Section 8: Human Origins and the Soul

This is a short extract from Am I My Keeper’s Brother? 

Am I my body or am I inside my body?

There are several ways of looking at this. If I lose a toe, I don’t consider that I am any the less who I am. Even if I lose a limb, or all four limbs, I can still imagine being the same person ‘inside’ although who I am in terms of my capabilities, confidence and independence will be greatly altered. Playing the piano is deeply enmeshed with who I am; yet without hands I would no longer be a pianist in the normal sense. What if part of my intestine was taken out, or a kidney, or a lung? I’ll still be there, but I may turn into more of an illness-conscious, anxious, depressed or cautious person. Am I the same person?

Now imagine part of my brain was damaged. This becomes more difficult. When people have damage to part of the brain, for instance with a stroke, their personality may be affected, the severity depending on the part of the brain and the amount affected. Some people change personality radically because of brain damage or altered brain chemistry, eg schizophrenia. What if I lost half of my brain, or had one of the old-fashioned surgical treatments for epilepsy – a ‘split brain’ (the connections between the two hemispheres divided), or a frontal lobotomy (connections severed between the frontal lobes and the lobes behind them)? People with split brains or frontal lobotomies often function relatively normally, but people who know them intimately will recognise that they are not quite the same as they were. Someone with a split brain behaves in certain circumstances like two people, communicating with each other externally by moving the half of the body they direct, but not communicating internally. Is there one person there, one soul, or two?

It is clear that our identity as a person is affected by loss of body parts or function, but particularly by loss of brain function. None of this proves that our ‘soul’ or ‘consciousness’ is merely a brain function. However it does show that the person we are is critically dependent on brain function (perhaps on certain parts of the brain more than others). A car is not merely a set of four wheels. Yet for a car to function as a car it is critically dependent on having four wheels. Some neuroscientists believe consciousness is a function of one part of the brain. Others think it arises from the whole brain. Yet others believe that consciousness is an ‘emergent’ phenomenon, dependent on but not determined by the underlying structure.

Am I My Keeper’s Brother? pp 332. Order your copy of the book here.

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