December 31, 2013
The Search For The Chemical Soul
Are you at peace with your brain? Are you at peace with mine? Like it or not, when you read this, your brain is plugging into mine. Whatever you believe in, wherever in the world you are, the same kind of chemical and electrical processes that happened in my brain when writing these words, thinking these thoughts, are helping you make sense (I hope) of pixels on a screen and turning them into ideas. We are connecting by means of complex technology but what is truly wonderful is that we share “meaning” that is produced by and totally dependent upon brain chemistry.
Emotions are chemical. Intelligence, understanding, consciousness, sleep, dreams, and sensations are all just chemistry in the brain. Your brain is you. You are your brain. There is nothing more. At least that is what a new kind of neurological thought known as “Neuroexistentialism” would have us believe. Everything that makes up the totality of human experience and individual personality is merely, the Neuroexistentialists would tell us is a physical function of the brain.
For most people this is a hard pill to swallow, not least for anyone with traditional religious belief. For thousands of years, ever since man began to communicate with man, since in fact man became conscious of his own existence he has sought to explain his own existence, seeking meaning for life. And almost invariably the answers that he found were involved a belief in some kind of concept of “soul” or life force that is bestowed upon him, gifted to him if you like, by some external force. This is of course the essence of religion. In this old paradigm it was easy to accept that body and soul are separate, that they come together at birth and depart again at death. The body is merely a vehicle – we can see how it works in an almost mechanical fashion, hearts pumping, organs filtering and processing, muscles and joints providing power. But when it comes to the other more mysterious thing – the bright light of being – men have always said “Surely there must be something more”.
We can keep a physical body alive by simulating the mechanical functions with such aids as artificial hearts and other organs, dialysis, or respirators but nothing we have found so far can keep a brain alive or kick-start it back into life. Indeed, if doctors cannot get a response from the brain the standard medical definition of “brain death” is reached.
So it seems that if a life force or “soul” exists at all it resides in the brain and this is where the Neuroexistentialists believe the search for meaning ends. They reject the body/soul duality. Everything can be explained by brain function. There is no need to look further. Nor are they disconcerted by this lack of external meaning. In a recent interview in New Scientist magazine, Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at the University of California, San Diego, says “I am at peace with my brain” and is quite comfortable with the fact that she sees, for example, that the love she feels for her child is just “neural chemistry.” Her new book, Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, explores these concepts more fully.
It Churchland’s explanations are anything to go by there is a massive divergence between this new neuroexistentialsm and its older antecedent – philosophical Existensialism as proposed by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The world they described was one without the moral codes and meanings but full of dread, the absurd, boredom, and alienation. Camus went so far as to write a book – The Myth of Sysiphus – which centred on the question of why, given the existentialist view of a godless and meaningless world, a man should not commit suicide. Camus found his answer in the act of creativity, not just artistically but in the belief in “self-creation”. Man could create his own meaning based simply on his own existence. “Essence precedes existence,” said Sartre. What defines man compared to other entities is that human existence is “self-creating.” Churchland’s world seems to contain none of the dread or alienation. She finds meaning in family, work, play and pets. I wonder if she ever read Camus’s brilliant short novel, L’Ḗtranger? Published in English as The Outsider, it explores the terrifying alienation of a man in an existentialist vacuum – a very different world indeed.
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