Can the Brain Explain the Soul?

Updated: Aug 27

Dear Soul,

Our age is saturated with the scientific method. Scientific investigation and exploration characterize this period in history more than any other and have profited us marvelous amounts of research. One significant question still lingers in the philosophy of science though: can the brain account for the soul (i.e., rationality and free will)? I’ll dig into this question, looking at how the brain generally functions, the prominent materialist objections from science to the immaterial soul, then put forth some positive arguments/evidence for this immaterial human soul based upon science.

The brain is extraordinarily complex, but at the most fundamental level, it works quite simply. When any creature’s brain is active, a varying number of neurons send electrical signals amongst one another. The combination of signals sent triggers a certain response, memory, or imagination (yes, animals have imagination!). These signals function as a sort of binary coding fundamentally, like ones and zeros, or on and off buttons, that jointly produce a certain output. With this utterly childish understanding of neuroscience, let’s see if the soul is explained by the brain!

To be a bit controversial, let’s start with the “good news” first: the positive/affirmative science which points to the soul. The studies of neuroscientist Wilder Penfield bring us our first observation concerning the brain. By stimulating the cerebral cortex, Penfield was able to force patients to do a variety of things involuntarily, from saying certain things to recalling memories. But he was unable to stimulate the will whatsoever. In other words, he could not involuntarily force patients to freely act/decide. For this reason, he concluded that the brain was missing a causal force which is present in much of human activity. In other words, the mind doesn’t account for free will, and thus we need the soul to fully explain human thought.

Another thing which shows that brain chemistry is missing something is the Visual Binding Problem: the problem of unified visual perceptions. Different parts of the brain store information about shapes of objects and colors of objects, but look for a brain region which combines the two into a unified perception and you’ll come up empty. The visual systems of the brain have been completely mapped in great detail, the answer is in: the brain doesn’t explain the subjective, unified perceptions we experience. So, science hasn’t simply missed something; it has, rather, eliminated this possibility of the brain as the producer of unified perceptions! Science has shown that subjective experience, such as of unified perceptions, cannot be fully explained by our physical brain chemistry, so there needs to be a further explanation. This explanation is the immaterial soul, which gives you your individual, qualitative, sensical experience, and wherein your mind makes sense of reality and the brain’s inputs.

How about looking at a world renowned expert in neuroplasticity for one more affirmative finding? I think YES! Jeffrey Schwartz is this man, and he has performed various studies to evaluate the human brain’s ability to adapt and evolve functionally and structurally in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli (this is neuroplasticity). His work has showed that attention changes brain chemistry; Schwartz calls this attention “mindful attention.” Any conscious and deliberate mental effort has the ability to physically and systematically alter brain functioning. But here’s the key part: he found that passive stimulation of an inattentive brain with stimuli identical to that which produces change in an attentive brain does not induce change in (cortical) neuroplasticity. Schwartz then concludes that attention is necessary for altering the brain in a structural/functional manner. This means that a proper explanation of "mindful attention" and its effects in neuroplasticity requires something beyond mere brain functioning. Without a freely-given, effortful attention, we cannot re-sculpt our brain; a volitional focus is needed which differs from mere brain activity or mere conscious awareness. This brings us again to the conclusion that the human soul exists, functioning as the immaterial explanation of freely-willing.

Now onto the spicy part: the prominent scientific objections to the soul. Number one: the Libet experiments. What these experiments essentially revealed is that there is a ten second build-up in brain activity to conscious activity (the “readiness potential”). Many purported that this shows the brain to be the cause of conscious activity, as the brain "turns on the stove," so to speak, so that conscious activity can get cooking/going. But later research brought this idea into question, as it was found that this build-up was present even when subjects didn’t engage in conscious decision-making. In addition, Libet later found that the brain can run continuously (as if on autopilot), but the mind can halt/restrict the brain’s activity via mental force, it can restrict the aforementioned build-up. Thus, Libet’s work, as with Schwartz’s, shows that there is a distinct mind that has the power to actually affect changes in the brain, regardless of if there is any sort of correlation between certain brain activity and conscious, mental activity.

Number two is the objection from mental reconstruction. Modern science has developed technologies that can reproduce the physical imagery which we see by looking at only blood flow in the primary visual cortex. It is claimed that this capacity shows mental imagery and the experience of qualia (qualitative experience) to be nothing other than brain activity, because the brain can produce our visual experiences with decent specificity. But this implication is insincere: recognizing correlations between human conscious experience and blood flow in certain brain regions, and then remapping images with this information, doesn’t imply the identity of this consciousness with that blood flow, with that brain activity. This only shows that the brain is highly interrelated with that human subjective experience, and this interrelation is usually expected by soul-believers; the two leading views concerning the immaterial soul actually give assent to this view! These two views hold that the human brain stores and encodes information, which the immaterial mind accesses and influences via mental exertion. So whatever way you take this objection, the ability to know human visual experience with fair accuracy doesn’t imply that human experience and consciousness are the same as those material correlates. Thus goes the famous maxim: "correlation does not equal causation" (i.e., the False Cause Fallacy).

A real classic objection is next: the split brain objection. Researchers often argue that distinct persons/awarenesses arise in people who have had their two brain hemispheres seperated (due to accidents and other occurrences). They claim that this is evident from how vastly different these subjects act after the splitting, in comparison to their previous actions. In extending this claim, we find the argument against the soul: if a human can have/has multiple conscious personalities as a result of hemisphere separation (this is the Two-Stream Model of consciousness), then the brain is the source of human consciousness (otherwise an immaterial mind would be unaffected by such a thing). Yet, this point of objection is sketchy when further considering these split-brain subjects. For one, these people live highly normal lives: working, conversing, etc. and performing activities that require hemisphere collaboration like biking, playing piano, and driving. For another thing, attention is unified in these patients: their brains space the processing of two stimuli received at almost the same time though these are each processed in different brain hemispheres. Unification is also shown in that the attention system of the split-brain human remains largely integrated, even though cognitive processing of both complex and simple perceptual stimuli associated with each disconnected hemisphere show essentially no interactions. This unified attention should be impossible without an immaterial mind. On top of all this, two studies have found that the info about the size and the motion of perceived objects are shared between the two disconnected hemispheres. These are mysteries in neuroscience which cumulatively beg for a physical answer, though none can be given.

And the final objection surfaces, my friend. I don’t know if you think artificial intelligence (AI) will take over the world someday, but many at least think complex computers and AI already have (or will attain to) human level consciousness and intelligence. If this is so, we don’t need the immaterial soul; we can explain reason and free will via purely physical means, solely with the brain. But not too fast! Let’s consider a counter-example: the Chinese Room Example. It goes like this: there is a fluent Chinese speaker and a large white room/box. This person writes down conversational sentences in Chinese and slides them into a slot in the side of the room. Eventually, a response is returned through the slot, and this process continues until the conversation is over. The Chinese speaker says that the responses received from the box were flawless, and that the conversation was enjoyable. Now, it turns out that what was generating responses from the box was actually a full-fledged American who knew no Chinese. This American was responding using an instruction book which told him the symbols to output given the symbols receieved. Now, did this American truly understand Chinese as the fluent speaker might’ve thought? Before this revelation we might’ve said yes, but now it is quite clear that he does not know Chinese, he merely is imitating a precise understanding of the language. This is just how AI and complex computers function, though they do so to an extremely impressive degree. An input is given to the machine, which is encoded in its system/program, and then the machine reads its “instruction manual” which tells it the corresponding output to put forth. All of these actions are fundamentally taking place in a binary coding system consisting of only ones and zeros. The moral of this story is this: something may perfectly interact with some external observer in a human way, as the American did, but because following an appropriate instruction manual isn’t sufficient for true understanding, no computer program can have understanding of Chinese or any subject. Imitation of understanding is not understanding! The configurations of ones and zeros which constitute certain outputs don’t have meaning to the computer: they are not “about” some specific topic/thing, they do not truly refer to some particular topic/thing as human thinking does, they only trigger certain sounds or lights or whatsoever which we in turn interpret meaningfully. Humans think intentionally, we think about things, and we also act freely. Our brains indeed act just like these computers, but our souls give us this intentionality and free will which Phillip the AI knows not. Therefore, we are not mere coding, we are much-much more!

I know you probably are functioning on your last few brain cells after reading all of this research and information, so I won’t strain you any longer, but how interesting is this conclusion! Science and quasi-scientific information do not disprove the soul. Rather, they lend much credence to the idea of the soul, positively showing its existence. Hereby we can further be confident in the soul’s existence, and of science’s compatibility with philosophy.

With all manner of care,

Ian Smith

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