Simon Evans

What does science say about souls?

What does science say about souls?
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Until the mid 19th Century, most of us believed that we had a soul. It was what separated us from the animals. This belief could be modified to accommodate slavery, Malthusian economics and to allow dogs into Heaven, but the principle was pretty stable.

A hundred years later, thanks largely to Darwin, and innovations such as quantum mechanics and Auschwitz, such a view seemed childlike, romantic, or in the case of the Clergy, downright dogged. The 'soul' became just another invention of the under-informed, over-excited primitive imagination, like faeries, Valhalla and insidious whispering serpents. We have Science now.

Yet ask a scientist to explain consciousness, the thing it feels like to be, the is-ness of us - the approved proxy for the soul - and it quickly becomes apparent that the problem has been shelved, rather than solved.

'Fine!' we cry, 'We reject God, superstition, the demon-haunted world. What have you got to go in the hole?' And Science shrugs, as if the central mystery of existence is no more important than an eccentric taste in socks.

Some speak in terms of an 'emergent phenomenon' as if that explained anything, beyond denying that it was planted by the Almighty, or a malevolent Demiurge. Some dispute that there is a ‘self', without explaining the nature of whatever it is that is wearing its mask. There are plenty of debates about the possibility of free will, or whether the conscious rider is dominated by a sub-conscious elephant. But quite how mind emerges from matter, we are no closer to grasping.

The only acknowledgement that the issue is stubborn, is to refer to it as The Hard Problem – and to warn young academics not to get too bogged down in it, if they want to sit at the top table.

Happily, a few still engage, cautiously. Nick Chater’s The Mind is Flat, is a patient and convincing explanation of his thesis that 'depth' in our thoughts is a flattering deception. Consciousness seems to be not merely flat but linear, a one-dimensional stream. Our minds no more harbour deeper thoughts than do our LED TVs harbour deeper shows.

This is intriguing, and counter intuitive. Yet it remains only a new metaphor, changing our consciousness from CPU to monitor. It doesn’t explain why it’s there, let alone how.

Mark Solms is a serious player in neuropsychology and has contributed serious insights into the mechanisms behind dreaming – returning, interestingly, a degree of lost credibility to Freud. In The Hidden Spring, he shifts the locus of consciousness away from the new-build suburbia of the Cortex, back into the Old Town of the brain stem - the bit we share with lizards and sentient bananas. He essentially posits that consciousness is a measure of our distance at any given point from homeostasis, and an index of the degree to which reality is failing at that instant to match our predictions. You are never more conscious, essentially, than when surveying the reality of life’s hotel, with the brochure in one hand and a suitcase in the other.

Both are well-written, and read - if you prefer audiobooks. They will make sense to anyone untrained but willing to meet them half way. Worth a listen.

The Master and his Emissary ponders the asymmetric brain - but maps out a considerably more nuanced and evolved picture than the 'Right brain is artistic and in touch with its feelings, Left brain is all literal, uptight and linear' stuff of popular fudge. And it uses the issue to frame a fantastically deep, historical and wide-ranging view of human potential.

Appropriately for his theme, Iain McGilchrist is more cultured, broadly referenced and gestalt than one might expect from a scientist, and more than capable of weaving philosophy, Wagner and Reformation theology into the mix. This is a dense and closely argued vision of both our essential nature, and the dangerous imbalance of the Left-brain dominance that he sees on every scale in the world today. Stick with it, and you almost get a glimpse of the soul.

And if after all this, you feel Science has come up sucking its thumb, I highly recommend the unashamedly Jungian Origins and History of Consciousness by Erich Neumann. With a cast of Great Mothers and tail-eating snakes, this comes highly praised by Jordan Peterson. That in itself will surely determine whether you should run to or from it, more than anything else I could say. I loved it. Best served with mushrooms.

And as to the soul? I am still none the wiser, of course – but at least, to paraphrase the famous barrister, a little better informed. For now, that will have to do.

Written bySimon Evans

Simon Evans is a standup comedian who has performed everywhere from Live at the Apollo to the News Quiz. His series of comedy lectures on economics 'Simon Evans goes to market' is broadcast on Radio 4.

Topics in this articleCultureconsciousnessbooksscience