Surely by now we’ve outgrown the soul?

Martha Robinson

51241758 1 250x300 Surely by now weve 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.

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  • Ian Wardell

    Yes I agree with this.  Well . .how could one disagree??  LOL

  • Anteaus

    Newtonian physics was a reaction against the nonsensical dogmas of the Church of that time, the premise being that the universe in its entirety could be described in an elegant and complete set of mathematical equations. At the time it was what science desperately needed, a view of the universe that kept religious mumbo-jumbo strictly out of the picture. Since then, physics has expanded-on the original Newtonian concepts and shown that they are in fact a subset of a more diverse set of equations. The latest disclosures about entities like quarks and strings are somewhat disturbing, as they seem to shatter the notion that any one set of elegant equations can predict their behaviour. Instead, the seem to imply that certain almost metaphysical ideas such as multiple realities and alternate timelines might actually exist. In fact, the universe is far more complex, and far more diverse, than we had expected.

    An unfortunate side-effect of all this rational materialism is that the serious study of human consciousness has become almost verboten, as a kind of fringe, quack science. No serious scientist dare approach it for fear of being labelled a charlatan. A pity, as this is the most fascinating of all areas of study, especially in view of recent evidence pointing to the recall of past lives, suggesting that something of the personality does exist beyond the present physical form. If there is one answer that science should aim to provide it is this: Who, and what, are we that call ourselves sentient beings?

    It would be interesting to see what happens when we are able to construct a computer as powerful as the human brain. Will it become self-aware? It strikes me that even if it does, that still leaves the question of whether it is the computer which is self-aware, or that some outside entity (soul?) has decided that it is a sufficiently powerful host for its consciousness to occupy. Which may also be the case with human brains, I guess.

  • Ian Wardell

    I would certainly agree that if other mammals are not souls then neither are we.  However this doesn’t take you very far.  Why on earth shouldn’t African apes be selves which can survive the death of their bodies?

  • Debbie Jones

    As Wittgenstein would have said, I think  there will always be problems when you try to discuss religious matters whilst playing “the language game” of science. The scientist uses the language of science, the religious person the language of religion. Science seeks to prove things through hypothesis construction, and confirmation through experiment, religion does not, it is not in the business of doing so. Its undertsanding of truth is based on different premises.

  • Maranda Vivian Quantrill

    Dear Ms Martha Robinson,
    I notice that most bloggers in this area of thinking are young, intelligent academics.  It is wonderful to see young people using their talents, education and brains to debate and inform.  Now, I am a middle-aged, fairly uneducated person, but have a great respect for science.  However, please allow us lesser mortals to have souls, until science can prove otherwise.  My ’soul’ has carried me through many tough times, since I gave up all kinds of religion and gods.  I guess one has to live a little longer and lose loved ones and lose dreams and lose all kinds of things in life to actually have the need to hang on to one’s soul.

    You write so eloquently and you are obviously well educated, but allow me to hold on to this one little thing called my ’soul’?

  • davidrf44

    ideas sit well at the purely academic level of the rational consciousness, but
    those that have dipped below the surface of the mind into the sub-conscious
    realms, either through working with clients in psycho-therapeutic or hypnagogic
    states, or through deep meditation processes know that there is far more to
    “inner space” than the mechanistic view of reductionist science.
    Indeed there is a large body of case history material in books and Journals, which
    fully supports the existence of the soul and other layers of the psyche that
    could never be put into a test-tube and measured. Sadly the consensual view of
    science dismisses these ’stories’ because they fall outside of the present scientific
    paradigm; and because of that ergo, they cannot be true. One might also cite
    the “near death experience” phenomena, which can best be explained if
    one accepts the dualistic concept that consciousness is not just linked to
    brain function. Oops I’ll probably now be burnt as a heretic for suggesting such
    an outrageous concept!

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