Sunday, July 25, 2010

brain, mind, soul?


What does it mean to be human? Are we no more than the products of our brains (which are in turn just a bunch of electro-chemical processes), or are our minds and our consciousness something more than that? Could we possibly have non-material souls? Neuroscientists generally focus just on the physical side of things, but not all.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, questions the “hardcore reductionist/materialist view" that says there is nothing more than the material. It might be true, but he's not sure. And he's looking for more.

“Almost certainly, we’re missing giant pieces,” Eagleman says in this article, just as previous generations were missing a big piece of the puzzle when they attempted to understand the world without the concept of gravity. “We’re in that situation now, and the reason we know we’re in that situation is because for the most fundamental questions we have, like consciousness, we not only don’t know the answer but we don’t even know what the answer could look like.”

The basic problem is that we can measure what happens in the brain as much as we like, and we can find what parts of the brain are active during different experiences like tasting chocolate or feeling happy, but we cannot ever find there how it feels to eat chocolate or be happy. And a neuroscientist can never know how it feels to actually be the person he or she is studying. Consciousness feels like something more than what the scientists can observe.

In another interview he says: "From the inside, I have an intuition that I’m not just equivalent to my body. That said, intuitions always prove to be a very poor judge of reality. So, if you ask me, ‘do I have a soul?’ I would say ‘you know, I kind of feel like there’s something about me that’s a little separate from the biology.’ But I have no evidence for that."

Does it matter? Well, perhaps it does. If the reductionists are right, then perhaps human beings are no more than animals, we have no free will and therefore cannot be held morally responsible. What the neuroscientists and philosophers determine may well affect how we treat each other and hold each other responsible for what we do. It's that important..

1 comment:

  1. Interesting thoughts. As much as I often wish we could verify the soul in a scientific experiment, I don't think it can be done, any more than we can prove God in a scientific experiment. By definition the spiritual isn't visbile, weighable or scientifically tangible, which isn't to say it isn't true. The wind blows where it will. You can see its effects on the trees around it, but never the wind itself, and that's how the spiritual goes.

    So there's the famous randomized study where some patients were prayed for and others weren't. There was an overwhelming result for prayer. That's measuring the effect of the spiritual, and I believe that can be done. Just not the measuring of the spiritual itself.


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