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Volume 1, Issue 2
Summer 2005:

The Seat of the Soul

Brian T. Maurer

Cell 2 Soul. 2005 Summer; 1(2):a21

In his essay "Of Two Minds" (NYT Magazine May 8, 2005) Jim Holt summarizes recent scientific research on the human brain. Using newer scanning techniques, neuroscientists are now able "to infer what tiny groups of neurons are up to, not just larger areas of the brain".

Here Holt poses a rhetorical question: "How will our image of ourselves change as the wrinkled lump of gray meat in our skull becomes increasingly transparent to such exploratory methods?"

He concludes his piece with a bit of conjecture: "The more that breakthroughs like the recent one in brain-scanning open up the mind to scientific scrutiny, the more we may be pressed to give up comforting metaphysical ideas like interiority, subjectivity and the soul."

This is scientific reductionism at its finest. As we refine the study of the human brain, the seat of consciousness, Mr. Holt opines that we will one day reach the point where we will be able to comprehend fully the neurobiological mechanisms that make us tick, like the workings of a clock. He quotes the philosopher Thomas Nagel: "the ordinary, simple idea of a single person will come to seem quaint some day, when the complexities of the human control system become clearer and we become less certain that there is anything very important that we are one of."

This sort of thinking reminds me of the definition of a medical specialist, someone who knows more and more about less and less, until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.

Even if we succeed in mapping the circuits of the human brain, I doubt that we will be able to define consciousness, or comprehend the biologic basis of ethics and morality. Such concepts are beyond the grasp of the human intellect.

The ancient Zen masters speak of an exercise where the novice is instructed to imagine peeling back the layers of an onion one at a time. As each successive layer is shed, the observer is brought closer to the core. The last layer is finally peeled away, revealing — nothing. In attempting to discover the essence of the onion, the dissector destroys the thing itself.

We can't find the soul by mapping the microcircuits of the mind, because the soul is not a thing, but a state of being.

I doubt the day will come when science will press us to give up those metaphysical ideas like subjectivity and the soul.

If it comes to that, we as human beings will cease to exist, and science itself will be no more — for what is science but a way of looking at the world through human eyes, a way of thinking about the world through human consciousness?

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