Atheism and the Mind II – Volitions and the abolition of souls

In the previous post I made the claim that atheists should not be any worse off than the religious when confronting serious philosophical questions. In this post I wish to show that they might be better off. I intend to show why the idea of an immaterial soul is misguided and needlessly confusing. I am going to use the example of volitions. And I warn you: This is not going to be an easy post to handle. If I succeed in writing anything intelligible , you are very likely to find yourself rather shaken.

I also wish to thank my dear friend Dr. Uri Maoz, who was the first to confront me with the following facts.

Here we go.

You just chose to go on and read this post. You made the choice explicit by clicking your mouse button. Why did you? Because you wanted to read the brilliant things I have to say. Right? Let’s elaborate the trivial and well known process which took place here.

  1. You saw an invitation to read my post
  2. You thought about it
  3. You made a conscious deliberation with yourself
  4. You decided you want to read it
  5. You clicked the mouse

So, you, the reader, made a conscious decision, activating your free will, which resulted in your brain sending a neural message down your spinal cord to your finger, which clicked the button. Now, suppose your finger didn’t click the mouse, or that your hand slipped to the right and clicked on the wrong button. Then you would know that your body violated your mind’s decision, and would probably look for an outside reason for that strange occurrence. Actually, if you were an epileptic patient going through Electrocorticography, it would be very natural for such a thing to happen.

Don’t be alarmed. I’ll hereby elaborate:

The Setup

Some epileptic patients, suffering from severe seizures, and having no hope of pharmaceutical cure, undergo brain surgery. Epilepsy is sometimes caused by a bunch of wayward neurons going out of control within the brain. If the surgeon can pinpoint them, he may cure your epilepsy by removing those wicked few. That would be a harmless procedure. Hopefully, it would be the only thing required – if not to cure the epilepsy, at least to make it more bearable. But in order to pinpoint those evil neurons, the surgeons need you to get along with an open skull and an array of electrodes on your brain, and that for some considerable duration. During that time you cannot do very much, so you participate in experiments. On one such you might occasion to meet a student of Benjamin Libet, who will persuade you to come to a room where you may view some interesting slides.

In the room you find two buttons. One of them moves the slideshow forwards, the other backwards. I hope that it will not come as a surprise to you that the brain researchers are able to decipher the neural pathways in your brain leading to either your right thumb pushing the FWD button, or your lent thumb pushing on the BWD button. Actually, they can do more. They can view the deliberation process, though they understand very little of it. But they can easily find the exact location in the brain where an interesting phenomena happens. Electric potential is being  accumulated there, and a single neuron fires either through synapse 1, resulting in your thumb hitting FWD, or synapse 2, resulting in BWD. They can observe the accumulation of ions, and, thus, correctly tell, in advance, which it will be.

An Unchosen Volition

But that is not ground breaking news. Not yet. Nor should you be very surprised to know that the scientists running the experiment have a trick up their sleeve by which they can influence the choice you make. Indeed, often the subjects know that their hand moved in contrast to their volition. They acknowledge the fact that it was the researcher who caused their right hand to more, when they actually wanted to move the left. This happens, of course, when the researcher triggered the neural pathway leading right, some short time before the accumulation of ions on the left synapse could trigger. It should also not come as a shock to learn that the researcher, if acting cunningly enough, is able to control the volition itself – if he acts at the right time. He may cause the patient to press whatever button he – the researcher – wants to, and the patient would always think that he himself wanted that button pressed, and would always find post-hoc excuses for his unchosen volition.

Lesson 1:

Volition can be influenced by electronic stimulus to the brain.

The Crux

But the options we have covered so far include a very narrow windows of opportunity, which we have, as yet, left untouched. There is a short time gap, just before some critical neuron fires, when the decision can clearly be seen to have been arrived at. It would still take some milliseconds for the electric potential to arrive to it’s full, for the neuron to fire, for the brain to calculate specific instructions for the hand. But the researcher can already identify (correctly) what hand it is going to be. He can wire the system so that a switch is triggered, and the correct slide automatically shows on the screen.

If the timing is incorrect, and the slide changes just before the patient can press the physical button, the patient will usually be very amused. He would understand, correctly, that he can now control the system using his mind, without the need to actually move his hands. Researchers claim this procedure generates very happy patients. But if the timing is just right, a very interesting thing happens – the patient will show signs of anxiety. He will eventually become frightened. He would leave the room, never again to take part in any such experiment. When asked, these patients will claim that the system is “bewitched”, that it can tell their future thoughts.

Four Other Lessons

  1. Human volition is determined unconsciously by brain computation
  2. Consciousness is informed post-hoc of the content of the volition
  3. Hence, consciousness has no immediate connection with volition
  4. The idea that consciousness takes part in volition is so trivial to us, that experience countering that idea is frightening and very hard to accept

I find the last bit the most revealing. We are so used to viewing ourselves as a “conscious soul” trapped inside a material body, controlling it through volition, that it is excruciatingly tough for us to come to terms with the truth.

My View: you are not your consciousness

You are not your consciousness. You are conscious of some things, and unconscious of other things. The content of your volitions is computed in your brain, and that computation is what you call “thinking”. It is something that you do. You are aware of bits and pieces of it, not of all of it, and even that only in retrospect.

The theistic mistake is natural. After all, our introspective experience is our consciousness. It shows us that we consciously think, then wish, and then, as a result of that wish, our fingers move and things happen in the world outside our consciousness. But that is a fragmented view of the self. Only if you see yourself, mistakingly, as a fragment of yourself, a conscious bit of soul inside the brain, a little homunculus trapped inside a material machine, only then do you succumb to the dilemma posed by Brendano:

Forfeit the facts, or acknowledge your irrelevance.

If the little homunculus (you) is just informed, and even that only post hoc, of the wishes of the brain and of the actions of the body, then he has no free will, and no moral responsibility. But that is an absurd view. For whose exactly is this brain? Whose body is this? There is no homunculus inside your body, which is you. There is only you, having a body, and a brain. And you are only aware of a small and selected set of processes which happen in your brain. This does not mean that consciousness is not important. We don’t really know what it is, or why it has developed. It does not mean that conscious processes are unimportant (It just might. We have no idea). But All these are irrelevant to Brendano’s questions. No matter what consciousness is, it is only a small part of what you are. And the things you are conscious of are but a tiny fraction of the things you actually do. And that includes thinking, feeling, and wishing, which are all complicated things, comprising of a myriad of unconscious subprocesses.

This has legal and moral implications. I will get to some of them in my next post.

3 thoughts on “Atheism and the Mind II – Volitions and the abolition of souls

  1. quirkyqabalist

    You asked me to read this post, and I’m glad to say I fulfilled the request. You asked what I think of it? I think you know already what I would say to that 🙂 I have two main issues about what you have written, although I imagine that from your perspective, I’m not going to cause any great damage! Firstly, this assumes a certain definition of a soul that I, personally, do not recognise. Your understanding of it being something that directs us and points us in the ‘right’ direction is not one that sits at all with my personal beliefs in what the soul and what control it has over me. Ironically the free will that you confirm and hold above everything else is the very key to the Qabalah. We have free will – 100% true. It is how we use that free will that is of interest. As you can see from us having this discussion, it really can take you in all directions 🙂

    My second point is the example you have used. What you have described is a scientific experiment demonstrating the way our brain reacts to electrical stimulus. This is a perfectly acceptable scientific test, but I can’t see the connection between using it and that proving that we don’t have a soul. It proves that the body works exactly as it was intended and from a scientific point of view that is immensely useful information. From a spiritual point of view, it doesn’t really matter.

    I think science is vital to humankind moving on, adapting, developing and thriving on this planet. It needs to focus on finding out the answers to that. Find the How. And let spirituality figure out the Why. One does not discount the other.

    I think this is a great piece and I look forward to reading the second instalment.

  2. Ancient Spirits

    Very interesting indeed. I agree with Quirkyqabalist in that I feel that electrically stimulating the brain short circuits perhaps what control mind/spirit (whatever that irrational aspect of consciousness is) would have over the mind, and the individual would not ever know it. It is like the parasytes that cause the eyes of snails to bulge out and then rise up plants to be (seemingly voluntarily) consumed by birds to enable the next step in the parasites life.

    But it also shows how ego understands so little of the self, from a Jungian standpoint. The subconscious and its workings can seem so supernatural, yet they originate within. The power of the shadow is spooky, especially when repressed deep into the subconscious, and its outward personification can seem so mysteriously real, that we experience evil spirits and a devil.

    I personally see the individual soul or mind as an aspect of a higher dimension—not exactly in the Hindu sense, for I think there is greater value to our individuality. Our connection to that higher dimension is through the subconscious. But the ego, as Jung explained, is a filter whose purpose is to maintain a personality and therefore focuses out everything we don’t need within our physical reality. Our neural structures and everything down to our physical body is influenced by this higher dimension, but as long as we understand only this dimension, seeing anything else would be like trying to see anything outside of this exact moment. It is impossible. I do think that who we think we are, is a small part of who we are in that memories and stimulus is recorded in a higher dimension even as the neural structures ou our mind are shaped to record such memories and knowledge.

    Ultimately, like you say, we really don’ know what consciousness is or what it is for. My belief stems from certain irrational things that have happened to me, and which were external events. But enough of that. I enjoyed reading this!

  3. alQpr

    The manipulation of the will stuff goes beyond anything I have seen reported about Libet’s studies – which surprises me as it is quite sensational (though not to my mind unbelievable).

    Did you ever do the follow-up post on legal and moral implications? I’d like to see what you have to say on those.


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