Souls and Neuroscience

In school today, we were learning about the brain, and specifically the Multiple Intelligence Theory. We also learned about the theoretical other intelligences which have yet to be found, one of which was spirituality. This got me thinking. Does modern Neuroscience disprove the existence of a soul? We learned earlier that the thoughts, more likely than not, are just a series of electricity and chemicals. So, can souls be disproven by this science? and has it?

Just want to get some views. I’ll try to post from a skeptic POV, just to get some better ideas on it.

Focus your attention inward and you may become aware of the nonphysical reality of your innermost being – the seat of consciousness, which is also your soul. (You will need to focus beyond the self here.) What is human consciousness, and how is it produced? The answers to this great mystery have never been discovered. Is your innermost being merely an artifact – a kind of illusion that is somehow a product of your human brain, as neuroscience theory suggests? Where does the picture from the screen of a television set originate? Would it not be foolish to think it was a product of the television set itself? Similarly, might we be foolish simply to assume that our innermost being originates from, and is thus merely a product of, the human brain? (Also, remember that the quality of the picture is dependent upon the purity of the input signal and the working condition of the television set, and that the soul of a television has an existence of its own even when the set is turned off!)

Grasp unto the deep religious meaning in knowing that your innermost being is spiritual, and not physical. Think again about the story of creation, and take a closer look at the world around you!

Note: I’m not talking memory here, which may exists in the brain, but the spirituality of human consciousness and cognition.

I just posted this elsewhere so it might be helpful here:

If intellect is a property of matter, then there are physical reference points for all human thoughts.

Human thoughts, however, are infinite in quantity. There are infinite numbers and humans can make any calculations on an infinite set of numbers.

This would mean that the human brain has an infinite physical (cellular and neurological) capacity.

But the human brain has a finite capacity, therefore it cannot store an infinity of thoughts.

So, intellect must be immaterial.

Consider the following experiment: Scan a person’s brain, and map out every single neuron, and then get a giant supercomputer to simulate the network of neurons. I can envision the following possible outcomes:

  1. The supercomputer acts differently than the actual person.
  2. The supercomputer acts the same as the actual person, even claiming to be conscious and self-aware of its interior consciousness.

For (2), there are sub-categories:

2a) The supercomputer isn’t conscious.
2b) The supercomputer is conscious.

My understanding is that John Searle predicts that the outcome will be (2a). I’m not even sure how to distinguish between (2a) and (2b) experimentally at this point.

Does the Catholic understanding of the soul predict (1), or can it accommodate any of the above outcomes?

Nice Post Reggie:thumbsup:, and not only has it been shown philosophically and through logic and common sense, but it has also been shown in tests that that favor dualism over materialism as far as the difference between brain and mind.

Also I found an article that talks about how one neuroscientist(doctor Novella) makes absolute materialistic statements such as:

If the mind is completely a product of the material function of the brain then:

  1. There will be no mental phenomena without brain function.
  2. As brain function is altered, the mind will be altered.
  3. If the brain is damaged, then mental function will be damaged.
  4. Brain development will correlate with mental development.
  5. We will be able to correlate brain activity with mental activity – no matter how we choose to look at it. [numbers added]

Yet these Statments were proven wrong by Doctor Owens who showed that mental function was shown to be different than brain function.

"I do wish to persist in my claims. Now of course dualism also has predictions, which, organized in accordance with Dr. Novella’s predictions, are:

If dualism is true and the mind is partly the product of the material function of the brain and partly the product of something else, then:

1.There will be some mental phenomena without brain function
2.As brain function is altered, the mind will not necessarily be altered
3.If the brain is damaged, then mental function will not necessarily be damaged
4.Brain development will not necessarily correlate with mental development.
5.We will not always be able to correlate brain activity with mental activity – no matter how we choose to look at it
Note the similarities and the differences in the predictions. Dualism and materialism both predict that mental function will often correlate with brain function. Strict materialism takes it further: mental function will always correlate with brain function, because mental function is brain function. Dualism predicts that mental function and brain function won’t always correlate, because mental function isn’t the same thing as brain function.

Materialism vs. dualismWhen we examine experimental evidence, we must examine situations in which the predictions of dualism and strict materialism diverge. It will do no good to examine evidence in which dualism and strict materialism make the same prediction. For example, both dualism and strict materialism predict that severe brain injury will often severely impair mental function. The finding that many brain injured patients have mental impairment favors neither dualism nor strict materialism; both predict it.

Yet dualism and materialism differ in that dualism predicts that there will be some (perhaps very few) situations in which brain injury and mental impairment will not correlate well, whereas strict materialism predicts that brain injury and mental impairment must always correlate, because mind states are brain states.

Now, of course, there are subtleties. If strict materialism is true, it may not always be easy to discern what brain state gives rise to a particular mind state. If we find a disparity between a mind state and a brain state, it may be because we are looking at the wrong brain state. Contra Dr. Novella, these issues are not always clear, but reasonable inferences based on evidence can often be drawn.

part 1

Surprisingly, they have programmed computers to mimic the neural pathways of a biological (not necessarily human) brain. It is called a neural network, such programming can be used with robots to “train” a robot or computer program to perform simple tasks, but I digress.

The question however here is very similar to an age old question: what makes humans different from animals? Can human thought and intellect be boiled down to actions of neurons and brain chemistry? I suspect that it can. However, does that that conflict with the notion of an immortal soul? I don’t believe so.

If Christ died and rose, that means that our human nature is perfectly capable and acceptable to God our heavenly father. If science can prove that the human brain is the origin of all thought and unique personality attributes, then that is because God willed this to be the case. The nature of our immortal soul then becomes an even greater mystery, however we are assured of its existence.

I suspect, based on my own personal reflection, that all of our human experience is observed and participated in my our flesh, senses, and human brain. Mortal sin destroys - kills - the connection of our mortal body to our immortal soul. Upon death in a state of mortal sin, we live in eternal hell, where we have no thoughts, no experiences no nothing, because our mortal body, along with our brain, memories, and senses, has returned to dust.

Dying in the Grace of God, our Lord will resurrect our bodies on the last day, reuniting our previously mortal bodies to our immortal soul, allowing us once more to enjoy the sight of each other, and of God Himself. Unlike the angels, we are beings of flesh and spirit. If the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, our lord’s death and resurrection will save us. If the spirit is unwilling, and allows the body to die in sin, we are forever left in a void of darkness and loneliness.

This is speculation on my part, not any kind of official teaching that I am aware of. But this is how I’ve reconciled the neural activity of our brains to our eternal souls.

part 2

Evidence for dualism Comparing the straightforward predictions of strict materialism and dualism, let’s begin to examine the evidence. I’ll choose one of Dr. Novella’s own examples, which he used in his post: a remarkable study from Cambridge of a woman in a persistent vegetative state.

Dr. Novella wrote:

To give one example [of the irrefutable evidence for strict materialism], two years ago Adrian Owen published an article in Science1 in which he used fMRI to examine the brain function of a young woman in an apparent vegetative state. During the study she was asked to either imagine herself playing tennis or to imagine herself walking through her house. These two distinct thoughts created distinct patterns of activation on the fMRI - indicating that she was actually capable of thought. But the relevance to this discussion is that different thoughts correlate to different functional states of the material brain. In fact this is what all fMRI research shows.
I agree with Dr. Novella. The study by Owen and his colleagues at Cambridge has a great deal of relevance to our discussion. Let’s take a closer look at the Cambridge study.

In the September 2006 issue of Science, Dr. Owen and his colleagues published a study entitled “Detecting Awareness in the Vegetative State.” Owen and his colleagues studied the responses of a woman who was in a persistent vegetative state, which was the consequence of severe diffuse brain damage that she had suffered in an automobile accident the year before.

The patient had no evidence of any mental function. Based on a battery of standard tests, including MRI scans, electroencephalograms (EEG’s — brain wave tests), and careful bedside examinations by neurologists and neurosurgeons, she was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. Persistent vegetative state means that she had no mental state — no consciousness. She was, in a sense, a shell, a human body without a mind. That’s what “vegetative” means.

Owen and his colleagues did a fascinating series of tests. First, they asked a group of normal volunteers to have a kind of research MRI scan of their brain, called a functional MRI (fMRI). fMRI doesn’t measure the actual activity of the neurons in the brain, but it measures the blood flow and brain metabolism in specific regions of the brain. It has been found to correlate to some extent with mental activity. Thinking about things can make the metabolism in certain parts of the brain increase, and fMRI can detect this. The observation that brain activity can locally increase brain blood flow and metabolism was originally made a century ago, in animals in the lab, so it’s not new. What is new is that we can now measure it in living people non-invasively, using fMRI.

The Cambridge researchers asked the volunteers to think of things, like playing tennis or walking across the room, and they recorded their fMRI brain responses. They also presented the volunteers with nonsense words, to distinguish understanding in the brain from the mere reflex to sounds. The response to understanding was different from the response to sound. The fMRI test seemed to test understanding, not just reflexes.

They did the same tests to the woman who was in a persistent vegetative state. They asked her to imagine playing tennis or imagine walking across the room, and they did the sham test with random words as well.

When they examined her fMRI responses, they found that her fMRI patterns were identical to those of the normal awake volunteers. By fMRI criteria, she understood. In fact, by fMRI criteria, she was as conscious as the normal volunteers. Her brain was massively damaged, to the extent that she had been diagnosed as having no mind at all. Yet the blood flow and metabolism patterns in her brain were those of a normal person. And just like normal people, she showed different fMRI responses to nonsense words. So she not only heard what was said to her, but she understood, and complied with the researchers’ requests to think about specific activities like playing tennis and walking across a room.

Implications of Owen’s studyOwen’s study generated enormous interest among researchers, physicians and the public, not only for its implications for diagnosis of persistent vegetative state (e.g. the implications for the Terri Schiavo case), but because of what it suggests about deeper questions about the relationship between the mind and the brain. Many other studies of fMRI in patients in persistent vegetative state are underway, and several studies recently completed with other patients tend to support Owen’s findings.

From a scientific standpoint, Owen’s study is important for three reasons. The first is obvious; the last two are more subtle, but very important:

1.Owen’s study demonstrates that normal consciousness might be present in some patients who have met the clinical criteria for persistent vegetative state, which is defined as a state lacking consciousness.
2.It demonstrates that methods of assessing brain state and function (e.g., MRI, EEG, clinical examination, fMRI) can differ profoundly in their assessment of consciousness.
3.It demonstrates that an indirect assessment of brain function (fMRI, which measures regional blood flow and brain metabolism), may reveal evidence for consciousness when more direct methods (clinical examination, EEG) fail to detect consciousness.
Note that each of the three conclusions that can be inferred from Owen’s study is evidence for the lack of correlation between various methods of assessing consciousness based on assessment of material properties of the brain. The inconsistency between the fMRI and the other standard methods of assessment is striking. If the mind is the brain, why would different measures of brain function yield contradictory measures of mind function? If materialism is true, correlation between brain function and mind function should converge, not diverge.

Part 3

Testing materialismNow, let’s consider Owen’s findings in light of Dr. Novella’s specific predictions about mind/brain correlation. The study actually addresses three of Dr. Novella’s predictions:

2.As brain function is altered, the mind will be altered.
3.If the brain is damaged, then mental function will be damaged.
5.We will be able to correlate brain activity with mental activity – no matter how we choose to look at it.
Dualism predicts:

2.As brain function is altered, the mind will not necessarily be altered
3.If the brain is damaged, then mental function will not necessarily be damaged
5.We will not always be able to correlate brain activity with mental activity – no matter how we choose to look at it.
Owen’s evidence correlates much more closely with the predictions of dualism than it does with the predictions of materialism. Consider each prediction:

Strict materialism: As brain function is altered, the mind will be altered
Dualism: As brain function is altered, the mind will not necessarily be altered

Dr. Owen’s evidence is in accordance with the dualist prediction. The most parsimonious conclusion was that she was conscious, despite a diagnosis, based on traditional neurological examination, EEG, and neuroimaging, of persistent vegetative state, which is defined as the absence of consciousness. This panoply of neurological tests predicted different — and incompatible — things. Standard brain tests indicated that she had no mind. fMRI testing indicated that her mind was indistinguishable from that of a normal person. Recall that Dr. Novella insists that “every single prediction” of materialism has been verified. That’s not possible with tests that yield contradictory results.

Strict materialism: If the brain is damaged, then mental function will be damaged.
Dualism: If the brain is damaged, then mental function will not necessarily be damaged

Again, Dr. Owen’s evidence is more consistent with dualism than it is with materialism. The patient’s brain was profoundly damaged, but her fMRI correlated with normal conscious thought.

Strict materialism: We will be able to correlate brain activity with mental activity – no matter how we choose to look at it.
Dualism: We will not always be able to correlate brain activity with mental activity – no matter how we choose to look at it.

Dr. Novella’s claim is directly falsified by Owen’s work, because different studies of brain activity gave opposite conclusions about the patient’s mental activity. Dr. Owen’s findings are clearly more consistent with the dualist prediction than with the strict materialist prediction. The central finding of the Cambridge researchers is that correlation between brain activity and mental activity can be quite nebulous, and the findings can even be completely contradictory. fMRI suggested the woman was fully conscious; all other tests suggested that she was in persistent vegetative state, without any consciousness at all.

Conclusion Strict materialism predicts that mental function will always correlate with brain function, because mental function is the same thing as brain function. Dualism predicts that mental function and brain function won’t always correlate, because mental function isn’t the same thing as brain function. The Cambridge findings are more consistent with the dualist prediction than with the strict materialist prediction. That is, in a sense, why the paper received so much attention; it suggested that mental function may not be linked to brain function in a strict cause-and-effect relationship.

So is it reasonable to conclude that Owen’s findings prove dualism? Of course not. Science doesn’t work that way. Scientific theories prevail by preponderance of evidence and by carefully considered inferences, not by “proof” or by validation of “every single prediction.” Hyperbole is the currency of hucksters, not scientists. But the growing body of scientific evidence, which is consistent with my experience as a neurosurgeon for 23 years, suggests that the strict materialist theory of the mind is simplistic and probably wrong. There’s scientific evidence that justifies the inference that there is more to the mind than the brain.

Dr. Novella again:

The materialist hypothesis - that the brain causes consciousness - has made a number of predictions, and every single prediction has been validated. Every single question that can be answered scientifically - with observation and evidence - that takes the form: “If the brain causes the mind the…” has been resolved in favor of that hypothesis… [w]hat Egnor has not done is counter my claim that all predictions made by the materialist hypothesis have been validated. If he wishes to persist in his claims, then I openly challenge Egnor to name one prediction of strict materialism that has been falsified. To be clear, that means one positive prediction for materialism where the evidence falsifies strict materialism. This does not mean evidence we do not currently have, but evidence against materialism or for dualism. I maintain that such evidence does not exist – not one bit…
…Prove me wrong, Egnor…


That is very interesting my friend and it could be prt of Gods plan, but these testsshow that there is much more to human thought then jus the brain. Maybe these tests show that some have a strong awareness of their soul thenothers.Either way I also trst in od love for us:)

Reply in skeptic POV, just to learn :).

Robert Sock - But recent research shows tastes in things like music, movies, and brands can be carried on genes or by evolution, and that it is likely emotional suppression and morality are found in one or more areas of the brain (or run by 1 or more different organs)

Reggie - We don’t know we have infinite brain capacity, just more than every piece of information our brains deem important. People who can’t judge important knowledge from non-important knowledge commonly (but not always) go insane or become excessively antisocial. Although I must admit this is a very rare case and that it may not actually be the case.

Just Lurking - While 1 and 2a seem the most likely, a supercomputer lacks 2 “ingredients” the brain has - chemicals and filters. :manvspc: There are chemicals found in the brain, sometimes only in the brain, that change emotions, thoughts, etc. that a (super)computer doesn’t have or can’t use. Filters are present for both information and chemicals, and helps with thinking in various forms and emotions. If we were to give a supercomputer these, as well as the information/network, it would quite possibly gain “true thought” that we humans have (2b).

I’ll have to get back on the others later, sorry about that.

I hope to see some more good responses :).

Science has no criteria for measuring what Christians call a soul. It has tried. One experiment involved carefully weighing a patient before and after death. The result was inconclusive.

There are no peer reviewed, scientific papers that define and dissect the soul. All anyone has to work with is speculation.

It could be possible to construct a completely synthetic human being. Of course, some are going with the brute force approach: mimic nature with wiring and pathways, record and then add human sensory inputs and hopefully, the ‘engine’ will run. Other approaches are currently being tried.

Self awareness for a device can only be mimicked. The device has no goals or will. It may consider ‘improvements’ to itself for improved function but that assumes it would have the desire to do so. Desire and function are separate. If it desires anything, then ‘desire’ would have to pre-exist in its programming. There would be no reason to add it since it should be task specific. Once a problem is solved or task completed, it has no reason to do anything else.

God bless,

Regarding whether or not thoughts are electrochemical, it is interesting to note that Saint Augustine was actually a functional anatomist, based on the dissections of Galen:

"These medical men say there are sure and certain indications to prove all this, as when these parts [of the brain], affected by some disease or defect, have each made clear enough what they are for by failure in the functions of sense perception, or of movement of limbs, or of remembering how to move the body, and when the appropriate cure has been applied to them after examination has established what will be most effective for putting right what was wrong. But the soul is acting in these parts as in, or on, instruments, it is not itself any of these, but it is quickening, animating and controlling them all, and through them looking after the interests of the body and of this life, in which ‘the man was made into a live soul.’” (Literal Meaning of Genesis, p. 335).

However, it is also clear, that Saint Augustine believed that the mind could act through these physical processes. So, in other words, thoughts are electrochemical, but they’re controlled by a soul. This is entirely compatible with the modern understanding of the physical matter of the brain. As Oxford physicist Roger Penrose has written:

“With the possibility that quantum effects might indeed trigger much larger activities within the brain, …] quantum indeterminacy might be what provides an opening for the mind to influence the physical brain. Here, a dualistic viewpoint would be likely to be adopted, either explicitly or implicitly. Perhaps the ‘free will’ of an ‘external mind’ might be able to influence the quantum choices that actually result from such non-deterministic processes. On this view, it is presumably through the action of quantum theory’s [wave-function collapse] that the dualist’s “mind-stuff” would have its influence on the behaviour of the brain.” (Shadows of the Mind, p. 349).

Consider, for example, that the opening of sodium channels has long ago been calculated as a quantum event by C.C. Chancey in the Journal of Biological Physics (link.) Moreover, it is also known that cortical neurons fire spontaneously (link). Perhaps, the flexibility afforded by QM allows the mind to coordinate inhibitory and excitatory patterns of action potentials such that a person’s will is actualized in the matter of the brain.

Make sense?

Walter J. Freeman (Professor Emeritus of Neurobiology at Berkeley) wrote an essay in 2008 advocating the use of a Thomistic mind-brain-body framework, stating that he believes it is the philosophical system most compatible with the latest brain discoveries and that most closely corresponds to current prominent theories and/or facts in neurobiology:

NonLinear Brain Dynamics and Intention According to Aquinas.

I’ve only skimmed through it. From what I could gather, according to him there’s yet to be any research of our brains establishing anything inconsistent with the existence of an immaterial intellect and will (i.e., a mind, viz. when properly understood – a qualification which would exclude the majority, most likely, as well as probably be confused with materialist reductionism to a lot). If it’s settled anything on the matter, recent neuroscience would apparently suggest their reality.

I may devote a thread to this once I’ve read it all and considered its implications. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to get a quick Ph.D in Neuroscience before doing so.

Inspiration, Doesnt the study that I posted show clearly that mental thoughts are more then just Brain activity. This study favors duality over its materialistic counterpart and it was done in a prestigious University.

Thank you for you charitable response. I hope you’ll take my response in the same way in the interest of vigorous scientific debate :slight_smile:

Now you speak of Strict Materialist versus Mind Body Dualism. Based on my own ideas, I can’t say that I am a strict materialist because I do believe in immortal soul separate from the mind, but also most likely beyond the reach of science to prove or disprove. I also appreciate your disclaimer at the end, speaking of your example as a single data point, which by itself doesn’t fully disprove the materialist mindset, but rather the preponderance of data out there that is consistent with this example.

Dualism, as presented here, I feel I should point out is a broad category. In the terms of statistics, it would be the “null hypothesis”. We have a situation where we are looking at a binary decision; strict materialist mental activity or not. What our data here demonstrates is that strict materialist, based on the known measures of brain activity, could not continue to be supported!

The previous tests looked at strictly neural activity. The fMRI looked at metabolism and blood flow, which had identical patterns in the trauma victim as in the control volunteers.

As the victim’s mental state still required blood circulation and sugars for energy, it suggests to me that an organic process is still required for her conscience, an organic process that is apparently separate from her standard neural activity. I offer as a hypothesis a type of brain cell I recently read about in Discover Magazine, which links neurons together to form an indefinitely large chemical network, which were recently identified as potentially involved in memory.

Metabolic activities in these cells MIGHT explain the patterns of circulation observed in the fMRI studies, although I am not aware of any studies proving this one way or another. This is my gut reaction to the data presented. As a scientist, I am always willing to be disproved :). As I said before, I’m not trying to argue against the existence of a immortal soul, but I believe the existence and nature to be a matter of divine revelation than of scientific investigation.

This is my first time learning of these studies you described, which I found fascinating :thumbsup:. While as you said, this one study alone doesn’t fully prove to scientific standards anything, I still think it validates from a scientific perspective the Catholic teaching of the dignity of all human life. Even life that appears to be an empty shell can have surprises!

It’s good for one to engage in a little self-reflection and “soul-searching” once in a while, but ultimately one must look outward to find the spiritual truths of Chistianity and Jesus himself.
If not, one runs dangerously close to New Age “meism” during the “search.”

I agree totally, we must always be on guard about this.

Humble_Catholic: That is an amazing study and I’m sure I can’t debunk it, if I understood it right. Is he implying the person could think AND remember both what things look like and how to do them even after major brain damage? AND she could communicate them by thought with fMRI’s (we learned about those too)? If I got it right, I’m sure theres no way around the evidence ;).

Yes Pieman, I also found this to be amazing. It is something that materialists are very uncomfortable with. The best part is that the study was done at Cambridge which isnt a run of the mill University, but then again most of us have suspected that the mind and brain are 2 different things. How else can you explain agape love:)

An old, out of print novel, The Soul of Anna Klane, addresses this issue from the perspectives of religion, science, and philosophy. You can get a copy cheaply on Amazon, which has reviews, one from a CAF member. Be sure to get the paperback version despite the abominable cover art.

Most readers get caught up in the story and miss the ideas, so for those, a reread might be in order. The book affirms the existence of what you call “the soul,” but defines it differently, in physics rather than religious terms.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit