This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

← Is Science Killing the Soul?

Is Science Killing the Soul? - Comments

ksskidude's Avatar Comment 1 by ksskidude

Can it be true, I have made the first row once agian. What are the odds of that. I will of course read the article now! hehe

Wed, 14 May 2008 14:54:00 UTC | #171171

SilentMike's Avatar Comment 2 by SilentMike

I actually read that thing a while ago, but if it exists in audio that would be just perfect.

Wed, 14 May 2008 15:03:00 UTC | #171174

Chuk15's Avatar Comment 3 by Chuk15

Yum, looks like this will stay off the boredom for awhile.

Wed, 14 May 2008 15:13:00 UTC | #171178

sane1's Avatar Comment 4 by sane1

Read it, then sent it in. It is a very interesting discussion between 2 heavyweights. Far more worth your intellectual energy than some interview with a "journalist." (Though of course, I never miss one of those!) Reading is more work than listening, but come on, Silent Mike!

Wed, 14 May 2008 15:27:00 UTC | #171182

SilentMike's Avatar Comment 5 by SilentMike

Well I already read it once. Besides, I can't read while doing other stuff on the computer. I'm in need of new MP3s (one can only listen to "the selfish gene turns 30" so many times...)

Wed, 14 May 2008 15:43:00 UTC | #171194

MPhil's Avatar Comment 6 by MPhil

As a philosopher specializing in philosophy of mind - I love to see this issue getting some publicity. And of course Pinker and Dawkins are great thinkers... but Dan Dennett should have been there...

Wed, 14 May 2008 15:46:00 UTC | #171195

Cartomancer's Avatar Comment 7 by Cartomancer

The important history of ideas point here, I think, is that the "soul" as we in the west understand it - psyche or anima - was originally very much a scientific hypothesis rather than a religious one. Plato, Aristotle and later philosophers came up with it as an explanation for psychological processes - and not a bad one given the state of biological understanding they had available. In fact, until at least the eighteenth century, probably the twentieth, it was almost certainly impossible to conduct the sort of experiments that might lead to doubt on that score. The idea that the soul was immortal and incorporeal stemmed directly from Aristotle's understanding of substance, generation and corruption and physiology - to him the brain was not the centre of thought and reasoning at all, that didn't have its own bodily organ as far as Aristotle could discern, so the logical conclusion must be that it was entirely non-bodily. As such it would be immune from the corruption caused by contrarieties in physical matter and hence imperishable.

Classical polytheisms didn't pay much attention at all to the soul by the standards of post-classical monotheisms (which drew on a much older and much woolier middle eastern tradition of thought). Christian neoplatonism in the third and fourth centuries AD should probably bear the brunt of the blame for wrapping up the debate in overtly religious terms, followed by Arabic and Latin Scholastic Aristotelianism half a century later. Thus it was that, when science finally had progressed far enough to challenge the soul hypothesis with something better, far more was at stake than simply a workable scientific explanation for human psychology.

Wed, 14 May 2008 16:07:00 UTC | #171208

JerryD385's Avatar Comment 8 by JerryD385

Great discussion between two of my favorite scientists. However, there was something that stuck out like a sore thumb for me:

Some philosophers, such as Dan Dennett, argue that that isn't a scientific problem and may not even be a coherent question -- since, by definition, pure subjective experience has no observable consequences, we're wasting our time talking about it.

"no observable consequences?" Is Pinker saying that Dennett considers subjective experience to be an epiphenomenon (the concept which Dennett abhors)?

Wed, 14 May 2008 18:43:00 UTC | #171232

JD Cherry's Avatar Comment 9 by JD Cherry

"no observable consequences?" Is Pinker saying that Dennett considers subjective experience to be an epiphenomenon (the concept which Dennett abhors)?

He's referring to the fact that subjective experience is subjective and therefore unaccessable to external empirical study, except through processes like Dennett's heterophenomenology. It's an illusion, man.

Wed, 14 May 2008 20:25:00 UTC | #171246

JerryD385's Avatar Comment 10 by JerryD385

JD Cherry-

From what I understand, subjective experience as "what it is like to be (blank)" is, according to Dennett, completely open to empirical study in principle. He has stated that if a team of future neuroscientists were to study every aspect of his brain from moment to moment, they would know more about what it is like to be him then he would. (I think this was in one of his interviews).

If you (and Pinker) mean by subjective experience is an inner movie where all your thoughts are on display for you (and no one else) to see, then I agree. No scientist could buy tickets to that Cartesian theater.

I was just concerned that Pinker considered consciousness (or anything, for that matter) to be an epiphenomenon

Wed, 14 May 2008 20:57:00 UTC | #171254

MaxD's Avatar Comment 11 by MaxD

I don't think he does.
He does not for instance believe in a homunculeus at the screen somewhere in our brain watching our inputs on a movie screen.

Here he is discussing it.

Wed, 14 May 2008 21:14:00 UTC | #171257

mixmastergaz's Avatar Comment 12 by mixmastergaz

I'm printing this off to read later when I have the time and am looking forward to it. It's nice to see something from the archives added here; hopefully there's more of this sort of thing lurking out there somewhere. Something doesn't need to be recently published in order to be relevant.

Thu, 15 May 2008 00:16:00 UTC | #171271

mmurray's Avatar Comment 13 by mmurray

And how did we get here, and why did one particular group of creatures on the plains of Africa suddenly pick up a stone and start playing with it, scratching things, or skinning things, doing things, going places, colonizing the globe.

It wasn't one particular group though. Homo erectus and homo neanderthals picked up rocks as well and also moved out of Africa. Homo sapiens didn't do much for 100,000 years and then exploded out around 50,000 years ago to take over the world. IMHO why that happened is the interesting thing.


Thu, 15 May 2008 01:10:00 UTC | #171279

GBile's Avatar Comment 14 by GBile

... but another thing that the religions do is give comfort to people if they lose people in car accidents or to cancer and so on, and as far as I've experienced it, the scientific view cannot give people this kind of comfort ...

Apart from the fact that science does provide means to reduce the number of people lost to car accidents , cancer and so on, religions might not be so comforting or consoling at all. They very often attribute bad things happening to misbehavior of the victims, their surroundings or so (New Orleans being inundated due to a gay actress ?!) A mother, having lost a child, might think the devil is after her and her family, and may live in fear onwards.
One might invent a religion whose basic tenets may be that the more one suffers, the better the promised afterlife will be and so on. The ultimate comfort and consolation ? This religion should be called 'Insanity'.

Thu, 15 May 2008 01:34:00 UTC | #171285

Darwin's badger's Avatar Comment 15 by Darwin's badger

I skipped straight ahead to the article when I saw that it was RD and SP, and didn't realise that it was an old one until Richard's sentence, "My friend Douglas Adams has a wonderful story about television sets." It reminded me of how poignant I found Richard's eulogy for Douglas when I read "A Devil's Chaplain" for the first time.

Rearding the content of the article, it was as good as I expected. I never even knew that it existed, so thanks for posting this discussion between two of my favourite thinkers.

Thu, 15 May 2008 01:44:00 UTC | #171288

nalfeshnee's Avatar Comment 16 by nalfeshnee

..."there have been many people, from genuinely great poets all the way down to Brian Appleyard and Fay Weldon."

Unintentional maybe, but highly amusing nevertheless.

Thu, 15 May 2008 05:23:00 UTC | #171336

Cartomancer's Avatar Comment 17 by Cartomancer

But Plato has Socrates speaking of souls going to 'heaven' or a 'hell'. Only the worst souls stay in hell, the rest are recycled. This is in the republic I think.
True, but it was Aristotle's thinking on the matter that formed the basis for most western speculation on the soul until the renaissance, not Plato's. In fact, between the end of antiquity and the fifteenth century, of all Plato's works, the Latin west only really had the Timaeus in common circulation (the Arabs had a bit more, including parts of the Republic, but they were also heavily Aristotelian in their thinking. The Byzantine world was perhaps the only place to have a significant amount of Platonic material to hand). The only significant Platonic thinking to reach the west was the solidly christianised Neoplatonism of Augustine.

Plato's position on the matter is harder to recover than Aristotle's - largely because the majority of his thought on the immortality of the soul (corporeality is not as a big concern for him as it is for Aristotle) is contained in the earlier socratic dialogues and put in the mouths of people who may or may not have other motives for their speculation. In the Apologia Socrates is made to say that he doesn't know what happens to the soul after death - and nor do any of his detractors - but in other dialogues he makes positive statements, or at least suggestions.

Thu, 15 May 2008 05:30:00 UTC | #171339

jimbob's Avatar Comment 18 by jimbob

Sign me up for a "Soul 2" T-shirt!

Thu, 15 May 2008 05:35:00 UTC | #171342

bucketchemist's Avatar Comment 19 by bucketchemist

A minor semantic point, but it seems to make a huge difference when the definite article 'the', or even the indirect article 'a', is put in front of the term 'soul'. James Brown most likely did not have 'a soul' but no-one would dispute he had 'soul'.

Thu, 15 May 2008 22:13:00 UTC | #171650

justinesaracen's Avatar Comment 20 by justinesaracen

Platonists, Paleo and Neo. I have a question for you.

I am working on a novel that takes place in Renaissance Rome and â€" besides a lot of sex and violence -- has various characters discussing Neo-platonism (although they don't call it that). There seem to be a couple of specialists here who are more familiar with neo-platonism then I am and so I'd be grateful for some guidance.
As I understand it, Neoplationism, in its various permutations, refers to the presence of the 'divine' (whatever that is) in humans and nature. That being the case, how do we separate out Neo-platonism from pantheism, Christian mysticism, sufism, New-age-ism, animism, and just plain voodoo?

What, specifically, is 'platonic' about Neo-platonism, that distinguishes it from all the other forms of divine immanence?

Cartomancer? Brian? MPhil? Anyone?

Help would be much appreciated.

Fri, 16 May 2008 00:51:00 UTC | #171682

KRKBAB's Avatar Comment 21 by KRKBAB

Wow- what a good read! It was obvious to me that when in the intro it said Dawkin's latest book was Unweaving The Rainbow, we were into the past. Well, it was very interesting indeed. Soul 1 for me is a useless topic, unless of course you're talking to a theist. But deeply discussing soul 2 should become a very tasty and popular topic for people in the scientist/atheist community. Although I'm not well read AT ALL it's still a discussion I think I could really enjoy and contribute to. Soul 2: a perhaps non-material entity that might be able to be proven empirically by neuroscience? Now that's interesting. Am I off the mark here, anyone?

Fri, 16 May 2008 04:07:00 UTC | #171730

moderndaythomas's Avatar Comment 22 by moderndaythomas

We can think of the long-term consequences, and we can imagine what society would be like if everyone acted on a particular motive. The part of the mind that has those thoughts can disengage the part of the mind that has less noble motives.

Lets also not forget that the noble motives that we do act out are too rooted deeply in our evolutionary past.
Our very survival hinges on love, empathy and compassion. Otherwise we would not rush into a burning building to rescue a stranger, or jump into a rushing river without a moments thought of our own safety to pull from it a drowning child. We feel pain from the loss of our loved ones because we live longer when we value life. We go out of our way to prevent death.

I always bring this up when confronted with the morals dilemma from Christians.

Fri, 16 May 2008 08:35:00 UTC | #171822

Kristopher's Avatar Comment 23 by Kristopher

"And in the same way, when two people agree about something, it's just possible that the reason they agree is that they're both right."
Or, it could be that they are just so smart... that they don't know any better!

Fri, 16 May 2008 08:38:00 UTC | #171823

moderndaythomas's Avatar Comment 24 by moderndaythomas

our sense of justice and fairness, were selected for because it did our ancestors good in the long run

Here, here.

Fri, 16 May 2008 08:40:00 UTC | #171825

Rickshaw's Avatar Comment 25 by Rickshaw

"Perhaps morality comes from the inherent logic of behavior that has consequences for other agents that have goals"

What a superbly simple but powerfull statement

Fri, 16 May 2008 09:36:00 UTC | #171847

MaxD's Avatar Comment 26 by MaxD

An excellent point and one I think I am going to use in the Stupidity of Dignity thread.

Fri, 16 May 2008 09:59:00 UTC | #171855

StephenH's Avatar Comment 27 by StephenH

Edit: sorry, this is from an event, from the year before still makes for an interesting listen anyway (the same speakers)

Audio/Video, Not very high quality

Go to:

Scroll down to the bottom of the page:
Der Digitale Planet (lecture)
Direct streaming realplayer link, with the intro in German... Douglas Adams speaks first, and he comes out with some gems (listen out for the Sun & Puddle story)

Fri, 16 May 2008 19:16:00 UTC | #172074

Appleby's Avatar Comment 28 by Appleby

Excellent discussion. Some real substance. Quite unlike my typical conversations with friends and family.

Sat, 17 May 2008 21:12:00 UTC | #172456

Elwood Herring's Avatar Comment 29 by Elwood Herring

Hi all.

Reading this has got me thinking: if consciousness is simply a by-product of a complex organ such as the brain, then would it be possible for a sufficiently complex machine to become conscious?

I know this question has been asked many times before, but it seems to me from reading this that either:

1) Consciousness occurs in any sufficiently complex organism, which must therefore (by that definition) include artificial devices such as computers. I'm specifically thinking of Star Trek's "Data", especially in the excellent episode Measure of a Man, but there are plenty of other examples. ("No.5" from the movie Short Circuit is another good one.)

or 2) Consciousness is an illusion as described by Dawkins as the "Soul 1" type above; the theory that there is something non-material about life, some non-physical vital principle.

If you discount no.2 then you have to accept no.1 - machines can be conscious. Maybe not yet, maybe not in a hundred years, but eventually, maybe?

I haven't read through the entire debate yet, but I wanted to write my thoughts down while still fresh in my mind. I'm also familiar with the "Chinese room" analogy (please google it if you don't know it).

As a sidenote, I just want to mention I've been a lurker here for a long time, but I've been a "fan" of Richard Dawkins now for over 20 years. I've read Unweaving the Rainbow, The God Delusion, Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind and many other similar books, and I'm a staunch (ex-catholic) atheist (just so you know where I'm coming from!)

Sun, 25 May 2008 07:30:00 UTC | #175066

Shuggy's Avatar Comment 30 by Shuggy

Well, in the passage I've just quoted, Sagan seems to be criticizing religions not just for getting it wrong, which many people would accept, but for their deficiencies precisely in the sphere in which they are supposed to retain some residual virtue. Religions are not imaginative, not poetic, not soulful. On the contrary, they are parochial, small-minded, niggardly with the human imagination, precisely where science is generous.

Yet oddly, some of our greatest art and music is based on religion. It's as though Haydn, Bach Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi and Dvorak; Michaelangeo, Leonardo, Giotto etc. looked into Christianity (and their counterparts into Judaism and Islam) and drew out the soul that ought to be there, but isn't. Faure, I'm told, was an atheist, yet his Requiem is among the most soulful.

In the 1970s, Dan White was given a light sentence for murdering the mayor of San Francisco because his mind was addled....

Funny, I've never seen it put like that. He didn't only murder the mayor, and I think most of us gayfolk would have said, "In the 1970s, Dan White was given a light sentence for murdering Harvey Milk, the first gay supervisor (and some other guy), because his mind was addled..."

...addled from too much junk food, the infamous Twinkie Defense.

Like most gayfolk, I've always taken it for granted that any defence would have done, and the real reason he got a light sentence was homophobia (the SF gay community certainly did so, and rioted, burning 12 police vehicles, at the verdict.) But that doesn't explain the light sentence for murdering Moscone.

Mon, 26 May 2008 20:15:00 UTC | #175660