The role of the brain in psychic process
Mind and body seem to be quite different things. We sometimes talk as though the mind gives orders and the body carries them out, or perhaps rebels against a onesided sort of mind, producing neurotic symptoms. The “machine” of the body-it has often been said-harbors a “ghost” that has a free will, may be immortal, and is probably sullied by its association with matter, instinct and the body’s love of comfort. Some four centuries ago, René Descartes gave voice to this naive body/mind dualism by distinguishing “corporeal substances” that are extended in space from “spiritual substances” that are capable of thinking. When he said, “I think, therefore I am,” he identifi ed himself with his thinking soul, which he called “the principle of biological, sensitive, and intellectual life” (Copleston 1960: 129). Along with the vast majority of his intellectual contemporaries, he stayed fi rmly in the tradition of Western theology, according to which I am a soul, which is my eternal identity, and I have a body, which is my temporal abode for an earthly sojourn far from my heavenly home with God. For Descartes, therefore, biology deals only with the machinery of organisms. It misses the most important entity, the ghost. Even today, at the start of the twenty-fi rst century, our folk psychology favors a soul like the one Descartes described, but conveniently forgets to worry about how a non-material substance can bring about physical changes. How does a ghost that is invisible to the eye and able to pass through walls, make itself solid enough to pull the neural cranks and chemical levers that move the muscles and steer the body? For: “Anything that can move a physical thing is itself a physical thing” (Dennett 1991: 35). A matter/spirit dualism like Descartes’ is very much with us today. There appears to be a worldwide effl orescence of fundamentalism in religion (Christian, Jewish, Islamic, even Hindu) trying desperately to reassure us that advances in science have not eliminated God and the soul from the world. The new pseudoscience of Intelligent Design is a symptom of our anxiety. If there is no eternal, spiritual substance, no soul, perhaps we just die and cease to exist. Perhaps there is no eternal life, no transcendent meaning, no reward for following the rules or punishment for breaking them. We embrace mind/body dualism because it reassures us. It is part of a mythic narrative, not one that takes us through walls of rock
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on ecstatic journeys while we are alive, but one that takes us on a never-ending journey far beyond the rocks of this planet when we die. When we do psychology or philosophy, however, mind/body dualism poses a problem no one has solved. Science has to proceed as though God does not matter to its theories and experiments; for if it had to assume that God can enter the evolutionary process at any moment with miracles, there would be no regularities on which to make scientifi c predictions and test their validity. Richard Dawkins and others may delight in taunting believers and fl irting with atheism; but when they do so, they are not practicing science, only prancing on an ideological stage.1 Science simply must assume that everything we need to know is in principle right here before us and can be measured. Indeed, much of what counts as progress in science is coming up with new instruments and techniques (electron microscopes, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines) to make perceptible and measurable what was formerly invisible. The problem with a soul like the one Descartes describes is that it is in principle wholly imperceptible to any instrument that will ever be invented.