Gandhi’s Dualism & Homer’s Soul

No stranger to the angst arising from the meta-and-physical dichotomy of sacred/profane, the inimitable Christopher Hitchens recently evaluated similar sorts of tensions in the life of India’s hagiographic hero. Whilst reviewing Joseph Lelyveld’s new book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, Hitchens pours cold pragmatic water on the man and his myths.

Despite its new-agey western construction as the font of ahimsa, we are again reminded that Hindu tradition sanctifies caste and the perversion of untouchability. Hitchens astutely observes that these kinds of contradictions are to be expected when all that supposedly exists is cleaved with a Cartesian binary:

[This] was always latent in Gandhism: a highly dubious employment of the mind-body distinction. For him, the material and physical world was gross and polluting and selfish, while all that pertained to the “soul” was axiomatically ideal and altruistic….This false antithesis is the basis for all religious fundamentalism, even as its deliberate indifference permits and even encourages sharp deterioration in the world of “real” conditions.

The separation of mind from matter and body from soul is not merely a Western fallacy or Vedic fantasy. It is a widespread idea, found among most peoples across time and space. Whence cometh the soul?

This is a weighty question and The Simpsons have answers.

Using Homer’s Soul as their humorous foil, psychologists Paul Bloom and David Pizarro examine mind-body dualism and metaphysics:

[S]olving the mind-body problem remains a major preoccupation of both psychologists and philosophers; no science of the mind can be complete without it.

What does The Simpsons have to say about this issue? Most likely, absolutely nothing. The Simpsons is a fine television show, but it’s not where to look for innovative ideas in cognitive neuroscience or the philosophy of mind. We think, however, that it can help give us insight into a related, and extremely important, issue.

We might learn through this show something about common-sense metaphysics, about how people naturally think about consciousness, the brain and the soul.

As it turns out, The Simpsons illuminate these issues in all sorts of revealing ways. Homer’s Soul is the perfect teaching tool for a generation raised on the (dualist) philosophy of D’oh.

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One thought on “Gandhi’s Dualism & Homer’s Soul

  1. Anonymous

    I’m doing research on whether cannibalism (ritualistic or as a survival tool) might provide insight on the universality of dualism, and I stumbled on your blog, which I am enjoying very much. I have much food for thought.

    I disagree with your comment about Dualism being the “basis for all religious fundamentalism”. Of course, I suppose it depends on what you consider “religious fundamentalism”. I don’t know your writing and thinking well enough to know whether you use that term in a pejorative way, as would someone like Hitchins. I am not familiar enough with other religions to comment, but if you were including orthodox Christianity in that category, I would have to agree that Dualism, in a sense, is a basic part of the faith (although there are increasingly more monist Christian thinkers). However, a Biblical Dualism, while it distinguishes between the physical and spiritual, doesn’t automatically condemn everything physical. Jesus is reported to have come in the flesh. He ate, drank wine and was even accused of associating with drunkards and gluttons. While the notion that he married makes interesting fiction, it wouldn’t have been theologically scandalous if he had. Jesus extolled the institution of marriage, as does Paul. If we look to the Old Testament, we see Song of Solomon, which is virtually explosive with sensuality. While many Christians have embraced asceticism as a means of righteousness, this path can’t be found as a New Testament “fundamental” and proves to be one more religious construct.

    Kudos, I’ll be reading more.

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