Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Mind-Soul Gambit

"I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

Stephen Hawking

According to one of the smartest genii in the world, if you believe in the afterlife, you are a gullible coward.

In my few short years as an outed outspoken atheist, I have encountered all manners of asinine arguments for the existence of God, gods and the general incorporeal, but one which struck me as particularly groan-worthy is the assertion that the human consciousness is somehow proof that all of us possess a soul. I've seen this hoary old chestnut printed in how-to-debate-atheists pamphlets and proselytisers' edition Bibles, and I suspect that when a theist uses this argument, he probably expects to fluster me with what he considers to be an exceptionally clever "gotcha".

On the contrary, it only signal to me that I am dealing with an utter lummox a particularly inexperienced god-botherer who is profoundly ignorant on how the brain works. I usually get this line of argument from Christians but on the rare occasion, I have also crossed words with Muslims who want a slice of the stupid pie too,

Existence of the Mind
Why do some religious people believe in God but not in prepositions?

I have brought up most of the main talking points in my comment above, but I like to cover a bit more ground here in this post.


The belief that our mind is a separate phenomenon from our material bodies is called mind/body dualism and it's a really antiquated idea which had been around since the barmy old days when the Earth was still flat and diseases were still caused by malevolent ghosties. The manifestations of this concept ranges from those who claim that all our mental faculties (consciousness, the conscience, our ability to do sums, et cetera) is a product of spirit stuff colloquially referred to as the "soul" - to people who merely think that this soul substance is just the seat of our consciousness. While I have always enjoyed struggling with the philosophical underpinnings of the Platonic theory of Forms (which I first encountered in the momentous sci-fi novel Anathem as the Hylaean Theoric World), dualism is probably the least fruitful idea to have been inspired by it.

I'm baffled when this unproven, hypothetical, immaterial mind or soul was simply declared by religious people to be "immortal", but I really shouldn't be surprised since they frequently skip inconvenient steps in their logical reasonings anyway. Then, they make an even more stupendous leap of logic by saying since this immortal soul exists, therefore there must be a God, a Heaven and a Hell, and they are exactly as described in the Bible or the Qur'an. This is what a lot of them consider to be a sophisticated argument for God, but look at it: it's just an assumption built upon an assumption built upon an assumption built upon yet another assumption. Holy crap! Holy crap indeed.

The less "sophisticated" apologists simply use dualism as a rhetorical wedge to try and get unbelievers to admit to believing in an alleged supernatural construct, when the mind is anything but. They somehow think that God would be less hard to shove down someone's throat after they've jammed this funnel into their mouths. No doubt, some just swallowed their garbage like a bitch, but anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of basic neuroscience will not be impressed. Read my points in the picture above; for all intents and purposes, there is no mind or consciousness without the organic brain, and there is no evidence which implies that we need anything more than our organic brain to generate all of our mental functions.

Religious Experiences as Mental Phenomena.

I think that attempting to use the human mind as a proof of God and the supernatural is a rather self-defeating strategy because it is actually a rather powerful argument against the spiritual leanings of religion.

Physicians have known for decades that epilepsy (especially temporal lobe epilepsy) can induce strong religious experiences, even causing an increase in religiosity in between seizures. This suggests that psychic phenomena such a the sensation of "being touched by God" (which have actually persuaded more than a few patients to convert) are far more likely to be malfunctions in brain rather than anything genuinely ethereal. Such seizures have also been known to cause subjective experiences of feeling like one is outside of one's body or the presence of powerful unseens entities like gods and devils. What is even more damning is that such experiences can be replicated in the lab using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Furthermore, evidence have shown that some individuals are simply more susceptible to being magnetically fooled into feeling spiritual and uplifted compared to others (having more "talent for religion", so to speak) and this is reflected in society where there exists both theists and atheists, and everything in between.

In other words, it's really all in your head.

How many times have we heard believers say that they are convinced of the existence of God because of some "transformative personal experiences" they once had, even when they have no concrete proof that their religion is true? It turns out that what they felt can easily be explained scientifically. They probably had a few cerebral "hiccups", that is all.

One of the most striking evidence for the organic basis of consciousness is the sensation that we reside inside our own body. Most of us take it for granted and does not even realise that a mental process is required to maintain that illusion (yes, you heard me). By using TMS on the temporoparietal junction, scientists have managed to successfully interrupt this process, resulting in the test subjects feeling like they have been displaced outside of their own bodies. That's very, very cool science.

Even something as highly abstract as morality (traditionally a domain claimed by the religious) have its basis in the little grey cells. The brainiacs at MIT have found out that by using TMS, you can even affect a person's moral and ethical judgments. Is the goodness of heart from our eternal soul bestowed by God himself so easily hijacked with a weak magnetic field? Are magnets God's kryptonite?

I don't know about you but it seems to me that the more we learn about the human brain and its mind, the more we realise that it's really nothing more - and nothing less - than an unimaginably sophisticated computer. There are a great deal of wondrous, unexplained things within our material world, and we are learning more about them all the time. I wonder how believers ever learn anything if they think they already have all the answers in between the pages of some ancient texts written by pre-scientific yahoos?

Oh, and how unimaginative it is - how unsatisfactory! - when their answer to everything is "Goddidit."

Soulless but not mindless,
k0k s3n w4i


shanaz@RS said...

Goddidit mentality is mind-boggling and can be quite annoying. Personal experiences have told me that they can also be quite preachy in a way that folks like us just do not quite 'get'. As far as the technical aspect of the mind goes, there's a really good book that discusses it in very scientific and interesting detail called How The Mind Works, by Steve Pinker. I am currently watching the videos on God:New Evidence and I wonder what you think about all this talk of earth being ultra fine-tuned to make it habitable for us, and that "surely this is not a coincidence" type of thinking...Maybe one day you'll write about it, as it'd be interesting to know your thoughts about it.

k0k s3n w4i said...

shanaz@RS: the fine-tuned universe argument annoys me. it's like seeing a jug of water and declaring, "oh look how perfectly shaped the jug is! look how fine-tuned it is to the shape of the water! praise jesus/allah!"