Thursday, 29 April 2010

The usefulness of false ideas

Listening to a programme on neuro-science recently (OK, I admit it: it was another archived edition of the BBC In Our Time programme which I keep raving about here), I was fascinated by the extended discussion that it included on mind-body duality: are mind and body separate entities? Can mind even be conceived of as independent of the body? And, inevitably, is there therefore a soul distinct from the body?

It appears that you can ask a man in a coma to think about serving a tennis ball and a scan will show that the same areas of the brain light up as when a fully conscious player is planning to serve. That suggests that even in a coma there is a degree of consciousness. What seems to be lacking is self-awareness: that part of our consciousness aware not only of the world and our body, but conscious of its own awareness too.

It seems to me that it’s that self-awareness which gives us the impression of a mind separate from our bodies. Because it makes us feel that we’re looking in on ourselves from somewhere else, it suggests an external, independent existence. Since however scans show that its operation is linked to parts of the brain, it is clearly completely tied to our physical bodies. And since none of that activity shows up after death, neuroscience really doesn’t have much good news for believers in the immortality of the soul. It can’t disprove it, of course, but certainly encourages non-believers in their scepticism.

Despite that we persist – I persist – in thinking of ‘myself’ as somehow different from my body. That very mind which has taken fully on board the idea, demonstrated by neuroscience, that it is intimately integrated with my brain, persists in feeling that it has a separate existence.

But then again Einstein’s relativity theory (yep, another In Our Time programme) makes it absolutely clear that all moments in time co-exist – they don’t exist one after another – just like all points in space coexist. But I’m incapable of thinking of it that way: I have memories of the past, I have a sense of existing in the present, and I have forebodings – OK, sometimes hopes – about a future I can see only dimly.

At an even simpler level, I know the Earth travels round the Sun a lot more than the Sun moves round the Earth but when I’m obliged to take the dog out at a ridiculous hour of day, I’m absolutely convinced that I see the Sun come up and not the Earth go down.

All of which leads me to conclude that sometimes what the truth is doesn’t really matter. What matter is what one feels the truth is. What I feel is that the Sun goes round the Earth, it looks that way, most practical decisions based on the relative position of our planet and our star are easier on that assumption. In some terribly important sense, therefore, that’s how things are.

Similarly time runs along in a single direction, uniformly. This is less convenient, of course, when it comes to controlling one’s weight or stopping one’s hair changing colour, but, hey, it’s a lot easier than being Benjamin Button, for instance, or having to live all of your life in one instant, which is what the Einstein view would suggest.

And I’m absolutely convinced I have a soul. I doubt it’s immortal, which is just as well when all’s said and done: I can’t see how I’d escape hellfire otherwise, so avoiding the afterlife is a bit of a get out of jail card. But mind-matter dualism? I live it all the time. It’s a false idea? Maybe, but it’s the only way I can make sense of anything.

1 comment:

Awoogamuffin said...

Are you sure Einstein's theory says we live all of our life in one instant? I don't believe that's true at all - we move through time just as we move through space, the interesting thing being that we only seem to move in one direction (though speed up and things get interesting).

The way I understand it, a photon never ages - seeing as it's moving through space at the speed of light, it has "used up" all of it's potential movement, and therefore does not move through time at all. So the photon leaving a star a thousand light years away is just as "old" when it reaches us a thousand years later.

But we are not photons, so we certainly move through time as well as space... but maybe I've misunderstood.