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Scientific American

Mustangs, Monists & Meaning

published September 2004 | Comments Off
The dualist belief that body and soul are separate entities is natural, intuitive and with us from infancy. It is also very probably wrong
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When I was 17 in 1971, I purchased my dream car — a 1966 Ford Mustang — blue with a white vinyl roof, bucket seats and a powerful eight-cylinder 289-cubic-inch engine that could peg the speedometer at 140 miles per hour. As testosterone-overloaded young men are wont to do, however, over the course of the next 15 years I systematically wrecked and replaced nearly every part of that car, to the extent that by the time I sold it in 1986 there was hardly an original piece remaining. Nevertheless, I turned a tidy profit because my “1966” Mustang was now a collector’s classic. Even though the physical components were not original, the essence of its being — its “Mustangness” — was that model’s complete form. My Mustang’s essence — its “soul” — was more than a pile of parts; it was a pattern of information arranged in a particular way.

The analogy applies to humans and souls. The actual atoms and molecules that make up my brain and body today are not the same ones that I was born with on September 8, 1954, a half-century ago this month. Still, I am “Michael Shermer,” the sum of the information coded in my DNA and neural memories. My friends and family do not treat me any differently from moment to moment, even though atoms and molecules are cycling in and out of my body and brain, because these people assume that the basic pattern remains unchanged. My soul is a pattern of information.

Dualists hold that body and soul are separate entities and that the soul will continue beyond the existence of the physical body. Monists contend that body and soul are the same and that the death of the body — the disintegration of DNA and neurons that store my personal information — spells the end of the soul. Until a technology is developed to preserve our patternswith a more durable medium than the electric meat of our carbon-based protein (silicon chips is one suggestion), when we die our patterns die with us.

The principal barrier to a general acceptance of the monist position is that it is counterintuitive. As Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom argues in his intriguing book, Descartes’ Baby (Basic Books, 2004), we are natural-born dualists. Children and adults alike speak of “my body,” as if “my” and “body” are dissimilar. In one of many experiments Bloom recounts, for example, young children are told a story about a mouse that gets munched by an alligator. The children agree that the mouse’s body is dead — it does not need to go to the bathroom, it can’t hear, and its brain no longer works. Yet they insist that the mouse is still hungry, is concerned about the alligator, and wants to go home. “This is the foundation for the more articulated view of the afterlife you usually find in older children and adults,” Bloom explains. “Once children learn that the brain is involved in thinking, they don’t take it as showing that the brain is the source of mental life; they don’t become materialists. Rather they interpret ‘thinking’ in a narrow sense and conclude that the brain is a cognitive prosthesis, something added to the soul to enhance its computing power.”

The reason dualism is intuitive is that the brain does not perceive itself and so ascribes mental activity to a separate source. Hallucinations of preternatural beings (ghosts, angels, aliens) are sensed as real entities, out-of-body and near-death experiences are perceived as external events, and the pattern of information that is our memories, personality and “self” is sensed as a soul.

Is scientific monism in conflict with religious dualism? Yes, it is. Either the soul survives death or it does not, and there is no scientific evidence that it does. Does monism extirpate all meaning in life? I think not. If this is all there is, then every moment, every relationship and every person counts — and counts more if there is no tomorrow than if there is. Through no divine design or cosmic plan, we have inherited the mantle of life’s caretaker on the earth, the only home we have ever known. The realization that we exist together for a narrow slice of time and a limited fraction of space elevates us all to a higher plane of humanity and humility, a passing moment on the proscenium of the cosmos.

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