Is There Room for the Soul?
New challenges to our most cherished beliefs about self and the human spirit
Which of course raises the question of what Dennett means by meaning. He explains by describing his fundamental disagreement with another leading philosopher of consciousness, John Searle, author of The Rediscovery of Mind: "Once we understand how there can be a machine that tracks meaning, an organism that tracks meaning," says Dennett, "then we can start asking what more is special about consciousness. This is exactly the other way around from, say, John Searle, who says there is no meaning without consciousness, that we have to do consciousness first, and that nothing can mean anything if it weren't for consciousness. I say, 'Oh no, on the contrary, there is meaning in microorganisms where there is no consciousness, because it's the appropriate response to information in the service of life-that's where meaning comes in.'"
Survival machines. If that's what meaning fundamentally comes down to-the sum of appropriate responses to information in service to life-it is easy to see why so many people view the study of consciousness as a potentially dispiriting project. If consciousness, particularly higher-order consciousness, exists only to respond more effectively to information in service to life, then we are nothing more than Darwinian survival machines. Other notions of value, purpose, freedom, and individuality-notions as important to many secular humanists as to religious people-are reduced to, at best, reassuring illusions of possible survival value. Other, more religiously grounded notions of spirit and soul get even shorter shrift in this reductionist view.
But need the findings and insights of the study of consciousness lead to such a dispiriting conclusion? For two reasons, it would seem not. One reason lies in science itself-specifically, in a sophisticated critique of the reductive materialism that came to dominate modern experimental science during its so-called classical phase from the 17th century to the early 20th century. That critique emerges from frontier work in many areas, particularly physics, suggesting that the search for ultimate causality in smaller and smaller bits of matter is finally a bootless enterprise. The further one goes down the scale of physical reality, the less material matter appears to be. In fact, the further one goes down, the more reality seems to consist of nonmaterial information, pure potentialities of matter or energy but not quite either. Quantum mechanics has demonstrated the flux of particle and wave at subatomic levels, suggesting that the only fixity at such levels comes from the act of observing the object and arresting it at one or another stage of its being.
This point about the role of the observer raises particularly interesting questions about the power of human consciousness not just to define but to influence physical reality (including the physical brain), a point that has been explored by, among others, Henry Stapp, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. His argument, elaborated in his book Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics, proposes that conscious experience is not a mere product of underlying brain activity but an interactive event in which the attention and intention of the observing mind also have effects on the brain. To some biological reductionists, this notion of top-down (or mind-brain) effects is heresy, but its intellectual appeal reaches well beyond quantum physicists.