Review of David Lund's 'Persons, Souls and Death'
Brandon (Ed)
Source: Metapsychology Online Reviews, Jul 28th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 31)
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  1. The longer I read philosophy the more inclined I am to accept Bradley's remark that "metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct." Considerable ingenuity can be displayed in defense of a position, but that it is this position rather than some other that is ultimately defended seems not to be at the mercy of critical reflection itself.
  2. This dispiriting thought was prompted by Lund's book. It contains, in its first part, a fairly dense but instructive exposition of the profound difficulties attending our grasp of the nature of human persons, and argues that we should reject the physicalism that in one form or another is the official line among most contemporary philosophers and psychologists. Its second part examines various types of evidence for the post mortem survival of human persons, appealing to near death experiences, apparitions, examples of reincarnation (some of which might be possession), and mediumship.
  3. As Lund recognises, most people, and I include myself here, would think that whatever the logical possibilities allowed for by the argumentation in the first part, the claims about the paranormal examined in the second hardly deserve serious attention. Of course, one reason for my saying so is that I am not inclined to follow Lund in part one in affirming that "a person has a deep, irreducible essence consisting of a unitary, non-composite, indivisible subject of conscious states that endures through time while its states change" (from the summary final chapter, p. 206), though I am prepared to grant that a view like that is probably what we do actually suppose in our "common sense" thinking about ourselves. As it happens I have been dipping in to James O'Shea's recent book about Sellars (Polity, 2007), and find there ideas about the "myth of the categorical given" that are relevant to this disagreement with Lund. As O'Shea puts it, "there exists no privileged type of direct awareness, whether intellectual insight or sensory receptivity, that has the following revelatory power: simply being directly aware in that way of something x which is in fact of such and such a kind or sort by itself provides one with the direct awareness of x as being of that kind or sort" (p. 115). Lund does seem to think that by attending carefully to the phenomenology of memory and by rational reflection on our ideas of substance and property, among other things, we can see that the self is the immaterial subject of experiences he describes. I would rather go with Sellars in letting our best explanatory theory of the world tell us the real nature of the entities we meet with in self-reflection.
  4. While not wanting to endorse his conclusion, I would recommend Lund's part one as providing a comprehensive survey of the difficulties we face in making sense of human selves without endorsing his type of Cartesian view (though on several occasions his arguments are very condensed and he refers us to discussions elsewhere for more details). He invokes the directedness or intentionality of consciousness, a feature not found in any (other) physical entity (p. 36). We do not rely upon sense perception to know what our consciousness is like, what it is like to be us, an interiority again absent from our picture of other physical objects, nor is that knowledge mediated by anything else. Lund stresses that "the necessary ownership of a person's consciousness is radically different from the way in which the constituents of a person's body are owned by it" (p. 38), the latter in continual flux and potentially and actually separate from it at various times. Our consciousness, however, is apparently indivisible; it has no parts, spatial or temporal. In remembering an experience, Lund affirms, "part of what I remember is myself having it" (p. 38) which thereby reveals the unity through time of my self. (While not in general trying to answer Lund here, I would, for the record, draw attention to a remark in Parfit's seminal 1970 paper1 on personal identity "it cannot be a part of what I seem to remember ... that I ... am the person who had this experience. That I am is something that I automatically assume" (I am quoting from the reprint in Beebe and Dodd's Reading Metaphysics, Blackwell, 2007, p. 22-23) and his reference to an earlier paper by A. B. Palma2 in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 1964, for a discussion of this mistake.)
  5. Lund passes on to the apparent nonspatiality of consciousness, its role in making meaning possible, in giving us access to unactualised possibilities, and to grounding truth and error, and rationality. The material world contains no possibilities and no errors. Nor does it contain moral principles, or generality or abstract objects such as numbers or classes. Lund ends this long list of objections to materialism with an appeal to the qualitative nature of our sensory experience, Locke's secondary qualities (p. 43). He then goes on to rehearse the difficulties confronting physicalist attempts to gloss the self in ways that attempt to counter them. Here he has a neat argument that we can never find, as Hume said, our selves by introspection because that would require a kind of circularity: "even if the subject I was looking for in my introspective search were a possible object of introspective observation and I were able to introspectively observe it, I would be unable to recognize it as myself … unless I already had an awareness of myself that I possessed independently of any such observation" (p. 49). Many of these issues are, of course, at the centre of current debate in philosophy, but it is refreshing for them to marshaled for so unfashionable a conclusion. Lund also has a useful chapter on causation that rightly insists on the bruteness of causal connections, their opaqueness to our wish for understanding.
  6. Having, as he thinks, established the logical and metaphysical possibility of selves divorced from physical bodies in part one, Lund turns to consider what evidence there might be for its actual truth. And here he invokes, as we have seen, a curious array of bizarre stories, not made much more appealing by the place of William James or Henry Sidgwick in investigating them.
  7. There are two considerations I would adduce to justify the kind of dismissal I would recommend here. One is the continuity between human and other life. The other is the incredible rarity of the paranormal.
  8. Lund admits that there is much evidence of the extremely close connection between states of our brain and our mental life. What he seems not to acknowledge is that there are no grounds for distinguishing human development from the development of other living things in such a way that, in our case and ours only (I am not sure Lund would buy the 'only' – he seems to allow for spectral dogs at one point), something non-physical is suddenly added to the process. Neither in the development of a fetus, nor in the evolutionary development of homo sapiens, can one find a non-arbitrary point at which to make such an addition. Of course, one could go the whole hog and postulate panpsychism, but that flies in the face of the grounds we usually think we have for denying that sticks and stones have any kind of consciousness (see further my review3 of a book devoted to Galen Strawson's version of this doctrine).
  9. My other point is that the view Lund wants to defend as overall the most plausible account of things is one attributing to each of us a soul that survives our death. Such souls on occasion are said to be met by their deceased relatives, appear in places associated with their quotidian life, get themselves reincarnated or take possession of another's body, and send messages via mediums. The doctrine says we are all like that, not that one in a million of us is (though that would be astonishing enough). But if we are all thus endowed, why are our attempts to contact our surviving relatives so few and far between? Why did Myers, Gurney, and Sidgwick so soon abandon their joint plan to convince the world of their post mortem existence (their elaborate dispersion of "cross-correspondences" is the last example Lund uses in the chapter on mediums, pp. 199-203)? Why was Runki so concerned about his thighbone that had been immured in another's house (p. 198)? Of course one can tell stories to explain the almost universal neglect of this world by those that have died, but if we suppose a few have managed to overcome whatever obstacles there might be, their number and their lack of zeal seem incomprehensible.
  10. As Hume wrote in his essay on miracles (see "Hume (David) - Of Miracles") about effects ascribed to the tomb of the Abbé Paris, "The curing of the sick, giving hearing to the deaf, and sight to the blind, were everywhere talked of as the usual effects of that holy sepulcher. But what is more extraordinary; many of the miracles were immediately proved upon the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, and on the most eminent theatre that is now in the world. Nor is this all: A relation of them was published and dispersed everywhere; nor were the Jesuits, though a learned body, supported by the civil magistrate, and determined enemies to those opinions, in whose favor the miracles were said to have been wrought, ever able distinctly to refute or detect them. Where shall we find such a number of circumstances, agreeing to the corroboration of one fact? And what have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events, which they relate? And this surely, in the eyes of all reasonable people, will alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation."
  11. Ed Brandon is, by training, a philosopher, and now is working in a policy position in the University of the West Indies at its Cave Hill Campus in Barbados.


Not a review of "Lund (David) - Perception, Mind and Personal Identity: a Critique of Materialism", but useful nonetheless? Abstract is full text - also see Link.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Presumably "Parfit (Derek) - Personal Identity".

Footnote 2: Presumably "Palma (A.B.) - Memory and Personal Identity".

Footnote 3: See "Brandon (Ed) - Review of Galen Strawson's 'Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?'".

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