This is partially in response to a piece recently published by Salon.com, covering an interview with Alva Noe, a philosopher from UC Berkeley.
I am a Hindu. Hindus believe in the existence of souls. I am studying biology. Biology does not consider the soul to be a possible entity. I am a neuroscience-enthusiast. Neuroscience does not believe the soul is the seat of consciousness.
While Alva Noe argues against a reductionist approach to understanding consciousness, unfortunately that is the very real reality of consciousness. The brain is the seat of consciousness. Why argue that it isn’t? It’s not as though the brain is somehow incapable of being responsible for the functions and emotions that make us wholly human.
I will agree with one aspect: that a lot of experience is very much dependent on the context into which we are placed. Yet that does not diminish the role of the brain, but rather, it reveals just how involved the brain is in crafting consciousness. It has to determine, based on the inputs it receives, how to perceive and react to the stimuli present. This is where his driver versus engine analogy falls apart. It is not a process that happens apart from the brain, it is the brain itself. When someone is brain dead, it’s not as is if consciousness continues to exist apart from the brain. Consciousness dies when the brain dies.
Why is religion something that has to be so separate from neuroscience? It’s as if one cannot coexist with the other, that somehow, neuroscience would undo the wonder that makes religion and religious experience what it is or vice versa. Neuroscience gives a more concrete basis for religious experience, and religion can help us reflect on the sheer wonder that is the brain. Why can’t the soul have a neurological basis? I’m not arguing for the total negation of the existence of the soul, I’m arguing for integrating it into our cerebral selves.
Likewise for love, desires, dreams, whatever emotions and states of mind there are that seem much too complicated to be contained in a network of neurons. These all have strong neurological bases, most have in dopaminergic pathways that give rise to feelings of pleasure and instilling the need to repeat actions that make us feel good (seek out someone we’re crushing on, eating something we like, pursuing a career which interests us). Yet we hate to think of it in these terms, we like to keep a little bit of that veil of mystery intact. It’s understandable, but it’s silly to argue that they are undoubtedly separate from the brain, whether partly or totally.
For better or worse, we are animals. We are a network of organs. We have been blessed with a highly developed forebrain, but that does not make our added ability to perceive ourselves, the world, or anything beyond…anything beyond our membrane-bound brain. What we should perhaps be more in awe of is that, despite the fact that we operate within the confines of our cranium, we can understand and strive for things that seem to exist far beyond us. That is the real wonder of the human psyche.