Mind-body dualism and religion – the hard debate

In a prior post, I noted that the most-cited debate between science and religion, that of Darwinian evolution, is “the easy problem to solve” in this face-off. Millions of Christians and major denominational bodies have already come to a reconciliation with the science, simply by understanding, as St. Augustine of Hippo recognized by the early 5th century, that the short description of Creation in Genesis is best seen as religious allegory, and not as an iPhone-video capture of events.

In that post I asserted, however, that there remains a science-versus-religion debate that, if more “mainstream” Christians understood it, they too would join their more fundamentalist fellow-believers in struggling to reconcile science with their own religious faith. This debate is often called the mind-body problem, or mind-body dualism. That debate is the subject of this post.

The short explanation of this dilemma is that almost all neuroscientists today see “the human mind” as a creation of the brain in conjunction with the rest of the body’s inter-connected nervous system. Most religious people, on the other hand, are “mind-body dualists.” That is, they typically equate their “mind” with their “soul,” and at the same time see those minds/souls as separate entities from their bodies. Indeed, that mind/soul has a “life” that extends beyond the grave, and in some faiths, even before birth.

Me and my homunculus

A year ago I wrote a post entitled “Me and my homunculus,” about this strong feeling most of us experience that there is a “little person” inside our head that directs our body what to do and what to say. My position there was supporting the scientific consensus that this “person” cannot be located in one particular spot inside our heads. Rather, it is an “emergent” phenomenon coming from our entire brain and connected nervous system (including, it turns out, our “gut biome”), creating a perceived “center point” inside our heads.

That “feeling” is incredibly strong. I personally don’t believe that I have a homunculus, but I still strongly perceive it telling my fingers to type this passage on my computer.

Even if there were a homunculus, we get quickly into a recursion problem here. How does this “little person” think and feel? Is there a smaller homunculus inside my homunculus? What are the physics here?

Despite the popularity over the years of books recounting “near death” experiences of people “going up to heaven” and coming back, neuroscientists have been able to recreate in the laboratory most purported evidences of “near death” experiences such as the “tunnel of light” and the perception of leaving one’s body. The new technology of virtual reality video games has demonstrated how easy it is to fool one’s “homunculus” into thinking it has “left the body” and entered into another “virtual” body from which I can view myself from the “outside.” It is a truly disorienting experience, but it demonstrates the fragility of this “brain center” perception that we take for granted.

My intention here is not to debunk those experiences, rather to suggest that the “march of science” appears to be “one-way,” as it has been with evolution. We increasingly see new scientific understanding of how the brain works, including the “hard problem” of what it means to be conscious.

The human-created “new limbo”

As families increasingly face the new technologies used to prolong the lives of dying loved ones, we unavoidably come face-to-face with some of these understandings ourselves, and try to reconcile them with our religious traditions. Increasingly we must confront this new, human-created “technological limbo” where many of our life-critical bodily functions fail, yet we remain legally alive. This “new limbo” presents many public policy and ethical issues that will be examined in an upcoming post.

One of the hardest of these issues to reconcile with our religious traditions and understandings comes with a loved one who has been overtaken by Alzheimer’s disease. We see the person’s “mind” slipping away over time, and most of us cannot avoid asking, “Where did that person who was my loved one go to?” I have been there myself, and it presents one of life’s greatest “theological challenges” when we have to make our own peace with the problem.

This is literally the “mind-body problem” staring us in the face, and none of the answers we come up with are likely completely satisfying.

The different traditions of “life after death”

Most Christians, in my perception, have little understanding about how other religious traditions throughout our human history have dealt with the issue of what happens to the mind or the soul after death. Indeed most Christians are likely unaware of how “ambiguous” the Jewish religious tradition is on this subject, even though Christianity shares much of its scriptural tradition with Judaism. Much Christian theology on this subject is “backfilled” into its readings of the Old Testament, while Judaism often reads the same passages very differently.

Islam has its own views on the afterlife that are often uncomfortable at best to Christians, and Islam’s various branches argue vociferously on the subject. Hinduism famously has a rich tradition of reincarnation, while Buddhism stresses reconciling to the “impermanence” of life in order to achieve personal peace of mind.

I confess I personally have a hard time desiring to share some “heavenly reward” with many of the religious grifters that preach the loudest confidence in their own eternal reward while freely condemning others to “Hell.” I would prefer to rest peacefully in my ashes in a box on the top of our refrigerator.

An aged and respected evangelist once confessed to me and some friends that, “I have studied the Bible all of my life and I still don’t know what will happen when I die, and increasingly, I don’t care one way or another.” That disturbed my friends but comforted me.

The “fightin’ word” of supernatural

In that prior post, I called myth and theory “fightin’ words” among many religious conservatives, as their very use will send some into online tirades. I have had a similar experience with the word supernatural. Among some Christians, the word is reserved for ghost stories and horror movies, and any use of the term supernatural referring to their own beliefs about Biblical “miracles” or the nature of the soul generates very negative and visceral reactions.

To most scientists, however, the word supernatural is an overall category for asserted “powers” seems to violate or go beyond “natural” forces definable by experimentation and testing. At best these assertions are “currently unexplained.” Frequently they are dismissed, especially where there are better scientific explanations, as “not real,” and that’s where the “fightin’ words” defensiveness takes over.

Given that sensitivity to the word, if you perceive your “mind” as a separate entity from your body, how does that description of “supernatural” strike you? If you don’t like it, does “faith” better describe your perception? And is that “faith” itself a dependence on the supernatural, or is it more like the idea of “trust” (which is the sense that it it is frequently used in Judeo-Christian scriptures), perhaps akin to crossing the street in traffic trusting that the cars will stop for you?

In the spirit of this blog, that latter definition of “faith” is more like a “probability bet,” which is not necessarily bad. Our “natural brain” is “hard-wired” to do probability bets. It is how we “probably” survive, and how we sometimes die, on a bad “throw of the dice.”

“God language” has existed as a mode of communication among humans long before any language that we would recognize as “science.” We needed that language to help us survive as community a brutish world for which we had no “natural” explanation. And sometimes it still functions better to satisfactorily describe how we perceive ourselves than does a (possibly more “accurate”) description of nature or science that we personally don’t understand. “God language” won’t disappear even in the presence of “natural” alternatives, and as noted in an early post, even Albert Einstein (often to the frustration of his friends) would use “God language” to communicate with audiences to describe his understanding of both physics and music, even though he didn’t share the faith understandings of those same people.

And so, if this post makes you uncomfortable, then I have proven my point. The “mind-body problem” is “the hard debate.”

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