22 August 2007

Let's delve into hardcore neuro-biology. I've been reading Descartes' Error by Antonio Damasio. The book was recommended to me by the good MC Kingsley (who is now going by the preposterously artificial name of Stevan Zivadinovic) of Herzog the Vile fame. Anyway, I started reading the book expecting it to be philosophical of nature, like, a rhetorical rebuttal of some of Descartes' thoughts. As you may recall a while back, I wasn't particularly impressed by what the man had to say, leading me to the notion that I could write a book called Descartes' Errors, as in, the plural. Imagine my surprise when that sneaky Antonio Damasio had used that title in only a poetic fashion, tricking innocent laymen like me into reading what can only be described as unrelenting brainspeak.

So with amygdalas and medulla oblongatas and prefrontal cortices flying around me like wild, winged hogs, I ploughed through the book and found some interesting things that lead me to thoughts that I will lay out before you over the next couple of rants. Did I mention there was talk of limbic systems? Regardless. The book revolves around a well-argumented theory that we're all wrongfully denying the huge role our emotions play in making rational decisions. Using the time-tested methods of neurology (being: discovering how normal brains work exclusively by figuring out what went wrong in patients with damaged brains), Damasio illustrates his point nicely: without emotions, we can't even begin to make any decisions whatsoever.

Here's where -for me at least- the really interesting thing starts, because what follows is a philosophical issue. Namely, this research shows clearly (of course, not by itself alone, but since this is the only one of its type I've read I'm using this book to make my point) that the ideas on the mind that not only Descartes, but practically the whole slew of philosophers going back easily as far as Plato, held, are erroneous. They believed that the mind was separated from the body, contained in this mystical, ephemeral vessel known as the Soul. This is the Dualist view of the mind/body relation. I had never really given it a lot of thought, but Damasio's book made it quite clear to me: there is no such separation. The mind -comprising everything that makes up a person: ones identity, emotions, thoughts, attitude, ones everything- is inextricably, inseparably, inexorably bound to the body! Brain-damaged patients prove this beyond a shadow of doubt: take away bits and pieces of the physical brain and you take away pieces of the person.

This is beautifully illustrated by the story of Phineas Gage: a 19th century construction overseer working at the British railroads. A bright, young, ambitious and skilled man; he was in charge of placing charges to blast away debris to make room for the rails. This was a dangerous task and there was no doubt Phineas was chosen for his sense of responsibility and deliberate work ethic. Alas, a tragic accident saw an iron bar smash through Gage's face -something I think we can all relate to. But wonder above wonder; Phineas survived! The bar had travelled through his brain and exited neatly. Over the coming weeks, the young man battled his way through infections and a terrible sickbed, assisted by a doctor who took note of everything that happened (and wrote the reports that were later used to confirm this unbelievable tale). Phineas survived, but when he awoke he was a completely different man. Not in the way people acquire a new philosophical view on life after a near death experience: he was literally a different person. He took up to swearing heavily and seemed socially completely out of control. He couldn't hold any appointment and his ambitions had left him. Unable to plan ahead even a single day, he began roaming the world, taking up jobs he couldn't keep and eventually ending completely ruined, dying young.

Antonio Damasio's wife, Hannah, researched Phineas' intact skull (well, apart from the damage wrought by a certain iron bar) that resides in the Harvard Medical School in Boston, and gleaned from it the data Antonio used to propose his theories on which parts of the brain were vital for this-and-that reasoning skills and how this all tied into his research. All very interesting. But what does it tell us apart from neurology? It is my view that it tells us that the idea of a person surviving his body is false. That there is no afterlife we all go to after our bodies pass away. Phineas' story tells us that without an intact brain there is no intact person, so without a brain in its entirety, there is no person at all! If this seems still a bit farfetched (and I am purposely glossing over all the details because it's far too elaborate for a modest rant), then you should take the effort of reading the book, as it's filled with scientific data backing this up. Examples abound that testify that a person's identity is as dependent on the wellbeing of its body as the body itself. There is no mystical distinction between a persons 'mind' and 'body'. The mind is 'only' a wonderfully intricate collection of evolved survival mechanisms in the brain that work together to form our superbly complex inner lives. The moniker 'mind' should ideally only be used as a handy token term to reference all these various systems that work in conjunction with each other.

Of course, the fact is that many people hold the mystical belief that our identities did not spring from logically explicable evolution, but rather from a concept called 'soul'. Consider the following problem: if a Phineas Gage were to arrive at heaven, who would he be? Would he be the wretched, brain-damaged half-human he was at the time of his death? Or would he, as many religious believers would have it, arrive at the gates as the ideal version of himself before he had the accident? According to some, the soul is some sort of blueprint of a person and no matter what happens to you, or how young or old you die, you reach the afterlife as the person you are/were deep inside. Whatever the hell that means. But that's all rather, well, incredible, isn't it? I mean, really, in that case the soul is just as elusive and unprovable and unfathomable as God himself! How convenient!

Fortunately, there is no reason to believe in superstitious poppycock if there isn't the slightest smidgeon of proof for it. The theory of mind and body being one, however, has an abundance of exactly that, and should thus be heartily welcomed in any sincere mind.

Lesson # 1: There is no afterlife. Which kicks away the chair from under religion's buttocks.

Roderick's comment: As if we needed more proof.