It seems plausible to many people that we are more than physical bodies: we are also non-physical minds or souls. Our souls are currently embodied and yet have things bodies can’t have such as free will, reason, a conscience, intentional or purposeful mental states, privacy, and unity over time. For many, this soul can function independently of matter at times (for example when it engages in rational thought and thinks universals) and might even survive the death of the body. This view of the soul and its relation to the body is called dualism (for my preferred defense of dualism go here).
However, psychologist Stephen Pinker, in his book The Blank Slate (Penguin, 2002), writes:
“When a surgeon sends an electrical current into the brain, the person can have a vivid, lifelike experience. When chemicals seep into the brain, they can alter the person’s perception, mood, personality, and reasoning. When a patch of brain tissue dies, a part of the mind can disappear: a neurological patient may lose the ability to name tools, recognize faces, anticipate the outcome of his behavior, empathize with others, or keep in mind a region of space or of his own body” (41).
Don’t these observations show that we don’t have a soul? Don’t they show our mental states are nothing but physical states of the brain? Well, one who has reasons for the soul’s existence might agree, on the one hand, that the soul’s functioning is closely bound up with the brain’s functioning and, on the other hand, argue that the soul is not just brain functioning. Should the brain change in certain ways then the soul will change in certain ways and vice versa. Indeed, such correlations should be expected if the mind and body are so closely integrated. Moreover, the defender of the soul can point out that correlations which favor a completely materialistic view of the mind may not always be available. In her book Am I just my brain? (Good Book, 2019) Sharon Dirckx reports that the groundbreaking neurosurgeon Wilder Penfeld (1891-1976) found that, while he could stimulate areas of the brain that gave rise to emotions and involuntary movements, he could never stimulate “abstract reasoning. Never a sense of what it is like to be you. Never consciousness itself. It seems as though the field of neuroscience has not moved from substance dualism. A number of clinicians believe a non-physical mind makes the best sense of their observations” (69). And she notes that Michael Egnor, Professor of Neurosurgery at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in NY, “makes the point that many of his patients are missing large parts of their brains, yet have “quite good minds.” A person can remain intact despite significant damage to the brain” (68). Egnor concludes that “materialism, the view that matter is all that exists, is the premise of much contemporary thinking about what a human being is. Yet, evidence from the laboratory, operating room, and clinal experience points to a less fashionable conclusion: Human beings straddle the material and immaterial realms” (69).
We can try and clarify this “straddling” with the help of American philosopher and founder of modern day psychology William James (1842-1910). In his book Human Immortality (1897), James writes: “My thesis now is this: that, when we think of the law that thought is a function of the brain, we are not required to think of productive function only; we are entitled also to consider permissive function or transmissive function. And this the ordinary psycho-physiologist leaves out of his account”. This is interesting. We usually think the brain produces thought. But perhaps the brain can also engage in transmissions. He continues: “Admit now that our brains are such thin and half-transparent places in the veil. What will happen? Why, as the white radiance comes through the dome, with all sorts of staining and distortion imprinted on it by the glass, or as the air now comes through my glottis determined and limited in its force and quality of its vibrations by the peculiarities of those vocal chords which form its gate of egress and shape it into my personal voice, even so the genuine matter of reality, the life of souls as it is in its fullness, will break through our several brains into this world in all sorts of restricted forms, and with all the imperfections and queernesses that characterize our finite individualities here below.”
This account paints the picture of our brain as a transmission device through which soul can act and through which “the genuine matter of reality” can break through in an imperfect manner. It would be a matter of a brain-threshold opening. Our brains, to be sure, would be involved in the transmissions; but the brain would not be originating the transmissions. This opens up the possibility that when the brain is damaged the instrument of transmission is harmed not the soul that is transmitting. James’ general approach has been championed by contemporary biologist Rupert Sheldrake. In his Science Set Free (Deepak Chopra Books, 2012) he argues that, since memory traces have not been located in the brain, it is more plausible to think that the brain tunes into its memories. He claims “The brain may be more like a television set than a hard-drive recorder. What you see on TV depends on the resonant tuning of the set to invisible fields. No one can find out today what programs you watched yesterday by analyzing the wires and traitors in your TV set for traces of yesterday’s programs” (194). This opens up the possibility that brain damage “does not prove that memories are stored in the damaged tissue. If I snipped a wire or removed some components from the sound circuits of your TV set, I could render it speechless, or aphasic. But this would not mean that all the sounds were stored in the damaged components” (194).
One problem for this account is that many people who have had their so-called receivers damaged for a certain amount of time (people in comas from which they awake for example) do not report that they were still conscious and yet unable to communicate. As an epileptic, I had many complex partial seizures during which my brain was not properly functioning. And I can report that I had no experience of being conscious yet trapped without a receiver. I was conscious, then had a seizure and blacked out, and then regained awareness. Such testimony doesn’t seem to support the damaged receiver response to brain damage or brain malfunctioning.
However, it might be the case that the soul, due to its close relation with the body, simply cannot actualize all its powers when the body is in such a compromised state. Should the body recover its normal range of powers then the soul will be in a position to actualize its normal powers as well. We might also consider the possibility that there wouldn’t even be a functioning body without soul in the first place. Perhaps the soul, as J.P. Moreland puts it in his book The Soul (Moody, 2014), “is a substantial, unified reality that informs (gives form to) its body” (137). John Dewey, in his fascinating essay “Soul and Body” (read it here), takes this view and argues that the materialist proofs against soul based on improper brain function presuppose the existence of the soul’s informing power:
“All the phenomena which the materialist parades forth as “proofs” — the unconscious cerebration, the automatic, yet apparently intelligent, action in many states of unconsciousness; the dependence of perception and memory upon the proper condition, integrity of the brain; the accompaniment of brain disease with unconsciousness and insanity; the ratio between mental power and weight and complexity of brain, etc., are the farthest removed from evidence materialism. They are but the conclusive evidence the thoroughness with which the soul has done its work has formed its mechanism. They are all evidence of that the soul is not hanging helpless in the air, but has made the body its home, and has realized itself so effectually in this body as its mechanism, that this mechanism can now act all but automatically, while disturbance of the mechanism of the organ excludes the execution of the corresponding activity, until the soul by its power form the organ again. The materialist but looks at the body after the soul has done its work in making the body what it is, and cries, “Lo, see what the body can do.” Every one of the phenomena mentioned, as well as all which the materialist can mention, concern the formed body, the body in which the soul has already organized its functions. The true cry is, “Lo, see what the soul has done. It has tabernacled in the flesh and transformed that flesh into its own manifestation. The body is the bodying forth of the soul.””
So the fact that there is a compromised yet living body present in the first place can be evidence that the soul has done its work and is still present. Indeed, as Dewey points out, the “simplest nerve action is not so simple as to exclude the adaptive, purposive factor. It is also an adjustment. It is never a mere mechanical result of a stimulus, but always involves selection, inhibition, and response.” Here we might think about how modern materialistic explanations in physics, chemistry, and biology are typically non-teleological or dispense with purpose. In doing so, they may render the omnipresent selections to which Dewey refers incomprehensible. But if we have a teleological soul then it may direct, not necessarily consciously of course, the body’s activities at various levels. Seen this way, the whole notion of pointing to improper function to show the soul doesn’t exist fails since it presupposes proper function that comes from the soul.
Finally, it might be the case that our souls, when completely liberated from the bodies upon which they are currently dependent, will be free to function in ways both familiar and different. This is not as speculative as it sounds. In his book Erasing Death (Harper One, 2013), Sam Parnia, M.D. has assembled scientific evidence of the afterlife based on the testimony of people whose consciousness persisted even after they died, that is, after “All bodily functioning, and in particular brain functioning, ceases within seconds of the heart stopping. There is thus no heartbeat, no respirations, and the pupils of the eye become fixed and dilated (due to lack of blood flow to the brain)” (217). He admits that his research cannot tell us whether or not the soul is immortal. But he thinks the evidence shows
“that at least for the first few hours after death, which is the time where we can study things today and also bring a person back to life, the mind, consciousness, psyche, or soul – whatever term we wish to use for the “self” – continues to exist. In the cases where we manage to reverse the process of death and resuscitate the person “back to life,” even many hours after death, the person’s consciousness, self, or soul will also come back. So by definition there has to be some sort of “afterlife,” even if only for a few hours after death.”
Parnia is not talking about near-death experience (for many accounts of NDE see John Burke’s Imagine Heaven) but actual-death experience or ADE (140). People who have come back to life as we know it have reported transformative encounters that have changed their lives for the better. For example, Parnia tells us about Joe Tiralosi’s ADE in which he “encountered a luminous, loving, compassionate being that gave him a loving feeling and warmth” (8). As a result of this experience “he said he was no longer afraid of death” (9). Parnia tells us that “people who undergo an experience like Tiralosi’s truly seem to be in a new world – one in which death, for them, is nothing to be afraid of…Like others who have reported experiencing such an event, he came out of this feeling less materialistic and more altruistic” (9).
Parnia’s work helps empirically establish the difference between soul and body that is so crucial to this issue. But it can also, in turn, be strengthened by arguments which (1) show that memories are not located in the brain (again, see Sheldrake’s work and go here for Plotinus’ argument that certain memories are immaterial); (2) show that reasoning is immaterial (I try to demonstrate this here); and (3) show that God exists (here). With such supporting arguments in place we can hope to sketch a vision, however mysterious, that the soul may indeed retain certain capacities and memories to make its existence personal enough. Certainly if God exists we might have reason to believe the soul will, when finally freed from the body or rejoined with its resurrected body, have a new life of unimaginable joy.
In any case, if the foregoing is at all convincing then perhaps we should see the brain as having, on the hand, a set of productive functions and, on the other hand, the ability to transmit activities of a soul that can in principle exist independently of it. Of course, many questions can be raised about these controversial claims: how does the transmission take place? Is ‘how’ even the right word here if souls aren’t physical? Can it even take place if the soul is immaterial and the body material? Why don’t transmissions always take place as planned? What are the limits and possibilities of transmission? If the soul can exist without the brain why is it currently so closely related to it? So clearly the effects of brain functions on mental states presents dualists with plenty of formidable questions to answer.