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Owen Flanagan


Two visions of mind and how to reconcile them

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).

Many people feel impelled to resist the scientific view of what we are because it apparently threatens to destroy those human values we hold most dear. Our free will, our sense of self, and our intuitions of right and wrong all seem to be under attack. It is particularly Darwinian ideas that are perceived in this way, since they are often taken to imply that human beings are not fundamentally different from other animals.

Christianity has always taught that we are, in fact, different from animals, but it is not only critics from the religious standpoint who believe this; so, too, do a number of humanists. Flanagan, however, thinks that they are wrong to do so. Nothing important is lost, he says, if we face up to the full implications of Darwinism for our understanding of our own nature. In accepting these implications he resembles another philosopher, John Gray (see his recent book Straw Dogs), but Flanagan's conclusions are considerably less depressing than Gray's.

As the subtitle of the book implies, Flanagan distinguishes between two "images" of the human being, which he labels the humanistic and the scientific. His use of "humanism" in this context is somewhat idiosyncratic; he takes it to refer to the claim that we are spiritual beings endowed with free will.

Probably many who think of themselves as humanists would not wish to be saddled with the notion of soul, which is generally found only in a religious context; but Flanagan uses it as a convenient shorthand to refer a cluster of philosophical concepts: a non-physical mind, free will, and a permanent self. None of this, he thinks, is compatible with the scientific image, which is the one he favours, but he finds that there has been no attempt on the part of advocates of the scientific image to show how it can find room for important human values.

This is what he seeks to do here. He insists that we are animal through and through and that the brain is our soul. However, this is not such bad news as many suppose: most of what we value is still there. We still have consciousness, love, friendship, and morality. All that disappears is certain fictions about things that never existed in the first place.

As this outline will show, Flanagan is not afraid to tackle the Big Questions; in fact, he criticizes most modern philosophy for failing to do this. In the space of less than 400 pages he manages to cover the mind-body problem, free will, personal identity, and ethics; quite an achievement.

The free will question is at the heart of his discussion and it therefore gets a chapter to itself. It is of course an ancient and intractable philosophical conundrum; Flanagan does not so much solve it as claim that it is usually badly posed. We should "[s]top talking about free will and determinism and talk instead about whether and how we can make sense of 'deliberation', 'choice', 'reasoning', 'agency', and 'accountability' … within the space allowed by the scientific image of minds." It makes no sense to talk about freedom of the will not conditioned by any cause. We are part of the universe and it is subject to cause and effect, but we can make sense of rational deliberation and choice in a causal universe.

Flanagan makes an interesting connection between the mistaken notion of a totally free will, unconstrained by any prior causes, and Christian theism. Thomas Aquinas, he says, took up Aristotle's idea of the Unmoved Mover and applied it to the Christian God, who was supposed to have created the universe without anything causing him to do so. The creation was simply a manifestation of his divine Will. Human beings are said by Christians to be made in the image of God, and the human will therefore shares in the freedom and arbitrariness of the divine Will. The soul is unconstrained. But since the soul is the brain, it cannot be free in this absolute sense; it is subject to natural laws.

If there is no non-physical soul, what about God? Here Flanagan seeks for an answer which is neither atheism nor agnosticism but is what he calls quietism. That is, he holds that we cannot say anything sensible about God, either in affirmation or denial. This position is similar to that of Buddhism, and in fact Flanagan is considerably influenced by Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism; he practises Buddhist meditation and his rejection of the notion of a permanent self is also consonant with Buddhism.

It is perhaps rather surprising that it is Tibetan Buddhism he feels most drawn to, since it is in this form of Buddhism that ideas about rebirth figure most prominently, and these are surely incompatible with his general philosophical position. One would think he would have been more at home with Theravada Buddhism or even Zen, but unfortunately he does not discuss this issue at all here (but see The Bodhisattva's Brain).

The book concludes with a fairly lengthy treatment of ethics from a naturalistic viewpoint. Science is generally said to be neutral with regard to morality; it can tell us how things are, but not how we should act. If one is not religious, this leaves ethics up in the air and seemingly arbitrary.

Flanagan, however, thinks that we can make a useful analogy between ethical inquiry and ecology. Ecology seeks to describe, explain, and predict the behaviour of what it studies, and we can see ethics in the same way; ethics inquires into the conditions that make human beings flourish. There is no need for a God to tell us how to behave; we can discover this for ourselves by considering our situation. Although Flanagan does not make the connection explicitly, this view of ethics again seems to owe something to Buddhism.

For many people today the ever-increasing torrent of scientific evidence from research in genetics, molecular biology, and brain physiology seems to face them with an unacceptable and corrosively destructive self-image. There is therefore a temptation to seek for escape in mysticism and denial. Books like this are therefore valuable in showing that the consequences of facing up to reality are not so dreadful as they may appear.

%T The Problem of the Soul
%S Two visions of mind and how to reconcile them
%A Flanagan. Owen
%I Basic Books
%C New York
%D 2002
%G ISBN 0-465-02460-2
%P xvi + 364 pp
%K philosophy
%O bibliographic essay

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