Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dead as a Doornail: Souls, Brains, and Survival

I recently submitted my contribution to an anthology on the survival of the soul, edited by Michael Martin and  Keith Augustine.  It's titled The Myth of the Afterlife:  Essays on the Case Against Life After Death, and it will be coming out on McFarland Press next year.  Here's a piece of my introductory chapter in it:

Polling shows that more than 70% of Americans believe in some form of life after death or the survival of the soul (Harris, 2009; PEW, 2008).  Many, probably most, of our depictions of the soul portray it as personally aware and with a consciousness that is essentially related to the embodied person.  Frequently, we describe the afterlife as someplace where a person, as a soul, is rewarded or punished or where their soul will serve or worship God.  Only a conscious, self-aware, thinking entity can do these things.  Furthermore, it is not merely that some consciousness or thinking entity survives the death of my body, but that my consciousness will survive.  My soul is my consciousness, so there will be continuity from my perspective between my awareness in my body and my awareness after the death of my body.  (How could the notions of reward or punishment in the afterlife make any sense without continuity?)  In our art, books, movies, mythology, and religious traditions, the transition from this life to the afterlife is often portrayed like the transition we make when we fall asleep and then wake up again.  When I wake up, I am the same person, with the same thoughts, memories, personal traits, and the same body as the person who went to sleep.  When I die, the soul leaves the body the difference is that when it wakes up, it has left the physical body behind and only the soul has survived with my thoughts, memories, and personal traits.  The common view is that something that makes me up will survive, that I will have eternal life, that I will be reincarnated, or my soul will go to heaven.   The things that are essential to me as an individual consciousness are my beliefs, my hopes, my dispositions, my emotional reactions, and my memories.  So in these popular depictions of the soul, we seem to be identifying it with what we usually call a person’s mind.   In what follows, then, we will treat “mind” and “soul” interchangeably.   
We are not here concerned with the non-personal accounts of the soul that portray it as something distinct from the physical body and that can exist autonomously from it, or that de-emphasize the conscious, personal aspects of the soul.  For example, we sometimes speak of there being an energy or life force in human beings, or that everyone possesses a part of some larger metaphysical entity or force.
The purpose of this introduction is to state the general evidence, particularly the empirical and inductive evidence, that the cessation of biological life also brings the end to a person’s mental life and hence the end of the soul.  What are the reasons we have for thinking that the experiences we associate with having a mind, thinking, remembering, or feeling stop when the life of the physical body stop? 
The competing views, therefore, are the extinction hypothesis—the view that absent some technological means of preservation or continuity that would sustain its functions, biological death marks the end of an individual’s mind.  The survival hypothesis is the view that some significant aspect of a person’s mental life—her consciousness, her thoughts, or her personality—persists beyond biological death. 
There is a strong probabilistic case for this simple argument for extinction:

1.   Human cognitive abilities, memories, personalities, thoughts, emotions, conscious awareness, and self-awareness (in short, the features we attribute to the personal soul) are dependent upon the brain to occur/exist. 
2.  The brain does not survive the death of the body.
3.  Therefore, the personal soul does not survive the death of the body.

The second premise is not controversial.  The evidence in favor of the first premise, then, is crucial to resolving the question of survival.  If the case for dependence is compelling, then we must accept the conclusion. 

II.  Neuroscientific Evidence for Dependence
Decades of evidence from stroke victims, motorcycle accidents, car wrecks, construction site accidents, fMRI scans, PET scans, brain imaging, and other medical studies have given us a detailed picture of which portions of the brain are active in conjunction with specific cognitive abilities and mental states.  What that research has shown is that minds depend upon brains.  Damaging a part of the brain destroys a part of our thoughts, eliminates a cognitive ability, or alters some personal or emotional capacity.  Restoring the electrical, chemical functions of the brain renews the mental function.    
While most of us would acknowledge some connection between mental function and the brain, we may have failed to see just how deep the connection runs.  Even the most abstract mental faculties and the most specific features and contents of our private, mental states can be mapped directly onto brain functions.  Some unusual brain disorders and the mental disruptions they cause illustrate the point.  People who suffer from Anton-Babinski syndrome are cortically blind, but they don’t believe or feel blind from their conscious perspective.  They will adamantly insist that they can see even in the face of clear evidence of their blindness.  They dismiss their inability to perform visual tasks by confabulating explanations.  Subjects with blind sight have the reverse problem; testing reveals that they can see, but they report no awareness of any visual stimuli.  They insist that they are blind even though they are not.  The syndrome results from a specific sort of damage to the occipital lobe of the brain.   
Capgras syndrome results from occipital temporal and frontal region lesions in the brain.   These patients have the powerful sense that someone they know, particularly a loved one, has been replaced by an imposter.  Vilayanur Ramachandran has postulated that the problem arises from a failure of the temporal cortex regions of the brain responsible for face recognition to communicate with limbic system regions responsible for emotional responses (1998).  Fregoli Delusion comes from a related form of brain damage that leads the patient to believe that many different people are actually one person with multiple disguises.  Cotard’s syndrome, or the delusional belief that you are dead, you don’t exist, or that you have lost your organs or blood results from damage to the interactions between the fusiform face area and the limbic system.  Patients with mirror prosopagnosia have difficulty processing the spatial relations of objects in a mirror with other objects in the area, and they often feel convinced that they are being followed.  Brain damage or congenital problems with the fusiform gyrus is responsible. 
What is important with these brain disorders is that we have mapped their specific locations or functional pathologies in the brain, sometimes down to the millimeter.  And the clear physical origin of the problem demonstrates the dependence of the mental capacity upon the brain.  The physical structures of the brain are causally responsible for consciousness and its capacities.  A neuroscientist examining scans of a stroke victim’s brain can now predict, sometimes with remarkable accuracy, exactly what sorts of cognitive, conceptual, emotional, or psychological problems with patient will experience as a result of their brain damage.  The connection is too direct, too pervasive, too immediate, and too strong to be ignored.  The physical foundation of mental functions shows that the alleged separation of mind from brain posited by the survival thesis cannot occur.  If a region of the brain is damaged or removed, then the correlated mental capacity goes, memory is lost, emotional affects are abbreviated, conceptual abilities disappear, or recognitional capacity will cease. 
In a remarkable study in 2005, neuroscientists reported the discovery of what they deemed the Halle Berry neuron.  In order to isolate the location of the electrical chaos that induced their epilepsy,  patients brains were implanted with electrodes.  Then the patient was shown a variety of pictures while the activity of the neurons in the vicinity of the probes was recorded.  In several instances, single neurons could be singled out whose activity spiked in response to specific images such as Halle Berry, Bill Clinton, or the Eiffel Tower.  One neuron fired when the subject looked at a picture of Halle Berry in an evening gown, in a cat woman suit, as a cartoon, and even the words “Halle Berry,” suggesting that the neuron played an integral role in a large web of neurons who were responsible for a variety of abstract and high level representations of Halle Berry rather than some simpler function such as edge discrimination.  This neuron did not respond comparably to the hundreds of other images used in the study (Quiroga, et al., 2005).  Again, the evidence is against the survival hypothesis; every aspect of a person’s mental function is produced by brain function. 
Research shows remarkable relationships between brain tumors and brain chemistry and bizarre thoughts or behaviors.  In one case, the onset of a patient’s hyper sexuality, obsession with porn, and pedophilia parallel’s the growth of a tumor in his right, orbitofrontal lobe.  When they removed the tumor, his urges lapsed.  A year later, when the tumor grew back, his pedophilia returned (Burns, Swerdlow, 2003)  The use of the Parkinson’s drug, pramipexole, has been shown to induce the sudden onset of compulsive behaviors like gambling, hyper sexuality, and overeating (Driver-Dunckley, et al., 2003).  Patients with no gambling history are overwhelmed with the urge to gamble when their dosages cross a particular threshold, and they gamble away their life savings.  Then when the dosage is reduced, the urge vanishes. 
The evidence from neuroscience shows that it is the proper functioning of the brain that makes even the most abstract cognitive abilities possible.  Stephen Pinker says,

If you send an electric current through the brain, you cause the person to have a vivid experience. If a part of the brain dies because of a blood clot or a burst artery or a bullet wound, a part of the person is gone -- the person may lose an ability to see, think, or feel in a certain way, and the entire personality may change. The same thing happens gradually when the brain accumulates a protein called beta-amyloid in the tragic disease known as Alzheimer's. The person -- the soul, if you want -- gradually disappears as the brain decays from this physical process  (2011)

When our brains are intact and healthy, we experience the full range of conscious and mental abilities that are attributed to the soul.  But when electrical, chemical, or structural functions of those regions of the brain are compromised, there is a direct, commensurate loss of those abilities. 
            To a less extreme degree, we can also see the physical foundations of the soul in our everyday lives without brain damage or electrical probes.  The physical dependence of mental states is evident when alterations of the chemistry of the brain with drugs, food, sleep-deprivation, fasting, or coffee change the way we think.  Brain chemistry affects the prevalence of positive or negative thoughts in our minds, our being irritable or happy, or our being cognitively impaired from too much alcohol to drink.  Too little to eat or drink and our thoughts grow slow and negative, too much caffeine and our thoughts race.  Even the weather seems to have a pronounced affect on the character and direction of our thoughts.   Hallucinogenic drugs induce visions in the mind of a different reality.  People on PCP often envision spiders and have a powerful belief that they can fly.  Millions of people take anti-depression drugs every day—chemical compounds that alter the chemical events in the brain—that produce a change in their beliefs, feelings, dispositions, and other mental states.  The causal dependence in these cases is clear; the mind depends upon specific chemical and electrical reactions in the nervous system.  Modify those reactions even slightly and there is a corresponding change in the mind and its contents.   Even something as common as a cup of espresso shows that those elements of consciousness that are alleged to survive biological death and depend directly upon the brain. 
If there was empirical evidence for survival, that is, if consciousness persists without the brain, then we would expect to find some exceptions to the close, direct correlations between the electro-chemical events in the brain and mental states, cognitive capacities, and conscious experience.  If there were cases where we could establish that some or all of the mind functions that we attribute to the soul occur in the absence of brain processes altogether, or in the absence of the particular brain processes that have been most closely correlated with those functions in other cases, then we would have some striking evidence for survival and against the first premise in our argument.  Suppose that we found cognitive abilities and consciousness to be present or absent with no apparent relation to the state of the human brain.  If brain damage of various sorts left cognitive functions unscathed, or if consciousness persisted despite alterations in brain chemistry and structure, then we might have some evidence to doubt the correlation and the causal connection.  Likewise, if some mental function lapsed while the brain was completely intact and functioning, we might have an empirical indicator of mind/brain autonomy.  But we find no such violations in either direction.


Paul Rinzler said...

Wouldn't the current state of scientific knowledge about the brain and mind as you describe it also account for the situation in which the mind or soul is related to the brain in the same way that a radio transmission (from station to the radio) is related to a radio?

Changes in the condition of the radio (slight mis-tunings, dirty knobs that produce static, even a broken knob that makes the radio tuned to a single station, etc.) produce changes in how well the transmission is received, but the transmission is separate from, and is not produced by, the radio.

That seems to be one metaphor or analogy that accounts for scientific knowledge but does not equate mind with brain. In this analogy, the mind is at the transmission station, and the brain is the radio. Changes in the hardware produce changes in behavior, but the mind/transmitter is separate from the hardware.

One might argue against this metaphor as a good description of reality because we don't need the signal from the transmitter to the radio to explain what we know, so it may be superfluous.

Matt McCormick said...

Take another look at what Capgras syndrome, or Fregoli Delusion and see if they can be made consistent with your remote operator notion. Those are deep, conceptual capacities that are lost. There's no indication that some immaterial mind is alive and well with no problems.
Second, if you're really serious, then provide some real evidence for thinking that this sort of situation is actual. Even if the scenario is a possibility, or consistent with the brain damage evidence (it isn't), you need some real reasons to think it's true.

Paul Rinzler said...

"Take another look at what Capgras syndrome, or Fregoli Delusion and see if they can be made consistent with your remote operator notion."

I see nothing inconsistent. Care to point it out?

"Those are deep, conceptual capacities that are lost."

Perhaps you're trying to extent the radio analogy too far. Any analogy breaks down at some point, it's only meant to go so far.

"There's no indication that some immaterial mind is alive and well with no problems. "

I agree completely. We have no evidence of an immaterial mind. I only meant to critique the idea that scientific knowledge about the brain is inconsistent with an immaterial mind (which is very different from saying that we have evidence that there is an immaterial mind).

We can't use the mere structure of our current scientific knowledge about the brain to say that it is inconsistent with an immaterial mind.

I've heard Sam Harris say that we're expected to believe that damage and more damage to the brain results in more and more changes to the mind, and yet, when the brain is completely destroyed, we're expected to believe that the mind is still intact in the afterlife. That scenario is possible given the radio transmission analogy.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Paul. But I must say I'm tired of this response. In what sense do you mean "inconsistent"? Is an immaterial mind LOGICALLY consistent with the empirical facts? Of course. But that's because physical laws themselves like consciousness are contingent. There's nothing logically necessary about mind or the speed of light. It is logically possible that the speed of light is 30 miles per hour? Sure. Is it true? No. Invisible elves who have magical powers for controlling human bodies are logically consistent with all of the physical facts if you engineer your elves to fit with all the empirical data. But that trivial fact doesn't give us the slightest reason for accepting the truth of the claim. So what non-trivial, interesting point are you making?

Paul Rinzler said...

Hi Matt:

I'm not saying what is inconsistent; I'm saying what is consistent.

What is consistent with the scientific knowledge that the functions of the mind degrade when material structures in the brain degrade are two ideas:

1. we are material, solely
2. we are material and the mind has an immaterial component.

Note that I am not claiming that the mind has an immaterial component. I'm merely saying that that is consistent with the scientific knowledge that the mind degrades when the brain degrades.

Furthermore, I will reiterate - I hope you grasp this, I've already said it - that there is no evidence for an immaterial brain. But that is a distinct proposition from the idea that the idea of the mind degrading when the brain does leads to materialism.

Whether this is trivial or interesting, I will leave to you, and thank you either way.

Matt McCormick said...

For two claims to be consistent means that they are not inconsistent.

Right, these positions are all consistent with the neuroscientific findings about the brain:

1. we are material, solely
2. we are material and the mind has an immaterial component.
3. We are material, and there are invisible undetectable elves who are a component in cognition.
4. We are material, and Bigfoot, with his undetectable psychic powers from his hidden base also influences all of our thoughts.
5. We are material, and there is the absolute purple universal spirit who infuses all of us with his love.

And innumerable list of ridiculous hypotheses are consistent, in this trivial sense of "consistent," with the scientific facts. So bringing one up isn't interesting unless there are actually some real reasons for thinking it is true. So why are you bringing it up?
All of the empirical indicators point to the conclusion that all of what the mind is arises from what the brain does. That hypothesis gives us verifiable predictions, it fits with all of the data, it successfully models the structures we understand in the brain, and it has reliably guided our investigation into the structures that we don't understand so well.

To retreat to the "consistency" of all of the empirical data with the immaterial mind hypothesis amounts to conceding that there is no evidence that supports it.

So what point, if any, are you disagreeing with in the argument I have presented?

Paul Rinzler said...

OK, I think I have one:

" if consciousness persists without the brain, then we would expect to find some exceptions to the close, direct correlations between the electro-chemical events in the brain and mental states, cognitive capacities, and conscious experience. "

If consciousness persists without the brain, and the radio transmitter/receive analogy holds, then we would not necessarily expect to find exceptions to the correlations . . . .

If the radio malfunctions, our reception of the signal malfunctions even though the transmitted signal is not damaged.

Matt McCormick said...

That's not an objection, Paul. You're saying the same thing I am. If there is a remote, immaterial mind that is unaffected by damage to the brain, then you'd have a violation of the correlation. You could have a situation where the brain is damaged, but the mental functions continue (off in this mysterious other realm, or whatever) without a hitch. That would be an interruption of the correlation. But we never see that. When people have serious damage like Fregoli delusion, there's not an independent mind that isn't having the problem. Same for stroke victims, and car wrecks survivors. When the brain is damaged, the mental ability vanishes--it doesn't just keep on going unhindered.


Matt said...

In your analogy, the action of sending out the radio waves is what would be equivalent to the mind. Not the waves themselves. So if the brain (transmitter) were destroyed, so is the mind (signal). Just as the signal ceases, so does the mind. The previously emitted radio waves are only analogous to the PAST concept of mind.

Also, your analogy is extremely weak, if not blatantly inconsistent. Radio waves are detectable, minds are not. Radio waves interact with the physical universe (electro-magnetic), minds are not. There really is no comparison except in the extremely gross, vague, large-scale concept.

Paul Rinzler said...

"If there is a remote, immaterial mind that is unaffected by damage to the brain, then you'd have a violation of the correlation. You could have a situation where the brain is damaged, but the mental functions continue (off in this mysterious other realm, or whatever) without a hitch. "

The correlation that you're speaking of is not measured in that other realm where the mind is (wherever that is and however we might measure it). The correlations are always measured in this world, where damage to the brain we always see as damage to the operation of the mind. The realm where the mind is is not accessible, apparently.

In the radio analogy, we should also always see changes in the function of the radio (mistuned stations, silences dropping in and out, whatever -- when the hardware misfunctions, but the radio signal itself is not affected.

I'd say the analogy is shallow, but that's never a critique of an analogy. No analogy is perfectly deep.

Matt McCormick said...

This is getting tiresome. If we're talking about events in your mind--thoughts, feelings, emotions, conscious states, then you access them, and you are able to correlate them to physical events, simply by introspecting them. You know they are going on because you can sense them. I drink a physical cup of coffee, and my (allegedly immaterial) mind has racing thoughts. I drop LSD, a physical chemical, and then my (allegedly spooky immaterial) mind has all sorts of bizarre hallucinations.

You are now suggesting that I have an immaterial mind that is utterly undetectable, even by me trying to access my own thoughts. On what basis would you say that such a mysterious entity has any relationship even to the mind that I can access through introspection? Do I have two minds now and a physical body? There's the mind that I am aware of in self-awareness, there is my body, and then there's this third entity that no one sees, hears, senses, detects, or can measure in any way, and that is completely causally ineffective in the physical world.

Once again, what evidence do we have to taking such a suggestion seriously at all? Are there any grounds to think it is real? Or are we just making up silly possibilities at random?

Paul Rinzler said...

Matt, If this post doesn't help clarify things, then you don't have to reply, we can just end it there if you wish and I'm sorry to have taken up your time.

I could be wrong, as interpreting tone and perspective via blog posts is fraught with error, so forgive me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me like you pegged me as a theist or an immaterialist from the beginning and you're interpreting everything else I've said in that light. I am an atheist and I lean strongly toward materialism.

Forgive me if I don't respond to the specific points in your last post, as I think they are motivated more from frustration with an theist or immaterialist, and I hope to cut through that misperception by laying it out one more time.

A. Mind/brain studies are consistent with materialism. Results of these studies do not require immaterialism in any way.

B. Mind/brain studies are consistent with immaterialism, through the radio analogy.

C. The consistency in B. above doesn't prove immaterialism, it only removes one possible refutation.

D. There's no particular evidence for immaterialism, but it is not refuted by mind/brain studies. As a hypothesis, it is still consistent with mind/brain studies through the radio analogy.

Eric Sotnak said...

I don't think the radio analogy is sustainable. In the radio case, there is a pairing of two events, one at the point of origination, and one at the point of reception. Strictly speaking, what goes on at the point of reception is inessential. The real action is at the point of origin. So if your radio is on the fritz, the broadcast event at the station goes on just as it otherwise would, unaffected by your misbehaving radio.

But now consider a case where Smith has a stroke and at that time is unable to think of his own name. If the rado analogy were apt, we would expect that if he recovers from the stroke, he would say something like this: "Wow, when I was having my stroke I knew my name but somehow couldn't make my body say it or voice it to myself. It was really frustrating because I just couldn't get my body to accept the signal I was trying to send it, even though it was clearly thee in my non-physical mind the whole time." But that is not what we get. People who have suffered such episodes say that while having the stroke they weren't merely unable to manifest their thoughts in bodily behaviors, they say that they didn't or even couldn't have such thoughts at all. It seems clear that there is no mental point of origin operating independently of the brain/body such that what is inhibited is merely the manifestation of the signal at the point of reception.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Eric. You put this more clearly than I have, I think. This is correct. What we find with these various cases of brain damage and pathology is that the mental capacity is GONE. The subject loses a sophisticated conceptual capacity, or ceases to be able to recognize some category of object. It's not that his mind (on the radio analogy) is completely fine with his making the conceptual distinction or exhibiting the capacity off in this immaterial realm, but it's just his body that won't cooperate. The subject has lost the ability altogether. If the conceptual ability ceases altogether with the damage to the brain, then we have strong evidence for thinking that there is no brain-autonomous mind that is functioning independently.

Karl said...

Excellent article. I would take it a step further. Given that thoughts or ideas are the result of synaptic activity in the brain I would also assert that the entire concept of self, or more specifically the idea of "free will", is no more than an illusion. If our thoughts are the result of synaptic activity rather than the cause of it, there is no mechanism of only appears that we are controlling our thoughts. Similar to watching a player piano play the notes on the piece of paper.


Paul Rinzler said...

Actually, Eric's response brings up a larger issue of how unconsciousness could be integrated into the radio analogy.

The radio analogy might be defeated just on that. I'll do some nosing around and if I come up with anything, I'll be back.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Matt: Also, your analogy is extremely weak, if not blatantly inconsistent. Radio waves are detectable, minds are not. Radio waves interact with the physical universe (electro-magnetic), minds are not.

That is not a tenable hypothesis. The body & brain are part of the physical universe, so this alleged radio-mind interacts with the physical universe.

Anonymous said...

"the entire personality may change."

Yes. I am a different person since being mis-diagnosed and prescribed abilify. I am crueler, much like Phineas Gage after his head injury. I wish this were not so. I have aspergers, and it was mistaken for schizophrenia; we are already biologically predisposed to lacking empathy. I am not happy about this. I am currently doing what I can to repair the damage, and have for years. I do not think much of my safety as a side-effect of the brain damage. This was not the case before I was forced to take a mood stabilizer; horrifyingly--as I suffered brain damage--I told a number of doctors that I was experiencing hallucinations and loss of motor control, and was instructed each time to remain on the drugs without them checking the side-effects, which dictate immediate cessation if hallucinations are experienced. Each told me that I was imagining things, but did nothing more. I've spent the past few years undergoing physical therapy to re-learn how to hold objects and not twitch or run into walls. I suffered from tardive dyskenesia and have since recovered. Thankfully I do not have the desire to act hatefully toward my friends. I believe this is because my emotional attachments were strong enough to survive the chemicals--much like hearing a loved one while in a coma can bring a person to consciousness. However, I do not much go into public anymore because I cannot tolerate rudeness whatsoever. While I am just as good at philosophy and have re-gained my co-ordination I now crave conflict rather than avoid it. This disturbs me. Usually people back down, but, for example, I hit a cop that pulled his weapon on me, and assaulted a sherrif while in jail for assaulting the lead singer of OPM for being a pederast. They dropped the charges each time, but I was not concerned for my life. Instead, my focus was to make them suffer. I am not bothered by this, which is why I am seeking psychological assistance. I should not enjoy the suffering of others. The brain is extremely delicate, and should not be subjected to diagnostic rubrics. Only an expert should identify and treat disorders, not interns with a vested interest in having a clean professional record.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I am not the same person now. While I still care for my friends, they find my lack of self preservation disturbing. I have come to accept that there is a part of me that has died. I have no illusions concerning the non-existence of a soul now. That is the only part of my experience that I am thankful for.

Anonymous said...

To fix an apparent contradiction in my earlier posts, the only reason I am seeking help is because my friends want me to. But I do not think it will do any good.

Anonymous said...


Darren C. said...


Thank you for the thought-provoking post. A few comments:

Firstly, concerning your premise #1, "Human cognitive abilities, memories, personalities, thoughts, emotions, conscious awareness, and self-awareness (in short, the features we attribute to the personal soul) are dependent upon the brain to occur/exist." I would extend this premise statement to include "in the physical world" as all of your supporting evidence relates to the mind and its intersection with our present physical reality.
This may not have final bearing on the state of one's mind without a physical connection or outside of a physical reality.

Secondly, there are numerous documented cases of non-physical connections as it relates to the mind in this physical reality.

Thirdly, there are also numerous documented, clinical cases where functions of the mind existed without a functioning brain being present.

A thorough discussion/proof would have to take these cases into account as well.

Kind regards.

FACoolBreeze said...

I would direct readers of this article to read the book "Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century".

From's Product Description, "Current mainstream opinion in psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy of mind holds that all aspects of human mind and consciousness are generated by physical processes occurring in brains. Views of this sort have dominated recent scholarly publication. The present volume, however, demonstrates_empirically_that this reductive materialism is not only incomplete but false. The authors systematically marshal evidence for a variety of psychological phenomena that are extremely difficult, and in some cases clearly impossible, to account for in conventional physicalist terms. Topics addressed include phenomena of extreme psychophysical influence, memory, psychological automatisms and secondary personality, near-death experiences and allied phenomena, genius-level creativity, and 'mystical' states of consciousness both spontaneous and drug-induced. The authors further show that these rogue phenomena are more readily accommodated by an alternative 'transmission' or 'filter' theory of mind/brain relations advanced over a century ago by a largely forgotten genius, F. W. H. Myers, and developed further by his friend and colleague William James. This theory, moreover, ratifies the commonsense conception of human beings as causally effective conscious agents, and is fully compatible with leading-edge physics and neuroscience. The book should command the attention of all open-minded persons concerned with the still-unsolved mysteries of the mind."

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks FAC. These sorts of alleged "proofs" of the immaterial soul are common. The problem is that no advocate of the autonomous mind these has managed to get one of these "serious pieces of research" published in an legitimate, peer-reviewed journal in neuroscience, psychology, or philosophy that I know of. Until that happens, there is too much higher quality empirical research and philosophy for us to be studying.

Anonymous said...

I'm seriously concerned about why you are so passionate about trying to prove there is no soul. I almost sense a morbid sense of fatalism in your post as though it is your sincerest wish that is in fact no soul or afterlife to speak of. Perhaps you are comforted by the notion that you won't have live with yourself once you pass on? Perhaps your Religious upbringing has left you Jaded and defensive towards all things spiritual, when in fact the true enemy was the dogmatic and narrow minded fool who wishes to quantify the divine. Perhaps Scientific Atheist are much the same: Trying to Quantify the Universe to some measurable unit. Sounds to me as though you must have a real problem with control. Unfortunately for you, the universe is far more complex and mysterious than any system of quantification can give you. As for perception, we are constantly evolving our various views and ideas. Science is a good tool to help give our minds context and indeed reveal certain general truths, however making your Science into a religion is an exercise in futility the likes of which places you in the same category as the religious persecutors you so bitterly hate. Until you can explain how Quantum Entanglement operates and its underlying mechanism, please spare us your biased and naive ramblings as to the existence of the soul, consciousness and the underlying mechanisms of existence. Cheers

heckraiser said...

Haven't you all heard? We are but holographic projections of ourselves. Our entire perception of reality maybe nothing be an conversion of a 2D existence to a 3D perception through quantum entanglement. A atheist myself, I don't feel that the non-existence of God denies the existence of the soul. Could it not be argued that the soul is nothing more than the accumulation of orderly information that decays to chaos upon death. We are but machines to convert matter from one form to another just like the sun or plants. We are all chaos - eventually.

Ian Wardell said...

"Damaging a part of the brain destroys a part of our thoughts, eliminates a cognitive ability, or alters some personal or emotional capacity. Restoring the electrical, chemical functions of the brain renews the mental function".

This does indeed present powerful evidence to suggest consciousness is somehow wholly a product of the brain. However to claim that this demonstrates that the self simply cannot therefore survive the death of the brain, is a step too far.

There's the inevitable question begging going on here as those who are sympathetic towards some type of materialist metaphysic insist that the self (or strictly speaking the sense of self, since the materialist cannot believe in the existence of a proper substantial self) is simply the sum of various cognitive abilties, emotions, interests, memories etc.

No these do not survive. They largely don't survive from childhood to adulthood either.

But I don't want to reinvent the wheel here. I explain all in my essay at the following link:

Another thing to bear in mind is that whilst the self operates through the brain, then a brain which is functionally impaired will result in impaired mental states. But after death the self doesn't operate through the brain so cannot be subject to any impairment. So it doesn't seem the author of this blog fully understands the filter hypothesis of the brain here.

Nevertheless, to reiterate my point, I do agree that mind/brain correlations in and of themselves provide powerful evidence that consciousness is ontologically dependent on the brain.

However, at the end of the day, I think this evidence has to be outweighed by other considerations eg the fact we would have to relinquish the common-sense notion of the self which is more counter-intuitive than anything could possibly be (see my essay). Also there is a huge amount of evidence which points to survival.

MickyD said...

First of all, great article Matt. You make the point on the strength and persistence of the brain / mind correlation. There are, however, instances when this relationship falters. Firstly, there are lucid, well constructed NDE accounts during periods of flatline EEG's, in which it is difficult to imagine a materialist explanation. Also, there are several hundred cases of average to high functioning individuals with up to 95% of their cerebrums missing, as a result of hydroencephaly. Obviously there is high dependence of mind on brain, but there are enough examples that indicate an extra cerebral source to mind.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks MickeyD. Three comments. 1. We don't have evidence of people having experiences during the flatlined period. We might have some cases of someone claiming to have had the experience after they have recovered. But that's not sufficient to show that that's when it happened. 2. A flat EEG is not an indicator of no brain activity. It's an indicator that some very macro measurements don't detect anything. We'd need proof of experience during a period of complete cessation of all brain activity. But no one has ever come back from that. 3. You're just misinformed here. There are no "high functioning" humans with 95 percent of their brains gone. There are some in vegetative states with the majority gone perhaps.

MickyD said...

Hi Matt, my Ph.D is in chemical engineering, so I will bow to your expertise in this area, however for point 1: I know of several well attested cases of veridical OBE reports under a flat EEG (for example Pam Reynolds, a famous case from the early nineties).
Point 2: Agreed an EEG is a macro measurement, and we don't know about deep brain activity in flatline cases, but it is hard to imagine coherent well structured lucid experiences emerging from people with severely compromised neurological function as the result of anoxia.
Point 3: see here: an article published in Science :

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks MickeyD. I don't think you're understanding my point in 1. Suppose that someone has a flat EEG from 10:00 to 10:05. Then they are revived and come back to consciousness at, say, 11:30. Then they report, "I had a feeling of floating up a tunnel, I saw God, or. . . " or whatever. Now how do we establish that the experience they are describing occurred between 10:00 and 10:05? Did he check his angel watch and it read 10:03 when he was floating? Why trust his assertion? He doesn't know when he was flatlining. Why not think it was produced during the recovery period from 10:05 to 11:30? Why not think that hedging, fabrication, exaggeration, revisions, editing, and a lack of double blind testing led to a mistake? I can cite hundreds of cases where that's what happened? We can't just assume that if someone says they had an experience that it must have happened during the flat line period. In fact, we have a mountain of evidence that suggests that not when it happened.
On 2. I don't know the details of this case, but anecdotal reports from enthusiastic patients or paranormal enthusiast doctors are a non-starter. Show me a double blind, peer reviewed study with some semblance of scientific scrutiny and skepticism applied to it and I'll listen.
On 3, I don't see a "95% of brain missing with no compromise in function" claim here. And same as for 2. Instead of breathless anecdotes, let's see a real peer reviewed study or a serious critical analysis. The capacity of the human mind for self-deception for the things we want to believe is staggering, and many a doctor and scientist has fallen under the hypnotic spell of the pseudo science and paranormalism. Then when someone sober looks at it, the so called evidence--the hundreds or thousands of cases--evaporate.

MickyD said...

Thanks again:
Okay here goes:
"Now how do we establish that the experience they are describing occurred between 10:00 and 10:05? Did he check his angel watch and it read 10:03 when he was floating?" I'm not sure about Angels but there are veridical accounts in which events are known to have occurred at a time when the person was flatlining and later corroborated. Pim van Lommels prospective 2001 study in the Lancet and more recently Penny Sartori from Southampton hospital in the UK. Additionally there are several well attested cases such as the "Dentures case" that show numerous recalled events during flat EEG.

" I don't see a "95% of brain missing with no compromise in function" claim here." Lorber's own estimate is between 50 - 150g for the most extreme cases. This is 90% to 97% of missing brain matter (1500kg).

MickyD said...

oooops, that should be 1500g.

Matt McCormick said...

Hi MickeyD. Thanks for thinking about this question with me so closely. Let me take a different approach because I don't think you really believe the claim you are making and I don't think you really think that the evidence you are citing supports it either. Here's the test. Your claim appears to be that brains are not necessary or needed for thinking or having a mind. So go to your local neurology department and tell them that you'd like to have your brain removed. Show them the evidence you are showing me, and tell them that this evidence clearly shows that brains are unnecessary for thinking. Just look at this guy in the study--he's getting by just fine without 90% of his. Tell them you'd like to drop the weight, or you'd like to keep your keys or wallet up there, or something. If this evidence is compelling evidence for your thesis, then just like your appendix is unnecessary and your tonsils, there should be no harm done by getting it removed, right? Do you think they will be convinced? Do you even think that Penny Sartori, or van Lommels, or John Lorber would agree that this is the implied conclusion? Maybe Dr. Lorber would be willing to perform the elective surgery on you, right?

Now, seriously, do you think that brains are not required for mental functions? Do you really think that the cases you are citing are compelling enough counter evidence to the mountains of evidence that clearly and directly tie mental function to specific neural structure function?

Kristofer said...

This is from the Lorber Study-

Lorber divides the subjects into four categories: those with minimally enlarged ventricles; those whose ventricles fill 50 to 70 percent of the cranium; those in which the ventricles fill between 70 and 90 percent of the intracranial space; and the
most severe group, in which ventricle expansion fills 95 percent of the cranium.

Many of the individuals in this last group, which forms just less than 10 percent of the total sample, are severely disabled, but half of them have IQ's greater
than 100. This group provides some of the most dramatic examples of apparently normal function against all odds.

So Matt is mistaken about his claim no one missing 95% of his brain has a normal IQ.

Of course with NDEs we have the famous case of Pam Reynolds who was flatlined , and she heard and described the details of her surgery correctly. This is pretty impressive considered she was unconscious, under general anesthesia, had earplugs in her ear beeping at a constant 98 decibels and her eyes were tapped shut. Do not forget to mention she was flatlined.

Dr Woerlee tried to make some feeble objections to this case, but I crushed him in November-

Kristofer said...

Matt no has proven that the brain produces the mind, at best we have proven that the mind and the brain interact. That is all the data shows period. I will challenge you for one observation that cannot also be used by the transmission theory. Many a lab rat and lizard has had large parts of it's brains removed in an attempt the isolate the part of the brain which stores memory. It has not been found.

However, I do 100% think cases from the Lorber study do falsify the production view. If missing 95% of the brain is not enough to falsify the view that the mind is produced by the brain then what is enough to falsify it?

If someone holds to the production view after acknowledging the Lorber study then they are engaging in a faith based enterprise. It is absurd to believe the brain produces consciousness when we have 100s of literally brainless people with normal minds. If not, why not?

So yes I think things such as NDEs, and the Lorber study effectively disprove the production view of consciousness.

Matt McCormick said...

Notice that Lorber does not agree with the conclusion you guys are drawing. He thinks that it is the remaining functioning brain tissue that is responsible for the patient's capacities. He does not infer that minds don't need brain: The scans of the functioning brain tissue are unclear--"I can't say whether the mathematics student has a brain weighing 50 or 150 grams, but it's clear that it is nowhere near the normal 1.5 kilograms," asserts Lorber, "and much of the brain he does have is in the more primitive deep structures that are relatively spared in hydrocephalus." . . . "there must be a tremendous amount of redundancy or spare capacity in the brain. . . "

As for hearing things when you are unconscious, phenomena like blindsight have made it quite clear that our brains detect lots of sensory input that does not make it to the conscious awareness level.

You guys need to get clear on the different indicators of death and what can be inferred about them.

Cardio pulmonary death occurs when no heart beat or respiration are detectable. But no detectable heartbeat does not equal no heartbeat, as many mistakes in the hospital have shown. Dreaming, hallucinations, and lots of other experiences that the fabrications of brain function can happen during CP death. Neural cells continue to metabolize and function with oxygen in the system.

Brain death is declared with no reflex responses, no breathing, and no detectable brain stem activity. But same problem: failure to detect brain activity with crude, macro EEGs does not equal no brain activity. There are billions of cells in the brain and their electrical/chemical activities are far below the level that an EEG can detect.

McCormick Death: the point at which all metabolic activity in all neural cells ceases.

Some sort of controlled and confirmed evidence of subjective, conscious experience during a period of McCormick death would be valuable evidence for mind independence from brains. We don't have any evidence like that because brains don't recover from that.

I haven't read the Pam Reynolds case, but I'm skeptical. Anecdotal reports from patients, doctors, and nurses are very often exaggerated, details are rearranged, there are embellishments, and so on. I can give you all an extensive bibliography on the double-blind, peer reviewed research about the unreliability of human memory if you want.

Kristofer said...

Here is a good start to the Pam Reynold's case then and NDEs in general-

You can also read my discussion with Dr Woerlee on this case. I will be blunt Dr Woerlee is one of the few people who remotely attempts to explain the case with the dying brain. Keith Augustine has conceded he cannot explain this case and I have seem him quibble at break neck speed before.

For a more in depth discussion on this case you can read the following:

Light and Death by Michael Sabom

Journal of Near Death Studies Volume 25, Number, Summer of 2007

I can give you more sources if you so wish.

I am seriously going to recommend you research this case before you comment more on it. It is not anecdotal at all. We know who the surgeon is, he has been interviewed many times, we have all the medical records. Until recently we could interview Pam Reynold's too. ( she died recently)

You misunderstand the issue of hearing while unconscious. First Pam was under general anesthesia. Secondly she had earplugs in her ear constantly beeping at 98 decibels in order to monitor her brain activity. 98 decibels is the equivalent of a subway train 200 feet away from a person.

Here is Sabom's description

"The BAEP's (brain-stem auditory evoked potentials) are recorded by far-field techniques following broad-band click stimuli (100 usec rectangular pulse monophasic square waves) delivered via molded ear speakers (Fig. 2). Clicks of alternating polarity are used at stimulus levels of 90 to 100 dB (sound pressure level) at rates of 11 to 33/sec. The contralateral ear is masked to prevent bone-conducted acoustic crossover.

Here is a brief description of it

"Further, Steven Cordova, Neuroscience Manager at the Barrow Neurological Institute, who was the intraoperative technologist responsible for inserting small molded speakers into Robert Spetzler's patients in the early 1990s when Reynolds's surgery was performed, told me that after these speakers were molded into each external auditory canal, they were further affixed with 'mounds of tape and gauze to seal securely the ear piece into the ear canal' (S. C. Cordova, personal communication, October, 10, 2006). This 'tape and gauze' would 'cover the whole ear pinnae' making it extremely unlikely that Reynolds could have physically overheard operating room conversation one hour and twenty five minutes after anesthesia had been induced (p. 259).".

Here own surgeon, Dr Spetzler says hearing should have been impossible during the surgery. As the man is a brain surgeon I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt with this issue .

Lorber's explanation is obviously wrong for the following reason.

Mathematically at a minimum a 95% brain loss must reduce neuron cells by at least 50 percent. Neuron cells are identified by production theory as making consciousness, therefore if production theory is to have any meaning we would expect a reduction in consciousness and ability by at least 50%. However as Lorber documented we have over 100 individuals known to have normal IQs who for all purpose brainless. While I cannot explain the data, it is quite obvious something else besides the brain is causing consciousness in those individuals. So for them production theory must be false. If a theory cannot count for all the facts, then the theory must be false.

NDEs are hard to fit into the production theory because she should not happen at all when a brain is barely conscious ( and certainly barely conscious is being charitable, these people appear to be quite dead most of the times). Production theory would suggest when you remove all or almost of the traits necessary for consciousness consciousness would end, not become super consciousness as reported by NDers. Again, if a theory cannot count for all the facts, then the theory must be false.

Gerald Woerlee said...

I was trawling the internet to see if I could get a glimpse of some prelminary versions / chapters of the book to which you are apparently a contributor. The small snippet on this blog together with your discussion with (devil's advocate?), Paul Rinzler, was interesting but all too short.

The approach of saying that inconsistencies in the physical evidence will prove William James transmission theory of mind will certainly be lauded as valid by those who believe in the literal reality of near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences. To these people, these experiences are this inexplicable inconsistency, and proof of this alternative transmission theory of William James.

I await any further discussions with interest.