Is There Room for the Soul?
New challenges to our most cherished beliefs about self and the human spirit
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?"
Consciousness is so tied up with what we think of as our inner selves, our spiritual being, that many of the greatest minds of history have assigned it to an order of reality entirely different from the rest of the natural, physical world. Plato, most influentially, separated the soul, or psyche, from the material body and argued that this reasoning part of our being was immortal. His idea was so powerful and attractive that it has kept philosophers intimately engaged with it to this day. Then, too, because so many influential Christian theologians were part of this philosophical tradition, 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 RenÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ© 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.
Rats and mazes. It would not be long, though, before philosophers and scientists, particularly in the new field of psychology, would turn in earnest to the problem of consciousness, bringing to it not just the experimental methods of investigation but a philosophical conviction that all phenomena were reducible to their more fundamental parts and that the interactions of these parts were governed by discoverable "laws of nature." 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.