia for his definition, which lacks technical accuracy. This undermines the credibility of his starting assumption. Secondly Dawkins’ view of the world is limited a priori. He cannot fathom that anything non-physical or inexplicable by the scientific narrative could ever exist. This scientific prejudice leads him (and Pinker with him) to dismiss “soul one” out of hand as it does not fit with his hard materialism.

Whilst there may be some credence to his belief that “soul one” is incorrect he has not provided adequate grounds to dismiss it philosophically. His claim that “soul one” is circular and non-productive arises in part from the grammar he presents his argument in: energised energy, animated anima, spiritualised spirit, conscious consciousness. It is hard to see this circularity as anything other than his own contrived grammatical leanings. The notion of a “force-locomotif” may arguably be found in Aristotle and Aquinas, who suggest that the soul, which they may term mind, is in the same sense the form of the body, the animating principle, yet they don’t necessarily adhere to some form of dualism (the belief in two separate substances in the universe – soul and body), which it appears Dawkins wants to reject. It will not be necessary to appeal to dualism to demonstrate the weaknesses of Dawkins’ argument as we shall see.

The suggestion Dawkins makes that science is killing, or has killed, “soul one” is interesting. Either it has killed it or it hasn’t. Surely it can’t be both? Dawkins’ expression here appears to highlight a view known as “GUT” or Grand Unified Theory. It has support in some scientific communities as it is the belief that everything will be explained by science one day. Peter Atkins would support Dawkins with this idea that science will reach a singularity; a point in our scientific development and understanding where everything can be fully explained by science. This is, however, not a certainty. It is a belief in much the same way as a person may believe in a soul or “force-locomotif” within the body. It is not clear from this that we should be persuaded by Dawkins’ claim that science will kill “soul one” as he sees it.

Dawkins’ “soul two” is taken from another OED definition: “Intellectual/spiritual power. High development of mental faculties”, the one in which Keats and Lamb suggested Newton had “destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow when he unwove it” with his mechanical view of the universe. He suggests that “soul two” is more like the “awakening imagination” of the human being, a “spirit” we possess as a species. Gilbert Ryle may be used to offer some support to Dawkins’ second view. The essence for Dawkins is that “soul one” is some sort of grammatical error, a kind of reification (to make something concrete) of an idea rather than anything with real substance. “Soul two” however appears to be more closely linked with “qualia” he suggests. We shall address this claim momentarily.

In the meantime, Ryle’s view is an attack on dualism; on Descartes’ substance dualism primarily. Ryle suggests, as Dawkins does in “soul one”, that the “official doctrine” of the soul as a “dogma of the ghost in the machine” is little more than a category-mistake. He uses the example of foreign visitors at Oxford University to illustrate this point. If they were shown every college, faculty administration office etc, they would be incorrect to ask where the University was, as if it were a separate entity. Gloves are another example. You don’t have a left glove, a right glove and a pair of gloves. The two make the pair. However, Ryle is suggesting not that there is no soul or mind as such, rather that it is wrong to imagine it as having a separate substance. Dawkins appears to agree here. This may suggest that Dawkins’ view holds some credence. However a deeper issue lies in wait.

Dawkins’ view is primarily that of biological materialism, the hard determinist view that we are nothing more than “bytes and bytes of digital information” passed on by our genes or DNA. In this view “soul two” seems to have appeared as an accident of evolution through our development. JJC Smart holds a similar view of brain/identity theory where pain and “C-fibre” stimulation are one and the same. In essence the mind is a type of epiphenomena which supervenes or rides on the physical processes taking place in the brain. The mind or consciousness which Dawkins describes in “soul two” would appear to be caused by electro-chemical changes in the brain, synapses firing along neural pathways. This is reductionism, a form of materialism suggesting that the only substance in existence is physical.

Problems arise with the notion of intentionality and the objective/subjective distinction. If the mind is nothing more than a by-product of the physical processes taking place in the brain then how can it contain any causal power? Kim, as an epiphenomenalist, suggests that consciousness or mental processes cannot cause physical ones. This means we have no intentionality or choice in real terms. We are left watching helplessly as physical processes determine our actions. This view is counterintuitive and a long way away from the notion of “qualia” which Dawkins refers to in his “soul two”. He suggests that one day science will explain this but he fails to recognise that his own biological reductionism is reliant upon supervenience which gives rise to a lack of causal power for mental processes. Moreover pure materialism seems incapable of explaining itself as the bio-chemical processes require supervenience with chemical elements, those in turn with atomic elements, which require sub-atomic elements and ultimately quantum ones which have been demonstrated to be beyond rational understanding. Dawkins’ view of “soul two” may be correct but his “suspicion, hunch or hope” that the conscious mind will be explained by science is fundamentally flawed if he expects his own brand of biological materialism to provide such answers. In short he may be right but for the wrong reasons.

The “qualia” he describes appears to be a misunderstanding and a poorly explained version of Nagel’s view found in “What is it like to be a bat?” Dawkins’ ideas fail to explain the gap between the objective experience which is public and empirically testable through scientific means (via ECG for example) and our own personal awareness of our subjective, private, mental lives, the mysterious consciousness that Dawkins seems so quick to dismiss in “soul one” yet appears eager to return to in his “awakening of imagination” found in “soul two”. There is no clear distinction between consciousness in “soul two” and the mysterious consciousness he dismisses in “soul one”.

McGinn and Chalmers have been described by Nancy Cartwright as presenting a “dappled world view” which gives rise to a more ontologically complex understanding of the universe where science has its epistemological limits and potentially no ultimate explanation of consciousness could ever be found. These ideas give rise to the view known as pluralism which suggests that the human being and the world around us is much more complex that materialism, dualism or idealism might suggest. These conclusions are similar to those of Nagel who, it could be argued, appears to advocate an anti-realism where justification of consciousness is concerned (although we must assume that the question of the big “C” is too complex for us to understand to hold this anti-realism). In this view Dawkins is wrong on “soul one” as he dismisses consciousness out of hand and wrong on “soul two” as his own biological materialism cannot support his wishful thinking because of the problems with reductionism. Both of these views seem to lack coherence or philosophical rigour and display a naivety and type of fundamentalism based on his scientific prejudices. The subjective experience or intentionality we perceive still eludes explanation and to suggest a full explanation (which Dawkins does not provide) is to fall into the enlightenment trap of assuming that the universe is fundamentally knowable by human beings. Dawkins’ “suspicion, hunch or hope” has no real foundation philosophically or scientifically.








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