Surely by now we’ve outgrown the soul?
Call it the soul, spirit or transcendent human consciousness – the idea that human ‘minds’ exist outside of and separate from the body has been pervasive throughout history. It’s certainly comforting – an assurance that we are special, unique and separate from animals in a clear-cut way. Although traditionally afforded to us by a God, the concepts of ‘soul’ and human exceptionalism that allow this easy view of humanity are carried over virtually unexamined into the more secular principles of humanism.
Unfortunately, science marches on. Although no branch of scientific thought has all the answers, we have known for some time that there is no theoretical need to look outside of the human body for a explanation of the many and varied phenomena that we collectively refer to as ‘consciousness’.
Much like the security blanket of a small child, our ideas about ‘souls’ and ‘minds’ are old, worn and fraying at the edges. It’s become clear we’ve outgrown them, but we’re having a hard time saying goodbye. Human behaviour is alarmingly complex. So much so that many take exception to the idea that they could be explained by the actions of mere meat. I am often accused of attempting to reduce the ineffable beauty of human experience down to ‘just’ a bunch of chemical reactions.
The ‘just’ here is a real problem. Reductionism in science isn’t about denying complexity, but about looking for the simple rules that underpin it. Unlike the clear-cut (and, dare I say, reductionist) notion of a ‘soul’ for which no more explanation is possible, a scientific approach acknowledges the complexity apparent at every level of brain function and begins the difficult task of understanding it.
As anyone who has ever played the ‘Game of Life’ – Conway’s fascinating exploration of cellular automata – will testify, it is perfectly possible for vast and beautiful complexity to arise from simple rules. The phenomenon of ‘emergence’ is visible at every level in the natural world – the delicate tendrils of growing mould, the artistic branching of trees and neuronal dendrites, the often fickle behaviour of the weather – even the placement of galaxies throughout the universe can all be thought of as the complex, emergent results of simpler interactions. It is a strange cocktail of arrogance and self-abasement that causes us to reject the notion that we, too, might be explicable in this way.
Neuroscience certainly hasn’t done itself any favours in this argument. We’ve all read over-hyped and nonsensical reports in national newspapers about scientists discovering the neural location of love or the brain areas responsible for iPhone addiction. Even more accurate stories, exemplified by the recent fantastic work by Professor Mintz’s lab in Tel Aviv, tend to be over-sold: while amazing, replacing one functional loop does not an ‘artificial cerebellum’ make. This kind of ‘neurotrash’ allows eminent fuzzy-dualists like Ray Tallis to bandy around accusations of ‘Neuromania’ with some credibility – which is then used to shore-up the rejection of any and all scientific approaches to the explanation of human consciousness. To do this is to wastefully throw the baby of good science out with the sensationalist bathwater.
Much like a mind-bogglingly complex game of life, the simple rules underpinning neuronal firing and computation – coupled with the staggering number of neurons and connections between them – leave plenty of room for the complex net of neuroses, contradictions and great ideas that make a person a person.
This developing understanding of what we loosely refer to as ‘consciousness’ demands that we face up to the physicality of our existence. The beauty that we once thought must be tied up in a mystical soul is actually something our own bodies create.
Thinking, feeling meat is not so comforting. In accepting our soulless, embodied selves, we will have to face up to genuinely hard questions about what it means to be human, and why that might matter. It won’t necessarily be easy, but it IS necessary. It’s impossible to build a coherent morality or understanding of the world without first ensuring intellectual honesty. This may sound rather pessimistic, but I’m hopeful. Despite the hard philosophical problems a soulless future promises, I think we’re grown-up enough to cope with it.
It’s time to cast aside our childish things and face ourselves as we are, not as we wish we were.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Martha Robinson is a neuroscience PhD student at University College London. She is speaking at the Battle of Ideas session Is there a ghost in the machine? organised in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, which takes place on Sunday 30 October.Tagged in: consciousness, God, humanism, mind, Neuroscience, opinion, philosophy, soul
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