A while ago, I asked several coworkers, separately, whether they thought animals had souls. The two Mormons among them claimed that all living things all the way to prokaryotes and viruses had eternal spirits along with their physical bodies. The two Catholics argued that humans alone possessed minds and souls. All of them seemed somewhat confident in their responses so I thought I could generalize these respective beliefs to all Mormons and Catholics. Does any other faith stand elsewhere on the continuum between the all-inclusive Mormons and the soul-grudging Catholics? Do any creeds proclaim, for example, that only mammals have souls, but not reptiles and plants? — I think I could provide a few neurophysiological arguments to justify that position. Dog owners, for example, whatever their faith, will vouch for the existence of their best friend’s soul. Thus we make a testable prediction: any Catholic will disavow her faith after getting a puppy. I realize Catholics have grown quite diverse in their beliefs post-Vatican II. I must have simply run into the non-dog-owning kind — sampling error again.

Finally, who has the correct answer?

To answer these questions, I consult the preeminent objective source on all things spiritual and scientific, the Conservapedia. In its current article on the brain, Conservapedia cites the work of one René Descartes and his conclusion that the etherial soul controls the physical brain through the pineal gland. Conservapedia’s authors express doubts about the more modern and less satisfying descriptions of the function of the brain and the pineal gland in particular as they do not specifically provide room for free will and the eternal soul. The answer becomes clear: creatures that have a pineal gland also have souls while those that don’t, don’t.

Then let’s simply enumerate all animals that have a pineal gland and those that don’t. It turns out, all chordates have a form of the pineal gland or epiphysis and it contains cells homologous to retinal cells specific to chordates. Human embryos, clearly, don’t have a pineal gland and do not have souls, until at least the time when the epiphysis begins to develop in the fetus around the seventh week of gestation.

Ah, it feels great to finally have the answers — lampreys, fish, mice, and sheep have souls whereas bananas, insects, octopuses, and human embryos don’t. Next topic!

Francis Crick was being coy when he titled his book “The astonishing hypothesis”: that all cognitive processes, including consciousness, are the product of neurons is much more than a hypothesis — it is a mature theory and a subject of active multidisciplinary investigation. The popularization of this insight may meet similar resistance as Darwin’s theory (although it may simply be lumped together with ‘Darwinism’). The view of consciousness as interaction of several mechanisms (or as Dan Dennett calls it, “a bag of tricks”) disagrees with the common sense notion of self as indivisible whole, the starting point in philosophical search (Cogito ergo sum). Therefore, all interesting philosophy of the next decades will be informed by recent experimental findings in neuroscience. Many authors are attempting to popularize the notions of neuronal nature of self. Others are taking advantage of the confusion to push a pet speculation or dogma.

Below I have compiled this chart with several books I have read that address questions of consciousness in intriguing ways. I rated these books based on how much new knowledge or insight they seemed to provide and whether these insights came by way of empirical findings or unfounded speculation. Click to enlarge.

Luckily, many popularizers of scientific understanding of mind and consciousness have made public presentations that are now available online. These make good previews of the contents of their books, and, if you have a couple of hours, getting to know these people will be time well spent.

Daniel Dennett:

Lectures on consciousness:

Jeff Hawkins, “On intelligence”

Christof Koch, “The Quest for Consciousness”

Does I exist?

2008/01/28

Most thinkers must pass through a phase when they question their own existance. My running buddy db has made the denial of his own existence the central theme of his life philosophy, which he equates with a modernized form of Buddhism: admitting to being nothing, one can become everything. The thought is succinctly and humorously captured at extelligentsia.

Studying the brain will inevitably put one through a reality-questioning phase. My brain is a collection of interconnected cells, none of which can care or even knowing about me. All behavior, perceptions, and emotions result from a mix of electric and chemical messages among these cells. There is no one place in my body where I is. Every experience and every perception ever so slightly modify the synapses between neurons and, voilà, I emerges.

René Descartes started from the opposite end of questioning: As the one having these very thoughts, I must exist and I question the reality of everything else. Is there a fallacy in his Cogito ergo sum?

These dilemmas come from our misconceptions of what qualifies as real or true. For us, emergence boundaries present insurmountable cognitive hurdles: we cannot accept something as real if we cannot reduce it to its clear causes or moving agents. Things that arise through emergence cannot be real, our intuition tells us, they are but ephemeral constructs!

And scientists have been the worst! Over-reliant on reductionism, science has consistently claimed to uncover how things really are. The result has been the alienation of vast vast majorities of people or the reduction of science to just another conceptual framework, a point of view, or a social construct. Scientists often think of their subject being more real than other disciplines because they fail to recognize that the regularities in their own discipline emerge from another type of reality.

The greatest tragedy of our inability to comprehend emergence is the rise of postmodern philosophy. Postmodernism postulates that there exist infinitely many disparate and equally valid and interesting interpretations of everything, all of which arise simply from the observer’s point of view. A biologist views the brain as a collection of neurons whereas I see a person and a soul. The physicist sees atoms and quarks while I see a beautiful flower. The dichotomies seem irreconcilable to most. Thinkers feel like they have to choose a cognitive framework from which to interpret the world.

I hope that, with time, we will learn to overcome reductionist thinking in science and develop the language to comprehend emergence and that postmodernism will fade as a dark page in our cultural history.

Neuroscientifically informed philosophers are leading the transformation from the intellectually segmented postmodernist academics to coherency between them. In his new book, Proust was a neuroscientist, the science writer Jonah Lehrer explores how art, music, and literature bring understanding of human nature that is only later solidified and elaborated by science. I am finishing the book here at the coffee shop and will share my further impressions soon.