A mind is a tough thing to think about. Consciousness is the defining feature of the human species.
But is it possible that it is also no more than an extravagant biological add-on, something not really essential to our survival?
That intriguing possibility plays on my mind as I cross the plaza of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, a breathtaking temple of science perched on a high bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, California.There is, indeed, something troubling, if not downright offensive, about the effort to reduce human consciousness to the operations of a 3-pound chunk of wrinkled brain tissue.
Such reductionist thinking seems like an assault on the last redoubt of the soul, or, at least, the seat of the irreducible self.
Deny or attempt to disprove the immaterial character of the mind, and you elicit some of the same passions that have animated the culture wars over evolution in the classroom, exposing the deep divide between hard-core religious fundamentalists on one side and the equally hard-core scientific fundamentalists on the other.
But if the true believers on both sides of the emerging consciousness debate are likely to shout the loudest on the matter, neither should be allowed to have the last word.
There is, in fact, an alternative scenario-one in which the seemingly fixed battle lines of the opposing armies are shown to be drawn according to some rather dubious principles.
Not only has advanced neuroscientific research revealed an obdurate mystery at the core of consciousness, but theoretical advances in the natural and physical sciences have greatly complicated the effort to reduce all human phenomena-the mind notably included-to the effects of material causes.
And even as cutting-edge science challenges crude materialistic explanations of the phenomenal world, new thinking in philosophy and theology is questioning the assumption of an absolute divide between mind and body, spirit and matter-an assumption that has long sustained many religious conceptions of the soul. Interestingly, these parallel developments in science and religion point to a new picture of reality-or maybe even recall older understandings implicit in traditions as ancient as Judaism or Buddhism-in which subject and object, mind and matter are more interfused than opposed.
Exploring the relationship between the physical brain and consciousness is not simply one of the last great intellectual frontiers. It also sheds light on some of the most vexing life-and-death issues facing us today.
The study of consciousness, says Joseph Dial, executive director of the San Antonio-based Mind Science Foundation, which devotes a generous portion of its resources to this field, “has clear clinical applications when you talk about coma and impaired consciousness such as in the Terri Schiavo case.
How do you understand consciousness well enough, how do you understand the self and identity well enough, to determine at what point a person is no longer in possession of a self, is no longer conscious in the way we would suggest other humans are conscious and have an identity?”
Platonic ideas have left a lasting imprint on Christian beliefs. The body may die, many Christians hold, but the soul lives on, presumably extending into eternity those qualities that we associate with our conscious minds and our sense of selfhood.
The experimental science that began to emerge in the 17th century would eventually challenge many of the everyday assumptions of the Christian West, including the notion of an Earth-centered cosmos.
But few of the great men of early modern science viewed themselves as foes of religion. Few questioned the special status of the soul or its boon companion, the mind.
In fact, prominent among the shapers of the scientific worldview was the French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, whose most enduring contribution to modern thought was his argument that reality consisted of two entirely different substances: material substance (res extensa) and thinking substance (res cogitans). But how did these two different substances interact?
According to Descartes, the bodily organs sent perceptions and other information via the brain to the mind, located in the pineal gland in the middle of the head.
Reflecting upon these data, the mind then made decisions and directed the body’s responses, in words or deeds.
This dualistic picture of the body-mind relationship would later come to be attacked as the “ghost in the machine” argument. But for centuries, Christians and others found Cartesian dualism a reassuring and reasonable explanation.
Following the path of many 19th-century German psychologists, the great Harvard philosopher and scientist William James carried the study of consciousness to impressive lengths, most notably in his 1890 book, Principles of Psychology.
But something curious happened within a generation of that book’s publication. Psychology quite suddenly dropped the investigation of consciousness.
Dissatisfied with the reliance on introspection-how do you make an objective science out of people’s subjective reports on their private experiences?-psychologists followed the lead of researchers like Ivan Pavlov and John Watson and turned to the observable results of consciousness: behavior.
The immortality of the soul is so often talked about that it is easy to miss that the Jewish view did not support it,” Jeeves says. “Furthermore, the original Christian view was not the immortality of the soul but the resurrection of the body.”
But Platonism did creep in, Jeeves acknowledges, winning over such influential Christian theologians as Augustine and John Calvin. In Jeeves’s view, the new science of consciousness, by showing the inseparable links between mind and body, restores the original Christian conception of the unity of the person.
As many Christian theologians now say, human beings do not have souls; they are souls.
But Jeeves is realistic in thinking that it will take decades for many of his fellow Christians to accept this way of viewing the soul. And that acceptance will not be made easier by the hard-line reductivism of people like Dennett and Crick who, Jeeves says, “commit the fundamental error of nothing-buttery.”
Here Christians and others might turn to the wisdom of Buddhism, in which the self is correctly understood not as an entity or substance but as a dynamic process.
As Galin writes in a collection of essays on Buddhism and science, this process is “a shifting web of relations among evanescent aspects of the person such as perceptions, ideas, and desires.
The Self is only misperceived as a fixed entity because of the distortions of the human point of view.”
The Buddhist concept of anatman does not suggest that the self is nonexistent but rather asserts that it cannot be reduced to an essence. In recent years, the scientific study of consciousness has taken bold, if not always steady, steps in the direction of understanding the experience of wholeness and human spirituality in general.
They even suggest that if religion can learn something valuable about the unity of body and mind from science, then science might be able to relearn something from religion about the deepest purposes of our minds.
* It was summarized of “Science and the Soul”, U.S. News & World Report, Oct.2006