Henrik Brändén

Reflection 1: Ghost in the Machine?

Published in Nuda:Ego

All the major world religions regard humans as possessors of immortal souls. These souls are assumed to rule over their bodies, bearing responsibility for their actions. In Christianity and Islam, the soul is put to justice in the Last Judgement, after which it spends eternity in either heaven or hell. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the soul is punished or rewarded by rebirthing into higher or lower standing beings. Basically, according to all the great religions, the soul dictates what we do and is consequently responsible for our actions.

For long, most educated Europeans were indeed convinced of the existence of an independent soul controlling our bodies. This included Plato, who in 400 BC imagined souls as existing prior to the body’s birth, living on past its death. Within the soul our thoughts, feelings and memories resided, and it was the soul alone which could access real truth – the perfect essences of all things. In medieval times, Christianity – while stressing that soul and body were separate – still considered the two closely knit. There was talk of an “animated body”, of the soul as the form of the body, its purpose.

In the 1600s the idea of a dualism between body and soul was developed by mathematician and philosopher René Descartes. Some parts of the body, like the vascular system, he had no qualms comparing to a machine. Our thinking, however, he couldn’t imagine being based in a material foundation. The process of thinking, according to Descartes, was run by a soul, which had entered the body at birth. It then settled down for good in the pineal gland of the brain, communicating with the body from there. Granted, our physical brain handled sensory input and control of movement, but it did so by command of the soul, which alone handled our thoughts, feelings, actions and memories. Thus, with Descartes, the soul migrated from the body as a whole, to inhabit a specific small gland in the brain, from where it transmitted instructions. This dualism of body and soul would later gain a strong grip on Western European thought, and is still present in the ways we separate mental and physical suffering, challenges and disease.

During the last 150 years, however, many discoveries have been made that undermine the dualism of body and soul. Many of these have already been mentioned in the first part of this book: We needn’t use the soul to explain memories – their emergence can be explained by nerve cells inside the brain reinforcing their mutual connections. We’ve seen how the act of thinking takes place in the brain and we seem to nearly understand how that process works. Many of the phenomena we casually refer to as consciousness – intuition and creativity to name two – can just as well be explained in terms of nerve activity within the brain. In the next chapter, we’ll see how emotional reactions, feelings and experiences of art can be described as activities in specific nerve tracts. Indeed, when even religious experiences can be described as activity in special nerve tracts, it becomes obvious that most of the phenomena we’ve been imagining as spiritual actually physically take place in the brain, in close connection with the functions of nerve cells and neurotransmitters. This means we don’t have to believe in an incorporeal soul in order to explain phenomena of the sort we can observe using scientific methods. Psychological, mental and spiritual phenomena can just as well be described and, at a basic level, explained through bodily mechanisms, without adding an incorporeal soul to the equation. Of course, that doesn’t mean that modern neuroscience has in any way disproved the existence of an independent soul. It simply means we don’t necessarily have to believe in such a thing in order to explain these observations made by the natural sciences.

Thus, the existence of an immortal soul, independent of the body, is not a question of scientific knowledge, but of faith. Even back in the 1200s, theologian Thomas Aquinas drew a line between the kind of knowledge one can deduct from observing and reasoning, and the kind one can only obtain through faith and epiphany. Principally, there’s not much distance between the distinctions made by Thomas Aquinas and those made by philosophy professor Ingemar Hedenius in his famous 1949 book Belief and Knowledge. Granted, we could argue for eternities about whether, like Aquinas, one might use words like “knowledge” and “facts” about the sort of things that do not in fact arise from observation and reason.

Even though today many Swedes have abandoned the thought of a soul separated from the body, the idea of a dualism of body and soul remains strong. Painting a wall is considered a physical exercise, creating visual art a spiritual one. Getting kicked pains the body, while an insult hurts the soul, and nowhere does this sneaky dualism of body and soul live on as strongly as in attitudes towards ill health. It’s widely considered an entirely different thing, and far more shameful, to suffer a mental disease as compared to a bodily one. The experience of having suffered a stroke is something you could easily share with anyone, while a psychotic episode is perhaps rather swept under the rug. You might not think twice about showing off a broken arm, but a panic attack remains hidden from all but our closest ones. This is in contrast to the fact that there are striking similarities between depression and, for instance, diabetes. Both diseases generate imbalances in our systems of signal substances. In both cases, equilibriums in the body are shifted, damaging cells and tissue, impairing their function. Still, the attitudes differ so much. If you think about it in logical terms, the whole thing seems very mysterious.

When I as a biologist talk to people about describing creativity, aesthetic pleasures and religious experiences as electrical and chemical reactions within and in-between the brain’s nerve cells, they’ll often snort back at me. They might even become upset. Could profound experiences of art, sublime emotion and divine moments of inspired creativity be reduced to “simple” electric signals and chemical substances?

On that matter, I’d like to say three things.

Could profound experiences of art, sublime emotion and divine moments of inspired creativity be reduced to “simple” electric signals and chemical substances?

First and foremost: My astonishment about the way the arches of gothic cathedrals seem to stretch nearly to the heavens isn’t the slightest bit diminished by my knowledge of physicists being able to describe in precise detail how those pointed arches can hold the heavy constructions. The emotions that arise when my cat lays on my belly, hearing her purr and feeling her tiny heart beat, aren’t at all diminished just because I know the cat’s heart is simply a pump made of muscles. Similarly, my feelings toward my son and my wife aren’t affected by neither my approximate knowledge of how those emotions arise in a chemical sense, nor by having seen images showing which parts of the brain get activated when feeling them. Not even the goosebumps generated from hearing certain parts of Händel’s “Rinaldo” are affected by my ability to write down something at least resembling a proper explanation of how said bumps appear. Our emotional, aesthetic and spiritual experiences simply do not get diminished at all by us having some idea about what’s going on with molecules in the brain when experiencing them.

Secondly, I seriously doubt that any serious neuroscientist has ever been so ignorant as to claim that our experiences can “simply’ be reduced to electrical or chemical reactions. We all know that an experience is something way more than that. Scientists might make claims in the vein of experiences “having their base in” or “depending upon” those reactions, but there’s nothing “simple” about that. Most scientists drawing maps of the brain, pointing out areas which activate when we improvise, listen to music, hallucinate or decide something is either pretty or ugly, are very careful to not tie themselves down to the idea that those various activities “take place” in those areas. They’re saying something takes place there, something with importance to the respective mental activities. The place has a connection to the activity. That’s why these places are referred to as the activity’s “neural correlates”. Of course, there are many instances where scientists suspect that important parts of the process actually do take place in those corresponding areas. They can’t know for sure however, and hence they won’t make those claims*

*Excluding a few scientists, who unfortunately garner lots of media attention, as it’s just that much easier to cut a few snappy soundbites from their statements as opposed to those made by scientists who remain serious even while popularising.

Thirdly: The amazing thing about what’s going on in neuroscience right now is that it’s looking not only at nerve cells, chemicals and electrical signals, but also at human behaviour, group dynamics, social norms and societal organisations. All while studying how explanations at these different levels connect with and help describe one another. In both directions. Imagine, for instance, you and your friends visiting a music festival in your youth. Suddenly, while the most amazing music was being played, he stood there: The loveliest human being in the world as seen through your eyes — and you finally get to dance with him, hug him, kiss him and in due time crawl into your little camping tent with him. Your experiences of course depend on the nerve cells, electrical signals and chemicals that run back and forth in your brain during that whole magical evening and night. However, they also depend on the social and cultural context: How the person you fell in love with acted, how your friends acted, which previous experiences of infatuation, significant others and intimate relations the two of you had had, what expectations about these sort of things were at play in your social circles, what values concerning love and sex you’d both brought with you from home. Not to mention something as trivial as your earlier memories of the sort of music that was being played in that moment. All these memories and social or cultural conditions affected the chemistry of your nerve cells, all while the chemistry of your nerve cells had a saying in how the social game unfolded, as well as what memories you took away from it.

I seriously doubt that any serious neuroscientist has ever been so ignorant as to claim that our experiences can “simply’ be reduced to electrical or chemical reactions.

That’s why it’s a fallacy to assume we’re facing a choice between either viewing our spiritual experiences as chemistry and electrical signals or as something mysterious which shall never be scientifically described. Phenomena like consciousness, creativity, emotionally charged situations and empathy exist on a higher plane than the neurotransmitters, nerve cells and regions of the brain that are now being examined in increasing detail. That’s why we can only understand those phenomena through combining knowledge of things at the cellular and chemical levels with knowledge of the higher levels of humans, environments, social contexts, and cultures. This is exactly what’s happening right now as psychologists and neurobiologists team up in the new scientific field often called cognitive neuroscience.

What about the free will, then? How’s it holding up, when science no longer supports the concept of a soul independent of the body? When we’re supposedly all body and brain, nerve cells and neurotransmitters, and all things exciting and beautiful and horrific arise through them? You might hear people make the case that since everything going on in a brain is determined by the laws of nature, what happens must at its core be pre-programmed in the way neurons appear and connect to one another, something which in its turn is determined by genes and previous experiences. In that case, there’s no room for an active free will – instead, everything is predetermined. For someone who’s studied the natural sciences at a high school level, going back and forth over chemical and physical formulae, this reasoning might make sense. Everything can be predicted, as long as we’re familiar enough with the input data.

Let’s now match up this reasoning with some varying experiences. Stepping on a sharp stone, I have indeed no free will to retract or not retract my leg. Since birth, the reflex bow is hardwired into my nervous system. Similarly, my brain is conditioned to turn on the fight-or-flight response if I happen to bump into a bear in the woods. However, some degree of freedom exists already in the case of this bear interaction. One might either run away from it or remain completely still. What we do here is determined by the strength of the signal alerting the brain about the threat, and we know the strength of such signals has a lot to do with learning, previous experiences and emotional memory. Just how scared of bears have we been taught to be?

Whether one scurries off into the woods or not is also determined by which other signals are simultaneously transmitted. Let’s imagine, for instance, you’ve developed a strong interest in nature photography. Maybe then, instead of running away with trembling hands, you’d pick up your phone and snap a picture of the bear? Would that imply that the thought of getting a picture of your very own real life bear encounter set off signals of excitement strong enough to overpower the warning signals? In that case, wouldn’t that be your own choice? A free choice, although perhaps not an entirely conscious one?

Furthermore, how can we look at creativity if no free will exists? Is it predetermined which ideas will pop up in my brain while working on this book? Could every thought and formulation be anticipated by looking at the exact position and movement of all the universe’s sub atomic particles in the second before I was born? Who wrote Requiem then, if not Mozart? Could it be predicted what it would sound like, as well as when and by whom it would be composed, based on complete knowledge of how all energy was distributed one second after the Big Bang? Was Mozart simply setting a readymade plan in motion? Was he composing by direction of God?

To me, the idea that everything we choose to do is predetermined seems absurd. The whole concept also relies on an erroneous understanding of the natural laws involved. We commonly assume that the laws of nature work like the law of gravity within physics, persistently and with absolute certainty telling us what results to expect given a certain initial position. However, what happens when signals are sent from one nerve cell to another, and whether they’re getting sent in the first place, is controlled by the laws of chemistry rather than those of physics. Those laws of chemistry are never about what will certainly happen, they only cover probabilities. When millions or billions of molecules of all sorts react with one another in a test tube, laws of chemistry will be trustworthy in predicting the overall outcome: 90 percent of molecules will do this, 10 percent will do that. What happens to an individual molecule, however, chemistry can’t predict. This means that the laws of chemistry lose their foretelling powers when dealing with processes involving only a few molecules, or tens or hundreds of them. Will signal substance A or B first reach a certain receiving molecule? Will substances of the C variety reaching a receiver that stimulates signals outnumber the amount of substances of the D kind that reach a receiver that inhibits signals? Could go either way, you’d just have to wait and see. The probability of a particular outcome might be larger, but what happens in a specific nerve cell at a specific time can’t be predicted.

Perhaps it was just that sort of contest that decided whether you made a run for it or pulled out your camera when bumping into that bear in the woods. Or whether I would react with curiosity or aversion the first time my Dad put on Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in my childhood days. Or whether I were to start writing this book or not.

Of course, one might say that if such matters weren’t predetermined, random chance is the decisive factor. It’s not necessarily that’s simple, however. When dealing with complex systems, that need to be described at numerous levels, and in which miniscule changes in one place (for instance whether one or another signal molecule reaches a receiving protein first) could cause major differences in outcome (book written or book not written), a phenomena called emergence, which scientists still can’t fully comprehend, transpires. Here, higher level systems adopt qualities which cannot be deducted from the descriptions of the lower levels alone. We’ll return to emergence in the next reflection. For now, I’m satisfied with examining the fruitfulness of considering freedom of choice and free will as things existing at a higher level than that of nerve cells and neurotransmitters, things we can only understand in terms of complete human beings interacting with their environments and each other.

Excerpt from Biology of the Soul, 2020, republished in Nuda:Ego 2022.