Humanist Perspectives: issue 153: Books

reviewed by Robert G Weyant

Owen Flanagan’s
The Problem of the Soul:
Two Visions of Mind & How to Reconcile Them

New York: Basic Books, 2002.
ISBN 0465024610
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The theme of Owen Flanagan’s book — the nature of human beings and particularly the human mind — will be familiar to most humanists. Perhaps somewhat less familiar will be his bluntness in stating his position right from the start. Flanagan, who is a professor of philosophy at Duke University, writes:

There is no point in beating around the bush. Supernatural concepts have no philosophical warrant. Furthermore, it is not that such concepts are displaced only if we accept, from the start, a naturalistic or scientific vision of things. There simply are no good arguments — theological, philosophical, humanistic, or scientific — for beliefs in divine beings, miracles, or heavenly afterlives. Of course, I can’t just say this and expect the reader to let me get away with it. I’ll do my best in this book to show why supernatural concepts lack rational warrant.

He then spends the remainder of the book doing just that. Extending his comments to clarify his position, he states:

The scientific image and its proponents no longer accept the restricted role of understanding and explaining our animal ‘side.’ Our animal side is our only side. We are all animal and the brain is our soul. This is not such bad news. There are still persons. Consciousness exists. Love, friendship, and morality all remain. Nothing disappears, save for certain fictions that never existed to begin with. My aim is to provide a naturalistic philosophy of human nature compatible with the scientific image that retains what is beautiful, true, and inspiring in the humanistic image. The project to live morally and meaningfully expresses our most noble aspiration. But this project proceeds inauthentically if it is built, as it now is, on a false picture of the kind of creatures we are.

The Problem of the Soul - cover

Flanagan contrasts the ‘scientific’ image of human beings with the ‘manifest’ image which includes a non-material soul.

One of Flanagan’s major focuses is on free will. If the concept of a Cartesian immaterial soul is to be abandoned and the idea of an unmoved mover or an uncaused cause of human behaviour is, as he argues, incoherent, then are we nothing more than living machines with total mechanistic determination and predictability? Another way to frame the question would be to ask what aspects of the concept of free will are worth preserving and whether the scientific view of the mind can preserve them. Flanagan’s list of valuable human qualities usually attributed to free will are: self-control, self-expression, individuality, reasons-sensitivity, rational deliberation, rational accountability, moral accountability, the capacity to do otherwise, unpredictability and political freedom. His conclusion is that these attributes can be preserved in the scientific view and that, “The addition of “free will” to our conception of the voluntary is an instance where a bad philosophical idea infiltrated ordinary common sense.” Thus, as he puts it, the common manifest image of human beings is “philosophically diseased.”

and God is something about which, if you have good sense, you will resist speaking, especially with an air of confidence.

Flanagan discusses the problems associated with personal identity and the question of whether some aspect of each individual human being lives on after bodily death. In doing so, he makes it clear why he thinks the concept of the Cartesian non-material soul is not adequate to provide a basis for either personal identity or some kind of personal existence after death, and gets into some discussion of possible meanings of ‘self’ and ‘mind’. He also explains why the belief in a non-material soul that has continued existence after the physical body dies — a belief he finds untenable — can be understood as the reaction of an organism evolved along Darwinian lines to its experiences in the world in which it lives. In these terms he finds the belief quite reasonable, albeit mistaken. He concludes this part of his discussion by noting:

In this chapter I have devoted my energies primarily to the destructive task of showing that the part of our manifest image committed to the belief in nonphysical substances — God and mind — is misguided. In particular, the belief that persons are constituted essentially by their possession of a nonphysical, permanent, and immutable soul is untenable… There is no self that is constituted by an immortal soul, and God is something about which, if you have good sense, you will resist speaking, especially with an air of confidence. Nothing sensible can be said.

Having engaged in the “destructive task,” he then turns his attention to constructing a positive scientific image of human beings.

In discussing what he terms “natural selves” Flanagan deals with the issue of what experiences and structures are necessary for the development of our sense of self as well as providing some speculation about the role of particular brain structures in providing us with that sense of self. His target here is the question of whether positing a supernatural soul is necessary, or even helpful, in accounting for our belief that we exist as individual selves over time. He concludes, “The naturalistic picture explains everything in need of explanation. There is simply no need for a non-natural or supernatural posit to explain the existence of the sort of selves that abound in the world.”

Finally, he turns to the basis for an ethical system that he refers to as “ethics as human ecology.” His argument is based on three points. First, “I am using ethics in a broad sense as involving most fundamentally the question: How shall I (we) live?” Second, he finds the relevant analogy to be ecology, “…what sort of conditions enable the system and its components to flourish.” Third, “Ethics, as I conceive it, is a systematic enquiry into the conditions (of the world, of individual persons, and of groups of persons) that permit humans to flourish.” His arguments in favour of his point of view are both interesting and appealing.

One thing that Flanagan’s exposition does is to provide his reader with a clearer understanding of the philosophical reasons why many of the arguments involved in the manifest image of human beings are logically flawed. For that alone, this book is useful.

Robert Weyant is a retired university professor and administrator who lives in Victoria. His previous article in Humanist in Canada, “The Darwinian Mind: Making Human Nature Natural,” is a finalist in the 23rd Annual Western Magazine Awards.