Soul searching… literally

By Greg Spearritt

Wandering like a lost soul in the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart recently, I encountered a library. No, not the room chock-full of completely blank books, but an actual library. Needing a break from the highly stimulating but disorienting experience of my first-time visit to MONA, I settled for a while with an intriguing book by science writer Mary Roach – Spook: Science tackles the afterlife (W.W. Norton 2005).

It turns out Mary has authored a fascinating range of books. Titles include STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; GULP: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal; PACKING FOR MARS: The Curious Science of Life in the Void; and BONK: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Her 2009 TED talk is one of the most watched ever. (Did you know dead people can have an orgasm?)

The search for the soul has a venerable history, but I didn’t know that celebrated dualist René Descartes conducted a very literal search. As Roach describes it:

Descartes is one of the few early philosopher/scientists to have physically searched for the soul, actually opened up bodies and looked for it. He eventually nominated the pea-sized pineal gland. To those who know the gland’s actual function (it regulates melatonin production), it may seem an unlikely choice. Descartes was swayed by the gland’s position at the center of the head, and by dint of its being one of the few brain structures that don’t exist in pairs. He didn’t think the ugly little gland was the soul per se; more that it was a sort of hub, a meeting point for sensory information and the flowing streams of spiritus (akin to Aristotle’s pneuma) that carried out the self’s higher functions.

All of which leads us to the equally venerable question of mind-body dualism. The widely entertained view these days is against such dualism, but it’s good to challenge orthodoxy. Philosopher Lynne Rudder Baker from the University of Massachusetts, now sadly deceased, reviewed a set of essays in 2014 arguing in favour of dualism: Contemporary Dualism: A Defense, edited by Andrea Lavazza and Howard Robinson (Routledge). Baker’s review is worth a squizz.

Disclaimer: views represented in SOFiA blog posts are entirely the view of the respective authors and in no way represent an official SOFiA position. They are intended to stimulate thought, rather than present a final word on any topic.

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash