Neuroscience and the soul

Previously: The problem with asking science to be religion-friendly

In his book The Language of GodFrancis Collins claims that science is powerless to tell us what happens when we die. When I read that, I immediately thought, “shouldn’t the scientific way to answer that be to have scientists hang out in hospitals and make careful observations of dying people?”

That may sound tongue in cheek, but it isn’t: “have scientists make observations” is, at a general level, how science answers all “what happens when…” questions, like “what happens when you put sodium in water?” “what happens when you run electricity through water?” and “what happens when you dissolve salt in water?” Collins just assumes that there is an afterlife which we have no evidence for, and then claims that this is a flaw in science because science hasn’t found evidence for his preconceived notions.

And lack of evidence is just the beginning of the problems that science creates for widely held beliefs about the afterlife. I’m going to quote Sam Harris at some length here, because he says it better than I could. Talking about the belief that there’s some part of us that can survive death, Harris says:

There are very good reasons to think it’s not true and we know this from now 150 years of neurology where you damage areas of the brain and faculties are lost. It’s not that everyone with brain damage has their soul perfectly intact, they can’t get the words out. Everything about your mind can be damaged by damaging the brain. You can cease to recognize faces, you can cease to know the names of animals but you still know the names of tools. The fragmentation in the way in which our mind is parcellated at the level of the brain is not at all intuitive, and there’s a lot known about it.

And what we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, and yet if you damage the whole thing at death we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognizing grandma and speaking English.

It’s become popular for believers in the traditional understanding of the soul to try to explain the obvious importance of the brain for the mind by suggesting that perhaps the brain merely acts as a radio receiver for the soul. Harris’ comments should make clear why this cannot be right: damaging one part of a radio doesn’t cause radio announcers to lose some mental faculties while retaining others, nor does it cause changes in their personalities. That is, however, exactly how brain damage works.


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