Is There Room for the Soul?
New challenges to our most cherished beliefs about self and the human spirit
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, Calif. I have just visited the office of Terry Sejnowski, the director of Salk's Computational Neurobiology Laboratory, whose recent research suggests that our conscious minds play less of a role in making decisions than many people have long assumed. "The dopamine neurons are responsible for telling the rest of the brain what stimuli to pay attention to," Sejnowski says, referring to the cluster of brain cells that produce one of the many chemical elixirs that activate, deactivate, or otherwise alter our mental state. In a deeper way, he explains, evolutionary factors-the need for individual organisms to survive, find food or a mate, and avoid predators-are at work behind the mechanisms of unconscious decision making. "Consciousness explains things that have already been decided for you," Sejnowski says. Asked whether that means that consciousness is only a bit player in the overarching drama of our lives, he admits that it's hard to separate rationalizing from decision making. "But," he adds, "we might overrate the role of our consciousness in making decisions."
Overrated or underrated, consciousness is not being ignored these days. Indeed, during the past 20 years or so it has become the focus of an expanding intellectual industry involving the combined, but not always harmonious, efforts of neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, artificial intelligence specialists, physicists, and philosophers.
But what, exactly, has this effort accomplished? Has it brought us any closer to understanding how the physical brain is related to the thinking, experiencing, self-aware mind? Is the scientific study of consciousness approaching its own Copernican moment, when the fruits of experimental work yield a compelling, comprehensive theory?
Battle lines. Such questions, and the effort to find their answers, are part of what brought me to La Jolla, home to several prominent centers of consciousness research in addition to Salk. But interesting as the state of the science is, it is not what concerns most owners and users of a mind. 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.