Neuroscience and the Soul: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind


Part one of three. This series is based on material I presented at a recent conference under the same title. In part one I will discuss some preliminary distinctions that are necessary for this discussion. In part two I will discuss the nature of consciousness. In part three I will discuss the nature of the soul. I am deeply indebted to the speaking and writing of J. P. Moreland. Links to relevant resources are at the end each part.

What are human beings? Are we merely the most advanced animal evolution has produced? Is every thought, emotion and creative impulse just a matter of physics and chemistry? Until metaphysical naturalism took root in western culture, the common sense view of human nature, rooted in Christian theism was:

a human person is a functioning unity of two distinct entities, body and soul. The human soul, while not by nature immortal, is nevertheless capable of entering a disembodied intermediate state upon death, however incomplete and unnatural this state may be, and, eventually, being reunited with a resurrected body.[1]

Today we are told by various headlines that neuroscience has found the regions of the human brain responsible for a nearly every activity that was formerly attributed to the soul. The “god helmet” is one of the more amusing examples. It supposedly demonstrated that religious experience was an event in the brain that the helmet could stimulate in anyone. A description of this fiasco from the 1990’s can be found here.

This three part series is an introduction to the arguments and reasoning that refute the conclusion neuroscience has demonstrated that the soul does not exist. We will begin with some basic concepts from philosophy that will enable the reader to make some important distinctions about what neuroscience and our experiences tell us. Next we will consider the nature of consciousness. What is it? Is it merely physical or is it something more? Finally, we will briefly consider the nature of the soul. We will consider some arguments for why the soul is not physical and why you can be confident that the soul exists.

Preliminary Distinctions
The first distinction we will consider is between states and the things that posses them. Consider water. We encounter water in three different states: liquid, solid, and gas. Thought of in this way, states are descriptions of matter. The phrase “solid state” does not much meaning on its own unless it is applied to something. Water possesses the solid state, or one could say water is the bearer of the solid state. In a similar way, we can discuss states of consciousness, thoughts and sensations being two examples. But are thoughts physical or immaterial? Is the bearer of those states, consciousness, physical or immaterial?

The second distinction has to do with the nature of identity. When are two things identical and when are they distinct. Stated one way, “Everything is identical to itself and nothing else” the causal observer might conclude this is silly and self-evident. But imagine for a moment we have two entities (persons, places, or things) that are referred to by different names, let’s call them A and B. Are A and B identical? How would we find out? We would consider every property of A and ask does B have the same property? If anything is true of A and not true of B or vice versa then we know A and B are not identical. Neuroscience claims that the physical activity measured in the human brain is identical to what we mistakenly call the soul. The concept of identity allows us to ask if there is any property that the soul and the brain do not have in common. If such a property exists, the soul and the brain are not identical.

A third and final distinction we will consider is that identity is different from cause and effect. For example, fire causes smoke, but there are obviously not the same thing. Neuroscience claims to have established that activity in the brain is identical to various types of mental activities (e.g. memory, emotions, thoughts, etc.). The most that can actually be stated is that there is a cause and effect relationship. Either mental activity, what we would call our thoughts, is caused by the activity measured in brain tissue or our thoughts may cause the activity in our brain. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that mental activity has been correlated with a variety of activity measured inside the brain. In all such instances, the neuroscientist is at the mercy of what the subject reports about their thoughts. Those first person private experiences of mental life are then correlated in with measurements made of activity within the subject’s brain tissue.

In the next post we will look at the nature of consciousness.

[1] J. P. Moreland, The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters, New Edition edition. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 10.

The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why it Matters

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