Thursday, December 13, 2007

Do we have a soul?

It is easy to get lost in a discussion about the existence or nonexistence of the soul. However, quite frequently conflicts do not arise because people disagree, but rather because they are using different definitions of the soul. Depending on the definition used I either believe or do not believe in the existence of a soul. A common though not very useful definition of "the soul" is what we really are, the core of our selves, or something like that. I would perhaps be inclined to call this "personality" rather than soul, but if that is what is meant by soul then yes, I think I do have one.


If on the other hand the soul is seen as something which is necessarily immaterial, then I do not believe in it. Hypothetically, should someone make an exact replica of me, with the exact same atoms in the exact same places, nothing more would be required. The replica and I would be impossible to distinguish from each other. The replica would react to any stimuli like me, would have the same childhood memories, be attracted to the same things, and just like me the replica would be disgusted by the smell of an orange.

This would not last long though. If me and my replica would continue our lives, then gradually subtle environmental differences would form us in non-identical ways, resulting in some small differences. These differences would ultimately affect the choices of me and my replica and consequently our preference would diverge. This, in turn, would lead to escalating environmental differences and increasingly different personalities or, if you prefer, souls. The resulting differences between me and my replica would be reflected in the way our atoms are put together, so we would no longer contain the exact same atoms. Nevertheless, there would probably be many striking similarities as well. There are examples of genetically identical twins that have grown up in very different environment, and still similarities have been extremely apparent.

What do I base this belief on? My main piece of evidence is that there does not seem to be any part of the personality that cannot be affected by brain injury. In my neuropsychology course I read about many patients with exotic brain injuries. A famous patient called HM, who is still alive, is unable to form any new memories. As a result he still thinks that he is 25 years old and he does not recognize the researchers who have visited him every day for several decades. Another older case is that of Phineas Gage who got a metal stick shot up through the frontal part of the brain. To everyone's amazement Gage did not die from the injury, however, according to his colleagues he was not the same after the injury. Following the injury he started swearing and behaved inappropriately to the extent that he lost his job. However, the most striking case that I can remember only vaguely is that of a responsible normal woman with three kids. Due to a tumor in her brain she suddenly underwent a radical personality change. Her behavior went from normative to completely reckless, and from being a good and faithful wife, she became extremely uninhibited and promiscuous…

One needs merely to take a look at a severe case of Alzheimer disease to see that material changes in the brain can change a person beyond recognition. Some would say that there is always something left, that even though Anna is now eating her own feces and hitting her children when they come to visit, she is still Anna, somewhere inside. I don't think so. Sure, she is still called Anna, and one can still recognize her appearance, but other than that Anna is not Anna anymore. The soul of Anna is very different from the soul Anna used to have before she got Alzheimer.



In sum, due to the fact that there seems to be no sacred part of the personality, nothing which cannot be affected by changes of a material nature. Due to this I do not believe that we have an immaterial soul. Normally I try to avoid the word altogether because of the confusion that arises, but this is my current thoughts on this issue. The discussion here has many important implications, for instance it should affect how to think about free will vs. determinism. I have written about that here.

10 comments:

bluthetan said...

At best 'soul' is a poetic, metaphoric reference to subjectively experienced, gestalt neuron activity. At worst, it is a construct of wishful thinking in response to worldly injustice and fear of death. Either way it's not precise or real enough for a debate about any type of medical technique or legal status. I stole the previous three sentences from another blog a while back. I can't remember who wrote it but I believe it to be a very good description of the 'soul'.

Jan Thurin said...

Jag undrar om du har någon kommentar till en upptäckt jag gjorde i en uppsats av Hauser, Chomsky och Fitch 2002. Den handlar om vad det är som gör språket unikt och kommer från högborgarna MIT och Harvard. Det jag fann var att man när man refererade till hjärnan så skrev man "mind/brain". Du verkar ju ha den strikt materialistiska uppfattningen att hjärnan är the mind. Tror du de delar den uppfattningen eller att det betyder att mind är hjärnan plus någonting annat?

rasmussenanders said...

Thanks for the comments bluthetan and Jan Thurin,

I can only agree with what you write bluthetan. Like I wrote I try to avoid using the concept of the soul because there are so many different and often unclear definitions associated with this word.

To Jan Thurin,
I think that the mind is another concept which is very hard to define. I don't think that I would say that the mind is the brain, but rather that the mind arises from the processes and structures that are in the brain. We used to ask "what is life?", a question which in restrospect cannot really be answered. It turned out to be the wrong question to ask... Similarly, I think that we may never know "what is the mind", or "what is consciousness", simply because such questions do not have a good answer. Perhaps one needs to be more specific to get a good answer. I don't know if that was the kind of comment you were looking for. If not you are welcome to write again and complain.

Jan Thurin said...

I'm not sure of what they mean myself but I never saw anyone write it in that way before. They would not talk about mind in scientific literature. I'm just curious as to what the "big guys" say. Read a book a while ago The Philosphy of Mind and that author, a Dr Kim of Yale University seemed to think that the mind could not be reduced to physics. Also Rebecca Goldstein an atheist and friend of Steven Pinker, also an atheist, made her PhD on that problem--nonreducability. Can I tempt you to believe in this fashion?

rasmussenanders said...

You could probably tempt me, and it may be true that most prominent atheist scientists think more of the brain than me. Don't get me wrong, the brain is a fantastic thing and I am ready to devote a large part of my life to study it. However I do think that, in theory, it would be possible to reduce the mind (whatever exactly is meant by that), to the cells and processes in our brains.

I have always thought that the fashion phrase "the whole is more than the sum of the parts" is misleading. Sure, you cannot just clump alot of neurons together and get something which has a mind - that is a trivial point. However, I do think that the whole is derived from the parts in some way. At least I do not think there is something "extra" that is required...

Allotetraploid said...

About lumping some neurons together and get a mind, take a look here. :)

Beda said...

Hi Anders,

On the topic of our minds being changed by circumstances (of course I agree with you) I thought this was quite interesting, in a horrible sort of way! :-)

http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/body_and_soul/article3209803.ece


Cheers

Beda

Anonymous said...

Good post, however, I think you made a mistake. The woman "Anna" you refered to, was she affected by a tumor or Alzheimer's? You indicated both.....

simple z said...

There is absolutely no argument or example which an atheist would accept as evidence for a soul.
All my examples would be rejected.
It's like trying to explain why I find it reasonable to believe in God.

It's like two competing archaeology professors arguing about the meaning of a find. They never stop...

rasmussenanders said...

Thanks for your comment simple Z,
If it was shown to me that there was some part of the personality that remained constant and indestructable I would see that as evidence for the soul.

It is untrue that there are no observations that would not lean me toward believing in the soul. However, I don't think there is even a good definition of the soul today which makes it hard to say whether you believe in it or not.

I may be flattering myself but I think that I have considered most arguments for the soul that are circulating today, and none of them are convincing to me. The problems associated with a belief in the soul are much greater, therefore I reject it...