Marketplace Atheism

Stephen Mulhall

  • The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them by Owen Flanagan
    Basic Books, 384 pp, £13.50, August 2003, ISBN 0 465 02461 0

Nietzsche’s most famous proclamation of the death of God is voiced by a madman, and directed not at believers but at unbelievers, who mock the madman’s claim to be seeking God by the light of his lantern in the sunny marketplace; how can anyone still think that God might be found in our daylight world? All right-thinking people have long known that there is no God; belief in His existence was a childish superstition, a cognitive error overcome by advances in our understanding of the world, and human maturity requires that we learn to live in the clear, invigorating light of that knowledge. But the madman finds this marketplace atheism to be more childish than the theistic belief it claims to have outgrown. His perception is that God is dead, not non-existent; God’s absence is not a discovery but the result of a deed, and a terrifying one. We are God’s murderers. His presence was real, part of the living tissue of our culture, our responses, our most intimate self-understanding. His destruction is therefore a radically violent act, not only against Him but against ourselves. And His corpse remains unburied; the stench of His putrefying culture still lingers in the nostrils – in, for example, the morality of compassion for the weak that we cling to even after discarding what we think of as its theistic underpinnings.

But the bewildered atheists smell nothing; so the madman shatters his lantern, declaring that he has come too soon. The news he brings is not yet news, but a prophecy; the realisation of what we have done is yet to dawn on us. For atheism is not best understood as a denial of the existence of one supernatural entity, whose absence leaves our universe otherwise unchanged; it means unchaining the earth from its sun, from the source of light through which we grasped everything in our existence. The madman knows that sunshine will continue to illuminate the marketplace long after the destruction of the star that generated it; but the bright morning of Enlightenment atheism is dead light, and we men and women of knowledge will remain unknown to ourselves for as long as we continue trying to draw sustenance from it.

Just as talk of ‘the problem of evil’ usually betrays the presence of marketplace theism, so talk of ‘the problem of the soul’ typically signals an encounter with marketplace atheism. Problems, like crossword puzzles, have solutions; we know how to address them, and what a satisfying resolution of them might look like. But when a theist treats evil as a problem, you can put good money on her solution being far worse than the problem. If, for example, she tells us that, for all we know, God has a plan for His universe within which evil plays an indispensable role in the achievement of a good that far outweighs the costs it exacts, you don’t have to be Ivan Karamazov to want to hand back the ticket. Or should a religious believer be grateful to be proffered a conception of her God as deliberately inflicting evil on the innocent, a supernatural Stalin with a cosmic Plan? Likewise, when an atheist treats the soul as a problem, to which he nevertheless has a solution, we would do well to consider the benefits of continuing to live with the ‘problem’.

For Owen Flanagan, belief in a soul means believing that a person is an immaterial mental essence attached to, but independent of, a body. Without such a conception, he thinks that religious belief must founder; but he also thinks that a version of the same belief (usually associated in philosophy with Descartes) exists in secular form, and might seem essential if we are to regard ourselves as having free will, substantial personal identity and moral status. Since Flanagan regards this view of the mind as basically incoherent – as empty rather than mistaken – he wants to show how it, and hence religious belief, can be rejected without rejecting our conception of persons as free, morally responsible, genuinely individual beings.

Flanagan thinks that any form of belief in souls has been definitively subverted by the development of contemporary brain science. On his account, recent advances in neurophysiology have been spectacularly successful, and have achieved this success while employing two regulative principles: that the mind is the brain, and that the physical universe of which the brain is a part is a causally closed system. More precisely, Flanagan takes the first principle as having constitutive rather than regulative status: it’s not just that the brain sciences operate on the assumption that the mind is the brain; it has turned out to be the case that the mind really is the brain. The principle of determinism remains merely regulative; but even so, it threatens our ability to regard persons as having the freedom necessary for them to be rationally and morally accountable beings. For if their decision-making processes are identical with physical events and processes, which have psychobiological and environmental causes sufficient to make them inevitable, how could the person be held responsible for the thoughts and actions that result from them?

Flanagan’s book thus falls into three separate parts. One outlines reasons for rejecting religious belief, and hence belief in any religious conception of the nature of persons. The second demonstrates that rejecting this conception of the mind does not entail rejecting our conception of persons as free, accountable, moral individuals. And the third sketches the kind of naturalistic moral understanding of human beings that is consistent with the results of the brain sciences – what Flanagan calls an exercise in human ecology.

He tries to present his inquiries as related parts of a single project by invoking an overarching, generic conflict between what he calls the humanistic and the scientific images of the world. The humanistic image says that we are spiritual beings endowed with free will in such a way that we exercise a quasi-divine prerogative of acting as unmoved movers, the uncaused causes of our actions. The scientific image says that we are animals who have evolved by natural selection, with highly distinctive – even extraordinary – capacities, but with nothing about us that circumvents the laws of cause and effect. Flanagan’s general aim is to recover everything that really matters to us about ourselves from the humanistic image while jettisoning its metaphysical excrescences, and hence to cleave entirely to the scientific image. But this framework simply disguises the fact that the three main issues his book addresses are logically distinct.

To begin with, although the Cartesian mind and the religious soul might seem made for one another, a religious believer might reject a Cartesian conception of the mind just as easily as a Cartesian dualist might reject theism. Aquinas, the Catholic Church’s paradigmatic philosopher saint, has no truck with essentially disembodied minds; and although Descartes might have wanted his conception of the mind to accord with Church teachings, the familiar human reasons for regarding the mind as essentially irreducible to the body do not at all presuppose dogmatic theology. Furthermore, someone who rejects both a religious and a Cartesian conception of persons is not thereby committed for or against Flanagan’s naturalistic account of morality; there are many ways of being naturalistic with respect to moral values, and human ecology is only one of them. So, limitless confusion beckons unless we keep these three issues separate.

Let’s begin with Cartesian conceptions of the mind. Here, it’s worth noting that we can establish the incoherence of Cartesian dualism without making any reference to the brain sciences whose recent successes so impress Flanagan. Twentieth-century philosophers as various as Ryle, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty developed powerful critiques of Cartesianism without drawing in any way on empirical science. Indeed, they typically combined their anti-Cartesianism with an equal hostility to the mind/brain identity principle that Flanagan presents as fundamental to the brain sciences. In other words, Cartesian confusions about the mind can be dissipated without bringing empirical discoveries into the picture at all, and certainly without sharing Flanagan’s interpretation of what their results imply.

Nevertheless, if the mind is the brain, then Cartesian dualism surely must be false. But is Flanagan right to think that the brain sciences have shown that the mind is the brain? To answer this question, we need to know what exactly he means when he says that ‘the mind is the brain.’ Throughout the crucial chapter in which he discusses this issue in most detail, his formulations suggest that he means what he says: that mental events or processes are simply identical with events and processes in the brain, that ‘thinking, deliberating, choosing and feeling are brain processes.’ On the other hand, he also gives us bewildering sequences of ‘clarification’ such as the following: ‘that the mind is the brain; or better, that mental events are brain events, or better still, that mental events are central nervous system events or even that they are whole-person events’. Well, which is it? But as well as havering between candidates with which to identify mental events, Flanagan sometimes sidles away from identity claims altogether. He talks of mental events being realised in physical ones, and of physical events as giving rise to experiences within, or producing ‘subjective feels’ for, the creature that has them. These phrases suggest that mental events are effects of brain events, and hence not identical with them at all.

Things only get worse if we look at Flanagan’s bibliographical appendix to this chapter. There he offers the jaw-dropping declaration: ‘When I say that it is a regulative assumption that the mind is the brain, I have left the “is” relation unspecified. How the “is” is to be understood is a thoroughly discussed, but still not completely understood or resolved, problem in the philosophy of mind.’ He can say that again. Quite apart from a variety of naturalistic theories of the mind/body relation (each of which differs from, and both criticises and is criticised by, its rivals), there are also philosophers who reject naturalism without endorsing Cartesianism (Wittgenstein and Heidegger are examples, both of whom would be particularly amused by Flanagan’s blithe refusal to say what he means by the verb ‘to be’). But since Flanagan studiously fails to endorse any of these naturalistic positions, or even to explain their differences, his readers can have no idea what exactly his own position amounts to. And since he offers no defence of any version of naturalism against its non-Cartesian competitors, he gives those readers no reason even to think that some version or other of naturalism merits adoption. Nor can this void be filled by invoking the successes of the brain sciences, because the philosophical dispute he gestures towards is conducted in full awareness of those successes, and concerns precisely what weight or significance to attach to them.

In short, Flanagan never explains what he means when he says that ‘the mind is the brain.’ But then we have no way of judging whether the brain sciences do regard this claim as a constitutive principle, no way of grasping the core principle of his own philosophical position about persons, and hence no way of evaluating whether that position generates a substantial and defensible account of personal identity, free will and morality. All this in a book that is supposed to make contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive science accessible to the intelligent layman. These matters are, of course, extremely complex, and there are some signs that Flanagan has a low opinion of the intellectual capacities of his target audience – Figure 2.1 in the book is a line-drawing of a spider’s web (just in case we don’t know what one looks like), and the text is peppered with poor puns and poorer jokes. But he can’t seriously think that the best way to rise to this expository challenge is to duck it – and to glory in doing so.

What, then, of the second strand of his argument – his defence of a naturalistic morality? Here, Flanagan illuminates only the general lineaments of such a perspective; but it is clear that he is trying to show how a post-Darwinian conception of the human being can be made to mesh systematically with a post-Aristotelian conception of persons as beings of a kind whose fulfilment consists in the development of a certain range of character traits (the virtues) that alone permit them to flourish in community with other human beings. The recent revival of virtue theory in moral philosophy is one of the field’s more interesting and inspiring features, and it is good to find Flanagan helping people to discover more about it. But once again, his account remains blinkered in a way that is particularly significant given his interest in religious interpretations of human existence. He is so concerned to rebut relativistic worries about ecological accounts of the human (as making our sources of meaning too specific to our culture and upbringing to bear the moral weight we wish them to support) that he fails to address their inadequacies when viewed from a more absolute perspective.

Virtue theories understand human beings as members of a species who flourish in distinctively communal forms of life; given the right upbringing and circumstances, individual fulfilment and communal wellbeing are mutually supporting. However, it is central to any Aristotelian conception of human beings that they can pervert and, at the limit, destroy their capacity to flourish; they can develop vicious character traits that remove any chance of fulfilling their own nature and threaten the social fabric which makes possible the flourishing of others. Such people are a moral danger to themselves and those around them; by destroying their own humanity, they might plausibly be thought to have placed themselves beyond the moral pale – beyond the right to respect, or just treatment.

Hence, virtue theory lacks any way of grounding the thought that no human being, however evil their deeds and however foul their character, should be denied our unconditional respect or be treated as though they are vermin, having forfeited all right to justice. Conversely, it cannot make sense of the thought that people in severe and ineradicable affliction, who appear to have lost all that gives life meaning, should be fully our moral equals. In other words, naturalistic morality is blind to the thought that every individual human being is inalienably precious – precisely the moral perspective on humanity that is centrally articulated in Western culture through its religious traditions, and their conception of human beings as having or being souls. It is a moot point whether or not that perspective can survive outside those traditions: whether secular concepts can provide a way of saying what is at stake here, and making sense of it. Some of the most interesting work in moral philosophy in recent years (Raimond Gaita’s writings are a good example) is devoted to exploring this possibility. If Flanagan can’t see that the religious concept of the soul is designed to articulate such a perspective, not to lay metaphysical foundations for it, he has not even begun to understand what a religious conception of human beings actually involves.

Yet he gives no sign of registering this critical fact about the religious traditions that he devotes the third strand of his argument to dismissing. He cannot see any possible use for the concept of the soul, except as a kind of divinely authorised variant of Cartesian thinking. It amounts to the attribution of an immaterial counterpart or dimension to certain kinds of body – a hypothesis about the metaphysical constitution of certain animals, and hence about the ontological furniture of the universe, from which moral implications might flow. But since brain science is doing pretty well in understanding how these animals’ minds work as part of a wholly physical universe, religious belief is as much under threat from this aspect of scientific advance as is Cartesian philosophy.

In the complete absence of any empirical evidence for the soul hypothesis, Flanagan recognises that one might supplement it by providing arguments for the existence of a God who might have created these immaterial phenomena; but he thinks he can dismiss all such arguments in eight pages of discussion. Despite his warm words about the positive qualities of religious communal life (very welcome in the era of Richard Dawkins and his disciples), this suggests an utter lack of respect for religious believers. His criticisms are flawed – his response to the cosmological argument (which turns on the idea of God as First Cause) is compressed to the point of opacity, and the ontological argument (which invokes the idea of God as necessarily existent) goes missing altogether; and he pays no attention to the complex historical, theological and philosophical contexts of this kind of argumentation. And even if we set these worries aside, what would it say about religious believers if he were right in his swift rebuttals? Do they lack the intelligence to appreciate such simple criticisms, or must we invoke psychological inadequacies to account for their unwillingness to know when they’re beaten? At what point in this cascade of condescension might we consider applying the principle of interpretative charity, and ask whether we have properly understood what it is that religious believers mean to say when they talk of believing in God, and of human beings as embodied souls?

Flanagan just knows that they must be constructing hypotheses about supernatural beings and supernatural aspects of natural beings. His atheism thus amounts to the atheism of Nietzsche’s marketplace – the denial that our universe contains certain physical or metaphysical entities. Nevertheless, Flanagan approves of at least certain parts of the moral codes that he thinks religious traditions erected on this metaphysical foundation – particularly a compassionate concern for others. So he tries to measure human moral progress beyond theism by the same moral vision that theism introduced and maintained, though his naturalistic frame of reference threatens significantly to dilute it. But if the ” soul, religiously understood, poses not a metaphysical problem but a spiritual promise or threat, Flanagan’s solution to his ‘problem’ does not even begin to locate the challenge it poses, for atheists and theists alike.