a kernel of self-awareness not unlike the soul that was

SuprunP

Senior Member
Ukrainian & Russian
Early natural philosophers speculated that our brains contained a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness not unlike the soul that was the irreducible core of our self.
(Scientific American Mind, Volume 14, Number 1;A Symphony of the Self)

Is it possible, at least theoretically, that 'that' refers to 'the soul'?

Thanks.
 
  • SuprunP

    Senior Member
    Ukrainian & Russian
    Thank you, Cagey.

    I thought it could refer to 'a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness'. In other words:

    "Early natural philosophers speculated that our brains contained a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness (
    not unlike the soul ~ [the soul was also thought to be a kernel of self-awareness]?) that was the irreducible core of our self."
     
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    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    Yes, that works too.
    At first, I thought it would need commas for that reading. Now I see that the whole phrase could be in apposition to homunucleus, just as you read it.

    What does the rest of the paragraph suggest?
     

    SuprunP

    Senior Member
    Ukrainian & Russian
    "This “little person” peered out through our eyes and listened through our ears and somehow made sense of the universe. Neuroscientists ejected the homunculus from
    our heads, however. The circuitry of our brains does not all converge on one point where the essence of ourselves can sit and ruminate."

    This is all they have to say about this issue, the rest of the article is dealing neither with the soul, nor the homunculus.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Yes, that works too.
    At first, I thought it would need commas for that reading. Now I see that the whole phrase could be in apposition to homunucleus, just as you read it.

    What does the rest of the paragraph suggest?
    I'm a bit surprised. I'd certainly feel the need of a comma after soul, but nothing more I think, to project that reading.
     

    dmz11

    Senior Member
    English - US
    I think 'that' does refer to the soul.
    Just another view: if it had been written 100 years ago, I might agree with you. But commas are falling increasingly out of favor, which leads me to believe that "that" refers to "kernel" (as suggested earlier)

    a kernel of self-awareness ... that was the irreducible core of our self.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    You say that commas are falling out of favour, but where they are essential for understanding they are mandatory. I think the writer means the that to refer to the humunculus, because the soul isn't really a kernel of awareness, and also because the sentence ends with the relative clause.

    Well spotted, Suprun; the editor should have added that comma.
     
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    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    The implication of the sentence is that it would be illogical for 'that' to refer to 'soul', since that would make it (in the view of the early scientific speculators) a fact that the soul was 'the irreducible core of our self'. If they believed that, they would hardly feel a need to speculate about an homunculus.

    Second thoughts: they might be dualists, who felt the need to posit a physical entity, an homunculus, as the counterpart to the spiritual entity, 'the soul that was the irreducible core of our self'. This is comparable to Descartes' thought when he decided that the pineal gland was the physical location of the soul.

    On reflection, without benefit of further context, I would hold to my second thoughts.
     
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    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-symphony-of-the-self

    Having taken a look at this page, but not having viewed the whole article, I am now still more inclined to see 'that was the irreducible core of our self' as a defining relative clause referring to 'the soul': thus correctly presented with no comma.
    The opening sentence, as quoted by SuprunP, sets up a direct contrast between the soul, seen as the core of the self in spiritual terms, and the homunculus, seen as the core of the self in physical terms.
    This whole way of looking at things is a classical misconception which philosophers have long tried to point out to scientists. It is interesting to see Scientific American at this late stage in the game joining in the debunking exercise.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    It's odd to say that two things are being contrasted when they are presented explicitly as being like each other.

    I can see that there's a case for thinking the clause refers to the soul. I think my reason for thinking otherwise was the tense of the verb was - if the clause refers to the soul wouldn't it be more natural to say is? or have we stopped believing in souls?

    I hope we are agreed that the kernel of self-awareness is in apposition to the homunculus.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    To lay out the comparison completely, it sets up the homunculus, seen as the kernel of self-awareness and the irreducible core of our physical self, on the one hand and the soul, seen as the kernel of self-awareness and the irreducible core of our spiritual self, on the other.
    The tense of 'was' is determined, I would think, by the tense of 'speculated': referring to the belief of the early scientists.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    From where do you get this idea of the opposition of the physical to the spiritual? I can't see the grounds for this - the word spiritual doesn't occur in the passage, for instance. Why reject the more obvious explanation that the writer is using the soul as a simile (not as a contrast, note - he uses the words not unlike to introduce a simile), because he knows we will be familiar with the idea of a soul, and he uses our familiarity to help us understand the idea of this homunculus who experiences the world through our sense organs?
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    On the one hand, the absence of a comma after 'soul' indicates the following clause is a defining one.
    On the other hand, if (a) 'the homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness' is not unlike (b) 'the soul that was the irreducible core of our self', then (a), being part (allegedly) of the brain, and (b), being a spiritual entity, are being compared. Given that, they are presumably distinct.
    That is dualism, a common belief during the early modern scientific period.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Hello Wandle,

    Let me try to get you to see this:

    There is indeed a contrast traditionally drawn between mind and body.

    The homunculus inhabits the body but is separate in some way from it. Old idea. Contrast homunculus/body

    The soul inhabits the body but is separate in some way from it. New idea. Contrast soul/body

    The writer says that the homunculus is like the soul, because he thinks people, naturally familiar with the new idea of the soul, will catch onto the old idea from the explicit parallel drawn.

    Thus the contrast is between the homunculus and the body.

    By describing the homunculus as, to use your words, 'the counterpart to the spiritual entity', and 'the core of the self in physical terms', you are spectacularly missing the point, making a 100% error. The homunculus is the spiritual part, not its counterpart. For the early natural philosophers the contrast is between the body and the homunculus, just as for later ones it has been between the body and the soul. I think that the writer hoped to help his readers avoid this error by saying that the humunculus should be understood as being like the soul. How you could have read a simile as introducing a contrast remains beyond me.

    However, thank you for acting as Devil's advocate here. You've made me see that 'a kernel of self-awareness not unlike the soul', the phrase which maybe you will agree is in apposition to a humunculus, is certainly also in parenthesis - because of that was, which, I agree with you, stems from speculated. This reference back to the earlier part of the sentence in the verb makes the reference back to homunculus in the clause almost mandatory. I can't see how the clause can plausibly be held to refer to the soul, for these reasons.

    I previously thought the question was open, but now I'm persuaded that the writer could not have meant that clause to refer to the soul.

    So, well spotted Suprun, but I don't think the writer did mean what you suggest. The answer to your question is no, it's not possible.
     
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    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Early natural philosophers speculated that our brains contained a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness not unlike the soul that was the irreducible core of our self.
    There are two issues here: the syntax or sentence-structure on the one hand and the meaning or content of the sentence on the other.
    Standard AE practice, we are told, is that an unpunctuated that-clause is a defining relative clause to the antecedent term. That rule makes the that-clause in this sentence a definition of the word 'soul'. What else could it be? If it were to refer to 'kernel of self-awareness' rather than 'soul' then the phrase 'not unlike the soul' would have to be in parenthesis, in which case it would need to be separated by punctuation from the rest of the sentence. This could have been done by commas, brackets or dashes: but it has not been done. The sentence-structure, then, links 'that' to 'soul'.
    Next, the meaning. Suppose for a moment that 'not unlike the soul' were a parenthesis. The meaning would then be that the homunculus was a kernel of self-awareness that was the irreducible core of our being. This conception contradicts the very existence of a soul. The whole idea of a soul is that it is the irreducible core of our being. It is not likely that the early modern scientists were so radical that they meant to throw out the soul and replace it with an homunculus.
    If, however, they still accepted the idea of a soul, then it follows that they must have held both ideas simultaneously: the soul and the homunculus. Given that the soul already had the status of a spiritual entity which was the irreducible core of our being, what then could the homunculus be? Unless it was being advanced as a second soul, a second spiritual entity, the only possibility is that it was seen as the physical counterpart of the soul, a material headquarters, so to speak, situated deep within the brain, where the soul could have its residence.
    This material interpretation is confirmed by the lines immediately following the originally posted sentence:
    "This "little person" peered out through our eyes and listened through our ears and somehow made sense of the universe. Neuroscientists ejected the homunculus from our heads, however. The circuitry of our brains does not all converge on one point where the essence of ourselves can sit and ruminate."
    SA is saying that the existence of the homunculus has been disproved by physical and chemical researches into the circuitry of the brain. This shows that there is no material headquarters, therefore no homunculus. If the homunculus were supposed to be a spiritual entity, no amount of physical or chemical research could disprove its existence.

    All this thread makes one rather bold assumption, which is that the writer of the article knew what he or she meant by the term 'homunculus'. I am not myself convinced of that, or that the writer has understood the history of religion, philosophy or science. I have only attempted to make sense of what has been written in its own terms, to resolve the original question whether 'that' can refer to 'soul'. As indicated, it clearly does.
     
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    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Thank you Wandle for your reply.

    I'm not clear from it whether you still don't see that when the writer says that, for the early natural philosophers, the homunculus was like the soul, he is saying that it was, for them, like the soul, resident somehow in the body, yet separate from it.

    Your previous mistake about this coloured your interpretation of the sentence.
     

    boozer

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    Much has been said in this thread already so I can hardly put in some critical contribution but I could still point out the following:

    1. A kernel of self-awareness not unlike the soul is a fragment, inessential to the big sentence, that modifies homunculus.
    2. Therefore this inessential fragment should have been set apart from the rest of the sentence with 2 commas, the second one after soul. Both commas are absolutely mandatory and omitting them amounts to a grave error in this particular case.
    3. Because the second comma has been omitted, the meaning of the sentence has been lost and the part after that is now in a syntactic position to apparently modify soul.
    4. A person with no knowledge in psychology like me is easily confused as either the homunculus or the soul can be "the irreducible core of our self".

    In short, I agree, as very often, with TT, post #8. :) (I mean I often agree with TT, not necessarily with post 8 :D )
     
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    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    the homunculus was like the soul
    If we take the idea that the homunculus was like the soul out of context, it could mean (a) that both were seen as spiritual entities or (b) that both were seen as core elements, one in physical terms, the other in spiritual terms. If we take it in context, (a) does not seem a feasible interpretation, for reasons given above.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I'm sorry you continue to evade the point here. You made a 100% error, yet you continue to seem to base your posts on it, and you won't say whether you realize what you've done, or not. This makes it hard to have a discussion with you.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    I'm sorry you continue to evade the point here.
    I believe your point is covered in post 21. You have not taken up the question raised there whether you see the homunculus ('little man') as a spiritual or a physical entity.
    If you say the little man is a spiritual being, do you see him as additional to the soul or as a replacement for it?
    If you say he is a physical miniature being who is separable, how do you see him getting out of the brain and out of the skull?
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I believe your point is covered in post 21. You have not taken up the question raised there whether you see the homunculus ('little man') as a spiritual or a physical entity.
    If you say the little man is a spiritual being, do you see him as additional to the soul or as a replacement for it?
    If you say he is a physical miniature being who is separable, how do you see him getting out of the brain and out of the skull?
    Hi Wandle,

    Let's return to our muttons, then. Look at the sentence:

    Early natural philosophers speculated that our brains contained a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness not unlike the soul that was the irreducible core of our self.

    Now your questions:

    1.
    If you say the little man is a spiritual being, do you see him as additional to the soul or as a replacement for it?

    I never said I saw the homunculus as a spiritual being. I'm not taking a view here; I'm just trying to be clear about what this sentence means. For what it's worth, I've consistently tried to avoid the word
    spiritual, with its emotional baggage. This is an article about early scientists.

    The writer clearly is drawing a distinction between the homunculus and the body. I'm not saying that this means that the homunculus is or isn't a spiritual being. I regard the expression
    spiritual being as beside the point here; it's just not what this part of the article is about.

    You said that the distinction was between the homunculus and the soul despite the fact that the sentence says that the homunculus is like the soul. This is the 100% error I have been talking about.

    2. If you say he is a physical miniature being who is separable, how do you see him getting out of the brain and out of the skull?

    It is not I who am saying that he is separable. I'm saying that the text says
    our brains contained a homunculus and in saying this the writer is drawing a distinction between the brain and the homunculus. It's not my job to develop this theory or examine its weaknesses or strengths. My job is just to interpret this simple sentence. That's the purpose of the forum as I see it.


     
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    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    You said that the distinction was between the homunculus and the soul despite the fact that the sentence says that the homunculus is like the soul. This is the 100% error I have been talking about.
    Already answered in post 18. If A is like B, it follows that A and B are distinct.
    And as pointed out in post 25, the key is in what respect they are said to be alike.
     
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    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Early natural philosophers speculated that our brains contained a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness not unlike the soul that was the irreducible core of our self.

    I think most members here agree that the clause at the end, that was the irreducible core of our self, can syntactically (in the absence of indicators of punctuation) refer either to the homunculus or to the soul.

    The punctuation suggests that it refers to the soul. But why did sharp old Suprun ask the question?

    Answer: because if it refers to the soul, the sentence is reduced to vapidity. We all know that by the soul we mean, amongst other things, the irreducible core of our self.

    And if it refers to the homunculus, the sentence takes on power, because we are told which of the soul's characteristics is shared by the homunculus.

    So the basis of the choice, for me, is: do we think the writer is starting his article with a piece of flatulence which wastes our time? or do we think he's more likely to be an intelligent person with something to say, who has made an error of punctuation, and not had the luck to have an efficient editor to correct him?

    I, and, I suspect, Suprun, have gone for the second option.
     
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    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    if that was the irreducible core of our self refers to the soul, the sentence is reduced to vapidity.
    Not at all. If it refers to 'soul', then we are told there were two parts to the speculation: first, that our brains contained an homunculus, which was a kernel of self-awareness; and secondly, that this resembled the soul, which was the irreducible core of our being.
    This creates a contrast with four points to it: (A) homunculus, described as (b) kernel of self-awareness; and (C) soul, described as (d) irreducible core of being. The last element (d) is essential in order to complete the four points of the comparison.

    Bear in mind that the words 'kernel' and 'core' are both derived from the same root and are very close in meaning. We are thus informed that the homunculus, which has to be seen as a material conception (otherwise no physical research could disprove its existence), is regarded as a bodily parallel to the soul, which has to be seen as a spiritual conception. This parallelism yields in its turn the further meaning that the characteristic attributed to each of these central entities is shared by the other.

    In other words, we are told that entity (A) with characteristic (b) resembles entity (C) with characteristic (d). The implication is that characteristic (d) also applies to entity (A), and characteristic (b) also applies to entity (C).
    Thus we have (A) the physical entity 'homunculus' and (C) the spiritual entity 'soul' each (on its own level) possessing both the characteristics (b) kernel of self-awareness and (d) irreducible core of being. I pointed out this parallelism in post 16.

    The above is a logical analysis which allows the text to bear a rigorous and full sense. I could understand some people might find such interpretation over-elaborate, or perhaps too rhetorical for Scientific American, but please don't call it vapid or meaningless.

    You are welcome to reject this view, of course, but if you do, you make the author say the homunculus is a second spiritual entity of the same kind as the soul. You have still not explained what sort of sense that could make.
     

    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    Just for the record, I agree with Thomas Tompion's interpretation.
    From my point of view, the phrase in question combines these two phrases, neither of which requires a comma:

    ... a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness not unlike the soul.
    ... a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness that was the irreducible core of our self.

    It might have been written with two commas, but I am not certain that this is easier to follow, and it changes the emphasis in some subtle way.

    Early natural philosophers speculated that our brains contained a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness, not unlike the soul, that was the irreducible core of our self.
     

    manthano

    Member
    German
    I think my reason for thinking otherwise was the tense of the verb was - if the clause refers to the soul wouldn't it be more natural to say is? or have we stopped believing in souls?
    I just wanted to post virtually the same comment ;)


    I understand the sentence in question as follows: "Early natural philosophers speculated that our brains contained a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness [not unlike the soul], that [at that time] was [thought of as] the irreducible core of our self.” And I would argue as follows:

    1. We still have an intuitive understanding of the soul which (understanding) might be quite vague but certainly (for most of us) is not in contradiction with the idea of an "irreducible core of our self". If the "that" clause referred to the soul the past tense would imply -- as Thomas said -- that the soul *was* in the natural philosophers' days conceived as the "irreducible core of our self" *but* nowadays people find this concept no longer plausible. As I argued above most people wouldn't have a big problem (wouldn't object) if the soul was said to be the irreducible core of our self (perhaps they wouldn't consider this attribute the most appropriate, perhaps they would say: we can never possibly define what the soul is, but they would certainly find it not completely inappropriate), so it would be a bit strange if the "that" clause referred to the soul.

    2. As opposed to the concept of a soul (however vague it may be) the concept of a homunculus is not common any more (in fact, if it didn't occur in Goethe's Faust it would be completely unknown to many people -- at least, to me). And therefore the author of the American Scientific Mind article has to explain to the reader of today what natural philosophers had in mind when speaking of a homunculus. It is therefore that the author comes up with the apposition "a kernel of self-awareness" (specifying the idea of a homunculus in abstract terms) and it is therefore that he brings into play the more concrete and vivid idea of the soul: he wants to say that by the abstract term "kernel of self-awareness" he means not exactly the same but something very much like (or "not unlike") the soul. If the "that" clause referred to the soul, this would mean that the author further specified a thing of secondary interest (the soul) that is -- although not unlike -- not exactly the thing he wants (or – as I argued above – should want) to further explain (namely, the homunculus). And this, again, would be a bit strange, I think.


    manthano
     
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    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    If we look at this SciAm Mind special edition on the brain (Scientific American Mind Vol. 14, No. 1, 2003) and search on 'homunculus' we can see first that the original text is from John Rennie's editorial introduction. It is probably intended to foreshadow the second piece containing the word, a study of the nature of consciousness by Michael Pauen, a philosophy professor.
    He says on p. 42: 'For centuries, many philosophers held that the mind was an autonomous entity, often conceptualized as a “homunculus,” or miniature version of a human who observed what was taking place in the brain.'

    This comment sees 'homunculus' as a mental entity, not a physical one.
    It also attributes this view to 'philosophers', not to the 'natural philosophers' mentioned by the editor. This difference is significant, because 'natural philosophers' is the older term for what we now call scientists. The term 'homunculus' as used by Professor Pauen is an hypothesis in philosophy, not in physical or chemical research.

    Another clue to the origin of the passage to which we have given so much attention may be found in the side panel on the same page, headed 'FAST FACTS The nature of consciousness'. This starts: '1. Recent laboratory work indicates that consciousness is processed in many different brain regions.'

    Professor Pauen's article however does not say that this physical research by neuroscientists has 'ejected the homunculus from our heads'. Instead, immediately following his 'homunculus' reference, he continues: 'Today consciousness is generally viewed as the representation of a group of mental processes—such as convictions, desires or the sense of dread—that we experience directly from our first-person perspective.' What this reports is a change of view among philosophers, not a process of disproof by scientists.

    Returning to the original text, it is clear that I over-interpreted it and also that the disputed clause is intended to refer to 'homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness not unlike the soul'. On the other hand, the difficulty of explaining what is meant by a mental homunculus existing alongside a soul remains unresolved. This problem arises only in the introduction, not in Michael Pauen's article.

    Returning to SuprunP's original question,
    'Is it possible, at least theoretically, that 'that' refers to 'the soul'?'
    the answer, as TT recognises, is that both in terms of abstract syntax and of punctuation it is possible. The wider context of the original article shows that it is not intended to refer to 'soul', despite the problematic sense that results.
     
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    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    Just for the record, I agree with Thomas Tompion's interpretation.
    From my point of view, the phrase in question combines these two phrases, neither of which requires a comma:

    ... a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness not unlike the soul.
    ... a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness that was the irreducible core of our self.

    It might have been written with two commas, but I am not certain that this is easier to follow, and it changes the emphasis in some subtle way.

    Early natural philosophers speculated that our brains contained a homunculus, a kernel of self-awareness, not unlike the soul, that was the irreducible core of our self.
    I was going to suggest exactly this. "Not unlike the soul" is a parenthetical. An editor, probably looking to reduce distracting punctuation, removed the commas (or even parentheses) around the phrase that the author probably had included.

    All respect to wandle and TT, but this is Scientific American. And it's written in American English. To my American ears, it is without question true that "that" refers back to "kernel." (I was actually shocked at Cagey's first interpretation.) I don't get tripped up in this sentence at all. I'm entirely used to taking these little mini-phrases out of the sentence or having them interrupt larger units, since they stick to themselves so strongly in my American mind.

    And grammatically speaking, the sentences makes it sound like the homunculus theory comes historically after the soul theory. So if the phrase was supposed to refer to "soul," then the phrase would have to be "that had been (seen as) the irreducible core of our self": the soul's core-ness would've had to be in a past perfect tense. Furthermore, there would have to be a comma after "self-awareness." But that's not how the sentence is written. QED?

    I don't think it takes any further information about this passage, or about various theories of mind, to get this reading right.

    And the soul doesn't need to empirically exist, any more than the homunculus, to have things compared to it. It's a theoretical construct and being discussed as such. I can still compare things to "Lamarckian evolutionism" or "Leninism" or "Descartes' model of the pineal gland" or the like without having to endorse any of those systems or concepts.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Hi Lucas,

    You say you respect my position, which prepared me for your saying something which disagreed with me, but then go on to add that, from your privileged position as an American, you don't get tripped up here, and that the sentence means exactly what I've been saying it means, from my position as an English person.

    You agree with me, but do so in a way which sounds like disagreement. I'm not really worried about this: the agreement matters to me more than how it's presented, and anyone can be forgiven for not going through the miasma of earlier parts of the thread. I said way back that not unlike the soul is a parenthesis, and I'm not really fussed about the commas. As an editor I might not have anticipated the possibility of the sort of misreadings we have witnessed. We also agree that the interpretation is not a matter of opinion at all. When you say it is without question true that "that" refers back to "kernel", you are saying something which I've avoided saying only because I think it provocative in discussion to say that there is no question that I am right.

    The only slight doubt in my mind is that you may be distinguishing between a reference to the kernel and one to the homunculus, but then the kernel is in apposition to the homunculus, so I don't think you'd do that.

    Suprun's question concerned whether or not the that could refer to the soul, and we certainly agree that it couldn't.
     
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    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    TT: I completely agree with you (and you're right, I was sloppy with my terms: I meant homunculus = kernel = that). Simultaneously, I'm frustrated that there are 30-odd points arguing interpretation on a pretty cut-and-dry sentence. I think you have to misread pretty willfully and egregiously to make the "that" stick to "soul." I also don't think an editor would ever have dreamt that the sentence would be read like this. And I for my part can't believe that the hypothesis that the author intended to have "that" refer to "soul," or that having "that" refer to "soul" makes any sense in the context of this sentence or the topic of the article, is actually getting aired so seriously.

    To me, a parenthetical "not unlike the X" is very AE. A construction like "not unlike the X that [subordinate clause]" is far, far more BE. I just wanted to come out strongly as an AE speaker to say that I hear no ambiguity in this sentence (except for interference that seems patently accidental and probably arose in the natural course of the writing/editing process).
     
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