Today we are going to look at one of the biggest questions of mankind. We’ve been asking it for millennia, and still no one has an answer. While neuroscientists have figured out a lot regarding how the brain works, it is consciousness that partly remains a mystery. Those scientists can tell us all about the electrochemical reactions in parts of the brain when we are angry or sad, but we don’t really know why, we, as humans, contemplate those feelings.
Some people say we are mindboggling algorithms, and that’s why we can’t program computers to think like us. As the purpose of consciousness is unknown to us, we can’t program it into something else. That’s why some people posit that we are blessedly special; how special we are, is what we’ll discuss today, in this episode of the Infographics Show, What is the soul?
We have to turn to religion in order to examine when the idea of a soul was first born. Judeo-Christianity told us that only humans have souls, and that these souls are immortal. So even if the physical body dies, this soul will carry on existing. Christians often talk about the soul entering heaven. The 13th century philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, said all things that breathe have a soul, but it’s only us humans that have immortal souls. Plato also believed in something non-physical that can transport after the body is dead, while Rene Descartes – famous for the saying “I think therefore I am” – endorsed this mind-body dualism. That simply means there is something other than the physical body.
Other Eastern religions says there is a soul in all living things, and animists take it a step further in that all things, including nature itself, has a soul. The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza said we are all part of nature, we are all one, but rocks are just not as complex as humans.
We might call this complexity the mind. The fact that we have this mind, or consciousness, makes us better than the animals, or so we are told. We are self-aware, we plan, we regret, we lament, we can think abstractly and have moments of divine creativity.
For a long time, we thought animals had no feelings or anything more than mechanical thoughts, and we were much crueler to them than we are now. It’s only in modern times that we have things such as animal rights, not only because animals feel pain, but because we are now realizing that they are probably more complex than we first thought. We used to say animals don’t plan for tomorrow, but now we watch videos of a naughty chimpanzee called Santino who schemes and plans and designs for tomorrow, so he can better hit people with rocks at Sweden’s Furuvik Zoo. Does it have a soul? According to Yuval Noah Harari’s recent book, “Homo Deus”, the answer is no. Souls are hogwash, we just haven’t figured out the complex consciousness algorithm yet.
As one scientific paper argues in its abstract: “The computations implemented by current deep-learning networks correspond mostly to nonconscious operations in the human brain.” Meaning, we are not even close to mimicking consciousness, but we can program certain actions. Turn left, turn right, move Queen to F7, but we can’t program a computer to ask what is the point of chess? Why turn in any direction, isn’t everything futile anyway? Why am I here…I need to go jogging to recalibrate my Id.
So, we can say that the soul could be this thing we call consciousness, something complex that science doesn’t fully understand. But science tells us this thing is part of us, that there is no mind-body dualism, and empirical inquiry also tells us there is no such thing as an after-life. We will stick with science from here on, as religion for the most part doesn’t go much further than saying ‘within the body is a soul and that doesn’t die’. And while some may say there is a soul in all living things, in the case of rocks having a soul we just have to see this as a leap of faith. Faith is subjective, so it’s not something we can talk about in this show. There is a speculative theory that the universe itself is conscious, called “panpsychism”, but we won’t get into that today.
So, for science, if it deemed to even admit a soul existed, what it would be referring to is a mind. But as we know already, this is no simple matter and we are not close to figuring out how it works. We are told by science that we live and we die, and there is nothing in-between, no incorporeal essence, nothing that can transcend the physical world that we see.
Even if you’ve been in the Peruvian jungle and downed a shot of ayahuasca, if you saw heaven and angels and felt part of everything, science says you were the artist and architect of those visions. You can surely perceive things differently, as is written in the book “The Doors of Perception”, but this is only because your brain is working at a different level. ‘Everything is in the mind’ is the current popular view, “Esse est percipi”, meaning “to be is to be perceived.”
But it gets more messed up.
There are some people who say reality doesn’t even exist until we observe it. Researcher and physicist Andrew Truscott said this, “Measurement is everything. At the quantum level, reality does not exist if you are not looking at it.” You might argue that we don’t have a soul that can live without us, but what is fascinating to some scientists is the fact that we and nature are kind of one. Other animals that have minds are also part of this making things exist. As one writer argued in The Huffington Post, “Without consciousness, space and time are nothing. From this viewpoint, by virtue of being a living creature, you can never die.” We’re sure you’ve all heard the question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
We understand the importance of consciousness in the world. It is everything to us but could be everything to everything else. It’s integral to existence, so when we talk about the soul of an empire, a football team, or a car, we are just talking about the most important part of it, the driving force. In these terms, soul as consciousness sounds almost digestible.
But what the hell is this soul as consciousness?
In 2018, American neuroscientist Christof Koch wrote an article in the Scientific American. He said for 25 years, he’s been thinking about this and was also hired by Barack Obama to map the human brain, an initiative that cost billions of dollars. Koch once said he started studying the brain and mind because he was Roman Catholic and wanted to prove science didn’t have the answers. He no longer thinks Gods and souls exist. “What is it about a highly excitable piece of brain matter that gives rise to consciousness?” he asked.
If some parts of the brain are injured, he says, we lose certain functions of the body, but we remain conscious, we can think and feel. But, he says, remove small regions of the part of the brain called the posterior cortex and we lose much of our ability to see, to recognize things, to feel space around us. Conscious experiences start in this region, he says, though adds, what is the big difference from these back areas of the brain, and the frontal regions that don’t account for what we call subjective experience? He doesn’t know, and no one else does, either.
Most science agrees on something fundamental when we talk about this great thing known as the mind and how it works. Humans store a great deal of information, we have a huge database in our brains, some of it is front-shelf memory and we are able to retrieve it easily, some of it is saved somewhere on a hard drive we forgot about. This is sometimes called a “subconscious”. We don’t have the capacity to remember everything at will.
But when we perform an action, thinking or doing, networks of neurons fire and collate this data. Once this is done in no time at all, we become conscious of this information. So, if you see a blue bus, you become aware of many things: the one that almost hit you, the one you missed, the one you made love in, and the blue you think would match your lovely new sweater. But these thoughts and memories and feelings are tapping into a database that is beyond our understanding.
We do know that the brain is firing millions of signals, though. Comparing that to a modern computer is like comparing a badly drawn straight line to the topography of the entire planet. We know these things are happening when we are nuanced in feeling about the love we half believe in, but we can’t fully explain what is going on in the mind.
We also know the brain is not perfect, we are sometimes unreliable narrators of our own lives, we have biases, we believe things that might not be true even though the evidence in our memory should not let this happen. Experiments have shown that experience and how we narrate this experience can be contradictory, sometimes causing us to do the wrong thing – at least in terms of our well-being. For this reason, some scientists tell us consciousness is messy, a sometimes-haphazard firing of signals with an unreliable outcome.
In that case consciousness is an illusion, say some, just the aggregate of many, many sensations. Maybe the soul is this imperfect cake made from the millions of ingredients our brain churns out by the minute. This is why some folks, such as Oxford University’s AI expert Nick Bostrom, tell us there is a chance in the future that artificial intelligence will eat us for dinner. Our souls are imperfect.
So, what are your thoughts on the matter? What do you think is the soul? Can you explain consciousness? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video called What Happens When You Die? Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!