[Author’s Note: In keeping with the tradition that whenever you have a blog post whose title is a question, the answer is always “no”…]
Of all the essays I’ve written, my favorite is “A Ghost in the Machine“, presenting the evidence that our personality traits and sense of self arise from neural circuitry in the brain and not a supernatural soul. I’ve just found out that this essay has drawn a reply from the blog Paranormalia, written by Robert McLuhan.
McLuhan writes that, despite the evidence I present, we know there must be something more to consciousness due to “the observed facts of psi… telepathic intuitions, presentiment, precognitive dreams, and suchlike”, not to mention the alleged communication of deceased people with the living via mediums. Needless to say, this is a thin reed upon which to reject the entire field of neuroscience. Paranormal investigators have been chasing after these anecdotes for decades; if there was anything to them, we ought to be able to reproduce psychic phenomena reliably and on demand by now. Why aren’t dead people routinely invited to testify in courts about the disposition of their property or the identity of their murderers? Why can’t today’s scientists get on conference calls with the greatest minds of the ages? Why don’t we have batteries of precognitive forecasters warning us in advance about major global disasters or acts of terrorism?
If the science of parapsychology is indeed a science, these aren’t unreasonable expectations. The first tentative studies of electromagnetism have given rise to a globe-girdling communications network; scientific explorations of the nature of radiation have given us X-ray machines that image the body and nuclear power plants that run cities. By contrast, a century and more of psychic research has produced nothing whatsoever of comparable benefit. Effects that can never be reproduced on demand are the hallmark of pseudoscience.
An even more puzzling aspect of McLuhan’s post is the exact nature of his proposed alternative to materialism. I invite you, readers, to judge whether he professes the exact belief that he himself ridicules as something “no serious person could believe”:
It struck me straight away that Lee is attacking an idea of the soul that no serious person could believe: the Cartesian substance that sits inside our heads and somehow meshes with the machinery. To ask where the soul is hiding is quaintly naïve, as if the thing could potentially be tracked down and ferreted out of its burrow.
We remain free to hypothesise, say, the existence of the soul as an information field that exists in an unseen dimension, and which expresses itself through the brain and nervous system through some kind of quantum interaction.
Whether or not this is a “serious” proposal, in a strictly semantic sense we may be “free” to hypothesize that. But why would we want to? According to Occam’s fine old razor, this is the very definition of an unnecessary hypothesis: one that’s supported by no evidence, adds numerous additional complications, and results in no greater explanatory power. You can see this clearly when McLuhan stretches to explain the evidence I brought up showing how specific kinds of brain damage can selectively reduce or eliminate any aspect of consciousness:
If the brain is the medium by which this information field is expressed in the physical world, then, in the event of injury, one would expect its expression to fail in striking and various ways. Furthermore, if this field continues to exist after the death of the body we could hypothesise that it finds another way to express itself, in some other form, in some other dimension.
In “Ghost”, I write about the various mental disorders that efface the self. McLuhan makes the good point that this isn’t breaking news: we’ve long known that senile dementia can alter the personality, for example. But just because these facts are well-established doesn’t make them any less problematic for his argument.
As I’ve said in the past, we might expect that damage to my TV could distort the information it displays: invert the colors, say, or show the picture wrong-side-up. But we’d never expect that any kind of damage to my TV would cause it to play an alternate version of Star Wars in which Luke Skywalker is the villain. That’s a nonsensical notion unless the content shown on the screen is being generated inside the TV.
But that’s just the scenario we see when we consider the mind: certain kinds of brain injury don’t just cause mental deficits, but changes in the content of consciousness. They can turn a cautious and meticulous person into an irresponsible and impulsive one (frontotemporal dementia), or give them a bizarre and inappropriate sense of humor that they never had before (stroke-induced euphoria), or split their consciousness into two halves that know and desire different things (callosal disconnection). They can cause a delusion that part of a person’s own body no longer belongs to them (somatoparaphrenia), or that a close friend or relative has been replaced by an impostor (Capgras syndrome). All these conditions are utterly inexplicable if we assume that the seat of the self, the part of the mind that processes sensory input, originates desires and makes decisions, is something immaterial that exists outside the body.
You could, of course, argue that your soul doesn’t store your memories, your personality traits, the desires that drive your behavior, or your sense of self – that all these things come from the brain, and that the “soul” is nothing but the substrate of consciousness, a blank white screen on which the brain’s activity plays out. But even if such a thing exists, why should I think of it as “me” or care about what happens to it? It contains none of the things that make me who I am, and its survival after the death of my brain ought to be of as much interest to me as the fate of my toenails.
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