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At some point in our evolutionary history, pre-humans made an important leap in cognitive ability.  We moved from first order contemplation to second order.  That is, we went from thinking to thinking about thinking.   Before this leap, we were not very much different than most of the animals we’re familiar with — dogs, cats, horses.  We know they can think, and they are often very good at solving problems, but it’s pretty obvious that they don’t have the ability to think about the way they solve problems.

My cat gets upset with me because I don’t change his water until he drinks what he has.  He prefers fresh cold water out of the refrigerator to water that’s been in his bowl for a day or two.  Several months ago, he took a good look at a glass of water I had set on the coffee table.  He recognized it as water, but found that he couldn’t get at it because his head is too big.  Within a few minutes, he’d figured out that tipping the glass over put a nice puddle of fresh water on the ground that he could lick up at his leisure.  As a result, I now have to either finish my water completely within a few minutes, or drink from a sealable bottle.

In my cat’s brain, there are objects and actions.  He recognizes water when he sees it.  He knows there is water in the sink, in the toilet, in his bowl, and in my glass.  He experiences desire for water, and acts upon it, by walking to his bowl or searching out a glass I’ve left unattended.  That’s pretty much the extent of it though.  He never spends time thinking about how or why he craves water, or how or why he goes about getting it.  He just thinks and acts.

Pre-humans were like this at one time.  Then we made the leap.  Unfortunately, when we made the leap, the scientific method, philosophy, logic, and empiricism were tens of thousands of years away.  We were the only animal that had ever been able to think in this new way, and natural selection didn’t provide us with a user’s manual for our new ability.

In all of our experience as first order thinkers, we had only known objects and actions.  We couldn’t think about “two” or “forever” or “greed.”  We knew “gorilla” and “run.”  We saw problems, and we solved them, but we didn’t think about how or why we solved them.  We just acted on our thoughts without thinking about them.

Then, when we made the leap, we suddenly realized that there was a lot more to existence than what we had known before.  We looked at other people and thought about them thinking, and thought about ourselves thinking, and noticed that even though other people were…. people… they weren’t us.  Each person, in fact, was unique.  They were recognizable not only by their face and body, but by the way they think. We could predict how other humans would act based not only on some vague notion of how all humans act, but how each specific human had acted in the past.  Because of our newfound ability to think about thinking, we asked… why?

Our caveman brains struggled for an answer.  Clearly, humans are something completely different from gorillas or tigers or running.  Each human is unique, yet all humans are the same.  This was a huge puzzle, and we simply did not have the philosophical framework to find the answer.   Given the choice between “human” being more like “run” or “rock” we chose rock.  That is, we decided that human-ness was an object, not an action.

If human-ness was an object, what kind of object was it?  We couldn’t see it, or taste it, or hear it, yet every human has it.  When a human died, he was not a human anymore.  The human-ness had left him.  So man searched for the thing that makes humans humans, and after doing as much research as cavemen could do, he came to the only conclusion possible — Human-ness was something invisible that lives in the bodies of humans, and escapes the body upon death.

And that is where we stand today.  We have created layers of intricacy, complexity, and philosophical pretzel twisting, but at its core, the concept of a soul is the same today as it has always been.  A soul is what makes us human, and it is an existing “thing” in the universe.

Unfortunately, when we discovered the scientific method and empiricism, it soon became obvious that the soul is not measurable in the ordinary way, so rather than drop the idea that it was an object, we invented another kind of object — a “supernatural object” — which is defined as not being measurable in the ordinary way.  (Talk about circular logic!)

Apologists have written voluminous defences of the ontological validity of the supernatural, but they have never crossed the simple hurdle of creating a universe of discourse.  They have never been able to say what the supernatural is without borrowing or comparing with the natural.   The answer is shockingly simple, of course.  The “soul” as a “thing” is simply a category error. “Soul” is a fancy word for “human-ness,” and human-ness is a process, not a thing.



5 thoughts on “Spirits

  1. That reminds me of a certain apologist we came to know a few weeks ago; he seems to find it necessary to believe that “maleness” and “femaleness” have some kind of actual metaphysical existence, apart from the body. Perhaps, once you start misattributing properties and processes to “supernatural objects,” you must continue, for the sake of consistency.

    Posted by Ian | December 8, 2010, 10:05 pm
  2. Hamby-dammit, how could you do that man……. Why did I get blocked on FB??

    Posted by achilles308 | December 8, 2010, 10:39 pm
  3. You cat story brought up memories of a cat I once had. She had figured out how to open every single door in the house. She knew if she was on one side of the door, she had to push, and on the other side, to pull. She even knew how to open my patio door sideways. This was a cat that I had gotten just a few days old, so she learned all that on her own.

    Thanks for the memories.

    Posted by LM | December 9, 2010, 12:40 pm
  4. I’m not too happy with the “supernatural as not measurable” definition. When most people use the term “supernatural” they are referring to a metaphysical property, while something being measurable is an epistemological distinction.

    Furthermore, several metaphysically natural things were not measurable at one point (e.g., temperature) and now are, and some are currently not measurable, but we have observations and other experiments that make their existence likely (e.g., various mechanisms for quantum phenomena).

    On the supernatural side, things like Harry Potter magic, the Force from star wars, and some god concepts would have detectable and measurable effects on our universe. If you asked the average ghost hunter if ghosts were supernatural, they’d answer “yes”. If you followed that up by asking, so you mean they aren’t measurable, they’d probably look at you blankly or point to their sack of tools for “measuring” ghosts.

    I’ve seen many skeptics attempt a definition at supernatural that are positive and without reference to epistemological claims. I tihnk Carrier’s is the best I’ve seen that gets to the heart of what people mean:

    I’m not completely satisfied with the positive definition, but I don’t know why. He makes a convincing case for not treating the supernatural as the “untestable” though and why our definitions in philosophical discourse should at the very least be related to the common usage of the term.

    Posted by mkandefer | December 9, 2010, 3:06 pm
  5. LM, my cat still hasn’t figured out doors. He pulls on both sides. But he has learned that by scratching loudly on my bedroom door and yowling at the top of his lungs, he can wake me up and piss me off enough that I’ll get up and let him in or out, whichever it is he’s craving at the moment. I’m still trying to figure out a way around this learned behavior.

    Posted by hambydammit | December 9, 2010, 5:33 pm

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