Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Of Two Minds: Does Neuroscience Diminish the Soul?

In the New York Times Magazine this last weekend, there was an essay about split brain patients: those who has undergone surgical cutting of the corpus callosum.  Naturally, I had to blog about it.  The author, Jim Holt, starts by describing brain scanning techniques that can reveal various things about how a human brain is working.  He laments the loss of "the comforting notion that each of us has privileged access to his own mind."  He describes other findings, such as neuroplasticity; specifically, findings that indicate that the brain can rewire itself in response to external and internal environmental changes, then adds:
But there could be revelations in store that will force us to revise our self-understanding in far more radical ways. We have already had a hint of this in the so-called split-brain phenomenon. The human brain has two hemispheres, right and left. Each hemisphere has its own perceptual, memory and control systems. For the most part, the left hemisphere is associated with the right side of the body, and vice versa. The left hemisphere usually controls speech. Connecting the hemispheres is a cable of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum. [...]
Mr. Holt develops the idea that discoveries in neuroscience threaten to alter our understanding of ourselves in discomforting ways. 
The more that breakthroughs like the recent one in brain-scanning open up the mind to scientific scrutiny, the more we may be pressed to give up comforting metaphysical ideas like interiority, subjectivity and the soul. Let's enjoy them while we can.
I had to look up the word, interiority.  Apparently it refers to either: for the purely inequality system with g convex, it means there exists x for which g(x) < 0. More generally, for a mathematical program in standard form, it means there exists x in X for which g(x) < 0 and h(x) = 0; or, it refers to focusing and concentrating on the importance of self and, above all, on the God within, rather than on things "outside" (ie, material possessions.)

The implication is that, perhaps, it may become more difficult for humans to experience a spiritual dimension to their lives, as we come to understand more about the physics and chemistry of brain function.

That notion is something that I used to worry about, but no more.  It seems to me that it is similar to the notion that human dignity is diminished through the use of performance-enhancing drugs, or that the institution of marriage is diminished if other people run their marriages in a way that is different than what you think is proper.  Personally, I don't agree with any of those notions. 

Analyzing the optical properties of a rose petal does not make the rose any less beautiful.  Likewise, understanding the anatomical and chemical basis of perception does not alter the value of the thing perceived.  Human dignity is not a property within the human being observed; it is a property ascribed by the observer.  Marriage is what you and your spouse make of it; what others do in their marriages is irrelevant. 

I would say that, if one finds that scientific advances diminish one's spiritual experience, it is because it distracts from the spiritual experience, much as material possessions do.  The only difference is that when one possesses scientific knowledge, is not a material possession.  Neuroscientists need not worry about the effect that their research has on the spirituality of others.  What other people do inside their heads is their business, and it is up to them to create the experiences that they want to have.