Recensions et comptes rendusPhilosophie

Richard Swinburne, Are We Bodies or Souls? Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019, 14,2 × 21,8 cm, 208 p., ISBN 978-0-198-83149-5

  • Matthew Allen Newland

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  • Matthew Allen Newland
    Adjunct Faculty, Humanities Department, State University of New York at Jefferson

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Cover of Histoire vécue / Histoire écrite, Volume 75, Number 3, September–December 2023, pp. 317-471, Science et Esprit

Richard Swinburne’s recent book, Are We Bodies or Souls? defends the author’s response to his titular question: that human beings are not merely physical beings, but composites of soul and body. In this book, Swinburne presents a rigorous and precise defense of Cartesian substance dualism, taking a rather surprising position for our contemporary age (where, as the author himself notes early on, textbooks on the philosophy of mind tend to begin with a quick refutation of his argument) (p. 9). While physicalism and even property dualism remain fairly standard understandings of the mind and its relation to the body, Cartesian substance dualism seems anachronistic. Therefore, Swinburne must make an especially committed effort to defend his understanding of the mind, what it is, and how it connects/links/interacts with the body. Over the course of this short book, Swinburne makes use of precisely articulated definitions and thought experiments, in order to make his case. Whether he succeeds or not is another question, though my own thesis research (for which philosophy of mind was the primary topic) allows me to respond more decisively than I would otherwise be able to. In short, I will agree that Swinburne effectively argues that the mind is our primary component. However, I would also say that the very same argument could be used to defend a form of idealism, rather than dualism (indeed, I am not sure that dualism is the only conclusion a reader could arrive at, given Swinburne’s reasons and arguments). Swinburne begins his book with a precise definition of the form of dualism he intends to defend, distinguishing it from both physicalist and property dualist understandings of the mind, and its distinction from the body. He also notes the distinction between personhood and existence as a human being, noting that without bodies, our minds might logically continue to exist, even if no longer in “human” form (for our humanity is dependent on an embodied existence). Swinburne concludes that we are, essentially, nonphysical persons, but we can interact with the bodies we are joined to as human beings. Swinburne uses the question of personal identity to explore the implications and definitions which help him understand his position/point of view. This also allows him to demonstrate his understanding through the use of imaginative, hypothetical thought experiments. For example, Swinburne is both able to argue against physicalism and demonstrate the independent existence of the soul by asking us to imagine a hypothetical brain transplant (suppose the left hemisphere of some person is put into the skull of another person, whose own left hemisphere is then been placed in the first person’s, essentially making two new hole brains by switching half of each) (pp. 54-55). The fact that we cannot say who the original person is, when we consider each of these two human beings (for example: is it the person with the left half, in either case, since that is the location of the language center, Broca’s area?) Logically, the two people with the switched halves of the same two brains cannot both be the same person. Therefore, there must be more to a person than the body. This compels Swinburne to reject the physicalist position as ineffective/insufficient to account for our individual, subjective existence. To briefly describe the contents of each chapter: Swinburne spends Chapter 2 of his book discussing philosophical terms which will be put to use in later chapters. Among them are what he calls “mental” and “physical events” (to be discussed in further detail shortly). Swinburne’s discussion of theories of personal identity then follows in Chapter 3, where we see physicalist, property dualist, …