“Scientists have exorcised the ghost from the machine not because they are mechanistic killjoys but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain. Using functional MRI, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people’s thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. They can tell, for instance, whether a person is thinking about a face or a place or whether a picture the person is looking at is of a bottle or a shoe.
“And consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, such as a song playing in the room or a childhood birthday party. Chemicals that affect the brain, from caffeine and alcohol to Prozac and LSD, can profoundly alter how people think, feel and see. Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment of epilepsy), spawns two consciousnesses within the same skull, as if the soul could be cleaved in two with a knife.
“And when the physiological activity of the brain ceases, as far as anyone can tell the person’s consciousness goes out of existence. Attempts to contact the souls of the dead (a pursuit of serious scientists a century ago) turned up only cheap magic tricks, and near death experiences are not the eyewitness reports of a soul parting company from the body but symptoms of oxygen starvation in the eyes and brain. In September, a team of Swiss neuroscientists reported that they could turn out-of-body experiences on and off by stimulating the part of the brain in which vision and bodily sensations converge.”
This leaves me asking: where is my soul? It seems that all indications point to the conclusion that my soul is simply a wondrous by-product of incredibly complex networks formed by 100 billion neurons firing in my head. In other words, my soul is an affect that has an entirely natural cause: the brain.
It would be wonderful to believe that some part of me will live on after my death. But all present discoveries don’t support this wish or desire. I realise that when my brain eventually dies, my soul will die as well. After leaving Christianity I made peace with this conclusion, and so doing I found a renewed appreciation and wonder for this brief period of consciousness that I have been awarded.