Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [4]: The Brain vs. the Eternal Soul

brain - illuniated

The period of roughly 2010-2016 apparently was a breakthrough time for neuroscience and the study of consciousness. About then, a scientific consensus began to emerge that the conscious human mind was generated by the brain — or, as some put it, “the mind is what the brain does.”

In a 2016 article[1], University of Sussex professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience Anil K. Seth wrote that,

“In my own research, a new picture is taking shape in which conscious experience is seen as deeply grounded in how brains and bodies work together to maintain physiological integrity – to stay alive.”

Since then, other brain researchers have added a third essential component:  our environment, particularly our cultural setting and its institutionalized belief systems.

Brain, body, environment — that’s it, that’s what brain science has come up with. It went looking for the soul and didn’t find it. As physician and researcher Paul Singh also wrote in 2016[2]:

“The idea of a transcendent self is a myth; the truth is that the self is a constructed self.”

Not only that, but when a consciousness based purely in physicality replaces traditional belief in an eternal, transcendent soul temporarily at home in a physical human body, other companion notions about the self, consciousness, and free will also come tumbling down. Singh admitted this wasn’t going to be easy news to swallow:

“I will be the first one to admit that the debates about the nature of free will, consciousness, and the self are far from over. It is not, however, because we don’t know the answers, but because we are not at a stage of human evolution and progress yet for people to accept such radical ideas. Such truths are scary in the sense that they undermine our ordinary and commonsensical beliefs about human nature and seem to threaten values that we hold dearly — one of the most important of which is moral responsibility.”

Difficult, yes, but not impossible if you can suspend allegiance to the things you’re convinced of and convicted about, and instead give scientific knowledge a try. Singh makes his case with impassioned advocacy of science and the scientific method:

“I believe, however, that the truthfulness of a fact should be judged on its own merit rather than based on its social and emotional implications for the well-being of an individual or society. Truth should be acknowledged first and then solutions sought that will be implemented in light of the good and bad that truth has revealed, not the other way around. Truth is about truth and not about convenience or about making us feel good about ourselves.

“We should never believe a claim to be true simply because on one can prove it to be false. Theologians are experts at this kind of nonsense. Are delusional people making things up? Evidence shows that the human brain is universally delusional in many ways and therefore people who promote superstitions are not particularly more delusional that the rest of us. It is just that examples of religious delusions are rather classic examples of how the brain creates illusions and delusions. The use of logic and scientific skepticism is a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains. This skill is like any other skill such as learning to play the piano. It involves training in metacognition as well as basic education in basic sciences.”

Frankly, that kind of rhetoric invariably come across as bombastic and opinionated and therefore easy for those convinced otherwise to dismiss. The well-worn neural pathways of our own brains are deeply rutted with their own notions of what is true, and not about to change to a new paradigm just because someone else is convinced it is the “Truth is about truth.”

On the other hand, in my personal experience, I’ve found that the precursor to scientific knowledge — “scientific skepticism” — is in fact a “a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains.” I’ve been developing the skill gradually for years, without intentionally doing so. I was no scientist; I’d spent a lifetime in the humanities; my allegiance was with Romanticism, not the Enlightenment. I was not out to find or prove truth, or convince anybody of it. But I was looking for new thoughts, and years of reading and reflecting — like water carving sandstone — slowly brought my thinking to a new place.

The first time I read about the “materialist” version of consciousness I thought it was just plain odd, which made me highly skeptical. Ironically that skepticism eventually sharpened into a practice that brought me where I don’t find the materialist idea odd at all; in fact, it seems odd to think the way I used to. It now seems simple and obvious that everything we experience is processed within the confines of our largest organ — our skin — and that it has to be that way because, as a biological organism, there’s no other place where it can happen. Even if we think about an eternal, transcendent soul, we do so from our ephemeral, fleshly point of view. That’s all the equipment we’ve got.

Continued next time.

[1] The Real Problem:  It looks like scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be, Aeon Magazien (Nov. 2, 2016)

[2] The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall…

mirror mirror

“If you were to ask the average person in the street about their self, they would most likely describe the individual who inhabits their body. They believe they are more than just their bodies. Their bodies are something their selves control. When we look in the mirror, we regard the body as a vessel we occupy.

“The common notion [is] that our self is an essential entity at the core of our existence that holds steady throughout our life. The ego experiences life as a conscious, thinking person with a unique historical background that defines who he or she is. This is the ‘I’ that looks back in the bathroom mirror and reflects who is the ‘me.’”

The Self Illusion:  How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood[1] (2012)

The idea that we are a self riding through life in a body is deeply ingrained in western thinking. Descartes gets most of the credit for it, but its religious and philosophical roots are much more ancient. (The same is true of the eastern, Buddhist idea that there’s no such a thing as a self. We’ll talk origins another time.)

Descartes’ dualism has the curious effect of excusing us from thinking too closely about what we mean by it. It does this by locating the body in the physical, biological, natural world while placing the self in a transcendent realm that parallels the natural world but remains apart from it. The body, along with the rest of the natural world, is the proper subject of scientific inquiry, but the self and its ethereal realm remain inscrutable, the province of faith and metaphor, religion and the humanities. David P. Barash[2] captures the implications of this dichotomy in Through a Glass Brightly:  Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are (2018):

“Science differs from theology and the humanities in that it is made to be improved on and corrected over time… By contrast, few theologians, or fundamentalist religious believers of any stripe, are likely to look kindly on ‘revelations’ that suggest corrections to their sacred texts. In 1768, Baron d’Holbach, a major figure in the French Enlightenment, had great fun with this. In his satire Portable Theology (written under the pen name Abbe Bernier, to hide from the censors), d’Holbach defined Religious Doctrine as ‘what every good Christian must believe or else be burned, be it in this world or the next. The dogmas of the Christian religion are immutable decrees of God, who cannot change His mind except when the Church does.’

“By contrast, science not only is open to improvement and modifications but also is to a large extent defined by this openness. Whereas religious practitioners who deviate from their traditions are liable to be derogated — and sometimes killed — for this apostasy …, science thrives on correction and adjustment, aiming not to enshrine received wisdom and tradition but to move its insights closer to correspondence with reality as found in the natural world.”

Attempts to bridge the realms of body and soul end up in pseudo-science, eventually discredited and often silly. Consider for example the ether (or sometimes “aether”) — a term that since Plato and Aristotle has been applied to both the rarefied air only the gods can breathe and the stuff light moves through in inter-stellar space.[3]

You don’t need to be a poet or or prophet to think the self is inviolate. It’s just so obvious to most of us that there’s a self inside who watches and knows all about us — who in fact is us. We experience it as that never-silent internal voice — observing and commenting, often critiquing, sometimes shaming — that always seems to be accurate. We’ve been hearing it for as long as we can remember:  it’s embedded in our brain’s memory banks, all the way back to when we first started remembering things and using language to describe and record them.

We have always been aware that we are aware:
we don’t just observe, we observe ourselves observing.

Hence the belief that we are body and soul seems not worth challenging. Which is why, in keeping with this blog’s purpose, we’re going to do precisely that.

Cartesian dualism is foundational to self-awareness and to our cultural beliefs and institutions. It guides everything from religious faith to criminal culpability, health and wellbeing to mental illness. And so much more. As a result, taking a closer look will not only challenge our perceptions of what it real, it will shake reality itself. This inquiry won’t be easy. Again from The Self Illusion:

“Understanding that the self could be an illusion is really difficult… Our self seems so convincing, so real to us. But then again, many aspects of our experience are not what they seem.

“Psychologist Susan Blackmore makes the point that the word ‘illusion’ does not mean that it does not exist — rather an illusion is not what it seems. We all certainly experience some form of self, but what we experience is a powerful deception generated by our brains for our own benefit.”

That’s where we going. Hang tight.

[1] Bruce Hood is an experimental psychologist at the University of Bristol. He specializes in developmental cognitive neuroscience.

[2] David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington.

[3] For a useful primer, see The Eternal Quest for Aether, the Cosmic Stuff That Never Was, Popular Mechanics (Oct 19, 2018).

“Be the Change You Want to See” — Why Change MUST Always Begin With Us


In the beginning, somebody…

Told a story. Made something. Made something that made things. Drew a picture. Used their voice melodiously. Moved a certain way and did it again. Took something apart, put it back together, and built another thing like it. Watched how weather and sky and flora and fauna responded to the passage of time. Sprinkled dry leaves on meat and ate it. Drew a line in the sand and beat someone who crossed it. Traded this for that. Resolved a dispute. Helped a sick person feel better. Took something shiny from the earth or sea and wore it. Had an uncanny experience and explained it.

And then somebody else did, too — and then somebody else after that, and more somebodies after that, until the human race had organized itself into families, clans, tribes, city-states, and nations, each with its own take on life in this world. Millennia later a worldwide civilization had emerged, organized around trans-cultural institutions of law, economics, science, religion, industry, commerce, education, medicine, arts and entertainment….

And then you and I were born as new members of a highly-evolved human culture of innumerable, impossibly complex, interwoven layers.

From our first breaths we were integrated into site-specific cultural institutions that informed our beliefs about how the world works and our place in it. Those institutions weren’t external to us, they were embodied in us — microbes of meaning lodged in our neural pathways and physical biome. Our brains formed around the beliefs of our culture — our neurons drank them in, and our neural networks were wired up with the necessary assumptions, logic, and leaps of faith.

These cellular structure informed what it meant for us to be alive on the Earth, individually and in community. They shaped our observations and awareness, experiences and interpretations, tastes and sensibilities. They defined what is real and imaginary, set limits around what is true and false, acceptable and taboo. And then they reinforced the rightness of it all with feelings of place and belonging, usefulness and meaning. When that was done, our brains and bodies were overlaid with a foundation for status quo — the way things are, and are supposed to be.

All that happened in an astonishing surge of childhood development. Then came puberty, when our brain and body hormones blasted into overdrive, dredging up our genetic and environmental beginnings and parading them out for reexamination. We kept this and discarded that, activated these genes instead of those. (The process by which we do that is called epigenetics, and it explains why your kids aren’t like you.) We also tried on countercultural beliefs. welcoming some and rejecting others. From there, we entered adult life freshly realigned with a differentiated sense of self, us, and them.

From there, adult life mostly reinforces our cultural beginnings, although the nuisances and opportunities of change periodically require us to make and reaffirm shared agreements in our communities, professions, workplaces, teams, and other groups, each time reaffirming and refining our shared cultural foundations. In doing so, we sometimes flow with the changing times, and sometimes retrench with nostalgic fervor.

Where does all this biological, cognitive, and social development and maintenance happen? In the only place it possibly could:  in the hot wet darkness inside the human body’s largest organ —   our skin. Yes, there is a “real world” out there that we engage with, but the processing and storing of experience happen inside — encoded in our brains and bodies.

be the changeWhich is why individual and cultural change must always begin with us — literally inside of us, in our physical makeup — because that’s where our world and our experience of it are registered and maintained. Gandhi’s famous words are more than a catchy meme, they describe basic human reality:  if we want things to change, then we must be transformed. Think about it:  we have no belief, perception, experience, or concept of status quo that is not somehow registered in our brains and bodies, so where else could change happen? (Unless there’s something like a humanCloud where it can be uploaded and downloaded — but that’s another issue for another time.)

The implications of locating human experience in our physical selves are far-reaching and fascinating. We’ll be exploring them.

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