Warning of ghosts in the machine

Today’s issue of Science has a letter from neuroscientist Martha Farah and theologian Nancey Murphy warning against ‘non-materialist neuroscience’ becoming the new front-line in the religion wars.

Most religions endorse the idea of a soul (or spirit) that is distinct from the physical body. Yet as neuroscience advances, it increasingly seems that all aspects of a person can be explained by the functioning of a material system. This first became clear in the realms of motor control and perception. Yet, models of perceptual and motor capacities such as color vision and gait do not directly threaten the idea of the soul. You can still believe in what Gilbert Ryle called “the ghost in the machine” and simply conclude that color vision and gait are features of the machine rather than the ghost.

However, as neuroscience begins to reveal the mechanisms underlying personality, love, morality, and spirituality, the idea of a ghost in the machine becomes strained. Brain imaging indicates that all of these traits have physical correlates in brain function. Furthermore, pharmacologic influences on these traits, as well as the effects of localized stimulation or damage, demonstrate that the brain processes in question are not mere correlates but are the physical bases of these central aspects of our personhood. If these aspects of the person are all features of the machine, why have a ghost at all?

By raising questions like this, it seems likely that neuroscience will pose a far more fundamental challenge than evolutionary biology to many religions. Predictably, then, some theologians and even neuroscientists are resisting the implications of modern cognitive and affective neuroscience. “Nonmaterialist neuroscience” has joined “intelligent design” as an alternative interpretation of scientific data. This work is counterproductive, however, in that it ignores what most scholars of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures now understand about biblical views of human nature. These views were physicalist, and body-soul dualism entered Christian thought around a century after Jesus’ day.

As I’ve noted before, I remain sceptical that this will pose much of a threat, largely due to the fact that non-materialist neuroscience is not particularly new – many famous neuroscientists (including the Nobel prize-winning John Eccles) have been explicitly non-materialist with few contemporary ripples.

Unlike evolution, which bluntly contradicts what many religious texts claim, very few holy books describe any concepts of the soul that can be directly contradicted by neuroscience.

However, there is certainly some interest in the neuroscience bashing among Christian fundamentalists, who recently held their first conference on the issue. We shall have to see how successfully they manage to enthuse their flock.

Link to letter ‘Neuroscience and the Soul’.
Link to DOI entry for same.

5 Comments

  1. ScottKnick
    Posted February 27, 2009 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Huh? Most forms of Christianity hold that humans have an immortal soul that survives the death of the body — not simply a body that awaits resurrection. How would it be possible to square that with materialist neurology? There are several passages in the New Testament that explicitly suggest a non-material, immortal soul (e.g. “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.”) You can argue these are 2nd century interpolations but that’s going to piss off literalist Christians in the same way evolution does.

  2. Posted February 27, 2009 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see it as a contradiction to spiritual beliefs or experiences. Everything happens in the brain. Vision happens in the brain, too. That doesn’t mean that the things you see don’t exist. Just because the experience of spirituality can be neurally located doesn’t mean than nothing is being experienced.

  3. George
    Posted February 27, 2009 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    “These views were physicalist, and body-soul dualism entered Christian thought around a century after Jesus’ day.”
    - False
    The term “gave up the ghost” appears frequently in both the new and old testament writings that I have read. Both Farah and Murphy seem to be using the term ‘ghost’ to mean the same thing as the ancient writers meant, the spiritual life that animates the physical being. In addition, the fact that an MRI can detect “hot spots” in the brain is correlation information only, and in no way describes the root cause of perception. That is, the neural hot spots can neither confirm nor deny the ‘ghost’ that perceives.
    All religious vs. science debates are based on false premise – always. Religion describes beliefs that can not be verified, where as science is the result of objective verification, and is not affected by belief.

  4. Posted February 28, 2009 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    I agree with ScottKnick above, that, revisionist or not, most Christians (and those of many other religions) believe in the existence of a non material soul that continues to exist after the death of the body. This concept has lingered in our philosophy as a ghost in the machine, as a dualist perspective, promoted by Descartes idea of “I think therefore I am.”
    George above is also correct in saying that Imaging type studies only show associations between brain activity and conscious states, but there is another area which shows definite double dissociations between brain areas and behavior (as well as self reported conscious states) and that is the neuropsychology of brain injured patients. Brain injury provides pretty strong proof that particular brain areas are vital in order for specific conscious states to exist (e.g. use of language).
    I have worked with a patient with a condition called Akinetic Mutism, possibly due to damage to his Anterior Cingulate Cortex. This poor chap is incredibly passive, barely moving, and almost never speaking. It is as though he no longer wishes to do anything. Its one thing to read about these conditions, but to look into the eyes of a man who stares blankly into space, with no desire to do anything with his time in this world, really makes you wonder if a small part of his “soul” is no longer with him.
    I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but for me personally, my experience of working with this man has convinced me that consciousness is entirely physically embodied. I can’t see how part of the mans “soul” could be present and the other part gone.
    This also enabled me to understand an aspect of Buddhist philosophy called Anatta, or “no-self”, which is the idea that the self has no intrinsic existence seperate from the conditions that support it. These would be our genes, the environment and the lives we have led.
    With this philosophical concept, evolution, psychology and sociology, I can’t see any role for the concept of a soul at all, but I don’t think this makes life any less meaningful.

  5. Scott
    Posted March 1, 2009 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    In response to Lilian:
    The relevant dissimilarity between the two states you describe is that there are other ways to determine whether the thing you’re seeing is really there. As far as I know, there’s no objective means to verify (or falsify) a “spiritual experience” as that term is commonly used. That’s why concepts like faith and mystery are invoked.
    I understand why some people want to downplay the religious implications of certain scientific theories, but I find most of their arguments to be efforts to avoid discussion altogether, or attempts to reinterpret people’s religious traditions for them, as Farah and Murphy did in their letter.
    Arguments of this sort haven’t worked with evolution (see, e.g.: Steven Jay Gould’s “Non-Overlapping Magisteria). They won’t work with neuroscience, either.


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