Reflections on the Soul, Sam Harris and Reason
I have been reading Dr. Sam Harris’ book "The End of Faith," and have found it intellectually rewarding. Unquestionably, he is a strong writer (though I question his use of the word “reasonableness,” which just seems rather unwieldy). Additionally, he is a man of unique views (best summarized as traditionally atheistic, but with openness to mysticism, along with a strange blend of social liberalism and interventionist neo-conservatism). Perhaps he is rather like Dennis Miller. In any case, apart from his half-hearted endorsement of military torture and his evidence-lacking assertion that morality is somehow bound up with human happiness and suffering, he raises excellent points about the bloody past—and black future—of faith-based religion. Indeed, as the title indicates, Dr. Harris calls for the end of faith itself (except, of course, his faith that morality is tied up with the consequences of human-to-human interaction).
I wish to quote a long endnote included in the book, which I find tremendously insightful with respect to the “soul” issue. I find it baffling that so many people so ardently cling to the patently ludicrous idea that immaterial, immortal souls haunt our fleshy carcasses. Through his advanced education, Dr. Harris is endowed with the ability to dissolve the soul illusion with the solvent known as science.
Dr. Harris writes (bracketed comments in bold are mine):
“...there is no longer any doubt whether the character of our minds is dependent upon the functioning of our brains—and dependent in ways that are profoundly counterintuitive. Consider one of the common features of the near-death experience: the nearly dying seem regularly to encounter their loved ones who have gone before them into the next world. See A. Kellehear, Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996). We know, however, that recognizing a person’s face requires an intact fusiform cortex, primarily in the right hemisphere. [Note, however, that this requirement can be waived if we’re playing on the field of religion, which refuses to accept the scientific realities under which we live, and from which we sprang.] Damage to this area of the brain definitely robs the mind of its powers of facial recognition (among other things), a condition we call prosopagnosia. People with this condition have nothing wrong with their primary vision. They can see color and shape perfectly well. They can recognize almost everything in their environment, but they cannot distinguish between the faces of even their closest friends and family members.
“Are we to imagine in such cases that a person possesses an intact soul, somewhere behind the mind, that retains his ability to recognize his loved ones? It would seem so. [A notion such as that would be problematic for the religious individual, however, because it would imply the primacy of “matter” over “mind”—the dominance of the corporal over the ethereal. Implicit in this line of thinking is the notion that neurological deficit apparently would handicap the soul itself, completely masking its intact abilities.] Indeed, unless the soul retains all of the normal cognitive and perceptual capacities of the healthy brain, heaven would be populated by beings suffering from all manner of neurological deficit. [Heaven’s inhabitants not only would be sputtering idiots incapable of recognizing family members, but also naked (unless clothing, too, has an afterlife to which to look forward).]
“But then, what are we to think of the condition of the neurologically impaired while alive? Does a person suffering from aphasia have a soul that can speak, read, and think flawlessly? [And what kind of God would invent something like aphasia, anyway? If Yahweh is real, then cancer, smallpox, HIV, malaria and polio all are the products of his cloud-enshrouded laboratory.] Does a person whose motor skills have been degraded by cerebellar ataxia have a soul with preserved hand-eye coordination? [And, if so, why is the soul’s endowment so thoroughly masked? Again, we return to the clear implication that “mind” is subservient to “matter” as the two clash, cooperate and rattle around inside our carcasses.] This is rather like believing that inside every wrecked car lurks a new car just waiting to get out.” [And, of course, religions are rather vague about how, exactly, the “soul” escapes the confines of the flesh, divorcing itself from matter and propelling itself (somehow) to one of two otherworldly locations.]
I recommend Dr. Harris’ book to all My Case Against God readers. I already purchased his next work, which is sure to provoke further reflection about these and other issues.
Comments are welcome about this bedeviling, and evidence-deficient, soul concept.