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Speculations on Consciousness & Concepts of the Soul


Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the "F...

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Consciousness…The word evokes connotations of both deep mysteries and deep nonsense. There’s a lot about consciousness we don’t know, and philosophers have tackled the issue for millennia, but since the last half of the 20th century there’s been some light shed on what was once ineffable to us for thousands of years, an increasingly well-lit trail blazed not by New Age mysticism or so-called para-science, but by cognitive science and modern philosophy.

It’s not easy to pin down consciousness, but to assist the inquiry of scientists and philosophers of mind, a few rather useful working definitions of it have been made, regarding different aspects of it, different facets, if you will, and below are a few of the basics used in most research, particularly animal consciousness in animal cognition research – (Click Me):

  • “the sense of consciousness involved when a creature is awake rather than asleep, or in a coma…”
  • “…the sense of consciousness implicated in the basic ability of organisms to perceive and thereby respond to selected features of their environments, thus making them conscious or aware of those features.”
  • “A third, more technical notion of consciousness, access consciousness, has been introduced by Block (1995) to capture the sense in which mental representations may be poised for use in rational control of action or speech.”

These next two are controversial with regard to animal research, less so with humans…

  • Phenomenal consciousness refers to the qualitative, subjective, experiential, or phenomenological aspects of conscious experience, sometimes identified with qualia.”
  • Self-consciousness (which)refers to an organism’s capacity for second-order representation of the organism’s own mental states.”

Consciousness…What is it really? Unlike most mystics, I don’t claim to know with deepitude, and there’s the old question of what it’s ‘like’ to be something, as in “what’s it like to be a bumblebee?”

I’ve always wondered if insects, like hornets and bees, could feel anger — certainly they seem to, as anyone who’s been chased by them or stung well knows.

But do they really feel anger in their tiny insect brains the way humans do? Or are they just reacting to pre-programmed stimulus patterns dictated long before humans — or mammals — came to be?

We can infer to some degree from behavior in reaction to a given stimulus, but I’m not too certain that insects feel the same emotions in the same way, when they do, as humans, as many of our own emotional drives, particularly those more complex moral instincts we possess as social primates were acquired fairly recently in our own evolution as hominids only a few million years ago.

I bring this up, because there is a close relationship between the more archaic and New Age notions of consciousness and for philosophical or substance dualists, that of a soul, or spirit, assumed able to exist without the body, but possessing consciousness and controlling the body while existing within it for most purposes.

In Western philosophical and religious traditions, particularly among Cartesian thinkers and many branches of Christianity, animals cannot be conscious agents because they lack a spiritual essence, and only human beings possess these.

But in some Eastern traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, religions that assume reincarnation as a given, everything has a soul, and even the most lowly insect may have the reincarnated soul of a human being.

In these traditions, everything is a conscious agent, though the filtering of ideas from East to West has muddied the waters as to what consciousness actually is, cognitive science is slowly pushing back the veil, to help clear things up and give a more distinct picture of what we mean by it.

There have been many different ideas as to what souls were. I’ll deal with three outstanding examples:

About 2500 years ago, Plato articulated the concept of the cognitive soul, the Psyche, which in its own realm, existing in the world of the Ideas, or Forms, as a sort of mind-stuff superior in metaphysical standing to the mere fleshy material world of the Appearances. This cognitive soul was thought to be in direct contact with the Forms when not encumbered by fleshy existence, knowing all things until embodied in a human being, whereupon this knowledge of Truth required dialectical reasoning to draw it forth, making the process of knowledge, in this metaphysical scheme, merely remembering what is already in memory.

Saint Paul, had a similar but slightly different concept in his division between the soul, Pneuma, and the Sarx, or flesh, and was less concerned about how we learned and recalled truth or thought than he was with the idea of salvation.

Jump forward from Plato some 2200 years, to the time of Rene Descartes, and his own idea of the mind, like Plato’s made of some kind of ‘mind-stuff’ but that controlled the body presumably from a specific location in the brain, like an anime mecha-pilot controlling his machine from the cockpit (Mazinger Z, anyone?).

But I’m wondering: If all reality is split into two, and only two, halves, a material and a mental or spiritual, how do they interact? If mind interacts with the body, and thus the world, through memory (in Plato’s model, for example), where does memory live? How does memory bridge the gap without the highly inelegant inclusion of yet a third realm for it to exist in, which violates the premises of the model?

It’s known as a Methexis, or ‘participation’ problem in philosophy, and has plagued every dualistic model of reality proposed to date.

How could the soul interact with the body without that interaction being detectable?

After all, the body and brain being physical systems with easily detectable activity, and if there were some kind of spiritual ‘essence’ controlling it, surely the interaction would have been documented.

Yes, I know, you could postulate ‘soul-o-trons’ or some other type of particle that’s responsible for the interaction, but then we’re back to square one, because you would be assuming the existence of an entity without good reason — postulating an unknown and undetectable to argue for the existence of another unknown and undetectable.

In all of these dualistic scenarios, the mind, soul, spirit, whatever you choose to call it, it said to be made of a sort of non-physical, non-material, presumably more ‘refined’ substance.

But a problem with this idea is that the very notion of a substance, of any kind, is a physical concept.

This indicates to me that substance dualism involves a common error, a category mistake, confusing a systemic property of complex life we call ‘mind’ with the notion of a separate ‘mind thing’ or ‘mind stuff.’

But category mistakes can lead us on a merry chase, and I find it best to think of the human mind as something that derives from and is embedded in the functioning of the brain — the mind is what the brain does — and not from any non-material dualistic notions.

The science speaks for itself, and the evidence at hand does not support the existence of souls, immortal or otherwise. If one wishes to believe souls exist, fine, that’s one’s right. But it won’t do to try to proclaim that whatever spiritual views one may have are backed up by science, for they are most decidedly not.

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