Nietzsche and Neuroscience Reply

Thereupon, in the year 2006 or 2026, some new Nietzsche will step forward to announce: “The self is dead”—except that being prone to the poetic, like Nietzsche I, he will probably say… “The soul, that last refuge of values, is dead, because educated people no longer believe it exists.”

Thomas Wolfe, “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died”

In Thomas Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, the protagonist, Charlotte, leaves her rural home in the mountains of Sparta, North Carolina, to start her new life at the elite (albeit fictional) Dupont University, where she believes she will find her identity.

By the end of her first year at college, she somehow loses her identity.

Charlotte’s story is not that of the naive optimist who loses her innocence through hard experience. The heroin loses her soul, that is, her very self, her identity.

After repeatedly hearing her neuroscience professor explain away the existence of the soul, by the end of the novel she can no longer relate to what it means to say “I Am Charlotte Simmons.”

It’s a bleak truth that gets altogether ignored. To explain, we’re going to have to do a little history.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that:

TocquevilleAmerica is therefore one of the countries in the world where philosophy is least studied, and where the precepts of Descartes are best applied… The Americans do not read the works of Descartes, because their social condition deters them from speculative studies; but they follow his maxims, because this very social condition naturally disposes their understanding to adopt them.

Descartes was a dualist who believed that the body and the soul were two separate entities. Most people I’ve talked to, including Catholics, who have not studied much philosophy beyond the intro class they were required to take in college, have somehow naturally adopted Descartes’ dualistic views about themselves — not always in a harmful way.

After all, Christ says in the Bible, “Do not fear the things that destroy the body; fear rather the things that can destroy both the body and the soul in Gehenna.”

Body and soul certainly are distinct realities (the body is not the soul). But the union of body and soul, according to Catholic tradition, is not as Descartes would have it, like a ghost in a machine.

According to the Cartesian worldview, you (the person) are an immaterial, spiritual, thinking soul; bodies are material and do not think, nor are they spiritual. The conclusion is that you are not your body.

Some truth to that, but not entire truth. What happens when you cut yourself shaving? If you are just an immaterial ghost, you can’t cut yourself shaving. We don’t deny that the body “gets cut”. So we must conclude that the body cut itself. So, where does the self — i.e., the person — fit in?

The experience when you cut yourself shaving is that you cut yourself. Descartes’ explanation eliminates that possibility.

Here is where the slippery slope to Nietzsche and Neuroscience begins. As Tocqueville observed, it is easy to accept Descartes line of thought, as simple and elegant as it is. Many people swallow it whole without giving it much consideration. Yet as John Searle noted on Friday (and long before that, other philosophers like Hume and Kant) this position is completely untenable from both a philosophical and a scientific standpoint.

Given that it’s hard to find a paying job with a philosophy degree (besides being a philosophy professor), and given the astonishing advances in science over the past century and most notably during the past 20 years in the field of neuroscience, most educated people opt for for science and materialism over Descartes and dualism.

But what’s an educated person and what do we mean by science? Who can best answer this question than the educator and the scientist? What are they saying and what are they teaching?

It’s all in the brain, they say, and that’s all there is to it.

Neuroscience has thus apparently shown Descartes to be wrong, thereby giving a scientific foundation to the philosophies of Hume and Kant, who are now vindicated heroes and precursors of the postmodern era. But the great icon of postmodernism is none other than Nietzsche. If Tocqueville were around today to write The University in America, he would now say:

America is still therefore one of the countries in the world where philosophy is least studied, and where the precepts of Nietzsche are best applied. This should not surprise us. American college students do not read, because their social condition deters them from trying to remember how that tattoo got there in the first place, and what to wear to Friday’s party; but they follow Nietzsche’s maxims, because this very social condition naturally disposes their understanding to adopt them.

We all know that college students don’t study. They cram. Nonetheless, somewhere in the process of attending classes from time to time and cramming for exams, their thinking begins to change. They are taught to think critically by their college professors who teach them to question the worldview they brought with them from home, to consider more reasonable alternatives to the mainstream Judeo-Christian beliefs of the Western tradition.

University professors teach, rather, they preach against things like the existence of the soul because they want to eliminate them from our society’s way of thinking. (Don’t worry about the things that can destroy the soul; just worry about the body; or actually, It’s your body, so do what you want with it — enjoy it while you can).

College students are thus taught to question religion and traditional morality. Yet they are also taught not to question science, because it is unquestionable. If science says it’s not a person, it’s not a person.

And here is what the latest in science has to say. We have discovered that there is no soul. The conscious self is an illusion, because we can’t find it. But we can see what’s going on in your head when you think you’re thinking and that’s why we can say there is no soul. After all, we only see are physical changes, and even Descartes knows that souls aren’t physical and cannot change.

This all stands to reason, because physical sciences can only study the physically observable: the laws of bodies in motion (although laws themselves aren’t really observable either). Therefore, we are nothing other than bodies in motion.

Science is now saying what Kant and Hume said, but with more convincing arguments (arguments based on the authority of science): we need to eliminate this illusion, the notion of the self, from our way of thinking. If we can get beyond thinking of ourselves in terms of selves, we can live more reasonable lives and free ourselves from the bonds of authority (just not the authority of science).

Today’s Biltrix is an obscure one. It would seem that science has overturned the dualistic thinking of Descartes. It hasn’t. In fact, it has only carried his thinking out to its most logical conclusion.

If Descartes’ separation of body and self leads to the scenario that you are not shaving yourself when you appear to be shaving yourself — it’s really just a mechanical body shaving a body — then the elimination of the self from the physical process of shaving or performing another physical activity is already achieved. We just need to figure out what to make of this thinking thing.

Neuroscience has now eliminated the thinking thing. It still needs to explain where the illusory experience of a thinking self comes from. And according to neuroscientists it will, because that’s the job of science — to explain everything.

I apologize if this sounds like sarcasm. It isn’t. That’s just the scientific worldview. If you don’t believe me, check out my previous posts on Richard Dawkins. And if you don’t believe him, there are plenty of other scientists you can find who think this way. Unfortunately, today this seems to be the case with most of them.

What they can’t explain, however, is why Charlotte Simmons is so depressed and alone, now that she has learned the truth from them. She crammed like everyone else, and got bad grades, but somehow, while sitting in the classroom, she picked up on the truism that there is no self.

Now she can only wonder how it is possible to live with herself.

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