A member of a Facebook forum pointed out this extended essay by Adam Lee, an atheist, and asked whether anyone had a response. I've been thinking about these things of late, so I thought I'd have a shot.
Lee takes aim at the idea of the soul, arguing that recent discoveries in neuroscience make it untenable. Growing evidence of the way the brain functions, as revealed by brain scans, demonstrates how closely it is implicated in the production of identity, personality and behaviour, he points out. He gives an overview of which bits of the brain do what. And where in all of this is the soul, he wants to know. 'Which brain lobe does it inhabit? Where is it hiding in this tangle of neurons and synapses?'
As a practical matter, it should be easy to judge between dualism and materialism, because unlike most religious doctrines, the notion of the soul is an idea that would seem to have testable consequences. Specifically, if the human mind is the product of a "ghost in the machine" and not the result of electrochemical interactions among neurons, then the mind should not be dependent on the configuration of the brain that houses it. In short, there should be aspects of the mind that owe nothing to the physical functioning of the brain.
So where is the soul hiding? Area after area of the brain has yielded up its secrets to the probing of neuroscience, and not a trace of it has been found. The more our knowledge advances, the less reason we have to suppose that it exists, and the less sustainable the dualist position becomes. All the evidence we currently possess suggests that there is nothing inside our skulls that does not obey the ordinary laws of physics.
To add substance to this Lee goes on to describe in some detail the effects of different types of brain injuries. For instance there are patients with memory disorders who cannot remember, or cannot make new memories. He asks: 'According to dualist beliefs, what has happened to these people? Where are their souls?'
Furthermore, with their memory shot, they no longer have the option of converting to Christianity. Any proselytizer who tries to convert them has, at most, a few minutes, before they forget everything he's said. 'Will God condemn them for this? Assuming these people were not religious, are they now doomed to Hell because their souls are trapped in an endless loop of brain chemistry?'
This is before we consider more exotic cases of the type described by Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damasio, such as alien hand syndrome (where a hand seems to develop a mind of its own, viz. Dr Strangelove); paralysis and denial (the patient believes he can move his paralysed arm, and resists all arguments to the contrary); Capgras' syndrome (the patient thinks a person she knows well is actually an imposter); and of course Phineas Gage, who survived but underwent a severe personality change after a steel rod passed through the front of his skull.
The article is quite long, but you get the idea. The essential point is that all this data poses an insuperable challenge for dualism and for the existence of an immortal soul. And the more of it that accumulates, the tougher the challenge gets.
It struck me straight away that Lee is attacking an idea of the soul that no serious person could believe: the Cartesian substance that sits inside our heads and somehow meshes with the machinery. To ask where the soul is hiding is quaintly naïve, as if the thing could potentially be tracked down and ferreted out of its burrow. It's hard to think that he's completely serious about it, and yet one worries that actually he is. This is exactly how the scientific-sceptical mind thinks. It's akin to the observation that cosmologists have combed through the entire universe and found no trace of God - as if he might be hiding in a gas cloud somewhere.
Another approach would be to identify what contemporary dualists actually do think and then tackle that. Most these days tend to hypothesise some kind of quantum interaction at a deep interior level of the brain, as did Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff. One variation of this would be the filter theory first outlined (in different ways) by Frederic Myers and William James, and recently given a dusting off by Edward Kelly in Irreducible Mind.
Like many people, I first encountered this in Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception, where the brain is seen as a 'reducing valve', shutting out the greater part of the reality out there - Mind at Large, as Huxley called it. Having had similar mescaline experiences to Huxley's I found it immediately appealing: it's when brain functions are compromised, as for instance after ingesting hallucinogens, that consciousness changes radically, giving a glimpse of the greater reality Out There, magnificent and terrifying. Agreed, this stands more as an initial metaphor than as a fully worked out theory. Kelly has made a good effort, fleshing it out with the ideas of quantum physicist Henry Stapp, but it's still a long way from being taken seriously by the consciousness studies community.
So the model would not be difficult to challenge, for instance on the grounds that warm wet brains are hostile environments for quantum interactions. But unless you can demonstrate that it's terminally incoherent, or provide evidence that in some way falsifies it, you can't maintain that neuroscience has disproved the concept of the soul.
Another feature that interests me is Lee's emphasis on the accumulation of contrary evidence. Each new experiment that demonstrates a link between a brain state and a mental state - and the literature is by now extremely rich - is another nail in the coffin of dualism.
But was this ever really necessary? It doesn't need brain scans to observe, for instance, that the personality becomes progressively degraded with the progress of senile dementia, and this has long been viewed as a problem for any claim of survival of consciousness after death. New items of evidence don't need to be piled one on top of each other, as Lee does here, in order to make the point: it surely has to be ceded at once. Nothing bypasses the brain. Identity, personality and behaviour are all absolutely implicated in what it does. If the brain is damaged, one or more of these will be compromised.
It does not follow, however, that physical brain functions are the ultimate source of these things. No matter how successfully we correlate brain states with mental states, that's all we have - increasingly detailed and suggestive correlations. To argue that a correlation demonstrates fundamental cause is absolutely unwarranted. We remain free to hypothesise, say, the existence of the soul as an information field that exists in an unseen dimension, and which expresses itself through the brain and nervous system through some kind of quantum interaction.
If the brain is the medium by which this information field is expressed in the physical world, then, in the event of injury, one would expect its expression to fail in striking and various ways. Furthermore, if this field continues to exist after the death of the body we could hypothesise that it finds another way to express itself, in some other form, in some other dimension. In which case the individual is restored to health - as indeed is frequently described by spirit communicators through mediums, as their experience.
All this may seem to the sceptic to be speculative and unwarranted. But something of the sort is required to account for the observed facts of psi. A brain that can express telepathic intuitions, presentiment, precognitive dreams, and suchlike is not to be conceived in purely mechanical, physicalist terms.
So we end up some distance from where Lee set out. The real target is not the Cartesian concept of the soul, which hardly anyone takes seriously, but those phenomena that would require some alternative, more viable dualist framework to make sense of. That would have been the basis of a quite different argument, of the kind that Richard Wiseman et al produce, questioning psi's existence.
To be clear, I believe that the evidence from neuroscience, of the kind that is currently being produced, cannot be an argument against survival of consciousness after death. Still, I guess that it will continue to be a powerful element in atheists' thinking. They seem mesmerised by it, to the extent of letting themselves be seduced by an illusion.