This is a long article, and the quoted portions are in no way a summary. Just simply a digestable highlight from a thought provoking article I read on the train today. Enjoy.
I have just visited the office of Terry Sejnowski, the director of Salk's Computational Neurobiology Laboratory, whose recent research suggests that our conscious minds play less of a role in making decisions than many people have long assumed. "The dopamine neurons are responsible for telling the rest of the brain what stimuli to pay attention to," Sejnowski says, referring to the cluster of brain cells that produce one of the many chemical elixirs that activate, deactivate, or otherwise alter our mental state. In a deeper way, he explains, evolutionary factors-the need for individual organisms to survive, find food or a mate, and avoid predators-are at work behind the mechanisms of unconscious decision making. "Consciousness explains things that have already been decided for you," Sejnowski says. Asked whether that means that consciousness is only a bit player in the overarching drama of our lives, he admits that it's hard to separate rationalizing from decision making. "But," he adds, "we might overrate the role of our consciousness in making decisions."And even as cutting-edge science challenges crude materialistic explanations of the phenomenal world, new thinking in philosophy and theology is questioning the assumption of an absolute divide between mind and body, spirit and matter-an assumption that has long sustained many religious conceptions of the soul. Interestingly, these parallel developments in science and religion point to a new picture of reality-or maybe even recall older understandings implicit in traditions as ancient as Judaism or Buddhism-in which subject and object, mind and matter are more interfused than opposed.The study of consciousness, says Joseph Dial, executive director of the San Antonio-based Mind Science Foundation, which devotes a generous portion of its resources to this field, "has clear clinical applications when you talk about coma and impaired consciousness such as in the Terri Schiavo case. How do you understand consciousness well enough, how do you understand the self and identity well enough, to determine at what point a person is no longer in possession of a self, is no longer conscious in the way we would suggest other humans are conscious and have an identity?"
Consciousness is so tied up with what we think of as our inner selves, our spiritual being, that many of the greatest minds of history have assigned it to an order of reality entirely different from the rest of the natural, physical world. Plato, most influentially, separated the soul, or psyche, from the material body and argued that this reasoning part of our being was immortal. His idea was so powerful and attractive that it has kept philosophers intimately engaged with it to this day. Then, too, because so many influential Christian theologians were part of this philosophical tradition, Platonic ideas have left a lasting imprint on Christian beliefs. The body may die, many Christians hold, but the soul lives on, presumably extending into eternity those qualities that we associate with our conscious minds and our sense of selfhood.
The experimental science that began to emerge in the 17th century would eventually challenge many of the everyday assumptions of the Christian West, including the notion of an Earth-centered cosmos. But few of the great men of early modern science viewed themselves as foes of religion. Few questioned the special status of the soul or its boon companion, the mind.The title and first sentence of Crick's 1994 book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, made their ambitious agenda clear: "The Astonishing Hypothesis is that 'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."Survival machines. If that's what meaning fundamentally comes down to-the sum of appropriate responses to information in service to life-it is easy to see why so many people view the study of consciousness as a potentially dispiriting project. If consciousness, particularly higher-order consciousness, exists only to respond more effectively to information in service to life, then we are nothing more than Darwinian survival machines. Other notions of value, purpose, freedom, and individuality-notions as important to many secular humanists as to religious people-are reduced to, at best, reassuring illusions of possible survival value. Other, more religiously grounded notions of spirit and soul get even shorter shrift in this reductionist view.Within religion itself there is also fresh thought about the implications of the new science of the mind for core religious principles and beliefs. Malcolm Jeeves, an honorary professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews, is one of many believing scientists who think the Christian concept of the soul should be relieved of its Cartesian and Platonic overlays. "The immortality of the soul is so often talked about that it is easy to miss that the Jewish view did not support it," Jeeves says. "Furthermore, the original Christian view was not the immortality of the soul but the resurrection of the body." But Platonism did creep in, Jeeves acknowledges, winning over such influential Christian theologians as Augustine and John Calvin. In Jeeves's view, the new science of consciousness, by showing the inseparable links between mind and body, restores the original Christian conception of the unity of the person. As many Christian theologians now say, human beings do not have souls; they are souls. But Jeeves is realistic in thinking that it will take decades for many of his fellow Christians to accept this way of viewing the soul. But grant Dennett and many other cognitive scientists their view that the self is not a spectator in the theater of consciousness but the composite of multiple drafts related to and constituting the biography of that particular individual. If this view is true, where is the self or identity on which even a broad-minded religious believer might base his notion of the soul?
Here Christians and others might turn to the wisdom of Buddhism, in which the self is correctly understood not as an entity or substance but as a dynamic process. As Galin writes in a collection of essays on Buddhism and science, this process is "a shifting web of relations among evanescent aspects of the person such as perceptions, ideas, and desires. The Self is only misperceived as a fixed entity because of the distortions of the human point of view." The Buddhist concept of anatman does not suggest that the self is nonexistent but rather asserts that it cannot be reduced to an essence....They even suggest that if religion can learn something valuable about the unity of body and mind from science, then science might be able to relearn something from religion about the deepest purposes of our minds.