I was sitting in the dentist chair, mouth open.
“So, Stuart. How’s the crown been?”
I closed my mouth. Peta’s a great dentist. She did a fine job on my crown back in April. It was my first root canal treatment, and it was not as unpleasant as I thought it was going to be.
“Yes – fine,” I replied. “Although … it feels kind of weird sometimes.”
Her face turned a bit quizzical. “How so,” she asked.
I realised I’d started a conversation I wasn’t sure how to finish. “Well, I thought that since you had killed the nerve in that tooth during the root canal, that I wouldn’t feel anything in that part of my mouth any more. But – that’s not entirely true. I do feel something around that particular tooth.”
“Is it painful? Can you chew on that side of your mouth?”
“Oh – no…it’s not painful at all. Yes I can chew…”
“Well what’s the problem?” Her professional dentistry was kicking in. I gulped.
“There’s no problem. It’s just an odd sensation that I’m getting used to, I guess.”
“What does it feel like?”
Oh no. That was the question I didn’t want her to ask. “How do I describe this to you? I have no idea. But it feels different…it’s an odd sensation.”
Thankfully, at this point she smiled at me.
“My old dental assistant Morag had a crown fitted once, and she described a similar thing to me. My problem is – I have never had a crown or a root canal so I can’t relate to the sensation that you and Morag are experiencing.” It’s true. Peta’s not only got a beautiful face, she’s also got immaculate teeth! It’s sure a comfort when your dentist has nice teeth. “Also – look, Stuart. The x-ray is fine and I’m happy with it. You are able to chew and have no pain…” She was marshalling the evidence in a convincing way.
“Right,” I replied. “I can live with ‘weird.’ There’s no problem here.”
As Peta completed my dental check-up, something occurred to me. This conversation is a great example of how we talk to each other as if we are embodied souls, rather than physical biological machines. We talk like we are people with bodies composed of physical brains, teeth, mouths, etc. But it’s the person who possesses these physical organs who we are really interacting with as we have a discussion.
Here’s one way to defend the claim that I am an embodied soul. It was proposed by Stewart Goetz, and is summarised by J P Moreland in his recent book “The Soul”. In this, I am assuming my mind is a property of my soul.
1 – I am essentially an indivisible, simple spiritual substance.
We know this by personal introspection. When we enter deeply into ourselves, we are aware of some properly basic facts that aren’t supported by any other facts. We just know them:
- I’m aware of my own self.
- My self is distinct from my body.
- My self is distinct from a mental experience.
- I am a spatially un-extended, simple centre of consciousness.
2 – A physical body has spatial extension and separable parts.
For example, my teeth have a location in my skull, size and weight.
3 – The law of identity says if x=y then whatever is true of x is true of y.
4 – What is true of me, is not true of my body therefore I am not my body.
There are various ways to show this premise is true.
For example, there is physical brain activity whenever I am thinking. But just because A causes B, this does not mean A=B. Rather, it could also mean that A and B are closely correlated together. When my mind grapples with complex abstract concepts, there is measurable brain activity. This doesn’t mean my physical brain is conscious of concepts. It just means that my brain activity correlates to the activity of my immaterial mind.
Also, another way is the difference between my mind and the chemical/physical cause and effect relationships between physical parts of my brain. The activity of my free will is of a different order to physical cause and effect. Where I can freely make personal choices that aren’t constrained by physical cause and effect, where my brain is a physical object that cannot.
Another example, sometimes people have regions of the brains removed. While this may or may not affect elements of their personality, they are still the same person they were before and after the procedure. Clearly, some brain trauma and disease does affect the survivor’s life afterwards. I know people experiencing this right now, and sometimes we say “They are like a different person.” But surely they aren’t. Surely, their condition shows a difficulty they now experience in coming thru and expressing themselves in the physical world, rather than them being completely altered and being an actual different person on the basis of a physical event or disease?
5 – If I am not identical with my physical body then I am a soul.
My physical properties are different from my mental properties. But they seem to work together.
6 – Therefore I am a soul.
The conversation with my dentist reminds me we are souls:
“How has it been?” she asked me. She assumes I am the same person today who experienced the fitting of the crown back in April. Even though my physical body has changed at the cellular level in the intervening time, I am still me. I’m the me who went to the dentist with a sore tooth, experienced a root canal and crown, and came back 6-months later for a check-up.
Also – she’s not asking about physical cause and effect. She’s asking about my freely formed opinion.
“How does it feel?” she asked me. The physical pain receptors in my body fire, send signals to the brain via the c-fibres. How does this feel? If there’s just a physical brain sitting at the end of the c-fibres – there’s no one to experience a sensation. These signals are being interpreted by someone. ME.
“It’s an odd sensation,” I replied. So – I’m aware of a sensation in my mouth.
“The x-ray showed everything was fine,” she replied as she marshalled the evidence against me. Yes! Using physical methods, she verified everything was working in my mouth. From the outside in, she is sure that the physical procedure has been successful. But…is that all this conversation is about? No – the thoughts of a patient’s mind are part of this too.
“I don’t know what your sensation is like,” she honestly replied. Exactly. She knows things look good on the outside. But she’s never had a root canal herself. She cannot by personal introspection, share the experience I am having. She can only ask me what it’s like and listen to my (admittedly poor) description.
In the end, this discussion was not actually about my physical mouth, the gum or the tooth or the nerves. Actually – the conversation was about how I feel about living my life with a crowned tooth. This was about the thoughts and feelings of my embodied mind or soul, that result from the physical alteration she skilfully made to my physical body.
What’s more, this conversation between us has been a meeting of minds. We often use that phrase, don’t we? “A meeting of minds.” Surely the purpose of the conversation was for two embodied souls to talk and to understand each other.
It seems to me that people talk to each other like we are souls. And if that’s right…there’s a lot more to this life than we might realise there is right now.
 J P Moreland, The Soul How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014).