Thursday, December 08, 2011

Thus spake neuroscience

Early in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes:
"'I am body and soul' - so speaks the child. And why should one not speak like children. But the awakened, the enlightened man says: I am body entirely, and nothing beside; and body and soul is only a word for something in the body…You say 'I' and you are proud of this word. But greater than this -- although you will not believe in it -- is your body and its great intelligence, which does not say 'I' but performs 'I'…Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, stands a mighty commander, an unknown sage -- he is called Self. He lives in your body, he is your body."
Whatever you think of Nietzsche, or that disheveled grab-bag of a book, he has stated something here that science increasingly confirms: There is no ghost in the machine.

There is no Self that lives independently of the body. The Self is the body. The Self is what the body performs.

We don't yet fully understand how the body performs the Self. But the evidence is overwhelming that the Self is inextricable from the flesh.

This is a hard truth, because if it is true, then death is final. There is no Hereafter.

That is to say, one of the oldest and most precious beliefs of humankind is a myth.

No wonder what Nietzsche says is so widely rejected. The extinction of Self is an unpalatable truth.

Might Nietzsche be wrong? If neuroscientists do not yet fully understand how the body gives rise to consciousness and self-awareness, might there be an out, an elusive ghost waiting to be discovered, an immortal phantasm hiding among the neurons?

Anything is possible. In fact, I would not be surprised if something totally unexpected were in the offing before we crack the nut of consciousness. But to believe in an unbodied Self requires accepting as true a thing for which there is not a shred of evidence and every empirical reason to believe otherwise.

A fatal nick from Ockham's razor.

There is also this. The death of individuals is an essential part of the engine of evolution. If there were no death of selves, there would probably be no Self. As the British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey said of immortality: "It is not just that we have no need of the hypothesis. It is that we would probably not be here if it were true."