Dualism And The Self

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The theological demand that we do not lose sight of personal resurrection again raises the question of dualism. Is it inevitable that we hold that there is a fundamental distinction in human beings between the mortal and the immortal, the fleshly and the spiritual, the material and the immaterial? Whilst forms of dualism, of the separation of the mind and the body, are consistent with Christianity, are we driven to conclude that theology demands some form of philosophical dualism? As a matter of historical fact it has not, but once materialism is rejected, it may seem as if dualism is the only alternative. This is a matter of vexed philosophical debate, and the onward march of science, with its success in uncovering the functions of parts of the brain, has led many to assume that science will one day be able to explain everything about the human personality. Clearly one risk is that if Christianity is too explicitly dualist, it may seem to be laying itself open to disproof by scientific discovery. Yet whatever the connection between mental events and physical ones, between consciousness and brain processes, it should be clear that Christianity lays stress on the notion of the self, as a responsible and rational agent, able to take moral decisions and be accountable for them. This suggests a continuing subject of experience, which is not reducible to a collection of experiences (or a bundle of perceptions as the eighteenth-century empiricist, David Hume, would have it) nor to an ensemble of brain processes. The idea of a metaphysical self, the continuing subject, appears central to a Christian idea of the individual. If there were no such self, it seems difficult to attribute moral freedom or any form of rationality to a human being. Science cannot make sense of such a notion, and it is not surprising that empiricist philosophy is dismissive of it. How could we ever experience ourselves as the subjects of experience? Hume complained that he could never observe anything but the perception. Yet if the self is purely subjective, it could not convert itself into an object. It could never catch itself discovering itself.

It is also curious to expect physical science to pin the self down, since science is the product of scientists who are themselves rational subjects making judgements about truth. Any attempt to suggest that the self is just a series of events in the brain fails to do justice to the unity of the person, and fails to take account of the fact that science itself depends on a reason which cannot be identified with physical processes. This very process of identification assumes the existence of the rationality and ability to recognize truth which are explicitly explained away by a reductionist strategy.

The idea of a self which cannot be identified with any part of the physical world is ruled out by scientific methodology. Yet it also appears to be presupposed by the same methodology (Trigg 1993). Reasoning towards truth is an ability possessed by subjects and not brains. Modern science, however, tends to refuse to admit that there are limits to its own capabilities. Richard Rorty (1991:176) refers to the picture of the self 'common to Greek metaphysics, Christian theology, and Enlightenment rationalism'. For him it is the picture 'of an ahistorical natural center, the locus of human dignity, surrounded by an adventitious and inessential periphery'. The picture is, philosophically speaking, an essentialist one, and it is easy to make links between this philosophical conception and religious views of the soul as the continuing essence of what makes each individual what he or she really is. Those who attack such notions do so very often with an explicitly atheist agenda. For Rorty, the self has to be 'de-divinized' (Rorty 1989:30). Even our moral conscience must be simply traced back to its origins in the contingencies of our upbringing. The self is seen as the human counterpart of God. Indeed, our reason and moral understanding reflect, however imperfectly, his nature, and if the one is to be rejected so is the other. Even radical theologians have been ready to embrace this way of thinking. Don Cupitt (1990:188) rejects the idea of the 'human subject as a metaphysical subject, a rational soul more or less prior to and independent of history and the body'. Instead he is willing to embrace what he terms 'nihilism' according to which 'everything is under judgement', including, he thinks, whatever standards of judgement we use. We have to recognize that we are continually reinventing ourselves. Who 'we' are is a fiction. As Dan Dennett writes in another context, considering the nature of consciousness (Dennett 1991:418): 'Our tales are spun, but for the most part we don't spin them: they spin us. Our human consciousness, and our narrative selfhood is their product, not their source.'

The self, consciousness, rationality, moral understanding and free will are all linked in a way that means that an attack on one can easily become an attack on them all. It is not just a question of how we are to be identified with our bodies. The basic question is always who 'we' are. Can I abstract myself from my physical and social surroundings in such a way that I can reason about them and thereby exist as more than their product? Is the very notion of a self a fiction? If the question is posed in this way there is an obvious incoherence. Who are the people making the fictions, or even asking whether they are fictions? If the fiction makes us, it has to be accepted that the concept of a self precedes us and our thinking of ourselves. It is perhaps embedded in the language we use. Yet this only poses the problem as to the origin of that language.

Once the idea of the self is attacked from whatever source, the whole project of metaphysics is at risk. The metaphysical self may be anathema to empiricists in particular, but it is also attacked by anyone who wishes to undermine a metaphysical vision of the world. It is no coincidence that Nietzsche and his followers are as antagonistic to any idea of a self as they are to the concept of God. Not only are both metaphysical, it can be argued that each is the corollary of the other. Don Cupitt correctly sees (1990:150) that a 'conception of the self as a more-or-less free-standing and self-mastering spiritual subject is by no means a modern aberration'. He accepts that it did not begin with the dualism of Descartes, but was always closely linked to theological tradition. He says:

For God was seen as a self-founding Creator-Subject who generates both reality and his own knowledge of it, and the human self was regarded as having been made by

God in his own image. The self was from the first a little counterpart of God.

It is possible to dispense in the short term with God and to concentrate on the abilities of the self. The Enlightenment tradition, with its own exaltation of human reason, did this. Yet because the self was properly at home in a theological context, it is not surprising that the cult of the rational atheist self was always likely to collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions. A self granted the absolute freedom of a god but without any external standards by which to be guided may seem magnificently free. In reality, as existentialists discovered, the gift of such absolute freedom carries with it the threat of an ultimate lack of purpose and of meaning. Total creativity can imply that it does not matter what one does, and in turn that nothing matters. An attack on the possibility of a self which is able to rise above the constraints laid on it, can ultimately involve an attack on the possibility of rationality. If we are simply the creatures of our environment, we will be caused to believe certain things, view them in a particular way, and have a particular conceptual scheme. Only if we are able to transcend, however imperfectly, our immediate surroundings, and apprehend, however dimly, what is true, will we be able to reason. Yet it is commonly believed that human beings do not possess this kind of free-floating rationality. Contemporary science of various kinds is often very quick to produce views about human nature which explicitly deny the possibility of genuine reason. As has already been remarked, this is a high-risk strategy for a human activity which seems itself to involve the exercise of reason. Science can, if it is not very careful, find itself removing the conditions of its own possibility.

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