Home > Uncategorized > Descartes, the Brain, and the Resurrection of the Body

Descartes, the Brain, and the Resurrection of the Body

Last thursday, I went to an event called “Geeked Out,” hosted by Gelf magazine, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO. The topic of the event was the interaction between science and religion. It featured three speakers; I only stayed for the first two. I’d have liked to stay for them all, but it was getting late, and the L train isn’t behaving very well this summer.

The second speaker, Paul Bloom, was by far the more interesting of the two that I saw, and it is his talk that I’d like to focus on. Mr. Bloom is a psychologist who has written a book entitled Descartes’ Baby. I really liked the guy; he was warm, articulate, and had a good sense of humor. He was an excellent public speaker. Mr. Bloom’s talk began with a cute little video depicting an interesting and real psychological experiment that, according to Bloom, demonstrates the existence of an altruistic instinct in young children–an innate desire to help people. The video shows a very small child who has been placed in the corner of a room. In the other corner of the room is a cabinet of some sort. The child watches as an adult carries a stack of book over to the cabinet, and then proceeds to repeatedly bump the stack of books into the cabinet doors. The idea conveyed to the child is that the man wants to put the books in the cabinet, but is either unable to do so or is simply unaware of how to go about doing so. Touchingly (and, I must admit, I was surprised by this), the child walks across the room and opens both doors to the cabinet for the man.

Another video was shown in which a child observes two objects interacting with each other. One object is shaped like a square and the other like a circle. The objects are made to move in such a way as to convey the idea that the square is acting aggressively and violently towards the circle. The child then is presented with both objects, and chooses to pick up the circle. Bloom explained how when this experiment was repeated the children tested demonstrated a definite preference for the circle. Furthermore, if the roles of the square and circle were reversed, the results were the same: the children always preferred to associate with the “victim” rather than the “aggressor.” According to Bloom, these experiments demonstrate an innate and instinctual sense of compassion that children have. I think I agree.

The talk then became much more philosophical. Bloom began to talk about dualism, which he defined as a belief in the existence of a soul that is somehow independent of the body and of the material realm in general. He explained how young children seem to instinctually accept a sort of basic naive dualism like what Descartes (the guy who said, “I think, therefore I am”) believed in. Children naturally accept the existence of a “me” that doesn’t depend on their brain or anything physical. Rather than believing that “me” is a brain, as some adults are inclined to believe, they tend to see the brain as a tool, used by “me,” for thinking.

Bloom then began to describe how a lot of our more negative ethical tendencies have to do with us denying this individual spiritual reality of others, by seeing people as simply being objects. That is, the more that we see people as “bodies”–as mere physical objects–the more able we are to suppress our positive moral affections towards them. Bloom cited pornography as one prime example of how this happens. He also talked a lot in particular about the concept of revulsion, and how physical revulsion can unconsciously lead a person to a sort of moral revulsion. He cited some more interesting psychological experiments in order to demonstrate this. In one, he described how a test group of people were asked to give various political opinions, including their views on commonly maligned groups such as gays and immigrants. Another test group was asked exactly the same questions, but with one important difference in the setting: the researches introduced a foul smell into the room beforehand. Apparently, this actually caused the second test group to be harsher in its evaluation of these people groups.

While certainly interesting, I did find this train of thought of his to be somewhat gnostic. That is, I think that Bloom’s analysis tended towards the mistake of viewing matter and the material realm as intrinsically evil, and spirit and the spiritual realm as intrinsically good. This is somewhat ironic since, as I will talk about in a moment, Bloom doesn’t believe in a “spiritual realm.” I think part of the difficulty is that Bloom is making a basic error in his concept of the “soul.” I will get to this error shortly. For now, I’d like to note that one could equally well point out physical experiences and realities that lead us towards moral behavior and compassion. And, conversely, one could certainly talk about the spiritual side of evil, of pride and envy and wrath and so on.

Bloom concluded that the belief in a soul may be necessary to preserve our basic morality. To Bloom, such a belief may thus amount to a necessary fiction, since he believes the soul is basically an illusion. To him, the idea that the soul (as he has defined it) has any actually reality to it is contradicted in particular by the findings of neuroscience, which show how many of the human attributes that we once naively assumed to be “spiritual” are now known to be linked to brain functions. So the idea of the mind as being something that could in any way exist independently of the brain seems improbable.

In the Q and A, and also briefly after the talk, I talked to Bloom about whether he might consider any sort of middle ground between the sort of “naive dualism” that he sees as being contradicted by neuroscience, and the pure materialism (that is, the idea that matter is all that there is) that he seems to embrace as the only alternative. He was quite steadfast in his materialism. He pointed out the fact that even our memory is heavily dependent on brain function. He considers this fact to be strong evidence that there is no “me” apart from my brain. I got the basic impression from all of this that he sees advances in neuroscience as inevitably encroaching, so to speak, further and further onto the territory once occupied by the soul, which is practically seen by him as being “that which cannot be correlated with brain activity.” So, every time we correlate brain activity with something that we thought was spiritual, the soul becomes less necessary to posit.

I think that the basic mistake Bloom makes in all of this is to think of the soul as being the purely spiritual component of a person. I could be wrong, but I believe this was the major error that Descartes made, and popularized. Descartes made it a point to sharply distinguish the “me that thinks” (and therefore exists) from the material world. His objective, I think, was to show that, though the latter could be an illusion or deception, the former was certain. Ironically, it seems as though the opposite view has triumphed.

I wanted to get Bloom to see that believing a spiritual component to man is not the same thing as accepting Descartes view of the mind. I wish I could have talked to him longer. I wanted to convey to him how the orthodox Christian concept of man, of human beings as rational animals, as a syntheses of material and spiritual components, is not the same thing as what Descartes believed. It is not negated by our rapidly advancing understanding of the brain, but is rather very much in line with what we are discovering. If human beings are such a synthesis, we would expect the two realms to be related, even inextricably linked, to such a degree that we couldn’t really conceive of the actions of one without taking into consideration the other. To draw an analogy, when two partners dance, every leading motion made by the man has a correlative responsive motion made by the woman, and vice verse. We cannot separate the two of them! We could, of course, try to study the woman’s movement in isolation, and point out that there is no aspect of the man’s motion that is not mirrored or represented in her movement somehow–whenever he bends forward, she bends back; when he lifts his arm holding her hand, she twirls.

In the same way, the spiritual component and the material component of a human being are deeply intertwined, both mirroring and complimenting each other. So often it does not make much sense to try to separate them, to try to conceive of what the one is, without taking into account the other. This brings us back to Descartes error. Really the soul, which we can naively conceive of and talk about quite easily, should not be thought of as the purely spiritual component of man, but rather is the focal point of this dance, the essential me (or you), a human personality and agent, that results from this synthesis. The human soul does not “inhabit” the body, at least not in the same way that we can perhaps imagine angels (which are purely spiritual beings, so their essence is spiritual) inhabiting bodies. We are not purely spiritual personalities that wear our physical bodies as a sort of garment, but rather our bodies are essential to who we are, and to what our soul is. Our soul is not complete without its body, and the brain is part of the body. This, by the way, is why the doctrine of final resurrection is so important to the Christian hope for the future.

And this brings me to what was, in my opinion, the saddest part of Blooms talk. Bloom thinks that the overturning of our dualism, in addition to undermining morality, effectively undoes all religious notions, and in particular the notion that people have of “life after death.” I think that this is absolutely not so, though I can see why a person might think so, given how our culture tends to think about these things. I’d love for Bloom to read NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope, and find out about how the true historic Christian belief about the afterlife is certainly not about our disembodied spirits floating about in heaven. Instead, the New Testament paints to us a picture of how God will bring into existence a redeemed body that our redeemed souls will be joined with in the new creation, the new heavens and the new earth. This redeemed body will, I imagine, include a redeemed brain, with memories and all. There is no difficulty for our individual personality, our soul, to be preserved and restored after death, provided God brings back to life the requisite physical components needed for it function. This is certainly miraculous, but that’s the point! Thus it may be truly said that neuroscience refutes many of the pagan notions of life after death, but not the orthodox Christian notion.

In conclusion, I’ll say that I think Bloom and others are actually doing a service to the Church by revealing the difficulties that neuroscience presents for the dualism that has been so damaging to our ability to keep sight of this basic Christian hope. If one’s belief in “the afterlife” depends simply on a metaphysical conception of us as “having a spirit,” without reference to God, his material creation, and his necessary action in redeeming it, then it is good to see this overturned. But it’s sad that Bloom doesn’t think that there is an alternative to a hopeless materialism, when really there is open to him the greatest alternative in the world.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Janet Thayer Wiliams
    June 23, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    The possibility of having a conversation with someone posits the reality of the soul (which is like a Self endorsed by God), but the very soul that the person (Bloom) you want to converse with, is something he is finding less and less “necessary to posit”! Yhis is more funny than sad, though.

  2. philwillnyc
    June 23, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    What is sad is that he honestly embraces a despairing philosophy and the conclusions it entails.

  3. Jerod
    June 27, 2009 at 10:38 am

    great post. i think the dance analogy is a great explanation of the soul. where did you get that?

    this is something i have learned in recent years. i think the ancient Hebrews had a paradigm for existence which was very different from Greek thought. As Chrisitanity spread in the western world, dualism, gnosticism, and Platonic ideas influenced theology. These ideas remain in our western consciousness to this day, as you have shown.

  4. philwillnyc
    June 27, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Thanks. I think the analogy comes originally from the analogy I’ve heard CS Lewis make, describing the Trinity as a sort dance. The analogy seems to itself extend to anything else in creation that models the Trinity; the relation between the soul and the body fits this, I think.

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