The Atman, Part 5
Part 5 of 10: Brain, Soul, Self, Atman, Mind
Since antiquity, people have been speculating about the mysteries of consciousness and personhood. Because it is such a vague and mysterious topic, people have invented many different words in their attempts to describe it: the words include “brain”, “soul”, “self”, “Atman”, “mind”, as well as the word “consciousness” itself. The meanings of these various words are similar, but not exactly the same. There are some important differences between them, which I will explore in this essay.
I. The Brain
The brain, of course, is the physical organ inside your skull. It weighs about 1.3 kilograms. It is responsible for the totality of your experiences in life (but not, in my opinion, for consciousness in itself). Thinking is done by the brain. All thought processes, whether conscious or unconscious, take place in the brain. All emotions are felt in the brain. All sensations are received in the brain. All of your movements are coordinated by your brain. And all of your memories are stored in your brain.
II. An Entity Within the Brain?
Some very secular thinkers in the modern world like to refer to the brain for everything, and they almost never use words such as “mind” or “soul”. But they are the minority. Most people do not just talk about the brain; they talk about something within the brain, although different people have very different ideas about what this something is.
The idea that the brain alone is responsible for consciousness just doesn’t seem right to us, so we tend to envision some sort of extra entity within our brains. For the time being, let’s refer to this entity as the Entity, with a capital E. Different people have very different ideas about what this Entity is, about whether it is material or immaterial, about what its attributes are, and about whether it is a thing itself or just a metaphor. Different cultures and different traditions have come up with a series of different words for the Entity. These words include, “soul”, “self”, “Atman”, and “mind”.
III. Is This Entity Immaterial?
Each of these words for the Entity is generally meant to imply that the Entity is something distinct from the brain and something immaterial. Now, to be sure, not everyone who uses those words believes that or wants to imply that. But at least historically, these notions (“mind”, “soul”, etc) were presumed to be immaterial things superimposed on the physical body.
The belief that the Entity is something distinct from the brain is called dualism. The most famous proponent of dualism was the great philosopher Rene Descartes. And I stated in my previous essay that I am a dualist as well. Most dualists (including me) reject physicalism and believe that the Entity is immaterial (i. e. the mind is immaterial, the soul is immaterial, the Atman is immaterial …… whichever word you like to use). However, there are a small number of philosophers, including David Chalmers, who consider themselves to be dualists while still maintaining that the Entity is merely a scientific entity, not an immaterial entity. But personally, I am a dualist, and I reject physicalism. I believe that the Entity (Atman) is immaterial. It exists outside of science. It can never be detected or measured by science, but it exists nonetheless.
My reason for believing this is that I have concluded that the mysteries of consciousness can never be explained by science alone — see Parts 1 and 2. Since science can’t explain them, I would think the most plausible explanation is that there exists an immaterial entity inside our brains that is responsible for consciousness.
Now, to be sure, that is only a guess. I am (almost) certain that consciousness can never be explained by science, but I am not certain that this implies an immaterial entity inside our brains. But even if I’m not certain, I do think that it’s more likely than not.
IV. What Does This Entity Do?
When I say that the Entity is immaterial, there are still so many questions that I have left unanswered. What functions are done by the Entity, as opposed to the brain? Does the Entity include your personality? Is it divided into parts, or is it just one thing?
This is why it matters which word I choose to describe the Entity. For example, if I called it the soul, that would give the impression that I think of it as being involved with your moral character, whereas if I called it the mind, that would give the impression that I think of it as being responsible for one’s thoughts. I have a very particular conception of the Entity, and I need to be careful to choose a word that matches my own conception. My conception of it goes something like this:
I think there exists an immaterial entity that somehow floats (supervenes) inside your brain. Whenever you are conscious, I think it is the locus of your consciousness. I think that it is not divided into parts; I think of it as a single, indivisible entity. I think that it is not directly related to your personality or your moral character. And I think that while it supervenes onto thoughts, it does not cause thoughts. I think of it as the ghost in the machine, the self, the I whenever you use the word “I”, the thing that makes you alive, the thing that allows you to be conscious, and the thing that distinguishes you from a p-zombie (see Part 4). That is how I conceive of the structure and function of this Entity.
Also, if free will exists, then it must be this Entity that commits it. It is the immaterial Entity that makes free choices, not the brain (more on this in Part 10).
V. Which Word Should I Choose?
The different words for the Entity carry different connotations, because they are derived from different philosophical traditions. For example, the word “soul” is the English translation of the Greek word “psyche”. This concept (psyche/soul) originated in the ancient Greek school of philosophy but was later adopted by Catholic theology. Meanwhile, the word “self” comes from a mixture of philosophy and psychology and has been used by psychologists like William James and Charles Horton Cooley. The word “Atman” comes from Hinduism. And while I am not quite sure where our typical usage of the word “mind” comes from, I suspect that the ideas of Rene Descartes were instrumental in forming it.
VI. “Soul” Was the Wrong Word
This series was originally titled “The Soul.” I was going to use the word “soul” throughout the series. In fact, all of these essays are still saved on my computer under the name “Soul”. But eventually, I had several conversations with my brother about it, and he pointed out that I need to refer my own idea as something other than “the soul”, because I think of it as being unrelated to your moral character or your personality, while the word “soul” has always been tied to such attributes.
He’s right. The idea of the soul is closely tied to the Judeo-Christian worldview and has always been tied to moral concepts of sin, virtue, and salvation. The soul is typically conceived as something that represents your true character, your deepest desires, and your moral convictions. We can see this in many expressions in pop culture: soul food, soul music, soulmate, Chicken Soup for the Soul, saying that someone “has no soul” (to indicate that they only care about themselves), and saying that someone has the “soul” of a particular group of people (e. g. “you’ve got the soul of a poet”). [Author’s note, January 2021: I must also mention the movie Soul, which has become quite a hit in the last few months.]
As such, my brother is right: it would be very misleading if I had used the word “soul”, because my own conception of the Entity is not directly related to one’s morals or personality. While I do think that the Entity supervenes over one’s thoughts and (maybe) makes free choices, I don’t think it has any effect on your personality. I think your personality is mainly the result of your DNA, and no metaphysics are needed to explain it. But I do think metaphysics are needed to address the mysteries of consciousness.
VII. “Self” Was Also the Wrong Word
After thinking it over, my next idea was to use the word “self”, which is somewhat closer to my own conception. But even the self is still not quite the right word.
The word “self” is used in different ways by different people. It is sometimes used to refer to the ghost in the machine (which is how I would use it), but it also sometimes used in a linguistic context, a psychological context, or even a sociological context, and that is not how I conceive of the Entity.
Some authors think that the “self” is just the way by which a subject refers to its own consciousness. They don’t think of it as being a ghost in the machine, as I do. Some authors even use the phrase “the self” in a social context, considering it to be one’s conception of cultural identity or of how others perceive them. That’s obviously not what I’m getting at, because my own conception of the Entity is a purely philosophical idea, with no relevance to psychology or sociology. Thus, I didn’t think “self” was the right word, either.
VIII. “Atman” Was (Maybe) the Right Word
Eventually, I remembered that in one my high school classes, we had learned about Hinduism and about the Hindu concept of “Atman”. This seemed promising. I did some research, and I found that yes, this is the word I’ve been looking for. This is how I think of the Entity. And that’s why I decided to use the word “Atman” in this series.
To be sure, I do not necessarily agree with every Hindu doctrine about the Atman. There are different schools of thought within Hinduism, each with its own conception of the Atman. Out of all the schools, I think that my own conception is closest to that of Dvaita Vedanta, although I cannot say this with certainty, because, to be honest, I am not very well-informed about Hinduism. You’ll have to pardon my cultural ignorance.
As stated above, and also in Part 4, I consider the Atman to be the immaterial locus of consciousness, within the brain. And I think that its connection to thoughts is one of supervenience but not causation.
In my view, while the Atman is connected to thoughts (because it supervenes over them), it does not cause thoughts. I think of it like this: the Atman only supervenes over some parts of the brain. There is a region of supervenience. But the Atman moves over time, such that it’s not always floating (supervening) over the same parts. As such, the region of supervenience migrates. In fact, I conjecture that a thought process is conscious if and only if the Atman is attached to it. If something happens in your brain (a thought, emotion, etc.) and you’re conscious of it, then your Atman was supervening on it. Meanwhile, if something happens in your brain and you are not conscious over it, then your Atman was not connected to it. Thus, the Atman is the thing that makes something conscious.
I feel the need to add a disclaimer here: what I said in the previous paragraph was only a guess. I am (almost) certain that consciousness is beyond science, but I am not certain that my own conception of the Entity is correct. It might not be. I’m only guessing.
IX. What is the Mind?
I have examined the concepts of brain, soul, self, and Atman. But where does that leave the mind?
The mind is generally considered to be something in between the brain and the soul/Atman. When people use the word “mind”, they generally think of it as something a little bit more metaphysical than the brain, but not quite as metaphysical (or as religious) as concepts like the soul or the Atman. Of course, people don’t consciously think about these things when they use the word. I use the word “mind” every day, and most of the time, I’m not thinking about any philosophical questions. But still, if you step back and think about our popular understanding of the mind, you can see that it’s usually assumed to be something in between the purely scientific “brain” and the purely religious and metaphysical “soul”, or “Atman.”
In many ways, our popular understanding of the mind comes from the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Descartes was a French philosopher in the 17th Century. He was one of the most influential philosophers of all time. He proposed that the brain and the mind are two different things; that is, he was a dualist. (To be more specific, he was a substance dualist, as am I.) Now, he didn’t say that the brain and the mind are completely separate; in fact, he speculated about how they influence each other. Rather, he just argued that the brain and the mind are two distinct entities.
Descartes thought that the mind is immaterial, while the brain is physical. He thought that the brain is used for emotions and sensations, while the mind is what you think with. So according to Descartes, thinking is an immaterial process (I do not agree with him). In his view, the mind receives input from the brain, analyzes it, and then sends out a response, which the brain executes.
I have mixed views about Descartes’ ideas. Like him, I am a substance dualist, but unlike him, I consider thinking to be a material process, not an immaterial process. That’s part of the reason why I prefer the word “Atman” over the word “mind”. I think that the Atman is the locus of consciousness, but I don’t think it is the source of our thoughts. While the Atman may supervene over thoughts, the thoughts themselves are neurological processes.
In fact, I would say the word “mind” doesn’t mean anything to me. I think there’s just the brain and the Atman. I think that in the modern world, the word “mind” has just become a messy metaphor. The concept of the mind made sense in Descartes’ day, back when people thought that thinking was a purely immaterial process. But since we now know that it isn’t, the word “mind” doesn’t have any clear meaning anymore. The way I see it, there is just the brain and the Atman.
As such, even though I am a dualist, I would rather say that I am an Atman-body dualist than that I am a mind-body dualist. I am certainly a dualist, but I think the two entities are the brain and the Atman, not the brain and the mind.
Descartes’ ideas were very influential and have entered pop culture. Many philosophers and scientists since Descartes have debated his ideas. I will discuss their various opinions in my next essay, Part 6.
X. Psychological vs. Phenomenal Consciousness
I realize that my own ideas about the Atman being the locus of consciousness are very different from the views of many scientists. I am aware that some psychologists and neuroscientists have proposed physical explanations of consciousness, which require only the brain and contain no further facts. I also realize that challenging the establishment of science is usually a bad idea and is associated with groups like climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers. (Please note: I am thoroughly disgusted by both of those groups.)
However, in this brief section, I aim to show that my disagreement with the scientific community is not as radical as it may seem, because several of the most respected philosophers of the last fifty years have already succeeded in debunking all reductive accounts of consciousness. (Or, at least, I think they’ve succeeded.) Any hypothesis that aims to explain consciousness using only neuroscience has already been refuted, not by me, but by Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers.
There is a glaring problem with any neurological explanation of consciousness, which is that it explains only psychological consciousness. It fails to account for phenomenal consciousness, which is the kind that really counts. To use the terminology of David Chalmers, it may have addressed the easy problems of consciousness, but it failed to answer the hard problem. Or, to use the terminology of Thomas Nagel, we still don’t know what it’s like to be a bat.
Psychological consciousness refers to such things as self-awareness, information processing, and attention. It can also be called cognitive consciousness, along with several other names. In contrast, phenomenal consciousness refers to first-person subjective experiences, which are also known as qualia (see Part 1). For example, when I look at something red, psychological consciousness (the “easy problem”) refers to how my brain processes that the object emits radiation at wavelength of 700 nanometers (red light), while phenomenal consciousness (the “hard problem”) refers to my experience of seeing the color red, which is the reason I know what red looks like.
Neurological accounts of consciousness explain psychological but not phenomenal consciousness. They can always be refuted by the same line of reasoning, which has been championed by Chalmers, among others. I am referring to Chalmers’ “zombie” argument, which highlights the distinction between the two kinds of consciousness. As I discussed in Parts 2 and 4, the “zombie” argument considers imaginary creatures called philosophical zombies (p-zombies), which are identical to humans except that they don’t have phenomenal consciousness. They have psychological but not phenomenal consciousness. Any hypothesis that tries to explain consciousness using only the brain will fail, because if it were true, then we would all be p-zombies ………. which, of course, we’re not. There are scores of philosophers who have pointed this out.
Thus, if you’re the sort of person who would find my “Atman” theory absurd because it contradicts the neuroscience of consciousness, then I want you to know that the neurological accounts of consciousness have already been debunked, not by me, but by Chalmers, Nagel, Jackson, and others. As these authors have shown, neuroscience fails to account for phenomenal consciousness. (I wrote of this in Parts 1 and 2, as well.)
Now, to be sure, my views on consciousness are still very different from those of Chalmers and Nagel, because of 1. My willingness to embrace the immaterial, 2. My use of the word “Atman”, and 3. My increased focus on the first of the two “mind-blowing” questions. However, challenging neuroscience on consciousness is not as radical as it may seem, because so many thinkers before me have already done so and have (in my opinion) succeeded.
XI. Thank God for the Atman
There is one more thing that I ought to mention about my conception of the Atman, which is that I am deeply grateful for its (alleged) existence. Personally, I have always felt that physicalism — the belief that matter and energy are all there is — is intolerable. Whether it’s true or false, it’s intolerable. If I had to surrender and accept that physicalism is true, then I would be depressed for several months. Physicalism is an awful idea.
In particular, it would be intolerable if I had to accept that I am nothing but a brain. (“You are nothing but a pack of neurons.” — Francis Crick.) If I am only a brain, then I have no inherent worth, no free will, no redemption, and no consolation for my suffering.
As you can see, I have a personal stake in all these debates. From the beginning, I had set out to prove that the brain is not a purely physical system, because I can’t stand the alternative.
If it weren’t for the fact that consciousness is unexplainable, then I would have had to surrender a long time ago. But because the mysteries of consciousness are so mind-blowing and so impossible to explain in human terms, I have a real chance. Some philosophers feel bothered by the fact that phenomenal consciousness is so incomprehensible, but I am just the opposite. I love the fact that consciousness is incomprehensible, because it saves us from physicalism. Thank you, mysteries of consciousness.
Other parts of this series:
Part 1: Consciousness is Beyond Science
Part 2: Responding to Counterarguments
Part 3: We Need Not Fear Immateriality
Part 4: Definition of the Atman
Part 6: The Views of the Philosophers
Part 7: [under revision]
Part 8: The Atman is the Definition of Life
Part 9: Are We Always the Same Person?