Blogging Through Augustine/Martin’s Anthology “The Myth Of An Afterlife” Part 6

Blog Post 6 on “The Myth of an Afterlife”

The Myth of an Afterlife

Chapter Two: Dead as a Doornail Souls, Brains, and Survival 

by Matt McCormick

Augustine summarizes that

 In chapter 2, Matt McCormick presents a strong probabilistic case that human cognitive abilities, memories, personalities, thoughts, emotions, conscious awareness, and self-awareness are dependent upon the brain to occur/ exist and thus cannot survive the death of the brain. McCormick makes his case by providing a broad overview of the general lines of evidence that even the highest mental functions are produced by brain activity, evidence that does not sit well with the notion of any sort of soul or ethereal double that can function completely independently of the brain. Yet this notion is presupposed by all versions of the survival hypothesis that do not depend exclusively upon miraculous bodily resurrection.

McCormick outlines his general argument as follows:

1. Human cognitive abilities, memories, personalities, thoughts, emotions, conscious awareness, and self-awareness (in short, the features that we attribute to the personal soul) are dependent upon the brain to occur/exist. 2. The brain does not survive the death of the body 3. Therefore, the personal soul does not survive the death of the body.

To begin with, McCormick makes the general point regarding the dependency of the mind on the brain.

Decades of evidence from stroke victims, motorcycle accidents, car wrecks, construction site accidents, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, positron emission tomography (PET) scans, brain imaging, and other medical studies have given us a detailed picture of which portions of the brain are active in conjunction with specific cognitive abilities and mental states. What that research has shown is that minds depend upon brains. Damaging a part of the brain destroys a part of our thoughts, eliminates a cognitive ability, or alters some personal or emotional capacity. Restoring the electrochemical functions of the brain renews the mental function.

McCormick argues what science teaches is that brain damage can pinpoint the section of the brain responsible for which cognitive functions, and that the mind is best explained as being entirely dependent.  Even something as basic as awareness can be wiped away and leave a person in a permanent vegetative state.  Even at the simplest level the physical can alter the mental, such as with a pill or caffeine.  Mental functions are directly proportional to their physical brain complexity in creatures, and even humans in their evolutionary history became more cognitively apt as their brains developed.  So why did consciousness develop?

There are countless neural assemblies that register various aspects of our environments and internal states. With conscious awareness, natural selection found a mechanism for summarizing many of the most pertinent facts quickly, making these discriminations available to executive planning faculties. The biological usefulness of conscious awareness is to “produce the best current interpretation of the visual scene, in the light of past experience either of ourselves or our ancestors (embodied in our genes), and to make available, for a sufficient time, to the parts of the brain that contemplate, plan and execute voluntary motor outputs (of one sort or another)” (Crick & Koch, 1995, p. 121). Memory, emotions, awareness of self and others, attention, and other elements of our cognitive constitutions fit into this general evolutionary picture as adaptations, byproducts, or kludges (improvised assemblages).

This goes beyond McCormick a little, but it would seem too that categorizing serves a further evolutionary function, and provides an interesting explanation of the relationship between particulars and universals beyond mere abstraction: so, a particularly scrumptious meal may have presenced to primitive man as “dinner incarnate (like we say of a Van Gogh we say “Now that’s a painting, Art incarnate) to the man’s aroused physiology; an average meal comparatively less so; and week old food hardly at all.   

McCormick argues the belief in the soul also has an evolutionary ground and relates to our tendency to assign minds to things even that don’t have minds

The animism of primitive religions is a result of imbuing the weather, the oceans, and other natural objects with spiritual forces. This overactive propensity to find minds where they are not feeds the belief that souls survive or are autonomous. If we are prone to find minds where they are not, then it is only natural to conceive of minds as unhinged from brains. Minds then become things that can exist in anything, whether they have brains or not. And it is a small step from here to the idea that perhaps minds don’t need to inhabit any physical object at all. Ironically, evolution produced brains that are conscious, as well as a powerful tendency to attribute consciousness to things that don’t have brains.