This post hearkens back to a post I wrote a few weeks ago (before I got a bit lost in election week madness…) suggesting that the presence of rational thought as a mechanism of mediation between things in themselves and our understanding of the world might inherently give rise to a kind of dualism. When I wrote that post I confessed that I had not thought through most of the implications of what that suggestion might entail. In this post I want to consider one of those implications.
The implication I want to consider has to do with what happens when we apply the subject/object distinction suggested by the mediation of rational thought to our own bodily existence.
Here is what I mean:
In the earlier post I argued that our rational or cognitive processes constantly impose a distinction between objects out there and me. The computer I’m typing on I perceive as being not me (even if we argued that my perception of the computer is actually arising from my own cognitive processes, its still a perception of an object distinct from myself). This division between myself as a perceiving subject and the objects of my perception is what I suggested was a form of dualism inherent to rational thought.
So what happens if we apply this subject-object dualism to our own existence? In particular, what happens if we examine our own bodies from this perspective?
One of the many things we perceive when we observe our own bodies is that they are constantly changing. I am getting older, as much as I try to deny it. When I don’t trim up my beard for a few days it consistently gets scragglier. No matter what I do to my hair in the morning, every time I pass a mirror it looks remarkably different (and generally worse) than it did before.
And yet, in contrast to this experience of my body as perpetually changing, my conscious experience doesn’t suggest that I am changing (at least not much). I (as in my own conscious self-perception) feel pretty similar from one day to the next. My memories and my conscious experiences suggest that I am a continuous, relatively constant, being, no matter how much I have actually changed in the course of my life.
So what do I make of this distinction between the physical observation of my body and my self-perception as a conscious being? Well, given the subject-object dualism we (by which I mostly mean Kant) have proposed, we might suggest that my body and my conscious self appear to be different entities. My body appears as an object perceived by my perceiving self, not a part of my perceiving self.
It seems to me that just such a dualism as this gives rise to the idea of an eternal soul.
Now this post is not meant to critique the idea of an eternal soul, to suggest eternal souls exist or don’t exist, to claim they are pure fantasy or argue form conscious experience that an eternal soul is foundational reality.
Instead, what I am working out here is merely what the genesis of the idea of the soul might be, what it is in our experience that even makes us believe that we posses a soul. My suggestion is that the idea arrises from our own conscious experience of the subject-object divide as we apply it to ourselves.
What is interesting (which I have hinted at already in this post), is that to a large extent our conscious self-perception of being a constant, relatively unchanging being is false. Who I am now is a drastically different person than who I was when I graduated high school (or college, even). Certainly who I am today would probably be unrecognizable to the five year old version of me.
In a later post I’ll work more on what I think the implications of this discrepancy are, but for now I’d love to hear what others think…
Is the genesis of the soul account that I have given a good one?
What, if anything, does the discrepancy between our conscious self-perception and the actual changes in our self-nature mean for the idea of the soul as we have described it?
- Evolution vs. Dualism (dontfeedtheanimals.net)
- Sloppy Dualism Denies Free Will? (scientopia.org)
2 thoughts on “Subject/Object Dualism and the Genesis of the Soul”
It seems reasonable. I’m not sure our subjectivity, and so our perceived identity, isn’t just a convenient fiction, though. I’m not advocating a “bundle theory” with that statement – I think there is something to us, it’s just entirely relevant to our sense data. I suspect we don’t have pure, subjective experience because our mind is prepared to experience what it does on the basis of previous experience and inborn receptivity. It’s likely a phantom consciousness people like David Chalmers are chasing, which would explain why it always seems to lead them to some version of pan-psychism which, if you think about it is not a place far from animism, where everything has a soul. Trouble is, we are so close to the subject that we can’t get a good enough look at it, so we’ll probably never be able to say for sure.