Analytical Philosophy, Worldview Holism and Making Sense of It All

Analytical philosophy is great. I am an analytic philosopher myself.

But it also tends to “kill by dissecting”. What has been cut at its joints needs to be reassembled in order to become alive again.

Analysis has its etymological roots in ancient Greek: ana– is the prefix for “up, back, throughout”, and lysis comes from lyein “to unfasten”. In fact, one meaning of the corresponding verb analyein was the loosing of a ship from its moorings.

This is what all analysis does: it cuts something into small bits, or unfastens it from its natural context, in order to study it in detail. Analytic philosophers do this with concepts. The reward is great terminological accuracy, a relatively undogmatic pursuit of truth unimpaired by adherence to specific schools (though I must slightly correct that shortly).

For example, a sharp conceptual distinction between what he calls the ‘phenomenal’ concept (the experiential side, the ‘what it’s like’) and the ‘psychological’ concept (the functions of mind in terms of how behavior is explained) of mind has led David Chalmers to make his groundbreaking case that phenomenal consciousness is distinct from all mental functions[1], such that if one could locate all psychological functions in the brain, one would still not have explained (phenomenal) consciousness. His conclusion: consciousness is non-physical.

Analytical arguments can lead one even further, to the conclusion that consciousness is the capacity of a veritable immaterial entity, the soul[2]. Here, an important theme in both philosophy and science gains center stage: explanatory power, which is always accompanied by its shadow twin, ontological parsimony. Both are (presumably) reigned by the principle of Ockham’s razor: never multiply entities beyond what is necessary for explanation.

Let us try to make sense of the world, for this is philosophy’s most noble task.

The assumption of souls explains many things materialism has so far blatantly failed to explain: not only why we are conscious, but also why our consciousness is unified (and not split into different consciousnesses for sight, hearing, logical thinking, emotions…), and why we remain the same persons over time although our bodies (and perhaps even our psychology) change (sometimes dramatically). But, rejoins the adversary, according to Ockham’s razor we should do with less entities; scrap souls from the ontological furniture, do only with matter, or perhaps matter plus mental properties, but please no immaterial souls. Further, he asks, where do souls come from? How is it ensured that my soul is paired with my body? And if I am a totally immaterial soul, how can I get in contact with the material world, and the material world with me?

Arguments go back and forth, are refined, and distinctions made ever sharper. The analytical scalpel cuts and cuts.

But finally there is something like an impasse. Some say souls emerge from brains, no divine interaction needed. Fine, but have we ever seen such a thing happening? Or take the claim that my soul (‘I’) can directly cause actions of my body. This seems a most common and straightforward thing, but doesn’t it violate the laws of nature, since those have no room for immaterial causes (how do you integrate a soulish influence in a differential equation?). Apart from that, there are crucial questions concerning the meaning of life that seem to be sneeringly dismissed as ‘folk philosophy’ by the over-zealous analysts: am I genuinely free? (Important for moral responsibility). Am I really the little ‘prime mover’ I’ve always perceived myself to be? (Important for how proactively I can shape my life). Can my self survive death? (Important for everything in life).

This is unsatisfactory. We have a good theory, that admittedly faces some objections, which can be answered, but ultimately the doubt remains: if no God can be invoked, should we not better razor down souls from our ontology to avoid all those difficulties?

God is often regarded (just as souls) as an ad hoc hypothesis. Meaning: it is only brought in to solve an otherwise intractable problem. But this is depiction is unfair and incorrect. For a theist, God is and always has been the starting point of all inquiry, indeed of all thinking. As C.S. Lewis said: “I believe in Christianity (we could replace this by ‘God’) as I believe in the sun: not only because he I see it, but because through it (him) I see everything else.” And once one allows God into the picture, things begin to fall into place. Souls are created by him and joined to bodies, which, again due to his ingenuity, form functional unions with them.

I therefore plead for what I call ‘worldview holism’: let us allow basic worldview tenets like the existence of God, or for that matter, his non-existence, into the debate as assumptions which do not need to be further argued (while clearly, the latter nowadays hardly stands in need of such affirmation). Let us continue our analyses, but let us not lose sight of the big questions, and ask which total worldview answers them best. Let us try to make sense of the world, for this is philosophy’s most noble task.

[1] Chalmers, David (1996): The Conscious Mind.

[2] Very thorough argumentations to this effect can be found for example in Charles Taliaferro, Consciousness and the Mind of God (1994) and Richard Swinburne, Mind, Brain and Free Will (2013).

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