Saturday, February 10, 2007

I am my brain

Do humans have immaterial souls? According to most religions, humans consist of two parts: the body and the soul. Religions teach that when the body dies, the soul (our feelings, emotions, dreams, wishes, personality and memories) lives on somehow. However, current advances in science, especially in neuroscience, are pointing to the disconcerting realisation that the soul is simply a product of, and is totally dependent on, the brain. In a fascinating article on the mystery of consciousness, published in the latest edition of Time, Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, writes:

“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.

25 comments:

CyberKitten said...

KP asked: Do humans have immaterial souls?

No. We do have minds, but they are simply the by-product of electrical activity in a brain of sufficient complexity. When our brains die our minds die too. End of story.

You seem to be using the word 'soul' instead of 'mind' which will probably confuse some people.

bethanne said...

Have you ever stopped to think that there is really no such thing as an atheist? To be adamant that there is no God, you must know everything that there is to know. You must have 100 percent of all the knowledge of everything in the universe. Let's assume you have 1 percent (which would be high for the average person) of all knowledge. That means that you do not know 99 percent of all the things there are to know, so you are really agnostic, because you dont know if there is a God because you cannot know everything.

Also, I find it hard to believe that you dont believe that everything has a maker. What if I showed you my home - it is made of bricks and mortar, but then I told you that no one made it - it just appeared here by accident. That's unbelieveable - just like its unbelieveable that the earth and everything and everyone on it just appeared here by accident.

Lui said...

"Have you ever stopped to think that there is really no such thing as an atheist? To be adamant that there is no God, you must know everything that there is to know."

True, except no atheist claims to have absolute knowledge that there is no God, just as you don’t have absolute knowledge that there is no Zeus or Enlil. Much less do they claim to know everything. Certainty is the preserve of religious fundamentalists and other dogmatists, not those who simply ask for evidence of God. Your characterisation of atheists is a crude caricature bearing little resemblance to how we actually think. We ask for something more than threats of damnation, moral chest thumping and weak arguments about "meaning". We ask for that which we use in all other domains of life. Why should religion be shielded from the same scrutiny? Is it because it has nothing else going for it, other than fancy claims that it can’t back up and must be believed through “faith”?

"Also, I find it hard to believe that you dont believe that everything has a maker. What if I showed you my home - it is made of bricks and mortar, but then I told you that no one made it - it just appeared here by accident. That's unbelieveable - just like its unbelieveable that the earth and everything and everyone on it just appeared here by accident."

This is an argument from incredulity: "I can't imagine how this could have come about. Therefore, God must have done it." It always amazes me how people with no knowledge whatsoever of a given phenomena can profess to lecture those less ignorant. They seem to think that their religiosity gives them some authority to speak down to others.

Please refer to previous discussions on this blog and others, or just read a bit about cosmology and evolution. The sad thing is really that you think that your argument is a compelling one. It isn’t.

Lui said...

Speaking of the soul, at what stage of human development does "ensoulment" occur? Is it during the blastula stage, or later on when the nervous system has appeared, or just before ? What about chimeras, where the person is composed of two cell lines? I wrote about this very ambiguity: What is a chimera and why should you care?.

CyberKitten said...

Couldn't have said it better myself Lui. I can't decide if these 'straw man' arguments put about by theists are annoying or hilarious.

Hard Rain said...

Excellent post. I've tracked it back to my blog: Hard Rain

Skywolf said...

Hmm. Neuroscience is fascinating, but I really don't see how it can prove that there is no soul. Certainly, it proves that all our conscious thought goes on in the brain, but who denies that anyway? Just because the brain is where all thought and consciousness can be monitored, tracked, and observed, that doesn't automatically negate the existence of a soul. To me, a soul is energy. A soul is something that's both part of, and not part of who I am. If we do have souls, where else would we expect their interaction with the body to occur other than the brain? I simply don't see how one disproves the other.

I no longer consider myself part of any fixed religion, but I do believe I have a soul. I believe this for many reasons, several based on my own personal experiences. As for 'out of body' experiences (which I haven't had, btw), it's very interesting that they can supposedly be recreated artificially. But I guess it depends on what sort of out of body experience they're talking about. Yes, there's evidence that the classic 'light at the end of a tunnel' scenario is to do with oxygen deprivation, but there are other accounts, such as astral projection, that are far more complex and varied.

Maybe all such things are hallucinations, although the people who experience them would hotly contest this. But how else would the brain register an experience like this other than as a hallucination? Any information a soul has must be channelled through the brain in order for the person in question to experience it, but this doesn't mean the soul isn't there at all.

How do we know anything we've experienced in our lives is true? We remember things. Memory exists in the brain... but does this make it nothing but hallucination?

I'm not claiming to have any answers here. But I don't think that studying the brain can possibly give us proof for or against the existence of a soul. I just don't think it's that simple.

Kevin Parry said...

Cyberkitten wrote:
You seem to be using the word 'soul' instead of 'mind' which will probably confuse some people.

Thank you for the comment, and I totally agree with you: I used the word 'soul' quite ambiguously in the post. You are correct: I should have used the word 'mind' instead - after all, the soul doesn't exist in the view that I'm advocating. Thank you for pointing this out.

Just to respond to Lui's excellent question about when “ensoulment” actually occurs. I would think that most Christians believe the soul is kind of created with the body (as Christianity doesn't preach that we 'lived' before we were born). In other words, the soul can’t come into being if there isn’t a body to hold it in the first place. If this is what Christians believe – that the soul is dependent on the body for its birth – it seems a bit contradictory that they also believe that the soul lives on for eternity long after the body has died.

Just a thought.

Lui said...

Kevin said: "You are correct: I should have used the word 'mind' instead - after all, the soul doesn't exist in the view that I'm advocating. Thank you for pointing this out."

Daniel Dennett has done something similar, when he said (these aren't his exact words, but close enough): "I believe in the soul - it's just that it's composed of millions of robots."

Skywolf said: "To me, a soul is energy."

This is probably how many people "visualise" the soul, but what does it actually mean? What is this "energy"? Is it interchangeable with matter? If so, then it's still part of the physical universe, and we might as well just say that's it's the chemical and electrical energy that goes on in the brain, and which, for mysterious reasons that may be forever beyond our grasp, manifests itself in subjective experience and consciousness. If you would have it that consciousness survives death, perhaps it “floats around” and is still subject to the laws of physics. But it seems a rather “flabby” excess, and neuroscience is chipping away at our ignorance, slowly but surely (and in many cases, disturbingly) laying open the biological foundations of who and what we are.
If not, then we're not really talking about anything at all, just some wishy-washy immaterial "life force". Immaterial seems to me to mean "nothingness".

Skywolf said...

I wholly disagree that 'immaterial' equals 'nothingness'. Some of the most important and powerful things we rely on every day are completely immaterial... energy itself being the prime one, of course. Is sunlight nothingness just because it's immaterial? Is heat nothingness? Is electricity nothingness? No, you can't hold them or touch them or weigh them, but they're very much there and incredibly important. Matter is not the only substance worth noting. And I believe we are more than simply matter.

Whether the soul's energy is interchangeable with matter... I don't know what I think about that. I've never really considered the question before. But I do think it's clear that if there is a soul, it relies on the matter of our bodies in order to experience the physical world. I don't, personally, equate the soul with physical consciousness. I think they're two separate things, even whilst part of the whole. My finger and my nose are two totally separate things, but they're both still part of me.

I do consider a soul to be energy, but also more than that. It's not just electrical impulses or measurable energy as we know it. I believe it to be the very essence of who I am, utilising my body and yet not the body itself. But I don't suppose you need me to define the general idea of the soul...

Where my belief differs greatly from mainstream Christian belief is that I don't believe the soul is created at the same time as the body, and I do believe my soul existed before I was born. I don't see the point in a soul existing for one miniscule lifetime. But then we start getting into the deeper philosophies of the purpose of a soul, which isn't really the point of this discussion.

CyberKitten said...

skywolf said: To me, a soul is energy. A soul is something that's both part of, and not part of who I am.

How can something (the soul) be both part of and not part of you? Where is it? What is it? Can it be detected? If not why not? If it can't be detected how do we know its there at all?

If its an immaterial substance then how does it interact with us - presuming that it does indeed interact. If it survives after our death how does it do that? How does it maintain any integrity if its energy? If its a coherent energy field that why hasn't it ever been detected?

There are *so* many questions when you bring up the idea of the soul!

Casey Kochmer said...

here is my take about soul.

ina nut shell soul is what we are. We are so busy focusing on mind, or body or spirit...

that we miss the entire point. Soul is the sum of what we are in any given moment. Spirit is the motion of that soul thru time.

so of course mind and body blur together to create our soul.

Peace :)

Steve Hayes said...

Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality

Which is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency

At sanity

Whis is an illusion caused by mescaline deficiency

At thought

Which is an illusion caused by certain electro-chemical changes in the human brain structure, which, had they been otherwise, what is now commonplace would be beyond our wildest imaginings, and what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would be commonplace.

On the other hand, perhaps God's got us all backed up on DVD somewhere, and there'll be a new heave and a new earth when we're all restored into new and improved hardware (or wetware, as the case may be).

Skywolf said...

Soul is the sum of what we are in any given moment. Spirit is the motion of that soul thru time.

Yes. This is pretty much exactly what I believe. And I also agree that trying to pin the soul down into a graspable, material thing is indeed missing the point entirely.

How can something (the soul) be both part of and not part of you? Where is it? What is it? Can it be detected? If not why not? If it can't be detected how do we know its there at all?

When I say it's part of and yet not part of me, I simply mean that it's not part of my physical body. This body is not me. It's just the solid, material aspect that my soul inhabits. So as for the 'where' - I think it's within and around my body. But that's just my own speculation. And again, I think questioning physical aspects such as what it is, how to detect it, etc. etc. are all moot points in that if a soul is in no way a physical thing, those questions simply aren't answerable.

There are *so* many questions when you bring up the idea of the soul!

I completely agree! There are infinite questions. And no one can claim to have all the answers. I don't know if I, personally, have any of them. I just know what I believe, even if I'm totally unable to quantify that belief in a way that makes it convincing to others.

CyberKitten said...

skywolf said: I think questioning physical aspects such as what it is, how to detect it, etc. etc. are all moot points in that if a soul is in no way a physical thing, those questions simply aren't answerable.

So.. How are we expected to know its actually there if those type of questions are unanswerable? You see my problem here....?

skywolf said: I just know what I believe, even if I'm totally unable to quantify that belief in a way that makes it convincing to others.

So... your belief in the existence of the soul is based on what exactly...? You must have some reason to believe as you do...

DaBich said...

I do believe that you are implying that the soul cannot exist without the brain. In my humble opinion, that is not true.
The soul, to me, is not dependent on the brain. Therefore, when the body dies, the soul remains. Where it goes? That is yet to be seen!

Kevin Parry said...

Dabich wrote:
Therefore, when the body dies, the soul remains

Hi Dabich

Welcome, and thank you for your comment and opinion. I would like to invite you to elaborate on why you believe the soul exists and why it lives on after death. To me, all evidence points to the fact that we don’t survive death. If you have any evidence to the contrary, I would like to know about it.

All the best
Kevin

Skywolf said...

So... your belief in the existence of the soul is based on what exactly...? You must have some reason to believe as you do...

I do. But again, it's not something I'm able to present as a 'proof' to another person. My own reasons for firm belief in a soul are pretty personal, and I don't talk about them much, even to those I'm close to. But, seeing as you asked...

I believe strongly in reincarnation. There are various reasons for my holding this belief. The main one, in a nutshell, is that I have memories of having lived before. I don't have clear, detail-for-detail memories as I do for, say, things that happened last year, but they're at least as clear as memories I have from being a baby and small child. And they are in no way things I've ever physically experienced in this body.

My partner's the same. He also remembers things. He's a pilot. The first time he had a flying lesson was the first time he'd set foot in an aeroplane. The flying instructor thought he was having him on, because he knew how to fly the plane. The instructor refused to believe that my OH had never flown before, and actually got pretty angry with him for timewasting. But he had genuinely never flown a plane before. However, he recalls a previous life in which he was also a pilot.

There are other things... such as coming across people who are so much older and wiser than their years - that sort of thing. If the soul does get reborn, then I believe it's in order to learn more and more things about life. And some people do seem to be more or less spiritually evolved than others.

Well. I pretty much never share this stuff. But it's the only way I can explain why I personally believe in the soul...

ercatli said...

For what it's worth, I don't believe in a soul separate from the rest of us. I think if we are going to live on after death, it won't be automatic, God will have to do it. i.e. resurrection rather than immortal soul.

But I too have read a bit of neuroscience, and if the scientific account is correct, all our actions and thoughts are determined by our brain chemistry, for there is no "us" sitting "outside" our brains to control our thoughts. It is also difficult to show why such chemically determined thoughts can reason abstractly to truth. So the scientific explanation seems to deny two things (abstract reason and choice) which form the basis of the discussion we're all having.

So maybe there's more than what science knows at present.

beepbeepitsme said...

The theist's position is that there is a mind which exists without matter. That there is an incorporeal mind that exists without a brain. Scientific evidence suggests strongly that minds are dependent upon matter. No matter, no mind.

ercatli said...

Yep, that's true, but science only addresses things within "nature". Any "incorporeal mind" or god is beyond nature (and is thus super-nature), so science cannot say anything more than that it cannot know. So we are back where we started. We have to get used to the fact that if we are going to know much about God, we are going to have to rely on more than just science - like using metaphysics, which is what we are both doing in having this discussion.

To go further, what do you think about reason and free will?

Anonymous said...

"We have to get used to the fact that if we are going to know much about God,..."

Um, didn't a bunch of us here decide that getting to know much about god is a pointless exercise?

Please explain, why, according to you, if science cannot explain god, anyone who decides to make up some mythical story system and wrap it around a specific religion, can?

My answer is easy: God cannot be explained simply because there is no quantifiable, repeatable, definite evidence he/she/it/them do exist (other than in the sense of the study of religions as endemic phantasies across societies).

I'll head off the "See, doesn't the endemic belief in gods prove they exist" argument before it happens. If everyone believed in one god, maybe, the massive diversity in god systems both in one instant and as it has changed over time suggests something else.

And Bethanne, I really want to suggest you use your line of logic to suggest "maybe there is no such thing as a theist?" Since no one KNOWS there is a god (people only BELIEVE there is one [or two or maybe 20 or 10,000]), how can there be one? Also, last I checked, no one was suggesting evolution applied to housing--cool as the idea sounds in solving a root problem of poverty.

*adelaine said...

as Voltaire's famous quote goes, If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him.

I believe the same is to the human soul.. or everything religion is trying to drive into us. I dun know if there is a God or if we have a soul that lives on after our human body dies off.. or if there is really an after life or karma or retribution or judgment day..

but the sad thing about atheist-ism (or my own cynical nature about human beings) is that.. if there is really none of those things.. we would not have a moral compass.. religion might sometimes prove to be a bad guide (like your previous post) but it is still a strand that stops many people from killing themselves (or other people for their gain) and gives hope that should and when this horrible life ends, the kingdom of heaven awaits.. (??) I really doubt that people will value life more should there be no after life but rather it pushes us to a hedonistic lifestyle if we can afford it and a bleak outlook if we cant.

Lui said...

Skywolf writes: “I wholly disagree that 'immaterial' equals 'nothingness'. Some of the most important and powerful things we rely on every day are completely immaterial... energy itself being the prime one, of course. Is sunlight nothingness just because it's immaterial? Is heat nothingness? Is electricity nothingness? No, you can't hold them or touch them or weigh them, but they're very much there and incredibly important. Matter is not the only substance worth noting. And I believe we are more than simply matter.”

I realise I should have been more careful here, and should perhaps have opted for another word, like “physical” instead of “material”. (I don’t know enough about physics to verify your claims, but even granting that they’re correct, light and electricity are subject to physical laws, which they obey; they are both made of particles, which have certain physical properties) What comparable reasons, however, do we have for thinking that we are endowed with a mysterious type of “substance”? Does this substance follow physical laws, and if so, why should it be considered “supernatural”?

It’s true, as you say, that the findings of neuroscience don’t actually disprove the existence of the soul, but they do make it more and more redundant. Science tries to find parsimonious explanations to phenomena, and the soul seems to me like a very un-parsimonious concept that has outgrown its utility. The only reasons for hanging onto it, as far as I can tell, are emotional ones – some of them to do with dreading the idea that we are ultimately gene-machines, some of them to do with religious/spiritual experiences (experiments in neuroscience have shown that these types of experiences can be turned on like a light switch if certain parts of the brain are stimulated, and we also know about the effects of drugs on altering states of consciousness). And it’s often defined in the most vague terms possible, almost as though it were custom made to dodge criticisms of it, and it falls back on mystery all too readily.

For me, and many other atheists, the notion that we are the result of billions of years of evolution, and that our subjective experiences are the collective manifestation of intricate and totally naturalistic processes is amazing enough, and in fact more amazing and more awe-inspiring than the religious alternatives. Who was the poet who said that the fragrance of a flower is beautiful enough by itself to have no need for perfume? The world as revealed by science is poetic and beautiful enough to need no cosmic “fragrance”.

Adelaine writes: "I really doubt that people will value life more should there be no after life but rather it pushes us to a hedonistic lifestyle if we can afford it and a bleak outlook if we cant."

Which, of course, has absolutely no bearing on the truth claims of religion.

For what it's worth, I believe that religion really does devalue life here on Earth, by teaching us that death doesn't really equal death, people live the only demonstrably real life in hope of making it to "the big one". That seems like a terrible waste; we are all incredibly lucky to be alive at all, and the precious little time we have in this universe should be lived, not squandered. Science, though not the answer to all problems, can at least assist us in putting things in perspective. It can help us stay grounded in reality.

FCSuper said...

I am normally more inclined to support an atheist's viewpoint when up against that of theism. However, I have to agree with the criticism of this argument. Just because someone puts a name on some activity of the brain doesn't mean they are precluding the existence of a soul.

Simple fact is that if one builds a human body from scratch, it will not be a human living and breathing and walking and talking. It will simply be a replica of a human body unable to function on its own. All your argument is covering is the observation of life that already exists.

If/when we starting making artificial life, then we can start making your argument. Maybe ;)