Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Body and soul -- Part 2

I have a philosopher colleague who worries deeply about research such as I described in yesterday's post. As we learn more about the electrochemical brain, he foresees increasing reliance upon the technological control of our mental lives -- a pill for this, a pill for that. "Increasingly, there's no room for us to talk to one another about our lives," he says. "No room for our histories, our stories, our art; no room for ourselves."

The soul has become another object to be investigated, analyzed and manipulated, he says, nothing more than a flickering image on a brain scan monitor as electrochemical activity flares up, dies down, perhaps under chemical control -- a brushfire of cognition. "Science is squeezing us to spiritual death," he groans.

My colleague's pessimism is unwarranted. The discovery that our spirits are inextricably linked to electrochemical processes in no way diminishes our true selves. We still have histories, tell stories, make art. We love, we cry, we respond with awe to the marvelous machinery of cognition. And we arm ourselves against the devils of mental illness.

Many of us seem to believe that anything we can understand cannot not be worth much, and therefore -- most especially -- we resist the scientific understanding of self. But the ability to know is the measure of our human worth, the thing that distinguishes us from the other animals.

Understanding the machinery of spirit does not mean that we will ever encompass with our science the rich detail of an individual human life, or the infinitude of ways by which a human brain interacts with the world. Science is a map of the world; it is not the world itself.