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← Surely by now we've outgrown the soul?

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 6 by Cartomancer

Unlike the clear-cut (and, dare I say, reductionist) notion of a ‘soul’ for which no more explanation is possible, a scientific approach acknowledges the complexity apparent at every level of brain function and begins the difficult task of understanding it.

But the idea of a soul was never supposed to be a "no more explanation is possible" end to the argument. In virtually all ancient and medieval speculation on the nature of human minds and consciousness, the soul was simply the locus of all these questions. Have a look at the diagram used as an illustration for this article. It's an early modern representation of a version of the Aristotelian-Avicennan-Averroistic model of human sensation, cognition and thought as developed throughout the central and later Middle Ages. It's not a simple statement that "it's all to do with the soul, that's all you need to know". Indeed, it deals in quite a complex way with the reception of diverse sense impressions, their conversion into mental pictures by the common sense, the formulation of images in one part of the brain and their storage as memories in another, and the rational processes that go on using those images. Vast tomes were written to clarify, explain and adapt this model, and many other models of a human soul.

And not just a human soul. It is a quaintly theological notion that only humans possess souls. Aristotle and his medieval followers would not have recognised it. To Aristotelian psychology animals and even plants have a lower-order soul, responsible for growth, nutrition and sensation if not for rational thought. Plato, admittedly, reserved souls for humans alone, but that's because Plato's idea of the soul was more to do with rational contemplation.

And even the notion that the soul was nothing to do with the body was not a part of all pre-modern speculation. For Aristotle the soul was the form of the body, its shape and function. For the late antique follower of Aristotle, Alexander of Aphrodisias, it was the other way around, and the soul was created, governed and dissolved according to the humoural composition of the physical body.

Sure, the people who did their psychology and neuroscience with the term "soul" were mostly wrong about the truth of the matter, and hopelessly entangled with religious speculation (Da Vinci even drew a special tube from the brain to the testicles in his anatomy sketches of humans, so that the soul of the father could be transmitted to the offspring) but they were still trying, with the best intellectual tools available to them, to make progress in understanding these issues. And they were considered very important issues if manuscript survivals are any guide - by far the most popular and widely copied scientific work of Aristotle was his De Anima. People genuinely wanted to know about these things, and delve further into them.

It is one thing to say that medieval science is little use as a guide to modern science. It is quite another to say that medieval science was, by its nature, closed-minded, incurious and stifling of debate.

Mon, 17 Oct 2011 11:19:28 UTC | #881445