No Unified Mind, No Soul

Seed magazine did a September article entitled:

The Experience of a Unified Mind and the the Possibility of an Everlasting Soul are Connected.

Odd for atheist blogs, my blog is littered with posts talking about the illusion of the Unified Mind.  Seeing through the illusion of the Unified Mind was as much part of my way out of Theism as were all the disturbing philosophical and Biblical problems.  For me, when the unified mind went, the idea of a soul went with it.

As you know, however, Buddhism is also critical of both.

(HT: Ian for the article)



Filed under Science

6 responses to “No Unified Mind, No Soul

  1. Your skepticism about unified mind is, indeed, somewhat rare for atheists. The smug confidence in reason and unitary mind typified by the Nietzsche-style atheists is one of the things I miss least about atheism.

    I do think the view typified by Weisman’s article (known as “physicalism” and defended most ably by the Churchlands) is becoming more common amongst atheists. IMO, that’s a good thing.

    On the other hand, I don’t see the problem for Christianity. Weisman seems to be arguing two things:

    1) Unified mind is necessary for theism and the concept of a soul.

    2) When the brain gets damaged, consciousness is fragmented, proving that the folk concept of consciousness is purely illusory.

    To (1) I respond that Christianity doesn’t teach unified mind — quite the opposite. Unified mind isn’t necessary for soul in any Christian sense.

    Regarding (2), the fact that a state supervenes on the physical (e.g. the state of having a divided consciousness) doesn’t mean that state is false. IMO, Daniel Dennett (atheist philosopher) got this right. If you have a computer program that calculates math problems accurately, and you start cutting traces on the silicon, you can cause the program to return bad results. That doesn’t mean the program was wrong or illusory.

  2. @JS Allen

    A) I think the common sense notion of a soul is taught (or implied) by Christianity. I think it is the default for the human mind — a cognitive illusion.
    But I must admit I don’t know the history of the issue in Christian theology (or if there is a history).
    But I think the “Hope” Christians are taught to have is for themselves. What is that self?

    B) When damaged physically or after enough time in different settings or aging, the apparent self changes. There is no original self/soul to go back to.
    The obvious question (almost trite, actually) is what is resurrected? Which self?

    I did not hear you address these, just disagree with them. Maybe you have something in mind.

  3. True, Christianity teaches that we have souls. But Weisman argues that we can’t believe in souls without first believing in “unified mind”, and he says that evidence disproving “unified mind” should be considered evidence against souls. I don’t understand that leap.

    To be clear, I’ve read a lot of the research and tend towards physicalism in my beliefs about consciousness. I think John Searle (who Weisman approvingly quotes) has great points. John Doris (atheist) is one of my favorite philosophers, and he has focused heavily on empirical neurobiology research as it relates to sense of “self”. I am just questioning Weisman’s leap from “there is no unified mind” to “there is no soul”. The first is obviously true, but the leap to the second seems like a non-sequitur to me. How can he say that belief in souls is predicated on belief in unified mind? It makes no sense to me. Why do we need to believe in “unified mind” to believe in souls?

    Christians should generally see evidence for divided consciousness as supportive of Christian doctrine. The theme of “self” being in conflict pervades the scriptures. A famous example would be Romans 7:14-25, or even the use of the Greek “dialogos” in Mark 2. If we look at all of the stories of demon-posession through the lens of modern science, I think it tells the same story.

    But I think the “Hope” Christians are taught to have is for themselves. What is that self?

    I don’t like it when Christians twist Christ’s message into being about “self”-interest, although I admit it happens. The topic is fresh in my mind, since I spent yesterday morning explaining to my oldest why the Sunday-school teacher’s exposition of Pascal’s Wager was flawed. The idea that we would choose Christianity as a sort of calculated self-interested “wager” seems terribly non-scriptural to me.

    The “Our Father” puts things in perspective. Christians pray, “Not my will, but thine”. As you know from experience, Christians pray to have their egos subdued and extinguished, to be unified with the will of God.

    One can mock or ridicule this common Christian desire, but we can’t really say that Christianity rests on a desire to preserve the “self”, as such.

    There is no original self/soul to go back to.
    The obvious question (almost trite, actually) is what is resurrected? Which self?

    It’s an obvious question, but not trite at all. It’s an deep and perceptive question. Every child has asked, “When I get to heaven, what will I look like? Will I be a kid or a grown-up?”. My maternal grandfather died of Alzheimer’s, so I have some personal incentive to wrestle with this question. Christians tend to make up bedtime stories to make the kids happy, but I don’t think it’s wise to “fill in the blanks”.

    For example, I look at what Christ said when the Sadducees asked a similar question. I read it to be saying that the resurrected “self” is a lot different from what we think about as “self” right now.

  4. @ JS Allen
    Yeah, it is tough discussion.
    As always, we have to recognize all the various Christianities.
    We have to recognize your particular spin. This is something our conversations come back to often. I don’t care to talk about “Christianity” in general or what “Christians should belief”. To me such a conversation is just silly. And I imagine you are fine with that.

    So here is the simple part:
    Many people believe a fuzzy little inner part of you goes up into the clouds to eternity of peace after death if their either believe or do the right things.
    These same people are enamored by the notion of their unified self.
    They have a god in their head that is just a bigger version of that.
    When the unified mind falls, these fall.

    Now, as to all the subtle twists of theology and philosophy that can still preserve an understanding dialogue with those folks as if fellow believers and yet still use “God” and “Heaven”, I am not too curious. I imagine you can do that well too.

    Having a whole new body and a whole new mind and maybe a whole new soul in heaven is cool. The point is, it ain’t going to be YOU by either your or my views no matter what we call ourselves.

    Perhaps an ununified view of self can tend to throw folks into a mystical view within their own faith — or if their own faith don’t offer that, they jump to another.

    And certainly, a jump from not-unified to no-self is another type of jump. Long conversations which I am sure you understand already.

  5. DaCheese

    Of course it all depends on where you draw the line between brain and “soul”. It’s easy (especially for those who haven’t studied neurology or cognitive theory) to fall into a soul-oriented version of “God in the gaps”: anything that science hasn’t yet addressed is part of the soul, while the faculties and tendencies have been shown to be brain features are not. Of course this gets a little tricky for Christians and other moral-judgement dogmas when science addresses the brain basis of moral judgement…

    The ultimate fall-back, of course, is to assert that only the “divine spark” survives, with none of the personality or even memories of the individual. That allows for any and all mental functioning to be claimed by the brain, with the spark being merely an observer. But then one has to ask what exactly is being preserved, and why would the actions of the bodily persona affect that entity’s fate in the afterlife?

    I’ll admit that I held to some version of the “spark” idea for a long time, simply because I couldn’t grok the idea of something as uniquely “real” as consciousness / subjective-experience being an ephemeral phenomenon arising from natural processes. Recently I’ve come to (mostly) accept it, though, chalking up my difficulty as being similar to what happens when I try think directly in four dimensions; I simply don’t have the right cognitive machinery to conceive of it, even though the theory is simple enough.

    If nothing else, demoting conscious perception to an emergent property of the mind/brain at least solves what was always a nagging paradox: if my consciousness is a separate, eternal “spark” that is purely an observer, then how is my mind aware of the unique subjective experience it perceives? How am I even able to think or write about it? (And if the spark does interact with my mind, then doesn’t that put me right back in the land of Cartesian Dualism?)

  6. @ DaCheese

    You date yourself with “grok” ! 😀
    Heinlein’s book was part of my world turning up-side down.

    You have read Abbott’s book “Flatland”, I’d imagine. Your reference to 4 dimensions reminded me of the the same difficulty for polygons to understand spheres entering their flat world.

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