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On The Soul

Mark Goldblatt gets animated about his self.

“The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain, occur simultaneously, we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass by a process of reasoning from the one phenomenon to the other.” John Tyndall, 1868

The nature of the human soul has been the subject of religious belief and scientific investigation for millennia. We feel as though definitive answers should be at hand since each of us seems to have relevant experiential insights. But certainty remains elusive. The proposition that the soul does not exist, that what’s called the soul is actually no more than a neurological phenomenon, a trick the brain plays on its owner, is altogether plausible. But so too is the converse – the proposition that the soul is indeed an immaterial essence which somehow animates human beings.

We must begin, however, by clarifying the term. The word ‘soul’ can refer to a number of different things. Many of us intuitively think of the voice inside our head as our soul – a definition that is consistent with a materialist perspective. That is, if the soul is in fact merely a neurological phenomenon, merely an activity of the brain, then the voice-inside-our-head definition, perhaps enlarged to include the impulses and sensations which coalesce around the voice, would work. Consciousness, in that case, equals soul. Which is another way of saying that the soul is to the brain what digestion is to the stomach. It’s what the brain does.

If, on the other hand, the soul is an immaterial essence, rather than the outcome of a material process, then the definition becomes more complicated because neurological science has demonstrated that the voice inside our head has a material component. That much is certain. We now know, for instance, that if the brain is grievously injured, the voice inside our head is often irreparably altered. Brain trauma can affect memory formation, language skills, even mood swings. So it must be the case that the brain itself is directly involved in consciousness. What used to be called the mind-body problem has been solved, at least to that limited extent. Consciousness, as the word is traditionally understood, cannot be wholly severed from brain activity.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no such thing as an immaterial soul. What it means is that the incidentals that make up our inner lives are rooted in the workings of our brains. If you whack me across the skull hard enough to rattle my brain, but not kill me outright, you might well alter what I remember about my life, which friends I’m able to recognize, what words I’m able to form, whether I’m able to count to ten, what food I like to eat, what juice I like to drink, what position I like to play in softball – in sum, the very characteristics that come to mind when I think of myself.

It’s tempting to conclude that, minus those characteristics, I would no longer be me. But in truth, that’s all I would be. The human soul, if it exists in an immaterial form, must be the me-ness of me, the sense of first personhood on which the rest of my conscious experiences hang. It’s the rooting interest each one of us has in himself, in his own existence, stripped of language and memory, stripped of thought and disposition; it’s the unified presence by which I differentiate myself from whatever I encounter. I am not the thing I encounter; I am the thing doing the encountering.

The soul, in other words, is not your consciousness – unless you are a materialist. If you are not a materialist, however, then the soul is what’s underneath your consciousness, the platform upon which your consciousness is constructed. The distinction is critical. Consciousness is the thing that emerges from sense data, the thing that comes to consist of memory and language. But sense data, memory and language have material components; they’re rooted in the workings of brain. The last half century of neuroscience has established that beyond a reasonable doubt. The stuff of consciousness is definitively brain-based. It relies on physical matter. So if the soul is indeed immaterial, it must be more basic than consciousness. The word ‘self’ gets closer to the point – though I think ‘me-ness’ gets still closer. It’s the gathering principle of sensation, memory and language; the immeasurable, imperceptible, inexplicable filament that draws them together into consciousness.

Think of consciousness as cotton candy. The soul, in that case, is the cone around which the cotton candy is wound – except, of course, and here the metaphor breaks down, it’s an immaterial cone.

If the soul is indeed immaterial, then it must consist of the me-ness of me, the thing that encounters other things. But the word ‘encounter’ also requires clarification. For example, I’ve got a robotic vacuum cleaner in my apartment that seems to encounter other things. It even adjusts to them. It goes around things that get in its way. Does the vacuum cleaner therefore possess a soul? Clearly not.

It’s thus necessary to differentiate between encountering something and responding to something. Even a run-of-the-mill computer nowadays, like the one found in a robotic vacuum cleaner, can be programmed to respond to things. But it cannot be programmed to encounter them. My vacuum cleaner doesn’t differentiate between itself and, say, the edge of my sofa – which would be the essence of an ‘encounter’. It strikes the edge of my sofa and cannot move forward; its sensors detect an inability to move forward and send a signal to the processor inside to reverse direction. It has no interest in reversing direction. If its program were altered, it would keep careening into the edge of my sofa until its battery ran down.

So, too, with computers that play chess – even the ones that play at grandmaster level. Such a computer can be programmed to read the situation of a chess board, run through the billions of possible scenarios that might follow from the next move and calculate which scenario yields the highest numerical probability of taking the adversary’s king. But it cannot be programmed to care whether it wins or loses the game. It has no first-person interest in the outcome of the game. The software that underlies artificial intelligence cannot, for the time being, give rise to that sense of me-ness that is the foundation of human consciousness. I suspect (though of course don’t know for sure) that it will never be able to do so, regardless of how powerful the hardware, or how much more sophisticated the programming.

Here’s a thought experiment: Suppose two rival software companies designed chess programs to compete against one another. Suppose, further, that each program contained instructions that, in the event of its defeat, would slightly jigger the probabilities on which it based its moves, then erase the old scheme under which it had previously operated. Each game between the two rivals might take mere moments to complete, since the moves would be almost instantaneous. The winner of each game would then have to wait several seconds for the loser to tweak its algorithms, and then the next game would commence.

It would be a deadly dull sport to watch. The point, however, is that the two systems are evolving, in a sense, under conditions that resemble survival-of-the-fittest. Each winner continues on to the next game intact; each loser perishes and leaves behind an offspring to try its own hand at chess survival.

Now the critical question: At what point would either system develop a rooting interest in whether it wins or loses? At what point would either system care, in even the most rudimentary way, about the outcome of a game?

To be sure, the case of chess-playing computers leaves out the crucial evolutionary element of bio-feedback. What if the software programs making the chess moves were also picking up sense data, encountering sights and sounds as they were playing? Except encountering presupposes a me-ness capable of doing the encountering. In other words, it presupposes a rooting interest. Sights and sounds, in themselves, would surely produce more data than the mere playing out of chess games would – data which could then be stored in the form of binary codes within the memory of each operating system. But the accumulation of data does not address the problem. What interaction of circuit board and binary codes will ever give rise to a self? How does information become will? How does me-ness enter into the system?

Thinking about the peculiarity of consciousness arising in a contraption of electronic circuitry and binary codes puts the problem in especially stark relief. But even if the system consists of flesh and blood, the problem remains unchanged. Sensations like sights and sounds are just electrochemical surges. There’s nothing mystical about them. They course through the body, carrying charges to and from the neuromagnetic cluster that operates in the brain, adding more and more data to the system. So you’ve got electrical signals. You’ve got magnetic fields. You’ve got living matter, organic cells in which the electrical signals and magnetic fields gather. Below that, you’ve got carbon atoms. You’ve got water molecules. In other words, you’ve got goop and soup, stimuli and response. That’s the totality of it, from the materialist perspective.

So I ask again: How does this add up to me-ness?

The origin of me-ness is the great mystery of the human condition. Let me confess, therefore, that I have no clue how me-ness can emerge, or even be accounted for, by materialism. That doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist. Only that I cannot imagine it.

If, on the other hand, the materialist perspective is rejected, then at least two possible explanations present themselves. (These are no more than guesses, however. That should be borne in mind.) The first is that me-ness is a kind of transmission, something akin to a radio signal, that emanates from a Source and is picked up by the circuitry of the brain. If the brain circuitry is in good working order, then the transmission is stable enough to form the basis of a continuous, recognizable consciousness. But if the brain is damaged, if the circuitry breaks down, the signal becomes scrambled. The signal is still being picked up, but the circuitry cannot do with it what it’s designed to do. That’s how the incidentals of memory and language are lost. But of course all of what I’ve just described is only a metaphor. To think of me-ness as a radio signal is to think of it as a wave – which is a measurable thing. If me-ness is measurable, then it’s no longer immaterial.

The radio-signal metaphor is a Platonic down-from-on-high explanation. So the alternative would be a more Aristotelian ground-upwards account in which me-ness becomes the end to which matter is directed. Me-ness isn’t something the brain happens to produce; it’s what the brain is designed to do, its ‘final cause’, the reason it exists in the first place – and the brain, in turn, is what the human being is designed to sustain. The flesh and blood of man evolved, in other words, as a means to generate the soul… and the material world itself as a means to generate the flesh and blood of man. Me-ness is the immaterial potential that justifies the existence of matter, the Little Bang insinuated into the Big Bang, the why of the what. But all of this is mere speculation. What’s not speculation is that the most dramatic moment in all of our lives is one that none of us can recall, the moment in the womb when the self awakens, without language, without thoughts, when the light switches on, when that sense of me-ness dawns. Regardless of where it comes from, regardless of who or what turns the switch, the miracle of that moment is undeniable.

Again, however, I’m not arguing that the soul must be immaterial, that it cannot be accounted for by the accidental functioning of the brain. My gut instinct tells me that the soul is not a material phenomenon. But I acknowledge that the reverse is possible – that the soul is what the brain does and nothing more. The fact that I cannot imagine how me-ness would ever accidentally and spontaneously arise out of organic matter and physical processes doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.

© Mark Goldblatt 2011

Mark Goldblatt teaches the Bible in the History of Ideas at Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York. His latest novel, Sloth, has just been published by Greenpoint Press.

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