Beware: Reductionist Approaches to Understanding the Soul Can Undermine Human Existence and Cause Suffering
“What if we consider your soul as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that make you you?” [Marcelo Gleiser for NPR]
I’ll be honest, to me it is so painfully human and reductionist to try to pin down the concept of a soul and apply it to something more concrete. The mechanisms behind neurocognition are all directly observable, and understandable to humans. We know that brain processes happen as a result of action potentials that occur in the context of neurons, and neurotransmitters. We know that our brains are made up of the same core components but that they are all different. These differences are the result of our genetics, and our individual experiences. So, this perspective is reductionist-yet- it is safe. Because we can grasp the concepts associated.
And, I get it. I understand why we need to continue to have these conversations. Because, it is human nature to want to know more about human nature. And as alluded to in the aforementioned article, we are constantly striving toward advancements in technology and motivated to achieve immortality.
We have all of these unanswered questions swirling around in our heads. Floating around in abstract space as we go about our very concrete lives. In certain moments, we may tap into this space. And explore, postulate, question. Most of the time, either out of necessity to cater to our concrete lives, or out of fear we exit this space. Without having any answers. Sometimes, there are brave souls who formulate theories in an attempt to explain what has up until that point been unexplainable.
If we embrace the idea of our souls being the “sum total of our neurocognitive essence”, we will be embracing a very interesting perspective on human existence and suffering. I have questions. Like: What does that mean for mental health? Those with cognitive deficits? What does it mean when we label people as having specific disorders? Are we then labeling their soul? After all, we are consistently moving towards trying to understand mental health in terms of neural processes. As a community we are pouring money into research aimed at trying to make connections between the cluster of symptoms and behaviors that those with certain mental illnesses and deficits exhibit with what is happening in the brain.
A Dangerous Road for the Soul
We could potentially be leading ourselves down a dangerous road if we decide to embrace this concept. If for some reason there was ever a majority consensus of this perspective of what a soul is, many people would be automatically labeled as less than. Let’s just remember that historically whenever physical attributes have been associated with immaterial, non concrete concepts, the instances of human suffering increased.
I am all for tackling existential questions and subject matter. But reducing what we know nothing about and connecting it to what we (think) we know, only minimizes our potential as human beings while simultaneously giving us the illusion of a power that we don’t (as of yet) possess.
The moral of the Story?
We should be careful. Because who are we to do such a thing? A thing that has the potential to cause unimaginable levels of pain and suffering for those who are immediately labeled as vulnerable. Vulnerable for not having a certain amount of the “sum total of neurocognitive essence”. Instead, they would possess an essence (soul) that does not match that of those in our society who are primed to uphold societal constructs and ideals.
Back to the drawing board it seems.