Friday, May 30, 2008

Adam Zeman and the Neuroscience of the Soul

For those of us working in biopolitics--the study of the biological roots of political life--the most exciting area of biology right now is neuroscience. Understanding how the brain enables the mental activity and social behavior of human beings promises to provide a scientific basis for political science and the social sciences generally.

But when I try to introduce neuroscience into my biopolitics courses at Northern Illinois University, it is often hard to find good readings that provide an elementary introduction to the science in a way that engages the students, even those with little expertise in biology. I have had a similar problem in finding appropriate readings for a proposed Liberty Fund conference on "The Neuroscience of Law and Morality" that will appeal to conferees from a wide range of intellectual backgrounds.

Recently, I have found a few new books that might satisfy my needs. One of them is Adam Zeman's A Portrait of the Brain (Yale University Press, 2008). Zeman is a clinical neurologist and professor of neurology at the Peninsula Medical School in Great Britain. Like Oliver Sacks, he teaches us about the brain by telling stories about his patients suffering from neurological disorders. And thus he engages the reader through vivid stories just as does Sacks. But Zeman's book is also clearly structured to move from the simplest elements of the brain to its most complex mysteries. Its ten chapters correspond to ten levels of organization in the brain: atom, gene, protein, organelle, neuron, synapse, neural network, lobe, psyche, and soul.

Although Zeman does not mention Julien de La Mettrie, I see Zeman's book as a modern restatement of La Mettrie's claim in Man a Machine (1747) that "all the faculties of the soul depend so much on the proper organization of the brain and of the entire body, since these faculties are obviously just this organized brain itself." La Mettrie and those in his intellectual tradition have been criticized as crudely reductionistic materialists who deny the existence of the mind or soul as anything other than organized matter. Zeman is likely to face the same criticism, especially when he concludes: "I am firmly convinced that the comforting and tenacious idea that we possess an invisible, immaterial, imperishable soul is no more than a wonderful fiction" (187).

In my chapter on "Emergence" in Darwinian Conservatism, I argue for the "emergent evolution of the soul in the brain," and I defend the idea of emergence as an alternative to both reductionism and dualism. The simplest expression of the idea of emergence is that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Emergent phenomena are those complex wholes with properties that we could not explain or predict from our knowledge of the parts. For example, when hydrogen and oxygen combine chemically to form water, we see emergent properties in water that we could not have predicted from the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. This emergence of novelty is manifested throughout the evolution of the universe. As we pass through levels of complexity, we find new properties at higher levels that are not fully reducible to the lower levels. This idea of emergence denies strong reductionism, because it denies that the higher levels of organization can be completely reduced to the lower levels. But the idea of emergence also denies dualism, because it denies any radical separation of matter and mind.

Although Zeman does not make the idea fully explicit in his book, he implicitly embraces emergence when he says that the "brain is more than the sum of its parts," and when he speaks of how "the mind emerges from matter" (5, 183, 188, 193). He also appeals to the idea of emergence when he says that we are more than our brains, because the activity of the brain is "always 'embodied, embedded, and extended'--the activity of an embodied creature, embedded in a culture, engaging in an interaction with surroundings and other people which extends over space and time" (196). Here Zeman moves into the realm of biopolitics: since human beings are by nature social and political animals, their brains are shaped by a complex social interactions of their individual life histories in particular social groups. This idea is now being developed in the field of "social neuroscience," which includes "neuroeconomics." As I understand it, biopolitics should eventually encompass all of these areas of study as part of a comprehensive natural history of human beings as political animals.

The emergent complexity of the human soul cannot be understood through a strongly reductionist approach. Rather, what is required is what Zeman calls a "biopsychosocial" approach that sees that human beings live through the interaction of three dimensions--as bodies, minds, and social animals (175-76). This is manifest in cases of "hysteria," where some distress in the psychic life of a patient has created physical disorders that have no clear neurological causes. Such psychosomatic illnesses show that the mind can act on the brain. This interaction of mind and brain is also shown by the human ability to use mental force to direct a disordered brain into more healthy functioning. In my chapter on emergence, I use the example of how Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz teaches his patients with obsessive compulsive disorder to used "directed mental force" to overcome or at least mitigate their disorder. This emergent power of the brain for mental attention is the natural ground for human freedom.

Of course, this emergent conception of the soul leaves us with some mysteries. One of those mysteries is the introspective subjectivity of consciousness that cannot be directly studied by empirical observation. For example, if I were suffering from OCD, I might go to Dr. Schwartz, and he might persuade me to adopt his techniques. I might decide to concentrate my mind and will in ways that would alter the neural circuitry of my brain so as to manage my OCD behavior. Dr. Schwartz might employ brain imaging technology to show that my brain circuitry really had changed. But this imaging would show only the effects of my conscious mental decision. It would not show my actual conscious experience. I would know this by my own introspective activity, and I might testify to it by telling Dr. Schwartz about my mental decision. But my conscious activity would not be directly observable to Dr. Schwartz or any other observer. Zeman acknowledges this problem (190-93), and yet he quickly dismisses it.

This contrast between our inward personal experience and the outward world of observational science underlies what Zeman says about art and science as complementary approaches to human mental experience (196-98). Art evokes the living presence of personal experience. A novel, for example, can give us the imaginative simulation of the inward conscious life of its unique characters. But science provides an abstract likeness to experience. Thus, neuroscience might explain brain activity associated with someone's conscious experience, but the neuroscience by itself would not capture the specificity of that person's consciousness. That's why any attempt to bring together the "two cultures"--the humanistic disciplines and the natural sciences--will have to recognize that each approach has something distinctive to contribute to our understanding of human life. In fact, Zeman's book itself combines art and science by combining the impersonal abstractness of science with the personal specificity of his clinical stories.

There is much to think about here. But the one key point for me is that we need not fear a Darwinian science of human life as promoting a reductionist materialism that denies the freedom of the human soul. A Darwinian science can explain the unique freedom of human beings for deliberate thought and action as arising from the emergent evolution of the soul.


Paul Decelles said...

I agree with much of what you have said here. One little quibble about emergence. Is it really that the properties of water can't be predicted in principle from the properties of oxygen and hydrogen? Seems that in principle it ought to be possible to predict the higher level properties of water.

Really what is going on is that the properties of water are not present in the hydrogen and the oxygen but result from their interaction and from the interactions between water molecules.

Now I am not advocating what Dennett would term greedy reductionism but trying to cast emergent properties in a way that avoids mysticism.

Anonymous said...

Isn't there a fundamental problem here in that the emergent properties of water can be observed empirically, but the emergent characteristic of "soul" is just a matter of belief?

Samuel Nixon said...

I read your chapter on Emergence in which you use the example of water, noting that the qualities of water could not be predicted based on the qualities of hydrogen and oxygen gas alone. I've seen other analogies like this about an emergent property of a system, and they are lacking as a rebuttal to reductionism. The key in reductionism is not whether a complex arrangement can be predicted based on its elementary units, but whether a complex arrangement can be explained in terms of those units. As an example, it might be a difficult task to predict higher-order properties of complex systems like the market or the brain by extrapolating from their interacting parts, but that does not mean that once observed these systems can not be explained (read reduced) to the combined affects of those parts. The idea of emergence should go to problem of difficulty of prediction in complex non-linear systems, but I see it used to attack whether high-order properties are reducible to elementary properties. Unpredictability of complex systems is the issue here, not their reducibility. One may not able to predict water, but once one has seen it one can explain it from hydrogen and oxygen.