You are here

Mind, Soul and Deity

2003 to 2004
University of Aberdeen

In his six Gifford Lectures, John Haldane discusses thought as it relates to mind, as it relates to nature, as it relates to the world and as it relates to Deity. Although speculative, his is not an overly abstract endeavour but an attempt to understand what it is to be a human being. What is involved in thinking truly and acting rightly? Haldane’s approach draws upon a variety of sources, philosophy being just one.

He starts out by setting up a scaffold: what the nature of philosophy is and the way it understands the world. With pop culture predominant and empirical science on the mind of the average person, Haldane points out the importance and relevance of philosophy. In addressing concrete examples, ‘what makes the sapling a decade ago and the tree of today one and the same plant’, the author helps his listener grasp complex subjects: in this case, endurance contrasted with perdurance.

One of the foundational subjects he dwells on at length is Cartesian philosophy. Haldane traces how almost all modern modes of enquiry stem from Descartes’ philosophy. There is, however, a tendency to lock solely on consciousness, as this is the locus of the main metaphysical issue between materialists and their opponents. Haldane instead focuses on the need to recognize two kinds of conceptual intentional states, propositional and objectual (x thinks that p, and x thinks of y as if f). Conceptual thought is what is most important as it relates to aspect of mind.

The question of the concept of mind is then developed at length. Haldane investigates and draws out the various facets of mind—its ability to abstract, deliberate; its degree of volition. How, though, does mind, as a rationally minded agent, relate to natural substances? Haldane discuses the various ways philosophy through history has confronted this problem. For example, premodern philosophers argued from the immateriality of the agent of an immaterial power to the subsistence of that agent as a substance independent of the body.

Haldane continues his interlocking approach with his next topic. Mind may be able to transcend matter but, as it is intimately connected with it, is rational response the end of the explanation? The author strikes a wistful note as he explains how the idea of the soul, once central to an understanding of what being human means, has been rendered redundant and relegated to psychology. Vitalism has long been abandoned by biology. But, as he relates, neither science or social science nor philosophy in the form of metaphysical reductionism appears to be capable of attending to teleological matters.

Reductive materialism is next in line to be challenged. Living entities have emerged and cannot be accounted for by simply reducing matter and material processes to some truth statement. The focus of Haldane’s treatment of reductionism is human reproduction. Again, the author uses a dialectic approach, natural theology with its antithesis in philosophy, as a way to better understand controversial issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Until this point, Haldane had been careful to confine his discussion somewhat within the boundaries of a broad philosophical account of the world and the organisms in it. Now a theological epistemology becomes apparent as he brings to the fore the question of the origin and destiny of human beings.

He points out that the metaphysical themes of God, soul and freedom remain preoccupations for some thinkers, but for the last 150 years, they have become increasingly marginal to mainstream philosophy. Philosophers no longer believe in God and have long tired of proving his non-existence. Haldane begins within traditional philosophy with his rejection of a mechanistic, deductive proof of the existence of God and instead develops his argument of a creative deity who, in an act of divine self-giving, created humanity. The existence of the world, and the possibility of humans coming to have knowledge of it, depend upon the existence of a creating, sustaining, personal God.

David Kahan
University of Glasgow