Documenting the Coming Singularity

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Astonishing Hypothesis

I ran across this quote from an excellent article on consciousness from Time online:
...neuroscientists agree on many features of both of them, and the feature they find least controversial is the one that many people outside the field find the most shocking. Francis Crick called it "the astonishing hypothesis"--the idea that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain. Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.

The article goes on to say that:

...they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain.

A great deal of the fundamental basis for Christianity lies in the belief that human beings have a dual nature composed of a material body and an immaterial soul. It is this immaterial soul that holds the consciousness, the personality, within it, according to religious doctrine. The soul, it is believed, has an existence apart from the body, and lives on after the body is destroyed. In the Bible, it is not clear exactly what happens to the soul after the body dies. There are scriptures that speak of "sleep," while others seem to indicate residence in a sort of halfway house where souls await final judgment. Ultimately, at the resurrection, souls receive an indestructible new "spiritual" body, and face the judgment of Christ, moving on to either eternal bliss or eternal damnation, depending on the souls' faith or lack thereof.

If there is a soul that lives on and will face judgment, that fact would certainly have an all-important bearing on our choices and decisions. If these things are true, the equations that influence our decisions are changed drastically, placing a weighty infinity on one side and a paltry three to five decades of life on the other. Better spend a goodly portion of those decades worshiping God if you know what's good for you.

On the other hand, if there is no eternal soul involved, if you and I and what we think of as our "selves" are entirely "tied to the brain," and will therefore cease to exist as soon as our brains themselves cease to live, then we can take eternity and final judgment out of the equations alltogether.

This idea frightens people, and the religious person will warn of anarchy and ruthless amorality run amok unless we have the fear of eternal torture to keep us in check. The article I quoted from earlier refutes this false prediction eloquently when it asserts that:

...the conviction that other people can suffer and flourish as each of us does is the essence of empathy and the foundation of morality.

If the "foundation of morality" proceeds from this "conviction," and not from religion (which is what I believe the facts of history bear out), then it follows that we do not "need God in order to be good" (see my three earlier articles on this question).

I mentioned in the post before this one that I choose to believe only that which the available evidence supports. On these related questions, the origins of consciousness and the existence or non-existence of the soul, it seems to me that all the evidence we have is on the side of physicality rather than immateriality. Truthfully, there is no eternal soul is in evidence.


Spaceman Spiff said...

A couple thoughts:

First, it seems disingenuous to ask neuroscientists if they have found any evidence for a metaphysical soul in their work as neuroscientists, since the tools of science, being limited to the physical, cannot possibly find it.

And what does it prove that they find stuff that happens in the brain tied to all the stuff we also think of as transcending the body? Who does that surprise? We were already aware of physical manifestations of emotions, etc. To say those things *transcend* does not mean they are not also linked to the physical.

You say you choose to believe only what available evidence supports, but you are choosing what kind of evidence to consider without justifying such a choice.

Secondly, I think the body/soul duality comes more from Greek philosophy than from Judeo/Christian thought. Jews and early Christians all believed firmly in a bodily resurrection.

Similarly, the idea that we escape to somewhere else after we die and that's that end isn't consistent with the Bible. The theme found in Scripture is God finally triumphing and making the earth new again. This is the important distinction between Christianity and Deism. God, the soul, and all that stuff is seen as separate, but still intimately bound up with man, earth, the body, etc.

So from a Christian perspective, it isn't surprising that biology is tied up with psychology, and spirituality.

Barry Mahfood said...

Great comment, Spaceman. Thoughtful and well argued.

You said that scientists, who deal in the material/physical realm, do not have the tools to find evidence of the immaterial. Agreed. But then why should we believe in the immaterial if there are no means to discover evidence of its existence?

You say I am choosing what sort of evidence to consider, but what other sort is there? Anecdotal? Unreliable.

You bring up a good point regarding bodily resurrection. That is what Christianity teaches. However, when the earthly body no longer exists, and before the spiritual body is created, there must be an immaterial, disembodied entity, correct?

Anyway, as I said, great comment!

Spaceman Spiff said...

There are certainly ways of knowing that all humans practice besides the scientific method, especially when it comes to categories that science doesn't address.

For example, in a lot of cases we take the testimony of people we trust. If a person tried to apply scientific testing to his wife's claims of love and faithfulness, he'd probably end up regretting it later.

Also, humans seem to use terms of a more emotive/intuitive nature. There's a way in which The Great Gatsby captures what we might call "truth" about the wealthy class in America that couldn't quite be captured in a sociological analysis.

The question we have to ask is, what is a reasonable view of reason? Is it reasonable to assume that reason is the only route to discovering truth?

I'll write you something up about this, but I'll go ahead and say now that I think the answer that best matches up with/explains human nature ends up being that there are some things that we can know to be true without being able to prove them.

Since this is so, we would be foolish to limit ourselves to merely scientific or analytic approaches to discovering truth, since doing so is only setting ourselves up to throw out everything else a priori when there is no basis for doing so.

Spaceman Spiff said...

And on the issue of resurrection/immateriality of the soul, yes Christianity would say there's a thing which is immaterial called a soul which is distinct from the body. But my point was that its much more intimately bound up with the body than many Western, modern Christians express, or what you see in cartoons.

With this view in mind, it isn't surprising that just about every event or phenomenon we call "spiritual" would have a physical analog, i.e. that spiritual/emotional experiences have correlated chemical processes in the physical brain.

If we're *looking* for a scientific explanation, activity in the brain that consistently accompanies a given experience can be said to "explain" said occurrence. But correlation does not equal causation, and we have done nothing but describe the phenomenon more precisely and in physical terms.

While this is interesting and worthwhile, it is a far cry from the "scientific explanation" most materialists hope for.

Barry Mahfood said...

Very good arguments for the bases of "knowing."

At the same time, to use a well known aphorism, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Do you agree?

Spaceman Spiff said...

Indeed I do agree with that.