Soul Searching

The Closer to Truth team recently did a series of interviews addressing the following question: Do persons have souls? Interviewees included philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett; author, medical doctor and holistic healer, Deepak Chopra; philosopher Eleonore Stump; Warren Brown, Director of the Edward Travis Research Institute at the Fuller Theological Seminary and Professor of Psychology; psychologist and parapsychologist, Charles Tart; author and religious studies scholar, Houston Smith; and cognitive linguist and author George Lakoff.

What struck me about all of these interviews was how traditionally everyone seemed to address the question from their individual philosophical, theological, or psychological perspectives. George Lakoff points to the way the brain creates metaphors that will produce the sense that there is a separation between the experiencing subject and the self. Warren Brown suggests that the notion of the soul might be better understood with the word person, a word which seems to apply to both the physical and idea-driven aspects to human experience. Charles Tart points out that individuals have seen the part of themselves that is not physical in out of body experiences and near death experiences. Deepak Chopra reminds us that Schrodinger once said that consciousness is a singular that has no plural. And he makes useful corrections to some of our habits of thought. He suggests, for example, that the personal aspect of consciousness is like a wave in the ocean, a pattern of movement. It’s real, but it disappears. He also suggests that our minds have produced evidence for a multiverse, so why are we so suspect of the notion of eternity. Bottom line for Chopra, the ultimate truth is consciousness, and we cannot fully express it. In Part One of the series on the soul, philosopher and parapsychologist Stephen Braude made clear that he is not just an anti-physicalist, but he is anti-mechanist. “There is one kind of stuff,” he says, that can be looked at through any number of conceptual grids. He levels the playing field. Every set of descriptive terms leaves something out. No description of nature can be complete.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time looking for philosophical shifts in physics and biology, as well as unexpected developments in, or applications of mathematics. I’ve tried to identify innovative efforts in these areas because they often lend support to to my own ideas about the nature and value of mathematics. So many novel approaches to biology and physics have important implications for how we might think about mind, consciousness, spirit and the soul. Yet none of these were relevant to the Closer to Truth inquiry. When Plato was invoked, there was no acknowledgement that his eternal world of ideals is tied to our empirical study of our surroundings through mathematics – an observation that warrants some thought.

Listening to the interviews also made me more aware that a fairly provocative and well-known idea has still had only modest impact on how we see ourselves and our world. In 1987 biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela formalized a new approach to biology and to cognition in particular. It is a perspective defined by the notion of autopoiesis, the self-creating nature of life itself, and the more generalized notion of cognition that this perspective brings about. The key to their strategy is to begin with the understanding that our experience is tied to our individual structure in a binding way. From their point of view, what we experience is due more to our own structure than to what exists around us. Maturana and Varela make their case in the book, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. From their book:

The experience of anything out there is validated in a special way by the human structure, which makes possible “the thing” that arises in the description.

The seeds of these ideas appear in The Neurophysiology of Cognition, an article published by Maturana in 1969. In that article he raises an unexpected question. Does cognition just transcribe, for us, the truth of the world around us, or is it a biological phenomenon whose nature we do not actually understand? For most of us, our own immediate sense of what we seem to know, feels like the simple gathering of information from the world around us. We believe that the information that we gather is out there and independent of us. If we take this as our starting point, Maturana argues, then questions about cognition will be mostly concerned with how it works and how to use it. But Maturana takes a step back from this. For him, cognition itself is the unknown. As Maturana sees it, the question we should be asking is, “What kind of biological phenomenon is the phenomenon of cognition?” What is it doing? This is broader than even a question about how the mind is related to the brain. If this question is our starting point, the nature of a reality that is independent of us becomes fairly difficult to discern. We are fully and dynamically embedded in our reality. Since we find mathematics in brain processes themselves, this sets the stage for the possibility that mathematics, itself, is something we participate in rather than something we produce. The effect of this embededness would challenge us to be more rigorous in all of our inquiries, whether physical or metaphysical because we are never fully independent of what we see.

Some of the potential in the notion of autopoiesis appears in the work of Karl Friston, a neuroscientist who is known for his contributions to neuroimaging technology but who, more recently, is receiving a lot of attention because of a theoretical framework he has proposed to describe all living systems. His idea, called the free energy principle, is already enjoying multi-disciplinary application. The free energy principle doesn’t build directly on autopoiesis, but it shares some of its most fundamental concepts.

In particular in a video produced by Serious Science, after a brief account of the main points of the free energy principle, Friston concludes that we are all in the game of garnering information that maximizes the evidence of our own existence. And so, he adds, brain structure speaks exactly to the causal structure of the world we inhabit.

The circularity that these perspectives should have a significant effect on our ideas about mind, consciousness, and soul. I’m not suggesting that they make the inquiry meaningless. On the contrary, they open up the inquiry and require that we be more careful and more creative. They make it more difficult and, I expect, more interesting.

2 comments to Soul Searching

  • Some of this sounds similar to the cognitive psychology I took back in the 1970s when Ulric Neisser was a big name in the field (though I don’t think I see him referenced much these days?) — he had a basic idea (I’m probably oversimplifying) that much of human cognition was the result of the brain actively creating perceptions, not merely reacting to or registering perceptions — I guess I’m curious if his ideas are being built upon here, recycled, or replaced to some degree?
    (p.s… typos: “Daniel Dennet” up at top should be “Dennett” and in 4th paragraph “fairy” –> “fairly”)

    • Joselle

      Thanks Shecky,
      Nice to hear from you. I started an edit for ‘fairly’ but hadn’t seen Dennett. I don’t know Ulric Neisser, but the idea that the brain creates the world for us is present in a number of perspectives in cognitive science. But autopoiesis and the free energy principle take that idea further.

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