catvincent: Atheists & Neuroscience
Lengthy look from Robert McLuhan, author of Randi’s Prize: Not just linked ‘cos I got a nice reply to my comment, honest!
A member of a Facebook forum pointed out this extended essay by Adam Lee, an atheist, and asked whether anyone had a response. I’ve been thinking about these things of late, so I thought I’d have a shot. Lee takes aim at the idea of the soul, arguing that recent discoveries in neuroscience make it untenable.
Growing evidence of the way the brain functions, as revealed by brain scans, demonstrates how closely it is implicated in the production of identity, personality and behaviour, he point out. He gives an overview of which bits of the brain do what. And where in all of this is the soul, he wants to know. ‘Which brain lobe does it inhabit? Where is it hiding in this tangle of neurons and synapses?’
Lee explains: As a practical matter, it should be easy to judge between dualism and materialism, because unlike most religious doctrines, the notion of the soul is an idea that would seem to have testable consequences. Specifically, if the human mind is the product of a “ghost in the machine” and not the result of electrochemical interactions among neurons, then the mind should not be dependent on the configuration of the brain that houses it. In short, there should be aspects of the mind that owe nothing to the physical functioning of the brain.
So where is the soul hiding? Area after area of the brain has yielded up its secrets to the probing of neuroscience, and not a trace of it has been found. The more our knowledge advances, the less reason we have to suppose that it exists, and the less sustainable the dualist position becomes. All the evidence we currently possess suggests that there is nothing inside our skulls that does not obey the ordinary laws of physics.
To add substance to this Lee goes on to describe in some detail the effects of different types of brain injuries. For instance there are patients with memory disorders who cannot remember, or cannot make new memories. He asks: ‘According to dualist beliefs, what has happened to these people? Where are their souls?’ Furthermore, with their memory shot, they no longer have the option of converting to Christianity. Any proselytizer who tries to convert them has, at most, a few minutes, before they forget everything he’s said. ‘Will God condemn them for this?
Assuming these people were not religious, are they now doomed to Hell because their souls are trapped in an endless loop of brain chemistry?’ This is before we consider more exotic cases of the type described by Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damasio, such as alien hand syndrome (where a hand seems to develop a mind of its own, viz. Dr Strangelove); paralysis and denial (the patient believes he can move his paralysed arm, and resists all arguments to the contrary); Capgras’ syndrome (the patient thinks a person she knows well is actually an imposter); and of course Phineas Gage, who survived but underwent a severe personality change after a steel rod passed through the front of his skull.
The article is quite long, but you get the idea. The essential point is that all this data poses an insuperable challenge for dualism and for the existence of an immortal soul. And the more of it that accumulates, the tougher the challenge gets.