One More Round on Original Sin, Part One

Edward Feser has posted a reply to my previous post about original sin. I shall reply in two posts, but that will be it from my side. If Feser wants to reply to these posts then he can have the last word.

The problem is this: Several lines of evidence tell us that there was never a time when the human population was exactly two. It also tells us that humanity is one endpoint of billions of years evolution by natural selection. This conflicts with religious accounts holding that Adam and Eve were created instantaneously and were the only humans on the planet at that time. Thus, if we desire harmony between modern science and traditional religion, we shall need to find a different understanding of the Adam and Eve story. Feser offered one possibility in that regard, writing:

The implications of all of this should be obvious. There is nothing at all contrary to what Pius says in Humani Generis in the view that 10,000 (or for that matter 10,000,000) creatures genetically and physiologically like us arose via purely evolutionary processes. For such creatures — even if there had been only two of them — would not be “human” in the metaphysical sense in the first place. They would be human in the metaphysical sense (and thus in the theologically relevant sense) only if the matter that made up their bodies were informed by a human soul — that is, by a subsistent form imparting intellectual and volitional powers as well as the lower animal powers that a Planet of the Apes-style “human” would have. And only direct divine action can make that happen, just as (for A-T) direct divine action has to make it happen whenever one of us contemporary human beings comes into existence.

Supposing, then, that the smallest human-like population of animals evolution could have initially produced numbered around 10,000, we have a scenario that is fully compatible with Catholic doctrine if we suppose that only two of these creatures had human souls infused into them by God at their conception, and that He infused further human souls only into those creatures who were descended from this initial pair. And there is no evidence against this supposition.

I offered three arguments against this possibility. The first was that this story conflicts with the plain teaching of the Bible. The second was that it is very unclear, to put it kindly, that it is biologically feasible to have an organism that is physically identical to a human being that nonetheless lacks the ability for logical or abstract thought that Feser takes to be possible only after ensoulment. The third was that the story is theologically problematic, in the sense that it is very difficult to fathom what divine purposes were served by God behaving as Feser’s scenario says that He did.

Let’s take these points in reverse order. Feser ignores my third point completely. He makes no attempt to explain why God would behave in so bizarre a fashion. And he really does have some explaining to do. For the sake of argument, let’s assume we have devised a satisfying answer to the already thorny problem of why a just and loving God would create through eons of evolutionary bloodsport. We are now to suppose that God, having noted that evolution has finally produced creatures with just the sort of physical architecture you need for housing a soul, chose just two of those creatures to receive that awesome gift. But why just two? How is that different from parents playing favorites with their children? And how great a gift was it to take two people, make it so they can no longer relate to others in their community, and then send them off to live on their own? We are to believe that they now have the awesome privilege of living in communion with God, but they lose that privilege the second they disobey Him in even the slightest way. And after being expelled from their new home, they are forced to return to a life that is effectively equivalent to living with animals. I really don’t think I’m out of line in wondering about either the logic or the justice in any of this.

As it happens, though, there is an additional level of implausibility that I did not consider in my earlier post. To avoid the problem of having all of modern human genetics pass through a bottleneck consisting of some original human couple, we have to assume that Adam and Eve continued to mate with their unensouled but otherwise human contemporaries. In a paper defending ideas similar to Feser’s, philosopher Kenneth Kemp addresses this issue, writing:

First, is this idea offensive to pious ears? Of course it may well be a consequence of my view that our earliest ancestors were sinners for continuing to interbreed with the pre-human beings who, if not of a different biological species, were not fully human beings either. The sin involved would be more like promiscuity — impersonal sexual acts — than like bestiality. But the idea that our first ancestors were sinners can hardly be an objection to this theory. It is an idea supported by all four of the great episodes of the human proto-history of Genesis — the Fall, Cain’s slaying of Abel, the Deluge, and the Tower of Babel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it as follows: “After that first sin, the world is virtually inundated by sin.”

But leaving aside the question of precisely what to call the sin committed by Adam and Eve in procreating with their unensouled brethren (is it bestiality? or merely promiscuity?), we really must ask why Adam and Eve would find it appealing at all to engage in this sin. Since they can not even have an intelligent conversation with these “people” (in this context I feel compelled to use the sneer quotes), why would they find it desirable to have and raise children with them? And the children, we must presume, would themselves have souls. But does it not create an odd family dynamic to have the child and one parent have souls, and therefore higher reasoning capabilities, while the other parent cannot even be described as fully human?

Now let’s move on to the second point. Is it possible to have an animal that is physically identical to a human being that lacks the full panoply of human cognitive abilities? Feser opens his discussion of this point as follows:

Rosenhouse’s other response to what I wrote is (again, perhaps because he could see that Kemp had in effect answered Coyne’s original objection) to change the subject. The subject, you’ll recall, was whether the doctrine of original sin is compatible with the genetic evidence. The subject was not whether the doctrine is true. Obviously I think it is true, but that is a separate issue requiring a separate discussion. Flynn, Kemp, and I were not trying to convince skeptics to accept the doctrine of original sin, but only to show that rightly understood, the doctrine is compatible with the claim that modern humans descended from a population well above two individuals. Rosenhouse, however, complains that we have not established the truth of a key presupposition of our defense of the doctrine, viz. the immateriality of the human soul — even though I explicitly said that I was not claiming to have done that in the post he’s responding to (since doing so was not necessary to answering the specific objection at hand and the post was already long enough).

This is bizarre. First, if someone says, “I have reinterpreted original sin in a way that makes it consistent with modern genetics,” it is not changing the subject to reply, “But your suggestion is biologically impossible nonetheless.”. Second, it is highly disingenuous to say that the only goal of his original post (or Kemp’s paper; I haven’t read Flynn) was to establish mere consistency between doctrine and science. Surely they also wanted us to think their reinterpretation was plausible, or at the very least biologically possible, and that project is seriously undermined by my argument about animal intelligence. Finally, I made not the slightest reference to the problem of showing the immateriality of the human soul. Feser knows perfectly well that I don’t even believe the human soul exists, except in a metaphorical sense. My actual point was far more concrete. It was that the scientific evidence on animal intelligence does not support Feser’s interpretation.

Now, since this is a Feser post, you know you are going to have to wade through a lot of silliness to get to the few nuggets of actual argument. Consider this:

I also noted that the immateriality of the human soul is something I have argued for elsewhere. For example, I treat the subject at length in my books Philosophy of Mind, The Last Superstition, and Aquinas. I address it in numerous previous blog posts. Yet Rosenhouse assures us that:

Catholic theologians have not the slightest basis for saying that our nature is simply not exhausted by our physical attributes.

Hear that? Not “a highly controversial basis.” Not “a basis that I, Jason Rosenhouse, find unconvincing.” No, not the slightest basis. Now, forget about my own arguments for the intellect’s immateriality (though Rosenhouse says nothing in response to them). A great many more important Catholic philosophers and theologians have also presented serious arguments for it, as have non-Catholic Christians and pagan thinkers in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions. Secular writers like Karl Popper and David Chalmers have endorsed forms of dualism. Secular writers like Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, and Galen Strawson, while they do not embrace dualism, nevertheless reject physicalism. Yet others, like Thomas Nagel, Jerry Fodor, and Joseph Levine, have argued that there are at least serious difficulties facing physicalism which have yet to be answered. And many materialists who think these difficulties can be answered at least acknowledge that the difficulties are indeed serious ones raised by critics in good faith. Then there are secular non-dualists like Tyler Burge, John Searle, and William Lycan, who (as I have noted before) have expressed the opinion that the dominance of materialism in contemporary philosophy of mind owes less to the quality of the arguments in its favor than to ideological thinking.

Truly, those first few sentences after my quote are beyond ridiculous. When you say that so and so has not the slightest basis for believing something, you obviously are not saying that so and so stands in dumbstruck silence when you ask them to explain themselves. And someone as snide, arrogant and dismissive as Feser is towards anyone who disagrees with him certainly has no business claiming to find those flaws in others.

But the bigger issue is that I can’t for the life of me understand why Feser thinks we’re discussing philosophy. I said nothing about physicalism, dualism, materialism or anything like that. I made a claim about animal intelligence, and that’s a question for biology to answer. My claim was that the biological evidence we have suggests strongly that intelligence and rationality are things that come in degrees, with more neural wiring translating into greater intelligence. I pointed out that dogs, with their relatively small brains, already have impressive information processing capabilities. I then pointed to apes, whose abilities are more striking still. Though I didn’t discuss it in my previous post, I could have added that paleoanthropology reveals that attributes we consider distinctively human, such as a capacity for art or music, are things that emerged gradually in the course of our evolution. There is nothing in the science to suggest that we developed such abilities instantaneously. They appear to have evolved gradually along with everything else.

So you can imagine my surprise at reading this:

Such preposterous overstatement would be inexcusable even if Rosenhouse had shown any evidence that he understands the issues. But he quite obviously does not understand them. He continues:

Intelligence and rationality appear to be things that come in degrees. Dogs already have the ability to learn hundreds of commands. They can form complex emotional relationships with people. They can understand their place in a pack. All of this requires considerable mental processing ability. What basis is there for saying that purely physical processes in the brain can account for these, fairly sophisticated, mental accomplishments, but cannot account for abstract reasoning or rationality as well?

Even the brief comments I made in my previous post should make it obvious what is wrong with this argument from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view. None of the examples Rosenhouse gives requires a grasp of abstract concepts, as opposed to mere sensation, mental imagery, or the processing of material symbols. And it is abstract concepts — for instance, the concept man as opposed to a sensation of a particular man or a mental image of a certain man’s appearance or voice, or a neural structure that is causally correlated with particular men encountered in the past — that A-T philosophers (and by no means only A-T philosophers) argue cannot be material.

Just incredible! My quoted statement explicitly makes a distinction between the sorts of things dogs are observed to do on the one hand and abstract reasoning on the other, but Feser concludes I don’t understand the issues because I failed to make that distinction. My point in mentioning dogs at all was to show that even a relatively small brain is already capable of quite a lot, to the point where that alone should make us suspicious of claims that a capacity for abstraction represents a fundamental break between human and animal abilities.

But when we come to apes Feser gets truly desperate:

Rosenhouse continues:

And that’s just dogs. Once we start contemplating apes the basis for Feser’s arguments gets very rickety indeed. Apes have sophisticated tool-making and tool-using capabilities. They can learn sign language and have shown an ability to combine signs in logical ways to express concepts beyond what they were specifically taught. Are you really confident they have no ability for abstraction or the use of logic?

The answer is Yes, I am confident of that, for the same sorts of reasons Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker are confident that the “evidence” for ape sign language is completely bogus. (Last time I checked, Chomsky and Pinker weren’t religious apologists.) But even if Chomsky, Pinker, and I are all wrong, that wouldn’t show that the intellect is material. For if it turned out that apes really did have genuine intellectual powers, what would follow instead is that they too had immaterial souls — and indeed, that they were arguably therefore “human” in the metaphysical sense even if not in the genetic sense, for they would in that case be rational animals.

See what I mean about having to wade through a lot of silliness?

Feser is taking advantage of an equivocation on what it means to “learn sign language.” Pinker’s objection is that sign language, no less than Latin or English, has a grammar and a structure to it, and there is no evidence that apes can grasp that structure. Fair enough, but that’s hardly what I need to make my point. Apes have been successful at learning signs for different words and have been able to combine those signs to express more complex thoughts. They have also been able to communicate using lexigrams on keyboards. Here’s a helpful account of the history of studies into animal intelligence. It includes discussions of work such as this:

Kanzi’s [a chimpanzee] two-and-three-word sentences on the keyboard may seem less than impressive. But a set of experiments comparing Kanzi’s understanding of spoken English to that of Alia, the two-and-one-half-year-old daughter of a Language Center researcher appears to show a very different level of understanding. Kanzi and Alia were presented with sentence-understanding tasks as similar as the researchers could make them. Archival videotape of Kanzi’s performance sets the scene.

Kanzi sits in a room with two researchers (one is Rose Sevcik). A third (Sue Savage-Rumbaugh) stands outside the room with a microphone. The two inside researchers wear earphones playing loud music to reduce the chance they can give Kanzi any clues. The room has a “kitchen,” and a large playroom with a number of objects Kanzi has never seen. A child’s toilet, a pitcher of water, a rubber snake, a stuffed dog, a 25-pound bag of carrots, a hand puppet vaguely resembling a rabbit. The voice from outside says “Kanzi, make the dog bite the snake.” Kanzi immediately picks up the rubber snake and the plush toy dog. He carefully puts the snake’s head into the dog’s mouth and gently squeezes the dog’s jaws shut. An impressive show of understanding made more impressive by the fact that Kanzi has generalized the spoken words dog and snake to toys he’s never seen.

“Kanzi, tickle Rose with the bunny,” says Savage-Rumbaugh. Kanzi picks up a bunny hand puppet, carries it to Sevcik and tickles her. Sevcik says in explaining the videotape that Kanzi’s only previous knowledge of “bunny” was a videotape of a Language Research Center worker dressed in a bunny suit. The researchers had never drilled Kanzi (or Alia) on the requests, and all of the objects were new, purchased just for the experiment.

Duane Rumbaugh summarizes the results: “Kanzi’s comprehension of 500 novel sentences of request were very comparable to Alia’s. Both complied with the requests without assistance on about 70% of the sentences.” He emphasizes that Kanzi learned by observation alone very early in life, and further that the researchers only discovered this fact by the lucky decision to keep Kanzi around after Matata was sent home. “The apes can come to understand even the syntax of human speech at a level that compares favorably with that of a two-to-three-year-old child–if they are reared from shortly after birth in a language-structured environment. Reared in this manner, the infant ape’s brain develops in a manner that enables it to acquire language. First through its comprehension and then through its expression, a pattern that characterizes the course of language acquisition in the normal child. We had no intention of studying language-observational learning in [Kanzi]. But it happened and we’ve replicated it with other [bonobos and chimpanzees],” Rumbaugh says.

Duane Rumbaugh and Sue Savage Rumbaugh summarize–fairly, it seems–the current state of research in their chapter of the 1994 Animal Learning and Cognition. “Though none will argue that any animal has the full capacity of humans for language, none should deny that at least some animals have quite impressive competencies for language skills, including speech comprehension.”

I repeat my question: Are you sure that apes don’t have a capacity for abstract reasoning?

Biology provides good reasons for being highly suspicious of claims that an ability for abstract reasoning represents a clean break between humans and animals. Paleoanthropology provides no evidence that mental attributes we sometimes think of as distinctively human appeared suddenly, as opposed to gradually. These findings strike me as far more relevant and significant than the conclusions of so much armchair philosophy. If the empirical facts point strongly in one direction while a handful of philosophers say something different, then I think I know who is likely to have to yield.

That leaves only the question of what the Bible says, but since this has become far longer than I intended I shall address that in the next post. Stay tuned!

Comments

  1. #1 BKsea
    September 13, 2011

    It amazes me that seemingly intelligent people can twist themselves into such logical pretzels to support these bizarre beliefs. My favorite is Feser’s contention that showing apes have a capacity for abstract thought would not be evidence against his concept of a human soul, but instead would prove that apes have souls! Unbelievable.

  2. #2 Petter Häggholm
    September 13, 2011

    I wonder when they suppose this magical ensoulment happened? It’s worth keeping in mind that the last common ancestor of all humanity, the “Y-chromosomal Adam” analogue of “Mitochondrial Eve”, lived at least 60,000 years ago, far into pre-history; meanwile the “Mitochondrial Eve” may have lived around 200,000 years ago, when H. s. sapiens was just forming as a distinct (sub?)species.

    Thus, it seems there are two choices: Either date the endowment of magical souls back so far into prehistory that we end up with humans whose technology isn’t really that far in advance of that of chimpanzees (who I think more or less approximate spears and hand-axes, though they lack fire)—in which case it’s hard to see what miraculous powers this ensoulment is supposed to have provided; or the ensoulment must be dated more recently than our most recent common female ancestor, and so cannot date back to any single couple at all (assuming all humanity is supposed to descend from them).

  3. #3 Dave J L
    September 13, 2011

    I think

    “And there is no evidence against this supposition.”

    and what this is referring to says pretty much everything one needs to know about the oblivious logical acrobatics of the religious mind.

  4. #4 eric
    September 13, 2011

    I take it Feser did not address the fact that we’d have unensouled people walking around today???

    AFAIK, the idea that Adam and Eve continued to have lots of sex with other proto-people (Homo sapiens nonsapiens?) does not solve this problem. Genetics indicates that there just wasn’t two contemporaneous LUCAs for the human race. At any time, in any place. As Petter mentioned, different ancestors contributed different genes to our current gene pool separated in time by tens of thousands of years. Not only does this pose a separate problem for YECism, even for OECism, it’s an issue, because it means there was no such couple.

    I don’t see any way around it: if God placed souls in only two people and their descendants, and if modern genetics is correct, then some people today don’t have souls. You can’t reject the conclusion without rejecting one of the ‘if’ statements.

  5. #5 Another Matt
    September 13, 2011

    I take it Feser did not address the fact that we’d have unensouled people walking around today???

    Yes, these are known as “atheists.” =o)

    Seriously, though, I spent some time on Feser’s blog wading through the comments (during a bout of insomnia), and the most popular rejoinder to your question was that “because souls are specially created by God, and in no way have a physical correlate, God simply chose to give souls to all hominids that came after Adam and Eve.” On the other hand, Adam and Eve COULD be common ancestors and “souls” (as some kind of metaphysical hyperdominant “gene” that leaves no physical trace) could have been passed down, or if they were monogamous then Cain could have been a common ancestor if he bred with the subhumans. I hate to defend nonsense, and in no way do I want to come off as supporting it, but it’s not logically impossible.

  6. #6 eric
    September 13, 2011

    Another Matt: the most popular rejoinder to your question was that “because souls are specially created by God, and in no way have a physical correlate, God simply chose to give souls to all hominids that came after Adam and Eve.”

    And I guess he also chose to punish those folks for A&E’s sins, even though under this latest epicycle these other folks would now be both genetically and spiritually unrelated to A&E. IMO this counts as ‘killing the patient to save the patient.’ The fall as a concept may survive, but only by becoming utterly arbitrary in who is affected.

    I hate to defend nonsense, and in no way do I want to come off as supporting it, but it’s not logically impossible.

    AIUI, it is. The current population simply doesn’t have two contemporaneous LUCAs. The only way to save the concept of a genetic Adam and Eve is to invoke a miracle to make it genetically appear as if they are not our ancestors.

  7. #7 GAZZA
    September 13, 2011

    I also don’t see what Feser is getting at when he brings out all these philosophers that have attempted to deal with the intellect’s immateriality. Even if we twist what Jason said to mean what Feser wants it to – “That there is not the slightest bit of evidence to suggest that the intellect is immaterial” – we’re still left with a true statement, are we not? 1, a dozen, a hundred, or a thousand philosophers saying something incorrect doesn’t make it correct.

    Theirs is the extraordinary claim – that our intelligence (or intellect in general) is not adequately explained by our brain chemistry. In the wake of modern neuroscience that is a claim possibly beyond extraordinary and well on the way to being near demonstrably incorrect. Until they come up with someone more than special pleading, we are right to dismiss this as “not the slightest bit of evidence”.

  8. #8 Blaine
    September 13, 2011

    Why hasn’t Feser addressed the pressing issue of why women have no souls?

    Face it we’re doomed.

    Feser and the other spittle drooling sub-geniuses will no doubt vote for the Republican candidate. Our only hope is that when they make they’re evangelical haj to visit Palin in Alaska they’ll be mistaken by pelt hunters for baby seals.

  9. #9 Brad
    September 13, 2011

    Well, if Edward Feser is allowing the no-genetic-bottleneck to triumph, he is conceding that the Noah’s flood account is nonsense metaphorical or allegorical.

    Feser quoting Kemp:

    If God endows each individual that has even a single [metaphysically] human ancestor with an intellect of its own, a reasonable rate of reproductive success and a reasonable selective advantage would easily replace a non-intellectual hominid population of 5,000 individuals with a philosophically (and, if the two concepts are extensionally equivalent, theologically) human population within three centuries.

    Maybe if they all lived within the same town, almost certainly not if they lived on multiple continents. Even with no isolation, this sounds a like made-up estimate, although I haven’t modeled it. Unless the ensouled killed all the unensouled after the second ot third round of interbreeding, which would be consistent with both biblical and human nature.

    And on the subject of intellect and abstraction, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one cow push another into a fence to test if it was electrified. If that’s what it was, it’s a lot of abstract reasoning right there. Not to take anything away from the New Caledonian Crows

    Surely I’m not the only one who feels like we are discussing how many klingons can dance on the head of a wookie?

    a. I’m not saying they did, but it’s totally plausible the klingons did dance on a wookie’s head. At least one. Or two. Later, maybe all of them.

    b. Different realities, couldn’t possibly happen.

    c. Um, you know wookies aren’t real right? So the klingons couldn’t dance on them.

    d. Wookies are so real! It’s the klingons that are fake! So the answer is zero.

  10. #10 Another Matt
    September 14, 2011

    The current population simply doesn’t have two contemporaneous LUCAs. The only way to save the concept of a genetic Adam and Eve is to invoke a miracle to make it genetically appear as if they are not our ancestors.

    Well, I think yes or no, depending on what you care about. It is true that mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam were not contemporaneous, but neither of them need be the most recent common ancestor. And “most recent” isn’t even necessary: all that’s required for Feser’s thesis is a single male or female common ancestor, and that could be anywhere in the history of the species (and all of that person’s ancestors are also common ancestors, yes-no?).

    According to the “hypothesis,” Adam and Eve would have been somewhere in that line of ancestors. There’s nothing special about mitochondrial DNA or the Y chromosome — Adam and/or Eve might not even have a recognizable genetic legacy, since “soul” is not supposed to have a genetic correlate in the first place, but it does require the “soulless” to mate with the “ensouled.” I’m still uncertain whether the “subhumans” (it pains me to even write that) are supposed to be empirically indistinguishable from ensouled humans, but according to Feser the only difference is that ensouled humans have abstract concepts. I have heard arguments that say they would have behaved exactly the same way as full humans but just lacked a metaphysical soul, and perhaps internal experience (i.e. that they were p-zombies).

    Whatever. I think the whole stinking idea fails on Occam’s razor (at least), not on logical or genetic impossibility, but I’m plenty open to a change of mind — I have no expertise in genetics.

  11. #11 AZSkeptic
    September 14, 2011

    eric@4:

    I take it Feser did not address the fact that we’d have unensouled people walking around today???

    This would provide an explanation for Dick Cheney…

  12. #12 Andrew G.
    September 14, 2011

    It’s worth keeping in mind that the last common ancestor of all humanity, the “Y-chromosomal Adam” analogue of “Mitochondrial Eve”, lived at least 60,000 years ago,

    Wrong.

    The date of the most recent common ancestor of living humans changes all the time, but is currently estimated to be not more than about 5000 years ago (and possibly as little as 2000 years ago).

    “Y-chromosomal Adam” and “Mitochondrial Eve” are the most recent male line and female line ancestors, which is a completely different concept. Consider that (ignoring inbreeding) if you go back say 4 generations, you have 16 ancestors, but only 1 male-line and 1 female-line ancestor.

  13. #13 Collin
    September 14, 2011

    @5. Perhaps it’s not logically impossible, but it’s empirically false. There is no objective basis for considering any humans more or less human than any others. Any claims that there are are reducible to contradictory prejudices between two groups.

    Of course, arguments like mine are never going to convince Lubavitchers. Their theory of klips is an embarassment to all other branches of Judaism.

  14. #14 Kel
    September 14, 2011

    For such creatures — even if there had been only two of them — would not be “human” in the metaphysical sense in the first place. They would be human in the metaphysical sense (and thus in the theologically relevant sense) only if the matter that made up their bodies were informed by a human soul — that is, by a subsistent form imparting intellectual and volitional powers as well as the lower animal powers that a Planet of the Apes-style “human” would have.

    I really wonder what this entails. Has Feser been able to quantify this? Because it sounds to me like he’s talking out of his arse – which to us non-believers only serves to bolster the merits of The Courtier’s Reply.

    Human in the metaphysical sense??? It’s okay, they’re not really human, just chimpanzees that can talk and make better tools – as they didn’t get infused with some unknown magic substance that puts them into a completely new, and theologically-relevant, metaphysical status…

  15. #15 Richard Wein
    September 14, 2011

    The argument seems to go like this:

    Rosenhouse: Here’s why your scenario is implausible.
    Feser: Ah, but my post was only claiming that there is no strict logical inconsistency between my scenario and the claim that modern humans descended from a population well above two individuals.

    Even if Feser’s post was only claiming strict logical consistency, Jason is still entitled to point out the implausibility. But in fact Feser went further than claiming strict logical consistency. He claimed, “And there is no evidence against this supposition.” Jason is giving evidence against Feser’s supposition (his scenario).

    With regard to animals and abstract concepts, you don’t even need to put words together into sentences to be using abstract concepts. For example some monkeys make warning sounds to warn of different types of approaching predators. IIRC one example is a sound for a snake. Since this sound corresponds to many different instances of snakes it’s an abstraction. Of course this is a long way short of what humans are capable of. But it refutes the demarcation line that Feser invokes here.

    Feser writes: “For if it turned out that apes really did have genuine intellectual powers, what would follow instead is that they too had immaterial souls — and indeed, that they were arguably therefore “human” in the metaphysical sense even if not in the genetic sense, for they would in that case be rational animals.”

    That completely misses Jason’s point, which was to refute Feser’s demarcation line. If Feser draws a new demarcation line, such that apes are now on the “human” side of the line, that new line will be vulnerable to similar criticisms.

    Feser writes: “Rosenhouse is free to argue against this claim if he wishes, but he really ought at least to try to understand it, and the reasons A-T philosophers would give for it, before doing so.”

    Those who think they have good reasons for their beliefs will always insist that others are remiss in rejecting those beliefs without having read their arguments. But I don’t need to read the arguments of moon-landing deniers to have sufficient reason for thinking them wrong. The same principle applies here (and all the more so since Feser has given a sketch of the argument and it appears thoroughly misguided).

    Finally, Jason, some researchers have cast doubts on the research with Kanzi and other chimpanzees. It might be wise to be cautious about the claims made. However we don’t need as much as was claimed for Kanzi in order to refute Feser’s demarcation.

  16. #16 SLC
    September 14, 2011

    Just out of curiosity, where do Neanderthals fit into Mr. Feser’s notions? Recent investigation of the Neanderthal genome indicate that much of the human population of Europe contains a small fraction of Neanderthal genes, implying interbreeding of the two sub-species. Did Neanderthals have souls? If not, do these descendants have souls implying that the soul can be inherited from one parent?

  17. #17 Richard Wein
    September 14, 2011

    P.S. I think I need to correct my 6th paragraph above. Feser was not talking about a new demarcation criterion. And I think Jason’s point was not so much to refute Feser’s specific criterion as to argue that intellect comes in degrees, so there is no point where intellect becomes “genuine” (to use Feser’s word).

    Given that even quite crude animal noises can be considered abstractions, it might be impossible to draw a line between species that use abstract concepts and those that don’t. The distinction is a fuzzy one. The problem here is that Feser is treating a fuzzy distinction as a strict dichotomy. It seems to me that’s an error made all too often by philosophers, and particularly by religious ones.

    Even if we can draw a line between species that use abstractions and those that don’t, I doubt that Feser would really be willing to put all the species that do so on the human side of his line. Arguably he would even have to put some computers on the human side. I suspect he would rather change his demarcation criterion that accept such a radical change to his religious beliefs.

    It’s worth mentioning that, in his earlier post, Feser gave a more restrictive criterion:

    “What intellect involves, for the A-T tradition, is the ability to grasp abstract concepts (such as the concept man or the concept being mortal), to put them together into complete thoughts (such as the thought that all men are mortal), and to reason from one thought to another in accordance with the laws of logic (as when we infer from All men are mortal and Socrates is a man to Socrates is mortal).”

    I’m pretty sure that no animals (beside us) can use logical syllogisms. If Feser sticks to this narrower criterion he can safely exclude all other animals. (Though I’m not so sure about computers.) But then it’s even harder to see why we should take this criterion as being significant. Indeed, the argument Feser briefly made for the immateriality of intellect argues from the use of abstract concepts, not from the use of logical syllogisms.

  18. #18 Anton Mates
    September 14, 2011

    Richard,

    I’m pretty sure that no animals (beside us) can use logical syllogisms

    I’m pretty sure a lot of humans can’t use them either, if by “use” we mean “write down or speak the correct conclusion given the premises.” Would Feser say that small children have no intellect?

    On the other hand, if we mean that humans act in a way consistent with correct application of a syllogism, then I think lots of animals probably do this. Any animal that successfully generalizes in an associative learning problem, for instance.

    “All pink squares should be pecked at” + “This button is a pink square” -> “This button should be pecked at,” that sort of thing. Pigeons rock at that.

  19. #19 Another Matt
    September 14, 2011

    Just out of curiosity, where do Neanderthals fit into Mr. Feser’s notions?

    He would say it depends on whether they have abstract concepts. If so, they are “metaphysically human” — it has a soul — but is a physically different species. A talking dog would have a human soul in this system.

    The criteria for “abstract concept” seem vague to me, but he and the commenters on his site thought that even just recognizing “human” as a category was evidence of a soul. Animals, apparently, do not recognize conspecifics as a category or class, but simply respond similarly to similar stimuli. It’s so confused, in my opinion. They get hung up on things like “since the concept ‘triangularity’ exists, and is metaphysical, it requires a metaphysical intellect to grasp it. This has nothing to do with mental imagery involving triangles but the metaphysical essence that permeates triangles as a form.” — where “exists” is taken literally (as far as I can tell, in Platonic fashion). The concepts are all “out there” waiting to be “discovered.”

    I wonder what they would make of a concept like “the Platonic solid(s) with hexagonal faces” – easy to define and to conceive, so it’s an abstract concept, but impossible to visualize because the definition is incoherent – it leads to a contradiction, so such a thing does not “exist” in the Platonic sense. It seems to me that “concepts” are the accreted results of definitions which weren’t immediately or obviously fallow, not a bunch of heavenly forms waiting to be plucked down with metaphysical tweezers every time we need a new one.

  20. #20 James Sweet
    September 14, 2011

    A problem I see in this discussion is that both sides seem to be saying, “You haven’t proven what you are asserting. I don’t need to prove what I am asserting, I merely need to show that there is the possibility, and that you have not sufficiently refuted that possibility.” In Feser’s case, the “possibility” being argued is his Selective Ensoulment model; in Jason’s case, it is that biological causes are fully sufficient to account for abstract thought, etc. Jason is saying, “You have not proven biology is insufficient, therefore your assertion does not stand,” while Feser is saying, “You have not proven there is no material soul, therefore my model is not disproven.”

    (To be clear, I do not mean to falsely equivocate… I find the proposition Jason is defending to be extremely likely, a near certainty in fact — since any other answer appeals to ideas that are so poorly defined as to be nigh unworkable and which have never been demonstrated successfully in any context — while the proposition Feser is defending is prime facie preposterous, regardless of whether he has established it as technically possible. I am merely pointing out a problem with the structure of both sides’ arguments, not trying to suggest that there is a serious debate here!)

    I think requiring a soul for abstract thought is a bizarre approach, both because I think it is unnecessary for Feser’s model, and because I think it is dangerous in that relies critically on a gap in current scientific knowledge — and we all know how well those arguments hold up against the test of time. However, strictly speaking I suppose Feser is right that Jason has not disproven the proposition (though it certainly seems highly implausible).

    I prefer to focus more on the zombie-fucking, which to his credit, Kemp has tackled head-on. But of course as Jason mentions, it’s not just zombies as sex partners, it’s zombie spouses, zombie parents, perhaps even zombie half-siblings, etc. (I’m going to stick with the flippant term “zombie-fucking” anyway.) While the zombie-fucking argument doesn’t disprove anything, I think it is a big challenge to theologians to own this. If they want to make the serious argument that their asshole God’s “perfect plan” involved the necessity of people marrying, fucking, and raising children with zombies, I am more than willing to grant them the technical possibility, however remote and laughably implausible it may be.

    There are ways — just barely — of salvaging Christianity even in the face of evolution’s two big challenges to its doctrines (i.e. theodicy, and Adam & Eve). But to do so requires theologians to paint God as an even bigger douche than ever before. In that narrow sense, I suppose Feser is right and Jason is wrong: Evolution is not (quite) a deathblow for Christianity. It just seriously maims it.

    In the battle to save Christianity’s life, we cannot yet pronounce the patient deceased… but she does appear to be in a persistent vegetative state. :P

  21. #21 James Sweet
    September 14, 2011

    The current population simply doesn’t have two contemporaneous LUCAs.

    The full significance of this observation did not sink in with me until just now.

    I know that you can have plenty of universal ancestors without having a bottleneck, but it had not really quite occurred to me that for this model to work (without the bizarre special pleading that Another Matt summarized in #5, that is) you’d need to have a male universal ancestor and a female universal ancestor who were contemporaries, and that we have molecular evidence against that. Otherwise, as folks have pointed out, you have populations of unensouled people surviving today.

    Perhaps I was overhasty in granting Feser the (highly implausible and appealing to zombie-fucking) technical possibility. It may be that sects (such as Catholicism) which rely on a concrete notion of Original Sin for their core doctrines really are dead in the water here.

    As I mentioned on Jerry’s blog, sects which eschew infant baptism may still be able to get away here by redefining Original Sin as something far more metaphorical (Jason has attempted to address an example of these models in the past, but this variety is just so slippery I don’t feel he really refuted it). The significance of the Christ sacrifice can be just barely salvaged here, although it does necessitate a God who sacrifices himself to himself to appease himself for a design error that he himself was responsible for.

    At what cost, though? It requires a dilution of the original doctrine that would make a homeopath blush.

    I suppose the best reply one can make to the argument that evolution is not damaging to Christianity is to simply point to the contortions of folks like Feser. Sure, they sorta salvaged it… kinda sorta… but goddamn, you really think that dog’s breakfast isn’t a really bad sign for your beliefs? Yikes!

  22. #22 Iain Walker
    September 14, 2011

    Paleoanthropology provides no evidence that mental attributes we sometimes think of as distinctively human appeared suddenly, as opposed to gradually.

    Well, there is some controversy over whether there was a Great Leap Forward in the sophistication of human material culture (aka the Upper Paleolithic Revolution) that might be explained by a relatively sudden increase in human cognitive complexity. However, direct evidence for such a link seems to be somewhat tenuous.

  23. #23 Birger Johansson
    September 14, 2011

    The best way to counter outright silliness is ridicule.
    In “Family Guy” the evolution vs creation controversy is illustrated by 1: a fast-forward rendition of evolution and

    2: the woman genie from the 60s TV series “I Dream of Jeanie” going “Boiiinng!” and creating animals and humans out of air.

    A suitable illustration of the the moment of direct injection of souls into “Adam” and “Eve” should have a black monolith materialise on the African landscape, music playing “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and a divine bolt from the monolith striking Adam and Eve. After that they grab a tapir chinbone and go off killing pagans.
    — — — — — — —

    If you really want to mess with Feser you should introduce Lilith into the equation. If she had a soul, does that mean the lilim (her offspring by fallen angels) are free of original sin, even though they are demons? After all, they were never in Eden.
    If a lilim marries an ordinary, anatomically modern human, will the offspring have souls? If Lilith was created directly by Yaweh (alongside Adam), does this mean her descendants are more closely related to Yahwe than Jesus? After all Jesus had 50% of his genes from Mary, and only 50% of his genes from the Holy Ghost.

    For discussing the mormon faith, I recommend the episode from South Park that illustrated the story of their founder, narrated deadpan. “I will interpret the ancient writing by holding this sacred stone to my head, and dictate it to you.”

  24. #24 eric
    September 14, 2011

    Richard Wein: For example some monkeys make warning sounds to warn of different types of approaching predators. IIRC one example is a sound for a snake. Since this sound corresponds to many different instances of snakes it’s an abstraction.

    There’s an even better, very closely related, example of abstraction. Some primates (can’t remember if this was apes or monkeys) will give out a predator call when they find a rich fig tree, in order to deceive/distract their own kin. This involves a level of absraction and reasoning beyond the predator call itself; i.e., you not only have to know what the predator call means, you have to understand how using it incorrectly will temporarily drive your group away, giving you more time to eat figs. You have to run a ‘what will happen if’ projection in your mind, and correctly understand that the other monkeys don’t have access to the same data you do. IIRC, human babies aren’t born with this ability – they have to learn it, too.

    James Sweet: A problem I see in this discussion is that both sides seem to be saying, “You haven’t proven what you are asserting. I don’t need to prove what I am asserting, I merely need to show that there is the possibility, and that you have not sufficiently refuted that possibility.” …To be clear, I do not mean to falsely equivocate…

    As you say, they aren’t equivalent. There is an enormous weight of historical evidence behind the belief that the explanation for some unexplained phenomena (in this case, something like sentience) will be natural. To wit: every other explanation we’ve ever discovered has been natural. Thousands of years, millions of phenomena, this has always been the case. It may be metaphysically possible that tomorrow I will flap my arms and fly, but the weight of history is against that being true. And it may be possible that Feser is right about us needing some immaterial soul to think, but the weight of history is equally against that being true.

    Feser’s claims, to me, brings to mind Asimov’s essay, “The Relativity of Wrong.” Jason may be wrong in his belief of brain-based sentience, and Feser may be wrong in his soul-based belief. But if anyone thinks they are both equally wrong, that person is wronger than both of them put together.

  25. #25 Another Matt
    September 14, 2011

    …you’d need to have a male universal ancestor and a female universal ancestor who were contemporaries, and that we have molecular evidence against that.

    I don’t think that’s true. We have evidence that the most recent common ancestor was 2000-5000 years ago. That person’s parents were also common ancestors — a male and female common ancestor who were contemporaries. Trace that back a “few” generations, and we all have tons of common ancestors.

  26. #26 J. Quinton
    September 14, 2011

    I noticed a lot of “suppose…”, “if…”, “it is possible…” et cetera in Fesser’s essay. Why grant any of these suppositions? Suppose human souls really are just Thetans that were created from a volcanic eruption sparked by nuclear detonation 70,000 years ago. This means that Scientology is compatible with modern genetics. But why grant that supposition in the first place?

    It is really telling how intellectually bankrupt these arguments are. The more unfounded hypotheses you accrete to support your thesis, the less likely it is that your thesis is correct. Each and every time that Fesser presents an unfounded hypothetical (i.e. “suppose that…”) to support his idea, the more likely it is that he is incorrect due to diminishing probability, because if any one of those suppositions is incorrect, then the entire argument is false (e.g. three unfounded hypotheticals at 50% probability each will compound to 12.5% probability in total; 50% * 50% * 50%).

    I think John Loftus points this out repeatedly. Christians always jump from “possible” to “probable” without any warrant. There needs to be some other justification to grant someone their supposition; a supposition that is absolutely necessary for their theory to be valid. It seems to be a class of “is… ought” fallacy; maybe we should give it a proper name: The Possible Therefore Probable Fallacy.

  27. #27 pough
    September 14, 2011

    I take it Feser did not address the fact that we’d have unensouled people walking around today?

    Would he just invoke the flood?

  28. #28 JimR
    September 14, 2011

    Birds have even tinier brains and parrots, ravens and crows seem to have native ability with abstract manipulations of signs, calls and words. Add them to the lists of intelligent species and the abilities they have in conjunction with other species and you get language, tools, spatial pattern recognition and so on. Most humans have all of these faculties which seemingly arose quite spontaneously across many species.

    It seems to me to draw a line and call every species on the brighter side of the line as having a soul arbitrarily assigns humans with sub-par intelligence into the nonhuman, soulless specie. That is the start of the superior human classification over which nasty wars have been fought.

    I really think Feser has not seen the “unintended consequences” of his arguments.

  29. #29 Vicki
    September 14, 2011

    @Andrew G. and/or @Another Matt:

    Can you give me a reference for that most recent common ancestor in the 2000-5000 B.P. range? Not only have I not heard this before (which proves nothing in itself), but it seems to conflict with other recent data, including that Neanderthal (or presumed Neanderthal) DNA is found in most populations but not in people from sub-Saharan Africa, and that Melanesians and only Melanesians seem to have about 5% Denisovan DNA.

  30. #30 James Sweet
    September 14, 2011

    Feser’s claims, to me, brings to mind Asimov’s essay, “The Relativity of Wrong.” Jason may be wrong in his belief of brain-based sentience, and Feser may be wrong in his soul-based belief. But if anyone thinks they are both equally wrong, that person is wronger than both of them put together.

    Well put, and let me just reiterate that I wasn’t at all trying to say that there is any sort of equivalence here. All I meant to point out was that at some times Jason and Feser weren’t addressing the same point — but the point being addressed by Feser at those times was a silly and obstinate one (“You can’t prove there isn’t an invisible dragon in my garage!”) so Jason still comes out on top in the net.

    I just think it would more effective to grant Feser his remotest of remote possibilities, and instead say: That’s really what you want to assert? That the best possible defense for your beliefs is that we can only show that they are wildly implausible, but not quite impossible? And that you can only get the “not quite impossible” cookie by appealing to zombie-fucking? Okay then, good luck with that…

  31. #31 James Sweet
    September 14, 2011

    Oh, and by the way, I do not think “Jason may be wrong in his belief of brain-based sentience,” or at least I am as certain that the brain (possibly with some support from other biological componments, e.g. spinal cord, endocrine system, etc.) is responsible for sapience as I am certain that bones are responsible for the overall rigid structure of the body. No other explanation makes even the remotest sense. As with anything, there is of course the technical possibility of error, but that all things have a material explanation seems to be rather certain at this point.

  32. #32 Iain Walker
    September 14, 2011

    Vicki (#28):

    Can you give me a reference for that most recent common ancestor in the 2000-5000 B.P. range?

    The relevant Wiki entry is here.

    It also explains why this is much more recent than the Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosomal Adam estimates:

    “Since Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam are traced by single genes via a single ancestral parent lines, the time to these genetic MRCAs will necessarily be greater than that for the genealogical MRCA. This is because single genes will coalesce slower than tracing of conventional human genealogy via both parents. The latter considers only individual humans, without taking into account whether any gene from the computed MRCA actually survives in every single person in the current population.”
    Source

  33. #33 Another Matt
    September 14, 2011

    Can you give me a reference for that most recent common ancestor in the 2000-5000 B.P. range? Not only have I not heard this before (which proves nothing in itself), but it seems to conflict with other recent data, including that Neanderthal (or presumed Neanderthal) DNA is found in most populations but not in people from sub-Saharan Africa, and that Melanesians and only Melanesians seem to have about 5% Denisovan DNA.

    The difficulty with determining this genetically, as far as I understand, is that an MRCA’s genes need not be present at all in all (or even “most” or “much”) of the world’s population. This is because we’re talking about a single individual, who through sheer luck, is in the ancestral tree of all currently living humans, and that individual’s genetic contribution would be negligible in comparison with the rest of the extant gene pool. So most estimates of the time to MRCA have to be arrived at through complex simulation that takes into account genetics but also geography, known patterns of migration, and so forth (so maybe “evidence for” a 2000-5000 years ago is a strong way to put it). Here is a paper cited in wikipedia which does this:

    http://tedlab.mit.edu/~dr/Papers/Rohde-MRCA-two.pdf

    It has to be long enough ago to allow for subsequent migration around the world, so apparently 17th- and 18th-century European “activity” would have done a lot to move the time to MRCA much more recently than it would have been earlier. And the debate is still open about the pedigree of uncontacted peoples.

    Now, since Feser probably does care about the souls of people before the 17th century, we should point out that the MRCA of “ensouled” humans who lived from recorded history until a few centuries ago was somewhere in the paleolithic, which is almost surely where he’d want it for his story. Sigh.

  34. #34 Richard Wein
    September 14, 2011

    Anton,

    You raise a good point. My expression “use logical syllogisms” was rather vague. But I also don’t think it’s the right question to ask whether animals “act in a way consistent with correct application of a syllogism”. We need to think about what cognitive processes are actually going on in human and animal minds, and judge whether they’re analogous.

    What’s going on when we engage in deductive reasoning? Take the case where I verbalise two premises and a conclusion that follows from them, i.e. state a syllogism. How did I get from premises to conclusion? Even if I break the argument into the smallest possible steps, there are going to be steps that can’t be broken down any further. At that point it must be subconscious mental processes that are at work, crossing the gaps. Since we know relatively little about those subconscious mental processes, or the subconscious mental processes of animals, it’s difficult to say just how different they are.

    I think it’s reasonable to say that animals have beliefs, i.e. mental states which track truth and usefully guide behaviour. These beliefs can give rise to other beliefs, through effective, truth-tracking cognitive processes, and I think it’s reasonable to call such processes “inference”, even “rational inference”, since much of human rational inference also occurs at a subconscious level. We can then think of these animal beliefs as “premises”, analogous to premises in human rational inference.

    I was going to say that at least one absolute difference we can be sure of is that animals don’t engage in _verbal_ reasoning, i.e. inference from verbalised premises. But now I’m wondering whether even that is absolutely true. Suppose an animal makes a noise indicating it’s seen a snake, and then some other animal in the group responds to this noise, climbing a tree to safety. Hasn’t the first animal verbalised a premise, and the second animal reasoned from it? Perhaps the first animal will even respond to its own warning, reasoning in part from its own verbalised premise. This is a big stretch. The gulf between these animal cognitive processes and complex, verbal human reasoning is vast. But it does show how difficult it is to find any absolute demarcation criterion, and that’s what Feser seems to need even to begin his argument. (Even with such a demarcation criterion he still has to show that organisms on the human side of the line need an immaterial intellect.)

  35. #35 Tulse
    September 14, 2011

    Birds have even tinier brains and parrots, ravens and crows seem to have native ability with abstract manipulations of signs, calls and words.

    Alex the African Grey Parrot was famously able to count arbitrary objects, and to indicate what abstract quality a chosen object differed on from a set of other objects (such as colour, shape, or material). His abilities were, at times, almost disturbing in their sophistication.

  36. #36 eric
    September 14, 2011

    James – yep, I got your position. I said “anyone” and “that person” so as not to imply you personally held the position you were describing. I agree with you about the brain and sentience: it’s the ’round earth’ theory in Asimov’s essay.

    Vicki – I had to look it up, Matt’s right. Since we don’t necessarily inherit every gene from each parent, a trace of specific genes overestimates the time to the last common ancestor of a population. It is really telling you the time since the last common ancestor of that gene, not time since last common ancestor of that group of people. The folks who do this sort of thing use simulations of human breeding and migration patterns to calculate most recent common ancestor of people (vs. a gene), and I guess they’ve come up with estimates between about 300 BC and 5,000 BC for the group “all people.” Or so says wikipedia. :) The wiki article also says that these models assume there has been interbreeding between western colonizers and any/all local groups. The modelers freely admit that if this assumption is wrong, that would push the date back by tens of thousands of years.

    So let’s say that the models are right, and every living person in the US can trace their geneaology back to a couple in 4,000 BC Iraq. Okay…but native Americans in the 1400s clearly couldn’t. They only share a recent MCA with everyone else now because of colonial interbreeding that occurred in the last few hundred years. By those same models, historic populations isolated from the eurasian mideast would’ve been soulless in Feser’s terms.

    As I said in the first Feser thread, this really gives me chills. Feser himself might reject the notion of soulless people today and believe we should treat every living person with equal dignity, but he clearly accepts the idea that some historical peoples didn’t have souls. His idea is so similar to 19th century ideas of manifest destiny, white man’s privilege, and justifications for slavery that its somewhat scary.

  37. #37 Iain Walker
    September 14, 2011

    Vicki (#28):

    Can you give me a reference for that most recent common ancestor in the 2000-5000 B.P. range? [snip] it seems to conflict with other recent data, including that Neanderthal (or presumed Neanderthal) DNA is found in most populations but not in people from sub-Saharan Africa, and that Melanesians and only Melanesians seem to have about 5% Denisovan DNA.

    No conflict, since a MRCA is not the only ancestor of modern humans – it’s just the most recent one which is common to all of them. There’s still plenty of room for other, older lineages to have left their mark in sub-sets of the population.

  38. #38 Another Matt
    September 14, 2011

    They only share a recent MCA with everyone else now because of colonial interbreeding that occurred in the last few hundred years. By those same models, historic populations isolated from the eurasian mideast would’ve been soulless in Feser’s terms.

    This would not hold if a common ancestor in the paleolithic had a soul. This has been a very strange conversation to me. I find myself simultaneously wanting to argue that it doesn’t matter because I find the idea of “soul” incoherent, and on the other hand trying to convince theists that “soullessness” is a dangerous idea for the reasons outlined by Eric #35. Maybe it’s just selective soullessness that bothers me, for obvious reasons, but then again Feser claims that the evidence of “human soul” would be the same no matter what type of entity we were looking at: again, a talking dog has a “human soul,” so I don’t think in Feser’s hands it becomes as odious as we might fear.

  39. #39 eric
    September 14, 2011

    Another Matt: This would not hold if a common ancestor in the paleolithic had a soul…then again Feser claims that the evidence of “human soul” would be the same no matter what type of entity we were looking at…

    So now along with the number of people in the story not being literal, the timeline isn’t either (lets ignore the dog thing for the moment).

    When element after element of the story are conceded to be allegorical, one after the other, at some point it just makes more sense to call the whole thing allegorical. In which case, as Jason would say, the whole original sin concept falls apart. We are now discussing two ancient paleolithic humans being given souls out of a whole population of other paleolithic humans, all of this Feser would presumadly agree occurred on a 4.5 billion year old, evolved world. This has exactly what connection to the verses in Genesis 1-2?

    …again, a talking dog has a “human soul”…

    So now we throw the whole concept of inherited sin out the window, too (unless Feser wants to claim A&E were proto-mammals; I don’t think he would). Original sin becomes merely collective punishment visited on unrelated groups with no logical rhyme, reason, or justice.

    And, moreover, Feser’s concept of soul becomes indistinguishable from sentience; an invisible gardner type of phenomenon.

    As I said before, I think F’s solution is a case of deciding the only way to save the patient is to kill the patient. For the fall to be in some way literal, the fall story must be allegorical in every detail.

  40. #40 Dan L.
    September 14, 2011

    You have to run a ‘what will happen if’ projection in your mind, and correctly understand that the other monkeys don’t have access to the same data you do. IIRC, human babies aren’t born with this ability – they have to learn it, too.

    This ability seems to develop at the same time in all human children (6-8 months IIRC?) so I think the rough consensus is that it’s developmental rather than learned.

    Also, infants below six months differentiate arbitrarily between sounds. It is at about six months that children start to form “buckets” for the phonemes of their primary languages. Accents arise from slight differences in how the phonemes are bucketed between languages, but to an infant, two different accents would sound like two different languages.

    I mention this last bit because it raises some interesting questions about the nature of cognition in general and abstraction in particular — humans are physiologically unable to abstract phonemes from sounds until about 6 months. Does this mean newborns don’t have souls? Other data from linguistics and anthropology actually suggests (at least to me) that abstract reasoning is a learned skill acquired culturally rather than an innate talent acquired genetically.

    (I tend to think whether one has perfect pitch or not is related to this 6-month language event — some people learn to abstract intervals (changes in frequency) from the frequencies themselves whereas others somehow just get stuck with the absolute frequencies. The latter have perfect pitch.)

  41. #41 Alan Fox
    September 14, 2011

    I asked Ed Feser (in the “monkey in your soul” thread comments if he felt qualified in arguing biology with Jerry Coyne and he said:

    When have I ever argued biology with Coyne?

    I don’t suppose anyone might point me towards something that Professor may have overlooked?

  42. #42 Another Matt
    September 14, 2011

    Well, this is where my “defense” of Feser ends, because I agree with you (Eric #40). The whole thing is a giant fetid muddle.

    Quibble #1:
    And, moreover, Feser’s concept of soul becomes indistinguishable from sentience; an invisible gardner type of phenomenon.

    According to Feser, animals have imaginations, even hopes and desires. They don’t have abstract concepts like “the number 4″ or “meteorology” even though they can count and react to weather. I don’t understand why it takes an immaterial soul to be able to do this, but whatever.

    Quibble #2
    Original sin becomes merely collective punishment visited on unrelated groups with no logical rhyme, reason, or justice.

    There are Christian traditions that would try to salvage this. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, for instance, original sin didn’t quite catch on as much as it did in the West. Instead of a collective punishment, the fall was taken to be an ontological change (it brought sin and death into the world). There was no punishment — it manifested as a kind of henceforth unavoidable metaphysical “illness” rather than a debt. The incarnation was supposed to fix this by joining god’s essence to human essence, the resurrection was supposed to conquer death (thus it was less of a sacrifice or atonement). Salvation is a process involving theosis instead of a transaction, and hell, according to some versions, is like an extreme version of the 4 year old who decides they hate everyone and sits in the corner with arms folded while everyone else opens presents — in this scenario hell is being in God’s presence without feeling it as love because you’ve become so hateful.

    I guess it’s a nicer story (?), but one that doesn’t seem to be much in play in the US, and it still has tons of theological problems. That story, not depending on original sin as a trait inherited through procreation, would be less susceptible to the arguments above. But I don’t think Feser, being Catholic, has this in mind at all.

    I’m sorry, I guess that was longer than a “quibble,” and I fear I’m becoming tedious to other readers. I only mention it because I assume it will eventually come up as a defense of Christianity somewhere and we should be aware of it.

  43. #43 Birger Johansson
    September 14, 2011

    “And, moreover, Feser’s concept of soul becomes indistinguishable from sentience”

    So if we finally achieve strong AI, computers will have souls? And they will obviously bypass the whole “original sin” business, having no ancestors getting thrown out of Eden.

  44. #44 eric
    September 14, 2011

    @44: So if we finally achieve strong AI, computers will have souls? And they will obviously bypass the whole “original sin” business, having no ancestors getting thrown out of Eden.

    I have no idea what Feser’s thoughts on AIs are. But presumably if sentient dogs would inherit our spiritual malaise, so would sentient AIs.

    I suppose one might dodge the question by claiming that these hypothetical future AIs can’t be sentient, can’t have feelings, they only seem to. Of course, Descartes said the same thing about animals, justifying their torture. As I said before, Feser’s whole argument bears a lot of parallels to 19th century exceptionalism.

  45. #45 Owlmirror
    September 15, 2011

    The wiki article also says that these models assume there has been interbreeding between western colonizers and any/all local groups. The modelers freely admit that if this assumption is wrong, that would push the date back by tens of thousands of years.

    I’m pretty sure that that assumption is definitely wrong — wasn’t there a completely isolated tribe observed in the Amazon rain forest, but not contacted? Also, Sentinelese.

    Hm. Reviewing the Wikipedia article on the Sentinelese, I see it links to one called “Uncontacted peoples”, which include peoples in many different parts of the world.

    Someone is wrong in the scholarly literature!

  46. #46 Owlmirror
    September 15, 2011
    Richard Wein: For example some monkeys make warning sounds to warn of different types of approaching predators. IIRC one example is a sound for a snake. Since this sound corresponds to many different instances of snakes it’s an abstraction.

    There’s an even better, very closely related, example of abstraction. Some primates (can’t remember if this was apes or monkeys) will give out a predator call when they find a rich fig tree, in order to deceive/distract their own kin. This involves a level of absraction and reasoning beyond the predator call itself; i.e., you not only have to know what the predator call means, you have to understand how using it incorrectly will temporarily drive your group away, giving you more time to eat figs.

    I just watched bits of this episode of Nature (no relation to the journal)(and the show appears to be available on Youtube):

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/clever-monkeys/introduction/3946/

    Which included examples of behavior similar to what you describe. It’s actually a bit more complex. High-ranking monkeys take food from low-ranking monkeys, but a low-ranking monkey who gives a (false) alarm call for a snake can use the period while everyone else is in the trees to nom treats without being bullied.

    The show also mentioned combined troops of several different species of monkey, each with their own alarm call for different predators — but all the monkeys appear to have learned the alarm calls for species not their own, and will react appropriately when hearing them.

  47. #47 Another Matt
    September 15, 2011

    I’m pretty sure that that assumption is definitely wrong — wasn’t there a completely isolated tribe observed in the Amazon rain forest, but not contacted? Also, Sentinelese.

    Hm. Reviewing the Wikipedia article on the Sentinelese, I see it links to one called “Uncontacted peoples”, which include peoples in many different parts of the world.

    Someone is wrong in the scholarly literature!

    Not to bash any of the Uncontacted Peoples, but a MRCA of more than 99% of everybody 2000-5000 BP is still pretty damn impressive if it’s true (and I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in souls, so I don’t think there are any hidden “implications”).

  48. #48 Wow
    September 15, 2011

    “and on the other hand trying to convince theists that “soullessness” is a dangerous idea for the reasons outlined by Eric #35.”

    This is only a problem if you demand that any worthy being MUST have a soul.

    I.e. if you don’t believe in the existence of a soul, “soullessness” is no more dangerous than “pinkunicornlessness”.

  49. #49 Iain Walker
    September 15, 2011

    A brief thought on a point from the OP:

    But leaving aside the question of precisely what to call the sin committed by Adam and Eve in procreating with their unensouled brethren (is it bestiality? or merely promiscuity?), we really must ask why Adam and Eve would find it appealing at all to engage in this sin.

    Thinking about this, what their sin most resembles is sex with children or adults with cognitive disabilities. It’s sex with someone who is not able to give fully informed consent. Adam and Eve and their descendants appear to have been the Polanskis of the Palaeolithic.

    Also, this seems to assume normal pair-bonding relationships between ensouled and nonensouled. But it’s not too difficult to imagine an alternative social structure in which (e.g.) the Adam and Eve clan socialise mainly with each other, while keeping harems of unensouled zombies for reproductive purposes.

  50. #50 eric
    September 15, 2011

    Another Matt: Not to bash any of the Uncontacted Peoples, but a MRCA of more than 99% of everybody 2000-5000 BP is still pretty damn impressive if it’s true

    Impressive from a scientific perspective, but horrific from a social/theological one. That would leave “only” 60,000,000 “soulless” people that Feser’s ideology could be used to justify discriminating against.

    Feser’s is just a bad idea. The concept of some people having souls and others not is a step backwards towards pre-20th century justifications for conquest and colonialism.

    Of course, I guess I have to acknowledge the naturalistic fallacy – just because Feser’s idea is socially horrible to me doesn’t make it wrong. But given that he has no real evidence for it, I think we can say that there is no social reason to accept it in the absence of evidence, and many good social reasons to reject it until he comes up with evidence (I’m not holding my breath).

    Iain Walker: Thinking about this, what their sin most resembles is sex with children or adults with cognitive disabilities.

    Keep in mind that it was eating from a tree that got A&E thrown out of eden, not having sex with the soulless. God seems not to have minded the sex-with-zombies thing anywhere near as much as he minded the apple-eating thing.

    Owlmirror: The show also mentioned combined troops of several different species of monkey, each with their own alarm call for different predators — but all the monkeys appear to have learned the alarm calls for species not their own, and will react appropriately when hearing them.

    OT, but I think it is very common for animals to understand a much, much wider range of calls than they can make. Consider dogs understanding human commands as another example. The idea that there should be some parity between “making” and “understanding” calls appears to be a human conceit. In fact, the human ability to do both in about equal measure is not ‘normal’ in the animal kingdom at all, but a wierd exception. The normal, evolutionarily favored state seems to be for animals to devote much more brain power and structure to understanding calls than to making them.

  51. #51 Owlmirror
    September 15, 2011

    I found the transcript for the “Clever Monkeys” episode of Nature online (and posting the link got the comment dumped to moderation, so I’m breaking it up, here).

    livedash.com
    /transcript/nature-(clever_monkeys)/918/KQED/Sunday_March_28_2010/237790/

    Citing the relevant portion of the transcript:

    [begin cite]
    A guenon joins the troop to be groomed.
    Other little guenons line up.
    This friendship has helped scientists to understand one of our greatest abilities — language.
    The jungle, to us, may seem a cacophony of meaningless sounds.
    [ Animals calling ] each animal listens to its own calls, and usually tunes out the rest.
    But some monkeys are multilingual.
    Guenons live here, and there are several species of them.
    Each has its own calls for communicating with other members of its troop.
    These diana monkeys have joined an army of other guenons, a united nations of monkeys, and that requires them to understand each other.
    On the forest floor live sooty mangabeys.
    They specialize in gathering fallen nuts.
    Above are red colobus, spot-nosed and putty-nosed guenons, black and white colobus, campbell’s guenon, and the diana monkey, which live mainly in the upper canopy.
    The monkeys all behave as though they were one troop, moving through the forest together, resting together, and all looking out for predators.
    On the forest floor, the sooty mangabey can rely on the eyes and ears above, and relax, thanks to the alliance.
    If a red colobus spots something like a snake, it gives the red colobus alarm call ” [ shrieking ] a spot-nosed guenon reacts immediately.
    If a diana monkey sees an eagle, the alarm goes out, “eagle,” and all the monkeys look up.
    Each species has a different alarm call, but they all understand each other.
    With eight different monkeys, and about 15 calls each, that’s 120 different sounds.
    The mangabeys see a leopard.
    All the other monkeys call “leopard,” in their own way, but there are other calls in there, too.
    If diana monkeys hear a string of calls by a campbell’s guenon, say, they behave as if they were hearing a sentence.
    Their ability to understand other species gives scientists a running translation.
    Some calls add detail — “maybe,” or “not ” if the sounds are in a different order, it means something else.
    Grammar, the basis of true language, was once thought of as uniquely human.
    Even chimps have not yet been shown to have this ability in the wild, but monkeys have achieved it.
    Diana monkeys also have a voice box more like ours, so alarm calls may be only a small part of their vocabulary.
    [end cite]

  52. #52 Another Matt
    September 15, 2011

    Impressive from a scientific perspective, but horrific from a social/theological one. That would leave “only” 60,000,000 “soulless” people that Feser’s ideology could be used to justify discriminating against.

    Also horrific from a historic perspective as well, to think that might have been enough colonial activity to move MRCA up by millenia. I still find it rather shocking from a scientific standpoint, if it’s true (or mostly true).

    Anyway, I think Feser’s arguing that the most recent soulless person would have been in the paleolithic, and the “soulless lines” would have died out once the projects of language and reason got going. Again, I don’t want to defend this!

  53. #53 Another Matt
    September 15, 2011

    “and on the other hand trying to convince theists that “soullessness” is a dangerous idea for the reasons outlined by Eric #35.”

    This is only a problem if you demand that any worthy being MUST have a soul.

    I.e. if you don’t believe in the existence of a soul, “soullessness” is no more dangerous than “pinkunicornlessness”.

    Here’s the thing though. It’s no problem for me at all, but I think it IS a problem if someone believes that soul-stuff exists, that anyone worthy must have it, and that some people don’t have it. That sounds like a sociological emergency, and the solution is either to try to get them not to believe in souls — or failing that, to get them to at least acknowledge that all people have one.

  54. #54 Vicki
    September 15, 2011

    Just popping in to say thanks for the explanation on the MRCA.

  55. #55 Wow
    September 15, 2011

    “Here’s the thing though. It’s no problem for me at all, but I think it IS a problem if someone believes that soul-stuff exists”

    But then why are YOU worried over it? Your worry again:

    “I find myself simultaneously wanting to argue that it doesn’t matter because I find the idea of “soul” incoherent, and on the other hand trying to convince theists that “soullessness” is a dangerous idea for the reasons outlined by Eric #35.”

    Tell them that it doesn’t matter because their idea of soul is incoherent.

    Option 1: It works. They now no longer think a soul exists.

    Option 2: It works, they explain a coherent idea of what a soul is. You can then assign whether this is a dangerous proposition.

    Option 3: It doesn’t work. You then show them the problems of soullessness. They then refine or back down.

    Option 4: Nothing works. You have no worries because neither case made a difference.

    There’s no need to worry about how soullessness is a bad idea unless they come up with a coherent version of soul. Until then, get them to explain what a soul is.

  56. #56 Another Matt
    September 15, 2011

    Tell them that it doesn’t matter because their idea of soul is incoherent.

    I agree with you, but my point is that I am more worried about the idea of “exclusive ensoulment,” which I find both wrong and immediately hateful, than I am about the idea of “soul,” which I merely find wrong, and only possibly hateful on implication upon reflection. I’m worried about the kinds of actions that wrong+hateful lead to; I’d rather someone believe that everyone had souls than to believe that some do and others don’t, if they’re going to believe something wrong come what may.

  57. #57 Ruth
    September 16, 2011

    ‘the last common ancestor of all humanity, the “Y-chromosomal Adam” analogue of “Mitochondrial Eve”,’

    Just a nit-pick here. Y-chromasomal Adam is not the last common ancestor of all humans. Y-chromasomal Adam is the man from whom all current male humans are descended through the male line, traced by the Y-chromasome.

    The last common ancestor of all current (male and female) humans will have lived much more recently than Y-chromasomal Adam. Wikipedia gives it as between 2,000 and 5,000 years ago.

  58. #58 Wow
    September 16, 2011

    “I agree with you, but my point is that I am more worried about the idea of “exclusive ensoulment,” which I find both wrong and immediately hateful, than I am about the idea of “soul,””

    And to be clear, I’m not arguing with you, I’m trying to direct your passion appropriately.

    If their idea of soul is incoherent, then how can exclusive ensoulment be assigned? And if you can’t say what a soul is or does for someone, how can its lack be given a consequence?

    It’s only after the soul has been coherently explained can anything be done about the ensoulment problem. Else they can get around any worries by changing their mind about what a soul is and does.

  59. #59 Stig
    September 23, 2011

    Silly argument. However, if you were to read the Biblical Adam and Eve, as a story of the very first scientific research team, the Curies of their eternal time, if you will, conducting the first experiment and verification together(original sin?), then the answer to whether science and religion can reconcile is obvious.

  60. #60 Wow
    September 23, 2011

    “then the answer to whether science and religion can reconcile is obvious.”

    Really?

    The only obvious answer I can see is that the answer is “No”, since religion requires you to believe, not find out.

  61. #61 Webmaster
    October 6, 2011

    Feser writes: “For if it turned out that apes really did have genuine intellectual powers, what would follow instead is that they too had immaterial souls — and indeed, that they were arguably therefore “human” in the metaphysical sense even if not in the genetic sense, for they would in that case be rational animals.”

    That completely misses Jason’s point, which was to refute Feser’s demarcation line. If Feser draws a new demarcation line, such that apes are now on the “human” side of the line, that new line will be vulnerable to similar criticisms.

  62. #62 Webmaster
    October 11, 2011

    Shea touched off the dust-up by arguing that there’s nothing particularly radical, at least from the perspective of the Catholic tradition, about interpreting the first books of Genesis as a “figurative” account of a primeval event, rather than as literal historiography that requires that two and only two human creatures were on the scene when mankind exchanged our original innocence for disobedience and shame.

  63. #63 Samantha
    November 2, 2011

    Fantastic post I very much enjoyed it, keep up the good work.

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