28 May 2021

No ghost in the machine

Science has come far in recent centuries, and in many cases popular perception of reality has kept pace.  For example, most people today know that most disease is caused by bad diet or microorganisms and not by evil spirits or magic spells, and actually behave in accordance with that knowledge, or try to.  Yet in other areas, notably those where cherished illusions are involved, the grip of pre-scientific thinking has proven harder to shake.

One such case is the belief that humans (and perhaps other animals as well) contain some kind of "soul" or "spirit", an entity distinct from the physical body and brain, which inhabits the body and brain somewhat like a ghost inhabiting a haunted house.  Even many atheists who would scoff at a religious term like "soul" visualize consciousness the same way -- that "you" are an entity distinct from your body, sitting inside your body and controlling it the way a driver sits inside a car and controls it.  It's not obvious to me how or why this concept got started, but it is deeply entrenched in human thinking in many cultures.

The study of the mind is a difficult field and our knowledge is still far from complete, but we know enough to be fairly confident that this Cartesian "ghost in the machine" concept, like the pre-Galilean flat-Earth-and-crystal-spheres model of the cosmos, is simply not an accurate picture of reality.  Your consciousness or self or "soul", or whatever you want to call it, is not an entity which inhabits your brain, it's a set of operations which your brain is continuously performing.  When the part of the brain which performs a given type of operation is injured or destroyed, the victim often loses the corresponding aspect of his or her mental ability -- memory, or the ability to feel a particular emotion, or whatever.  The deterioration of the brain which often accompanies aging has the same effect, robbing the victim of various faculties and sometimes even causing changes in personality.  Your "self" is not a distinct entity separable from your physical brain, any more than your heartbeat is a distinct entity from your heart, or your digestive process is a separate entity from your digestive tract.

The "ghost in the machine" delusion brings other concepts with it in consequence.  One is the belief that the consciousness can leave the body and take up residence in another one, or lead a free-floating existence independent of matter, just as the driver of a car could get out and drive a different car or walk around on his own.  Many religious and superstitious ideas are rooted in this belief, such as reincarnation or demonic possession (if the self is a supernatural "spirit" separable from the body, it's easy enough to imagine some other, alien "spirit" barging in and seizing control), or the Christian idea that the "soul" continues to exist after death and goes to Heaven or Hell, continuing to be conscious and have experiences despite the loss of the brain and sense organs which actually do those things.  In modern terms, it's similar to believing that if your heart were destroyed, your heartbeat could somehow continue on as a disembodied "thing" despite the disappearance of the organ which was doing it (a process or action, not a "thing").  If you set a wheel spinning and then destroy it, nobody believes that the rotation of the wheel is a separate "thing" which can somehow still exist independently after the wheel itself no longer exists.  Yet the idea that the "soul" can survive the death of the brain is more or less equivalent to this.

HG Wells wrote a story in which an elderly man tried to extend his life by transferring his consciousness into the body of a young man, rather like a demon possessing a person in medieval superstition.  Modern anti-aging research, fortunately, has not wasted any effort on trying to realize such a strategy.

(Note that this is a separate issue from the existence of free will, which I discussed here.  I consider it to be self-evident that our free will and consciousness are real.  While we don't yet know how free will works, it seems obvious that it is simply another process performed by the brain; there is no reason to think anything supernatural is involved.)

Another such consequential error is the concept of being "born in the wrong body", which has actually been gaining ground recently, leading to further misunderstandings and problems.  Yet another is the ancient belief that some kind of "higher" consciousness or "spirituality" can be attained by renouncing the pleasures of the physical body, perceived as an impure or lowly vessel which degrades or holds back the reified "soul" trapped within it.

But there is no such trapped or indwelling "soul".  There is no ghost in the machine.  There is only the machine, performing a great variety of actions, even if some of those actions are too complex and subtle for us to understand yet.


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I had never thought about the whole 'soul' being equated to the Ghost in the Machine concept. It kind of makes sense. The Xtianist idea of a 'soul' that needs to be saved has always been to me like some kind of superstitious remnant of some atavistic need to explain why we think.
And that post on Tumblr? (are there people still posting on that wretched platform? how quaint) still making the big mistake of equating sex and gender? A quick search using google would serve them well. It's easy. There's tutorials, if they don't know how to do it.


28 May, 2021 09:42  
Blogger Dreadshane said...

Well said, i’ve never believed in dualism

28 May, 2021 10:13  
Blogger Jack said...

This one has long struck me as mostly being about wish fulfillment. I suspect it may be somewhat more complex than that, but it almost always seems to boil down to the idea that some part of us might survive death. If it wasn't for the desire so many have to believe that, I don't think religion would have nearly the staying power it has enjoyed.

28 May, 2021 12:44  
Blogger Dave Dubya said...

Good discussion.

Humans are the most fearful of all creatures. I can’t imagine any other living entity that experiences human levels of fear and anxiety while being well-fed, warm, and comfortable in the safety of their homes. Humans can have a phobia for almost everything.

Spirit, soul, astral plane fantasies, re-incarnation, etc. along with a creator of the universe who is concerned for their personal immortality assuage fear of the unknown, fear of the unexplained, fear of the mysterious and fear of death.

Our consciousness of death, or more precisely our fear of it, is at the root of most religions, especially the Abrahamic variations. Personally I’ve been more partial to Deism and Pantheism.

God and religion are fundamentally rationalizations in response to our reactive fear center in the amygdala. “Fight, flight or freeze” was our primitive mechanism for survival. Facing the unknown in modern times, fight or flight are manifested in social/philosophical/scientific inquiry, and ignorance or dismissal.

When there can be no fight or flight response, freeze, or submission, becomes the default behavior. For most humans, the latter is more practical. Put God on the shelf and carry on.

As Voltaire wrote, "If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him”.

28 May, 2021 12:48  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: The definition of the "soul" used by religionists tends to get awfully nebulous, but in the context of life after death it's obvious that they're talking about the survival of consciousness. So from that viewpoint I take it as another name for the individual self.

I know about this recently-made-up distinction between sexes and genders which we're now all supposed to pay attention to, but remember that the vast majority of native speakers of English have literally never heard of it or all the "discourse" about it in the more navel-gazey corners of the internet, and would doubtless react with an incredulous horse laugh if somebody tried to "explain" it to them. Sorry, but I just don't see any reason to take it seriously. More here found on the same blog.

Dreadshane: Dualism does feel somehow intuitive to people, but there just isn't any evidential basis for it.

Jack: I'm sure that's a big element of it. If we accept that the self is something the brain is doing rather than an entity inhabiting it, religious ideas about life after death suddenly become far less plausible.

Dave: Thanks. God, too, is an imaginary disembodied spirit, easier to believe in if we first picture ourselves as "spirits" which could potentially exist in disembodied form. Take away dualism and a transcendent deity, too, seems less intuitively plausible.

28 May, 2021 13:06  
Anonymous Charles Watkins said...

I've never been clear on the life-cycle of a soul. Did God whip them up at the Big Bang and have them wait around billions of years to get their turn? Or does he make them on-demand as part of the insemination process? If there's a fixed number, when do they run out? And if they are eternal, what happens when the universe goes dark?

If ghosts are supposed to be lost souls, how can you see them? And if demonic possession an invading soul, where did it come from?

28 May, 2021 13:07  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Charles: The various religions seem to be all over the map on those questions -- as you'd expect if they're describing something made-up rather than an objective reality which can be discovered. Most people seem to give very little thought to the details.

The thing I don't understand about ghosts is the fact that they're supposed to be scary. If they existed, I don't see how they could harm people.

28 May, 2021 13:11  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

It's true, a lot of people believe in a soul and thus ghosts to an extent. It's not believable to me but it makes for fun movies and books.

28 May, 2021 13:45  
Blogger Dave Dubya said...

It's interesting that the only ghost/spirit to fear is God's spirit, the Holy Ghost.

“Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation.” (Mark 3:28–29)

Eternal punishment awaits the perpetrator of the unpardonable sin. Mass murder? Forgivable. Child abuse? Rape and torture? Not so bad. Blaspheme against the Father and Son, even thought they are one of the Trinity with the Holy Ghost? No worries. Just don't mess with the Godfather of Ghosts. Oops. Or did I do just that? God only knows...

My only hope is I'm crazy, and God has a "not guilty by reason of insanity" verdict.

Or that God is a delusion.

28 May, 2021 15:43  
Anonymous Ole Phat Stu said...

All Gods were invented by humans,
and most of them are dead now.

They were invented as "explanations" for ill-understood phenomena.

29 May, 2021 13:35  
Blogger Lady M said...

When I scatter my Dad's ashes on my flower bed, I like to think about the energy being transferred to the growing plants. I know there is no consciousness there but for me, it is comforting to know he is being recycled. Ghosts are fun fantasy stuff and make life more interesting. And I swear the ghost of my baby sister sent chiggers to attack us all at her memorial as revenge for all the ways we had wronged her. Or at least that's going down as the family lore. :)

29 May, 2021 15:35  
Blogger Lady M said...

And my theory on gender is this - we are all ingesting huge amounts of endocrine disruptors. No wonder everyone is confused about what sex/gender they are. Our hormones are being assaulted everyday. Again, it comes back to what we are eating and how our food is packaged.

29 May, 2021 15:43  
Blogger jenny_o said...

This is a wonderfully simple explanation that I wish more people could read. It's tempting when you lose a loved one to think that their spirit lives on, but I can't believe in it. That makes life harder at times, but so be it.

29 May, 2021 18:44  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary K: True -- too bad some people can't tell fantasy from reality.

Dave: Disrespect for deities is the ultimate crime because it means disrespect for those whose power flows from claiming to speak for those deities.

Stu: Largely true -- of course, with more and more phenomena being understood, there's less for them to do.

Lady M: The remains of dead people are important and get special treatment, in every culture I know of. Even though we know the person's consciousness is no longer there, it's natural that we feel that way.

It would be interesting to know if there's less gender confusion among people who eat less of that kind of stuff.

Jenny_o: Thanks. I know how strong that desire can be, to believe that the person we lost is still "there" somehow, but I have to go by what the evidence says is true.

30 May, 2021 04:39  
Blogger Kwark said...

My elderly mother was an enthusiastic believer in some form of "life after death" scenario and was certain that the essential thing that makes us"us" is eternal. As dementia has slowly robbed her of, seemingly, most cognitive ability I too have concluded that it's the workings of the body that makes us "us".

30 May, 2021 08:15  
Anonymous Annie said...

Interesting overview. As we learn more about the many processes of life on the genetic, cellular, electrical, and other levels, we are likely to gain a greater understanding of consciousness and the nature of free will.

30 May, 2021 15:58  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Kwark: No one wishes more than I do that we go on somehow and continue to exist after death. But there's just no supporting evidence.

Annie: Thanks. I have a feeling that the mystery of the true nature of consciousness and free will will be solved within decades.

31 May, 2021 02:47  

Post a Comment

<< Home