Mind body dualism is the theory that mind and matter are separate substances. It’s an ancient theory discussed in various forms by philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. In 1641, Rene Descartes put forth his views, usually referred to as Cartesian dualism which laid important foundations for modern philosophy in this area.
Descartes saw the brain, or something in it, as being a type of antenna with which the non-material mind interacted. He focused on the pineal gland as possibly being that antenna, since it appeared to be the only structure which was not duplicated in both the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Today we know that the pineal gland’s function is to produce the hormone melatonin, but the idea of the brain as an antenna, through which a mind residing in a spiritual realm interacts with the physical body, remains a popular idea.
Dualism is a powerfully intuitive notion. Scientific studies have shown that children are natural dualists. Fantasy movies and TV shows often have stories where people’s minds transfer between bodies. Whether or not this is ultimately possible is usually not questioned by audiences.
Dualism’s intuitiveness leads to vigorous resistance to the idea of it not being true, either by philosophers defending that intuition, or religious believers concerned about the implications for an afterlife. However, like many intuitions about concepts outside of our familiar every day life, it can’t be trusted. And the implications of the mind being in the brain aren’t as bleak as many claim, or as others fear.
How can we say that the mind is the brain?
Men ought to know that from the brain and from the brain only arise our pleasures, joys, laughter, and jests as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears.
Consider mind altering drugs. When we drink alcohol or take other drugs, our coordination is affected, but so is our judgment, notably our social, tactical, and moral judgment. When we’re drunk, stoned, or high, our minds aren’t separately looking on, frustrated by our lack of control. Instead, our very mental processing is altered. If the mind is separate, then what are mind altering drugs altering?
Also consider brain damage. We can lose an arm, a leg, have our heart replaced with a pump, or lose our eyesight, without fundamentally changing who we are. However, if we suffer damage to the brain, depending on where and how severe that damage is, we may lose not only the ability to control parts of our body, but the ability to recall memories, to form new memories, to recognize faces, to speak or understand language, to hold our sense of self, to exercise self control and moral judgment, or any other mental faculty.
No part of the mind seems to be immune. As parts of the brain die, as tragically happens with Alzheimer’s patients, parts of the mind, of the self, also die. When the entire brain is dead, the mind is gone.
A response I sometimes hear to the above information is to bring up the Cartesian idea of the brain as an antenna. Any apparent mental impairment is simply the antenna not functioning properly. Aside from the problem that people often aren’t aware of their own mental impairments (which they presumably would be if there were a separate mind), there’s the issue of split brain patients.
At times, patients who suffer severe and devastating epileptic seizures undergo a procedure where the connecting tissue between the two hemispheres of their brain are cut. The operation often cures the seizures and leaves the patients remarkably functional.
However, scientific tests conducted on patients after the operation show that the two hemispheres of their brain no longer communicate with each other. Using the fact that each hemisphere controls a particular side of the body, scientists were able to communicate with only one brain hemisphere at a time, and demonstrate that each hemisphere didn’t know what the other hemisphere knew or was doing. In other words, these patients effectively had two minds.
The fact that the patients were still functional, and had no cognition of the separation, is remarkable. It has profound implications for consciousness, and for self awareness in particular. But the more important implication for this post is that there was no evidence of a separate non-material mind communicating between the two brain hemispheres. The hemispheres effectively coordinated, but only by watching what each other did, rather than by any internal communication.
Is there still philosophically logical space for a non-material mind? There is, but that logical space is shrinking rapidly as neuroscience progresses, and it’s fair to say dualism is on life support. Consider what the split-brain patients demonstrate. Which hemisphere of the brain does the non-material mind communicate with? Which one of the minds survives death?
Some have tried to broaden the remaining logical space by proposing that quantum effects are important for mental processing. Synapses are indeed very small, on the order of tens of nanometers, but quantum effects, except in carefully isolated lab conditions, are usually only significant at the subatomic level, at several orders of magnitude smaller than a synapse.
There is not any compelling evidence that quantum effects are any more relevant to mental processing than they are for any other physical processes, such as the operation of micro-transistors in computer chips. Even if quantum effects are significant, it would only mean that mental processes are not deterministic, not necessarily that they are dualistic.
Does this mean that we don’t have a soul?
If you define the soul as a separate ghost that is automatically freed from the body when it dies, then no, we do not have a soul.
On the other hand, the information in the brain, the information encoded in the neurons and synaptic connections, sometimes referred to as the connectome, could be considered our soul. Unlike the classic conception of the soul, this one isn’t an irreducible mysterious core. It’s distributed throughout the brain. While it can be damaged, as the brain can be damaged, it can also be studied, analyzed, and possibly someday soon, recorded.
But still, many will argue, this isn’t the soul of Christianity or of other faiths. Interestingly, in its early centuries, Christian doctrine was not that we had a soul separate from our body, but that those found worthy would someday be bodily resurrected, similar to how Jesus had reportedly been resurrected. The idea of a separate soul that survives death developed as a result of the influence of Greek philosophy and other cultures. Conceptions of the afterlife, including Christian conceptions, have changed over the centuries.
If I were a believer, the mind being the brain wouldn’t, by itself, stop me from believing. If you already believe in an afterlife, then there’s no particular reason why a connectome, a soul, couldn’t be restored in some heavenly version of a virtual environment, or a reconstructed brain.
But if the connectome’s existence eventually allows us to technologically restore it, again either into a virtual computer environment or into a new brain, then understanding it might eventually deliver effective immortality in this world, instead of having to count on it in the next.
- So What’s the Science???? (maximarni.wordpress.com)
- The Creative Fear and Coming Down (milkinspace.wordpress.com)
- Sleep Strengthens Connections Between Brain Hemispheres (counselheal.com)
- Mind/Body Problem (nataliebitter.wordpress.com)
- There’s An Organ In Your Brain Which Seats Your Soul: Meet Your Pineal Gland (illuminations2012.wordpress.com)
- Mysteries of the Pineal Gland (loveresponds.wordpress.com)
- Habits of the Mind (villasophiasalon.wordpress.com)
- 7 Reasons Why It’s Easier for Humans to Believe in God Than Evolution (motherjones.com)
- How does your view of dualism influence you and your future professional behavior? (hlholden1.wordpress.com)