The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
Presented April 17, 2011, by Paul Miller
Listen to a recording of "Me and My Monkey: Hairbrained thoughts on
the synergy between body and soul."
33:26 minutes - 13.4 MB - Me and My Monkey: Hairbrained thoughts on the synergy between body and soul. .mp3 file.
"I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as superstition . . . We have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world."
The ego and the unconscious can be likened to a farmer and his dog. The dog, like the ego, is far more acutely aware of his immediate surroundings than the farmer. His physical senses are much sharper, and he is primarily absorbed in what those senses have to tell him. The farmer, on the other hand, has sources of information which arre incomprehensible to the dog. He knows that more sheep will be arriving tomorrow because he has arranged it by telephone. He knows that his neighbor has put up an electric fence, which the dog has to learn about by painful experience. He knows that the dog must have an injection because the vet has warned him that there is parvovirus in the area. He knows that his sheep must be moved off a particular piece of rough grazing because work is due to start there on a new bypass. All these things affect the orders he must give the dog, and some of those orders may puzzle the dog, because the data on which they are based are outside his awareness capacity. The farmer knows friends from enemies; but all the dog can do is bark at strangers until the farmer has categorized them for him . . .
. . . Similarly, the unconscious has sources of information of which the ego knows nothing. And the sooner the ego realizes this, and co-operates with that which it cannot directly apprehend, the better the team (which is the total psyche) will work.
"In spite of their medical team doing everything they could, I had a severe allergic reaction to a medication during the operation. This allergic reaction was so severe that my heart stopped.
"Immediately after my heart stopped, I found myself at ceiling level. I could see the EKG machine I was hooked to. The EKG was flat lined. The doctors and nurses were frantically trying to bring me back to life. The scene below me was a near panic situation. In contrast to the chaos below, I felt a profound sense of peace. I was completely free of any pain. My consciousness drifted out of the operating room and moved into a nursing station. I immediately recognized that this was the nursing station on the floor where I had been prior to my surgery. From my vantage point near the ceiling, I saw the nurses bustling about performing their daily duties.
"After I watched the nurses a while, a tunnel opened up. I was drawn into the tunnel. I then passed through the tunnel, and became aware of a bright light at the end of the tunnel. I felt peaceful. After I passed through the tunnel, I found myself in an area of beautiful, mystical light. In front of me were several of my beloved relatives who had previously died. It was a joyous reunion, and we embraced.
"I found myself with a mystical being of overwhelming love and compassion. 'Do you want to go back?' I was asked. I responded 'I don't know.' Which was just like my old indecisive self at the time. After further discussion I knew the choice to return to my physical body was mine. It was a most difficult decision. I was in a realm of overwhelming lover. In this realm I knew I was truly home. Finally, I returned to my body.
"I awoke in the ICU over a day later. I had tubes and wires all over me. I could not talk about my profound experience. Later I returned to the floor of the hospital where I had been before surgery. Here was the nursing station I visited during my NDE. I finally worked up the courage to share what I saw during my NDE with one of the nurses. The nurse responded with a look of shock and fright. This was a catholic hospital. Not surprisingly, a nun was sent to talk with me. I patiently explained all that I had experienced. The nun listened carefully, and then declared my experience to be "the work of the devil". You can understand my enormous reluctance to share my NDE with anyone after this."
"An electron, from nowhere, pops through a proteolipid membrane, and a microscopic packet of chemical soup spills into a crevice between two neurons. A neural impulse lurches forward, into the labyrinthine recesses of the brain's tangled net of fibers, quickened with each electrochemical impulse that moves it along. A maze of chemical reactions, pneumatic bellows, and hydraulic pipes and pumps assembled into one splendid creature . . . "
In Sunday school I learned that God made us and gave us a soul. After our bodies die, our soul lives forever in Heaven. We know this is true because we have faith. By the time I reached adolescence, this faith thing didn't cut it anymore. I was already becoming Unitarian. Where is the evidence? Do we really have a soul? What is it? Where is it? What is it for? What happens to it?
Our physical bodies and brains, incredibly elegant and complex, can be explained by science. But what is it that makes us alive? How is it that we are self-aware, when the fizzy glop in a reaction flask is not? Am I just the over-dressed, tail-less monkey you see at the podium, or am I the spirit that inhabits this monkey? Am I both, a composite of me and my monkey?
The Sunday school model is well known to us all. Somewhere in Heaven is a cosmic gumball machine full of souls. When you were a tiny baby in your mommy's tummy, God turned the crank, and your soul rolled down the chute and landed plop inside you, where it will stay until it floats back up to Heaven after your body dies.
Hindus, most Pagans, and Tibetan Buddhists have a more sustainable model in which the souls are recycled. Your soul incarnates into a physical body. After physical death, the soul goes to what Neopagans call the Summerlands; not exactly Heaven. More like a heavenly halfway house, where the soul processes what it learned in the last life. Then the soul goes back down the chute to its next incarnation, where it continues learning and hopefully fixes the mistakes it made in previous incarnations. After many reincarnations, the soul is ready for the next destination; maybe the same place as Christian Heaven, or Buddhist Nirvana.
How can we know if any of this is true? I want to talk about the scientific evidence for the existence of a soul, and then about how the soul is scientifically possible.
Attempts have been made to detect the soul instrumentally. In 1901, the physician Duncan Macdougall set out to weigh the human soul. If the soul is a real thing, he reasoned, surely it must have weight. If a weight loss can be detected at the moment when the soul leaves the body, that must be the weight of the soul. The ideal subjects for his study were tuberculosis patients, who tend to expire quietly without the gasping and thrashing about that would upset his instruments.
A terminal patient at the Consumptives' Home in Dorchester, Mass. was placed on a cot on a large, sensitive textile scale. At the precise moment of death, as determined by the attending physicians, the scale registered a loss of ¾ ounce. So now we know that the human soul weighs .75 ounce, or 21 grams.
Five attempts to repeat the experiment with other terminal TB patients produced inconsistent and anomalous results, so the weight of a soul is still undetermined.
Similar experiments with non-human subjects, from mice to sheep and goats have yielded no meaningful information.
More recently, Professor Gerry Nahum, of Duke University School of Medicine, designed a more elaborate experiment involving a box for the soon to depart subject, fitted with an array of instruments to detect weight loss, and various emissions, and radiation. He has had a hard time getting funding, so the experiment is still on the drawing board. One might think that the Catholic Church would be eager for scientific proof of the soul, but when approached, the Vatican said unequivocally no and hell no. I'm paraphrasing, of course.
More credible evidence comes from what I would call ghost stories. Many people claim to have gotten messages from dead people. Sometimes the message contains verifiable information that the recipient could not have known before. Some people have recollections of past lives, and sometimes these recollections can be verified. These reports are sometimes very compelling, but entirely anecdotal. I am not aware of any scientifically conclusive study verifying these ghost stories. Yes, I do believe in ghosts, because there is evidence for their existence, but this evidence falls short of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
The best evidence for a soul and an afterlife, I think, comes from near death experiences: NDE's for short. In a previous sermon, I talked about NDE's as evidence for the afterlife. Since then, more extensive research has been done. The oncologist Dr. Jeffrey Long established the Near Death Experience Research Foundation : "NDERF" . The website www.nderf.org is worth a visit. Through previous studies by other researchers, and the website, which lets people report their own NDE's, Dr. Long has collected and reviewed thousands of NDE reports. The results of this extensive study were similar to other studies, but more convincing due to the large sample size and rigorous, skeptical analysis of the data.
No two NDE's are exactly alike, but they are likely to include one or more of 12 elements:
So we have convincing scientific evidence for a soul associated with our physical brain, which can function outside the brain when the brain stops functioning. This seems perfectly reasonable or even obvious to the theologian, but maybe not to the scientist. Everything I was taught in science class explains our physiological and mental functions with physics and chemistry. Who needs a soul? How could a scientist be anything but an atheist? How can our knowledge of scientific laws allow for the possibility of a soul?
For the answer, we shall have to turn to quantum physics. I'm sorry if I dwell too much on quantum physics. I fear you may be as tired of quantum physics as I am of German Philosophers, so let's talk about purple peppers instead. I have talked about purple peppers before, and if you were here for that sermon, you can guess where I am going.
My wife, Samantha, is a horticulturist. She is known for, among other things, growing particularly potent, piquant, and pungent petite purple peppers. Now suppose I have a truckload of Sam's petite purple peppers here, and I throw them, one at a time towards the center of the church sanctuary. Pretty soon we will have a pile of purple peppers there between the pews.
Now, suppose I go to Home Depot and get some 2x4's and wall board, and I build a wall with 2 windows between the pulpit and sanctuary. Now, if I throw peppers at the wall, some will go through the right window, and some through the left window, and we will get 2 piles of petite purple peppers. No surprise there.
Now, suppose I call the Possum Lodge in Canada, and I get Red Green to come down with plenty of duct tape, and we tape all the gaps and cracks real good so we can fill the church with water halfway up the windows in my wall. Now if Carol turns on the organ blower to generate waves on the water, the waves will go through both windows. We will get 2 sets of waves on the other side of the wall. The waves will interact with each other, causing an interference pattern on the water. You can try this at home by dropping 2 bars of soap into a bathtub.
Just remember that if I throw purple peppers through the windows, I get two pepper piles. The peppers do not interfere with each other because peppers are particles, not waves. A pepper can go through one window or the other, but not both. If I send waves through the windows, each wave goes through both windows, and we see an interference pattern on the other side.
Now, if we do the experiment on a very small scale, it becomes more interesting. If we take an electron gun, like from an old television picture tube, we can shoot electrons at a plate with 2 holes in it. We can detect the electrons position with a phosphorescent screen where each electron makes a light blip where it hits the screen. Electrons are particles, like purple peppers, so we should see 2 bright spots on the screen, one behind each hole.
So let's turn on the electron gun and shoot one electron at a time at the plate with two holes. Sure enough, blips appear on the screen, one at a time, as individual electrons go through the holes. We conclude that some electrons have gone through one hole, and some went through the other. But after a few million electrons have gone through, the light spots have formed an interference pattern. It appears that each electron goes through both holes at once, like a wave, interferes with itself, and when it hits the screen it becomes a particle, like a purple pepper, with a definite location. Weirder yet, if we put a sensor at one of the holes, so we know which hole the electron goes through, the interference pattern disappears. A small particle, like an electron, can be many places at once, like a wave, until you look to see where it is. Then it settles down into a specific position like a well behaved particle should.
This peculiar property of small particles to be smeared all over space until you look to see where it is, allows for the phenomenon of electron tunneling. Tunneling is when an electron appears where it shouldn't be. If I was as small as an electron, I could simultaneously pass through all the doors and windows of this church, and re-materialize outside. I would be nowhere in particular until you look for me. When you look, I might appear on Hampshire Street, or on 16th Street, or possibly in St. Louis or Timbuktu.
What does electron tunneling have to do with the soul? Bear with me, we'll get there, but first I have to talk about neurology.
Your consciousness and will are working in a grapefruit-size wad of neurons between your ears. Your brain consists of billions of neurons that do everything from regulating your heart rate to pondering the purpose of life. The human brain has data processing capability far beyond any modern supercomputer. The main action in the thought process happens in the synapses; the connection between one neuron and the next. Each neuron interacts through synapses with many other neurons. The thoughts in your mind involve signals traveling between billions of neurons across trillions of synapses.
The way signals cross synapses is a complex process involving sodium, potassium, calcium and chlorine ions, and large molecules called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are held in little pockets in the neuron called vesicles. When a signal passes from one neuron to another, a vesicle squirts neurotransmitter molecules into the synapse, where they interact with the membrane on the next neuron, allowing positive ions to flow through, thus transmitting an electrical signal. That's how thoughts move through your brain. It's all very complicated, but elegant and effective, and explainable by ordinary physics and chemistry.
So, one might argue that our thoughts and our consciousness is just a pattern of electrochemical reactions. There is no free will. Even our thoughts are determined by chemistry, and we have no control over them. No purpose, no merit, no blame, no soul.
You have probably guessed that I would beg to differ with that determinist view. How can free will, consciousness, and the soul fit in this physical mechanism?
For the answer, let us return to our friend, the electron; that capricious little particle that behaves like a wave when nobody is looking, like a hyperactive child, tunneling through space, and appearing in places it doesn't belong. Remember that a synapse fires when a vesicle in one neuron releases neurotransmitter molecules into the synapse. The release of neurotransmitter is triggered by electrons interacting with calcium ions at the vesicle.
An electron can, in theory, tunnel through any distance and appear anywhere in the universe, but the probability that it will travel very far is negligible. When electron tunneling occurs, the electron virtually never re-appears very far from home. The Physicist, Evan Harris Walker calculated that the probability of an electron tunneling across the width of a synapse (180 angstroms) in the time it takes a neuron to fire ( 1 millisecond) is about 50%. The microscopic geometry of your brain is exactly right for electron tunneling to have a significant influence on the physiological thought process. Whether an electron will appear on one side of the synapse or on the other can not be predicted. The electron's position is only a probability until the conscious observer looks for it. Walker proposes that it is your consciousness (I would say your soul) that chooses whether the electron tunnels across the synapse and triggers the vesicle to release neurotransmitter. A body without a soul is just a chemical reaction vessel. The soul determines what neurons fire when, thus generating our thoughts. Brain is hardware. Soul is the operator at the keyboard; the ghost in the machine.
"There were mutterings in some quarters that Walker was smuggling pantheism into physics disguised as quantum psychology, but many younger physicists - especially the acid heads -- accepted the Walker solution."
-Robert Anton Wilson, Schrodinger's Cat
I am not a physicist, but you may count me among the acid heads.
Conservative Christians believe that only humans have souls. No dogs go to heaven, they say. All animals operate primarily on instinct. Biologist Edward O. Wilson says ants operate entirely on instinct, and he should know. Nobody knows more about ants than he. There is no conscious thought controlling their complex instinctive behavior. Humans, with the most advanced brains on Earth, operate on a combination of instinct and conscious thought. If Harris Walker is right, the human soul regulates the human brain. This interaction between body and soul occurs in brain synapses through the strange quantum physical phenomenon of electron tunneling.
You and I are symbiotic beings, consisting of an over-dressed tail-less monkey, and a soul. Am I my soul, or am I my monkey? I believe I am both.
Last year I talked about whether humans are good or evil, and I spent half an hour explaining that I could not answer the question. If we are a composite of an animal and a soul, I propose that it is our animal instincts that cause us to perpetrate evil. The soul has little incentive for theft, violence, and other mischief. This is pure speculation, but perhaps the soul is good. When my monkey misbehaves, perhaps it is because my good soul fails to control my nepharious animal instincts. Some of those capricious tunneling electrons got away from me. Perhaps the best of us have strong, attentive souls controlling their monkey's thoughts, or maybe they are ordinary souls inhabiting wimpy, easily manipulated monkeys. It is tempting to speculate that really mean people don't even have souls. With 6 billion human monkeys on Earth, maybe there aren't enough souls to go around.
Dr. Long, the NDE researcher, suggested that the brain is like a radio receiver, and the soul is like a transmitter. When a person goes crazy, due for example to brain trauma, or from over-exposure to German philosophers; the soul, the transmitter may be working perfectly, but the brain, the receiver is going haywire. A broken radio sounds bad even when the broadcast signal is loud and clear.
Boiling down all this mumbo-jumbo to a tweetable twitterbit:
Extensive study of near death experiences tells us that our consciousness can function apart from our physical bodies, and it continues after physical death.
The brain thinks with electrical signals crossing synapses between brain cells. Electron tunneling affects these signals, and electron tunneling is affected by the conscious observer. This is an unproven but scientifically plausible means for body and soul to work together.
Thus, we have evidence for a soul and a scientific explanation for how it might work. It fits the Christian model of ensoulment and afterlife, and it also fits the Pagan model of reincarnation. Take your pick.
Is this news we can use? Having a soul implies to me that my life has a purpose; a purpose that extends beyond this life. A sense of purpose is essential to a fulfilling life. Many people live their lives of quiet desperation in fear of death. Scientific evidence of the afterlife helps me to live life to the fullest without fear. Perhaps I will miss my monkey when it dies, but I am looking forward to a new adventure.
Lastly, if we are good souls living inside mean monkeys, maybe there is hope for humanity, if not in this life, then maybe in the next.
When we die, we shall slough off this cheap intellect, perhaps, and go abroad into Dreamland clothed in our real selves, and aggrandized and enriched by the command over the mysterious mental magician who is here not our slave, but only our guest.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.