Header 1

Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, June 9, 2014

Pinker's Fallacious Case Against the Self and Soul

On the Time magazine web site there is a long essay by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker that seems to be dedicated to proving ideas such as the idea that your self doesn't really exist, that you have no soul, and that what you mistake for a mind with control over your muscles is really just an illusion. Unfortunately, the professor's case involves some serious warping of facts and logic. 

Below the title of the essay we see these words: “You exist, right? Prove it. How 100 billion jabbering neurons create the knowledge--or illusion--that you're here.” This is a completely bogus challenge. The existence of a self and human consciousness is an intuitive truth you can directly perceive. There is not the slightest need for anyone to prove such a fact of experience, any more than you need to prove that black is really black or that you can see something or that you can feel something. The burden of proof – in this case, an absolutely impossible task – is on anyone challenging the reality of such a fact of direct observation and experience. Similarly, if I see a mountain with my own eyes, the burden of proof isn't on me to prove that I have had a sensation – the burden of proof is on you if you make the weird claim that I have not had a sensation.

After wasting several paragraphs on some study involving a coma patient who had certain brain areas light up (a case that has no relevance to what he is arguing for), Pinker asserts, “Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.” To support this reductionist thesis, Pinker says, “Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment for epilepsy), spawns two consciousnesses within the same skull, as if the soul could be cleaved in two with a knife.”

This latter claim is misleading and inaccurate. The people who have had such an operation are called split-brain patients. The wikipedia article on this type of operation says the following:

In general, split-brained patients behave in a coordinated, purposeful and consistent manner, despite the independent, parallel, usually different and occasionally conflicting processing of the same information from the environment by the two disconnected hemispheres...Often, split-brained patients are indistinguishable from normal adults.

Similarly, an article in Psychology Today says, “Split personality is a rare consequence of a split brain.” So clearly Pinker has his facts scrambled when he claims that splitting the brain with a corpus callosum surgery “creates two consciousnesses within the same skull.” In fact, it does nothing at all like that in the vast majority of cases. Even in the rare case when a split personality results, that is not at all “two consciousnesses within the same skull,” which is actually something that has never been observed. Split personality is a very rare case when someone alternates between one set of personality tendencies and another, not a case where two consciousnesses exist at the same time in the same brain. We might have a case of two simultaneous consciousnesses if someone's left hand wrote one essay and his right hand wrote a different essay, at exactly the same time (or if someone reported two simultaneous and unrelated trains of thought at exactly the same instant). Nothing like that has ever been observed or reported.

Speaking of anomalous brain conditions, there are some of those that seem inconsistent with Pinker's claim that the brain is the sole cause of the human mind. As discussed here, Lorber found astonishing cases of people who functioned very well with very little brain tissue, after they had a disease that converted most of their brain tissue to fluid. The same link discusses how children with chronic brain seizures are sometimes given an operation in which half of their brains are removed. Astonishingly, they are typically able to function very well after such an operation. How are such things compatible with Pinker's thesis?

Pinker makes no mention of such anomalies, but does take a quick stab at debunking observations that suggest that there may be such a thing as a human soul or life after death. Speaking of mediums, Pinker assures us that “attempts to contact the souls of the dead (a pursuit of serious scientists a century ago) turned up only cheap magic tricks.” This is not an accurate description of the experiences which scientists had investigating mediums a century ago. Although some fraud was exposed, some leading scientists got involved in the investigation of mediums, and ended up concluding that in some cases something much more than magic and fraud was going on. For example, Sir Oliver Lodge (an eminent physicist who made key developments in wireless telegraphy) spent a long time investigating mediums such as Leonora Piper, and repeatedly stated that he encountered something unexplained and authentic, and that fraud was not involved. Another eminent scientist was William James, known as the founder of American psychology. He investigated Piper and declared she displayed some type of paranormal knowledge acquisition. Piper endured more than a decade of rigorous investigation, was never exposed as a fraud, and was eventually declared to be authentic by an arch-skeptic (Richard Hodgson) who started investigating her with the hope of debunking her, but ended up saying he had “no doubt” Piper had provided evidence of an afterlife. Another top-tier scientist Sir William Crookes (the inventor of the Crookes tube that was the forerunner of the X-ray machine) investigated at length a medium named Florence Cook, and reported that she had produced authentic paranormal phenomena suggestive of an afterlife, had submitted to every test, and had never shown the slightest intention to deceive. Crookes also gave a favorable report on the medium D.D. Home after testing him. These scientists never retracted such opinions.

Pinker also claims that “near death experiences are not the eyewitness reports of a soul parting company from the body but symptoms of oxygen starvation in the eyes and brain.” This claim does not hold water. Those who have had near-death experiences report experiences such as having a life review, coming into contact with some Being of light, traveling through a tunnel, seeing dead relatives, and seeing some heavenly realm. To explain that naturally, you would need something that produces hallucinations, with the hallucinations all being similar. Oxygen starvation (cerebral hypoxia) is a condition well-understood, as it is sometimes produced in pilots and mountain climbers. Medical references on hypoxia do not typically list hallucinations as a symptom.

The symptoms of hypoxia listed here in a Federal Aviation Administration publication are “increased breathing rate, headache, lightheadedness, dizziness, tingling or warm sensations, sweating, poor coordination, impaired judgment, tunnel vision, and euphoria.” Tunnel vision is a phenomenon where you can only see what's in the center of your field of view, and is something entirely different from seeing yourself pulled through a tunnel, often reported in near-death experiences. So the only item on this list of symptoms matching what is reported in near-death experiences is euphoria. In short, oxygen deprivation is not a plausible explanation for near-death experiences. An RAF pilot named Allan Pring experienced oxygen deprivation while flying, and also much later experienced a near-death experience. He reported there was “no similarity” between the two.

Misleading government graphic -- the brain is not digital
Pinker tells us, “Another startling conclusion from the science of consciousness is that the intuitive feeling we have that there's an executive 'I' that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion.” If Pinker is claiming here that there is no self that makes decisions based on sensory inputs, he is advancing a nonsensical thesis; and he does nothing to substantiate such a claim. There is not even currently such a thing as a real “science of consciousness.” You can get a PhD or master's degree in neuroscience (the study of the brain and nervous system) or in psychology (the soft and fuzzy study of the human mind), but as far as I can determine you cannot get a scientific degree in consciousness from any large college or university (the closest thing I can find to such a thing is an online master's degree in “Consciousness Studies” offered by a virtually unknown University of Philosophical Research). There is no scientific consensus involving “conclusions from the science of consciousness,” because such a science doesn't yet exist in any substantial and distinct form. 

Pinker discusses the “hard problem of consciousness,” the problem of explaining how a material brain can produce Mind, something totally different from matter. But he says nothing to give the reader any confidence that science is close to solving that problem, or even making much progress at solving it. Can we hope that such a day is coming, that perhaps when scientists scan brain tissue with a little higher magnification they will suddenly say, “Aha, there is a thought being produced”? Such a hope is not very plausible. What could you possibly see in a microscope or scanner that would be “the fingerprint of thought production” or “the smoking gun of matter producing consciousness”? We can't even imagine what we could possibly see that would be such a thing.

Perhaps we should instead consider some other paradigm of explanation involving more transcendent principles.