What is the Soul?

By Wil Forbis
July 1, 2014

The Our Wacky Brain collection:

In my recent "Wacky Brain" piece titled "What is Art?" I confessed I was not going to really attempt to answer the question. A full answer of such a query would fill many books and still be debated by academics and intellectuals for eons to come. (Endlessly debating is how such people stay employed.)

As you can imagine, the same is true with an article titled "What is the Soul?" I know full well that such a topic is beyond a mere 1500 words. What I really wish to capture here is my personal navigation of the question over recent years.

Of course, "soul" is probably a harder word to define than “art”; it's used by different people to mean many different things. Some argue the soul is a metaphysical force---a collection of the will, intellect and memories of a person and is ultimately responsible for the behavior of a person's body. When the body dies, this kind of soul can live on, possibly by travelling to a heaven or hell, or perhaps staying on the earthly plane as a kind of ghost. Another interpretation of soul is closer to the word "mind"; it is a catch-all description for a person's essence but not necessarily presumed to exist in any reality. Still other versions of the term apply more to the emotional content of a person (think soul music.)

There's a bit more to the soul as well. We tend to view our consciousness---our subjective state of awareness of the world around us (driven mainly via our senses)---as a key part of our soul. If the soul exists after our body dies we generally hope to continue existing in a state where we can see objects, think thoughts, recall memories and whatnot. A soul, as it is popularly conceived, should have these functions.

There's no absolutely strict definition for the word and yet I think we all understand well enough what the soul is supposed to be. I'll simply say I'm using the term to refer to the essence or "sum" of a person, particularly their internal mental parts like will, sensations, thoughts and memories.

My internal debate on the topic over the past several years has come down to this: do the souls of humans arise only out of the complicated connections within their brains or is there something more? Is the soul physical (in the sense that it is dependent on the physical components of the brain---neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, etc.---) or is it metaphysical (in the sense that it exists in some way separate from the physical plane, as many spiritual and religious thinkers would argue)?

The argument that the soul exists only as a kind of emergent property of the physical world is often thought of as the reductionist point of view. The idea is that the human brain is a phenomenally complex contraption of little wires (neurons) that deliver electrical signals to each other. (In this theory, the interconnected human brain is often referred to as a connectome.) A retinal cell in your eye fires when it senses red in a certain part of your field of vision and sends that signal into the brain where it fires off other neurons. This process, combined with many other neural processes leads to your experience of seeing a red flag. Nobody claims to have fully mapped out how this all works but that is the gist of it.

There's a lot to support this purely physical explanation for the soul. Consider the obvious: when a person has a stroke or some other injury to their brain, they often lose what might be considered a component of their soul. They may lose a sense---vision or hearing, etc.---or a mental faculty---the ability to speak, read or recognize faces. Their behavior may also radically change. The most famous brain-damaged patient of all, Phineas Gage, went from being a respected and conscientious worker to a loud mouthed ne'er-do-well when he lost a chunk of his frontal cortex in an accident. If components and function of the soul are supposed to exist in some non-physical sense, then one must ask why they disappear when physical damage occurs. (A related question: if you lose the ability to speak while alive and then die, does the ability return when your metaphysical soul enters the afterlife?)

That said, if we accept that the soul is simply a physical proposition, then some interesting questions appear. Consider this: computerized robots are able to do a lot of processing and they can even physically navigate their environment using cameras but we don’t presume that they “see” in any way. We humans, however, do; we not only sense a red flag, we are conscious of seeing it---the image exists in the internal world of our mind. This is quite interesting when you think about it. Somehow the thing we call consciousness (e.g. the subjective state of observing) emerges out of the complex network of the brain. Can consciousness only arise out of complex networks made out of biological matter, or could complex digital networks also become conscious*? And how conscious are the brains of animals? It seems reasonable that a dog is conscious, but what about a fly? Or a germ? Are there degrees of consciousness?

*This is the conceit of many a science fiction tale.

For the most part, I do agree with the reductionist idea that the "soul" or "consciousness" is a physical phenomenon which arises out of the complex networking of our human brains. However, I concede there are some challenges with this point of view. Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett’s “The Minds I,” a compilation of writing of the topic, has a number of interesting thought experiments to contemplate. One is as follows: Suppose you take a person’s brain and tease apart all the neurons from each other. You put each neuron in its own nutrient bath (to keep it alive) and you fix some kind of radio transmitter on each of its inputs and outputs (its dendrites and axons to use the correct terminology.) Each neuron can now pass signals to all its fellows as it did before, only now it’s using these radio transmitters. What was once a unified brain is now more like a bunch of spaghettis lying near each other. (This is, of course, technically impossible but just go with me here.) Is it reasonable to conclude that this "brain" is still conscious? Maybe... though something seems off.

Let’s get even crazier. Let’s say we observe that a particular experience – eating a cheese sandwich – causes the brain's neurons to fire in a very precise order. Again we tease apart the brain's neurons and place them in separate nutrient baths but instead of placing radio transmitters on each neuron, we place little pulse devices that can zap each neuron in the same way it would be zapped were it receiving a signal from another neuron. At this point we should be able to activate (in this brain) the experience of eating a cheese sandwich just by zapping the neurons in exactly the same order (and same speed) they would be zapped during a “real” sandwich eating experience. But would this brain – a bunch of neurons lying in separate chemical baths, not even connected to each other but receiving zaps from pulse devices – be conscious? It seems hard to believe it would. After all, nothing is binding these neurons together. But, at the reductionist level (that is the level of neurons) the parts of the brain are doing exactly the same thing whether we are talking about a "whole" brain, a spaghetti brain with transmitters, or a spaghetti brain with zappers.

At this point some would argue that maybe there is something binding all these neurons together: the metaphysical soul.

Others might point to theories of quantum consciousness which allows the mysterious behavior of quantum particles (which are smaller than atoms) to explain the mysteries of consciousness.

Others still might point to a theory I recently discovered that has an interesting ghostly flavor: consciousness as an electromagnetic phenomenon. This theory argues that consciousness is comprised of not merely the electrical firing of neurons but also the electromagnet field that is created by these signals. And furthermore, not only do the firing neurons create this field, but they can be affected by the field. At that point doesn't this electromagnet field start to sound a bit like a soul?

As usual with these "Wacky Brain" articles, no answers here. Just fascinating questions.



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