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4/26/06

Mind Shadows      Tom Wolfe: Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died

On neuroscience, and how human beings may soon perceive themselves as without free will, a self, or a soul.

“Brain imaging was invented for medical diagnosis. But its far greater importance is that it may very well confirm, in ways too precise to be disputed, certain theories about ‘the mind,’ ‘the self,’ ‘the soul,’ and ‘free will’ that are already devoutly believed in by scholars in what is now the hottest field in the academic world, neuroscience. . . .

“Already there is a new Darwin, or perhaps I should say an updated Darwin, since no one ever believed more religiously in Darwin I than he does. His name is Edward O. Wilson. . . . Every human brain, he says, is born not as a blank tablet (a tabula rasa) waiting to be filled in by experience but as ‘an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid.’ . . .

“Feminist protesters invaded a conference where Wilson was appearing, dumped a pitcher of ice water, cubes and all, over his head, and began chanting, ‘You're all wet! You're all wet!’ The most prominent feminist in America, Gloria Steinem, went on television and, in an interview with John Stossel of ABC, insisted that studies of genetic differences between male and female nervous systems should cease forthwith.

“But the new generation of neuroscientists are not cautious for a second. . . . they express an uncompromising determinism.

“They start with the most famous statement in all of modern philosophy, Descartes's ‘Cogito ergo sum,’ ‘I think, therefore I am,’ which they regard as the essence of ‘dualism,’ the old-fashioned notion that the mind is something distinct from its mechanism, the brain and the body. (I will get to the second most famous statement in a moment.) This is also known as the ‘ghost in the machine’ fallacy, the quaint belief that there is a ghostly ‘self’ somewhere inside the brain that interprets and directs its operations. Neuroscientists involved in three-dimensional electroencephalography will tell you that there is not even any one place in the brain where consciousness or self-consciousness ( Cogito ergo sum ) is located. This is merely an illusion created by a medley of neurological systems acting in concert. The young generation takes this yet one step further. Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system--and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth--what makes you think you have free will? Where is it going to come from? What ‘ghost,’ what ‘mind,’ what ‘self,’ what ‘soul,’ what anything that will not be immediately grabbed by those scornful quotation marks, is going to bubble up your brain stem to give it to you? I have heard neuroscientists theorize that, given computers of sufficient power and sophistication, it would be possible to predict the course of any human being's life moment by moment, including the fact that the poor devil was about to shake his head over the very idea. . . .

“Since the late 1970s, in the Age of Wilson, college students have been heading into neuroscience in job lots. The Society for Neuroscience was founded in 1970 with 1,100 members. Today, one generation later, its membership exceeds 26,000. . . .

“Why wrestle with Kant's God, Freedom, and Immortality when it is only a matter of time before neuroscience, probably through brain imaging, reveals the actual physical mechanism that sends these mental constructs, these illusions, synapsing up into the Broca's and Wernicke's areas of the brain?

“Which brings us to the second most famous statement in all of modern philosophy: Nietzsche's ‘God is dead.’ The year was 1882. . . . ‘The story I have to tell,’ wrote Nietzsche, ‘is the history of the next two centuries.’ He predicted (in Ecce Homo ) that the twentieth century would be a century of ‘wars such as have never happened on earth,’ wars catastrophic beyond all imagining. . . .

“A hundred years ago those who worried about the death of God could console one another with the fact that they still had their own bright selves and their own inviolable souls for moral ballast and the marvels of modern science to chart the way. But what if, as seems likely, the greatest marvel of modern science turns out to be brain imaging? . . .

“This sudden switch from a belief in Nurture, in the form of social conditioning, to Nature, in the form of genetics and brain physiology, is the great intellectual event, to borrow Nietzsche's term, of the late twentieth century. . . . .

“Meantime, the notion of a self--a self who exercises self-discipline, postpones gratification, curbs the sexual appetite, stops short of aggression and criminal behavior--a self who can become more intelligent and lift itself to the very peaks of life by its own bootstraps through study, practice, perseverance, and refusal to give up in the face of great odds--this old-fashioned notion (what's a boot strap, for God's sake?) of success through enterprise and true grit is already slipping away, slipping away...slipping away...

.” . . . Where does that leave self-control? Where, indeed, if people believe this ghostly self does not even exist, and brain imaging proves it, once and for all? More

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