The Problem of Unconsciousness

Jan 16 00:36 2005 Peter M.K. Chan Print This Article

... The Problem of ... Author: Peter M.K. ChanThis is one of the problems raised in my book titled Soul, God, and Morality against the belief in the pe

The Problem of Unconsciousness
Author: Peter M.K. Chan
This is one of the problems raised in my book titled Soul,Guest Posting God, and Morality against the belief in the persistence of persons as souls in a spiritual hereafter.
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Does it take a soul to have a mind? In this short article, I shall refer to those who believe that it is so as soul theorists. I shall contend that this belief is actually vulnerable to a couple of commonsensical facts that have largely been ignored. It is that if human consciousness and memory were really carried by the soul rather than the body-brain, two troublesome questions in particular would have to be addressed. (1) Why should anyone become temporarily unconscious when the body-brain is made to suffer a severe blow or is put under general anaesthesia? (2) Why should anyone fail to remember his/her own past when he/she gets too old or after having suffered certain injuries to the brain?
Of the first question, it has always been a second nature of sorts to assume that if it is a fact that a tired body is usually accompanied by a tired mind, and if there is no problem in accepting that a sleeping body is also indicative of a sleeping soul, it should also goes without saying that when the body blacks out, so should its soul. Reasonable as this way of reasoning may seem, let me say that the question has not really been answered. The question is: if it is the soul that carries one’s consciousness, why should the soul go out of consciousness when the blackout blow or anaesthesia is delivered to the body-brain?
It should be observed that by the light of the soul theory, body-brains are in and of themselves cognitive inert anyway. It should also be observed that it would not help to reason that as in the case of one who died, an unconscious body means a departed soul. For unlike the case of someone who is dead, our unconscious friend (or his soul rather, as presumed) does return to consciousness at some point after blackout. And if this return to consciousness is to be understood in terms of a soul’s rejoining with its body when the latter is sufficiently on the mend, there are still much that need to be explained. In the first instance, why should the soul regain consciousness only when the body has sufficiently recovered? And why is it that upon its return to consciousness, such a soul does not really know what has happened either to the body or itself during the interim? In other words, why should the soul, as carrier of consciousness, lose consciousness when its bodily habitat is temporarily out of whack?
It is not open to the soul theorist to imagine that under such extraordinary circumstance, the soul must be taking some kind of a spiritual coffee break. For if consciousness is on the side of the soul, there is no reason why a conscious soul taking a break should become unconscious. What is worse is that it is usually the case that when consciousness is subsequently restored, this soul that had presumably been on spiritual break does not seem to have encountered anything spiritual during the interim either.
Of the second question: why should anyone lose part of his/her memory when he/she gets too old or suffered certain injuries to the brain? That is to say, if memory were also on the side of the soul, there is no reason why anyone, or his/her soul rather, should suffer amnesia when certain parts of the brain is damaged, or senile dementia when it gets too old. If one were not to fall for the claim of some (the ancient Orphic, Pythagoras for instance, amongst others who might have also tried) that they could in fact remember many of their previous existences, it should be seen that the soul theorists do indeed have some very troublesome troubles on their hands.
So, this is what I mean by the problem of unconsciousness - temporary loss of consciousness and permanent loss of memory.
One possible dance out of this problem, if the reader have not already guessed, is to say that since the body-brain is the equipment of the soul, it should only be expected that its operations would be affected when part of the equipment is damaged. That sounds plausible, but not exactly coherent. For one thing, if consciousness and memory were on the side of the soul as claimed, it is incoherent to think that a soul would lose its consciousness and memory simply because part of its equipment is down. As a matter of fact, if this type of reasoning were allowed, it would be equivalent to admitting that consciousness and memory are partially dependent on the body-brain, if not totally carried by it. That would render the soul theory very confusing indeed. It should thus be seen that unless this problem is also coherently explained, this traditional belief in the detachability of soul from body is about to graduate from the kinder garden of empirical experience.
The crux of the problem is this. If consciousness and memory were indeed on the side of the soul as presumed, it should follow that temporary unconsciousness and permanent loss of memory for anyone under any bodily circumstance should not have occurred. The fact that these do occur should be sufficient to show that belief in the persistence of persons as souls in a spiritual hereafter is not really intelligible for what it is about. More to the point, what this means is that it is more straightforward and probable to believe that consciousness and memory are the feats of body-brains. It also means that a human person should not have been construed as the composite of a body and a soul, much less that consciousness and memory could actually be carried forward by the soul into a spiritual realm.
But why, you may wonder, are there still so many soul-believers around? Let me submit that the main reasons are two. One is our human desire for a more pleasant time in a personal hereafter. The other is that it is not easy to explain how consciousness, memory, and thought could possibly have arisen from body-brains or any of their material constituents. How is it possible for a mere material thing such as the brain with texture not too unlike bean curd and ice cream, to become conscious, remember and think? This is a question that has refused to go away. And if I may say so, this is also the reason why the belief in spiritual souls has managed to keep its creditors at bay and thus prevented from total bankruptcy for so long. As a matter of fact, the question is so sticky that modern philosophy had eventually also decided to give it a name. It is usually referred to timidly as the mind-body problem. I said ‘timidly’ because no philosopher then would want to step too explicitly on the soul’s toes.

The neighbour of truth is always less comfortable that the familiar circle of falsehood –PMKChan.

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Peter M.K. Chan
Peter M.K. Chan

Author of two books copyrighted and published in the United States:
Soul, God, and Morality (published 2004)
The Mystery of Mind (published 2003)

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