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Spirits and Souls

January 15, 2011

Steve and I were having a discussion in the comments on my last post related to Intelligence and Creativity.  I responded to his first comment with a quote from Richard Feynman, which I’ll reproduce here,

“The most important hypothesis in all of biology is that everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics.”

– Richard Feynman

Steve responded, leaving a wonderful comment which I wanted to reply to, but I felt it best to reply with its own post so I could include videos.  His comment was as follows,

Jason, interconnectedness is a very widespread notion if not insight among religious mystics and sages as well as systems theorists in various scientific disciplines and philosophers.

Alan Watts used to explain it this way: The more meticulously you describe and explain the nature and function of a given thing in the universe, the more you find yourself describing and explaining the environmental context in which that ostensibly individual thing exists and functions. For example, you can’t fully describe a human being as, among other characteristics, a walking, talking, breathing, eating, thinking, toolmaking animal without also describing the ground on which he walks, the air he breathes, the materials he fashions into tools, the physical world and non-physical society and culture in which he talks and about which he thinks and so on and so on. And the logical as well as mystical implication of this is that the individual human being is actually an individual-environment field, with the environment ultimately encompassing the entire universe. Or as Carl Sagan so evocatively put it, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

With all due respect to Richard Feynman, for whom I had enormous respect, I think it’s simplistic to reduce everything to physics. I suspect that biological not to mention psychological, social, cultural, and “spiritual” phenomena are “emergent” realities that physics, no matter how sophisticated it becomes, will never be able to fully explain. For instance, do you think even the most refined physics “Theory of Everything” will ever be able to explain the thoughts behind this exchange of communication we’re having here now? I don’t think so, nor do I think that neurobiology will be able to completely explain it either. That is, I think that processes go on in our minds that cannot be entirely reduced to processes occurring in atoms and energy or in our brains, and that our thoughts expressed here are not entirely reducible to neuronal circuits and impulses. Again, they are emergent phenomena with top-down as well as bottom-up causes.

I have a great deal of respect for your position.  There is a lot science can’t currently explain, and the problems we’re dealing with are of incredible difficulty.  As you’ve read in my other posts about consciousness, I entertain a similar sort of idea that neuronal impulses are not all there is to what we are.  It’s possible that those brain cells firing and vibrating communicate with a spirit, a soul, or possibly other forms of matter which we don’t currently understand.  I don’t know.  I’ll give some of my thoughts on that problem here in a moment.  I hate to hear you’ve lost respect for Richard Feynman, especially considering he’s one of my heroes.  I can’t speak for him, but I think it’s important that we lay down how scientists think and how they pursue answering difficult questions.  Scientists follow the scientific method, and the most important things they look for are testability and predictability.  Those are the true hallmarks of science.  You have to ask yourself whether spiritual phenomena can be subjected to testing and predictions.  Feynman was the quintessential scientist.  That’s how he saw the world and how he pursued understanding it.  You mentioned the search for the theory of everything.  Feynman wasn’t searching for a theory of everything.  Here are two videos of Feynman himself talking about how the pursuit of knowledge and what he thought of the social sciences.  Hopefully they’ll clarify his position on things.

Next he talks about the social sciences.

You brought up whether or not there’s more to us having this conversation than brain cells firing.  I’ll share my thoughts, for what they may be worth (which I don’t feel is very much).  What I do know is that medical patients with injuries to Brodmann areas 44 and 45 (Broca’s areas) in their brain (say from a stroke), have lost their ability to speak.  If I were to injure those areas in my own brain, I’d also lose my ability to type out this response to you.  That’s very powerful evidence that the brain is the main factor when it comes to language production.  At the very least, we must conclude that it’s one step in the process.  The same applies to understanding what others say to you (processing the audio coming into the ears and translating it into thought).

I don’t have any evidence for a spirit or a soul.  To my understanding, there is no way to test for such things.  If that’s the case, then we’re dealing with speculation, and if I were to apply Occam’s razor to this problem, when two theories are competing to explain a phenomena, you should follow the theory that explains it using the least assumptions.  Since that’s the case, if someone asks me what’s involved in language production I tell them about Broca’s area in the brain, and if they ask for more, I tend to say, “I don’t know.”

But, I also think it’s important to remember a quotation from Bertrand Russell.  In his book Philosophy For Laymen he says the following,

“…it is not enough to recognize that all our knowledge is in a greater or less degree, uncertain and vague, it is necessary at the same time, to learn to act upon the best hypothesis without dogmatically believing it.”

– Bertrand Russell, Philosophy For Laymen

There may well be a spirit or a soul, or something else involved as well.  Only 4.6% of the mass-energy existing in the universe is attributed to the ordinary matter which we’re all used to (our brains being made of such ordinary matter).  The rest is attributed to dark energy and dark matter.  We know it’s there but we don’t understand all that much about it.  Maybe those brain cells vibrate and wiggle in such a way that interacts with dark matter and dark energy?  *shrugs*  Or maybe something entirely different is going on?  *shrugs*  Overall, the only way I think we can advance is to continue the scientific method.  The best hypothesis for these things that I’ve seen is neuronal assemblies firing in various ways and patterns, and using that as a starting point, I’m hoping to explain as much of consciousness as possible.

To return to your comment, I love the way Alan Watts framed the problem.  I don’t disagree with anything you said, really.  When I think about what our brains may be doing, I think of a whirlpool in the ocean.  The whirlpool can’t exist without the water surrounding it.  It’s a sort of patterned movement of the water, inwardly directed.  I think the brain is similar in nature.  For example, with vision, the input is the electrical signals produced by stimulation to the photo-receptors in our eyes, which then flows through our brain circuits, then leads to flow back out into the environment.  Inside our heads is a sort of whirlpool of information flowing – input, output, input, output – always in constant communication.  That process inside our heads forms a simplistic model of the world which it uses to formulate its outputs, such as bodily movements, words we say to others around us, and other decisions we make.

Here’s a video of a whirlpool in the ocean.  You can see that without the water all around it, it can’t exist.  The water and the whirlpool are one and the same thing.  Though there are physical differences involved, for the most part, the separation only exists in our mind, which sees the bluish patterns moving differently.  And since it looks different, our brains treat it as a different object.  To think of the whirlpool as separate from the ocean around it is part of that simplification process – the simplified “virtual world” going on inside our heads in our brains.

I find it difficult to understand the idea that we all have a separate spirit or soul.  I don’t claim to fully know the answer to that question, but here’s a thought experiment which I can’t figure out.  Say two people are walking down the street, each with their separate soul.  Then a mad scientist thinks up a devious scheme.  He kidnaps both people and sedates them in his lab.  He cuts open their skulls, exposing their brains.  Further assume that this scientist is a brilliant neuroscientist who really knows what he’s doing.  He begins to wire the two brains together.  He wires their visual systems together.  He then wires their audio systems together.  He starts adding new wiring to control artificial appendages.  This scientist really goes to work on these people.

By the end of this “experiment”, we have a two-headed cyborg, sharing some body parts but not others.  We have six arms, each “person” gaining an additional arm, yet they’re forced to share two legs.  As this fusion took place, did the two “souls” for the individuals also fuse together?  What happened to their free will throughout this experiment?  Or even if it’s neuronal assemblies firing off, what separates me from you?  And as we’re being fused together by this mad scientist, when do we cease being us and individuals and instead become the fused monstrosity?

When I hear debates on the individual and reductionism, I always hear about the individual being extinguished when the brain is destroyed or damaged.  But what happens if the brain isn’t exactly destroyed but is combined and added to other brains?  What happens to individuals and consciousness?  We know the brain produces these states, but it’ll come down to nitty gritty details to figure out this problem.

For these sorts of reasons, I tentatively believe that the differences between any two sentient beings isn’t all that great.  Just like the whirlpool, we’re both existing within the same ocean.  We’re the same thing.  We’re part of the same universe.  We’re made of the same stuff.  We’re connected and the same.  The two whirlpools may combine in some weird way and a new conscious experience may take place – I don’t know. I don’t claim to understand spirituality, but of by ‘spirituality’ we’re referring to each of us having an individual spirit, I feel it disconnects me this picture.  I don’t feel the deep essence by which we all exist is fundamentally different.  But, spirituality can mean a lot of different things to different people.

I’ll end this with one final note.   The deeper you probe into physics, such as quantum mechanics for instance, you find that matter can do some amazing things.  The atoms of which things are made is no simple business.  I feel it unwise to underestimate the atom’s abilities.  I personally wouldn’t be surprised if “ordinary” matter can produce all our states of consciousness and all the variations of it.  But as I said, I don’t know.  It all comes down to further testing and probing.  Then again, it’s possible that such probing will never explain things.

Oh wait, and one more thing.  A second final note, if I’m allowed? (This is my blog, why am I asking you all for permission?)  This is related to coming to an understanding of the universe.  The attempt to understand the universe by knowledge and learning.  First, a quotation from Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein (a book I’m in love with).

“Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.”

– Mary Shelley

She also is noted to have said:

“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule.”

– Mary Shelley

As a physicist, I can’t help but think about quantum information theory and what a mind is.  Without going into the details, it’s important to note that understanding something means that that information exists within your brain in some way that correlates with reality.  Remember the whirlpool analogy.  The mind is an instrument where information flows in, computations are performed, and then information flows back out.  Let’s theoretically say a person wanted to know everything.  Then there would have to be a sort of whirlpool that contains all the water of the ocean, because it requires energy to store and process all that information.  But then there can’t be an environment for that mind to process and understand.  In short, it’s self-defeating.  It makes no sense to desire to understand everything.  I think the mind must always keep an oversimplified model of the world in its head so that it doesn’t take up all the energy of the universe in order to store and process all the knowledge.  A weird thought.

Thinking on that same note, I guess in a sense, you become God if you knew everything.  You also seem to become everything, in a weird sense.  These are the sorts of reasons why I find concepts of God difficult to understand.  God knows everything, yet is separate from this world.  I’ll simply state that I don’t understand how that’s possible.  But, don’t get me wrong, I’m not God, and such a great being doesn’t have to bend toward my petty understanding of things.  I’m an agnostic who doesn’t know.

I think life is more about the experience.  Then again, I don’t advocate thrill seeking either.  For us to exist as individuals and interact with one another, we have to be finite and limited in our understanding (assuming the conservation of energy holds).  This is a complicated issue which I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past year.  Sometimes I even think our pursuits as scientists to think of a “theory of everything” and to “understand everything” is flawed thinking to begin with.  We should probably listen to Mary Shelley, or at the very least, think hard about what she’s saying.  I’ll have to write in detail on this topic some other time.  *shrugs*  What do I know about this world anyway?  Not much, not much.

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”

– William Shakespeare, As You Like it (Act V, Scene I)

It takes a genius to know approximately how stupid he really is.

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