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Thu, 07 Aug 2008

Spirit without the Supernatural

Is matter the only reality?

Is there anything in the cosmos beyond physical substances and forces?

Religious teachings usually answer "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second. Most religions claim that the universe contains spiritual things, or spirits, as well as physical things.

Most Western religions teach that God is a spirit. Most of these religions also teach that the human soul (the innermost self of a person) is a spirit.

Different religious teachings have different ideas about spirit. Many believers seem to think of spirit as a substance or stuff that is invisible but real. This substance supposedly can act on matter, producing the connection between body and soul.

This idea of spirit is interesting, but it has a serious drawback: it depends almost completely on faith.

Science hasn't found any need for the idea of spiritual items or substances that affect the material world. Instead, scientific findings suggest that the human brain "runs itself," in the sense that it doesn't need a separate soul to make it work properly.

Some people claim that parapsychology provides evidence of a soul, but this claim is extremely controversial.

Philosophy has more to say about the soul, but still not enough. Some rationalistic philosophers, such as the brilliant Descartes, have believed in a separate soul that influences the body. However, there is no widely agreed-upon rational line of argument for such a soul.

This leaves religious believers in a pickle. If they believe in spirit, they must rely on faith to support their belief. This makes their position unconvincing to those who don't happen to believe the same way. It also makes them vulnerable to atheists, who can simply laugh at the whole idea. Many modern atheists believe that science is the only important form of knowledge, and that faith should play no role in human thought. According to today's science-based antireligion, the mind is only a property of the brain, and therefore there is no soul and there is nothing spiritual in human nature.

This disagreement between believers and atheists rests partly on a mistake. Neither side seems to realize that the universe, as known to science, already contains items that are not physical objects. We don't have to believe in these items through faith; they are right there in the scientists' universe. What is more, if the mind is a property of the brain, then the human self is one of those remarkable items!

What are these remarkable items?

To find out, let's start with some basic observations.

The universe contains physical objects, like sticks, stones, stars and atoms. However, those objects never exist alone. Each physical object has properties: its shape, color, weight, and so forth. In other words, there are not just physical objects. There also are properties of physical objects.

A round stone has the property of roundness. A yellow star, which gives off mostly yellow light, has the property yellow. (Colors, after all, are properties.) A hexagonal snow crystal has the property of hexagonality. (It might not be a perfect hexagon, but still it has that property.) A diamond has the properties of solidity and transparency.

Roundness, yellowness, hexagonality, solidity, and transparency. These are not physical objects. They are properties of physical objects. They are not physical objects - yet we find them in the real world.

We don't live in a world of physical objects alone. We live in a world of physical objects plus their properties.

There are at least two kinds of items in the universe - (1) physical objects, and (2) properties.

Someone might object to this statement by arguing that properties really don't "exist" at all. Maybe there are only physical objects, and although we can talk as if the properties existed, it's only the physical objects that really exist.

Philosophers have been debating this question for thousands of years. The debate goes back at least to Plato and Socrates in ancient Greece. Philosophers have a name for this question (I'll mention it at the end of this post), but the name doesn't matter. The question is: Do properties really exist?

I think this question depends on confusion about the meaning of the word "exist." If someone asks whether properties exist, I'll answer the question with another question: What do you mean by "exist"?

If you think "exist" means "be a physical object," then the answer is no - properties don't exist, because they are not physical objects.

But if you think "exist" means "be something" (be any kind of item at all), then properties do exist.

I've written a philosophical paper on this subject, where I went into more detail and covered some points that I've skipped over here. The main lesson of that paper: We can safely assume that properties exist.

Properties exist for all practical purposes. The people who have to work with properties act as if properties are real. Colors are properties. No painter would dare to claim seriously that there are no colors in the world! No weather scientist would claim that ice crystals are not really hexagonal, just because some philosopher said the property of being hexagonal doesn't exist.

To insist that properties don't exist is to cut off the idea of existence arbitrarily - to limit existence artificially to concrete, individual objects like physical objects. If existence includes everything found in the universe, instead of just concrete physical objects, then properties exist. They exist as properties instead of as physical objects - but that's just another way to be real.

So properties are real for all practical purposes.

The world in which we live is not a world of physical objects alone. It is a world of physical objects plus the properties of physical objects. The properties are real items too - just as real as the physical objects, but existing in a very different way. The properties are not simply globs of matter and energy, like physical objects. Instead, they are qualities, features, or patterns in the physical world. They are real items that are found in physical objects, but that are different from physical objects. (For example, the property of roundness can be found in the sun, the moon, or a coin - but roundness is not the sun, the moon, or a coin. It's a property that all these objects have.)

What does all this have to do with spirit?

If properties are real, then spirit doesn't have to be a substance or stuff. Instead, it can be a property!

Instead of being an invisible substance, spirit might be a property of physical objects. As a property, it would be every bit as real as the redness of a sunset, or the hexagonal shape of a snowflake, or the brilliance and transparency of a diamond.

If spirit is a property, then the human brain could indeed have a soul. Science suggests that your personality or self is a property of your brain. If so, then that property might be your soul.

The nice thing about this idea of the soul is that it's hard for skeptics and atheists to attack. If you believe the soul is a property, then the skeptical argument that "the self is just a property of the brain" doesn't disprove the soul.

Skeptics try to debunk the soul by claiming that the self is "only" a property of the brain. The skeptics had better watch out! They are making a serious mistake!

The skeptics begin with the idea (suggested by science) that the self or personality is a property of the brain. From this, they argue that the soul is nothing - that there is no soul.

But wait a minute!

The skeptics say the self is a property of the brain. However, we have found that a property is not just nothing. In its own way, a property is quite real!

If the self is a property, then the self has a real existence of its own - just as real as if it had been a real ghostly substance. By saying that the self is only a property of the brain, the skeptics are admitting that the self is real. Worse yet for them, they are admitting that the self has a type of existence that goes beyond the existence of physical objects!

The skeptics might not realize they are admitting all this. However, if properties are real in any way at all, then this is where their "skepticism" leads.

Without realizing it, the skeptics have painted themselves into a corner, and admitted that people have souls of a sort!

Granted, these souls are a little different from what most religions teach. They are properties, not ghostly supernatural objects. But the important point is that they are real.

Once we admit that properties are real, then the skeptical view that the self is a property of the brain becomes almost the same as the religious belief that people have souls distinct from their bodies. The property of the brain that we call the self is an entity different from the matter of the brain - just as the yellowness of the sun is different from the sun itself.

So it appears that the skeptics and the believers are not as far apart as they seem.

Religious believers might have a big problem with this idea of soul-as-property. They might think that if the soul is a property of the brain, then the soul cannot be immortal. Skeptics often use this argument to debunk the idea of an afterlife: if the self is a property of the brain, then it must cease with the brain.

But things are not so simple!

I'm not going to make an argument for (or against) the afterlife here. I just want to point out that if the soul is a property of the brain, then the soul still might be immortal.


After the end of the brain, another brain could have the same property!

Most religions believe either in a nonmaterial afterlife, like Heaven, or in reincarnation. If you believe in reincarnation, the idea of your self ending up in another brain is nothing new. If you believe in Heaven, then you still can believe that the soul is a property - if you are willing to believe that there are bodies of some kind in Heaven, with brains of some kind!

I'm not suggesting that any of these beliefs are true. I'm not going to take a stand for or against belief in the afterlife. My point is just this: that the property version of the soul does not rule out belief in an afterlife. It also doesn't force you to believe in an afterlife. It just leaves the question of the afterlife open, for you to decide for yourself.

So we don't live in a world of things alone. We live in a world of things and properties. Once we realize that, and take the reality of properties fully to heart, we begin to see what spirit might be. The world of spirit might not be supernatural at all. Instead, it might be a part of the world of properties - the part that contains a mysterious and complex property of each of us, the property that we call the self.




I'm including these notes to thank the sources of some of the ideas in this post, and to fill in some technical details that students of philosophy might find interesting.

This post uses ideas from two of my philosophical papers. These papers are available here and here. Another relevant paper of mine is here.

The name of the question of the existence of properties and such is "the problem of universals." (Technically, the question "Do properties exist?" is only part of the problem of universals, but it's the most important part.)

My position that properties are real is a milder version of what Plato thought about properties (the so-called "Platonic realist" view). However, you don't have to believe everything Plato said to accept my view of properties! (See this paper for details.)

The idea that the soul is a property of the body, but still is an item distinct from the body, is a version of what philosophers of mind call "property dualism." (Property dualists usually don't use the idea of "soul" - often their position is that conscious experiences are nonphysical properties of the brain.) Property dualism is different from "substance dualism" - the idea that the soul or self is a kind of mental substance associated with the body. Descartes was a "dualistic interactionist" - a substance dualist who thought the soul could act on, and be acted on by, the body.

The idea that the soul could be immortal even if it is "only" a property of the brain is not new. Plato thought of the soul as something sort of like a property (an "abstract object" as philosophers would call it today). Plato thought of the soul as immortal. See this paper of mine for my take on Plato's view of the soul. The idea that the self, as an abstract object, might be potentially immortal comes up in modern thought, for example in Daniel C. Dennett's book Consciousness Explained. (I disagree with Dennett on some important points - see this paper - but this idea is interesting.)

(This post was slightly reformatted after posting.)

posted at: 01:50 | path: /mind | persistent link to this entry


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