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.

  • Andrew G.

    I’ve challenged proponents of the “brain as receiver” theory to explain anosognosia – none have ever responded.

  • Jeff

    Actually, Buddhism doesn’t frame its postmortem continuity in terms of an immutable personality. The individual is seen as an emergent property of a collection of “skandhas”, generally translated as “aggregates”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skandha .*

    The Western mystical traditions have similar “component” views, as do numerous indigenous religions and, I believe, the ancient Egyptians. I’ve come across the concept in Daoism as well. It’s pretty common. The idea of a soul as a sort of “ghost in the machine” that takes on a body as one would put on a suit of clothing is comparatively recent and simplistic.

    *(Of course, that doesn’t stop Buddhist teachers from speaking as though they adhere to the idea of personal continuity when threatening their listeners with dire postmortem states. It’s ubiquitous in Asia and in Western centers that cater to Asian immigrants. Among Buddhist communities that consist largely of Westerners, it appears to be confined pretty much to their Tibetan teachers and their Western students.)

  • MNb

    Spot on. As long as believers are not able to define mind and soul properly in a way that can be tested I refuse to assume that man has a soul. It’s a hopeless concept. Mind – or rather psyche – as researched by psychologists is firmly materialistic.

  • eric

    Francis Collins claims that science is powerless to tell us what happens when we die.

    Circular reasoning alert. Science tells us a whole lot about what happens to our bodies when we die. Collins’ claim only makes sense if one first assumes there is some spiritual or metaphysical component to a person. But that’s the question he wants to answer. Circle.

  • MNb

    @Eric: Collins obviously is more intelligent and better educated than I am (I never finished university). If I can see the logical fallacy, how comes that he is not more skeptical about his own logic? Now if he were an exception I would let it go. But almost all those smart believers lack such skepticism. None of them seems to realize what Richard Feynman already knew: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
    I’d be glad to meet a believer who has made this skepticism his/her own, when it comes to belief.

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