Since I wrote my last two posts about the presence of God in our consciousness, I stumbled across a fascinating book: Neuroscience, Psychology and Religion by Malcom Jeeves and Warren S. Brown. The authors are both neuropsychologists and devout Christians, and the book was published by the Templeton Foundation Press (which, according to Richard Dawkins is devoted to getting scientists to support religion against their better judgement).
Although the book has moments where it does seem to be trying too hard to accommodate certain religious views, it introduced some ideas that I think can really help with the issues we’ve discussed over the last two posts. In particular this book seems to offer a new way to comprehend the existence of the immaterial within the material confines of our bodies and brains.
Before reading this book, it seemed that I only had two choices for how to understand my consciousness and soul:
1.The dualistic model (usually credited to Descartes) that divides our identity into a physical body (which would include the physical workings of our brain) and a non-physical, immaterial mind/soul. This dualism is crucial for most people of faith: most of the world religions are founded on the idea that we possess an immaterial (and immortal) soul.
2. The materialist/reductionist model that says that we are completely composed of the material and physical – that there is no separate ‘mind’ (and much less, a soul) but rather, as the nobel prize-winning scientist Frances Crick put it “You are no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules…You are nothing but a pack of neurons”. This view-point is strongly supported by the new atheists.
As I wrote in my last post, I reject the materialist model because it leaves no room for free will – or really for any kind of sense of self – I would be merely just a bunch of neurons firing in response to my environment. The materialist model just seems too reductionist (thus its name!). That said, I have to confess that it has made me uncomfortable to throw myself fully into the dualistic camp because the scientific evidence seems to overwhelmingly argue against it.
What this book offers is a third option – alternately called Dual-Aspect Monism or Non-Reductionist Dualism. To way over-simplify these theories, the core idea is that although our consciousness is ’embodied’ – i.e. totally dependent on our bodies- the human brain is so complex that it is capable of creating its own dynamic and set of properties that are not to be found within the physical building blocks of the system. As the authors put it: “There are, in fact, reasons to believe that systems, even though made up of elements obeying the laws of physics, can embody forms of causation that transcend the determinism of these atomic and chemical laws”. (p. 112)
The way the authors explain this complicated concept is by comparing the human brain to an ant colony. The individual ants in a colony each have their own predetermined (and rather basic) rules of behavior, just as the neurons within our brain do. However, as a total system – the ant colony is capable of problem-solving actions that go way beyond the behavioral constraints of individual ants. This phenomenon, called “Emergence”, occurs as the complex system interacts with its environment, reorganizes its building blocks to respond to the environment, and ‘creates a memory’ of that response and its results that will be used to handle subsequent environmental changes. Examples of ’emergent phenomena’ for the human brain are “thinking, deciding, consciousness, memory, language, representation and beliefs”(p. 115).
The second part of this story is “Top-Down Causation” – which refers to the way that these ’emergent properties’ can have an impact on the original building blocks – constraining their behavior and even changing their core properties. In the case of the human brain we now know that it remains ‘plastic’ -i.e. highly malleable – throughout our lives. We can literally change our minds!
Perhaps the most fascinating element of this whole theory is that it opens up a the potential for unpredictability: “The behavior of the entire system, even given a stable environment, is not entirely predictable. Even in small-scale mathematical models of dynamical systems, no two runs of the same system model every come out exactly the same.” (p.115)
So where does this leave us? It seems to me that these new neuroscience theories leave room for a non-material component to our identities: perhaps what we have come to think of as our soul is the immaterial “emergent” outcome of the complex material workings of our brain responding to its environment. Upbringing, culture, genetic inheritance – or, as I suspect – a divine force itself, could all be among the environmental factors shaping (or perhaps residing in) this immaterial outcome. Our free will comes from the unpredictability of the system: we are so complex that despite the fact that we are grounded in chemical and physical realities, there’s still no telling what each of us will do.
I realize that in this post there is a strong risk that I have significantly misunderstood these scientific theories (or that in the broader realm of neuroscience they have already been discredited). I intend to do more reading on the subject and will keep you posted on what I learn (or if any wandering neuroscientists happen to read this it would be great if you could set me straight as needed). I also expect that I have yet again offended my more devout readers for any number of reasons – but most significantly because the picture of soul that I have drawn here suffers from one significant flaw: if it is embedded in our bodies then it seems unlikely to be immortal. I will acknowledge that I am pretty much agnostic about immortality – and will save for another post more discussion on some of the reasons why I am actually not a big fan of a religions’ emphasis on the afterlife. But it does seem possible to envision ways that this soul we have discussed here would ‘continue’ after the body has passed – most notably through genetic inheritance as well as the ways we raise our children that form their own souls – as well as in the memories that we create that are stored in the souls of those we love and who have loved us. Perhaps it’s not the immortality some of us might desire, but hey, if you really want to be immortal, why don’t you start a blog?