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By Gerald K. Harrison


The Montréal Review, June 2016


Man in a Bowler Hat (1964) by


The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, writing in the 17th century, rejected the view that we are immaterial souls temporarily resident in our physical bodies.   We are just complicated flesh machines  - “What is a Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts, but so many Wheeles, giving motion to the whole Body?” – and our minds, the ultimate bearers of our conscious experiences (our thoughts, desires, sensations) are just the electrified lumps of meat we call our brains.

At the time Hobbes’s view was considered scandalous and atheistic.  It was only thanks to having friends the right places – the King, for instance – that he wasn’t put on trial for heresy and executed.    How times change.  Today Hobbes’s view is the intellectually respectable one – conscious states are just curious aspects of, or emergent properties of physical states of the brain – and the soul thesis is largely looked upon with intellectual disdain.   

I think we are souls in bodies.  I certainly think that am, anyway.  I believe this not for any religious reason – I have no religious faith and never have had  -  but on the basis of three main arguments.  No one of them is decisive – they are not proofs - but each one has considerable probative force, and together they form a case powerful enough, in my view, to make the belief in souls more reasonable than its negation.   


Here is the first argument. 

1.      I am self-aware

2.      The self of which I am aware has no shape, size, colour

3.      My brain and all the other parts of my body have a shape, size and colour

4.      Therefore the self of which I am aware is a shapeless, sizeless, colourless  thing -  a soul – and not a brain or any other part of my physical body.

I am not just conscious, I am conscious I am conscious.  I am also aware of a bearer of my conscious states – a self. I call it ‘me’.  Yet I do not see, touch, smell, taste or hear this self, this me, of which I am aware. I would remain self-aware even if I lost entirely my sense of sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing.   So this awareness I have of my self is gained through what might best be described as my mind’s eye.

If you ask me what shape or colour or size my self has, I will  not plead ignorance but insist that the question is confused.  My self appears not to be the kind of thing that has a shape, colour or size.   That is to say, this self of which I am aware appears positively to be shapeless, sizeless, colourless.  My brain does has a shape, size, colour.  So, the self that I am aware of – the self that my mind’s eye represents to be bearing my conscious experiences – appears not to be my brain. After all, I can easily conceive of my mind existing apart from my body, an imaginative feat I would be unable to pull off if my mind appeared to be part of that body. 

Appearances can be deceptive.   So, perhaps my brain is, in fact, bearing my conscious experiences despite what my mind’s eye says.   But brute possibilities are not good evidence.   For instance, the fact there appears – visually – to be a physical object in front of me is positive evidence that there is one in front of me.  By contrast, the brute possibility that I might be hallucinating it is not good evidence that it is not there.   Similarly, the brute possibility my mind’s eye may be deceiving me is not good reason to believe that it is, in fact, deceiving me. The fact my mind’s eye represents my conscious experiences to be being borne by a positively shapeless, sizeless, colourless object is therefore good reason to believe that they are, in fact, being borne by such an object.



Here is the second argument:

1.      If I, a bearer of conscious experiences, am morally valuable irrespective of whether I have a body or not, then I am not a body or any part thereof.

2.      I, a bearer of conscious experiences, am morally valuable irrespective of whether I have a physical body or not.

3.      Therefore I,  a bearer of conscious experiences am not a physical body or any part thereof.

My reason tells me that I am morally valuable.  That is to say, I am owed a degree of good will and respect from others.  My reason also tells me that my moral value does not go up or down according to whether I am experiencing pain or pleasure, or disappear entirely when I am unconscious.    So my reason appears to be telling me that I have an inherent moral value that is not reducible to the conscious experiences I undergo. That is to say, my reason is telling me that I, the container of conscious experiences, have value in my own right..

My reason also tells me that I have inherent moral value irrespective of what kind of body I have -  so, irrespective of my body’s sex or race – and irrespective of whether I even have a body at all.  After all, I can easily enough conceive of the possibility that my body is just a clever hologram and that I do not have one at all in reality.  My reason assures me that I would matter just the same under those circumstances.  

If I have inherent value irrespective of whether I have a body, then my inherent value appears not to be grounded in any of my physical characteristics. After all, if I have inherent value due to my possession of some physical feature or features, then it is not morally irrelevant whether I have those features.    So, what my reason is telling me about my inherent value implies that I, the object bearing it, am not a physical thing but something else entirely.  Call this the argument from inherent moral value.


Here is the third argument:

1.      If I am morally responsible to any degree for what I do, then I have not been created by external causes.

2.      I am morally responsible to some degree for what I do, therefore I am not a creation of external causes

3.       If I am my body or any part thereof, then I have been created by external causes.

4.      Therefore I am not my body or any part thereof

My reason tells me that I am morally responsible – that I am to some degree blameworthy/praiseworthy – for being the kind of person I am, for thinking what I think, and for making the kinds of decision I make.  

My reason also tells me that if I am wholly the creation of outside forces – irrespective of whether those forces are  natural or agential – then I would be no more morally responsible than a vacuum cleaner. My body is manifestly a product of outside forces (I did not assemble it myself!).  Likewise, the environment in which I find myself, and the laws of nature governing it, were not my doing either.  So if everything I am, think, and do is a result of the operation of these factors then I am not responsible for anything.  As my reason assures me that I am morally responsible, at least to a degree, it is telling me that I am not my physical body.  Yes, the kind of person I am, and the kind of things I think and do, are partly a product of my having the body I have in the environment in which I find myself.  But they cannot be wholly responsible: there must be  a third ingredient – me.  That is, though I am not responsible for having the kind of brain I have, or for the environment in which I find myself,   I am responsible for being the kind of self who, when in a body like this one, and in an environment like this one, thinks as I do and makes the kind of decisions I do. 

This self - this morally responsible me - cannot have been created by me.  That would require that I exist prior to my own existence, and that – my reason assures me - is impossible.     The only option remaining is that I, and all other morally responsible selves, are necessarily existing things.  Selves are like, say, time in this respect.  Consider, the idea that time came into existence would require that there was a time before time, and that is a manifest contradiction.  Thus time, it would seem, must exist necessarily.  Nothing created it, it just brutally exists.  If my reason is to be trusted, then my self exists necessarily as well, for then and only then could my self be morally responsible. As a necessarily existing self is a very different kind of thing to my physical body – my physical body came into existence and will no doubt pass out again – my reason is informing me that I am not a physical body, but something else entirely.


Some will object that whatever force the above arguments may have, they must be rejected because we have overwhelmingly good countervailing evidence that our minds are our brains.   For it is becoming increasingly clear that what goes on in our minds is determined by what goes on in our brains.   Thus, the reasoning goes, our minds must be our brains.

Common though this line of thought is, it is fallacious.  Even if everything that goes on in our minds can be correlated to events in our brains, this does not establish that our minds are our brains.  To see this consider an analogy: imagine a rubber duck.  Imagine it filled with water and sealed.  The water within the duck is now duck-shaped.  And any distortion of the shape of the duck will result in the water’s shape being similarly distorted, at least while it is inside theduck. Clearly it would be fallacious to conclude that therefore the water is theduck.    No, they are separate substances. Similarly then, even if what goes on in our minds does turn out to be wholly determined by what goes on in our brains, this would not establish that our minds are our brains.   It could just be that what goes on in our minds is determined by the kind of brains they are in, at least while they are in them.

Some philosophers make a slightly different objection, namely that our minds cannot be non-physical objects for if that were so they would be incapable of causally interacting with our physical bodies.  For how could a non-physical event cause a physical one?  As our minds clearly do interact with our physical bodies, they must be physical objects.

I have to say, so far as I can see this very common objection expresses nothing more than a dogma.  The dogma is that two radically dissimilar sorts of thing cannot interact.  Why think that?  One should not assume such things prior to investigation.  Yet upon investigation we can note that the evidence implies that our minds are not physical objects (the evidence being the three arguments I outlined above).  We can also note that what goes on in our minds manifestly does cause changes in our bodies (I, a mind, just decided to raise my arm – a physical thing – and it raised).  Thus, upon investigation the evidence shows that two radically dissimilar sorts of thing can and do interact.   

So, here’s the startling truth: nothing in neuroscience – nothing in our understanding of the brain – conflicts with the idea that we are immaterial souls in our bodies. Even if, as may well be the case, everything that goes on in our minds, every last thought, memory, sensation and desire can be correlated with events in our brains, this is entirely consistent with our minds being wholly separate entities that are causally interacting with our brains.  And as I have shown above, there are at least three good reasons to think that is precisely what is going on: the evidence suggest that our minds are indeed wholly separate, shapeless, sizeless, colourless entities – souls. Of course, this  is a thesis that is radically out of keeping with the spirit of the age.  But here is where we can take a lesson from Hobbes: we can not care and avow it anyway.


Gerald K. Harrison is a Lecturer of philosophy at Massey University in New Zealand. 



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