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by Owen Flanagan
Basic Books, 2002
Review by Kenneth Einar Himma on Jul 18th 2002

The Problem of the Soul

Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul is an accessible attempt to articulate and defend a thoroughgoing physicalist view of mind (or, as he puts it, the “scientific view”) against the still popular Cartesian view that human beings have a nonphysical mind, free will, and an immutable soul capable of surviving the death of the body.  Flanagan realizes that convincing laypersons to relinquish the comforting Cartesian view will not be easy.  Though Flanagan concedes the appeal of its optimism about our nature and future prospects, he argues that “[m]ost of what we traditionally believe about the nature of persons remains in place even without the unnecessary concepts of the soul and its accompanying suite” (xiii).  The book, then, seeks to defend physicalism in psychological terms as well as on epistemic grounds.

Chapter 1 defends the thesis that human beings are no different from other animals, which are entirely physical; we are, on Flanagan’s view, “[a] complex and unusual animal, but at the end of the day, another animal” (3).  On Flanagan’s view, the rapidly developing field of neuroscience has refuted the dualist belief in immaterial souls.  Flanagan argues that neuroscience has shown that thinking, which Descartes believed could only be done by a soul, can be explained in terms of the complex operations of the brain.  Thus, he concludes, that Descartes was wrong in thinking that there is any job that the soul is needed to explain: “The brain working in concert with the rest of the nervous system is our res cogitans – our thinking stuff.  We are fully embodied creatures” (6).

Chapter 2 asks the question whether a physicalistic view of human beings can be reconciled with theism.  Flanagan rejects Stephen Gould’s view that religion and science occupy “non-overlapping magisterial,” since the former is concerned with the question of what ought to be whereas the latter is concerned with the question of what is.  As Flanagan points out, “most of the great world religions see themselves as providing origin stories” (48) that are factual in character.  Flanagan also rejects the view that science and religion can be reconciled by adjusting religious claims about the mind and the origin of the world to conform to the scientific evidence.  On Flanagan’s view, a reconciliation of science with religion can’t be achieved without rendering religion largely unrecognizable as religion; such a watered down conception would look a lot like a secular humanism.

Chapter 3 argues that scientific methodology, by itself, commits mind science to rejecting the Cartesian view that the human mind consists of an immaterial, unextended soul that is capable of causally interacting with the human body.  Flanagan points out that scientific methodology, whether self-consciously or not, assumes the falsity of the Cartesian view.  The very point of mind science is to explain the behavior of the mind in terms of causal antecedents in the brain and nervous system; and the efforts of mind scientists are – and must be – guided by the assumption that the mind can be explained in terms of physical causes.  This, as Flanagan points out, does not mean that mind scientists believe they can discover strict causal laws that map particular brain states in a 1-1 correspondence onto particular mental states or even that they are even close to providing a complete explanation of mind, but it does mean that the neurosciences cannot be agnostic about the existence of souls.  As far as neuroscientific methodology is concerned, “the mind is the brain” (78; emphasis added).

Chapter 4 rejects the classical idea that we have free will in favor of a naturalistic account of how to make sense of voluntary actions.  On Flanagan’s view, once we accept the scientific view that our brains are our minds, there is no longer any room for the idea that our choices lie outside the causal nexus.  Physical objects act in accordance with natural causal laws. 

Even so, Flanagan believes that what genuinely matters about the notion of free will can adequately be captured by the scientific view of minds.  For example, he argues that the scientific view is easily reconciled with the claim that we are sensitive to reasons if we are prepared to accept the idea that reasons can function as causes.  Similarly, he argues that the scientific view can be reconciled with the idea that we have the capacity to do otherwise in the following sense: even if our choices are caused, it is still true that we could have done otherwise if we had chosen to do otherwise.  And the same, Flanagan argues, is true of the other attributes of free will that really matter to us: self-control, self-expression, individuality, rational deliberation, rational accountability, unpredictability, and freedom to do otherwise are all compatible with a scientific view of mind.

Chapter 5 is the first of two chapters concerned with identifying the nature of the self.  In this chapter, Flanagan takes on the Cartesian view that defines the self as “that part of me that has permanency and constancy, and that explains what really makes me who I am, what really makes me, me” (161) and then explains the self in terms of an immaterial soul.  Flanagan rejects the claim that we can introspectively discern an immutable, indivisible self.  Indeed, Flanagan argues that “most people do not identify and reidentify themselves as exactly the same over time” (177).  On Flanagan’s view, we can discern no more in our minds than a continually changing stream of mental experience; there is no I to be discerned independently of that experience. 

Chapter 6 is devoted to providing Flanagan’s naturalistic account of the self.  Following Daniel Dennett, Flanagan argues that the self is no more than an abstract theoretical entity.  Selves, on Flanagan’s view, are created by persons as they abstract from their experiences in a purely natural and social world.  These abstractions focus on patterns that are “predictive of our personal trajectory and that capture the ways we normally feel, think, and act, what we know about, and, more importantly, what we care about” (241).  The self, then, is a set of propositions that enable us to explain, predict, and control our interactions with the world; they are, as Dennett famously puts it, “centers of narrative gravity” that describe our personalities, values, and history

Chapter 7 attempts to articulate a conception of objective ethics that is consistent with the scientific view of human beings that Flanagan defends through the first six chapters of the book.  As Flanagan conceives it, ethics is “systematic inquiry into the conditions (of the world, of individual persons, and of groups of persons) that permit humans to flourish” (267).  Seeing ethics as hence analogous to ecology (which inquires into the conditions that permit individual life and ecosystems to flourish) enables Flanagan to view the ethical project as principally empirical in character.  Ethics “starts [qua empirical inquiry] from an understanding of human nature as revealed by evolutionary biology, mind science, sociology, anthropology, and history” (275) and derives normative recommendations that prescribe how beings instantiating that nature are most likely to flourish.  Moreover, such prescriptions, Flanagan points out, are as objectively grounded as those of medicine.

While Flanagan’s arguments are detailed, thorough, and remarkably rigorous for a book that is written for a lay audience, he sometimes seems to think the issues are easier than they are.  Consider, for example, what he has to say about the problem of subjectivity: “Several very intelligent philosophers, including some good friends, have received tenure for publishing long books on how subjectivity is possible.…  The problem is surprisingly easy to solve – at least from my armchair.  Experiences are unique in having what John Searle calls ‘first person ontology.’…  Why is that?  Nothing mysterious.  Each individual has her own and only her own experiences because only she is connected directly to her own nervous system.  End of story” (223-224).

This, however, misstates the issue.  The worry here is not why it is that I can’t experience what Flanagan is experiencing at this particular moment.  Obviously, the answer to that issue, as Flanagan points out, is that I am hooked up to my nervous system and have no access to the information that is being conveyed by Flanagan’s nervous system to his brain.  Flanagan has the experiences he does because his mind is hooked up to his body and I have the experiences I have because my mind is hooked up to his body.

The worry here – and it is the one that probably more than any other continues to motivate belief in immaterial souls – concerns how particular collections of atoms give rise to particular subjects of experience.  Why it is, for example, that the particular collection of atoms and molecules that makes up the body that is sitting at my desk typing these words gives rise to me, rather than to someone else?  As Thomas Nagel beautifully describes the worry: “There was no such thing as me for ages, but with the formation of a particular physical organism at a particular place and time, suddenly there is me, for as long as the organism survives.  In the objective flow of the cosmos this subjectively (to me!) stupendous event produces hardly a ripple.  How can the existence of one member of the species have this remarkable consequence?”  To say that I have the experiences I have because I am connected to my nervous system does nothing to solve the problem because it doesn’t explain why this nervous system is mine, rather than someone else’s.

If The Problem of the Soul sometimes overreaches a bit, it is nonetheless a beautiful, well-written book that deserves to be read by both friends and foes of the physicalist view of mind that Flanagan defends.  It is written with insight, humor, depth, and a charming humanity that always wins out over Flanagan’s occasional impatience with those who hold the traditional view.  The book will enlighten and delight even those who disagree with him.  I strongly recommend it to philosophers and laypersons alike.


© 2002 Ken Himma

 Ken Himma, Ph.D., University of Washington, Seattle.