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The Theory and Evolution of The Soul
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
PREFACE: This is the final part of a series of short essays called The Great Abortion Divide. It is less of an original essay than an organized compilation of my notes on the evolving history of the human soul. Its purpose is to give an overview how concepts of the human soul originated and developed over time. It is not my purpose or intent to minimize or refute anyone’s belief in the human soul, but only to point out that a rigid adherence to a specific doctrine regarding the human soul cannot be fully justified. My notes are taken from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and other sources, as noted.
During the time period of writing The Great Abortion Divide there have been a number of attacks on Planned Parenthood facilities nation-wide, including a mass shooting on November 27, 2015, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A police officer and two civilians were killed. Five police officers and four civilians were injured. The attacker, Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., surrendered and was charged with first-degree murder. In his December 9th court appearance, Dear repeatedly expressed anti-abortion and anti-Planned Parenthood views, calling himself “a warrior for the babies.”
It may be that Mr. Dear is mentally ill, we shall see. Even so, his belief that every fetus, at any stage of development, is “a baby” reflects a religious doctrine shared by many. Biologically speaking, a single cell or even a fertilized egg is clearly not a baby with complex, fully functioning organs and a conscious, intelligent brain. Gestation is a biological process where cells develop to become” a baby”. You can argue, as I have in the past, that even an early stage fetus is treated by a woman’s body as a foreign object, but it is clearly not a baby. At what point that transition happens is open for debate. It is, in fact, at the core of the abortion debate.
From a legal perspective, personhood and certain (not all) human rights have been conferred at the time of birth. Even after a child is born, there are limits on the constitutional rights they have until they become legal adults. In limited cases, and under special circumstances, the courts have granted status to unborn fetus’ prior to birth. This was done, in one case I know, to protect the life of a child at birth from a schizophrenic mother who threatening to drown her baby at birth. The concept of assigning personhood to a zygote (a fertilizes human reproductive cell) and characterizing it as a human being is a more recent theological development. The principal argument for extending personhood to a fertilized egg (or even unfertilized eggs as some see it) is that it contains a human soul. (See Part II)
In most of our childhood religious training the existence of the soul is assumed. It is a self-evident fact and It receives no other explanation. We all have a soul. In Christian theology our soul contains or supplies our essential self and it collects the history of sins and good deeds while we are on earth. Human beings are “ensouled” by the time of our birth and leaves us (or our bodies) at the instant of our death. It continues its existence after death and (at some point) our souls are judged by God as worthy or unworthy of entering eternal paradise. If our souls are found to be unworthy they is cast into hell and eternal damnation. It is an essential tenant of Christian theology that our souls are not born pure. They are born with original sin that must be restored before we die. This is at the root of salvation theology. This concept of being “ensouled” with an imperfect soul speaks to one philosophic concept about how the soul originates. It suggests that souls, like people themselves, are somehow begotten from the souls of Adam and Eve who committed the first sin. There are other philosophic positions on the origin of the human soul.
These matters about the nature and origin of the human soul are not scriptural. The Torah, Bible and Koran offer no solid clues or specific instructions. It is therefore useful to a discussion about the morality of abortions to consider the philosophic theories of soul and how they evolved over time. Only then may we see the inherent uncertainty underlying the premise that a fetus is fully human in a spiritual sense. The categories that follow are my addition to the notes, but the content is not my own. This discussion below starts in ancient Greece, but the concept of soul goes back much earlier in time. The reason I start in Greece is because it was the Greeks who first introduced the concept of soul to the Hebrews in the Middle-East, according to many Greek and theological scholars.
GREEK theory of soul
Notes taken directly from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ancient-soul/
Life Force: The soul is, on the one hand, something that a human being risks in battle and loses in death. On the other hand, it is what at the time of death departs from the person’s limbs and travels to the underworld, where it has a more or less pitiful afterlife as a shade or image of the deceased person. It has been suggested (for instance, by Snell 1975, 19) that what is referred to as soul in either case is in fact thought of as one and the same thing, something that a person can risk and lose and that, after death, endures as a shade in the underworld. The suggestion is plausible, but cannot be verified. In any case, once a person’s soul has departed for good, the person is dead. The presence of soul therefore distinguishes a living human body from a corpse. However, this is plainly not to say that the soul is thought of as what accounts for, or is responsible for, the activities, responses, operations and the like that constitute a person’s life. Homer never says that anyone does anything in virtue of, or with, their soul, nor does he attribute any activity to the soul of a living person. Thus, though the presence or absence of soul marks out a person’s life, it is not otherwise associated with that life.
Human Life Force: … whatever precise way the soul is conceived of as associated with life, it is in any case thought to be connected not with life in general, or life in all its forms, but rather, more specifically, with the life of a human being.
General Life Force: In ordinary fifth century Greek, having soul is simply being alive; hence the emergence, at about this time, of the adjective ‘ensouled’ [empsuchos] as the standard word meaning “alive”, which was applied not just to human beings, but to other living things as well.
The semantic expansion of ‘soul’ in the sixth and fifth centuries is reflected in the philosophical writings of the period. For instance, once it becomes natural to speak of soul as what distinguishes the animate from the inanimate, rather than as something that is restricted to humans, it becomes clear that the domain of ensouled things is not limited to animals, but includes plants as well.
Thales of Miletus, who is credited with successfully predicting a solar eclipse occurring in 585, reportedly attributed soul to magnets, on the grounds that magnets are capable of moving iron (Aristotle, De Anima 1.2, 405a19-21). Thales’ thought was presumably that since it is distinctive of living things to be able to initiate movement, magnets must in fact be alive or, in other words, ensouled. Thus, while Homer spoke of soul only in the case of human beings, in sixth and fifth century usage soul is attributed to every kind of living thing. What is in place, then, at this time is the notion that soul is what distinguishes that which is alive from that which is not.
Socrates explicitly appeals to the idea that it is the soul that animates the body of a living thing
Motivational Force: It is also the case that an increasingly broad range of ways of acting and being acted on is attributed to the soul. Thus it has come to be natural, by the end of the fifth century, to refer pleasure taken in food and drink, as well as sexual desire, to the soul. People are said, for example, to satisfy their souls with rich food (Euripides, Ion 1170), and the souls of gods and men are claimed to be subject to sexual desire. In contexts of intense emotion or crisis, feelings like love and hate, joy and grief, anger and shame are [became] associated with the soul.
Soul as Conveyer of Attributes: In the Hippocratic text Airs, Waters, Places, the soul is thought of as the place of courage or, as the case may be, its opposite.
The connection between the soul and characteristics like boldness and courage in battle is plainly an aspect of the noteworthy fifth century development whereby the soul comes to be thought of as the source or bearer of moral qualities such as, for instance, temperance and justice.
Soul as a Source of Conscience: To educated fifth century speakers of Greek, it would have been natural to think of qualities of soul as accounting for, and being manifested in, a person’s morally significant behavior. Pericles acts courageously, and Hippolytus temperately (or chastely), because of the qualities of their souls from which such actions have a strong tendency to flow, and their actions express and make evident the courage, temperance and the like that characterize their souls. Once we are in a position properly to appreciate the connection between soul and moral character that must already have been felt to be natural at this stage, it should come as no surprise that the soul is also taken to be something that engages in activities like thinking and planning. If the soul is, in some sense, responsible for courageous acts, for instance, it is only to be expected that the soul also grasps what, in the circumstances, courage calls for, and how, at some suitable level of detail, the courageous act must be performed.
Thus in non-philosophical Greek of the fifth century the soul is treated as the bearer of moral qualities, and also as responsible for practical thought and cognition.
[The soul].. as Plato conceives of it in the Phaedo, is crucially characterized by cognitive and intellectual features
Body/Soul Distinction: As a result of these developments [the semantic expansion of the word “soul”], the language made available something that [earlier] Homeric Greek lacked, a distinction between body and soul. Antiphon says of a defendant who is sure of his innocence that though his body may surrender, his soul saves him by its willingness to struggle, through knowledge of its innocence. For the guilty, on the other hand, even a strong body is to no avail, since his soul fails him, “believing the vengeance coming to him is for his impieties”
Plato [later] furnishes the conceptual framework needed for saying that body and soul differ in kind, the one being perceptible and perishable, the other being intelligible and exempt from destruction. What he does, in fact, conclude is that the soul is most like, and most akin to, intelligible being, and that the body is most like perceptible and perishable being.
Immortality of Soul: It is probably true that in mainstream fifth century Greek culture, belief in an afterlife of the soul was weak and unclear
.. Socrates’ arguments for the immortality of the soul, most prominently in the Phaedo, are offered to interlocutors who, at the outset of the discussion, are by no means convinced of the idea. “Men find it very hard to believe”, Cebes says at Phaedo 70a, “what you said about the soul. They think that after it has left the body it no longer exists anywhere, but that it is destroyed and dissolved on the day the man dies.” This view .. includes the idea that the soul is a material thing, and is destroyed by being dispersed, “like breath or smoke” (70a). Glaucon, in the last book of the Republic (608d), is taken aback by Socrates’ question,
“Haven’t you realized that our soul is immortal and never destroyed?”
He looked at me with wonder and said: “No, by god, I haven’t. Are you really in a position to assert that?”
Qualities of an Immortal Soul: Moreover, apart from the question of immortality or otherwise, there is the further question whether the soul, if it does have some form of existence after the person has died, “still possesses some power and wisdom”. Answering both questions, Socrates says not only that the soul is immortal, but also that it contemplates truths after its separation from the body at the time of death.
[Again,] … the soul is most like, and most akin to, intelligible being
Socrates attributes a large variety of mental states (etc.) not to the soul, but to the (animate) body, such as, for instance, beliefs and pleasures (83d), and desires and fears (94d). At the same time, the soul is not narrowly intellectual: it too has desires (81d), even passionate ones (such as the non-philosophical soul’s love [erôs] of the corporeal, 80b), and pleasures as well, such as the pleasures of learning (114e). Moreover, the soul’s functions are, as we have seen already, not restricted to grasping and appreciating truth, but prominently include regulating and controlling the body and its affections
Where Immortal Souls Reside: The argument that sheds most light on what Plato takes the nature of the soul to be is the affinity argument (78b-80b). This argument confronts head-on the widespread worry that the soul, at or soon after death, is destroyed by being dispersed. It begins by distinguishing between two kinds of things: on the one hand, things that are perceptible, composed of parts, and subject to dissolution and destruction; on the other hand, things that are not perceptible, but intelligible (grasped by thought), not composed of parts, and exempt from dissolution and destruction. These two categories are obviously mutually exclusive.
JEWISH theory of soul
Notes taken directly from The Jewish Encyclopedia http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12340-preexistence-of-the-soul
Life Force: There are no direct references in the Bible to the origin of the soul, its nature, and its relation to the body
The Mosaic account of the creation of man speaks of a spirit or breath with which he was endowed by his Creator (Gen. ii. 7); but this spirit was conceived of as inseparably connected, if not wholly identified, with the life-blood (ib. ix. 4; Lev. xvii. 11).
[T]he Alexandrian Jewish school, especially of Philo Judæus,.. sought [in an] allegorical interpretation of Biblical texts the confirmation of his [God’s? Plato’s? not clear from the text] psychological system.
Body/Soul Distinction: Only through the contact of the Jews with Persian and Greek thought did the idea of a disembodied soul, having its own individuality, take root in Judaism and find its expression in the later Biblical books, as, for instance, in the following passages: “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord” (Prov. xx. 27); “There is a spirit in man” (Job xxxii. 8); “The spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Eccl. xii. 7). The soul is called in Biblical literature “ruaḥ,” “nefesh,” and “neshamah.” The first of these terms denotes the spirit in its primitive state; the second, in its association with the body; the third, in its activity while in the body.
In the three terms “ruaḥ,” “nefesh,” and “neshamah” Philo sees the corroboration of the Platonic view that the human soul is tripartite (τριμεής), having one part rational, a second more spiritual, and a third the seat of desire. These parts are distinguished from one another both functionally and by the places occupied by them in the body. The seat of the first is the head; of the second, the chest; and of the third, the abdomen
In rabbinical literature the dualism of body and soul is carried out consistently.. .”The soul of man comes from heaven; his body, from earth”
Immortality of Soul: An explicit statement of the doctrine of the preexistence of the soul is found in the Apocrypha: “All souls are prepared before the foundation of the world” (Slavonic Book of Enoch, xxiii. 5); and according to II Esd. iv. 35 et seq.the number of the righteous who are to come into the world is foreordained from the beginning. All souls are, therefore, preexistent,
Both the rational and the irrational sprang like two scions from one root, and yet are so strongly contrasted in their natures that one is divine, while the other is corruptible.
[The Jewish philosopher ] Saadia devoted the sixth chapter of his “Emunot we-De’ot” to questions concerning the human soul.. According to him, the soul is created by God at the same time as the body. Its substance resembles that of the spheres; but it is of a finer quality.
General Life Force: Maimonides, except in a few instances, closely followed Aristotle with regard to the ontological aspect of the soul. The life of the soul, which is derived from that of the spheres, is represented on earth in three potencies: in vegetable, in animal, and in human life.
The Status of Soul: Philo does not say why the soul is condemned to be imprisoned for a certain time in the body; but it may be assumed that, as in many other points, he shares also in this one the views of Pythagoras and Plato, who believed that the soul undergoes this ordeal in expiation of some sin committed by it in its former state (see Philo Judæus).
Even before entering the body [presumably as the animating life force] , the mind [one aspect of soul] possesses not only rational faculties, but also ascending powers which distinguish the lower orders of creation, the habitual, the organic, the vital, and the perceptive.
As a divine being the soul aspires to be freed from its bodily fetters and to return to the heavenly spheres whence it came.
The Rabbis [tradition, however, holds] that the body is not the prison of the soul, but, on the contrary, its medium of development and improvement. Nor do they hold the Platonic view regarding the preexistence of the soul. For them “each and every soul which shall be from Adam until the end of the world, was formed during the six days of Creation and was in paradise, being present also at the revelation on Sinai. . . . At the time of conception God commandeth the angel who is the prefect of the spirits, saying: ‘Bring Me such a spirit which is in paradise and hath such a name and such a form; for all spirits which are to enter the body exist from the day of the creation of the world until the earth shall pass away.’ . . . The spirit answereth: ‘Lord of the world! I am content with the earth, where I have lived since Thou didst create me.’ . . . God speaketh to the soul, saying: ‘The world into which thou enterest is more beautiful than this; and when I made thee I intended thee only for this drop of seed.'”
The Rabbis question whether the soul descends to earth at the moment of conception or after the embryo has been formed
[NOTE: This is the likely origin of Christian beliefs that human life is sacred from inception, or even before inception, but even in the origin of the concept it was a debated point as to when the soul entered the body, at inception or upon the development (birth) of the formed body.]
Mutability of Human Soul: This belief was rejected by the scholars of the Talmud, who taught that the body is in a state of perfect purity (Ber. 10a; Mek. 43b), and is destined to return pure to its heavenly abode. When God confides the soul to man He says, according to the Haggadah. “The soul I have given thee is pure; if thou givest it back to Me in the same state, it is good for thee; if not, I will burn it before thee” (Eccl. R. xii. 7; with some variations in Niddah 30a).
The soul has control over [the inclination towards good or evil], and, therefore, is responsible for man’s moral conduct.
The descent of the soul into the body is necessitated by the finite nature of the former: it is bound to unite with the body in order to take its part in the universe, to contemplate creation, to become conscious of itself and its origin, and, finally, to return, after having completed its task in life, to the inexhaustible fountain of light and life—God.
Where Immortal Souls Reside: [again, the soul] is destined to return pure to its heavenly abode.. if not, [God] will burn it before thee” (Eccl. R. xii. 7; with some variations in Niddah 30a). [NOTE: The threat here is not that our soul will be consigned to hell, but that it will be destroyed, its immortality terminated.]
The entry of the soul into the embryo (see Golem) is similarly described in a conversation between Judah the patriarch and the emperor Antoninus. The spirits which are to descend to earth are kept in ‘Arabot, the last of the seven heavens, while the souls of the righteous dead are beneath the throne of God. Associated with this belief is the Talmudic saying that the Messiah will not come till all the souls in the”guf” (the super-terrestrial abode of the souls) shall have passed through an earthly existence (‘Ab. Zarah 5a; comp. Gen. R. viii. and Ruth R., Introduction).
[In the Talmud tradition the] soul’s relation to the body is an external one only: when man sleeps the soul ascends to its heavenly abode (Lam. R. iii. 23). There it sometimes receives communications which appear to the sleeper as dreams.
Good and Evil of Soul: A parallel is established between the soul and God. As the world is filled with God, so is the body filled with the soul; as God sees, but cannot be seen, so the soul sees, but is not to be seen; as God is hidden, so also is the soul (Ber. 10a). The Rabbis seem to have considered discernment, reflection, and recollection as faculties of the soul; but they held that the power by which man distinguishes between right and wrong and the inclination to one or to the other are two real essences which God places in the heart of man. These are called “yeẓer Ṭob” (good inclinations) and “yeẓer ha-ra'” (evil propensities).
[The Jewish philosopher ] Saadia devoted the sixth chapter of his “Emunot we-De’ot” to questions concerning the human soul.. According to him, the soul is created by God at the same time as the body. Its substance resembles that of the spheres; but it is of a finer quality.
The Body as Incubator For The Soul: [The Jewish philosopher, Saadia, also postulated that].. like every created thing, the soul needs a medium through which to attain activity; and this medium is the body. Through its union with the body three powers which are latent in it are set in motion: intelligence, passion, and appetite or desire. These powers or faculties are not to be considered as three separate parts of the soul, each having a different seat in the body, but as belonging to the one and indivisible soul, which has its seat in the heart. It is to the advantage of the soul to be united with the body. Without this medium it could not attain paradise and eternal bliss, because these are vouchsafed to it only as a recompense for its obedience to the will of God.
POSTSCRIPT: A review of the history and evolution of human thinking on the concept of “soul” makes it clear, at least to me, that there is enough uncertainty to question the religious doctrine that all abortion is murder. It certainly is not a doctrine on which one should justify murdering healthcare professionals who assist woman wanting an abortion. Yet this is exactly the moral basis that anti-abortion advocates use when trying to extend the existing statues on murder. It clearly is a religious belief for which there is no consensus or certainty among Christians or the population at large. This account may not persuade anyone to change their firmly held beliefs, but it is my hope that it opens up a more fruitful and well considered dialogue.
The Great Abortion Divide – Part I
The Great Abortion Divide – Part II
Religious Dimensions of the Abortion Debate
by Brian T. Lynch
This is purely my opinion, but my understanding of “Free Will” is very narrow compared to most people I talk to about it. I see it as something that emerges gradually along a continuum from actions that are totally coercive to purely rational and independent. It isn’t an all or nothing phenomenon, as some see it. I exclude all impulsive actions taken due to internal urges from my definition since urges aren’t rational and follow from completely different pathways in the brain. Also, actions that spring from emotions may or may not involve free will in my view. It is here that the gradual blossoming of free will is most evident.
When ever we act to satisfy urges or emotions we really cannot distinguish “free will” from the actions taken since acting on a urge feels identical to acting by choice.. That is why people don’t even know they are addicted to something until they discover they can’t simply choose to stop. Addiction in insidious that way. No one can say for sure that they smoke by choice after that first cigarette because even six months later the brain can trigger powerful urges for another cigarette.
The same holds true, by degree, with our emotions. We can’t know for certain if we are acting on free will when we acquiesce to our feelings since emotions can also overpower free will. We even say we are “acting on our emotions” to explain certain behaviors, but it still feels exactly like a choice, even if we can’t help it. So inwardly speaking, we can only no for sure that we are acting on free will when our actions are contrary to both our urges and our feelings. It is only when we place them in check that we can know for sure we are acting on our own free will.
That said, what about free will in circumstances when our only available options for action are proscribed by others, or by circumstances out of our control? If we have no choice but to act, do we have free will? If we have only bad choices, are we exercising free will by making that bad choice? Was Socrates exercising free will when he choose to drink hemlock rather than face a public execution? It so, and I believe he was exercising free will, then a limited form of free will must exist even under extreme forms of coercion.
How we define “free will” has enormous social and political implications because it thereby defines how responsible individuals are for their actions. It is here we see the continuum of emerging free will run its course. Some folks believe everyone is 100% responsible for their actions. They might then blame the poor for being poor, or the sick for being sick (live style choices) and would probably not accept an insanity defense for crimes committed by the insane. Speaking of justice, we see the role “free will” plays in our action played being calculated in criminal sentencing hearings when mitigating and aggravating circumstances are used to determine appropriate punishment. We punish people for criminal intent but not acquit them, or lighten their punishment if they were not in control of their actions.
These are just examples. In fact, we use these sort of calculations everyday with each other or our children in judging their actions and in modulating our responses. So the idea that free will is an all or nothing phenomenon just isn’t born out in our every day experience.
Anyway, here is an interesting article on the subject.
It has become fashionable to say that people have no free will. Many scientists cannot imagine how the idea of free will could be reconciled with the laws of physics and chemistry. Brain researchers say that the brain is just a bunch of nerve cells…
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
What I really want to write about are the practical implications of a new theory of human intelligences, but this will have to wait. The problem is that emerging knowledge about the workings of our cerebral cortex has not yet been widely shared. It hasn’t caught the attention of the popular press. Whenever I start to make some connection between an experience and how it relates to how our brain functions, I have to backtrack and offer an explanation of the new theory. Whatever point I was trying to make gets lost and my friends grow impatient.
What’s needed are brief summaries explaining aspects of how intelligence works. The summaries need to be clear enough to spark interest and promote more understanding. I know I am hungry for this kind of knowledge. Understanding the brain is truly the last frontier of science. Our mind, with its trillions of neural connections, is the deepest mystery in the universe. Everything we know of the world outside ourselves is contained in this single organ. The research that I will try to summarize here relates only to human intelligence and not to other functions of the brain. It doesn’t specifically relate to the mysteries of self-awareness or personality. And yet, understanding the workings of this thin, convoluted layer of cerebral cortex covering our more primitive brain is essential to solving the bigger mysteries of who we are.
Our Intelligent Brain
So, how does our intelligent brain work? There are some good and important books on the subject. The one I rely on here is called “On Intelligence”, by Jeff Hawking’s and Sandra Blakeslee. It is lay account of a theory on intelligence, but beware, some of its chapters are a bit technical.
Here is just one aspect of how the cerebral cortex works that I found interesting. Our intelligent brain is constantly detecting and anticipating patterns. The cortex is a pattern maker. It organizes sensory and worldly experience into patterns at every level of detail from the smallest sensory inputs to the biggest concepts of how the world works. It integrates these patterns into ever larger concepts or images until, at the highest levels, our brain creates an enduring image of the world around us. This image of the world, while enduring, is also malleable and responsive to new insights and information. Importantly, our intelligent brain is constantly predicting what to expect next from our sensory field.
Our brain anticipates everything that we see, feel, hear, taste or smell. It expects that similar circumstances will produce the same or similar sensory experiences. The strength of these expectations grows stronger the more they are reinforced by past experiences. Our brains also have a higher expectation of seeing certain patterns when these patterns are well integrated into the bigger picture of the world created in our brains. So strong are these patterns that even when we only see portions of them our brain recognizes the whole. For example, if we only see the eye and nose of a friend in a picture we recognize that person as our friend. If we see three dots on a page we might recognize that they form a triangle without seeing any lines between the dots. Seeing part of an image is enough for our brains to know what the whole pattern or image looks like.
The Intelligent Sub-Conscious
What’s remarkable about brain pattern recognition is that most of it happens at the subconscious level. Here is a little experiment to demonstrate what I mean. Place your hand on a wooden door near you and then grabbed the doorknob. Nothing about this experience surprises you, right? It’s just an everyday experience. And until I mention that the metal doorknob feels cooler than the door, you may not have noticed. That’s because your brain expected that pattern. Your brain knows metal feels cooler than wood every time you touch them in a room. You might even know the scientific reason for this is that wood and metal have different rates of conduction. Your brain expected these to items to feel different, so there was no need to alert your conscious brain. If the doorknob had felt warmer or soft your brain would have alerted your conscious mind immediately.
During every waking moment our senses are continuously bombarded with stimuli. What we see, or hear is constantly changing and billions of impulses reach our brain every instant. If our intelligent brain had to analyze every electro-chemical pulse it would be overwhelmed with data. Instead, our brain only has to recognize challenges to the familiar patterns stored within our cortex. Computers, on the other hand, have to process every byte of informational every time it is presented or else it freeze.
How Our Cortex is Structured
At every scale of human experience, our brain expects certain patterns to emerge from our sensory field. To accomplish this our cortex is made up of seven distinct layers on a horizontal axis and billions of distinct, hierarchical columns on the vertical axis. Additionally, each vertical column is connected to other vertical columns by a neural network, and information super highway system. The seven levels of each neural column is also connected to each other by neural pathways. This makes our cortex massively interconnected.
The first, or bottom layer of cortex only recognizes the electro-chemical patterns that come directly from the sense organs. The complexity of recognizable patterns grows with each ascending layer of cortex. For example, on the lowest level of the visual cortex area only specific geometric patterns will be recognized by particular columns. Combining this low level information from many nearby columns might cause the next level of cortex to recognize that these lower level patterns represent a human nose. At a subsequently higher layer of cortex the patterns represented by that nose and maybe an eye or other facial features recognized by still other columns might confirm that these patterns belong to the face of a friend. And so it goes until at the highest cortical levels our brain creates an enduring mental representation of the person we are visiting with, the room in which we are standing and all of the surroundings around us.
Another feature of our cerebral cortex is that it has more neural feedback connections then uptake, or feedforward connections. That means there are more neural connections from higher layers of the cortex to the lower layers of the cortex. This structure enables the higher levels of the cortex to tell lower levels what patterns they should expect to emerge from the sensory field. When columns in the lower cortex see an anticipated patterns, they signal back that they are satisfied. But when the lower levels of the cortex see something unexpected, they pass this additional information up the line to the next higher level. If that level of the cortex can’t resolve the pattern conflict, it passes these signals on to the next higher level, and so on, until some higher level of the cortex can make sense of the information. Most of these pattern conflicts are resolved subconsciously, but occasionally they pop into our highest executive level, which is our conscious mind. Our attention will suddenly focus on this unexpected thing that has disrupted our stream of conscious thoughts.
Intelligence and Consciousmess
As we move through the day our brain alerts our conscious self to only those things which need our attention. For example, we might slip on an old pair of shoes and walk around without thinking much about how they feel, but if a pebble suddenly gets caught in our shoe we become aware of the new sensation. (“Excuse me, self, but a pebble may have entered your shoe.”) If we put on a new pair of shoes we notice how differently they feel until we get use to them. If they don’t fit correctly we are annoyingly aware of them until we take them off. But for the most part we are not conscious of the millions of patterns, large or small, that our intelligent brain processes every day. Most of our intelligence activity is at work in our subconscious mind.
This ability to expect and process normal pattern activity without having to attend to everything we see or hear allows our brain to focus attention on the rapidly changing information that is most important to our survival. It allows us to listen and process what someone is saying while ignoring a passing car. It allows us to assess traffic movements at an intersection without being distracted by the radio. This is important because our capacity for consciousness is a limited resource. Our intelligent brain must conserve this executive function and use it for only the most salient and important aspects of our sensory field.
Introspection and Intentionality
But we are also able to focus attention on patterns of thought or behavior that are not otherwise calling for our conscious attention. We can introspectively direct our focus to examine the patterns and associations stored in our cortex. We are not a passive audience to our senses. We have a conscious mind with which we can look inwardly to examine our intelligent brain. We can learn things about how the real world is structured from the patterns created in our cortex. We can also rearrange or re-associate these patterns when we find errors in the way they have formed (cognitive therapy being one dramatic example). We can perceive gaps in our knowledge of things and direct our own behavior to gather more information.
Implications for Conscous Thoughts
Our brain forms patterns from sensory input whether we are aware of it or not. This leads me to one of the major implications that I would like to discuss further in a future post. Our intelligent brain is forming patterns and associations based on what we may be seeing or hearing even when we aren’t paying conscious attention. We know that repetition strengthens patterns and associations.
Advertisers and marketers know this as well. They choose words and images to invoke associations most favorable to their purposes and use repetition to reinforce and strengthen those associations within our cerebral cortex. The marketing of ideas and products is effective even when we aren’t paying conscious attention to the ads. Think about that the next time you are wandering around a supermarket. Think about it in connection with our political campaigns and the public dialogue we watch on TV or listen to on the radio.
When we commonly think about intelligence we usually limit our discussion to our conscious problem solving ability. We usually don’t consider that most of our brains intelligent activity happens at the subconscious level. We are not aware of the extent to which false patterns of information can subconsciously form to subsequently influence our conscious choices and opinions. In a future posting I hope to expand on this topic. I believe we can inoculate ourselves against propaganda and false advertising, but only if we have a better understanding of how our intelligent brain operates.
By Brian Lynch, MSW
During most of human history divine creation was the only paradigm for understanding our place in the universe. It was the grand context, the social ocean in which we lived out our lives. Human beings were divinely created in a special way that set us apart from the rest of God’s creatures. We were born, we lived and died in God’s world. There were no alternative perspectives. Our frame of reference, world view and the society in which we lived were profoundly influence by this inescapable constant. There were always questions and great disputes about nature, especially with the rise of science, but nobody seriously doubted our divine creation. Religion, and therefore religious leaders, held sway over every aspect of our social and intellectual development… that is until one reluctant scientist came to see that human beings arrived here by natural evolution and not a single act of divine creation. Charles Darwin glimpsed the profound impact his discovery would have on the world. He knew there would be unintended consequences and a contemporary backlash that would make his life difficult. He waited as long as possible before publishing “On the Origin of Species.”
At that moment a new paradigm for human understanding became inevitable. It spawned a natural view of creation and the universe that would successfully compete with mystical beliefs in a god-centered universe. It eventually opened up a vast new social space that could be occupied by those seeking an alternative to a religious view. Today we call this vast social space a secular society, but nothing like it ever existed before. It was (and can still be) liberating and wide open with possibilities that were unimaginable under the divine paradigm. It was a space where science and technology thrived. A new sense of objectivity was a direct outcome. Ethics and morality could be studied from perspectives that were independent from specific religious texts. New philosophies sprung up and took root. It allowed us to create secular institutions of learning, medicine and other scholarly disciplines . We created secular governments, secular economies, secular business corporations and all manner of social organizations not immediately related to religion. It allowed for the creation of truly pluralistic societies and more religious tolerance than the world had ever known. But it also challenged and diminished the power of religions across the globe.
The secular paradigm that has emerged is not antithetical to God or a rejection of religion or spirituality. It is just a social framework. It is a religion neutral space where individuals are free to explore spirituality, question their beliefs or challenge tenants of their faith traditions without fear of social reprisals. It also allows citizens to accept or reject a creator god. In these ways it undermines priestly traditions and the central authority of many world religions. Religious fundamentalists who view the world as either good or evil are prone to see secularism as evil.
It is almost unimaginable today to conceive of a world without a secular alternative to a totally faith based society, especially when the fault lines separating the secular and religious worlds are still so active. In my view, the growing religious fundamentalist movements around the globe are just the most recent reactions to the declining power of organized religions to effect social change. Among Christian fundamentalists, at least, Darwin’s theory of evolution still remains at the epicenter of competing beliefs, especially with respect to the belief systems to which children are exposed. So much of the polarity and apparent disconnect found in our current politics derives from these underlying tensions between the religious and the secular. In fact, many of the global conflicts today share these same roots. The denial of climate change and the mistrust of science by conservative or fundamentalist constituents are a further manifestation of this divide.
The 19th Century saw the rise of civil secularism and the 20th Century was its flowering period. Secular societies refer to themselves as the “modern world.” They are associated with the rise of free markets, powerful business corporations and the technological revolution that has transformed every aspect of modern life. The global rise of religious fundamentalism is a rejection of modernity and secularism. It is easy to see this play out in the Middle-East where Muslim fundamentalist have resorted to violence in efforts to regain control over their people and establish Shari law. Islamist groups openly reject modernity and refer to the United State, that great exporter of secular culture, as “the Great Satin.”
Here at home these same underlying tensions are hidden in plain view because our fundamentists happen to share America’s dominant religion. The rise of politically active religious conservatism should also be seen as a rejection of modernity and secularism, just as it is in the Arib world. In many Christian communities there is strong peer pressure for Christians to conform to social norms that most resemble 18th Century America. There is also a strong distrust of secular media, secular science and especially secular government. Christian fundamentalist often view the government as corrupt because it is non-thestic and therefore evil. Secular society is evil because individuals are free to reject God’s authority. They seek to change that and establish the centrality of God in government and all aspect of American life. A theocracy would not be out of the question for them. Theirs is a direct assualt on our constitutional government as it was originally intended. Out of “Christian love” the majority of American’s continue to tolerate the increasingly intolarent Christian Right.
Ironically, most Christian fundamentalists have no problem embracing godless corporations and the free market economy. Secular society has allowed capitalism to slip the bonds of religious morality. This launched a corporate movement that is currently challenging and overpowering civil control of government. Part of the reason for its success is this alliance with the Christian right. The dynamics between secular society, fundamentalist religious society and the corporate, free market elite account for most of the forces driving today’s social changes. The current government shutdown might signal the first crack in the corporate/fundamentalist alliance.
This conceptual outline of underlying social forces has helped me make sense of current events and today’s social movements. I find myself returning to these themes whenever I need to place new developments into context. I hope that other readers might find this framework as useful.
Here is information about a study on how exercise bio-chemically improves our physical health. This article caused me to jumped on my Treadmill and subsequently join a gym. From a bio-chemical perspective it seems that a little physical exercize initates a cellular process analogous to recycling the trash that builds up in our cell bodies.
Just why exercise is so good for people is, at last, being understood
Jan 21st 2012 | from the print edition
Changing brains: why neuroscience is ending the Prozac era
The big money has moved from developing psychiatric drugs to manipulating our brain networks
Daniel Lieberman: ‘Dieting is a disaster for everyone’
The big one is obesity. We evolved to put on fat wherever necessary, and that was a good thing in human history. Most people until recently had to work hard and they lived just at the margin of energy balance, and a little bit more energy stored in fat meant that you could have more babies, and your babies were more likely to survive. That was pretty powerful stuff, right? Now we’re in this bizarre situation that for the first time in billions of years of evolution we have an organism that is not energy limited any more.
The final point is that our instinct when we are sick is to try to treat each other – which is right and proper. But when we have a mismatch disease caused by this poor fit between our bodies and our environments we treat the symptoms only. On the one hand people are living longer and are healthier than probably ever in human history, but also suffering in new ways that are draining the economy. The US is the worst example but the UK isn’t far behind, in terms of how much you are spending in treating chronic non-infectious diseases that are preventable. We can prevent heart disease, we can prevent flat feet and myopia, but we can only do so if we consider our evolution.
The big one is obesity. We evolved to put on fat wherever necessary, and that was a good thing in human history. [snip] Dieting really is a disaster for everybody, it takes superhuman effort to lose weight, it can be done but it isn’t easy. And that’s because we’re evolved not only to gain weight but to hold onto it. So if that overweight person starts dieting that’s just as hard as if an underweight person starts dieting, you go into a negative energy balance and all kinds of mechanisms kick in that cause us to become less active, to reshuffle energy around our bodies to defeat that effort to lose weight. So of course obesity is our number one problem.[Stop]