Is the soul more real than neurons and synapses?

The brain is the the­o­ret­i­cal imper­a­tive of under­stand­ing the world by look­ing at “What is”. When asked “What do you think?” before any­one has said any­thing, the brain responds with an answer: “I think I’m hun­gry” or “I think my foot hurts.” 

It does­n’t just talk about itself; it also process­es out­side data — infor­ma­tion from our sens­es. It tells us how we feel about that data.

Soul: Is it more real than neurons and synapses?

The idea of a soul (or spir­it) has been around for mil­len­nia. Only recent­ly have we begun to under­stand how to use mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy to explore its very nature. 

With fMRI scan­ners and oth­er brain-imag­ing tools, we can now peek into some­one’s mind and see how their thoughts unfold. 

For exam­ple, a church might be the most sacred space for some peo­ple, and an air­port for oth­ers: when peo­ple stand inside these places and close their eyes, they can expe­ri­ence pow­er­ful feel­ings of awe or dread. 

And when asked to describe what they are expe­ri­enc­ing, many peo­ple describe a feel­ing of “some­thing.”

What is that “some­thing”? Where does it come from? Is it real? And if it’s a feel­ing, how do we study feel­ings sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly? Is the soul more real than neu­rons and synaps­es, or is it some­thing else entirely?

Many peo­ple believe that the soul is a phys­i­cal enti­ty. In oth­er words, they believe in the after­life, where they will have an essen­tial iden­ti­ty sep­a­rate from their phys­i­cal body. 

This belief has many ben­e­fits. It also pro­vides a frame­work for under­stand­ing life’s mean­ing and pur­pose. For exam­ple, one could ask: “Why am I here? What pur­pose does my life serve?” or even “Why do bad things hap­pen to good people?”

Peo­ple who don’t believe in the soul often talk about how hard it is to get their hands around the con­cept. But this is just a dif­fer­ent way of talk­ing about the fact that our hands are always in our body, and so it’s hard to get them around some­thing that isn’t.

Yet this prob­lem does­n’t mean that the soul isn’t real. It just means we haven’t designed a good way to study it. We should keep try­ing to find new ways of explain­ing what it’s made out of and how it works, even if we don’t have many facts yet.

For exam­ple, Nobel Prize win­ner Fran­cis Crick famous­ly stat­ed, “You’re noth­ing but a pack of neu­rons.”  If Crick was right, he’d have con­quered the mind-body prob­lem by reduc­ing all men­tal activ­i­ty to neur­al activ­i­ty. But that’s not quite the story. 

The prob­lem with “noth­ing but neu­rons” is that it sug­gests there’s noth­ing behind brain activ­i­ty. In oth­er words, it sug­gests that neu­rons are the end goal of all men­tal activ­i­ty, like a blank sheet of paper on which every­one writes their own thoughts. 

If we want to explain what goes on inside a per­son­’s head, this is clear­ly wrong.

Crick was not say­ing that the brain is just com­posed of neu­rons; he was just mak­ing an obser­va­tion about how nerve cells work togeth­er to process information. 

In oth­er words, Crick was hint­ing that there’s more going on than just neu­rons and synaps­es fir­ing in the mind-body sys­tem. He was say­ing that the mind and the body are con­nect­ed in impor­tant ways.

If that sounds famil­iar, it’s because Crick was describ­ing a phe­nom­e­non called emer­gen­tism: the idea that a sys­tem can have prop­er­ties not found in any of its parts.

For exam­ple, water is made up of hydro­gen and oxy­gen atoms, but if you put them togeth­er ran­dom­ly you won’t get water (you’ll get dirt). 

Yet, when you take those two atoms and con­nect them — when they inter­act with each oth­er — they form some­thing new that has prop­er­ties not found in any indi­vid­ual atom. 

In this case, it’s liq­uid water instead of some­thing sol­id or gaseous. Sim­i­lar­ly, if you take the atoms and con­nect them togeth­er to form a plan­et, they will inter­act with each oth­er and a new sys­tem emerges. This is how plan­ets are formed.

In oth­er words, emer­gent sys­tems always have prop­er­ties that can­not be explained by sim­ply look­ing at their indi­vid­ual parts. This is why Crick­’s state­ment about neu­rons being “noth­ing but” neu­rons is wrong. 

Our brains are not just neu­rons; we need some­thing else — a brain-mind con­nec­tion — to func­tion in the first place.

Soul mind body

This means that bio­log­i­cal activ­i­ty can still be stud­ied with­out reduc­ing it to the activ­i­ty of indi­vid­ual parts (neu­rons). So, when we look at how the brain func­tions, we see two things: neu­rons and synaps­es inter­act­ing togeth­er to form spe­cial­ized cir­cuits; and some­thing else that lets those cir­cuits — and thus our thoughts — func­tion properly.

So, when peo­ple say “I think I’m hun­gry,” the “I” talk­ing is not a bio­log­i­cal part; it’s the emer­gent sys­tem of neu­rons com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each oth­er in a way that makes us feel like we are who we are. 

It’s what Crick called the “seat of con­scious­ness.” The soul, or spir­it, is the thing in us that makes us feel from with­in. This isn’t some­thing which philoso­phers made up want­i­ng to design an after­life. Rather, it has come to light through sci­en­tif­ic investigation.

The dan­ger of not believ­ing in the soul is that when we die, it could be like falling asleep and nev­er wak­ing up. When we lose con­scious­ness, there’s noth­ing else left to feel. What’s the point of liv­ing if there’s no sense of self?

The good news is that most peo­ple who don’t believe in souls don’t actu­al­ly want to live for­ev­er. In fact, most peo­ple who wor­ry about death have actu­al­ly wor­ries about fac­ing their own mor­tal­i­ty — which should­n’t con­fuse with the soul. 

But per­haps bio­log­i­cal immor­tal­i­ty isn’t real­ly what we need. Instead, maybe we just want a sense of per­pet­u­al life: a con­tin­u­ing iden­ti­ty in which our mem­o­ries car­ry on from exis­tence to exis­tence with­out ever fad­ing away. 

Even if we can’t be immor­tal, our brains might be able to enact a sense of immor­tal­i­ty by inte­grat­ing with tech­nol­o­gy so that our thoughts and dreams can live on. In this way, the soul and immor­tal­i­ty are two sides of the same coin.

The soul is not just a phys­i­cal enti­ty; it’s an emer­gent prop­er­ty of the mind-body sys­tem. With­out the brain, there’s no mind or soul. 

And so our minds are tied to our brains in a very impor­tant way. That does­n’t make us spir­i­tu­al robots; it does not work like that. It makes us bio­log­i­cal beings with con­scious­ness that is capa­ble of expe­ri­enc­ing joy and suffering.

To Conclude,

So, to me, the ques­tion isn’t “Is the soul real?” It’s 1. “How can we bet­ter under­stand what makes us who we are?” 2. “How can we bet­ter explain human experience?” 

The answers to these ques­tions may require some rad­i­cal new ideas; the ideas that go beyond what some tra­di­tion­al­ists want sci­ence to be — but that’s fine.

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