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The Table Video

Dean Zimmerman& Thomas M. Crisp

Can Neuroscience Teach Us about the Soul? CCT Conversations - Zimmerman/Crisp

Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University / Director of Rutgers Center for the Philosophy of Religion
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
December 13, 2013

Can neuroscience teach us about the nature of human persons? Can the brain sciences help us learn more about the existence of the soul? Philosophers Dean Zimmerman (Rutgers University) and Tom Crisp (Biola University) discuss.


So do you think there’s any arguments from what we now know about how the brain works, what neuroscience has taught us that disprove the soul? Or offer any kind of powerful reason for thinking there isn’t a soul?

Well, I don’t know as much about neuroscience as I ought to, so I don’t wanna answer that with very much confidence. I know some people who know more about it than I do and they tell me some really fascinating things about the parts of the brain that seem to be subserving different functions, they say surprising things about the division of labor in the brain. The idea that detection of fast motion could be associated with one part of the brain and detection of colors and shapes another, how in the world does that work?

And it turns out you can, you know, knock one of these out without knocking the other one out, somehow, the brain is able to put these together under a united kind of experience. Now, does that show that there’s no such thing as a soul? Well, it might turn out that you actually could use a soul on the scene here, because something has all of these experiences and is able to compare them to one another, you can compare the sound with the color and you can compare the motion with the sound and so on.

And if the parts of the brain where these percepts are being generated, are separate from one another then there’s got to be a further thing that somehow unites them all. And one hypothesis is, it’s the brain as a whole. But the brain as a whole is this vague, fuzzy thing and there doesn’t seem, I’m told, to be a sort of one place to which all of the sensory information is headed.

And if that would have turned out to be the case, introducing a soul as a kind of hypothesis about the thing to which the phenomenal experiences happen, you know, the thing that actually feels the pain and smells the smell and senses the color, it’s not the brain at all, or even a part of it. That might be a suggestive empirical hypothesis. I mean, you certainly, certainly if you opened up the skull and you found that the parts of the brain that are associated with colors and shapes, were separated from one another and not even communicating with one another at all and you know, well, this would give you, because you know, that you’re aware of both of these, it would give you a reason to suppose that you’re something else.


Now, of course it isn’t exactly like that. But there are some surprising results about the lack of neural connections between areas of the brain that are responsible for a single, unified kind of experience.

So sometimes philosophers talk about the unity of consciousness. Our experience of the world is tied into a unity. It’s one person, so it presents itself to me, having this visual experience and having this auditory experience, it’s tightly unified into a single subject of consciousness. But we look in the brain and there doesn’t seem to be any process that unifies auditory processing with visual processing, with different kinds of visual processing and so the thought is, well, maybe there isn’t any kind of physical unification of those different processes going on. Maybe it’s all being unified in a single soul.

It’s a non physical unifier. Yeah, and you know as I say that my knowledge of these, of cutting edge neuroscience is pretty slender but what one does here is that this is a serious problem, you have different approaches to solving it. This part of it would be called the binding problem, how do different aspects of a single experience get sort of bound together? If you’re aware of a couple of shapes and a couple of colors, how is it that the one color gets associated with the one shape and not the other? And there’s, you know, there’s proposals but none of them I’m told has, you know, sort of carrying the day at this point. Of course that’s no reason to stop looking but for people who believe in souls, it’s a suggestive result.

Well, when you think about believing in the soul as a kind of a research program or a way of trying to conduct research into what human beings are, how they work it’s an attractive possibility that maybe these problems, explaining the unity of consciousness suggest a kind of empirical role for the soul


That it’s not just purely a philosophical hypothesis, it might play a role in what we do in science. [soft instrumental music]