The Myth of An Afterlife 8: Chapter 4 on Wasting Away

The Myth Of An Afterlife

Chapter Four

Dissolution into Death

The Mind’s Last Symptoms Indicate Annihilation

David Weisman

From previous posts, I’d like to make a distinction between the causal understanding of the unconscious and the frame mode.  For instance, we might say some repressed trauma in my younger life is causing dysfunction at my present age.  Put this way, it’s like saying expertly riding a bike would entail unconsciously experiencing one’s long gone training wheels as one expertly rides.  That’s not what I’m interested in here, but rather how the mind unconsciously frames experience so that these frames color the objects of experience.  So, for instance, the paranoid schizophrenic may experience the couple across the street as conspiring against him, but this depends on the schizophrenic’s mind presenting or framing the world to him in a conspiracy laden way.  The individual object of experience (the supposedly conspiring pair of people) announces its world, like, to use Heidegger’s example,  the van Gogh picture above of the peasant’s shoes expresses a world of abject poverty.  This twofold “what” and “how” of experience, what we encounter and how the mind frames it, will helps us to further understand what the brain is doing in creating experience.  This what/how context is the basic interpretation of Being (essentia/existentia) which we have inherited from the tradition, and guides us even today.  Even thoughtful apprehension follows this pattern, and so we are not only concerned with the “what” of our concepts, but also “how” they are grounded.

 In the introduction to today’s chapter, we read

  • This paper looks at progressive neurological diseases showing brain decline correlated with the decline of consciousness, as well as the content of consciousness. For instance, a young man’s healthy and fully functional brain generated an intelligent and lovely self, but then an aggressive brain tumor grew deep within his brain. As the tumor grew, it rendered brain tissue dysfunction and direct effects followed. From focal destruction of brain tissue, an aphasia first results. What follows is the dissolution of a functional brain, a mind, a person, and what some call a soul. From more widespread destruction of brain tissue, more functions erode until a minimally conscious state results. Intact and functional brain tissue is required to produce one’s consciousness and personality. When these brain tissues become dysfunctional and die, everything taken as the soul appears to die with them. 1. Left Brain Slow Progressive Decline – 1.1 Behind the Case — 2. Right Brain Progressive Decline — 3. Alien Limb — 4. Fallacious Objections — 5. Lucid Moments, Coma Recoveries — 6. The Correlation is Not Causation “Problem”

Weisman’s essay  examines in detail how all the characteristics traditionally attributed to the soul, even awareness and will, can slowly be seen to waste away as the corresponding causal sections of the brain waste away.

  • On the way to death, these brains progress from normal to abnormal. The mind, supported by the brain, does so as well, and in lockstep with the brain’s progression.

Weisman gives the powerful example of Mr. McCurt to show how we can see a 1 to 1 correspondence between the deterioration of the brain and the deterioration of the mind:

  • At some moment Mr. McCurt was alive and at another moment he was dead. But as a person, he dwindled down to nothing long before then. In every way that matters, he had died long before his heart stopped beating. He experienced the death of linguistic ability, independence, an internal mental life, and even his consciousness, followed by the death of the primitive reflexes responsible for his breathing and heart rate. And then, and only then, our society judged that he had fulfilled the criteria for death. But what does that mean? By then he had been run down quite extensively. His cardiopulmonary death was only the tiniest step over our society’s arbitrary finish line … Sadly, Mr. McCurt is only one person among many who have succumbed to a neurologically irreversible process. He clearly demonstrates the perfect correlation between brain destruction and mind erosion, but nearly any other case would be illustrative. I see patients with Alzheimer’s disease, in which a version of Mr. McCurt’s story is replayed, presenting with memory loss, progressing into cognitive disturbances across the board, becoming mute, and, if allowed, vegetative over a decade or so. A similar process unfolds in frontotemporal dementias. Seeing a loved one stricken with a brain illness compels the recognition that brain functions produce mental functions, and consequently brain diseases affect the mind—that thing that most religions take to be the soul. These cases happen all around us; here we’re only looking at one of them … Consider the meaning of “soul” again: “The spiritual or eternal part, separate from the body.” For a person to survive death in any meaningful way, something must survive. For Mr. McCurt to survive death, that inner life—that feeling that only he had, as only you have—needs to survive. This unified little god, the one with control, moods, linguistic ability, and insight, needs to survive. That’s what religious conceptions of an afterlife promise. Otherwise, what’s the point? And why not accept it? After all, you feel like an immaterial little god up there, just behind your eyes. It’s an easy belief to hold because it feels like it might just be true. But feeling that something is true doesn’t make it so. The idea of a soul rings true until the moment that you consider Mr. McCurt’s presentation, decline, and death. For his symptoms and decline are only understandable in terms of the way that his tumor affected his brain …Mr. McCurt’s case demonstrates a scientifically modest but theologically profound conclusion. With either dysfunction (first) or destruction (later) of language circuitry, a person is rendered aphasic. Our linguistic abilities do not survive the death of our left temporal/frontal cortex. Nor do our memories survive the death of hippocampal neurons. So how could linguistic ability or memory possibly survive the death of the entire brain?. Does anyone believe that a dead kidney can make urine? Or that a dead heart can push a pulse? These are trivial scientific questions, and it is only due to ancient religious assumptions and modern cultural inertia and indoctrination that anyone doubts them when considering the death of the brain. It gets worse for the soul proponent. Take a moment to think about yourself, or the people that you love. Everything that you think about relies on assigning meaning. Our internal mental life relies mostly on words. Our thoughts are largely verbal, residing mostly in the left hemisphere (which controls the right side of the body, the side that it is usually much easier for us to control). Language underlies the bulk of our thoughts, and it is difficult (but not impossible) to communicate nonverbally, even subjectively. After his first surgery, Mr. McCurt did not become deaf to words; his problem went much deeper than that. He couldn’t assign meaning to the collections of phonemes that he heard. Nor could he utter words—even though he wasn’t mute. Again, we see belief in a soul cut to the bone. How can a soul proponent possibly account for the data? What survives the death of neuronal activity if every mental function and experience is due to neuronal activity?  Language function could neither withstand the initial dysfunction of his neurons, nor survive their later destruction.

In the second part of the paper, the Weisman wants to show how the mind is not a “soulish” unified stream of consciousness, but actually multiple flows.  Dennett is cited that

  • There is no single, definitive “stream of consciousness,” because there is no central Headquarters, no Cartesian Theatre where “it all comes together” for the perusal of a Central Meaner [a single soul or ‘decider’]. Instead of such a single stream (however wide), there are multiple channels in which specialist circuits try, in parallel pandemoniums, to do their various things, creating Multiple Drafts as they go. Most of these fragmentary drafts of “narrative” play short-lived roles in the modulation of current activity but some get promoted to further functional roles, in swift succession, by the activity of a virtual machine in the brain. (1991, p. 253)

The example of alien limb syndrome is given by Weisman to show how there are multiple processes going on that are not a unitary system.

  • Alien limb syndrome occurs when the right, nonverbal hemisphere becomes disconnected from the volitional control of the left, verbal one. The right hemisphere then performs an action that is not under the volitional control of the person’s consciousness. This phenomenon supports (and informs) the notion that the brain carries multiple narrative streams… You’ve likely experienced exactly this if you’ve ever found yourself absentmindedly picking a scab, picking your teeth, or fixing your hair. Competing streams within our motor system can be demonstrated by a simple home neurology experiment. Sit comfortably, lift your right foot off the floor, then rotate it in clockwise circles. Got it going? Now concentrate on drawing the number six on the page with your right hand. Check your foot. In which direction is it moving? Counterclockwise… Regardless of specific neuronal mechanism, this little test shows how one stream (“move the leg clockwise”) can be overruled by a competing stream. Moving the right leg in a clockwise manner seems entirely volitional, but as soon as you start drawing the six (or even just imagine drawing it), you can see just how illusory the perception of volition is. We are buffered by nonvolitional experiences all of the time. It is a wonder that we consider ourselves to be volitional agents at all, but the very nature of the soul delusion affords the ability to overlook the obvious.

Weisman argues this is entirely brain based, and even the illusion of an existing will is contradicted by experiments that show brain activity prior to conscious events.

  • When averaged over many trials to get rid of background noise, the EEG picks up a summed neuronal firing that precedes the subject’s voluntary action by approximately one-half to one second. Amazingly, the EEG signal becomes more robust with increased motor complexity, need of accuracy, or risk (Regan, 1989). It is a signal reflecting neuronal activity preceding movement. The implications are immediate. Brain events come first, then conscious events. The brain is causing both movement and the synchronous conscious perception of willful movement. Considering one’s own finger would seem to indicate that volition and motion are exactly the same thing. There is no seam to movement unless the neuronal machinery responsible for the false perception breaks down. But when tested, we see evidence of a group of neurons firing, becoming a new stream, sending their collective impulses down to the spinal cord, and breaking into consciousness at the same time, displacing the previous stream before diving below the surface.

This average everyday notion of will is different from the philosophical one.  With Kant, for instance, as I explained in a previous post, Will is not freedom from, but freedom for, where the will unconsciously self-legislates rules that the person follows as a function of being human.  For instance, I unconsciously give my self the rule that I morally accompany all my actions.  This rule is the condition of the possibility of humans being moral animals.  Schelling clarified this that our humanity consists in our capacity for evil, in that only humans can sink below animals in terms of depravity.

To conclude, Weisman argues soul proponents are really guilty of special pleading, because in every other physical process it is obvious the effects are grounded in physiological functioning, so why wouldn’t that be true of the brain/mind?

  • kidney failure prevented a patient from producing urine, it would be logical to think that kidneys function to make urine. If certain toxins collect in the blood, it is appropriate to believe that the kidney filters them out of it. Kidney functions are not “merely correlated” with urine production, just as kidney lesions are not merely correlated with absence of urine, or gut activity is nothing more than correlated with digestion. Perhaps this is easier to see than the implications of the correlations between brain activity and mental activity, but we find the exact same principles at play. The spinal cord is correlated with sensory and motor signal transfer. But what do we mean by this? Just that when it is intact, the spinal cord allows sensory signals from the feet to go up to the brain, and motor signals from the brain to go down to the feet.

Above I said “This average everyday notion of Will is different from the philosophical one,” which comes across a little disrespectful. What I was trying to stress was that the usual understanding of “Will” can be, for instance, (i) I decide to get up, (ii) then I get up. From the point of view of the brain, this understanding of Will is preserved, just that brain activity is shown to precede the conscious state of wanting to get up. By contrast, when Kant speaks of “Will” he means a causality of freedom (humans founded on themselves) where the will auto-affects itself with rules, for instance in morality, that I am morally attached to all my actions, as opposed to lower animals and certain mentally challenged people who aren’t morally responsible in this way. Unconsciously legislating this rule makes moral experiences and judgments possible.