Material(ist) Girl: A Philosopher Argues Against the Soul

In his playful review here on RD, Andrew Aghapour writes that Patricia Churchland’s latest book essentially asks two questions, each of which poses a challenge to nearly all of the world’s belief systems: “Could the new sciences of the brain be so powerful that we needn’t go looking elsewhere for insights into the human condition? Does the brain encompass an individual in totality, leaving no room for a transcendent soul?” 

Noting that the human brain couldn’t ask for a better spokesperson, Aghapour notes that, while he is generally wary of grandiose claims about the explanatory power of neuroscience, Churchland “eschews the over-hyped and simplistic reductions of popular media—“neurojunk,” as she calls it—in favor of nuanced and self-consciously incomplete explanations.” 

Below, RD contributor and blogger Candace Chellew-Hodge discusses some of the points where Churchland’s work directly intersects with religious perspectives and claims. –eds

You begin your book, right off the bat, dispensing with the idea that human beings have a soulsome ethereal spirit that inhabits each of us.

It doesn’t seem to be. It’s hard to see how it could be given the dependency of personality, mood, memory and seeing and perception on the physical brain. Once that’s gone, what’s left? There really isn’t anything left. Except one can still have a sense of continuity with the wider universe while recognizing that the continuity is very biological in its underpinnings.

You mean like “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”? 

Yes. I think some of the old boys had it right. Were there to be a resurrection it would have to be a resurrection of the body; but then, of course, it wouldn’t be quite the same body. It would have to a body that was glorified, and they’re not quite clear what they mean about that, but it was obviously a better body than the one you died in.

Then, that came unstuck because people began to realize that really wasn’t plausible. So, then they went to this more abstract idea that originated with Plato that it’s not a physical thing at all, it’s otherworldly. They couldn’t put a positive spin on what it is, they could only say what it isn’t, and that was a problem. 

Then what about religions that believe in reincarnation, where the soul survives bodily death and is reborn in another body? 

What would it be, this thing? If the brain is the repository of memories and skills and thoughts and perceptions, what would this thing be that goes off somewhere else and gets born in a squirrel or something? I actually had a conversation about this with the Dalai Lama many years ago and he was very interested in the brain. He asked a group of us to come and talk to him about it and teach him about it. 

He and I got into this long conversation about reincarnation and I presented him with my reservations about such a thing. Something is left, namely the body, and as that disintegrates small creatures make use of the bits and pieces and in that sense it’s reincarnated, but there isn’t anything else, some nonphysical thing that has feelings and thoughts and memories and personality that goes into the little critters or into a person. What gets transferred from parent to child is information in the DNA, but that’s not quite what he had in mind either. 

I think he was actually moved by this discussion. Of course, he didn’t immediately change his mind and say, “Oh, yeah, you’ve got to be right.” Which is fine—it takes time to get used to these things. But, I think it did motivate him to be very worried that there perhaps was not this nonphysical thing that had all the properties of personality and mood and temperament and learning that got transferred.

Interesting, given that Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama himself is a reincarnated soul.

That was what made the discussion particularly awkward. I told him, “I don’t think you could possibly be reincarnated. They may have identified something about you that was wonderful when you were a baby, but it can’t possibly be that something that was once in the Buddha got put into you. What would that thing be?” 

It was a very frank conversation. The great thing about him was he didn’t want to stop this conversation. He wanted to know and he just pressed for more and for more. I was blown away by that. 

New age books and even the Buddhists talk about how we are not our minds, that instead there is an “eternal Self” or “observer” that is really us. Aren’t your findings at odds with that? 

I think different circuitry is involved in the brain when the mind is thinking about something and when there is a kind of observation of those thoughts. I think it’s just different parts of the brain doing different things. There’s not a separate self in the sense that it’s a non-physical brain beyond the brain. The part of the brain that controls an eye blink reflex is very different than the circuitry that is thinking about that reflex. At one and the same time those two things can happen, so you can have a reflex of blink and be mentally observing that blink, so that’s just two different circuits in the brain doing what they normally do. 

So in the act of meditation, when you’re observing your thoughts as the Buddhists teach, then it’s just two different areas of the brain at work? 

Yes, I think so. I meditate as part of yoga practice and I take the meditative part seriously because it’s very conducive to health. Of course, I’ve wondered a lot because you do have these pleasant, light, detached experiences, like stillness and quietness, but I think that what we’re learning is that in those states of meditation there are certain areas of the brain that are really quite active and other areas of the brain where the activity actually decreases. So, there’s a tradeoff. 

When I’m really paying attention to something, like making bread, when I’m kneading the bread and there are certain parts of the cortex that are very active, while other structures along the center… like, if you point to the top of your head, those structures along the midline are probably not so active. But, then when I begin to meditate, it goes the other way, my bread-making circuitry becomes less active and the circuitry of this midline area becomes more active. The data are already showing something like that seems to be true. I think it’s all the brain, but we shouldn’t expect the brain to not have many different capacities and components, because it surely does. 

You practice yoga? For many that’s a spiritual or religious practice. What does it mean for you?

I’m getting on in years and I thought I would really like to have a some more exercise and I didn’t like aerobics, so I went to a yoga class. It was very strenuous and very demanding and then we went into shavasana, the relaxation at the end, and I came out of that thinking, “Holy mackerel, I’m high!” It was just the most wonderful feeling. I really started doing a lot of yoga and the meditative part I didn’t really get into until quite some time and when I did, I realized how beautiful it is and how it can affect the rest of your day.

I’m 70, but I still do it because it gives me flexibility and strength, but also because of the mental aspects. I now know how to relax my mind and stop that “crazy monkey” when you’re obsessing about something. For me, it is an important part of my life now. There’s nothing spooky about it, it’s just a lovely thing to do for myself. It’s for my brain and my body. I can do things now I didn’t think I could do. I stand on my head and I really enjoy that. I come down from a long headstand and I really feel good. 

So, if we don’t have a soul, do you find any value at all in religions? 

Yes. I think there’s much to be said about lifestyle and how to get on and have a meaningful and good life. I think there is much wisdom in Buddhism and in Christianity also. I think the non-extreme Christians who are very concerned about community and care and gentleness and love, there is much to be said for that. 

There are people in Islam and Jewish sects who are also like that. Where things go off the rail is where they get extreme and tell me what I have to believe, that I can’t dress a certain way, obey my husband or I can’t have an abortion. Then I want to say, “Bugger off! You do your own thing but leave me alone!” 

Have you discovered that extremism is related to the brain? 

It almost certainly is. Extremism obviously involves the brain’s pleasure centers in some way because people love it. They feel so good when they tell that woman she can’t have an abortion or when they throw that witch on the bonfire. But, I would have to say that we don’t quite understand the origins and the nature of that extremism. We see it in politics, religion and sometimes those two go together and sometimes they don’t. All you have to do is think about those Communists in Russia and in China who did such unbelievably terrible things for years. How can that be except that they somehow fervently believed something that was preposterous?

I think there are sociopaths, but I think there are also people who overcome their sense of compassion and scruples because they have this profound conviction that they are right and everybody else is wrong. I think extremism can come in many forms. We see extremists in the environmental movement. We see extremists about food and nutrition. I think sometimes, this is wild speculation, but I think it’s all related. It almost doesn’t matter what the ideology is, but people with a certain temperament fall into some ideology and then they’re willing to do terrible things. That scares the pants off of me. 

If we don’t have a soul then, what is it that animates us and makes us unique?

Your brain is unique, your genes are different. You have different interests. You have a different background and different motivations. You’re unique in all kinds of ways but certainly your genome is absolutely unique. Because of the nature of your unique experience in life, nobody has experienced precisely the trajectory through life that you have. That makes your brain absolutely unique. 

What is the key to consciousness, though, that makes me know I’m me and not you? 

We know, even in very simple animals, their nervous system has a way of distinguishing themselves from others. The basic distinction can be quite primitive, but it’s essential. In the book, I talk about this in relation to movement. It’s essential for an animal to know whether it made a movement or if the movement is outside them. All reptiles have that capacity and certainly all mammals do.

Built on that capacity is much more, so by the time you get to humans, we also have this very elaborate autobiographical memory and an elaborate way of thinking about ourselves that draws on cultural institutions. So, we say “I’m a Libertarian,” or “I think we should save the whales,” or whatever. In the case of modern humans, they have a very elaborate sense of where they are in the great scheme of humanity, where they are in history, how humans evolved and where they are in the economy and where they might be going. 

Some people argue that we can’t have morality, or know right from wrong, without religion. What role does the brain play in morality? 

First of all, we have to keep in mind that organized religion didn’t come into existence until about 10,000 years ago, but humans have been around for a quarter of a million years and so for most of our history, they had cooperation and caring and sympathy and compassion and they had rules that worked very well within the community. They had rules about competition and aggression and sharing.

It comes out of this basic need that many mammals have, but especially the social mammals like humans and chimpanzees and baboons that need to belong to a group, to conform to the rules of the group and maybe sometimes to change the rules of the group if the individual is very reflective and smart. It comes out of this basic need for sociality and that need is rooted in the big changes in the mammalian brain that enabled parents to care for offspring.

When you think about frogs and lizards, the mom lays her eggs and off she goes. In the case of mammals, they’re warm-blooded and need a lot of food, and in a certain sense they need to be smart. So, in the course of evolution, the young are born very immature and the mother’s circuitry treats the offspring as though they are part of herself. So, just as she would take care of her own food and warmth and safety, she would take care of their food and warmth and safety. Also she would feel attached so she would feel pain when they were separated and good when they were together and that feeling of goodness when we are together also underwrites that sense of community that we see in mammals. We like to be together. That’s all part of the mammalian brain. 

Once you have highly cultured humans, then they have institutions that are very complex like religion, like a criminal justice system or police force. 

One of the biggest fears that I find among my co-religionists is annihilation. A belief in a soul that lives on after death either through reincarnation or in an ethereal heaven somewhere gives people comfort. If you’re right and all we are is a brain and when it’s gone so are we, how can religion offer any hope?

In one respect it’s liberating, because you can say to yourself, “Well, then I need to do, here and now, what needs to be done and that I shouldn’t defer justice to some future world. I have to do now what needs to be done.” My mother told me a long time ago, “Well, you make your heaven or your hell here on earth, so don’t worry too much about the other stuff.” 

People are taught to be afraid, like the man who tried to teach us, when I was a child that we were so wicked that unless we accepted Jesus as our personal savior we were going to burn in hell for eternity. Well, that’s a very scary thing to tell a little girl.

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