On arrogance (with notes on souls and cosmic consciousness)

The NYAS panel, left to right: Emily Esfahani Smith, yours truly, Michael Ruse, host Steve Paulson, and Jay Lombard

Last week I participated to an interesting panel discussion at the New York Academy of Science, on “Seeking the why of our existence.” We were supposed to talk about meaning and purpose. I am usually somewhat weary of these sorts of panels, as the topic is often vague and open to far too much interpretation, and you never know what the other panelists’ take is going to be until you are on stage and find yourself thinking: “how do I respond to that??”

Nevertheless, I accepted, partly at the prospect of enjoying the stunning view of Manhattan from n. 7 World Trade Center, where the Academy is located, partly because my esteemed colleague Michael Ruse was also on the panel, and partly because, well, how bad could it possibly be? Joining Michael and me were Jay Lombard, MD, Clinical Director of Neuroscience at LifeSpan Medicine; creator, co-founder, and Chief Scientific Officer at Genomind; author of “The Mind of God: Neuroscience, Faith, and a Search for the Soul.” And Emily Esfahani Smith, MAPP, Writer, journalist, and author of “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.” The whole thing moderated by journalist Steve Paulson, Executive Producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge.”

Sure enough, it was not bad at all, it actually turned out to be a pleasant evening with good questions from the audience and very able moderation by Paulson. Still, I managed to get called “arrogant” twice, by two fellow panelists (and a third time by a member of the audience), one of whom was Michael himself! (If you know Michael, genial Brit that he is, you may think it odd that he would hurl such an insult to someone else.) My Stoic training has taught me not to get offended, so I responded with humor rather than resentment. But the whole episode made me think about why I do so often receive such label. Immediately discarding the admittedly possible answer that I really am arrogant, I figured something else must be afoot.

Let’s begin with the basics, that is, with the dictionary definition of arrogant:

1. Making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights; overbearingly assuming; insolently proud.
2. Characterized by or proceeding from arrogance, or a sense of superiority, self-importance, or entitlement.

Now let me tell you why first Jay Lombard, MD, and then Michael himself, thought it appropriate to use the epithet with me. You will be the judge of whether they were justified.

Lombard, pretty early on in the evening, said that — as a neuroscientist — he thinks it is obvious that souls exist. I did a double take, shook my head, and asked what he meant by that. He was ambivalent. On the one hand, it seems, he meant what most people mean by that term: some sort of vaguely defined, incorporeal thing that survives our bodily death and decay, and that in some way carries our “essence” to whatever “next stage” of existence. But when I pressed him, he said that the soul was “the same as” the self.

Well, for one, those two definitions are not at all compatible, unless by “self” one means an incorporeal thing that survives our bodily death and decay — and most people, especially cognitive scientists, definitely do not mean that when they use the word. Moreover, as I pointed out to Lombard, the “self” is, at best, a dynamic “bundle of sensations,” as David Hume so perceptively described it back in the 18th century. And modern cognitive science is squarely behind this notion, as opposed to some Platonic conception of the self as being an unchangeable essence of who we “really” are.

Moreover, I told my interlocutor that he was engaging in a bit of bate and switch: if by “soul” he truly meant the self, why was he using a word so metaphysically and theologically loaded. If, conversely, he meant the above mentioned immaterial essence, then I was pretty confident that there is no such thing. That, of course, is when I got the label of “arrogant.”

Arguably, I should have been more careful with my language. I should have said that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of souls (defined as above), and that, moreover, there is no particular reason to think they exist. Hence, it is perfectly reasonable to take the provisional position that they don’t, until proven wrong. To invoke Hume again, a reasonable person proportions her beliefs to the evidence. No evidence, no justification for belief. It’s as Bayesian as that. But these qualifications should have been obvious from the context of the conversation, with no need to spell them out. Lombard, instead of seeking clarifications of my position (as I had done of his) chose to interpret it in the least charitable way possible, a good rhetorical move, perhaps, but a bad philosophical one.

The discussion went off in a number of other directions, and then I got a second “that’s arrogant” accusation, near the end of the evening, this time by Michael Ruse. I do not, unfortunately, recall the precise wording of that bit of the conversation, but what I was arguing was that human mental powers — including consciousness — are of a degree the like of which is nowhere to be found in the animal world. Again, I probably should have been very careful to clarify that what I meant by that was that the quantitative differences between us and every other living organisms are such that they essentially amount to qualitative differences, not that they are, in fact, qualitative. But Michael — a philosopher! — decided to use the same rhetorical strategy adopted by Lombard, rather than actually engage in a conversation. Scoring points, apparently, is more essential than understanding.

Now, my position on this is far from radical or unsubstantiated, and is very well defended, for instance, by one of the scientists who has actually spent decades of his career studying cognition in humans, as well as its evolution: Kevin Laland, the author of Darwin’s Unfinished Synthesis: How Culture Made the Human Mind, the book we are going to tackle next in our book club series. He has tons of evidence that licenses the conclusion that human beings are incredibly different from anything else on earth, when it comes to the mind.

I know that in these times of revived interest in panpsychism it is not cool to say that humans are special, even though researchers who actually work on these issues agree that they are (in the so-quantitative-that-it-becomes-qualitative sense just described). Hell, some people even think that bacteria and plants are conscious, though of course there is not a shred of evidence that they are (invoking Mr. Hume again). On my part, I simply think that one ought to be careful about making those claims, if nothing else because vegetarians and vegans are going to be really upset. (I’m not kidding: I have vegetarian friends who are very concerned by the possibility that the carrots they eat may be sentient.)

So I fully expected a negative reaction from Lombard, but not from Michael! And yet he accused me of going “Cartesian,” as in assuming that animals are simply robots, while only humans have the divine spark. This would be comical except for the fact that Michael ought to have known better. We have frequented each other, and known about each other’s work, and in fact even collaborated on a number of projects, for literally decades. He knows I am an atheist (which means I don’t believe in divine sparks of any kind), and that I am an evolutionary biologist (which means that I don’t believe in any sort of qualitative exceptionality of Homo sapiens). And yet, I was the arrogant one because I stated the obvious, scientifically grounded, reality, while he got away waxing poetic about the entirely implausible, and certainly completely lacking in evidence, notion that rocks and atoms have degrees of consciousness!

Back to the definition of arrogance, seems to me pretty clear that I wasn’t “making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights,” was not “overbearingly assuming,” and certainly not “insolently proud.” But I was reminding the good doctor Lombard, as well as my colleague and endowed chair professor of philosophy, that honest intellectualism is bound by reason and evidence. If there is anything that could reasonably qualify as arrogant is precisely what both Lombard and Ruse where doing: making sweeping ontological claims, i.e., claims about what is real, without a shred of empirical evidence to back them up. This, after all, was a panel discussion held at the NY Academy of Science, not of science fiction, fantasy, or wild speculation. It is a disservice to the public to lend credence — with impressive titles such as MD and PhD — to notions that are speculative at best, and incoherent or false at worst.

Do I know for a fact that atoms are not conscious, or that souls do not exist? Nope. But in both cases the burden of proof is squarely on the shoulders of those who do. It is not arrogant to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence. On the contrary, it is the only epistemically modest thing to do.

103 thoughts on “On arrogance (with notes on souls and cosmic consciousness)

  1. Daniel Kaufman

    Behavior modification is not punishment in the sense of retributive justice, so the point is irrelevant to the one I was making.

    As for agency, this isn’t the place to go into this, but I don’t think animals have any. I’ve written quite a bit on the subject in the last year, so if anyone is interested on my thoughts as to what agency actually consists of, they can check out the stuff I’ve published over at EA.


  2. SocraticGadfly

    Per the Zeit piece, per Massimo and — yes, Massimo! — per Libet, part of human agency is having a “veto” on pondered or proposed actions by one’s self. I know dogs don’t, and i’m pretty sure that chimps and bonobos don’t.


    If there are “souls,” then, when are they created? Does a single soul undergo fission in the case of identical twins if, per good Catholics, ensoulment starts at conception? Teratomas? Human chimeras? https://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2008/02/soul-ensoulment-at-conception-has-no.html


  3. synred

    ensoulment starts at conception

    i think Thomas Aquinas put enrollment around 2-3 months. It’s been moved, but I don’t think there is agreement.

    I find it ironic that the science deniers that want to put ‘person-hood’ at fertilized egg wouldn’t know about fertilized eggs w/o science.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. SocraticGadfly

    The other “ensoulment” fork in the road is potentially even more perilous. If souls aren’t connected to conception, when DO they become embodied? And why? Mormon spirit births from Kolob? Eventual implantation of a reincarnated soul, or less sensibly yet, per Buddhism, a reincarnated life force? A post-conception ensoulment seems to have even less explanatory power than ensoulment at conception.


  5. Robin Herbert

    As far as I can tell the “that view is arrogant” move began with professional scholars and went into the general community rather than the other way around.

    Even Carl Sagan, a sharp thinker in.most respects, sometimes tended to critique certain views on the basis that they were arrogant.

    It has certainly been around in the bloggosphere for a long time. I don’t remember how many times I have had to point out that even if a certain view was arrogant, that doesn’t imply that it is wrong.


  6. pete1187

    Great write-up Massimo. The scientifically backed positions you eloquently spoke about at the panel need to be stressed repeatedly and forcefully for two (related) reasons:

    1) A general increase in factual knowledge among a larger percentage of the population. We seem to be severely lacking in this of late.
    2) Suppressing the disinformation and nonsense out there (while carefully avoiding any sort of full blown scientism) that seems to infect so many people, including even those of high intelligence.

    That second point scares me more and more these days, especially with the advent of technology (couple that with lack of investing in education, the banality of so many people focusing almost exclusively on things like sports/celebrities/reality TV, etc.)

    Keep spreading the good word.


  7. brodix


    “It is about what I think is a pattern, of people defending unlikely positions on the basis on no evidence who turn around and call anyone (not just me) “arrogant” as if that were substitutive of an actual argument.”

    The degree to which people are willing to defend logically untenable positions knows no bounds, especially when their life’s work is involved. For anyone willing to really wade into the swap, this has to be a classic in cognitive dissonance and projection:


    Apparently the American intelligence community is having a Harvey Weinstein moment, as it tries to come to terms with being the biggest swinging dick is not an absolute sanctification. The Russians, THE RUSSIANS are now the cool kids on the block!!!!! What the living freak. This is not right. This can’t be.

    It just doesn’t register.


  8. brodix


    “I know dogs don’t, and i’m pretty sure that chimps and bonobos don’t.”

    How much of human agency is learned? My girlfriend has several agility dogs and they are pretty good at distinguishing what they want to do, what they are supposed to do and weighing the choices.
    Necessarily this is human control from above, but it comes pretty easily.


  9. Thomas Jones

    Dan K, ‘cuse me for thinking you were perhaps making a joke rather than an argument. But regardless of your purview of what is or isn’t relevant to your arguments, perhaps you shouldn’t open the door for those who think otherwise. I’ll simply go with this passage on agency from Wikipedia:

    “Agency may either be classified as unconscious, involuntary behavior, or purposeful, goal directed activity (intentional action). An agent typically has some sort of immediate awareness of their physical activity and the goals that the activity is aimed at realizing. In ‘goal directed action’ an agent implements a kind of direct control or guidance over their own behavior.” Besides, I simply noted that your point was arguable. If you want to insist that it isn’t, there’s little to discuss.

    Massimo, I don’t think many here have a problem, certainly not a major problem, with your comments in the discussion about the uniqueness or greater complexity of human culture as currently compared to other biological life forms. Further, I don’t think many who’ve watched the discussion were confused as to the context of meaning and/or purpose (human) of the discussion. It was only near end that Prof Ruse seemed roused from his slumber to characterize your comments as “arrogant,” a characterization he’d perhaps retract on second thought. So I hope you don’t think some of us in picking up on this thread are terribly off-topic. BTW, IMO, people can be arrogant while their arguments may simply be presumptuous or too narrowly constrained to afford further discussion in some cases. But, no, let me add I didn’t get that impression from your comments in the discussion at hand.


  10. Daniel Kaufman

    Agency is a major topic within the philosophy of action, on which there is a wide spectrum of views, regardless of what it might say on Wikipedia.

    I am happy to discuss it but it is off topic. That’s why I indicated to people that if they are interested in my views of the subject, they should check out the work I’ve done on the subject, rather than hijack the discussion thread.


  11. SocraticGadfly

    Massmo, per my earlier comment about the Libet veto, my thought on him is evolving a bit.

    I know you’re familiar with vision experiments where two light flashes can be blended into one, if they are close enough either spatially or temporally.

    I think that’s similar with Libet. If the veto occurs close enough to the original decision, it overwrites it and only the veto is consciously known. But, if there’s a bit more separation?

    The more separation would be like playing chess. You start to reach for a certain pawn, then you realize you’re not committed to that move yet, so you stop yourself before you touch it.

    The more closely connected would be, say, like a sober alcoholic, six months or more but less than one year, going to his or her first office Christmas party. Maybe 1-2 years, instead. He/she unconsciously has the idea of reaching for a beer or wine but the “sober self” overrides that before the idea ever becomes conscious, and a “no” is all that registers on the non-Cartesian radar screen.


  12. synred

    The other “ensoulment”

    My understanding that Aquanias’ choice of a couple of months for enrollment was based on Aristotle and actual observations he had made. I’m not sure though, I just read about it, not the original.


    I don’t understand that, but it does seems that for Aristotle plants had souls. I don’t know what is meant ‘actuality’ here ((not what I meant by ‘actual’ above) and so I don’t understand what observations Aristotle could have made (well it was some rather vague secondary source, so likely irrelevant).


  13. Massimo Post author


    Yes, that view of Libet’s veto idea seems sensible to me.


    Aristotle didn’t think plants have souls in the sense we are discussing, that’s why he called it a “vegetative” soul. As distinct from an animal soul, and, of course, a rational soul (only humans).

    Liked by 1 person

  14. saphsin

    Daniel Kaufman

    I tried googling it with your blog’s name but couldn’t find it.

    I wasn’t really trying to say that they had agency in the sense of humans (I think Socratic’s citing of Libet makes sense) so if there’s a particular way of defining agency that consequently restricts to humans, I can see that being plausible. But there’s something agency-esque about them the more intelligent they get. Sort of like how animals don’t really think (because they don’t have language) but they have some sort of lower-level “thoughts” if you can call it that. There seems to be something wrong with saying that they don’t have agency at all, as there is a certain way they make choices and fulfill responsibilities to their kin, even though they don’t in the sense that we don’t.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. synred

    Aquinas was most likely influenced by the also-mentioned Aristotle, cousin.

    Yes, that’s what I read and that it was also ‘experimental’ work by Aristotle. I was trying to figure out what that could have been.

    The little section I found did not (as per Massimo) even explain the different sorts of souls (veggie, usw.). These sort of souls seem pretty close to elan vital.

    Anyway I give up on it for the moment…


  16. Robin Herbert

    When Aristotle said talked about what is translated as the soul, he didn’t necessarily mean something personal or intelligent, it could just mesn some creative principle such as what is building an embryo. So plants and animals would hsve this kind of soul.as he recognised that the same principle was at work in both.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Thomas Jones

    Dan, I agree that, in terms of the panel discussion in which Massimo participated and that I watched, the topic of agency and, for that matter, purpose and meaning in animals was not the stated purpose of the event. Ruse raised the issue at the end of the video. The subject of the OP has largely to do with the charge of arrogance leveled against Massimo’s comments during the panel discussion, about which I gave my thoughts much earlier in the OP’s thread. I think Massimo’s first paragraph in the OP is on target when he writes:

    “We were supposed to talk about [human] meaning and purpose. I am usually somewhat weary of these sorts of panels, as the topic is often vague and open to far too much interpretation . . . .”

    Aside from my joking about Ruse walking his dogs per his wife’s instructions, I didn’t introduce the “off-topic” comment. Ruse did, and DM picked up on it in one of his comments, which I suppose led to your “off-topic” comment about agency in animals.


  18. brodix

    The primal attribute that separates animals from plants is that animals are mobile, while plants are not. This means animals, as individual organisms, move in one particular duration at a time. This leads to sequence and the focus of particular events that is the basis of our perception of reality. So what seems to make us, us, is not so much the being, as the doing. Then we have the decision making processes this requires, then the feedback of prior events….


  19. Massimo Post author


    There is no question that intelligent animals have some semblance of agency, though plenty of them seem to act as Cartesian automaton (ants, for instance). But the topic of the panel was human agency, which is characterized at least in part by our ability to express and articulate to ourselves and others our goals and desires, and to pursue them in the long term. I seriously doubt that any other animal — including chimpanzees and dolphins — has it, and I suspect that’s because it requires, at some level, language. In that sense human beings are truly unique, not just in the trivial sense that “every species is unique,” a platitude oft repeated in this context.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. SocraticGadfly

    Per Massimo’s last comment, one thing that we’ll never fully know, also, is the dialogue between development of language and development of internal self-talk. A chimp couldn’t exercise a conscious veto, AFAIK, because lack of language also means lack of robust internal dialogue.


  21. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    OK, to avoid being overlong — here’s what I’m saying in brief.

    Suppose A makes an outlandish claim such as “I think aliens have been visiting earth for thousands of years.”

    B responds “That’s crazy — there’s no way it could be true, it’s simply wrong”.

    C responds “I don’t think that can be right, it seems very implausible. What makes you think that?”

    I think C is reasonable and B is arrogant. I think Massimo meant to make articulate something like C, but I think he was interpreted to be more like B — or at least I think it’s the B position that Lombard and Ruse were complaining about (I’m not sure Lombard necessarily took Massimo as an example of B).

    I think it’s the B position that Ruse and Lombard were calling arrogant, and if so I think there was simply a miscommunication, rather than that people are simply calling arrogant anyone who doubts their outlandish beliefs.

    Also I don’t think Ruse was intending to make an outlandish claim. I would give him more credit than to assume he meant dogs have purpose in the human sense. I assume he was talking about something much diminished in comparison. Humans derive purpose and meaning from their long-term goals (career, helping others, raising kids etc) — presumably dogs can at least have short term goals (find food, water, a mate etc). That might be enough for something on the same continuum as human purpose if so quantitatively different that it amounts to a qualitative difference. Or at least I think that position is arguable, though I doubt Dan and Massimo will accept it. As long as it’s arguable, it’s arrogant to dismiss it in the manner B does (again, not that this is what Massimo actually did).


  22. synred

    When Aristotle said talked about what is translated as the soul

    So that kind of soul would not be active, e.g., participating in decisions, responding to ethical challenges, etc. It would be like the information encoded in DNA or computer code.

    It would be immortal, but not in an interesting way.

    I think in Father Copeland, it’s called ‘form’ and is presumably why the Catholic church teaches the resurrection of the body. Without hardware, the soul doesn’t amount to much of an afterlife and it’s hard to see where it would be even stored w/o some hardware (memory).

    I would guess the Aristotle was observing when fetuses took the form (in the sense of shape) of a person.

    Sounds like BS to me…


  23. synred


    The theory describes five major biological processes, namely metabolism, temperature regulation, information processing, embryo-genesis, and inheritance. Each was defined in some detail, in some cases sufficient to enable modern biologists to create mathematical models of the mechanisms described. Aristotle’s method, too, resembled the style of science used by modern biologists when exploring a new area, with systematic data collection, discovery of patterns, and inference of possible causal explanations from these. He did not perform experiments in the modern sense, but made observations of living animals and carried out dissections. He names some 500 species of bird, mammal, and fish; and he distinguishes dozens of insects and other invertebrates. He describes the internal anatomy of over a hundred animals, and dissected around 35 of these.


  24. synred

    (ants, for instance).

    How about ant colonies, e.g., as in Godel,Escher, Bach?

    I doubt this is the case for any existing colony species, but it’s an interesting possibility. It would be hard to recognize as it would likely operate a lot slower than our intelligence.

    Hives do seem, e.g., make decisions on when to move…I gather it is a more collective effect than just the queens.




  25. synred

    A chimp couldn’t exercise a conscious veto, AFAIK, because lack of language also means lack of robust internal dialogue

    An experiment: we teach a bonbo (Kanzai) to open a box with mms in it, by cutting a string. We let him do this a lot.

    Then just has he’s about to open the box, we play of recording of something nasty inside — say a snake? Will he stop at the last minute? My hypothesis is yes.

    Now we might say ‘sounds like there’s a snake in there” to ourselves, Kanzai might just visualize a snake in the box or perhaps make the ‘jesture’ or a snake warning call to himself…but language would not be necessary to change his mind about opening the box.

    I would guess even monkey’s might be capable of this much veto. You can then proceed to argue about whether this represents agency or not.


  26. Massimo Post author


    Sometimes you are a little bit too quick to call BS. Aristotle was onto something. He made the same distinctions we make between vegetative life, animal life, and the ability for reason. The fact that he called them “souls” is irrelevant, the distinctions are still there. Pace the panpsychists.


  27. Bunsen Burner


    ‘Then just has he’s about to open the box, we play of recording of something nasty inside …’

    You just triggered a memory of something I remember reading a while ago. It was a discussion of the kind of inferences monkeys and apes make in the wild, given various visual and audio cues. In particular regarding snakes. It appears that some types of cues always trigger a response, whereas other types never do. Wish I could remember where I saw this now.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. SocraticGadfly

    Per my previous comment, our “internal self-dialogue” is responsible for a lot of human nature. While a few animals, such as corvids and chimps, do deceive their fellows about things like food caches, the complexity of human lying is certainly another distinguishing factor for us. And much research shows that a good ability to lie to one’s own self makes one a good liar to others.

    Internal motivational dialogue is another example. I highly doubt that Ham or some other chimp is telling himself, “You can do it! Just crawl 6 feet further out on that limb and you can grab that fruit.”


  29. synred

    Sometimes you are a little bit too quick to call BS

    I was actually very impressed by Aristotle’s biology. So, yes, it’s not BS, esp. in the context of the time.

    I guess I had the Catholic interpretations in mind, but was not thinking all that clearly.


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