The Soul--A Rational Belief?

Because this blog attracts readers of varying philosophical experience, I have chosen to summarize some of the philosophical concepts involved in the discussion of the mind rather than assume the reader's knowledge of them. More versed readers will forgive the often hasty generalizations of complex ideas (especially the many ideas regarding the philosophy of the mind).

Most Christians (and many other theists) believe in a dualistic human nature--i.e. that humans are both physical and spiritual beings. In this view, there is a brain and a spiritual consciousness. It is thought that the spiritual consciousness determines a person's identity, personality, and behavior. Many theists believe this spiritual consciousness can live on after the brain and physical body of a human is destroyed. They are committed to the idea that the brain and a spiritual consciousness are independent, yet somehow linked.

In this post, I will argue against the plausibility of a spiritual human consciousness separate from the human brain. I will argue that the brain alone is responsible for a person's identity, personality, and behavior. After constructing a few informal philosophical arguments that rely on what I will refer to as "brain-dependence"(hereafter, BD) and conclude that the existence of a spiritual consciousness separate from the brain is implausible, I will describe and give examples for BD.

From the evidence listed below, it seems indisputable that the human brain is, at least, partially responsible for a person's identity, personality, and behavior (traits traditionally ascribed to a spiritual human consciousness). If a theist agrees that the brain can affect a person's identity, personality, and behavior, they must either concede that the brain can exercise control over a person's supposed spiritual consciousness or they must believe that the spiritual consciousness can exercise control over a person but that the brain cannot affect it in any way. Both are problematic for theists who believe in a spiritual consciousness.

If the brain is clearly and demonstrably responsible for some aspects of a person's identity, personality, and behavior, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that the brain is responsible for all aspects of a person's identity, personality, and behavior. In fact, it seems as if the notion of a spiritual consciousness is completely superfluous. If human identity, personality, and behavior can be determined by the brain it seems that this is the most natural explanation of human (non-spiritual consciousness). Any further additions would seem to violate Ockham's razor--the principle that one should not multiply explanations when a simple one answers the question (e.g. If I saw a George Washington standing over a freshly-cut cherry tree with an axe, it would be illogical for me to argue that aliens flew down and knocked the tree over with their laser blaster. The simplest explanation is that GW chopped the tree down. In the same way, if the brain can be responsible for a person's identity, personality, and behavior, there is no reason to posit some kind of spiritual consciousness).

If, instead, a theist asserts the transcendence of the spiritual consciousness so that it cannot be affected by the brain, many questions follow. The brain, for instance, limits learning. If a spiritual consciousness is not limited by the brain, then everything that consciousness experiences, it must retain. Every spiritual consciousness is a little Einstein, smarter even. Not only would every spiritual consciousness retain every memory and piece of information it was ever exposed to, it would also be free from the reasoning limitations of the brain. It would take all of the available information and put them together perfectly.

But if this is the aspect of a person's self that lives on, can one really argue that she will survive her death? The spiritual consciousness is not at all like the consciousness that a person is aware of after the brain has limited it. It is smarter, more well-reasoned, has more memories, and doesn't even share the same body as the one a person has been aware of. The person emerging from death wouldn't be anything like who they were in life. That person would have truly died and a new entity (an unlimited spiritual consciousness) would live on.

BD states that there is an inextricable link between the human brain and human consciousness. It has been shown that altering part of the brain alters certain states of consciousness and that the destruction of parts of the brain destroys certain states of consciousness. Furthermore, it has been empirically verified that every thought corresponds to an occurrence in the brain. Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist, says, "We know that every form of mental activity -- every emotion, every thought, every percept -- gives off electrical, magnetic, or metabolic signals that can be recorded with increasing precision by Positron Emission Tomography, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Magnetoencephalography, and other techniques." Adam Marczyk writes, "there is no aspect of the mind that does not correspond to any area of the brain."

There are many examples of how human consciousness is affected by brain injury (I am indebted to Adam Marczyk's article "A Ghost in the Machine" for most of the specific examples). I may have gone a little overboard with the actual cases (I thought they were interesting), so if you want to read a couple

Anterograde amnesia is the inability to form new memories (if you are familiar with the movie, Momento, the main character has this disorder). Conifer writes, "Dr. Kenneth Heilman tells us of a patient named Flora Pape whose left and right fornices [the area of the brain responsible for memory] both had to be excised to save her from a life-threatening brain tumor. Mrs. Pape had lived in east Kentucky all of her life, until she and her husband both moved to Jacksonville, Florida, two years before her surgery. At the time of her surgery, she had two sons in their 20s, both of whom still lived in Kentucky." Heilman recounts what took place after leaving the hospital:

When she was discharged from the hospital, her husband drove her from Gainesville to their home in Jacksonville. After leaving Gainesville, her husband noticed that she was looking out the window and saying, "Oh, my!" He asked what was troubling her and she said, "What happened to the mountains?"
He asked, "What mountains?"
She replied, "You know, the mountains."
He said, "There are no mountains here."
She replied, "No mountains in Kentucky. We must be in the western part of the state. What are we doing here?"
Mr. Pape had been told by [the doctor] that the surgery might make her memory worse, but he was still surprised. "Dear, we are not in Kentucky. We are in Florida."
She asked, "Why are we in Florida?"
He told her that they had moved to Jacksonville about 2 years earlier. She said, "Moved to Jacksonville? Why?" He told her that the company had asked him to transfer. She asked, "Where are we going now?"
"Back to Jacksonville from Gainesville. You had some surgery on your brain. It was a tumor. The doctors think they got it all out. You are having some memory problems, but the surgeons hope it will improve with time."
Then she asked, "Who is watching the boys?"
"No one," he replied. "They are grown and live in Kentucky."
"What do you mean, grown? They are still teenagers."
"No, they are not. They are in their twenties. They are coming down this weekend to see you."
She stopped asking questions for a few minutes and looked out of the car window. Then she turned to her husband and asked, "Where are all the mountains?"

Now, is this wife really the same person she was before the surgery? What does it mean to be you? Are you not a product of your memories? Are you the same person now that you were two years ago?

This also introduces other problems for religious theists. What if this wife had been an atheist two years before the surgery, but had then become a theist (let's say, a Christian theist). After the surgery, however, she only remembers her reasons for not believing in a god. She, now, espouses the strong atheism she held prior to the surgery. Is she or is she not a Christian?

The point is that if there is a spiritual consciousness that exists outside of the brain, why does damage to the brain change a person's identity? A person is a collection of their thoughts and memories (e.g. If I were asked to describe myself, I would talk about what I've experienced, what I think, what I do for a living, etc. All of these descriptions would change if I lost two years of my life like Mrs. Pape).

Some religious theists argue that, perhaps, the soul/consciousness works through the brain and, if the brain is damaged, has trouble expressing its true self. A disorder known as callosal disconnection raises some interesting questions about this theory.

The right and left hemispheres of the brain can be naturally (by a stroke) or surgically disconnected (this is done for patients with severe epilepsy to help with seizures). The hemispheres of the brain lose the ability to communicate with one another. These two hemispheres can gain a consciousness exclusive of one another. An interesting example is of a patient was asked what his ideal profession was. Verbally (a function of the left hemisphere), the man said draftsman. When asked to spell it out using blocks with his left hand (which is controlled by the right hemisphere), the man spelled "automobile race." It seems that, in the same person, there were two consciousnesses--one wanted to be a draftsman, the other a racer.
A more interesting (and, more frightening example) can be seen in alien hand syndrome. One recorded case is about a woman who came to her doctor because, every now and then, her left hand would try to strangle her to death. The doctor checked her for psychiatric disorders, but found no evidence of any. He theorized that if she had experienced a natural callosal disconnection in her brain, her right hemisphere might have suicidal tendencies and might be trying to act out on them (the right hemisphere cannot communicate verbally, and it has been shown that the left hemisphere is responsible for controlling most erratic behaviors). After she died of unrelated causes, the autopsy showed that she had, in fact, experienced a callosal disconnection. Subsequent cases have substantiated alien hand syndrome. (In another case, a man's left hand attacked his wife and he had to use his right hand to stop it.)

How can two consciousnesses (or "souls" for many theists) be explained within the same person? Is there a devil in one hemisphere and an angel in the other? Does the spiritual consciousness of one hemisphere go to heaven and the other to hell (assuming religious traditions believing in reward and punishment)?

Capgras syndrome has the unusual effect of causing a person to suddenly insist that a loved-one is an imposter. When a person meets someone else, they "start a file" on that person. The limbic system of the brain recognizes familiar faces and accesses emotional centers connected with those faces. If the face is that of a loved-one, the limbic system accesses positive emotional centers. If that limbic system is damaged, however, a person will recognize the familiar face, but will not have the same emotional connection with that face. They cannot believe that it is the same person. The brain starts another file for this person who looks like a loved-one but does not have a positive emotion associated with them.

Why can't this person's soul recognize his "soul-mate"? Why doesn't the spiritual consciousness hold on to this?

Phineas Gage had his ventromedial prefrontal cortex blown out in a dynamiting accident. Before the accident, he was a kind-hearted, reasonable, well-liked man. After the accident, though, he became mean-spirited and ill-tempered. The part of his brain that was damaged is the part that is believed to control normal decision-making and social skills.

Anecdotally, my brother-in-law knows a person that demonstrates signs of this syndrome. He knew a Christian man who was a very loving husband and father. After an automobile accident in which he sustained a head injury, he became both verbally and physically abusive to his wife and young children. The doctors and his family blamed the behavior on his head trauma. The injury, however, completely altered his personality. He was a different person after the injury.

Both cases raise difficult questions about the responsibility of any soul in so-called "sinful action." If Gage's spiritual consciousness existed outside of his mind, is that spiritual consciousness morally responsible for his post-trauma behavior? Is the Christian man now in sin because of his actions and his failure to live up to his wedding vows? He promised to love his wife until death, but now he hates her and denies that she is who she is. Further, if sin can be blamed on the brain and not the spiritual consciousness, can it be argued that all sin occurs because of the brain and the spiritual consciousness (if it existed) cannot be held responsible for any action?

Frontotemporal dementia in the right hemisphere of the brain has been shown to affect "food and dress choice, political ideology, social behavior, sexual preference, and [even] religion." Now, if a person is ultimately judged for the religion they choose, what are the ramifications if someone walks away from her religion because of a deterioration of her brain? Isn't this supposed to be a decision made by a person's consciousness/soul? Will they be judged because of a condition of their brain?

A Jesuit priest had a stroke that damaged the right hemisphere of his brain. After the accident, he lost the ability to have intense emotions. He joked when his parents told him that his sister had leukemia and he lost all of his passion for his ministry. His parents complained to the doctor, "That's not the way our son acted before he became sick . . . He now sounds like a robot."

Where is the priests "true self"? What happened to his spiritual consciousness?

"Mary" was a student at an Ivy-league school. During her first two years, she did extremely well. She was a devout Baptist who did not drink or sleep around. During her third year, however, Mary became belligerent to other people, started drinking heavily, and became very sexually active. She could not explain why her behavior had changed so dramatically. An MRI revealed that Mary had a tumor in the frontal lobes of her brain (the area of the brain that controls impulses). Almost immediately after the removal of the tumor, Mary's behavior changed back to what it was before.

Another man was a teacher who suddenly became obsessed with sex with minors. He was convicted on molestation charges. He said that he couldn't understand why he couldn't resist his impulses. An MRI revealed that he, too, had a tumor in the frontal lobes of his brain. After the removal, the man claimed that he no longer had the desire for aberrant sex acts. A few years later, though, the man started having headaches and began buying pornography again. He went to the doctor and an MRI revealed that the tumor had begun growing back.

A hard-working Baptist minister who had refused pay from his church (choosing, rather, to support himself so that the church could direct funds elsewhere) began showing up late for appointments, then skipping them altogether, then doing nothing but sitting in front of the TV even choosing to urinate on himself rather than go to the bathroom. An MRI showed that there was a tumor pressing on his frontal lobes. After the removal of the tumors, he began faithfully working again and living an active life.

If the spiritual consciousness exists, why does a tumor affect a person's identity so much? Who that person is is affected by his or her brain?

In summary, I argued that theists who believe in the existence of a spiritual consciousness face the difficult challenge of making room for it. If they believe agree that the brain can affect identity, personality, and behavior, then, it seems that the brain is the most natural and easiest explanation of all identity, personality and behavior. Adding the concept of a spiritual consciousness violates the principle of Ockham's razor. If, instead, the theist believes that a spiritual consciousness can affect the brain, but cannot be affected by the brain, then the spiritual consciousness would be much different than the consciousness of which the person is aware, and if the spiritual consciousness lived on, it would not be the same person. I, then, attempted to prove BD through case studies that demonstrate that the brain can affect identity, personality, and behavior.

After posting this in my former blog, I got this comment:

I think there are a few areas lacking in your post. First, you don’t address the problem of qualia . . . the fact that I thought that a painting is beautiful cannot be reduced to any physical fact about my brain and central nervous system (also another problem with qualia).

I responded (in part):

For those who have not done much study in the philosophy of the mind, qualia are the subjective experiences of things, the difference between "knowing about" something and "knowing" something. The classical example is of a fictional woman who had never experienced color (only black and white). She studies all about color and knows how they affect the brain, but until she actually sees a color, she does not really "know" it. This sujective knowledge (compared to objective knowledge) is a qualia.

Dualists often argue that this indicates that there is something non-physical in our consciousness, something that is beyond the brain. Two additional medical cases (also from ) may be relevent to this "problem":

Pain asymbolia occurs through brain damage and causes patients to lose all subjective responses (but not physical perceptions) of phenomena. The patient will know the difference between hot and cold, but will no longer have any subjective response to it. After having nerves in the brain surgically severed because of chronic, intense pain, one patient commented, "The pain is the same, but I feel much better now." The patient's subjective experience of pain was altered physically by a procedure on the brain.

Synesthesia is a condition that mixes the subjective experiences people have of things. One woman can actually taste different musical tones. Not only does she hear them, she also tastes them. She can distinguish between tones by taste.

Both of these examples show that there is a physical basis for qualia. Adding a spiritual consciousness is, again, multiplying necessities.

. . . [On beauty]

I have a friend who had a neurological condition that changed her tastes. Things that she enjoyed eating before, tasted terrible to her after. It certainly seems that the fact that she thought something tasted good could "be reduced to any physical fact about [her] brain and central nervous system."

I also think this is covered in my discussion of Capgras syndrome. This is the condition that causes people not to have the same emotional responses to familiar faces.

In Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works he discusses how art "tickles" parts of the brain so that the person enjoys them. Also, beauty can rely heavily on the senses (e.g. a person can have a poor olafactory response to say, wine, and not be able to distinguish between certain tastes that someone with a greater sense).

First posted 3/20/06


Anonymous said...

I have to say, a lot of food for thought in this post. I enjoyed it. Also, a lot less malice then other posts I've read on this blog.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, exbeliever. Of course, the problems run even deeper, as you know, when believers must state the exact relationship of the mind to the body, a problem that has plagued dualists since Descartes. That is, if there is a soul (or a mind) then exactly how does it tell the body to move.

Can you precisely describe for me how mind and matter are the same so they can interact, and yet how they are also different?

Imagine an existing chair located in the same room you are in now. It is invisible to your eyes because it's in another dimension, or parallel universe. It really exists there, but you cannot see it or touch it because it is not a material chair in your universe. Now sit on it. Try to kick it around. Pick it up and throw it as far as you can. Go ahead, experiment all you like. Then report back your findings on how it's possible to touch that chair, which really exists, but isn't a made up of any matter.

Conversely, can that chair act in your world? Let's say it has a brain, for a minute. And it wants to pick you up and kick you around a while. Can it? How? You couldn't, so how can it?

Analogies are weak, like invisible chairs, I suppose. But the question remains, "how can the two interact?" How? Logically they cannot interact, unless they both share a quality or something that they both have. Are mind and matter two poles of the same reality?: then welcome to panentheism, or process theology. Are they one and the same: then welcome to pantheism (all is "spirit"), or atheism (all is matter). Idealism proclaims there is no material universe. You could go that way, I suppose, like George Berkeley. But then what exactly did God create? Ideas? We don't exist with bodies? Then exactly where do we exist? Do we exist at all? Maybe we are only "dreams" that God is having?

And there is the further problem of personal identity in a supposed resurrection, that is, how exactly will the resurrected person be the same person?....but that's for another time.

Alan Lund said...

On the whole, I thought this was a good post. I recently read a book that covered these kinds of brain-related phenomena (the title escapes me just now), but I had not considered some of the implications you brought up here.

I do have one minor nitpick, though.

If, instead, a theist asserts the transcendence of the spiritual consciousness so that it cannot be affected by the brain, many questions follow. The brain, for instance, limits learning. If a spiritual consciousness is not limited by the brain, then everything that consciousness experiences, it must retain.

If there is a separate spiritual consciousness, why would it be necessary that it be superior? Why must it retain everything that consciousness experiences? Why would it necessarily be free from limitations on reasoning? This is, I think, a bit of a strawman, and one that is unnecessary to your argument. All you need to posit is that the spiritual conciousness has different limitations than the BD conciousness. (If they have the same limitations, then we are back to Ockham's razor.)

Anonymous said...

Obviously the brain must be some sort of antenna that allows for extradimensional communication with the soul. That leads to a whole new explanation of why you die when you get shot in the head. You are not really dying; you are just cutting off communication between the soul and the body. Death is nothing more than the crash of an radio controlled airplane with a broken antenna.

I have already developed a similar explanation for the related organ, the penis. By my rationale the penis is obviously an antenna for communication with god. This has several implications but the most important thing is it finally explains why only men can be priests in a non-sexist manner. Women simply don't have the hardware. Celibacy then becomes even more important as you would never want anything to interfere between the penis and the god signal. Considering the construction of cathedrals, one must conclude that a few inches of womanflesh must have a higher insulating factor than several feet of marble.

Remember, your inability to scientifically detect these forms of extradimensional communication is not any proof that they do not exist. There was a time when radio waves, alpha particles and even oxygen were a mystery to science. Open your mind to the possibilities.

nsfl said...


nice post.



True, there is a possibility your analogy holds, except for the last part about scientific detection. If our "souls" are, de facto, immaterial, then how in the hell do we detect any kind of waves which can travel between matter and immaterial substances, living in a material universe, using material experiments and instruments? Answer: we can't. John's analogy, limited though it may be, was directed at this very thorn in our rationale. If these waves exist, I'm afraid we'll only sense them with whatever else "immaterial" stuff we have, and thus this will always be a matter of faith, where religion always returns.


Sorry you've felt malice here. I hope we can all communicate reasonably without regressing into emotions, but since worldviews are a sensitive subject, I'd prolly be better off just warning you to develop a little thick skin.


Why don't you post some of our email exchange, since it is so germane? I give you permission to do so.

Anonymous said...

Over all, I actually enjoyed reading this. However, I must point out that this does show a misconception about the orthodox view of the soul (one that, I'll grant, is due to the fact that many Christians misunderstand the doctrine too).

The body and soul can't really be separated from one another except to make a distinction between them. You (as a person) are both your body and your soul. Thus, during death, you do not remain as you were before. You are NOT the same person in heaven as you were on Earth.

This is why the doctrine of the resurrection is so important and cannot be left out of this discussion--it is at that point that the body and the soul will be reunited. And, in point of fact, after the resurrection we will not have identical bodies to the ones we have now, as our bodies will be without the effects of sin and glorified.

Thus, I don't know of anyone who would say that Christian theism teaches that there will be no "change" from the person who lives to the person who is in the afterlife. There most certainly WILL be changes to those individuals. So in the end, these thought really don't show any kind of contradiction between reality and the Christian belief system.

As to the brain damage questions, those really aren't that different from any other physical problem that we run into. For instance, it's no different from the fact that I need glasses to see. The body and the soul are united so that the corruption of sin affects both, and sometimes that is manifested by physical brain damage.

DagoodS said...

calvindude, I understand that you are claiming that believers will get a whole new body to place the old soul into. But can physical damage here on earth “change” or modify the soul? And will those modifications remain the same in the new body, or will the soul revert back to its original condition?

And, of course, what is the original condition? Original sin?

Or are you saying that physical injury and disease, such as brain damage, impairs the soul in some way? Can we modify our own soul, or is that set? And how does one do so?


nsfl said...


I think your quote selection was exceptionally well-done to reflect both of our original intents and preserve the context. I enjoyed our exchange, and I think we both understand each other pretty well, even if we don't agree, which is the point of the whole discussion. Thanks for taking the time to converse!


Anonymous said...

dagoods said:
calvindude, I understand that you are claiming that believers will get a whole new body to place the old soul into. But can physical damage here on earth “change” or modify the soul?

First of all, I'm not claiming we will get a new body to place "the old soul" into. In fact, given what I wrote above, it should be fairly clear that the entire person changes during the resurrection.

Somehow, you must be getting the idea that if I change I'm not the same person; yet this is obviously absurd. Firstly, I have grown a great deal since I was born, yet I am still the same PERSON I was when I was born. Secondly, when I learn a new fact my intellect changes yet I am still the same PERSON as before. My body and my mind do change through time, yet I remain the same.

Why, then, would it be absurd to think that the PERSONHOOD would not remain if God cleanses you of the taint of sin and resurrects you in an uncorrupted state?

This whole argument is a non sequitur because no theist worth his salt is going to say that people are identical in heaven as they are on Earth. Thus, if we can accept change in the afterlife, why would we say that change during regular life could not take place?

Anonymous said...

Of course, typing quickly on a blog, I should point out that I didn't make myself as clear as I should have before since I slipped into the ambiguity of the term "person" above.

To rephrase it, let me clarify with a distinction between NATURE and PERSON. I will use the term "nature" to refer to the attitudes and worldviews and such that a person has. A person bases his choices on his nature--if his nature is that he likes something more than another thing, he will choose for that thing he likes. This is controlled by his nature.

His personhood, on the other hand, is his sense of self. His ego. His state of being.

With that in mind, I would say a person's nature changes between Earth and the resurrection, but his personhood remains the same. Thus, what a person likes (for example: does he like to sin?) can change (which is evident by the fact that when you were young you were probably far more irresponsible than you are now), but who he is (his sense of self) remains.

Sorry about the previous ambiguity :-)

DagoodS said...

CalvinDude, I am not attempting to trap you, nor am I being deliberately obtuse. Generally, I attempt to ascertain a person’s position, before reviewing it. No sense my swinging at claims you didn’t make! Yet after your two posts, I am left just as confused.

My questions would be:

1) What parts are assigned to the soul? (I assume sense of self. But is personality? Memory?)
2) What parts are assigned to the body?
3) Is the resurrected person both a different body and different soul? Or does the soul stay the same?

Part of the reason I use “new” body is from reading 1 Cor. 15. Paul is not at his most clear, in that passage, but he does talk about flesh and blood not inheriting the kingdom, and that terrestrial bodies are not the same as spiritual bodies. As if a resurrected person gets, for lack of a better term, a “new” body. If you prefer, “changed” that is fine, but the question comes in, what is changed? Will we have wrinkles? Be bald? Or is it such a different body, that such concepts are beneath even talking about? (Which would make it more “new” than “changed” but that is just semantics.)

For example, as to my confusion, you stated, “The body and soul can’t really be separated one from another except to make a distinction between them.” You then stated that at the resurrection the soul and the body would be “reunited.” If they can’t be separated, how can they be reunited?

You stated, “You are NOT the same person in heaven as you were on Earth,” but later state, “A person’s nature changes between Earth and resurrection, but his personhood stays the same.” You go on to state that what one likes can change. Are you a tripartist? Body, soul and spirit? You seem to indicate we will get changed natures, but the same soul. Is the decision to commit sin within one’s nature, or one’s soul? And how do we make that differentiation?

If I am reading you correctly (obviously an unknown, as I am asking these questions) the “soul” or the part that stays the same is that we are self-aware. Is that it? And what is it about being self-aware that makes it important to stay the same?

It is an interesting idea, to eliminate the trouble of tears or marriage in heaven. If God wipes all memories, or even changes them, those in Heaven may never know of anyone in Hell. Kinda kills the idea of free will in Heaven.

Anonymous said...

Considering that some Christians believe the soul begins at conception and so-called identical twins emerge from the same cell, perhaps the idea of two souls from the same body can also be stretched to include those with a split brain. This solution would still have problems, as the original soul's condition cannot be determined. Did that soul die and two new souls emerge, or did the original soul occupy one half of the brain?

Tim Byron said...

I agree with the spirit of this post, but it's philosophically incorrect, as far as I'm concerned. exbeliever is right to point out problems with Cartesian mind-body dualism. But the brain-body dualism they seem to be positing is also flawed. Brain-body dualism gets rid of a few of the the problems involved in mind-body dualism, but not all of them. In essence, there is a sting to the question of qualia - for such an everyday part of experience, it is a shame to have to explain it away (as exbeliever does in the reply to comments), rather than explain it - and while the problem of interaction between brain and body is easier than the problem of interaction between mind and body, it is not solved.

Philosophy of mind in recent years seems increasingly intent on positing consciousness as an activity rather than as a thing to be explained; see Alva Noe's book "Out Of Our Heads". For my mind, this option is more devastating to religious conceptions of the soul. For people like Noe (and me), consciousness is not a thing, but simply an activity - we cannot have consciousness without having consciousness *of* something - usually the world around us. Consciousness is simply something we do in the world, to the world.

In this conception the brain is merely an incredibly vital part of the process by which we are conscious - consciousness doesn't happen in the brain, but rather consciousness is something that we do, facilitated by the brain.

To me this conception is more damaging to the religious point of view because it's explicitly biological. Worms have consciousness of a sort - they are aware of things that happen in their environment and react to it. We have consciousness of this sort, it's just that we have a more sophisticated relationship to a more complex environment than the snail. Consciousness is evolved, too, and is explicitly tied to, and influenced by, the world around us. We are conscious of things because, for instance, it helps our prospects for survival and reproduction if we can tell the difference between, say, a brown potato and a green potato. The neurological deficits exbeliever describes are also good evidence for this argument of mine - if the brain is not functioning correctly, it will affect our consciousness of the world.

UNRR said...

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 11/21/2009, at The Unreligious Right

Beautiful Feet said...

Are you saying that you feel that an illness (whether it be mental, physical, etc) ought to disqualify a person from the love of God? Of course not - His grace increases and so ought to ours! God described those who are "blessed" - all of whom are vulnerable and dependent upon other ppl! I believe that God shares His work to care for and grow compassion for those who are dependent and vulnerable. Obviously, the ppl described here with brain damage are vulnerable and worthy of putting faith into practice.

All too often, people use their conscious faculties to distance themselves from ppl who cannot fend for themselves - who then has the greater difficulty - those with a damaged brain or those who cannot fathom the worth in caring about such a person?

Beautiful Feet said...

Postscript: John wrote: "that humans are both physical and spiritual beings." But I see it a little differently and I believe this is what God describes as salvation - that we are not yet spiritual until we are connected to the spiritual. As far as a soul living beyond the death of the physical body, that is a matter of a soul-to-spirit connection - it is a process.

Jonathan MS Pearce said...

just a quick point on the aspects of pre-determinism and free will and quantum indeterminacy. i have just completed a book on frr will, and have sent it off to agents, and hope if it ever gets published, that john can advertise it here. this debate actually has MASSIVE implications on theism and judgement.

quantum indeterminacy, if it definitely exists (see different interpretations of QI), can be explained as follows:

"Doug had a choice over whether to do X or Y. Determinism would posit that Doug had no choice to carry out X, whereas free will would state that Doug chose to carry out X, but could also have chosen Y. Now, assuming that quantum indeterminacy is true, then not everything that happens is physically caused – some of the minutest things are indeterminately caused. So, does this mean that Doug could have chosen Y, with the addition of indeterminacy? No. In both versions of determinism, the variables that input into his ‘decision’ are out of control of Doug. Either X was carried out as an action as a result of a 100% causal chain, with no aspect of indeterminacy, or X was carried out as a result of a mixture of a causal chain and the indeterminate behaviour of subatomic particles. In both options, the ‘decision’ made is still made as a result of a previously determined causal chain, it just so happens that in one of the options, part of that chain includes quantum indeterminacy. Thus, you can say that quantum indeterminacy caused the decision to be made in such a way. In both methods, Doug has no free will, his options are determined, whether one of those options had an aspect of randomness in its chain or not."

what becoomes very interesting is when you start introducing the biology of willpower and the biology of belief.

if you look at the work of Mischel, you can see that different people have different abilities to delay gratification - to employ willpower. if we are being absolutely judged for our actions, god would have to place our actions against a very complex matrix of biological, genetic and environmental mitigating factors in order to porperly assess us. this is not the biblical idea of judgement, and looks just a little like determinism to me.

remember, the more we find out about all things biological and physical, the more the evidence points to determinism and the illusion of free will.


nazani said...

This is my favorite way to get the religious off my back. I just say "If you can't prove that I have a soul, the existence of any gods is irrelevant."

I'd be interested in reading about the origin of the soul concept. Egyptian, perhaps? We have them to thank for the idea of resurrection in the flesh and the notion that the heart is the location of consciousness. It's pretty clear when you read the Bible that "open your heart" was not meant metaphorically. My bet is that as we explore the physics of consciousness, the soul will join God in endless regression.