No Mental Life after Brain Death: The Argument from the Neural Localization of Mental Functions
Gualtiero Piccinini and Sonya Bahar
(Martin, Michael; Augustine, Keith. The Myth of an Afterlife . Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
For today’s post on The Myth of an Afterlife, I wanted to unpack some thoughts from Piccinini and Bahar’s chapter regarding the physical grounding of mystical experience. They comment:
In 1983 Michael Persinger suggested that religious and mystical experiences in general might be artifacts of temporal lobe microseizures (Persinger, 1983). More recently, a wealth of brain imaging studies have complemented the early EEG studies, confirming the temporal localization of such events (Hansen & Brodtkorb, 2003). Other studies suggest that mystical experiences are not solely localized to the temporal lobe, however, and that they may involve a large and complex network of activations in the brain. Cosimo Urgesi, Salvatore M. Aglioti, Miran Skrap, and Franco Fabbro (2010) found that lesions in the inferior posterior parietal regions led to a feeling of “self-transcendence” in patients.
Martin, Michael; Augustine, Keith. The Myth of an Afterlife . Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.
That mystical experiences are simply brain based and not an indicator of the soul makes good sense of what we know of how the person transcends themselves, being ek-static or outside of oneself.
We encounter the issue of soul/brain dualism in the Transpersonal Psychology tradition following a certain interpretation of Jung, which made a big deal out of transcendence in the mystical and alchemical traditions. So for instance, etymologically, the language originally used to describe the self originally came from nature (eg., I’m boiling mad). Nietzsche clarified this that we are outside of ourselves in the sense that we bodily schematize experience, and so for instance when we have a stomach ache, beings appear in an irritating manner, so it isn’t just an activity of the mind-ish soul, but a general physiological point.
On the idea of our ek-static nature or being outside of ourselves, here’s a recent post I did on the Heidegger Circle discussion group:
Heidegger points out that since Plato, anything that ‘is’ can be differentiated into two realms, the aistheton and the noeton, that which is apprehended by the senses and that which can be experienced by nous, the mind’s eye. The noeton is that which truly is for Plato (see below) because it is not subject to the changeability of the things of the senses, and hence are constant. The particular house shows the essence, house as such, but only in a limited way, and hence is me on, not simply nothing, ouk on, but deficient with respect to what truly is, the primary image, the paradeigma (cf Heidegger, Holderlin’s Hymn The Ister, 24). But, this needs to be thought in a Greek way, since for instance under Homer’s understanding with beings as eonta, Homer applies the term eonta to “the Achaean’s encampment before Troy, the god’s wrath, the plague’s fury, funeral pyres, [and] the perplexity of the leaders’. Man too belongs to eonta.” So, the beings that are sensed are not simply thought of as mind independent substances with properties, but in terms of presencing, since man is grounded in eros, is parestios, the one in the sphere of the warmth of the hearth fire who nourishes on Being. How?
There is one idea (house) despite the many incarnations of house. So, thought of verbally as the event of presencing, the idea “house” may be presencing powerfully to the observer through the beautiful mansion, comparatively plainly and weaker through the average dwelling, and hardly at all through the run down cottage. But, Heidegger stresses here that Homer says the gods don’t appear to everyone enargeis (Odyssey, 16, 161), Odysseus experiencing the radiant presencing of the goddess as Beauty incarnate, though the next person beside him wasn’t experiencing the woman in that lustrous way. So, the rustic cottage you find presencing as shoddy may be presencing as quite charming and quaint to the next person: Heidegger thinks enargeis in the sense of argos, radiant, the same word Plato uses in the Phaedrus (250d) to indicate the presencing, radiant shining of the Beautiful (McNeill, 332). The idea is the oneness and constancy that presences through all beings: alteration and change meaning basically non-being for Plato. Why?
For Plato the soul nourishes itself (trephetai) on Being. A human is parestios, the one in the sphere of the warmth of the hearth fire in eros – but thought in relation to deinon/apolis – restlessness/homelessness (Sophocles’ Antigone). Plato compared the constancy of the stars with man’s own erratic, disorderly and restless thoughts, and believed that people should aspire to the regularity of the heavenly bodies (Healy, 1984). This is why in the Nicomachean Ethics theoria is the highest form of human life for Aristotle. Heidegger cites Aristotle that the life of theoria [contemplation] which exceeds phronesis [practical wisdom], is a kind of godly life, an athanatizein, to be immortal- [whereby athanatizein is formed like hellenizein, to be Greek], that implies that in theoria we comport ourselves like immortals. In theoria mortals reach up to the life of the gods (see Heidegger, Heraclitus Seminar, 111). For the Greeks both gods and humans were immortal, but the deathlessness of the gods meant the blessedness of their manner of existing, forever in the fire and absorption of youth.
This positive, comparative, and superlative presencing of the universal (eg House) means the idea of the beautiful is what shines through the various levels of appearing (Now that’s a house!): “What is most longed for in eros, and therefore the Idea that is brought into fundamental relation, is what at the same time appears and radiates most brilliantly. The erasmiotaton, which at the same time is ekphanestaton, proves to be the idea tou kalou, the Idea of the beautiful, beauty (Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche ,’ 167).”
Holderlin points to verbalization of predicates: the sky is usually nice and “blueing,” but especially when the sky “blues” after a storm. Similarly, the house always “yellows,” but especially so when you turn down a strange street you’ve never been on before looking for the yellow house, when suddenly yellowness leaps at you!
Heidegger thus says more original than “perceiving-perceived substance with properties” understanding of the person perceiving beings is the ancient Greek notion of “ek-statikon” or “being-in-the-world.” So for instance, in perceiving something as boring or sexy, the predicates are not simply fully perceiver or perceived, but in the middle as event: the way the being is presencing (eg the tv show appears or is showing itself in a boring manner to me, boringness is felt as a characteristic of the show, the other, though the next person may not experience this boringness at all). Likewise, Dreyfus pointed to predicates like “equipment,” which both do and don’t belong to the hammer, since a large rock can perform the same function as a hammer but isn’t essentially viewed as equipment.
Understanding something as a thing in terms of a substance with properties requires schematizing it as a temporal snapshot. The sun has been a “substance,” a thing with properties, much longer than any substance on earth, but in reality this “substance sun” is only a moment in the process of an event that is the birth and death of this star, and that event in turn is itself simply a moment in further events “in-process.”
Of course, the mystical and alchemical traditions of being outside of ourselves (supposedly in union with Nature and God) are not evidence of a soul as many transpersonalists hold any more than is an out of body experience, but are just extreme cases of our normal Being-In-The-World, our being ek-statik or outside of ourselves. I have a professor friend who is an adamant transpersonal psychologist who takes a good solid empirical foundation and then turns it into ridiculousness by inferring all kinds of theological nonsense. For instance, psychologists know that one of the fundamental human abilities/instincts is mirroring, like the way the infant mirrors the expressions of the mother. This is the mechanism that allows us to mirror nature (eg I’m boiling mad), and so nature-self referential language cross culturally is analogous because the environment is analogous world wide. So, since there are similarities in the world wherever you go, human self-understanding, grounded in this mirroring, is going to be similar. This is the transpersonal understanding of the Jungian archetypes (the sophisticated transpersonalists anyway). And so, for instance, historically, for the medieval alchemists the turning of something into gold represented the perfecting of the mirroring soul. Where the whole valorization of mythicism thing by transpersonalists becomes absurd is when the transpersonalists start inferring divine stuff from this perfectly naturalistic and reasonable foundation. My friend and I have argued about this many times. It’s silly. For instance, there are meditative traditions where you can cultivate a feeling of the dissolving of the self into Being, but this in no way implies the existence of God, contact with God, or that you have become part of God. It’s just an unusual feeling/experience. These are simply interesting tricks of the brain. Psychadelic drugs can also invoke such altered states of consciousness.
The cross cultural question is interesting. The mirroring that creates an understanding of self, either of mother by child, or environment by person (eg.. I’m boiling mad), or understanding oneself through one’s culture (eg, your are probably Muslim if born in certain countries), etc., understandably are cross cultural because we all share similar brains, instincts and environments worldwide. And so, for instance, mysticism where the practitioner thinks they are unifying with God is to be expected on the atheist account. Just as being marginalized and belittled causes negative little-ing (feeling negatively small), the positive companion phenomenon of being dwarfed causes serenity. So just as you might feel dwarfed at the expanse when looking out over the ocean, or as a child in the protective embrace of a parent, or as a student by the genius of Aristotle, so too in some meditative traditions can the practitioner latch on to how my self is received from the other (via mirroring) and cultivate/grow the feeling of being dwarfed by that Other to such a point that the self feels effaced and the only experience left is this expanse (what some traditional mysticism theologizes as the mystical union with God). There is nothing supernatural or mysterious, here and is exactly what one would expect on a secular account.
And so, since this being-outside-oneself in mirroring seems to be a perfectly natural activity of our physiology, it would make sense that animals would have these types of transcendent experiences too. So Jennifer Viegas reports that:
Animals (not just people) likely have spiritual experiences, according to a prominent neurologist who has analyzed the processes of spiritual sensation for over three decades.
Research suggests that spiritual experiences originate deep within primitive areas of the human brain — areas shared by other animals with brain structures like our own.
The trick, of course, lies in proving animals’ experiences.
“Since only humans are capable of language that can communicate the richness of spiritual experience, it is unlikely we will ever know with certainty what an animal subjectively experiences,” Kevin Nelson, a professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky, told Discovery News.
“Despite this limitation, it is still reasonable to conclude that since the most primitive areas of our brain happen to be the spiritual, then we can expect that animals are also capable of spiritual experiences,” added Nelson, author of the book “The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain,” which will be published in January 2011.
The finding is an extension of his research on humans, which has been published in many peer-reviewed journals. A Neurology journal study, for example, determined that out-of-body experiences in humans are likely caused by the brain’s arousal system, which regulates different states of consciousness.
“In humans, we know that if we disrupt the (brain) region where vision, sense of motion, orientation in the Earth’s gravitational field, and knowing the position of our body all come together, then out-of-body experiences can be caused literally by the flip of a switch,” he said. “There is absolutely no reason to believe it is any different for a dog, cat, or primate’s brain.”
Other mammals also probably have near-death experiences comparable to those reported by certain humans, he believes. Such people often say they saw a light and felt as though they were moving down a tunnel.
The tunnel phenomenon “is caused by the eye’s susceptibility to the low blood flow that occurs with fainting or cardiac arrest,” he said. “As blood flow diminishes, vision fails peripherally first. There is no reason to believe that other animals are any different from us.”
Nelson added, “What they make of the tunnel is another matter.”
The light aspect of near-death experiences can be explained by how the visual system defines REM (rapid eye movement) consciousness, he believes.
“In fact,” he said, “the link between REM and the physiological crises causing near-death experience are most strongly linked in animals, like cats and rats, which we can study in the laboratory.”
Mystical experiences — moments that inspire a sense of mystery and wonderment — arise within the limbic system, he said. When specific parts of this system are removed from animal brains, mind-altering drugs like LSD have no effect.
Since other animals, such as non-human primates, horses, cats and dogs, also possess similar brain structures, it is possible that they too experience mystical moments, and may even have a sense of spiritual oneness, according to Nelson.
Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, also believes animals have spiritual experiences, which he defines as experiences that are nonmaterial, intangible, introspective and comparable to what humans have.
Both he and primatologist Jane Goodall have observed chimpanzees dancing with total abandon at waterfalls that emerge after heavy rains. Some of the chimps even appear to dance themselves into a trance-like state, as some humans do during religious and cultural rituals.
Goodall wondered, “Is it not possible that these (chimpanzee) performances are stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe? After a waterfall display the performer may sit on a rock, his eyes following the falling water. What is it, this water?”
“Perhaps numerous animals engage in these rituals, but we haven’t been lucky enough to see them,” Bekoff wrote in a Psychology Today report.
“For now, let’s keep the door open to the idea that animals can be spiritual beings and let’s consider the evidence for such a claim,” he added.
“Meager as it is, available evidence says, ‘Yes, animals can have spiritual experiences,’ and we need to conduct further research and engage in interdisciplinary discussions before we say that animals cannot and do not experience spirituality.”
The responsibility would seem to be on the brain/soul dualists to mount the argument in favor of the soul because they are going beyond what is immediately given in the evidence, like it would be the responsibility of the schizophrenic to provide evidence of actual alien involvement for her genuinely felt experience that aliens are controlling her brain.
It seems that to conclude from experiences of bodily transcendence such as in NDEs or certain meditative experience that (i) this is evidence an immaterial soul exists and (ii) evidence of what this soul is like, is an egregious paralogism. Heidegger showed being ek-static is our basic human stance, and the transcendence experienced by mystics is simply and extreme form of this general being-outside-ourselves. Arguing for brain/soul dualism is analogous to someone who is experiencing phantom limb syndrome after an arm amputation and reasoning that not only (i) The soul does exist, but also (ii) The soul has an arm, four fingers and a thumb.