Charles Cowling

 

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

 

Doubt: a short, meaning-packed, medieval, Anglo-French word (origin douter) which I doubt many foreigners could pronounce if only seen in written form. Adapted as a verb, noun, adjective and adverb (to doubt, a doubt/doubter, doubtable, doubtably) it, of course, means to be uncertain, consider questionable, hesitate to believe.

None of us being omniscient, we all have doubts about a lot of things from life choices (relationships, jobs, homes) to metaphysical ideas. ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,’ said Soren Kierkegaard.

And if physical reality is unpredictable and error-prone, then existential meaning is unknowable. Faith—another short, meaning-rich word—is belief that doesn’t rest on material evidence. Even Richard Dawkins concedes, as a scientist, that he’s effectively agnostic as he cannot logically prove beyond doubt that atheism is true.

Philosophers have divided us into physicalists and dualists. The former claim we’re just a body, with the brain being the sophisticated organ that makes us a ‘person’ capable of complex thought, emotion and action. If we’re shot in the heart, our brain dies—we continue to be a body but cease to be a person. Just as a smile is created by muscle reflexes moving our lips to reveal our teeth, a mind, which gives us our unique persona, is an abstract term to describe the brain function’s cause and effect.

Dualism is an older school of thought that’s been developed in various forms by philosophers from Plato and Descartes to the Bhuddist teacher Dharmakirti. Putting aside the separate yin-and-yang, good-and-evil deliberations, dualism, in simple terms, separates mind from matter. It gives birth to an immaterial soul which, like a smile, mind, persona or self, is distinct from the body, although somehow interacting with the brain.

Though increasingly unfashionable among secular academics, modern agnostic and religious thinkers continue to argue that the gap between objective and subjective experience cannot be bridged by reductionism because consciousness is autonomous of physical properties. Philosopher Frank Jackson talks of a non-corporeal form of reality, and claims that functions of the mind/soul are so internal they cannot be observed by science. In comparison, we can know about a bat’s echolocation facility but we can’t know how the bat experiences it because it’s not a physical fact but a conscious one.

We can only have unscholarly hunches about whether or not we have souls, and indeed the nature of our souls. A shaman might believe he has a ‘free-soul’ that can undertake spiritual journeys. Others see the difference between soul and mind as mere semantics, and doubt a ‘soul’ has life beyond the body, let alone eternal life with its Creator/Saviour.

‘It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey,’ said Kierkegaard. He also said: ‘If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe’.

Religion as man-made psychological crutch for weak mortals, say the Freudians. And while we’re at it, why does this so-called God not make his loving presence evident in this world full of misery? But if, like God, our souls are not tangible things, surely it’s down to us to recognise we do not live by bread alone in order to develop an attitude capable of providing bread for all.

 

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Jenny Uzzell
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Jonathan, it is precisely because of this that good quality RE is so important. It gives people that vocabulary, space and critical awareness to discuss the whole spectrum and formulate opinions such as the one you have expressed which is fair enough. (God, like soul, is a word we throw around with the assumption that it means the same, or even similar things to everyone who uses it. It doesn’t). i am not, you understand, talking about the ‘scripture lessons’ that you were no doubt exposed to as a child. Whilst I am grateful for these in so far as… Read more »

Evelyn
Guest

AAAAaaaaTISHoo – TIL – Thing I learned today (actually this should be Thing I READ today as I’m not convinced I’ve learned it yet) Epiphenomenalism is the view that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events. Behavior is caused by muscles that contract upon receiving neural impulses, and neural impulses are generated by input from other neurons or from sense organs. On the epiphenomenalist view, mental events play no causal role in this process. Huxley (1874), who held the view, compared mental events to a steam whistle that contributes… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Jenny, belated reply. Your scholarly words at the top of this thread add new layers to the original post, some of which (for example, epiphenominalism) I left out only in order to keep copy brief(ish). You’ve effectively produced Part II offering greater depth. I also do wish you’d say more about the ‘thorny issue’ of animal consciousness…!
Also like:
Atheish
Ain’t what you do but the way that you do it (inspired me to revisit the video on youtube!)
and..
Making sense of things doesn’t make sense…

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

‘Thorny issue of animal consciousness’ commented on elsewhere 🙂 I do think that the dualist materialist dichotomy is too simplistic. One possibility (which I have a lot of time for although I am not fully convinced) is that the ‘soul’ (by which, in this context, I mean a personal consciousness that can survive bodily death) is not utterly separate from the body, at least initially. It is contingent upon the physical brain although it is not identical with it (this is what I mean, I think, by saying that we are ‘more than the sum of our parts’. There has… Read more »

Charles
Guest
Charles

Yes, it does. That shirt says it all. Brilliant.

Evelyn
Guest

I saw a tea shirt once that bore one word: “atheish”
does that help?

Belinda Forbes
Guest
Belinda Forbes

I want one! The more I find out about religion, the less I know. When it comes to spiritual matters, I believe in the wise words of Fun Boy 3 and Bananarama: it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it.

Charles
Guest
Charles

That is a deceptively wise statement. It is a complete belief system.

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

When I left my last school my sixth form got me a T shirt that said ‘Mind the Epistomological Gap’
I absolutely love it.
They also made me a cartoon book featuring ‘Kant the superhero’.
Sometimes I really miss them.

Charles
Guest
Charles

I have this feeling that the human passion for naming things works well with things but falls short when applied to the abstract. Words just ain’t up to it. So I agree with Jonathan. Making sense of things doesn’t make sense.

Richard
Guest
Richard

Jonathan says: ‘I regard religion as a distraction from that, and religious commentators’ comments on God as an irrelevance. I’m not a believer, neither do I doubt; I’m not an agnostic nor an atheist, and I’m not a theist either’.

That’s absolutely fair enough. Noone is saying you have to read the irrelevant content of this blog! However, I’m always glad when you grace us with a comment.

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

I am extremely agnostic with respect to fairies (and indeed most other things) and this, I think, is where Dawkins essentially comes unstuck. He assumes its the old guy with the white beard in the sky or nothing. His version of theism is indeed, hard to defend which is why its just as well that its one that most theists don’t hold.
Which is why good quality Religious Education is so important.
You don’t want to get me started on that!

Kathryn Edwards
Guest
Kathryn Edwards

Oooh, yes we do!

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

Yes, we do, but… why should theism have to have anything whatsoever to do with religion? It’s like confusing body disposal with funerals (would that be called Cremationism?). I for one am quite happy with my own idea of god (or what I could have called ‘god’ if religion hadn’t purloined the perfectly good term for its esoteric purposes and Capitalized on it), but I regard religion as a distraction from that, and religious commentators’ comments on God as an irrelevance. I’m not a believer, neither do I doubt; I’m not an agnostic nor an atheist, and I’m not a… Read more »

Belinda Forbes
Guest
Belinda Forbes

Not that Dawkins needs me to defend him but I think he knows that there are many many concepts of God – which is why he says we’re all atheists.

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

I don’t think I have ever heard him comment on the concept of a God who is anything other than realist, personal, and transcendent and who is in some way responsible for creation. He is pretty much stuck in a Judeo-Christian framework.

Belinda Forbes
Guest

Richard Dawkins says “There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies?”
Dawkins has a problem with the term atheist because then there would have to be an equivalent term for all the other invisible/supernatural beings he doesn’t believe in.

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

Materialism, in a functional if not an absolute sense is, of course, nearly as old as our first philosophical statement of dualism in Plato, having been developed by his pupil Aristotle who said (in effect) that while a candle is not the same thing as wax, it makes no more sense to say that you can have a ‘person’ without a body than it does to say that you can have a candle without wax. Reductionalist materialism and dualism are not, of course, the only two options ‘on the market’ as it were. I would describe myself, broadly speaking, as… Read more »