Recently in The Limitations of Human Consciousness I reviewed a typology of “philosophical zombies,” which latter are employed as thought experiments to investigate the possibility of human (or quasi-human) existence without consciousness. One species of philosophical zombie is referred to as a “soulless zombie,” and I want to take a few minutes to think about what exactly a soulless zombie would be.

What is a soulless zombie? The Neuronarrative blog defines a soulless zombie in passing as that which, “which looks like a human, has a brain, but lacks, wait for it, a soul (as defined by said inquirer).” The Wikipedia article on philosophical zombies is similarly terse, simply saying that the soulless zombie, “lacks a ‘soul’.” Well, we knew that much from the etymology of the term. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Zombies doesn’t even mention “soulless zombies.” Given that the “soul” is a concept that many philosophers have likely consigned to the category of folk psychology, the idea of a soulless zombie may well be more discussed outside philosophy than in, but it represents a kind of moral intuition, and for that reason alone commands our attention.

Theories of soulless zombies will bifurcate based on the distinction between naturalistic and non-naturalistic explications of the soul. One can follow the lead of Aristotle’s On the Soul and give an essentially naturalistic account of the soul, or one can insist upon the irreducibly non-naturalistic character of the soul, which Plato sometimes called the “divine spark.”

The non-naturalistic interpretation is a dead end for science and philosophy and therefore uninteresting. Theologians may have something more to say on this head, but a non-naturalistic soul means that by definition no naturalistic investigation can shed light on the soul (or that part of the soul that is irreducibly non-naturalistic, if any internal complexity or structure of the soul is recognized; often the advocates of a non-naturalistic soul insist upon the simplicity of the soul, in which case the simply non-naturalistic soul is closed to naturalistic investigation). There remains the possibility that, if the surrounding naturalistic context of the non-naturalistic soul can be better elucidated, this may in turn improve the terms of the discussion surrounding the non-naturalistic soul, but I will leave that possibility aside for now.

If, on the other hand, we acknowledge the legitimacy of the naturalistic account of the soul (as in Aristotle), there is no reason to suppose that the methodological naturalism of science cannot converge upon an adequate (by which I mean non-reductive and non-eliminative) account of the soul and the ensouled person. It is only in the case of the irreducible non-naturalism of the soul and personhood (in at least one of the aspects of personhood) that the methods of science and naturalistic philosophy must fail to capture the essential nature of human persons. If it is categorically denied that naturalistic methods as such can fully account for the human person or the human soul, then it is likely that such a denier will also hold the irreducible non-naturalism of the soul (although I can think of an exception to this which I will not attempt to explicate here).

In discussing philosophical zombies, soulless zombies, and scientific philosophy, the reader may well have Daniel Dennett in mind, so I am going to quote Dennett here in order to point out the way in which the inquiry I have suggested differs in essentials from Dennett’s approach, despite the similarly of the terminology I have employed. Here’s the passage from Dennett:

There is a powerful and ubiquitous intuition that computational, mechanistic models of consciousness, of the sort we naturalists favor, must leave something out — something important. Just what must they leave out? The critics have found that it’s hard to say, exactly: qualia, feelings, emotions, the what-it’s-likeness (Nagel) or the ontological subjectivity (Searle) of consciousness. Each of these attempts to characterize the phantom residue has met with serious objections and been abandoned by many who nevertheless want to cling to the intuition, so there has been a gradual process of distillation, leaving just about all the reactionaries, for all their disagreements among themselves, united in the conviction that there is a real difference between a conscious person and a perfect zombie — let’s call that intuition the Zombic Hunch — leading them to the thesis of Zombism: that the fundamental flaw in any mechanistic theory of consciousness is that it cannot account for this important difference. A hundred years from now, I expect this claim will be scarcely credible, but let the record show that in 1999, John Searle, David Chalmers, Colin McGinn, Joseph Levine and many other philosophers of mind don’t just feel the tug of the Zombic Hunch (I can feel the tug as well as anybody), they credit it. They are, however reluctantly, Zombists, who maintain that the zombie challenge is a serious criticism.

Daniel Dennett, The Zombic Hunch: Extinction of an Intuition?

Dennett here invokes “we naturalists,” but although I definitely count myself among the naturalists, I do not share Dennett’s point of view on this matter. What Dennett calls a “phantom residue” might be compared to what I called the “irreducible non-naturalistic” nature of the soul, but what Dennett is suggesting is far more radical. Dennett not only rejects the soul (much less the theological, non-naturalistic soul), he rejects the very existence of consciousness and subjectivity. Dennett’s is a eliminativist account, which he pursues despite admitting that he feels the tug of the intuition. Thus for Dennett, a naturalistic account is a mechanistic account, and this is a far more circumscribed conception of naturalism than I would accept or advocate.

However, when Dennett makes the distinction between, “a real difference between a conscious person and a perfect zombie,” he does inadvertently hit upon the essential idea of a soulless zombie: it would be distinct from a conscious person. Thus Dennett’s “perfect zombie” would seem to be what I am here calling a “soulless zombie,” though I could go on to add that Dennett denies even the possibility of a perfect zombie without a naturalistic form of consciousness. In this context it would be very easy to conflate naturalistic and non-naturalistic conceptions of consciousness, but the distinction is most vital where it is most likely to be conflated.

I think that once we make the distinction we can up the ante of the soulless zombie problem, or, in Dennett’s terms, the zombie hunch. To do this we can draw upon a naturalistic account of the soul formulated for the explicit purpose of a sociological explication of religion. I am thinking here of Emile Durkheim’s conception of the soul in his seminal work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

Durkheim in famous for treating religion as an essentially social phenomenon, even in its apparently most private forms. Here is a typical passage from Durkheim:

“…it may be said that nearly all the great social institutions have been born in religion. Now in order that these principal aspects of the collective life may have commenced by being only varied aspects of the religious life, it is obviously necessary that the religious life be the eminent form and, as it were, the concentrated expression of the whole collective life. If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.”

This differs radically from, for example, Alfred North Whitehead’s conception of religion as being, “what the individual does with his solitude.”

Here is a passage from Durkheim specific to the soul, and incorporating his sociological conception of religious ideas:

“Thus the notion of the soul is a particular application of the beliefs relative to sacred beings. This is the explanation of the religious character which this idea has had from the moment when it first appeared in history, and which it still retains to-day. In fact, the soul has always been considered a sacred thing; on this ground, it is opposed to the body which is, in itself, profane. It is not merely distinguished from its material envelope as the inside from the outside; it is not merely represented as made out of a more subtle and fluid matter; but more than this, it inspires those sentiments which are everywhere reserved for that which is divine. If it is not made into a god, it is at least regarded as a spark of the divinity. This essential characteristic would be inexplicable if the idea of the soul were only a pre-scientific solution given to the problem of dreams; for there is nothing in the dream to awaken religious emotions, so the cause by which these are explained could not have such a character. But if the soul is a part of the divine substance, it represents something not ourselves that is within us; if it is made of the same mental matter as the sacred beings, it is natural that it should become the object of the same sentiments.”

EMILE DURKHEIM, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, TRANSLATED BY JOSEPH WARD SWAIN, Chapter VIII, “The Idea of the Soul,” section IV

Durkheim’s naturalistic-socialogical conception of the soul has been formulated in a particularly compelling manner by professor Charles B. Jones:

“The soul is nothing but the image of society introjected into the individual and appropriated by the individual as his or her most essential identity. When a person has been successfully integrated into the religious life of a social group they then take that image of the group and of all the virtues and goals, the mission of the group, the ideals that it adheres to, and brings it on board as part of their own being.”

Charles B. Jones, Ph.D., University of Virginia, The Catholic University of America, Introduction to the Study of Religion, published by The Teaching Company

I think that this nicely captures the sense of necessity that people typically invoke in relation to the soul by contextualizing it as implicated in the individual’s identity and being.

Now, a perfect zombie would presumably be able to be successfully integrated into the religious life of a group (if a zombie failed to do so its behavioral emulation of human beings would be imperfect) and so would able to appropriate the group identity as its own.

Would there be a difference between a religiously socialized zombie, perhaps even a zombie that believed itself to have a soul, and if asked, “Do you have a soul?” would respond in the affirmative, and a human being who was also religiously socialized, also self-identified as having a soul, and also affirmed the possession of a soul when asked?

I think that this sharpens the dilemma a bit, because it is possible for me to imagine a soulless zombie undergoing initiation rites in the religion and mimicking all those aspects of behavior that Durkheim associated with the social manifestation of the concept of the soul, and yet still that soulless or perfect zombie would be without any feeling (i.e., qualia) of what it is like to be a member of that community and to feel the fellowship of the share ritualism of a liturgy that affirms the soul.

As far as a naturalistic conception of the soul can go, then — and I admit that it very well may not go far enough — there still seems to be room for an explanatory gap between a soulless zombie and a human being.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Wittgensteinian Magisteria

13 September 2011


One of the most memorable and enduring aspects of Wittgenstein’s later work is his conception of family resemblance. Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations formulates an essentially anti-essentialist position, and his account of family resemblances is an attempt to state how things resemble each other without sharing some single “essence.” He wanted to get away from the idea there there must be something in common, and to this end he urged his readers to look for themselves and see if there is anything in common — say, for example, among all games.

I have been thinking about family resemblances in Wittgenstein because I mention the idea in passing in my paper, The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight, which I am to present at the upcoming 100 Year Starship Symposium. (I hope you’ll show up to be in my cheering section.)

Wittgenstein described family resemblances as, “…a complicated net of similarities which overlap and intersect.” This translation is due to Walter Kaufmann (Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978, p. 55), which is a rather more felicitous rendering than the familiar Anscombe translation: “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing,” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, The German Text, with a Revised English Translation, Third Edition, Malden, Oxford, and Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, section 66, p. 27e).

When I was thinking about this use of “overlapping” (“übergreifen” in the original German) I happened to watch a video by Richard Dawkins, and I thought about Dawkins’ criticism of Gould’s exposition of “non-overlapping magisteria” or NOMA for short. S. J. Gould wrote an essay on the topic which is fairly well know. Here are a few quotes taken from it:

“…each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’).”

“The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.”

“This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man’s land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult. To cite just two broad questions involving both evolutionary facts and moral arguments: Since evolution made us the only earthly creatures with advanced consciousness, what responsibilities are so entailed for our relations with other species? What do our genealogical ties with other organisms imply about the meaning of human life?”

“I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectua] grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.”

Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22; Reprinted here with permission from Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, New York: Harmony Books, 1998, pp. 269-283.

Dawkins will have none of this. He devotes a section of Chapter 2 of The God delusion to criticizing the very idea of NOMA. Here is a typically Dawkinsian passage:

“The very idea is a joke. You can bet your boots that the scientific evidence, if any were to turn up, would be seized upon and trumpeted to the skies. NOMA is popular only because there is no
evidence to favour the God Hypothesis. The moment there was the smallest suggestion of any evidence in favour of religious belief,
religious apologists would lose no time in throwing NOMA out of the window. Sophisticated theologians aside (and even they are
happy to tell miracle stories to the unsophisticated in order to swell congregations), I suspect that alleged miracles provide the
strongest reason many believers have for their faith; and miracles, by definition, violate the principles of science.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Chapter 2

Dawkins goes on for several pages in this vein, but the only reason I cite Dawkins here is that he represents the antithesis of the NOMA position outlined by Gould. What interests me in this debate between Gould and Dawkins is that the NOMA and anti-NOMA positions do not exhaustively divide the field of opinion.

In fact, however heretical to the orthodox, I think that one of the most prevalent views held today in industrialized Western nation-states is the antithesis of both Gould and Dawkins. I propose to call this position COMA, which should be understood to stand for COinciding MAgisteria.

It is difficult for me to give a good formulation of COMA, partly because the idea, while ancient, is new to me, and it is not my own position. So I have no definitive formulation. I will rely upon my reader’s sympathy and indulgence to provide what I leave out in my account of COMA.

COMA is simply this: that religion and science are simply alternative formulations of one and the same truth. The dogmatically religious insist upon putting everything in religious terms and denying the contributions of science, while the dogmatically scientific insist upon putting everything in scientific terms and denying the contributions of religion, but ultimately there is only one truth of the world, which is studied from the varying perspectives of science and religion (inter alia).

I have had many people say things like this to me personally. While I can’t cite any locus classicus, but I’m sure that someone, somewhere, has written down this obvious point of view.

I will go further, however, and state that even among NOMA, anti-NOMA, COMA, and whatever anti-COMA might be, that these positions still do not exhaust the field of opinion. What lies beyond NOMA and COMA? Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s conception of family resemblances takes another step with possible magisteria, which is that step beyond either wholly overlapping (as with COMA) or being mutually exclusive (as with NOMA), such that that magisteria may intersect (which Anscombe translates as “criss-cross”). I’m sure you get the idea. Gould and Dawkins, NOMA and SOMA, present regions of thought as spatial areas (much as Frege does in his exposition of tertium non datur in the Foundations of Arithmetic). Well, concepts as we usually find them in the real world only present these kind of ideal boundaries in the abstract. In actual fact, the boundaries of a given concept interpenetrate related concepts, often to the point that it is difficult to distinguish them. This, I think — family resemblances that overlap and intersect — is the proper way to understand the relationship between religious and scientific concepts.

Though I will, again, go one step further. I mention in my “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” paper that Wittgenstein has left an item off the relationships of family resemblance: conflict. The individual variation that both lies at the basis of natural selection and which gives each of us our unique features, is that element of conflict in family resemblance, which is never total or absolute.

Despite all the talk about so-called “militant atheists” like Dawkins (and Dennett, and others), it has in fact become quite trendy to downplay the conflict between science and religion. I listened to a set of lectures from The Teaching Company, Science and Religion — a pure exemplification of the spirit of revisionist history — in which the lecturer, Professor Lawrence M. Principe, Ph.D., ridicules what he calls the “The Warfare Thesis” and attempts to show that, because many eminent scientists were in fact deeply pious and religious, there really hasn’t been any conflict between science and religion. While I enjoyed the lectures, I didn’t agree with them, and this was one of those clear-cut cases in which historical revisionism seems to be carried to its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

But this is merely an aside in the point I wish to make today, and that point is that NOMA is really not all that common a view, that COMA is probably more prevalent, but that neither NOMA or COMA sufficiently capture the relations between science and religion, which might better be described in terms of Wittgensteinian family resemblances. Not that science and religion resemble each other, but that their relations are like the relations that hold between things that do resemble each other. This is an obviously imperfect exposition. Perhaps with time I can frame my point with greater clarity.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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