Illusions of Unified Selves & Souls

Over at Seed, the clinical physician David Weisman weighs in on the centuries old debate regarding the existence of souls and suggests that the widely held notion of a soul is inextricably linked to an erroneous sense of unified mind.  This debate was famously framed by Descartes, who proclaimed — as a first principle and truth from which all others could be deduced: “I think therefore I am.”  In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche interrogated the Cartesian cogito by observing that it already assumes many facts not properly in evidence:

When I analyze the process that is expressed in the sentence “I think,” I find a whole series of of daring assertions that would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to prove; for example, that it is I who thinks, that there must necessarily be something that thinks, that thinking is an activity and operation on the the part of a being who is thought of as a cause, that there is an “ego,” and finally, that it is already determined what is to be designated by thinking — that I know what thinking is.

Nietzsche’s impertinent questions arose from his intuition that the mind, through operations unknown in the late 1800s, creates the illusion of a unified self.  Peering deeply into his own mind, Nietzsche correctly sensed that it was far from unified and the comfortable feeling of subjective solidity was fragile and easily shattered.  Those who looked too deeply into the mind abyss would soon find the abyss looking back at them, with devastating results.

Although Weisman’s argument in “Divided Minds, Specious Souls” is not new to neuroscientists, psychologists, or philosophers, I think most people would be surprised to learn how divided and fragile is our sense of unified self and experience.  The brain, in short, is comprised of many parts — not all of which work together in unison, and when certain parts are damaged (by stroke, trauma, or disease), the apparent unity is shattered:

There is a common idea: because the mind seems unified, it really is. Many go only a bit further and call that unified mind a “soul.” This step, from self to soul, is an ancient assumption which now forms a bedrock in many religions: a basis for life after death, for religious morality, and a little god within us, a support for a bigger God outside us.

For the believers in the soul, let’s call them soulists, the soul assumption appears to be only the smallest of steps from the existence of a unified mind. Yet the soul is a claim for which there isn’t any evidence. Today, there isn’t even evidence for that place soulists step off from, the unified mind. Neurology and neuroscience, working unseen over the past century, have eroded these ideas, the soul and the unified mind, down to nothing. Experiences certainly do feel unified, but to accept these feelings as reality is a mistake. Often, the way things feel has nothing to do with how they are.

Over the last few decades, most cognitive scientists and psychologists attuned to human evolution have accepted the idea that the brain is functionally divided and mind is modular.  One of the better statements of this position can be found in Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works.   While accepting that the brain-mind is divided and much cognition resides in subconsiousness, Merlin Donald elegantly explains — in A Mind So Rare — how a unified sense of self arises in the awake and usually stable mental platform we call “consciousness.”

There can be little doubt that modularity and consciousness is key to comprehending a mind which naturally generates supernatural concepts, including beliefs in souls or what is known as “commonsense dualism.”

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