Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976)
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 Philosophy.

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 universe operated.

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 things. [1]

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. [2]

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 "emergent properties".

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.
[1] Zeno and the Tortoise, Nicholas Fearn, Atlantis Books, 2001
[2] Article in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Collier-Macmillan, 1967

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