Evolution of the Soul (Richard Swinburne)

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Swinburne, Richard.  Evolution of the Soul.  Oxford.


person: anyone who has the facets of consciousness which men possess, whether human or not (Swinburne 4).

substance: a component of the world which interacts causally with other components (5). They have properties (whether monadic, relating to themselves, or polyadic, relating to others).

event: states of substances.  They are tokens, particular occurrences.

properties: universals that are instantiated in many different substances in many different occasions.  Properties can be either mental or physical. Physical properties are publicly accessible. There is no privileged access to them (6).

mental properties: only the subject has privileged access to them.  Someone can look at me and see a cut and deduce that I am cut, but not necessarily that I am feeling pain. Or, they can’t know what I think about the pain.  

mental events: events which involve  instantiation of mental properties (John was in pain yesterday).  

Different Views on the Mind-Body Problem

  1. Hard Materialism; mind-brain identity theory.  
  2. Soft Materialism: property dualism.  Mental properties are different from physical properties.  
  3. Soft dualism: distinct from Plato and Descartes.  Makes no assumption on soul’s structure or immortality (10).  


A thought is not the same thing as a belief.  I can have a belief without being conscious of having a belief.  Not so with thoughts (63).


criterion of belief:  Have a lively (as opposed to faint) idea of it (Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 1.3.7).  It seems Hume confuses “belief” and “thought.” I can have a belief without being aware of it.

To believe p s to believe p is more probable (greater than ½ ) than ~p.

Structure of the Soul

If we say the person can continue if the body is destroyed, we mean it is logically possible (146).

basic argument: knowledge of what happens to bodies and their parts will not necessarily give you knowledge of the persons within them (147).   Cf., B. Williams, “Mad Surgeon Story.” Further, a man’s mental properties are not necessarily the same as his physical properties (155). At least, we have no reason for thinking so and those who hold to materialism have far more to prove.  

sub-argument: these claims for the soul should be verifiable.  Continuity of brain and apparent memory do not constitute personal identity, but they can provide evidence for it (155).  

The Evidence for Personal Identity

memory.  Fallible but reliable.  A source of belief-justification, if not the strongest form.

Origin and Life of the Soul

problem: can the soul function when it is not having conscious episodes (sleep, etc)? Swinburne makes the distinction that the soul cannot “function” without a properly functioning brain, but it can exist without the brain (176).   

I am not so sure Swinburne’s evolutionary narrative accounts for morality. He asserts with Darwin that those who evolved have well-marked social instincts which would eventually acquire morality (224).  The only evidence he offers is that animals demonstrate altruism towards their kin (except for those animals who eat their young and eat their mates, no doubt). The universality of morality, therefore, can be attributed to some “core principles” (226).

I am not persuaded and neither was T. H. Huxley.  Swinburne admits with Huxley that the “practice of what is ethically best…is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic system” (quoted in Swinburne, 227).  

His argument for free will is along the lines that Quantum Mechanics has ruled out a universal physical determinism, which would be our wills aren’t determined by our brain-states.  So far, so good. The rest of the chapter consisted of mathematical formulas before which even the mightiest reader would quail.

The Structure of the Soul

Agents have belief-desire sets.  Per Quine, our beliefs “form a net which impinges on experience only at its edges” (see Quine, From a Logical Point of View, 42-46).  Our beliefs have to “mesh” with other beliefs (though there can be inconsistencies that aren’t obvious).  Swinburne takes Quine’s correct thesis and adds to it: desires interact with our belief network (Swinburne 263-264).  

Desires require beliefs.  If a man desire heroin and knows the effects of heroin, and you inject him with heroin, then as the effects wear off he will desire more heroin.  If you inject a sleeping man with heroin, as the effects wear off he will feel uneasy but won’t desire heroin (not knowing what to desire).

There are three ways to change desires: bodily change, a belief change, and a change of other desires (270-271).  Swinburne gives an extended and fascinating account of how our beliefs and desires function. The upshot of this is our beliefs can’t always be “changed” by neural procedures.  If one did succeed in “switching” beliefs, my other beliefs in the “web,” themselves not changed, would “conspire to restore” that former belief which gave unity (281). Granted, this isn’t a powerful stand-alone argument for the existence of the soul, but it is a difficulty for materialist views.  

The person tempted to suicide might go to counseling.  This reveals conflicted desires within his psyche. He is exhibiting a desire not to have a desire to commit suicide.  

an argument against determinism: insofar as our beliefs which require reasons for their justification do not have acceptance of those reasons among their causes, they are unjusified (290).

Future of the soul:

Can the brain be reactivated?

Will the soul function without the brain’s functioning?  Three arguments

  1. parapsychology.  Swinburne rejects mediums talking with the dead and opts for the clairvoyance argument.  He gives more weight to near-death experiences (NDE) since those can be verified. However, he rejects them because in most cases there is no evidence the brain stopped functioning even though the heart did.  (???)
  2. natural survival.  

His conclusion: the soul cannot survive the body simply on its own powers.  I suppose that’s true, but Swinburne comes dangerously close to (if not actually affirming) “soul sleep.”

Excellent discussions on supervenience.


*Swinburne offers lots of penetrating suggestions on the mind-body problem and how hard materialism really can’t account for it.  

*Excellent, if incomplete section on beliefs and belief-formation.



About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Book Review, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Evolution of the Soul (Richard Swinburne)

  1. Pingback: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Account of Nature is Almost Certainly False | Blog of the Wars of the Lord

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