Does what we know of neuroscience leave room for the idea of soul?
I had a question regarding the concept of the soul. It is currently my study in anatomy that has brought this topic back to mind. I looked for some resources on the site regarding the topic and gathered what I could from it. It has been a few years since I looked at this subject and I wanted to know if any new information has come out. From what I understand it makes sense to think that memories can be stored as electrical signals in a neuronic hard-drive so to say but I am still out on decisions. If people ask the question honestly it makes sense that we would see things like neural activation when making a decision or responding to stimuli after all these are just the basic ways that life functions. Is there a point when reductionism can go no further? I have heard it argued on this point about perception. Even though we know which areas of the brain are activated in regard to certain aspects such as hearing, thought processing, vision, motor control, etc. we still can’t figure out where all of this comes together to unite into one experience we call consciousness. Am I correct or is there more information regarding this? Also as a side question could you argue for the soul with this, that the brain is just a collection of neurons which simply pass on electrical signals via sodium and potassium channels which are inanimate objects and that itself does not explain awareness?
You are asking a question which exists on the borderline between neuroscience and metaphysics. This is very difficult territory to tread with certainty, as you clearly already know. Here is the unfortunate situation. At the present time, neuroscience, as practiced in the scientific world across the globe, is virtually owned by committed reductionists/determinist/scientific materialists. Virtually all practicing neuroscientists are committed to a world view which accepts only physical, measurable things as real and all other things as simply not real. Most neuroscientists would dismiss your inquiry as being a nonsense question without even considering the implications of the fact that they carry this presupposition. So, if you ask nearly any neuroscientist this question, you will probably be dismissed. OBVIOUSLY, they will tell you, memories are merely stored information in the neural networks in our brain. To this I would respond, “to whom is this obvious?”
Because this is NOT OBVIOUS. In fact, it is not obvious at all, unless one presupposes the conclusion, but such circular reasoning is merely a logical fallacy. Here is the bottom line, neuroscientists do not know what memory is and they do not know how it is stored—if indeed it is even stored in a physical sense in our brains. We know the part of the brain that is activated when certain memories are recalled. This is wonderful progress that scientists have made, but it does not mean that we know on a chemical level what a memory is, or that it is even a chemical thing! The amount of information we have stored in our memories is absolutely staggering. If I hear any of literally thousands of songs I have heard in my fairly long life, I can pick up after a few notes, remember the notes, how loud they were, the tone of voice, the words of the song and more. The entire song is stored in my memory. Where, and on what neurons is this information stored? The materialist has no answer for this. There are hundreds of thousands of smells stored in my memory. There are many tens of thousands of faces stored in there, many of them being there from several different ages. I would argue that we have a virtual film stored in our heads from events decades ago (if you are as old as I am). I am just getting started in trying to imagine the amount of information stored in my memory. We know the area of the brain that is stimulated when these memories are recalled, but where are they stored on a molecular level? In what form are they stored? Might there be a non-physical component to memory? Might there be an analogue to the cloud of the internet where my memories are stored? Let me give you my own opinion: Memory is NOT simply chemicals stored in the physical neural network in our brains. In fact, I believe that it borders on irrational, given what we know of memory, to believe that memory is merely a storage of chemical information. In fact, I would argue that there is so much information stored in our brains that this information amounts to many, many orders of magnitude more than the total number of neurons in our brain. My conclusion is that reductionism cannot explain the nature of our memory.
But this is not the only area in which the reality of what it is to be a person cones into conflict with reductionism. There is the question you raise about the nature of self-awareness. Scientific materialists will declare with great confidence that “self” is merely an epiphenomenon (a complex system, composed of simpler elements which only creates the appearance of a higher level phenomenon). We only appear to exist as a person, when in fact, all we are is neural pathways and stored chemical signals. Of course, they declare this with great confidence, not because it is true, but because they have assumed it to be true and stick with this assumption by faith, not by evidence. We can safely dismiss such circular reasoning. Clearly we do have choice, and clearly we exist as entities outside of our physical bodies. Yet, when we make choices, certain areas in the brain are activated, certain chemicals are released, and certain neural pathways are laid down in our brains. Here is where neuroscience is helpful, but it is NOT the be-all, end-all to explain what you and I are, and no amount of repeated materialistic mantra is going to make it so.
I have asked a simple question to students in my classes for many years. Here is the question: Are you a body, or do you have a body? Virtually everyone who has not been trained by materialist/naturalist/reductionist scientists gives the same answer, which is that I have a body. I exist apart from and, indeed, over my body. My body is a vessel for myself. Neuroscience tells us in great and useful detail how that mind/body connection works. What it cannot do is tell me what I am or why I have choice or why I am self-aware. I am a person and a person is cannot be reduced to chemicals and stored information in a neural network. Materialist neuroscientists tell me that “I” do not exist and that love is a concept which corresponds to merely chemicals released in my brain. I am sorry, but reality does not lead me to this reductionist conclusion.
Of course, what I just said is merely a statement. One could argue that what I just said (that consciousness is real, that I exist apart from my body, that there is a spiritual component to reality) is as much of a presupposition as that made by the materialist neuroscientist. Perhaps this is true, but we need to ask this question: Which view is more rational? Which view comports most reasonably with what we know about self-awareness, consciousness, choice, memory, love, justice, holiness and other self-evident aspects of human reality. I say that reality screams out that reductionism is a false philosophy. Of course, from your comments, you appear to be coming from nearly the same place is I do.
The way I see it, the brain is a fantastically well-designed instrument through which our soul, our spirit, our self-conscious being interacts with the physical world. Everything I know about the brain (and I am not a neuroscientist, so my knowledge is somewhat limited) tells me that the brain is a kind of conduit between the non-physical and the physical reality.
My answer is a strong yes to your question. Neuroscience not only leaves room for the soul—indirectly it provides strong evidence for the existence of a non-physical nature of our selves which we call a soul.