Friday, May 13, 2016

Chet Raymo, “Body and Soul”

“Body and Soul”
by Chet Raymo

"More than three centuries ago, Pascal said, "Man considering himself is the great prodigy of nature. For he cannot conceive what his body is, even less what his spirit is, and least of all how body can be united with spirit."  The French mathematician and philosopher lived at the dawn of the scientific era, but his words still ring true. We have sent spacecraft to the planets. We have listened to signals from the dawn of time. We have unraveled the mystery of starlight. We can even conceive what the body is. But the deeper human mystery remains: What is the spirit, and how is it united with body? 

There is a sense among neuroscientists, psychologists and artificial intelligence researchers that the ancient riddle is ripe for solution. Powerful new imaging technologies make it possible to probe the living brain- watch the orchestra play even as we listen to the music of thought. More powerful generations of computers provide analytical tools to model the astonishing complexity of neural circuits. Subtle refinements of molecular biology and chemistry let us fiddle with the machinery of the soul. Almost every week in Science or Nature we read of further research binding the soul inextricably to the body.

Perhaps no scientific discovery has been more fundamental than this: There is no ghost in the machine. The ghost and the machine are one and ever shall be.* Some people react to this knowledge with despair or disbelief. I count it glory. "Man considering himself is the great prodigy of nature." 

I have a philosopher colleague who worries deeply about research such as I described in yesterday's post. As we learn more about the electrochemical brain, he foresees increasing reliance upon the technological control of our mental lives- a pill for this, a pill for that. "Increasingly, there's no room for us to talk to one another about our lives," he says. "No room for our histories, our stories, our art; no room for ourselves." 

The soul has become another object to be investigated, analyzed and manipulated, he says, nothing more than a flickering image on a brain scan monitor as electrochemical activity flares up, dies down, perhaps under chemical control- a brushfire of cognition. "Science is squeezing us to spiritual death," he groans. 

My colleague's pessimism is unwarranted. The discovery that our spirits are inextricably linked to electrochemical processes in no way diminishes our true selves. We still have histories, tell stories, make art. We love, we cry, we respond with awe to the marvelous machinery of cognition. And we arm ourselves against the devils of mental illness. 

Many of us seem to believe that anything we can understand cannot not be worth much, and therefore- most especially- we resist the scientific understanding of self. But the ability to know is the measure of our human worth, the thing that distinguishes us from the other animals. Understanding the machinery of spirit does not mean that we will ever encompass with our science the rich detail of an individual human life, or the infinitude of ways by which a human brain interacts with the world. Science is a map of the world; it is not the world itself.

One last thought on the scientific understanding of the soul, this from the cartographer and writer Tim Robinson. He is talking about scientific explanations in general vis-a-vis the supernatural. I don't have his book in front of me, so I will paraphrase: “Miracles are explainable. It's the explanations that are miraculous.”

* This point's not scientifically proven at all,
 and from personal experience, is very debatable... 

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