Note from Managing Director: Every so often, we welcome a guest post! Drew Jacob is a philosopher, adventurer and polytheist priest. Travel is his spiritual practice, adventure is his religion. He believes we can live for our ideals, chase our bliss, seek out challenge and make change in the world. He’s walking/bicycling 8,000 miles to try it out. You can join the adventure at Rogue Priest. Travel companions welcome.
This year I gave up belief in the soul.
As a priest, this wasn’t a quick decision. As a philosopher it was time. Faith alone doesn’t cut it for me: my religious views have to proceed from some rational basis. Sometimes that means revising my beliefs in response to new information.
I listened with interest as scientist friends explained advances in our understanding of consciousness. The brain, once a mystery even to doctors and surgeons, has increasingly yielded up its secrets to the current generation of neurologists. We can now explain the chemistry behind almost all of humanity’s private mental experiences. Profound phenomena like dreams, déjà vu, happiness and love can be explained without reference to anything spiritual.
The one thing that neuroscience has not explained is consciousness itself. Sure, the brain directs the body to respond to stimuli, but why would that make us self-aware? Why is there a “me” inside the machine feeling every second of it?
Even as a science enthusiast this is where I always balked. Electrons aren’t conscious, so the big orchestra of them in my brain shouldn’t be either. Neurons alone don’t explain subjective self-awareness.
So I was down with the soul.
I went to lengths to reconcile the soul with what we know about the brain. I viewed the brain as the soul’s transceiver; a lot of religious people hold this view. The brain handles our memories, emotions, cravings, stress, anxiety, fear, and pleasures—sure. But can’t the soul be the rider in the robot? Consciousness became the one topic where, privately, I indulged the immaterial. Even the supernatural.
But I was wrong.
Let me take a moment to talk about bad religious arguments. I’ll pick an easy target, Creationism. There are some good arguments for the idea that we have a creator. But many Christian ideologues instead rally around a sort of intellectual shrug: the universe is so complex, how could it not be Created?
When something is hard to explain, if the only answer you can come up with is God then you’re really just not trying hard enough.
Which brings me to my own failure. There is a scientific explanation for how consciousness happens. Unlike evolution, it’s far from well demonstrated: it is very theoretical. It states, essentially, that even though electrons and neurons themselves are not conscious, consciousness emerges from their arrangement into complex systems. Consciousness is an aggregate effect of lots and lots of tiny unconscious parts.
This is not a satisfying explanation. It’s hard to picture. While it’s easy to believe that tiny atoms are the basis of all material things—little building blocks add up to bigger building blocks—it’s harder to believe that little building blocks add up to ghosts.
So I always cast aspersions on this explanation. I used all the usual religious rhetoric: that’s just a theory, it’s not proven any more than the soul is. How could consciousness come from atoms? How could it not be some force unto itself?
Well, when something is hard to explain, if the only answer I can come up with is spirits then I’m just not trying hard enough.
So let’s try harder.
Logic tells us that when choosing between several possible explanations, the simplest one is most likely to be correct. The soul is neither the simplest nor the best explanation for consciousness. We know exactly three things about the soul, objectively speaking:
- There is absolutely no evidence it exists;
- All of the functions once ascribed to it, other than consciousness itself, are now known to be caused by the physical brain;
- We can make alternate, convincing theories of consciousness without ever referring to it.
On the other hand we have the neurological theory of consciousness, the idea that consciousness emerges from neuronal activity. This theory is simpler, tighter. It refers only to hardware we know exists. Generally, it’s not wise to invent something unobserved and unevidenced if an explanation doesn’t demand it, and explaining the mind does not demand a soul.
It’s hard to imagine an experimental protocol that definitively proves consciousness arises from soulless neurons, but the leading edge of our most important medical field is building toward an answer to that question. If we can completely explain consciousness without any reference to the immaterial, then there’s no reason to postulate a spirit.
We may live in the age that disproves the soul.
I don’t expect this reasoning to be convincing to devout believers. We have an investment in our beliefs. They don’t die easy. But if the research keeps going the way it is, a no-soul-needed theory of mind will become established fact. Belief in the soul will become as antiquated as the belief that Earth is the center of the universe.
Far more interesting than the loss of the soul, to me, is what comes next. Religion is possible without a doctrine of souls, even without a belief in an afterlife. But what will it look like? Which faiths will be quick to adapt, and will they gain ground or lose it?
(Photo of Drew Jacob. Used with permission.)