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


← Is Science Killing the Soul?

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to 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