Gerald asked:

Is the soul in the body or the body in the soul?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The alternative you pose does not cover all the possibilities. The third option one has to consider (there may be more) is that there is no such thing as ‘soul’, only body.

However, for the sake of this question I will assume that we are not considering materialism as an alternative.

‘Soul in the body’ looks like dualism of the Cartesian variety. However, Descartes was quite explicit that what he termed ‘mental substance’ has none of the properties of ‘material substance’. In order to be located ‘in’ your body, your soul would have to possess the property of location in space. This cannot be, according to Descartes.

He is in fact scathing in his dismissal of the popular idea of the soul as ‘a breath of wind, a vapour’. The nearest equivalent to this idea is the Spiritualist notion of ‘ectoplasm’. You might have seen the black and white or sepia toned photographs of semi-transparent ‘sheets’ coming out of a human body. (Back then photography was a new science and the more gullible public were not aware of the possibility of tricks using double exposure.)

Prior to a proof of the existence of God who is ‘not a deceiver’, it is conceivable, Descartes says, that there might be no such thing as material substance. What appears as a ‘material world’ could just be a coherent dream produced by an ‘evil demon’. However, as there is a God, we can rest assured that what appears as a ‘material world’ really is so.

The Cartesian view would be that the experience of of my being located in this body, looking through these eyes, etc. is the result of interaction between my non-located mental substance (soul) and my material body. The locus of interaction, Descartes believed for obscure reasons, was the pineal gland.

What about the alternative, ‘body in the soul’? At first sight this looks nonsensical, but if we discard the notion of physical location, this perfectly fits the Berkeleian idealist theory of the soul as a ‘finite spirit’, taking in ‘ideas’ of material objects including the body, all contained in the one ‘infinite spirit’ or God.

Berkeley would say that, logically, there is nothing even an all-powerful God can do to ‘create’ a ‘real material world’, in addition to our reliable experience of being embodied and living in a world of material things. The very notion of ‘matter’ in the Cartesian sense is nonsensical.

According to Berkeley, God creates the idea of ‘my body’ as an ‘archetype’, while the ‘ectype’ or partial copy of that idea is contained in my conscious mind, along with ideas of all the other material objects in my environment. (The nearest analogy would be a 3-D computer game, where the subject exploring the virtual world — pursuing or being pursued by aliens, for example — is depicted on the screen either from the first-person or third-person point of view.)

So, who is it to be, Descartes or Berkeley?

If you are inclined to consider Occam’s Razor as relevant to metaphysics, then it does seem that Descartes’ ‘material substance’ has no meaningful role to play, other than as a guarantor that our ‘dream of a material world’ will continue sufficiently reliably to allow for the pursuit of science. The laws of nature will not change. We do not need to worry about ‘waking up’.

In response, Descartes would say that a Berkeleian world is one of perpetual deception. Why would God make us believe in the existence of matter, when in reality there is no such thing? Then again, wasn’t it Descartes himself who said that it was up to us to use our powers of judgement responsibly? And isn’t that precisely the point Berkeley wanted to make — that responsible reflection on the popular or philosophical (e.g. Lockean) notion of ‘matter’ shows that the very idea of such a thing is non-functional, a spinning wheel, otiose?

— If you believe in a ‘soul’, of course.