The Problem of the Soul, Self, Spirit, Mind, and “Ghost in the Machine”

Celebrating René Descartes, the first modern philosopher, and his famous phrase Ego cogito, ergo sum, we call our model for mind the Ego. It is implemented with our experience recorder and reproducer (ERR).

Our two-stage model for free will we call the Cogito. Our model for an objective value, independent of humanity and earthly bioethics, we call Ergo. And our model for knowledge we call the Sum.

The Ego is more or less synonymous with the Soul, the Self, or the Spirit – Gilbert Ryle’s “ghost in the machine.” We see it as immaterial information. An immaterial self with causal power is almost universally denied by modern philosophers as metaphysical, along with related problematic ideas such as consciousness and libertarian or indeterministic free will.

Descartes’ suggestion that animals are machines included the notion that man too is in part a machine – the human body obeys deterministic causal laws. Although for Descartes man also has a soul or spirit or mind that is exempt from determinism and thus from what is known today as “causal closure,” Cartesian dualism was the first step to eliminative materialism. 

But as all critics of Descartes do, we must ask, how can the mind both cause something physical to happen and yet itself be acausal,? How is it exempt from causal chains coming up from the body?

Descartes’ vision of undetermined freedom for the mind is realized since our immaterial thoughts are free, whereas our actions are adequately determined by our will. This combination of ideas is the basis for our two-stage model of free will.1 It is a model of agent causation. New causal chains originate as ideas in our minds. Once evaluated and chosen they are adequately determined to lead to willed actions. This is a model for self-determination.

The “self ” or ego, the psyche or soul, is the self of this self-determination. Self-determination is of course limited by our control over matter and energy, but within those physical constraints our selves can consider ideas, decide to act on one and take full responsibility for our actions.

The Self is often identified with one’s “character.” This is the basis for saying that our choices and decisions are made by evaluating freely generated alternative possibilities in accordance with our reasons, motives, feelings, desires, etc. These are in turn often the consequence of our past experiences, along with inherited (biologically built-in) preferences. And this bundle of motivating factors is essentially what is known as our character. Someone familiar with all of those preferences would be able to predict our actions with some certainty, though not perfectly, when faced with particular options and the circumstances. The self is the agent that is the cause for those actions.


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