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More Than Matter?: Is There More to Life Than Molecules?


Distinguished philosopher Keith Ward here weighs in on what are perhaps the greatest metaphysical quandaries of our time: is the human mind merely an intricate mass of nerve cells and synapses, or is it something more? Are human beings simply “accidental results of millions of genetic copying-mistakes and freak accidents of nature,” or is there actually something deeper and more sublime at the heart of both material reality and human existence?

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More than Matter?

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Distinguished philosopher Keith Ward here weighs in on what are perhaps the greatest metaphysical quandaries of our time: is the human mind merely an intricate mass of nerve cells and synapses, or is it something more? Are human beings simply “accidental results of millions of genetic copying-mistakes and freak accidents of nature,” or is there actually something deeper and more sublime at the heart of both material reality and human existence?

Using philosophical and metaphysical reflections — rather than religious considerations — Ward argues, winsomely and intelligently, that human consciousness does in fact transcend our physical bodies. Moreover, he posits, the fact that we are “more than matter” not only has profound implications for our human worth but also provides clues to the nature, value, and purpose of the cosmos.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802866608
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 3/22/2011
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Keith Ward is a fellow of the British Academy, a professorial fellow of Heythrop College, London, and an Anglican priest. He is the author of more than thirty books, including The Big Questions in Science and Religion; God, Chance, and Necessity; and Why There Almost Certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Dualism, minds, and bodies: the problem stated....................9
Chapter 2 A range of philosophical views about what is really real....................21
Chapter 3 The limits of knowledge....................38
Chapter 4 Putting minds first....................52
Chapter 5 Questions of personal identity....................64
Chapter 6 The place of human minds in the cosmos....................81
Chapter 7 Dual-aspect idealism....................92
Chapter 8 Metaphysics and common-sense philosophy....................104
Chapter 9 In defence of dualism....................112
Chapter 10 Consciousness, value, and purpose....................126
Chapter 11 Thoughts and perceptions....................137
Chapter 12 Minds and moral values....................155
Chapter 13 Acting for the sake of good alone....................168
Chapter 14 The idealist view of life....................182
Chapter 15 Can we still speak of the soul?....................197
Short Bibliography....................214
Index of Subjects....................220
Index of Names....................222
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First Chapter

More than Matter?

Is There More to Life Than Molecules?
By Keith Ward

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2010 Keith Ward
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6660-8

Chapter One

Dualism, minds, and bodies: the problem stated

Gilbert Ryle was an important twentieth-century British philosopher who is famous for attacking what he called "the myth of Cartesian dualism", the myth of the "ghost in the machine". This is the "myth" that minds are different from and more than matter. But was Ryle right? And does his attack also undermine (without meaning to) belief in the unique dignity and value of human persons, which is centred on the nature of their inner experiences and responsible actions? Those are the central questions of this book.

Once upon a time, when I was studying philosophy at Oxford, my supervisor was Gilbert Ryle. He was one of Britain's outstanding philosophers in the 1950s and 60s, and I was one of his last pupils. He was also my moral tutor, though he said, "I do not know what a moral tutor is, and I hope I never have to find out." And, as far as I know, he never did.

Although not as well known as Wittgenstein these days, Ryle was extremely influential and was a kind of Oxford equivalent of Wittgenstein, holding views about philosophy that were very similar to those of the Cambridge philosopher. In a sense, this is a book about Wittgenstein as much as it is about Ryle — except that people get so emotional about different interpretations of Wittgenstein's gnomic philosophy that I have thought it better only to make rather muted claims in that area. When I was teaching philosophy in Cambridge, Professor Anscombe, who translated and edited Wittgenstein's later work and often discussed it with me, terrified me so much that I have decided that it is safer to leave discussion of Wittgenstein to acknowledged experts like the Oxford philosopher P. M. Hacker. Nevertheless, I believe that much of what I say about Ryle would apply to Wittgenstein, or at least to many popular interpretations of Wittgenstein, as well.

It is worth talking about Ryle because he was a very good and significant twentieth-century philosopher, and because he wrote the classic critique of Descartes' dualism (usually called Cartesian dualism), the view that the mind and the body are two distinct substances. Ryle originated the expression "the ghost in the machine" to describe Descartes' view, implying that the mind is a ghost (an illusion, really) wandering in the machine of the body. I strongly object to this description, though it has been very influential, and want to try to rehabilitate Descartes, at least to some extent. I want to suggest that mind and consciousness are different from, something over and above, molecules and matter, and that they are not at all ghostly. And I will argue that having such a belief is important if you put a great value on individual human experience and responsible moral action.

Ryle is particularly interesting because he rejected dualism, but he was still a humanist. He thought that you could defend human uniqueness, freedom, and responsibility without having a belief that minds are something more than matter. I do not think this is true, but examining Ryle's arguments is a good way of finding out what you really think about this issue. In fact, it will take me some time to get around to considering Ryle in detail, as there are problems that have to be cleared up first about the nature of philosophy and about differing philosophical views of the nature of reality. I will use the word "metaphysics" to mean a general view about what kinds of things are real (whether, for instance, there are minds in addition to bodies, and whether everything is determined by laws of nature or whether the will is free). Ryle had one such philosophical view, but, oddly enough, he did not think that he had.

He was certainly not a materialist, a person who thinks that everything that exists, including minds, is purely physical, so that minds are "nothing but matter". Nevertheless, his rejection of mind as a distinct substance suggests that, if you are going to have a grand metaphysical theory about what kinds of things exist, you will probably end up as some sort of materialist. And his rejection of materialism has come to seem rather implausible to philosophers like Daniel Dennett, who, as a pupil of Ryle roughly contemporary with me, is a more overt materialist. That is partly because Ryle objected to having any metaphysical theory at all and argued that such grand theories are the results of "logical howlers" or grammatical mistakes. His aim in his best-known book, The Concept of Mind, was to correct these mistakes, and rid us of the temptation to think that we could sit in an armchair, philosophize, and thereby discover the nature of reality.

In my case, he completely failed. Despite the worst (or best) he could do, I went on having metaphysical thoughts. I am still having them. I think that there is a major intellectual battle going on, especially in the West, between those who adopt a purely materialist view of human persons and those who believe that there is a distinctive reality and value about human minds, and that such minds far transcend their physical embodiments both in their nature and in their moral worth. This battle is not about a set of grammatical mistakes. It is about what it means to be human and about the distinctive importance of human personhood in our physical universe. It is a metaphysical battle, a battle about what sorts of things exist and about whether persons are distinctive sorts of things that are different from purely material things. This metaphysical battle is real.

Ryle did not hold the fact that I thought this against me. He published my first philosophical article and helped to get me my first philosophical job, in the Logic department at the University of Glasgow. I think he regarded me as a somewhat retarded example of his own early philosophical errors, and expected that I would grow out of them in time. But things have only got worse. I am more than ever convinced that the question of what it is to be a human person is the biggest intellectual question of our day.

Gilbert Ryle and common sense

Philosophy has a job to do. That job is not to provide universally agreed and incontestable answers. It is to examine questions like that of the nature of personhood as deeply as possible, taking account of many different disciplines and points of view. It may help individuals to come to an informed opinion of their own. More likely, it will help to confirm the opinion they already have — but their opinion will be more informed, more aware of its own limitations and weaknesses, and more appreciative of why other opinions exist, and of why it is so difficult to find any agreed position.

Gilbert Ryle made a major contribution to the examination of this question of what it is to be a human person, and whatever he said about metaphysics, he believed that philosophical enquiry was essential for clearing away confusions and needless obscurities. For that reason, as well as out of a sense of relief that he never had to find out what a moral tutor was, I have always valued my discussions with Ryle and have always seen him as one of my philosophical mentors. One of my prized possessions is a signed copy of The Concept of Mind. It was not a book I ever agreed with. My whole being rebelled against it from the first. But it was beautifully written. It had the peculiar property that while I was reading it I believed it. Only when I stopped reading did I know that it was wrong, but I could never quite formulate just what was wrong with it.

That, I suppose is the mark of good philosophers. They can make you believe that something is supremely reasonable for the space of half an hour, as they take you into their thought world. But, as David Hume used to say, if you put their books down and go and play backgammon, you quickly recover the ordinary beliefs you had before you read their books and wonder what came over you to make you think what they said was so reasonable.

This is a philosophy book (though I have avoided the lengthy technical discussions that are the mark and pride of the best modern philosophical work), so if it is any good it may have the same effect — it will seem convincing until you put it down, but perhaps not for much longer. I feel just the same about my own books, so it follows that I am pretty sceptical about my own philosophical conclusions. But I have to say that I am not as sceptical about my conclusions as I am about other people's conclusions, and especially about some of Gilbert Ryle's conclusions.

That is because Ryle thinks his conclusions are just ordinary common-sense conclusions, as opposed to the incoherent myth of Cartesian dualism. But I think Ryle's conclusions are not at all commonsensical. In fact, they contradict many common-sense beliefs about human persons, their minds, and their bodies.

What are these common-sense beliefs about human beings? That we are physical objects in space and time, animals that are born and die, quite quickly wearing out and decaying like most physical objects. Unlike many physical objects, we perceive, think, feel, and act to achieve goals. We have a mental life.

Nobody else, not even our closest friends, we often think, really appreciates how we feel. It often seems to us that we are constantly misunderstood and under-appreciated, and nobody else ever really knows what it is like to be us.

Further, by dint of heroic personal struggles, we make major contributions to the world. These, too, are rarely appreciated by others, who are all too ready to accuse us of dishonesty or selfishness, when we have only been trying to make the best of a very complex situation and improve life for everybody. Or that is what we all tend to think.

We also have very complicated relations with other people. They teach us our language and skills, but they often try to use or abuse us, and we have to choose our friends very carefully so that we can make our way in a largely hostile and untrustworthy world. Many secret plots and subterfuges are required if we are to acquire a position of status and authority, and if possible — it seems these days — become a celebrity whom everyone admires and imitates.

If we put all these rather gloomy and absurdly self-regarding but common-sense thoughts into philosophical language, we can say that humans have unique memories, thoughts, and feelings to which no one else has complete access. They have the power to act intentionally to achieve various purposes. And they interact with other persons who are also intentional agents with hidden feelings of their own, who are parts of a social culture which shapes the thoughts, feelings, and skills of each individual member of that culture.

I think that Ryle's picture of human persons in The Concept of Mind fails to give an adequate account of this mental life of human beings, and gives an unduly vague and incomplete account of responsible human action. However, it gives a rather good account of the social reality of persons. So it only partly fits our common-sense beliefs about human persons. And, regrettably, it has helped to demonize Descartes in recent philosophy by putting Descartes' views in a very distorted way. I still love Ryle's book and am immensely indebted to him as a teacher and philosophical role model. For a while I even smoked a pipe, as he did, thinking that this was part of being a proper philosopher. But as I grew older I gave up smoking and decided that I really preferred the views that Ryle himself had before he complicated his early common sense with anti-Cartesian philosophy and excessive pipe-smoking.

The Cartesian myth: the ghost in the machine

What about "Descartes' Myth", as Ryle terms it in chapter one of his book? It states, according to Ryle, that "minds are not in space". Further, "only I can take direct cognisance of the states ... of my own mind". And "of at least some of these episodes he [the person whose mental states they are] has direct and unchallengeable cognisance".

The thing is that I regard these as plain facts, not myths. Thoughts, feelings, sense-perceptions, mental images, dreams, recalled memories, and intentions, cannot be observed at any location in public space. The temptation these days is to say that they are in the brain. It is of course true that if the brain is not working properly, thoughts or images will not occur. But even if my brain is scanned, observers of the scan can only register the occurrence of electrical activity or enhanced blood flow in a region of my brain. They cannot observe the thought or image I am having. They cannot be directly aware of it in the way that I am.

The obvious thing to say is that thoughts can only occur in humans if brain activity occurs, and that thoughts are correlated in some way with specific sorts of brain activity. But the content of a thought — what it is about — cannot be detected by observation of physical activity in my brain. It can, however, be detected by me, though obviously not by observing my own brain and not by observing any portion of physical space.

Each of us can detect the content of a thought without observing it in space, and in a way in which no one else can detect it. It does not follow that my detection is "unchallengeable", though usually we would give an introspective report of what someone is thinking a higher authority than an observer's report of what that person is thinking. But I guess that introspective reports are as fallible as most reports. That is, they are likely to be correct in general, but not always, especially under very unusual or complex conditions (like being in a brain-scanner).

So far, as far as I am concerned, the myth is not a myth at all, but a statement of what is apprehended to be the case. Did Ryle really think that other people could observe what he was thinking when he sat in his chair smoking his pipe and frowning slightly? I at least had to wait until he spoke, and even then I wasn't always sure what he had just thought. Perhaps he wasn't sure either, but he was surely in a better position than I was to say what he was thinking. He had privileged access by introspection to his own thoughts, even when he was thinking that there was no such thing as introspection or privileged access. Yet that, it seemed to me, was a self-refuting thought to think!

Logical positivism and other people

When, after talking to Ryle for an hour, I began to wonder whether anyone had any private experiences, I would take a short walk from Magdalen College to New College to visit Professor Ayer, also in Oxford at that time, and be reassured that he at least had private experiences (which he called "sense-data"). In fact, he had hardly anything but sense-data.

Ayer was a logical positivist, which meant that he thought all factual assertions had to be verifiable by some sense-experience. Ayer had a very rigorous definition of what a sense-experience (a sense-datum) was. It had to be an immediate datum of some sense (sight, hearing, smell, taste or touch), without including any inferences or theories. So a sense-datum is something like a patch of red or a sound or a sudden smell or taste. Positivists thought that all meaningful words must refer to such data in the end, and you could verify the truth of statements by just having the appropriate sense-data. If you could not do that, words and sentences were actually meaningless. This was positivism, because it insisted that all knowledge is analysable into confrontation with bare sense-data (it is "positive", as opposed to speculative or theoretical). It was logical, because it told you what words were meaningful, and what words were not.

A funny thing about sense-data is that they seem to be essentially private. Nobody else can have my sense-data, and I cannot have theirs. In fact, persons are nothing but chains of sense-data, and these chains can never overlap or meet. So when Ayer met other people, what was really happening was that his chain of sense-data included sounds, smells, and sights that looked like the bodies of other people. But they were really just sets of sense-data, and the theory that they were other people was just a theory, a sort of shorthand to make things more convenient (so it is not really so "positive" or non-theoretical after all!). The existence of an objective physical world with other people in it was, Ayer thought, a construction out of sense-data.


Excerpted from More than Matter? by Keith Ward Copyright © 2010 by Keith Ward. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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