No soul, and not special

P.W. Atkins

Science is currently poised for its assault on the last two great peaks of ignorance. Having struggled with immense labour across the foothills of physics and biology, it has set up camp at the foot of cosmology and consciousness. Which will be the first to go? Will we understand the origin of the universe before we understand consciousness, or will consciousness be conquered first? If the problems are truly fundamental, they will be found to be united, and the assault on either will facilitate the assault on the other. As we unravel the simplicity of the web that makes up the material world and see how it emerged from nothing, so we can expect to expose the workings of that apotheosis of complexity, the response of the brain to its input and its own output, the response we call consciousness.

Yet mankind still remains oddly sensitive when confronted with the nakedness of understanding. Cosmologists strip off the shrouds that surround the creation and embarrass the religious, who would still prefer to see the event fully dressed in their obfuscations. Neurophysiologists – we need a better term, one that has the power of connotation of ‘cosmologist’ – are faced by even sterner looks as they pry into our intellectual private parts, for some still suppose that, with spirit abolished from the cosmos at large, there is still a lair for it inside the labyrinthine complexity of the space between our ears. Strictures against exploring that inner space have come from left and right. Any research that challenges the immaterial nature of the soul, and the mental grip that the religious seek to exert, has been for centuries repaid by the threat of death at least. There is also the underlying fear – who dare even now discuss it freely? – that discoveries about the intellect will have calamitous social consequences and justify social oppression. Let us stay uncomprehending, cry the faint-hearted. Changeux wonders – for the sake of wondering, not because he thinks so – whether it would be best to ‘de-cerebrate’ the social order and hide away our most splendid and dangerous organ. I find it extraordinary that in the Eighties a publisher should still think it necessary to tread cautiously, and to cotton-wool a book with remarks that it presents a ‘radical and controversial hypothesis: that there is no “mind” in man, nothing psychic, but rather only neurons, synapses, electricity, and chemistry’. Sadly there remain people who think differently. Had the book presumed otherwise, it would not have been worth the death of a tree. As it is, it develops the view cogently and usefully, and the benighted will share with me a thrill if they trouble to read it carefully. For them, it will be a thrill of fear.

Science, however, is becoming daily more capable of confronting and elucidating with its clever, careful, cautious public prying. But how do we get inside our own heads? There are two important stages, and they should not be confused. One step is to enter the head physically, and to identify the structures we find there and their mode of action. The second is to seek to discover what it ‘actually’ means to be me. The first is the mechanistic phase of exploration, the one to which Changeux largely confines his account. That is wise, on two grounds. One is that we as yet know next to nothing of the second. The other is more important, is buried in Changeux’s thoughts, and is one with which I have great sympathy. It is that, maybe, mechanism is all. Maybe once we discover all there is to know about mechanism, then the epiphenomenon of consciousness will be seen to be no more than that. Understanding mechanism is perhaps all there is to understanding function, consciousness being no more than function.

The brain is a puzzle, and the kinds of thoughts we pass through when thinking casually about it are essentially those adopted through the ages. It even took time for the realisation to grow that fancy lay not in the heart but in the head. The Mesopotamians, the Hebrews and Homer identified thought with the heart, and the brain, a mushy grey-cream mass to the casual eye, was regarded as an inconveniently heavy and ill-placed gland. Plato and Galen regarded the head as the seat of rationality, but Aristotle, that object lesson in encouraging us to beware of armchair brains, revived the Homeric view, and for centuries taught us to think of the brain as no more than an elaborate cooling-plant for the organism.

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