2002 : WHAT IS YOUR QUESTION? ... WHY?

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Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology, Yale University; Author, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil
How will people think about the soul?

Cognitive scientists believe that emotions, memories, and consciousness are the result of physical processes. But almost nobody else does. Common sense tells us that our mental life is the product of an immaterial soul, one that can survive the destruction of the body and brain. The physical basis of thought is, as Francis Crick put it, "an astonishing hypothesis", one that few take seriously.

You might think that this will soon change. After all, people once thought the earth is flat and that mental illness is caused by demonic possession. But the belief in the immaterial soul is different. It is rooted in our experience — our gut feeling, after all, is not that we are bodies; it is that we occupy them. Even young children are dualists — they appreciate and enjoy tales in which a person leaves his body and goes to faraway lands, or when the frog turns into a prince. And when they come to think about death, they readily accept that the soul lives on, drifting into another body or ascending to another world.

When the public hears about research into the neural basis of thought, they learn about specific findings: this part of the brain is involved in risk taking, that part is active when someone think about music, and so on. But the bigger picture is not yet generally appreciated, and it is an interesting question how people will react when it is. (We are seeing the first signs now, much of it in the recent work of novelists such Jonathan Franzen, David Lodge, and Ian McEwan). It might be that non-specialists will learn to live with the fact that their gut intuitions are mistaken, just as non-physicists accept that apparently solid objects are composed of tiny moving particles. But this may be optimistic. The notion that our souls are flesh is profoundly troubling, in large part because of what it means for the idea of life after death. The same sorts of controversies that raged over the study and teaching of evolution in the 20th century might well spill over to the cognitive sciences in the years to follow.