Oh, my soul! — cognitive science and the death of dualism

There are many things some theists don’t like about science — evolution, the Big Bang, stem cells, for a few — but they really hate current research in human cognition. Cognitive science threatens to do for the soul what Darwin did for the six-day creation.

The idea of a human soul is greatly dependent on the notion that the mind is something different from the brain. This separation of substance and structure, denied by Hobbes and championed by Descartes, is the basis of belief in the existence of a soul.

If mind and brain are made of the same, perishable stuff, what is the soul? The physical separation of mind and body is a necessary condition for a plausible assertion of the existence of a non-physical soul, a form of consciousness that is neither material nor mortal.

Descartes and others were not willing to accept the idea that, in Gilbert Ryle’s words, “human nature differs only in degree of complexity from clockwork.”

Steven Pinker summarizes the challenges posed for theists by the potential loss of dualism:

It can indeed be upsetting to think of ourselves as glorified gears and springs. … a human being has higher purposes, such as love, worship, good works, and the creation of knowledge and beauty. The behavior of machines is determined by the ineluctable laws of physics and chemistry; the behavior of people is freely chosen. … And of course if the mind is separate from the body, it can continue to exist when the body breaks down, and our thoughts and pleasures will not someday be snuffed out forever.

Free will, morality, salvation — these are high stakes! Or are they?

There is a crucial assumption in all this: that mind-body dualism is somehow necessary to human identity. In simple terms, the theist believes that human identity and a satisfying life are impossible for a “merely” natural organism.

It’s easy to see how theists come to these conclusions. They believe in a God who is outside material existence. We are, they believe, made “in His image.” Therefore, some part of us, too, is immaterial. This evanescent “stuff” is called “the soul.” It’s the part that endures after physical death. It’s the place, they believe, where God puts all the good bits — faith, love, generosity, creativity, and all the rest.

What evidence do theists offer as support for their claims? None at all. Since God and the soul are immaterial, they are beyond physical proof or human understanding. It all depends on faith. It’s the religious version of buying an expensive car — if you have to ask what the proof is, you don’t get it.

This kind of sleight-of-mind wordplay has always been suspect, of course, but now, in the light of current scientific research, there’s a better explanation available, one that doesn’t require the invention of a separate, unseen world.

In times long past, when there was no reasonable alternative, when “science” relied on explanations almost as speculative and fanciful as the creation of a spiritual realm, it was at least understandable, if not sensible, that most people accepted the “revealed” assertions of authority figures armed with magic texts.

No longer. Cognitive research is now making it clearer and clearer that we live entirely within material brains, which operate according to “the ineluctable laws of physics and chemistry” to produce “love, worship, good works, and the creation of knowledge and beauty” — and all without reference to Ryle’s “Ghost in the Machine.”

Cognitive science is a much more formidable threat to dualism than were earlier, conceptual analyses like positivism. Positivism was a philosophical theory — an abstraction, an epistemological notion, a way of saying, a construct. Cognitive research today is producing results which support scientific theories — an entirely different animal, with an experimental basis in the physical world. It’s much easier to play language games with a concept than it is to deflect a set of results. One can’t just wave away empirical data, at least not with any credibility.

The dualist argument is that “free will” and the human moral sense somehow will no longer exist if we understand their mechanics — the “magic” will be gone. So the dualist prefers not to understand, prefers to keep Toto away from the curtain.

Are the key elements of human identity really that fragile? Or are dualists like the architect in Swift’s Grand Academy of Lagado, who has devised a method of building houses from the roof down?

Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field — combining complementary research in many areas, including psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy of mind, computer science, anthropology, sociology, and biology to pull back the magic curtain.

Various computational, representational, and mechanical models adequately — often comprehensively — explain human thought, emotions, and actions. And none of the discoveries of the new research denigrates human achievement or personal worth, for the simple reason that even were all of our ideas, feelings, and behaviours explained by purely physical processes, those explanations would change nothing.

A clock that tells time thanks to gears and wheels does, in fact, tell time — it remains in all meaningful ways a clock, even though we understand how it works. A moth that flies in circles around a flame because it has an instinctive navigational system based on the light of the moon is no less like a moth because we understand why it behaves as it does. Knowing how and why is no more damaging to identity than is knowing what.

A person who smiles with delighted recognition on hearing the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 feels exactly the same pleasure whether or not we can understand and can explain — quite a different thing than explain away –all of the physical mechanisms of mind and body that lead to the recognition, the smile, and the pleasure.

You need a material brain to love Tchaikovsky. But you don’t need an immaterial soul.

2 thoughts on “Oh, my soul! — cognitive science and the death of dualism

  1. The soul as some physical part of the brain is not necessary but it is still a useful metaphor for some aspects of our being . Scientists in the past thought that there might be a physical existence for heat until molecular theory explained it , but the word is useful much as it has always been

    • Agreed, as a metaphor. There is an opinion among some cognitive researchers that we will never pin down consciousness in the same way that we can pin down synaptic pathways — that would leave us with only the metaphor and place “what is consciousness?” into the “ultimate question” category.

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