Wednesday, September 26, 2007


What's Your Dangerous Idea? No 1

John Brockman (ed.), What's Your Dangerous Idea?, (Simon & Schuster, 2007) collects answers from the usual suspects to this year's Edge centre question. I plan to do a series of posts highlighting some answers that pique my interest...

John Horgan, director of the Centre for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology answers:

'We have no souls... As a believer in and lover of science, I certainly hope that the truth will set us free, and save us, but sometimes I'm not so sure. The dangerous (probably true) idea I'd like to dwell on is that we humans have no souls. The soul is that core of us that supposedly transcends, and even persists beyond, our physicality, lending us a fundamental autonomy, privacy, and dignity... I once told Crick that 'The Depressing Hypothesis' would have been a more accuracte title for his book ['The Astonishing Hypothesis'], since he was, after all, just reiterating the basic, materialist assumption of modern neuobiology and, more broadly, all of science.' (p. 2-3)

I like Horgan's definition of a soul, and his list of qualities it's existence permits us to ascribe to humans, and I appreciate a materialist willing to follow their beliefs through to the logical conclusion.

In response, one might construct an argument as follows:

1) If humans lack a souls, they lack a fundamental autonomy, privacy and dignity
2) Humans do not lack a fundamental autonomy, privacy and dignity
3) Therefore, humans do no lack souls

This argument is logically valid and Horgan appears to agree with the first premise. He disagrees with the second premise, since this premise contradicts the 'basic, materialist assumption of modern neurobiology'. But then being 'modern', or being an 'assumption' are not particularly good reasons for accepting a premise - whereas the prima facie reality of human autonomy (necessary for making sense of human moral - and rational - responsibility), privacy (I can know things about myself from the inside first person perspective that no amount of third person knowledge of my brain would seem to permit a third party to have) and dignity, are in my estimation adequate reasons for accepting the contrary premise.

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