Monday, March 10, 2014

The problem of the soul: book overview and reflections

Owen Flanagan (2002) The problem of the soul: Two visions of the mind and how to reconcile them, published by Basic Books.

My meanders through neuroscience, neuropsychology, neurophilosophy and evolutionary psychology has led to some confusion as I wrestled with relativism, dualism, navitist, empirist etc. In short, exposure to a range of viewpoints and difficulty in weighing up the arguments from each perspective.

So, Flanagan’s book brings some relieve although no sure answers, and I accept there never will be. Life is a journey made exciting by meeting ongoing challenges. My present short term goal is to find some answers to whet my intellectual curiosity and to form a ‘to do’ list for my own learning. A bonus if some of this new learning merges with my academic work but I am not too fussed at this stage as all the new learning is challenging some of my belief systems and causing me to reassess things.

Back to Flanagan’s book, written in clear, accessible language. Some familiarity with how philosophical texts are laid out is helpful but the argument is signalled through the book and not obfuscated by dense text. The preface spells out the objective of the book and lays down foundation for understanding the two viewpoints – scientific and humanistic. Flanagan also used pertinent parts of his biography as a lapsed Catholic and academic, to illustrate important points through the book, modelling the good use of analogies to assist the reader to make their own meaning from the concepts explored in the book.

Flanagan introduces the ‘dualism’ way of understanding body and mind prevalent in Western thought and philosophy for two millennia. He argues that the scientific approach is now ascendant as the approach is starting to supply empirical explanations of how the brain works. Yet the humanistic and theological approaches also have some contributions.  The book discusses the ‘dualism’ between science with its logical, empirical study of the brain and how it works and the question of where then is the soul? If the brain is also the mind, then where is consciousness, free will and our identity? Does free will exist when we make decisions based on connections between our neural networks as triggered responses (neurotransmitters, hormones etc) and ‘conditioned’ responses? Does Ryle’s ‘ghost in the brain’ exist? Who and what are we as in ‘where is the I’ in the brain? 

Six chapters work through what makes us human covering the mind, free will, permanent persons, natural selves. The last chapter ‘ethics as human ecology’ discusses the implications of accepting the idea that science and the image of the mind in humanism and theology have common frameworks. In particular, the concept of freewill is possible regardless of whether accessibility to freewill is explained via scientific or humanistic / theological reasoning. However, the caveat is our brains are not designed to be rational due to its evolutionary development.

All in, a worthwhile read which is pitched at the right level for someone with sufficient curiosity and background to persist through the many concepts. I enjoyed the book as it provided a cogent discussion from the neuroscience and philosophical / religious points of view and provided sufficient space for the reader to weigh the evidence and come to their own conclusions. After all, that is why we have a mind :) There is a need to be open to various viewpoints and to come to some resolution in one own's mind frame. Flanagan's book provides an example of writing that expands the reader's horizons without dogmatic flogging of one perspective. The book recommends respect for each approach towards understanding what makes us who we are. 

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