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The soul seeker: A neuroscientist’s search for the human essence

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The soul seeker: A neuroscientist’s search for the human essence
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The soul seekerThere’s a struggle going on inside the brain of David Eagleman for the soul of David Eagleman.

That is, there might be such a struggle if Eagleman’s brain believed that Eagleman had a soul, which he is not sure about. In fact, Eagleman’s brain is not completely sure that there is an Eagleman-beyond-Eagleman’s-brain at all, with or without a soul, whatever that term might mean.

Welcome to the world of “possibilian” neuroscientist-writer David Eagleman, to life in the space between what-is and what-if, between the facts we think we know and the fictions that illuminate what we don’t know.

Eagleman-the-scientist would love to rev up his high-tech neuroimaging machines to answer the enduring questions about the brain and the mind, the body and the soul. But Eagleman-the-writer knows that those machines aren’t going to answer those questions.

So, while he reports on what-is in scientific journals, his brain and mind run free pondering the what-ifs, as he did in the 2009 book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a playful series of short philosophical imaginings of life beyond death. And, if things work out the way Eagleman hopes, someday he’ll get a shot at a larger stage where he can fulfill his dream of becoming the Carl Sagan of the brain, explaining the billions and billions of neurons in our head to a curious public.

Anything’s possible

Though they might seem different, Eagleman’s scientific and literary lives really are part of the same creative endeavor aimed at deepening our understanding of a complex world we can never really come close to understanding. In the spiritual realm, that leads Eagleman to reject not only conventional religion but also the label of agnostic or atheist. In their place, he has coined the term possibilian: those who “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.”

Since scientists mostly talk about what they know, Eagleman’s emphasis on our ignorance may seem strange. So, it’s time for an analogy. Eagleman likes analogies.

The work of science is like building a pier out into the ocean, he says. We excitedly add on to the pier little by little, but then we look around and say, “Wait a minute, I’m at the end of the pier but there’s a lot more out there.” The ocean of what we don’t know always dwarfs what we do know, he emphasizes. “During our lifetimes, we will get further on that pier. We’ll understand more at the end of our lives than we do now, but it ain’t going to cover the ocean.”

Settling in at his office at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Eagleman swivels 180 degrees in his chair, his foot pushing off the various pieces of office furniture to propel him around like a kind of wind-up machine, the verbal velocity moving between fast and faster depending on his fascination with a particular idea. Those ideas can range from the latest experiments he’s running in the five fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines down the hall, to age-old philosophical questions about free will and implications for the legal system, to those speculations about an afterlife.

His first book, the co-authored Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia, analyzed the phenomenon of synesthesia (a condition in which one sense, such as sight, is simultaneously perceived by another sense, such as hearing – “hearing a color,” for example). One reviewer recommended the book for those with “a passion for neurology’s wild territory,” which Eagleman is exploring further for a general audience in his third book, the forthcoming Dethronement: The Secret Life of the Unconscious Brain. His central project in that book, and all his scientific work, is to understand how the human brain constructs reality.

In between those two books came Sum, a surprising success in the United States and Britain that is now out in paperback. It also spawned a theatrical adaptation staged at the Sydney Opera House in Australia with an original score written and performed by avant-garde musician-producer Brian Eno. The book’s speculative musings have captured the imagination of a small but lively group of people who claim the possibilian label, leading Eagleman to begin writing Why I’m a Possibilian to flesh out the ideas.

Taking seriously the old saying “the absence of proof isn’t the proof of absence,” Eagleman recognizes that people who don’t believe in God (at least not in God defined as a supernatural force or entity) can never say with certainty what doesn’t exist. So, the difference between agnostic and atheist is typically a matter of attitude, and such is the case with adding possibilian to the mix. Eagleman is not trying to support or rule out any particular claim but simply suggesting that it’s healthy to imagine possibilities.

What if there is an afterlife where we relive all our experiences but shuffled into a new order? What if in an afterlife we confront all the possible versions of our self that could have been? What if we experience death in stages: when the body stops functioning, when we’re buried, and the moment when your name is spoken by another for the last time? Sum offers 40 such what-ifs. [For a video trailer of the book, go to]

The stories aren’t meant as serious proposals about what an afterlife may be, and are really just a vehicle for Eagleman’s ruminations on the vexing philosophical questions we face in life. When we talked in his Houston office, Eagleman was finishing the last chapter of Dethronement to send off to the publisher, and those questions were on his mind. One of the most basic concerns the mind: Is our consciousness the product of anything beyond the material realm? Is there anything beyond the physical brain? If there is something beyond, is that what we should call the mind? What does all this mean for the concept of the soul?

Pinning down consciousness

Eagleman acknowledged that in labs such as his, neuroscientists work under the assumption that “you are nothing but your brain,” and many scientists and philosophers come close to suggesting that this is not an assumption but a fact. Eagleman refers to this as the “hardcore” reductionist/materialist view – reducing the mental to the material, reducing the mind to the physical brain. That could be the case, he says, but it makes him nervous.

His first hesitation is common; no one could really look at humans as “just a bunch of atoms, or just a bunch of neurons” because of the concept of emergent properties. Eagleman explains: “If you took any piece of an airplane, that piece of metal does not have the property of flight. It’s only when you put it together in exactly the right way that you get something out of it.” The key is the interaction among the components, the properties that emerge from that specific interaction that the individual components don’t have alone.

Here’s a classic example: At room temperature, hydrogen and oxygen are gases. Combine one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms and you get water. Liquidity is an emergent property, which no chemist could have predicted by analyzing the individual atoms. The same can be said of us – we are made up of material components, but what is interesting about humans is not those components but the emergent properties. Consciousness couldn’t be predicted from a list of the elements that make up each one of us.

Eagleman’s second hesitation is more intriguing. We shouldn’t presume, he says, that we know about all the pieces that make us up or all the forces that structure the world in which we operate. Enter the possibilian.

“Almost certainly, we’re missing giant pieces,” he says, just as previous generations were missing a big piece of the puzzle when they attempted to understand the world without the concept of gravity. “We’re in that situation now, and the reason we know we’re in that situation is because for the most fundamental questions we have, like consciousness, we not only don’t know the answer but we don’t even know what the answer could look like.”

The question of consciousness? “How do you put together a bunch of physical pieces and parts, and get private subjective experience out of that? How do you get the taste of feta cheese or the redness of red or the feeling of pain?”

Neuroscience labs are busy mapping neural circuits – the signals within the brain, and between the brain and the rest of the body – but Eagleman emphasizes “that’s just mechanical stuff, and every single discovery in every neuroscience lab is just mechanical stuff.” He’s happy to tell anyone who will listen about the amazing stuff that neuroscience has figured out, but he doesn’t want to get lost in that.

“We’re stuck with this very deep problem, this 800-pound gorilla: If it’s all just mechanical stuff everywhere we look and if every part of the brain is connected to, and driven by, other parts of the brain, then where’s consciousness?” For most folks, the answer might be, “Well, it’s in my mind.” But that begs the question of what we mean by mind, beyond the physical brain. What is a mind? (A quick quiz: Your brain weighs about 3 pounds. How much does your mind weigh?)

Long before fMRI machines, philosophers have been debating these questions. David Sosa, a professor and philosophy department chair at the University of Texas at Austin, says the materialists dominate the field these days, though he remains a dualist (a type of theory that argues the mind and the brain, the mental and the physical, are different kinds of thing). Sosa is respectful of the work of neuroscientists and agrees philosophers should be engaging their findings, but he’s unwilling to rush to judgment.

Eagleman shares that caution. He has no glib response about the question of consciousness and says there’s not even a clear way to frame questions about private subjective experience – “there’s no equation that can give us the taste of feta cheese,” he says.

That’s why Eagleman, a hardcore neuroscientist who loves the “stuff” coming out of his lab as much as conventional religious believers love the “stuff” in their holy books, isn’t a hardcore materialist. But what could the missing pieces be? Time for another analogy.

Imagine folks with no exposure to modern gadgets find a radio. They hear a human voice coming out, yet there’s no one speaking. They fiddle with the radio, remove the back cover, pull on a wire, and observe that the voice stops. They reconnect the wire, and the voice is back. They touch other parts and the voice changes. Not knowing about the electromagnetic spectrum, these tinkerers would be tempted to assume the voice is coming from the radio itself.

Back to emergent properties. It might be tempting to conclude that the voice is an emergent property of the radio, of the way the parts and pieces are arranged, but that would miss the invisible radio waves. “The physical integrity of the radio is necessary for its proper functioning, but it’s not about the physical thing. That’s just a receiver for things coming from elsewhere,” Eagleman says.

It’s plausible, he concludes, that we could be waiting for the neuroscience equivalent of discovering the law of gravitation, waiting to discover “whole new – I don’t even know what to call them – forces or dimensions or whatever. A hundred years from now people might say, ‘those poor assholes in the 21st century were trying to solve the consciousness problem and they didn’t even know about force X.’”

Eagleman is quick to make it clear he’s not saying there’s a force X; he doesn’t want to be lumped in with the folks peddling New Age flakiness. He just wants to keep an open mind, which is what he thinks science is all about – extend the pier but don’t forget about the vastness of the ocean, expand what we know but remember that what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t know.

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