The Myth of an Afterlife, Chapter Five: The Argument from Brain Damage by Vindicated Rocco J. Gennaro and Yonatan I. Fishman

This is a pretty meaty essay, so I’d like to cover it over a few posts.  Today, I’d like to talk a bit about this passage here:

“There are, to be sure, several much-discussed objections to materialism, but most of them question the notion that materialism can currently fully explain conscious experience. And even if they are successful, these objections do not really dispute the dependence thesis. For example, Joseph Levine (1983) coined the expression “the explanatory gap” to express a difficuty for any materialistic attempt to explain consciousness. Although he doesn’t aim to reject the metaphysics of materialism, Levine gives eloquent expression to the idea that there is a key gap in our ability to explain the connection between conscious or “phenomenal” properties and brain properties (see also Levine, 2001). The basic problem is that it is, at least at present, very difficult for us to understand the relationship between brain properties and phenomenal properties in any explanatorily satisfying way, especially given the fact that it seems possible for one to be present without the other. There is an odd kind of arbitrariness involved: Why or how does some particular brain process produce that particular taste or visual sensation? It is difficult to see any real explanatory connection between specific conscious states and brain states in a way that explains just how or why the former are identical with the latter. There is therefore arguably an explanatory gap between the physical and mental. David Chalmers has articulated a similar worry using the catchy phrase “the hard problem of consciousness,” which basically amounts to the difficulty of explaining just how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective conscious experiences. The “really hard problem is the problem of experience. . . . How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion?” (Chalmers, 1995, p. 201). Unlike Levine, however, Chalmers is much more inclined to draw antimaterialist metaphysical conclusions from these and other considerations. Chalmers usefully distinguishes the hard problem of consciousness from what he calls the (relatively) “easy problems” of consciousness, such as the ability to discriminate and categorize stimuli, the ability of a cognitive system to access its own internal states, and the difference between wakefulness and sleep. The easy problems generally have more to do with the functions of consciousness, but Chalmers urges that solving them does not touch the hard problem of phenomenal consciousness. However, Chalmers favors property dualism, which, as we have seen, does not dispute the dependence thesis. Unlike others, he is clearly not motivated by a belief in immortality.”

Continental Philosophy since Nietzsche, drawing out the implications of Greek thought on “presencing,” has argued sensory experiences are largely aesthetic, representing a way we are “outside-ourselves.”  So, we don’t just taste wine, but a particular glass of wine may taste good to you.  What does this mean?  The wine is not simply encountered as a thing in itself, but as a symptom expressing an interplay of forces.  So when I say the wine tastes good, I mean that it seems pleasant in terms of the absence of off-odors and off-flavors, and in general, the positive aspects of the interplay of aroma/bouquet, taste/texture, acidity, bitterness, sweetness, astringency, body, and balance.  These are subjective in the sense that you can give this same glass of wine to someone who really doesn’t like wine and it will taste gross to them.  Similarly, with visual sensory experiences, we don’t simply sense objectively, but aesthetically.  So, a mansion may be appearing as magnificent to us, but as gaudy to the next person.  It was Plato, in his critique of Antisthenes, who argued we don’t just deal with simple beings, but complex ones: something as something.  So, “house,” isn’t simply a category for organizing or abstracting to, but is also aesthetic: Now that’s a house!  It’s as though exemplary housness was presencing through the mansion.  The notion of “essence” brings with it this ambiguity, which was true in Plato’s time, in that (i) when I talk about the “essence” of a house I usually mean what is common and general, but (ii) if I talk about the “essence” of Socrates I mean what is most singular, special, and ownmost about him (eg., being a gadfly – that’s our Socrates!).  So, the part of the brain that deals with aesthetic preference plays a large role framing/structuring the sensory content of experience.



This chapter provides a wonderful short examination of how brain damage can be shown to eliminate all the different parts of what is traditionally associated with the soul.  For example, regarding emotions, we read:

Emotion Damage to brain regions involved in emotional regulation—such as the limbic system, particularly the amygdala—commonly results in impaired processing of emotional stimuli (Berntson et al., 2007; Sergerie, Chochol, & Armony, 2008). For example, subjects with damage to the amygdala often exhibit an impaired perception of danger and will fail to display typical emotional responses to stimuli that generally elicit fear. Damage to the orbital and cingulate cortices may result in a disorder called alexithymia, which is characterized by an inability to read emotions, including one’s own (Beaumont, 2008). Damage to the insula may result in the inability to experience disgust and may cause impaired perception of disgust in others (Ibañez, Gleichgerrcht, & Manes, 2010). Although the capacity for emotion is said to be an essential property of the soul, the evidence from brain damage indicates that this capacity cannot survive the death of the brain.

I won’t go through the various analyses provided in this essay by the authors, but as a teaser here are the topics covered:


Cortical blindness

Awareness, Comprehension, and Recognition







Visual agnosia



Anterograde amnesia/ Retrograde amnesia



Aphasias: “Fluent” or sensory aphasia/ “Nonfluent” or motor aphasia / conduction aphasia.




Social Cognition and Theory of Mind

Moral Judgment and Empathy

Neurological Disorders and Disease

The Unity of Consciousness

What we get from this anthology again and again are arguments showing physiology-soul dualists are arguing for an entity (the soul) that is completely undetectable and serves absolutely no function, except as theological wishful thinking used to explain such things as why an existence of such inexplicable human and animal suffering could be permitted by a powerful God whose main trait is love (Justice promised in the next life, not this one), or how life could be meaningful if we just exist for a brief time and then nothing.  In a life that is so obviously not traceable back to an omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator, we have been thrown into a history that willed wishful thinking in the place of common sense (as humans often do). 

Do pick up a copy of the anthology if you are interested in pursuing these issues further here: