The centuries-long debate over what resides between our ears
By T. M. Luhrmann
September 7, 2015
Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind by George Makari; Norton, 608 pp., $39.95
In a trenchant book arguing that religious belief is intuitive and natural, psychologist Justin Barrett—citing the work of philosopher Alvin Plantinga—remarks that belief in God is as rationally justifiable as belief in another person’s mind. You can’t see either one directly, and each of them seems self-evidently true to those who believe in them. The logical proof and empirical evidence for the one are about as good as they are for the other.
It’s a startling comparison. Barrett and Plan-tinga make it, of course, because they think that their readers believe in minds but not necessarily in God. But the comparison also makes one realize just how peculiar the idea of the mind really is. From early childhood, all humans develop deep intuitions that other people have intentions, beliefs, and wants. We use the term “mind” to describe the invisible place where those intentions, beliefs, and wants are located. What on earth is that? What is—to use René Descartes’s phrase—the “thing that thinks”?
The remarkable achievement of George Makari’s Soul Machine is to show how differently people have answered that question over time and how many of the ideas we take for granted about our own minds are relatively recent in origin. Makari, director of the Institute for the History of Psychiatry at Cornell’s Weill Medical College, is also the author of the acclaimed Revolution in Mind (2008), a rich history of the rise of psychoanalysis. Soul Machine acts as that book’s prequel, telling the story of the emergence of what we could call the psychological mind: an understanding of mind as neither soul nor body but as natural nonetheless. The story is not straightforward because “mind” is such an odd and contradictory object. But it is a riveting one.
The modern mind, Makari argues, emerged in the West from the Enlightenment debates of the 17th century. Before then, the mind was understood more or less as the soul, eternal and inextricably connected to God. The soul gave humans the capacity to reason and set them apart from animals. “Made of flesh, torn by desire,” Makari writes, “humans alone held some of that heavenly power to think and not be ruled by their passions.”
To describe the mind, you need to have a vision of the body, of the nature of nature, and of God. Ancient and medieval understandings of all three fell apart in the tumult of the Scientific Revolution and the Reformation. Soul Machine describes the new formulations that arose, one after another, like fish thrashing in a river.
Descartes, for example, was responding to French philosopher Marin Mersenne’s suggestion that nature was a machine, like a clock. We needed to postulate God as a clockmaker, but the mechanical philosophy allowed nature to be investigated skeptically. Descartes adopted this idea of nature and expanded it to include bodies, but sharply separated the mind from the body, not only to preserve his own phenomenological experience—“inner experience was immediate, unquestionable, and utterly unique”—but his Christianity.
His most outspoken opponent was French philosopher Pierre Gassendi, who asserted that matter itself could think—a form of radical materialism developed even further by British philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who gave this “thing that thinks” the meaning we have come to associate with it. To be fair, the meaning of mind had already begun to shift in England a century before Locke. “Having in mind, having to mind, and needing to remind,” Makari writes, “grew to imply the concept of an inner possession, first synonymous with the soul, but gradually different.” Locke took these various meanings of mind and transformed them into a full theory of an internal bodily, thinking object. “More than anyone before him, John Locke reified the mind, made it a thing.”
In Makari’s telling, no one settles this argument. But as this 150-year period unfolds, and as different figures interpret witchcraft, madness, political free will, and the meaning of magnetism and bumps on the head, the brain becomes more and more important and what happens in the mind has less and less to do with God.
Soul Machine can sometimes be frustrating. Makari tells his story through people more than through philosophical concepts, and a sprawling array of people at that. This makes the book engaging but sometimes confusing, as if you are overhearing a conversation at a brilliant literary salon, where an assertion is being batted back and forth above the chatter and clink of wineglasses.
But this book succeeds where few others have. There is so much that many of us in the West blithely assume about mental events: that who we are resides in what we think and feel; that minds are possessions we can lose; that minds are fundamentally different from bodies but still natural; that the imagination is precious because it can carry us beyond the mundane. These are not universal truths but cultural attitudes. They arise from the way our forebears tried to solve the puzzle of the thing that thinks without God. But the puzzle isn’t solvable. If you remove God as the primary explanation for consciousness, you are left with human thought and intention as epiphenomena, as accidents and byproducts—a deeply unsatisfactory account of what we experience as so fundamental to our nature. Makari writes: “Modernity has answered many questions, but it has never found a way to fully reconcile the complex triumvirate of body, soul and mind. Instead, it has left us haunted, divided, with competing histories, values and rationales that have been at odds ever since.” We are still torn between the idea that there is something soul-like and something machine-like about our minds.
We always will be.
T. M. Luhrmann is the author of Of Two Minds: An Anthropologist Looks at American Psychiatry.