Traditional Christian teaching depends
heavily on the proposal that we are all composed of two parts - the soul
and the body. Without this dualism, it is difficult to argue coherently
that when we die we somehow survive in altered form. Gilbert Ryle exposed
the error on which traditional body/soul dualism is based.
Ryle was an academic at Oxford University all his life. His interest
in philosophy had no doubt been stimulated by his father, a medical
doctor who thought of himself as an amateur philosopher. Ryle read for
his degree at the new School of Philosophy, Politics and Economics at
Oxford's Queen's College. He later became Professor of Metaphysical
His studies covered a wide field, including the history of
philosophy, philosophical method and logic, and the philosophy of mind.
He was part of a movement in the first half of the 20th century which
considered that most philosophical problems are caused by the loose or
incorrect use of language. He and others set out to reveal what they
perceived were grammatical confusions. If in the process they eliminated
metaphysics entirely, that was not their concern.
He began his work in this field with a probing article, published in
1932, entitled Systematically Misleading Expressions. His views
ere not yet fully worked out at this stage. It was the publication in
1949 of The Concept of Mind which established him as a seminal
thinker in the area of semantic confusions.
Since Renee Descartes (1596-1650) a wide range of thinkers have
accepted the validity of an argument which proposes that mind and body
are, as it were, two separate entities. Descartes went so far as to say
that the soul is located in the pineal gland. In general, dualists such
as Descartes think that the human body works according to the same
unvarying mechanical laws by which Isaac Newton and his heirs said the
If they are correct, how is it possible for human beings to have free
will? For if we are all subject to mechanical laws, then our actions
must be merely responses to external stimuli. In the 20th century,
psychologists such as John Watson and B F Skinner attempted to
demonstrate that our choices are entirely determined by the stimuli to
which we are exposed.
The question of free will is central to Christianity. For if we don't
have the capacity to freely choose between right and wrong, we can't be
held accountable for our choices. And if we're not accountable, we can't
sin. Since Jesus is supposed to have done what is needed to remove from
us the penalties of sin, it is clear that in a deterministic world there
is no need for him or Christianity.
The more it has become difficult to maintain the operation of free
will, the more eagerly have Christian leaders turned to the traditional
doctrine of the soul (the secular equivalent of which is the mind).
Whatever forces impact the body, they say, the human soul is always free
to choose between good and evil.
Ryle is best known for the phrase he coined to explain his
conclusions. Through wrong use of language, he said, many have come to
believe in a "ghost in the machine". The human mind or soul is as unreal
as a ghost would be if were thought to be driving and directing a
machine. Those who propose a ghost in the human machine have, he said,
made a "category mistake".
A category mistake occurs when we attempt to put something into a
category which differs from its true one. Ryle gives an example: Suppose
a stranger is being conducted around a university. He is shown this
chapel and that college. "But where," he asks, "is the university?" The
question reveals a category mistake. He assumes that "university" is in
the same category as "college". Of course, the word refers to the way in
which the various components are organised, rather than to an element
which is organised.
Another example he gives is that of "team spirit". A person sees the
various tasks of a cricketing team. The bowler bowls, the batsman bats,
and the fielder fields. "But whose task is it," he wonders, "to promote
team spirit? I don't see anyone doing that."
Proposing that we humans consist of a body and a soul is to make the
same category mistake. That which we name "soul" or "mind" isn't a
separate thing at all. There is a category mistake
... because the mind, strictly speaking, is not a "thing" at all.
Rather it is a phenomenon that emerges out of an organization of
Ryle's book has been hugely influential both in philosophy and
elsewhere. As J O Urmson remarks,
The whole character of philosophical discussion of the mind has
been decisively changed, even in quarters where Ryle's conclusions are
strongly challenged, by the appearance of The Concept of Mind.
The change has not penetrated the hallowed cloisters of the Church to
the same degree, however. Christian teaching is still firmly based upon
the dualism resulting from Ryle's category mistake. This slow pace of
change is understandable. As Nicholas Fearn remarks, very few people
change a belief on the basis of grammatical error. No bishop has ever
exclaimed "Silly me!" on being told that he has made a category error by
preaching about a person's eternal soul.
On a positive note, it might be prudent for all Christian teachers to
note how Ryle's penetrating insights have been developed, both by him
and by others. In particular, I have found useful the concept of
When something reaches a certain level of complexity it can be said
to display emergent properties. Take a newspaper photograph. Looked at
closely, it comprises a large number of dots arranged in a certain
pattern. When looked at as a whole, it's possible to easily recognise
the face of a particular person's face.
The person's face is an emergent property of individual printed dots.
For if we look at only one dot, or even a fairly large number of dots,
we will not recognise it as a face - never mind that it is the face of a
particular person. Similarly, we can say that the human brain is
composed of a trillion or so cells arranged in a highly complex order.
The emergent property of the brain is what we call "mind". We do "have a
mind" (or a "soul"), but there's no point in looking for it.
Consciousness is also an emergent property of the brain's complex
arrangement. But this raises another problem. If conscious freewill is
an emergent state, then that state emerges in the last resort from an
arrangement of atoms. These are arranged in a certain pattern. It can
therefore be argued that any "decision" by the brain - say to move and
arm - is in reality merely the outcome of the arrangements of those
atoms at a particular time and place.
Philosophers call this state an "epiphenomenon" - by which they mean
a complex state resulting from a simpler, lower state. Ryle dealt with
this problem in a somewhat ambiguous way. First he repudiated that he
was in any way a philosophical behaviourist. But he then said that we
have to explain all references to the mind in terms of "witnessable
activities". It's not easy to work out how such activities can be
distinguished from observable behaviours.
May it not be possible that everything is merely an epiphenomenon of
the matter of which it is composed? The solution to this question lies
in recognising that "matter" is in fact a myth. Modern physics reduces
even atoms to "strings" of energy. At present it appears highly unlikely
that these strings will ever be directly observed. At best they will
only be strongly inferred from other, contingent observations. It may be
impossible to relate strings to any particular event. In other words,
everything we speak about is in effect an epiphenomenon. We can describe
our world only by using emergent properties.
This outcome was heralded by the philosopher John Stuart Mill. He
said that certain chemical reactions were more than the sum of each
reactant. However, today we can trace every chemical reaction down to
movements of particles within atoms. Perhaps we will one day do the same
with the electro-chemical currents of the brain. But the point is that
this need not matter very much.
Nicholas Fearn offers the case of music. All music "really" comprises
vibrations of the air. We can measure those vibrations precisely.
But does that mean that we cannot and should not talk about music as an
emergent property of those vibrations? If we did so we would reduce life
to a barren waste.
We seem to need to attribute emergent properties to phenomena in
order to make sense of our world. In the end, Ryle's "ghost in the
machine" isn't a strictly accurate way of talking about people. But just
as we have to use emergent properties to make sense of the world, so
also can we use the concepts of mind or soul - always provided that we
recognise what we're doing. And there's the rub.
 Zeno and the Tortoise, Nicholas Fearn,
Atlantis Books, 2001
 Article in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Collier-Macmillan,