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A few weeks ago a friend of mine said, after the news reported another terrible act of human savagery, “How can people do things like this and still have souls?”
Then, a couple of days later, another friend told me that she was going through a real crisis of faith, and wondered aloud “If we all have some level of consciousness, why does mine seem so shriveled and atrophied? I feel like my soul is sick.”
To top off that recurring theme, yesterday I read through an interesting online discussion about the existence of the soul, human consciousness and an afterlife. One person weighed in by saying: “There is no God, no life after death, and no soul! When we die that’s it! When will you superstitious religious people understand that dead is dead? You close your eyes, you’re buried in the dirt, and it’s over!”
So I pondered, after all of these questions, doubts and strident opinions, about the existence of the human soul. More and more, it seems, people question whether we have souls. That questioning, it seems to me, lies at the root of the increasing post-modern rejection of faith. How can anyone believe in a Creator if they can’t believe in a personal soul? So I thought that it might be a good idea to take a look at this important issue from both the scientific and spiritual perspectives, starting with the science.
Before we do that, though, I want to make my own beliefs clear. I’m a Baha’i, and Baha’is believe in the existence of the human soul. My experiences in life have firmly convinced me that I have one — and that everyone else does, too. Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, explicitly said that every human being possesses a soul:
The first life, which pertaineth to the elemental body, will come to an end… But the second life, which ariseth from the knowledge of God, knoweth no death … – Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries
Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah.
But oh! how strange and pitiful! Behold, all the people are imprisoned within the tomb of self, and lie buried beneath the nethermost depths of worldly desire! Wert thou to attain to but a dewdrop of the crystal waters of divine knowledge, thou wouldst readily realize that true life is not the life of the flesh but the life of the spirit. For the life of the flesh is common to both men and animals, whereas the life of the spirit is possessed only by the pure in heart who have quaffed from the ocean of faith and partaken of the fruit of certitude. This life knoweth no death, and this existence is crowned by immortality. … If by “life” be meant this earthly life, it is evident that death must needs overtake it. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude
So let’s kick this discussion off with a hotly-debated scientific, neurological and philosophical question, one still unresolved and unanswered by modern science: Where is the seat of human consciousness? If we have a soul, where does it live? In other words, Where does “I” reside?
If you’re a philosopher or a student of contemporary thought, you’re already very familiar with this critical line of inquiry as “the Hard Problem of Consciousness,” so long debated and ruminated over that it has achieved capital-letter status in philosophy. Essentially, the Hard Problem asks: “Why is there a subjective component to our experience?” or “Why does our inner awareness exist?”
David Chalmers, the New York University professor and modern philosopher who initially posed the question, wrote in a 1995 paper, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”:
It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does. …
The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect.
Chalmers asks why we feel things so deeply — basically, why we all seem to have something inside us that responds profoundly to beauty, to the higher emotions like love, to the mysterious and mystical aspects of life. Alternatively, you could summarize the Hard Problem this way: “What makes us thinking, feeling entities, and not just sophisticated information-processing robots?” Presumably, evolution could have left out our consciousness and our ability to be self-aware — but it didn’t. Why?
We normally think of the center of our consciousness as our “mind,” and in the Western traditions we typically associate the mind with the brain. Many of us believe that our awareness, our thoughts and feelings originate from someplace in our brains — that the physical three-pound organ between our ears produces everything we normally would define as human consciousness. Consciousness, in other words, comes solely from the electrical impulses our neurons generate.
But it might surprise you to learn that neuroscience, the study of the human brain, has begun to question that basic premise, as seen in “The Unity of Consciousness” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
No medical procedure to do with consciousness has received as much philosophical attention in recent times as commissurotomies, more commonly known as brain bisection operations. … In these operations, the corpus callosum is cut. The corpus callosum is a large strand of about 200,000,000 neurons running from one [brain] hemisphere to the other. When present, it is the chief channel of communication between the hemispheres. These operations, done mainly in the 1960s but recently reintroduced in a somewhat modified form, are a last-ditch effort to control certain kinds of severe epilepsy by stopping the spread of seizures from one lobe of the cerebral cortex to the other.
In normal life, patients show little effect of the operation. In particular, their consciousness of their world and themselves appears to remain as unified as it was prior to the operation.
So even radical surgery which physically separates the two hemispheres of the biological brain does not have the ability to displace the unity of human consciousness. This phenomena has also been extensively documented in traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients, whose consciousness often remains intact despite the loss of brain matter and cognitive or physical function.
All of this raises the issue of human consciousness and where it comes from to another plane, and potentially into the lofty regions of the metaphysical: can everything ultimately be explained by the physical sciences, or do some explanations, by necessity, go beyond the purely material and into the realm of the spiritual?
This question separates those who study it into two distinct camps:
- materialists (or, as some would say, physicalists) who believe that nothing exists beyond the physical; or that all things have a physical cause
- and those who think of consciousness as something over and above our physical being, as Alan Watts put it.
In this series of essays we’ll explore those two positions, examine how the Baha’i teachings address them both, and see if we can come to some conclusions about the Hard Problem of Consciousness.