By Damodar Prasad das
“A person is not considered a great sage unless he disagrees with another sage”.
This adage suitably describes the career of La Mettrie, whose contentious writings during the eighteenth century were almost universally reviled by his contemporaries during the age of the Enlightenment. Even Frederick the Great, who afforded him protection and patronage following his banishment from France and Holland, declared that one could attain peace of mind by not reading La Mettrie’s works. Notwithstanding the general distaste with which they were met, the ideas he espoused have proved long standing and influential in the modern science of medicine, psychiatry, neurology and psychology.
Perhaps his most provocative work was entitled “Man a Machine” in which he makes a number of extraordinary claims, many of which we will pass over. The main thrust of the work was that only physicians (amongst whom he could count himself) had the right to speak on the soul, because, he felt, the soul itself was a product of the interaction of the organs of the body.
As a physician who himself suffered from maladies in his early career, La Mettrie noted that the bodily condition affected what he understood as the soul, namely, the personality traits of individuals. For example, an injury to the brain may change a person’s “soul” turning him from a wit to a fool, or from a passive nature to a furious one. He observed that a slight change in the physical structure of the brain could change a person’s personality substantially. This would later become known as the “argument from brain damage”, later refined as the “argument from neuroscience”, both of which appear in the philosophical lexicon of avowed monists, that is, those who consider the mind (sometimes interpreted as the soul) to be a product of the body.
In fact, almost all of the arguments which modern day monists use to justify their position that the “soul” or mind is nothing more than a function of the brain can be found in this work by La Mettrie. Before concluding his tract with the words “Dispute it who will”, La Mettrie bolsters his case by announcing the inconceivability of the notion of two incompatible substances, the body and the soul, meeting and interacting unceasingly.
It is clear that the text was written in response to prevailing ideas, in particular those of mind-body dualism. Originating in their modern form in Descartes’ meditations, dualism considers the mind and body to be two separate substances, with the mind outlasting the demise of the body. The debate between dualists and monists has continued up to the present time, at times with great drama, as when the dualistic argument of CS Lewis, the Christian apologist was publically and ruthlessly attacked by fellow Christian and professional philosopher, Miss Anscombe, who, however, seems to have limited her critique to the semantics of the argument, rather than its underlying principles. Lewis’s main contention remained untouched: the view that mind originates in matter is essentially self-contradictory, because notions of validity and meaning, which the argument must claim for its own position, cannot arise from matter, which displays no rational properties. In other words the logical claims of the argument depend upon the very non-physical principles which it necessarily undermines.
In contrast to the position of La Mettrie – that only physicians may comment on the soul – we are informed by Srila Prabhupada that actually no one can experimentally establish the existence of the soul beyond the proof of sruti, or Vedic wisdom. Although the existence of the soul may be perceived, there is no other source for understanding the soul than vedic authority (Bg Purport 2.25). That authority informs us that the body and soul are indeed separate principles, with opposite qualities. In short, whereas the body is perishable, the soul is changeless and eternal (Bg 2.16).
In the Vedic view, the body (which includes the mind) is understood as ksetra, or the field of activities, and the soul is ksetra-jna, or the knower of the field. This conception of the field and the knower of the field sufficiently answers the argument from brain damage, or the argument from neuroscience: changes to the brain structure constitute changes to the field of activities, to the realm of possible actions and potentialities available to the living being, the knower of the field, but not to the living being himself. These arguments therefore do not touch upon the question of the existence of an immutable soul distinct from the body. They in fact fail to distinguish between efficient cause, material cause, and effect. Monists who rely on these arguments fail to see that what they regard as “soul” is not actually soul, but personality traits. These may be said to be the effect of soul, acting as the efficient cause, upon the body, the material cause.
Leonardo Da Vinci makes use of the analogy of the organ: the sound of the organ is caused by both the pipe and the wind which passes over it. The corruption of the pipe may extinguish the sound, but will certainly have no effect on the wind. Similarly, the damage, or even the death of the body will certainly affect the symptoms of life, including personality traits, but has no effect on the remote cause of those traits, namely the soul. Even in the ordinary course of events, a person’s body and mind, his field of activities, change with the course of time. This does not prove that the existence of the soul is dependent on the existence of the body, only that the embodied experience of the soul is subject to change.
Like knowledge of the soul itself, knowledge of how the soul interacts with the body cannot be ascertained by experimental observation (Bg 13.33. Purport) The interaction between the soul and the body is compared to the interaction between the sky and the various objects situated within the sky. Although the sky pervades water, mud and everything else, it does not mix with it. Similarly, although the soul pervades the body, it is unaffected by the body and its transformations.
The body is also described as a machine in the vedic literature (Bg 18.61), which goes on to describe the purpose of the machine. Srila Prabhupada writes: “Practically speaking, the body is a machine, designed by the Supreme Lord, to fulfil desires (Bg 18.30. Purport). The connection between the soul and the body is carried out through the false identification of the soul with the body and its activities, based on the desire to enjoy particular sensations. The connection between the soul and the body is compared to our connection with the various bodies which we assume when we dream at night (SB 3.27.4). As long as we desire to enjoy material advantages, our identification with our body, its activities, and its pains and pleasures continue.
Just as we find relief from disturbing dreams when we awaken from sleep, it is only when we recognise that we are indeed spirit souls, transcendental to this body that the distressing influence of embodiment can be removed. Such a transformation of consciousness is effected through the correct utilisation of the very machine which, when exploited under the mentality of an enjoyer, causes our apparent bondage. What is required is a change of consciousness, the awakening of the man within the machine, and his subsequent utilisation of that machine for the pleasure of its true knower, proprietor and enjoyer: Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
AC Bhaktivedanta Swami, Bhagavad-Gita As It Is (Mumbai: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1986)
Da Vinci, Thoughts on Art and Life, Translated by Maurice Baring (Boston: The Merrymount Press, 1960)
La Mettrie, Man a Machine, Translated by Norman L. Torrey, in Norman L. Torrey (ed), Le Philosophes: The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and Democracy (New York: Capricorn Books, 1960)
Lovell, S., C.S. Lewis’ case against Naturalism. Annotations, Musings and Marginalia [website] (http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/annotations/csl_vs_naturalism.html. Accessed 12 September 2013)