21 October, 2008

The brain and the soul

At the First Things weblog, R. R. Reno has an interesting discussion of Brain Science and the Soul. I enjoyed reading his argument, because he talks about the soul in the Aristotelian sense, which is the classical Catholic sense, and not in the Cartesian sense. If any of my readers don't know what that means, Reno explains that

St. Thomas drew on Aristotle’s philosophy to define the soul as the form of the body. The soul is the pattern or highway system that organizes our bodies, including, of course, our brains.
By contrast, the Cartesian view of the soul has been called the ghost in the machine. An excellent example of cultural bias, and the power of definitions, is that the Cartesian notion of a "soul" is what comes to most Americans' minds when they hear the word. It was a complete (and pleasant) surprise to me to learn the Thomist view in seminary, which like many things Thomist derives from the Aristotelian point of view.

The most interesting and plausible part of Reno's article is the review of the science. I worry that his speculative aspects carry him to far, but it's a weblog, so that's fair. I'll try to summarize the science, with my own added interpretations, trying not to be speculative.

We all know that the brain has to be trained to develop skills and behaviors. You can have all the inborn mathematical talent in the world, but if no one teaches you anything or trains you in the discipline, you won't find the proof to Goldbach's conjecture.* Scientists have now found concrete evidence the brain needs training even in the moral realm.

Past research has suggested that other primates, like chimpanzees, have an innate moral sense: when they see that one "worker" is rewarded more than the others, they refuse to work, as if they see the treatment as "unfair". Whether the chimpanzees really have a moral sense or are merely engaging in collective bargaining, the human moral sense develops by cutting off connections to a "primitive" part of the brain.
Subjects with a high degree of neural activity linking the brain stem to the frontal lobe tend to allow emotional responses to override rational assessments of moral dilemmas. Subjects make more rational decisions, he reports, when the neurological activity from the primitive part of the brain is blocked from interfering with the frontal lobe.
This sounds a lot as if people think more clearly about moral issues when they engage in repression of certain instincts. Whodathunk it? Lots of people, actually, which is probably why they call us "repressed". (At least, I've been called that a lot. A couple of girlfriends said I was so repressed that I qualified as "mentally ill.")

It gets better! The brain can be trained for a certain morality, but eventually appears to fix on a certain point of view:
Cohen then concludes that these patterns of open and blocked communication are not fixed by nature. They solidify over time. Our brain patterns are vulcanized, as he puts it, and this occurs by the constant repetition of these patterns. The river cuts its channel.
Put differently, parents who indulge, or at least ignore, a boy's penchant for filching candy, allow these channels between desire and release to strengthen, helping the boy grow into a thief. Parents who encourage, or at least refrain from refraining, a boy's penchant for hitting other children, help the boy grow into a violent man. The tendency to a particular vice may be genetically determined, but not its actualization.

Sexual mores can be harder to modify:
It turns out that sexual desires are closely associated with the primitive, pre-cognitive part of the brain that Cohen has shown can build durable pathways to the frontal lobe. These durable pathways threaten to flood our capacity to reason with lots of seething, unsettling neural activity more suited to instinctive life than rational reflection. (emphasis mine)
Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with human sexuality will nod in agreement. I always found the following quote from Sophocles in Plato's Republic amusing:
[M]ost gladly have I escaped [love]; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.**

Reno isn't interested only in sex; he points out that vices are linked; that is,
neural patterns between the frontal lobe and the brain stem do not know nice distinctions between the private morality and public morality.
In other words, it is biologically difficult to maintain morals in one field while compromising them in another. People who indulge their financial appetites will likely indulge other appetites as well. Lorenzo Scupoli discusses this in The Spiritual Combat when he encourages the reader to focus on developing just one virtue; all the other virtues will follow.

The original article, which sadly lacks any images of the brain-scans to which the author refers, is available here. (Oddly, it's a paper on neuroscience, but published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Maybe if I read more of it, I'll understand why it's there.)

*The fact that no one else has found the proof to Goldbach's conjecture is beside the point. For those not in the know, Goldbach's conjecture is the deceptively simple assertion that every even natural number larger than two is the sum of two primes: 4=2+2, 6=3+3, 8=3+5, 10=3+7, 12=5+7, 14=3+11, etc. Everyone believes it, and no one knows how to prove it. If you want instant fame and attention, prove this!

**Today's television advertisements illustrate that not everyone is so relieved by this escape. I recently had to explain to my son what is meant by Erectile Dysfunction. At least he was born after Bob Dole introduced the world to his "little blue friend."

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