The recent development of theories that explain the human mind as a supervenient or emergent aspect of the activity of the brain*1 presents a significant challenge to the classical arguments*2 for the ontological independence of the human soul. Simply put, if consciousness and intelligence can be shown to be completely dependent on brain function, then the claim that the human soul has sufficient independence and integrity to survive bodily death would appear to be nothing more than a mere metaphysical possibility.
In this post I will address the question of the immortality of the soul. First, through a phenomenological investigation of human freedom; and, secondly, by showing that recent advances in our understanding of neurological function presents new possibilities for explaining how a human beings can be both free and in control of their own choices and actions.
One of the most enduring paradoxes in the history of philosophy is the apparent conflict between the basic notion that everything that happens has a cause, and the freedom of choice and action which is a fundamental aspect of human experience. One response to this dilemma has been to make a theoretical commitment to the universality of causation and deny the metaphysical reality of freedom. The alternative approach has been to point out the failure of determinism to do justice to the experience of freedom without providing a satisfying explanation of how human beings can act in ways that are not causally determined by prior events. This has resulted in the setting up of two philosophical camps which produce arguments which only those who already agree with the conclusions find convincing because neither side clearly addresses the problem at the most fundamental level.*3
In stark contrast to this situation, Edmund Husserl sought to employ the phenomenological method of philosophical investigation in order to make a close examination of causation, motivation, and freedom as such. His goal in doing this was to establish the character or essence of each of these apart from any prior theoretical or metaphysical commitments. In the process, he produced a highly original analysis that takes into account both the universality of natural causality and the reality of human freedom.
Husserl began by examining causation from a new perspective, by pointing out the fact that causes are not reducible to the observed regularity of certain sequences of events as David Hume claimed.*4 Instead, there is at least one aspect of causation that Hume overlooked, which is the dependence of the resulting change or effect, upon a change in the antecedent source or cause of that change. In other words, an effect is not only that which regularly follows upon a cause, it is also that which is proportionate to a specific change which occurs concurrently in the cause.
For example, when one billiard ball strikes another, not only does the motion of the second ball regularly follow upon the motion of the first ball, but the change from not moving to moving of the second ball is proportionate to the change in motion of the first ball, both in terms of direction and velocity. Husserl refers to this kind of relation of physical dependence as real causality.
I say real causalities because with the states we are referred back to real circumstances in the form of the dependence of one real on another real. Realities are what they are only in reference to other actual and possible realities in the interweavings of substantial "causality." These dependencies are dependencies of change ... and specifically are dependencies of the change of the real, in its properties, on the change of other real things in their properties. *5
It is important to note that, although Husserl never mentions proportionality as such, the very idea that a specific effect is dependent upon a particular cause for its existence is based upon the implicit recognition of the proportionality of cause and effect. If real causes could produce disproportionate effects, then any change whatsoever that regularly occurred in conjunction with the effect could be designated as its cause. In which case, Husserl's claim that a real change in one thing is dependent upon the real change in another would be groundless because all causes could simply be reduced to regularities. The net result would be that the very notion that a real causal relation involves the direct dependence of an effect upon its cause would lose its essential meaning.
An observed regularity by itself, however, does not necessarily indicate the presence of a direct causal relation because a regularity may be merely a coincidence and not the immediate result of a causal relationship. For instance, the changing of the seasons is caused by the change in the number of hours of sunlight and not by the positions of the stars in the night sky. This is true even though the position of the stars changes with the same regularity as the change in the hours of daylight. If causal relations were reducible to regularities as Hume claimed, then it would not be possible to distinguish real causes from mere coincidences.
As pointed out above, however, the real dependence of an effect on its cause is revealed by the proportionality of the change in a cause to the change in its effect. Since it is through such relations of physical dependence that a cause determines its effect, if there is not a proportionate change in some antecedent state of affairs, then neither is there any reason for claiming that it determines any event which follows it, even if such events follow the antecedent conditions with a lawlike regularity. Therefore, where a real relation of physical dependence does not obtain, there is simply no basis for claiming that a particular event is causally determined no matter how regularly some set of antecedent conditions may be found to coincide with the event.
Having identified the relations of physical dependence which are necessary for there to be determinate causal relations, Husserl then goes on to inquire into the foundation of human motivation. The next step in this process is to recognize that human beings have histories in the sense that past experiences are retained and integrated into the person such that the responses to similar kinds of events vary over time as the person grows and develops.
it pertains to the essence of psychic reality that as a matter of principle it cannot return to the same total state: psychic realities have precisely a history. Two temporally contiguous cycles of external circumstances would affect the soul in similar fashions, but within the soul itself the psychic unfolding of states could not be the same, for the earlier state functionally determines the following one. *6
Since each individual human being has a unique history based upon lived experience, it seems clear that human beings are not just physical objects that are passively acted upon by external causes. A person's response to some external event is as much if not more related to his or her overall state of mind as it is to the external event itself. Thus, in order to understand what motivates a particular response by someone to a given situation, it is necessary to go beyond an analysis of the external event to investigate both the general psychological structure and the specific psychic state of the individual. This Husserl does by drawing on the notion of intentionality, or mental directedness, which he received from Franz Brentano. With respect to the intentional aspect of sense experience Husserl states:
I see a playing cat and I regard it now as something of nature, just as is done in zoology. I see it as a physical organism but also as a sensing and animated Body, i.e., I see it precisely as a cat. I "see" it in the general sense ordinarily meant when speaking of seeing. A stone is seen in any at all of its perceptual appearances, in which, strictly, only very little "of it" is presented in "actual," "proper," perception. If, on account of the one-sidedness and other multifarious imperfections, we were not to allow this seeing to count as a "seeing," as a "perceiving," then talk about seeing would lose its essential sense forthwith. There is indeed no seeing of a physical thing that would not be "imperfect" in this manner. Perception of something physical, in conformity with its essence, includes indeterminations - but includes them as determinable. *7
What is important here is the fact that a sense perception is not just a matter of the physical stimulation of a sense organ being directly translated into a sense experience. If that were the case all that we would 'see' would be the surfaces of things, and the other senses would likewise be limited to just what the sense organs actually recorded in terms of vibrations, textures, temperature, and the presence of certain chemicals. What we see, however, is not merely facades but whole things because our minds draw on all of our previous experience such that we perceive trees, cats, people, etc. in the fullness of their being without ever stopping to consider how little of this experience is obtained immediately through the senses.
The conscious experience of external objects cannot, therefore, be explained as just an awareness of sense data. It is through the operation of one's mind that one constructs the intentional object that is actually experienced. Furthermore, it is the intentional object and not the sense data that motivates any subsequent response as Husserl explains:
if we place ourselves on the terrain of the intentional relation between subject and Object, the relation between persons and surrounding world, then the concept of stimulus acquires a fundamentally new sense. Instead of the causal relation between things and men as natural realities, there is substituted the relation of motivation between persons and things, and these things are not the things of nature, existing in themselves - i.e., the things of exact natural science with the determinations claimed there to be the only Objectively true ones - but are the experienced, thought, or in some other way intended and posited things as such, intentional objects of personal consciousness. Thus it is from the things which, in terms of the consciousness of the personal Ego, are "meant" as actually existing that "stimuli" arise. *8
Although it is true that a person's actions are usually directed toward an external object, what motivates the person is not the real object, but the intentional object which is the object as it is actually experienced. Husserl clarifies this point when he notes that both real and fictitious or illusory objects can be a source of human motivation such that whatever enters one's thoughts can motivate a response.*9 So it may happen that when a young child first hears the story of Sleeping Beauty, the idea of a "poisoned apple" may be so vivid that the child avoids eating apples for some time.
A more significant case, however, is that in which someone chooses to eat an apple or other fresh fruits and vegetables because they think of these things as being nutritious. This occurs even though nutritiousness is not a property of an apple in the same way that red, round, and smooth are. Nutritiousness is a state of affairs which only obtains through a relation between the apple and someone who eats and digests it. Unless someone eats the apple it is only potentially nutritious such that if it is never eaten it is never actually nutritious. This means that nutritiousness is not a quality that is in an apple in such a way that it can simply be observed through a sense perception. Instead, nutritiousness is apprehended as an aspect of the apple as experienced based upon what one knows about apples in general. The choice to eat the apple is not caused, therefore, by the apple triggering a psychophysical response. Rather, it is the intentional object as experienced which motivates a response. This is a response that is mediated by the intelligence of the person such that the individual can look upon the apple as either poisonous and to be avoided, or as nutritious and desirable. It all depends upon how the person apprehends the apple, rather than upon how the apple is perceived by the senses. Husserl explains this point as follows:
the Ego exercises on these things explicating, conceiving, theoretically judging, evaluating, and practical activities. They now engage its interest in their being and their attributes, in their beauty, agreeableness, and usefulness; they stimulate its desire to delight in them, play with them, use them as a means, transform them according to its purpose, etc. They then function in ever new strata as stimuli for its being active (and also, not to neglect the negative, for its being passive). Besides, the subject of the motivation can at one time yield to the stimuli and at another time resist them. All these are phenomenological relations which can be found and described only in the purely intentional sphere.*10
Given these observation, it is clear that human actions are not directly caused by external objects, but involve a response that is typically directed toward a real object through an intentional object that is mentally constructed by the individual. Real objects and the sense perceptions that they actually cause do not directly cause human acts because they are simply not proportionate to the complex goal directed behavior of human beings. Real objects as perceived by the senses act only as contingent or contributing causes to the actions which follow. Hence, it would be a mistake to think of any external object as being the determinate cause of a human act.
This brings us to the crucial question of whether or not human acts are determined by neurological or psychological mechanisms or are truly free and under the control of the individual. In other words, even when a person appears to be acting voluntarily, is it not the case that the structure of the brain and learned patterns of behavior are still determining the response of the individual with respect to any given situation?
A determinist might acknowledge everything that Husserl has claimed concerning the intentionality of human experience and still maintain that thought, and all other mental processes, can be identified with a function of the brain. Since the functions of the brain involve the physical interaction of matter and energy, it would follow that all human behavior is ultimately determined by physical interactions in accord with the laws of physics.
Furthermore, a determinist would typically hold that as human beings we tend to think that we are free because we can think of the same thing in different ways. In any given situation, a person may experience a variety of conflicting impulses, emotions, and desires that he or she must choose between in order to act at all. The determinist does not believe that these choices are really free, however, because he holds that the brain is just mechanically churning out decisions based upon both inherited and learned patterns which have been built into the neural activity which constitute our thoughts. If we want to change our behavior or that of someone else, the only way to do it is by programming the new behavior into the person through some type of classical and or operant conditioning. Hence, the idea that a person has the freedom to control his or her own thoughts and behavior is, to the determinist, simply an illusion.
Husserl, on the other hand, claims that human motivation is of an entirely different order of causality that is not grounded immediately upon real causal relations but upon an intentional relation to what is real. Thus human consciousness or the Ego of intentionality can not be reduced to a function of the brain or even an epiphenomena of neural activity because it has a unity of its own which is not grounded in relations of real causal dependence.
If we now consider the comportment of the subject towards its surrounding world, as the world posited by it, which includes not merely realities but also, for example, ghosts, and if we take the subject at first again as the one and only subject, as solipsistic, then we find a plethora of relations between the posited Objects and the "spiritual" subject, as we are now calling the subject of intentionality, relations which, in the sense indicated, are relations between what is posited as reality and the positing Ego, which are not real relations, however, but subject-Object relations. Here belong relations of subjective-Objective "causality," a causality which is not a real causality but which has a fully proper sense: namely, the sense of motivational causality. Objects experienced in the surrounding world are at one time attended to, at another time not; and if they are, they exercise a greater or lesser "stimulation." They "arouse" an interest and in virtue of this interest, a tendency to turn towards them. This tendency then freely unfolds only after counter-tendencies weaken or are overcome, etc. All this is played out between the Ego and the intentional Object. The Object exercises stimulation, perhaps by virtue of its pleasing appearance. The "same" Object can be given to me in an unpleasing mode of appearance, and then I experience a stimulus to change my position appropriately, to move my eyes, etc.*11
In claiming that "motivational causality" is distinct from real causality, Husserl has offered a possible solution to the problem of how to reconcile the notion of freedom with the idea that everything that happens has a cause. What Husserl has failed to provide, however, is a clear distinction between motivational and real causality, as well as any explanation of how these two different orders of causality interact within the human person.
As noted earlier, it is proportionality that is the identifying feature of real causality and not regularity, for both coincidences and motivational causes may exhibit a high degree of regularity. What distinguishes motivation from determinate causation is precisely the lack of any necessary proportions to the relation between the motivating cause and the behavioral effect. Changes both internal and external to a person may produce behavioral effects, but these changes do not necessarily cause the person to do anything at all. Furthermore, the intensity of one's feelings or the significance of external events does not always result in behavior that is in proportion to the motivating cause. In any given situation, a person may act or may not act in response to some event. When a response is elicited, it may or may not be in proportion to the motivating cause.
This leads to a related issue which Husserl raises but never fully addresses concerning precisely how mental activity can be in some way independent of the physical activity of the brain and yet interact with it.
As joined to the Body, the spirit "belongs" to nature. In spite of this association, however, this linkage, it is not itself nature. The spirit has "effects" in nature, and yet it does not exercise there any causality in the sense of nature. Causality is a relation between one reality and its correlative surrounding realities. But the reality of the spirit is not related to real circumstances residing within nature; rather, it is related to real circumstances that exist in the "surrounding world" and in other spirits: this, however, is not nature. Something similar occurs in the case of physical things, only it is reversed; they have their real circumstances in one another and, furthermore, in Bodies and in souls, though not in spirits.
Thus we have to establish a peculiar relationship between spirit and physical nature, a relation between two sorts of realities, a relation of conditionality yet not of causality in the genuine sense.*12
In order to provide an explanation of what this relation of "conditionality" is and how it differs from real causality, it is necessary to look at more recent research into how mental activity may be able to influence neural activity without being a part of the causal system which determines the functioning of the brain. As John Eccles points out:
quantum selection is the only possible way of producing different final states from identical initial conditions in identical dynamical situations, and thus with the same values of the conserved quantities. Such a situation could not prevail in a purely classical process, where a change in the final state necessarily implies a change either of the initial conditions or of the dynamics.*13
Eccles goes on to describe in detail how the presynaptic structure of the nerve cell, which selectively passes neural impulses from one neuron to another, is based upon a paracrystalline grid of some 40 to 50 vesicles.*14 When one of these vesicles releases its contents (exocytosis) of some 500 transmitter molecules into the synaptic cleft between neurons, a connection is made and the neural impulse is passed along. What is significant about this process is that it operates probabilistically according to the principles of quantum physics, and not in a determinate fashion such that a vesicle at each synapse simply releases its contents every time a neural impulse passes through that particular nerve cell.
Eccles' hypothesis is that the mental intention to move a finger, for example, is effective because the intention increases the probability of exocytosis from a base level of about 1 in 5 to approximately 1 in 3. Since this increase in probability of exocytosis would occur in a dendron or nerve fiber consisting of many dendrites with a combined total of more than 100,000 synaptic contact points, the corresponding increase in neural activity would produce an impulse sufficient to cause the appropriate muscles to contract and produce the intended movement.*15
While it is not possible to say exactly how a specific mental intention (psychon) increases the probability of exocytosis, Eccles states:
It can be concluded that calculation on the basis of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle shows that a vesicle of the presynaptic grid could conceivably be selected for exocytosis by a psychon acting analogously to a quantal probability field... the energy required to initiate the exocytosis by a particle displacement could be paid back at the same time and place by the escaping transmitter molecules from a high to low concentration. In quantum physics at microsites energy can be borrowed provided it is paid back at once. So the transaction of exocytosis need involve no violation of the conservation laws of physics.*16
What is significant about this explanation is that it points out that the energy needed for exocytosis is already present in the neural system. This means that mental activity does not have to supply energy in order to effect a change in a neuron. All that a mental intention needs to do is provide a harmonic focus, which would concentrate energy that is already present, at the specific locations where exocytosis would subsequently take place. This means that mental activity does not stand in a real or physical casual relation to the subsequent neural activity because the mental intention is of an entirely different causal order, and does not involve a change in energy that is proportionate to the energy change that occurs in neural activity.
At the same time thought is able to effectively influence neural activity by selectively focusing energy to stimulate the neural centers that physically cause the desired movements. In other words, an intention is able to motivate an action by altering wave probabilities that concentrate energy at the point of exocytosis leading to a neural impulse.
If Eccles' hypothesis proves to be correct, it is a significant confirmation of Husserl's claim that motivational causality has a unity of its own which interacts with the physical processes taking place in the brain while retaining a distinct and irreducible foundation that is not dependent upon real or physical causality for its existence. Furthermore, there would no longer be any difficulty in reconciling human freedom with the fundamental principle that everything that happens has a cause. Motivational causality is simply a different kind of causality by which mind and matter influence each other without the changes in one being necessarily determined by the changes in the other through any kind of mechanical linkage.
Human thought, while strongly influenced by sense perceptions and physical causation in general, is thus free from any direct dependence on material interactions that would necessarily determine a person's desires and choices. At the same time, a human being has, through the powers of intentionality and free choice, the ability to affect the physical interactions of their own neural system so as to alter material processes in a immaterial or spiritual manner.
Although a materialist may find it difficult to accept any evidence which indicates a spiritual dimension to the human person, it should be noted that the idea that everything that happens can be explained as the result of physical causes is neither a self-evident first principle, a logically necessary truth, nor an empirically verifiable fact. Instead, it is a premise in the materialist’s argument that clearly does not apply to the whole field of quantum physics including those quantum effects which occur within human beings.
Husserl, on the other hand, has shown through his phenomenological analysis that although everything that happens has a cause, causation need not always be physical, but can be an influence that arises between unities of entirely different existential orders. If an explanation of how this occurs can be verified, such as that proposed by Eccles, it would follow that human freedom is neither illusory nor irrational, but arises through the interaction of two different domains of existence that cannot be reduced to the determinate relations of physical causation.
If this is true, it would follow that the formation of intentions is initiated by a non-physical source within the person that is communicated to the neural system that physically causes the actions that the person intends to perform. This alone would not prove that the conscious mind of the human person is immortal and survives bodily death. However, there would be no reason for assuming that the cessation of all biological processes must entail the termination of the conscious personal aspect of a human being. Furthermore, it would lay to rest the claim that belief in the immortality of the soul is just a mythological construct that has no basis in reality.
1. See: Jaegwon Kim, "The Mind-Body Problem: Taking Stock After Forty Years" Philosophical Perspectives, 11, Mind, Causation, and World, 1997, p. 185 - 207.
David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
John Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.
2. For example: Plato, The Republic (352D - 354A). Phaedo (100B - 105E).
Aristotle, De Anima (429a - 430a). Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q. 75, aa. 2 - 6.
3.This in no way means that the classical arguments concerning freedom are either uninteresting or unimportant. For a helpful analysis of the historical foundations of this discussion, see: Mary T. Clark, Augustine Philosopher of Freedom A Study in Comparative Philosophy, New York: Desclée Company, 1958.
4. If we examine the operations of body, and the production of effects from their causes, we shall find, that all our faculties can never carry us farther in our knowledge of this relation, than to barely observe, that particular objects are constantly conjoined together, and that the mind is carried, by a customary transition, from the appearance of one to the belief of the other. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2nd ed. 1993, sec. viii, p. 61.
5. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book. trans. Richard Rojcewicz and Andre Schuwer. Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989. §31, p. 133 - 134. Hereafter referred to as Ideas II.
6. Ideas II, §33, p. 145.
7. Ideas II, §49, p. 185.
8. Ideas II, §50, p. 199.
9. Ideas II, §55, p. 226-228.
10. Ideas II, §50, p. 199.
11. Ideas II, §55, p. 227-228.
12. Ideas II, §62, p. 296-297.
13. John C. Eccles, How the Self Controls its Brain, Springer-Verlag, New York, Berlin, Heidelberg, 1994, p. 160.
14. Ibid. p. 55 ff.
15. Ibid. p. 138.
16. Ibid. p. 107.