Letter to the Editor

From Fr Peter Mullen

Sir

It was encouraging to read Stephen Wilson’s penetrating  criticisms of those extreme monists who claim that there is only matter and that supposedly mental or spiritual properties and events are “really” material. This dogma fails because it cannot account for the whole of human experience: love is not material, nor is envy, nor the chord of C-major, nor the act of choosing. It is, for instance, nonsense to speak of genes making choices. And it is a particular kind of nonsense defined by Gilbert Ryle as a category mistake – as if when it is announced that the old lady arrived in a bath-chair and a flood of tears, the chair was actually being borne along in a physical flood.

Wilson alludes to David Hume’s notion that what we call “I” is an illusion, that personal identity is a fiction and there is only a relentless and elusive series of impressions and ideas. Hume may have believed that briefly when he was sitting down in his study writing a philosophical treatise; but, when he accepted Dr Johnson’s invitation to call round for a drink, he certainly accepted the invitation on behalf of the real person Davy Hume – and not on behalf of a bundle of ideas and impressions. Moreover, materialistic dogma rapidly develops into the determinism which denies the freedom of the will. (When Hume decided to visit Sam Johnson, his choice was a real one). For, as R.G. Collingwood wrote, “We know that our wills are free as soon as we make a choice” or, as Johnson himself said even more pithily, “We know our wills are free, and there’s an end on’t!” 

Of course there is an “I” – and even Immanuel Kant agreed though, in his circumlocutionary style, he referred to this as “the thematic unity of apperception.” We all, of ourselves, necessarily presuppose the existence of “I” as the agent of all we do and experience. What could it possibly mean to deny this?

While it certainly doesn’t do to be a fundamentalist materialist, neither does it do for Catholics to adopt spiritual monism. Again, it is a category mistake to think that the soul is “in” the body, for the only thing that can be inside a physical thing is another physical thing. This doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as the soul: only, just as the mind is the body in its intellectual aspect, the soul is the body in its spiritual mode – the soma-pneumatikon of St Paul.

I am grateful to Stephen Wilson for giving us some philosophical theology in New Directions.

Yours sincerely

Rev’d Dr Peter Mullen

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2018-10-23T11:43:33+00:00 February 2018 Articles|