The death of the soul has been greatly exaggerated

CC Licensed Image from Wikipedia. Click for source.I’ve got a piece in today’s Observer looking back on 20 years since novelist Tom Wolfe wrote a landmark article that threw open the doors on how the new science of cognitive neuroscience was challenging the notion of the self.

Exactly 20 years ago, Tom Wolfe wrote one of the most influential articles in neuroscience. Titled Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died, the 1996 article explores how ideas from brain science were beginning to transform our understanding of human nature and extend the horizons of our scientific imagination. It was published in a mainstream magazine, written by an outsider, and seemed to throw open the doors to an exhilarating revolution in science and self-understanding. Looking at the state of neuroscience and society two decades later, Wolfe turned out to be an insightful but uneven prophet to the brain’s future.

Wolfe’s article has been cited widely by both neuroscientists and the popular press.

It’s not entirely clear whether it shaped our popular understanding of brain science or whether it just predicted a future trend but it’s notable that before 1996 most press articles on fMRI were focused on technical details but subsequently they tended to be much more about ‘the brain reason for’ some aspect of human thought or behaviour.

Either way, it was clearly an important moment for neuroscience and my piece in The Observer looks back on Wolfe’s take on our changing view of human nature with the benefit of 20 years of brain science behind us.

And just to say, I occasionally have a bit of a grumble about the headlines written for my articles but hats off to however came up with “Neuroscience and the premature death of the soul” for this piece.

Link to ‘Neuroscience and the premature death of the soul’ in The Observer
Link to Tom Wolfe’s epic ‘Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died’.

9 thoughts on “The death of the soul has been greatly exaggerated”

  1. Interesting article Vaughan. I’m really glad that knowledgeable scientists like yourself are writing for the Guardian.

    Wolfe’s arguments come down to two different things, that neuroscience will both prove certain brain areas are responsible for things (violence, political orientation, infidelity etc…) and disprove the notion of a soul or self.

    As you rightly point out, the first of these arguments has been thoroughly debunked. It seems that human behaviour is in fact an extremely complex interaction between our personality, past experiences and the current social environment, all of which have shaped, or are shaping, the structure and activity of our brain, along with our genes, the expression of which are also affected by environmental interaction. In the light of this, the lack of a “violence centre” or “cake module” in the brain is hardly surprising.

    However, by the same argument, any concept of a “self” or “soul” within the brain is also lacking. This isn’t the same as disproving the concept (as absence of evidence is not evidence of absence). However, we do know that people can “lose” parts of their “selves” after brain injury. Loss of agency (alien hand syndrome, utilisation behaviour), empathy and/or self control (orbitofrontal and/or amygdala injury, as per Phineas Gage) or the progressive loss of memories faced by people with dementia could all be argued to be a sudden or progressive loss of self.

    Its not the same as the fancy fMRI neuroscience studies, but arguably, people with brain injuries or dementia, and their relatives, come face to face with the fact that our “selves” are in fact constructed from both our social world, and our physical brain. Even for those people who believe in a heavenly afterlife might struggle to believe they will be reunited with a relative who has lost so much of their self due to these kinds of conditions.

    1. Hi Tom,

      Maybe I am not fully understanding your point, and I would never use the words “neuroscience will (…) prove certain brain areas are responsible for things” myself, but if you accept the tenets of eliminative materialism, as one might be inclined to do, you will presumably also accept the fact that, at some point, at least theoretically, all “things” that we do/are should be explainable in terms of neuronal structures and how they work. That does not mean that there is a “cake module” or, as I remember from philosophy of mind, a “granny neuron”, but that, for example, violence as a concept and word could be one day replaced by more sophisticated knowledge of how our central nervous system, in interaction with many factors, works and becomes associated with then certain behaviours and so on.

      A different issue is also the word “responsibility”, since that brings us somehow into the realm of free will. Of course, free will being a philosophical concept, it is arguably outside the realm of science, but a lot of the appeal neuroscience has had in terms of media and popular press, at least this is my perception, has to do with the fact that it seems to “prove” determininsm. The idea that we have no free will and that all we do is predetermined by our brain, unsurprisingly, yields a strong reaction in people. However, of course, that is not what neuroscience tells us, it is not even something that neuroscience *can* tell us.

      1. Hi Bruno,

        I take your point about eliminative materialism, except that instead of:

        “all “things” that we do/are should be explainable in terms of neuronal structures and how they work”

        I’d argue that:

        All “things” that we do/are should be explainable in terms of neuronal structures, how they work, how they interact with other neuronal structures, and how they interact within a social environment.

        Of course, ultimately the social environment is made up of other animals, with brains and neuronal structures, so this point of view doesn’t take away from the eliminative materialism argument. Its just that sometimes the argument can seem to portray a view of a “brain in a vat” which really wouldn’t function in the same way as a brain in a person, embedded in a social environment.

        Of course, I’m sure you realise this anyway, and didn’t mean that, but some do seem to argue that it all comes down to the brain, and neglect the other factors, or think they could be easily simulated in some way.

  2. If you’re one of the few persons reading these words, then you’re probably a Native English speaker. And, you’d probably agree that you do, indeed, have a brain inside your cranium. We don’t need to do a craniotomy to prove that fact. But, when it comes to ideas of “soul”, or “mind”, well…. But generally, we’d agree that WE “HAVE A mind”….. But do we? This is a fairly new idea, for me, but I’m liking it so far. Let me present it by making some rather bold statements: “We do NOT have a “mind””. We SHARE a MIND. That mind is HUMAN, but it is NOT an English, or French, or German, or Chinese, or Tlingit, or Zulu, mind. It’s the human mind. THE HUMAN MIND. And, not one of us, but ALL of us, share that mind. Thus, and therefore, we are ALL “mentally ill”. Or else, conversely, NONE of us CAN have “mental illness” – at least not all by our selves. So, any and all so-called “mental illnesses” can only be addressed at the group mind level, and not at the level of any one individual brain, or mind….
    As for “mind”, so for “soul”, because BOTH are CONCEPTS. Neither mind, nor soul, has any objective, independent reality. It would sure be nice if SOMEBODY commented!

    1. Its even more ludicrous..not only is our mind separated from itself but it only exist in the head separated from the rest of the body….if we are even thought to have a mind that is… its interesting to think what science would look like if more scientists took up some meditative practices

  3. I think I agree, even if I’m not a native English speaker! Both mind and soul are concepts. The brain can be their body substrate, as for strength and nerve-muscle units. So I do not think that a concept may die. Our idea of it will follow an evolution, on a scientific, philosophic and spiritual way, as for all concepts. And this evolution also is not a Death, but a change. And these changes happen individually, but, more importantly in our common experience of the world. So, long live the soul!

    1. Thank-you, Alessio Valente! Is my guess correct, that Italian is your native language? If you hadn’t mentioned it, I would assume you were born & raised with (Modern American)English! Anyway, yes, I think you’re understanding what I’m trying to say. And, to my mind, that’s a good thing, and leads me to more hope, optimism, and confidence for the future. I have had many, um, “difficulties” in life – but I’m doing quite well, and I see my own healing being part of a Planet-wide Human Healing. You? ~ I’m comfortable with most ideas of the “soul”, and also comfortable with most Christian & Buddhist ideas. But, yes, when Islamic extremist terrorists cut people’s heads off, *THAT* scares me! Also, “brain”/”body”/”nerve”/”muscle”, as you have used these words here, are best seen as a whole, and not as individual “parts”. Anything which affects any one part, ALSO affects each other part, and the whole, also. We are always WHOLE PERSONS, but the pseudo-science known as “psychiatry” preaches otherwise. That’s why it is so much a failure, and hurts more people than it helps, for example….
      That’s been the focus of my work in recent years. You?

  4. “Landmark” doesn’t mean what it used to, apparently. Fifty years after Popper he has discovered that science will question its own assumptions? And that this will lead to a general meltdown of science? And his great example is that evolution science (or “Darwinism,” in his conservative vocabulary) is falling apart?

    Wolfe is a very clever writer who uses his capacity to amuse as a way to slip in ideology. There is absolutely nothing of interest to scientists in his work.

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