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Brain chemistry and the fate of the personality after death

Comment on the paper by Keith Augustine: The Scientific Case for Extinction of the Personality at Death

by , 2004

Mr Augustine (hereafter KA) is a philosopher, with no science training, who had not finished his undergraduate philosophy course when he wrote this paper. Not surprisingly, it was eagerly published by various antitheist publications.

As a medical man of some 20 years training and experience, the ‘scientific findings’ put forward by KA were, of course, routine knowledge. A large number of medical men have known about such facts for many years, as have a large number of thoughtful laypersons.

Indeed, a passing reflection on such matters as raised in KA’s first quote by Hume (the growth and decline of the ‘mind’ in infancy and age) as well as on such commonplace things as alcohol intoxication, is enough for any reasoning person to conclude that the material components of the brain are intimately tied up with consciousness. If they are damaged, consciousness can be affected in proportion. Let us call this the ‘obvious observation’ or OO for short.

The whole thrust of KA’s paper (and the well known atheist Corliss Lamont, whom he repeatedly quotes) seems to be that all one has to do is to accept the self-evident truth of this proposition, and one is forced to the inevitable conclusion that one’s persona cannot in any way survive death of the physical body. I shall call this the ‘extinction conclusion’, abbreviated to EC.

It is an easily documented fact that substantial numbers of medical men such as myself believe that their persona will in some self-conscious fashion survive death (the ‘survival belief’ or SB for short), in spite of being perfectly aware of OO. The majority of the ones I know are Christians, convinced that they will in some way be in a personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe in a future eternity. There would appear to be only two conclusions, either:

  1. All such intelligent holders of SB are in reality hopelessly self-deluded, or worse, or
  2. It does not follow as a matter of logic that ‘OO, therefore of necessity EC’.

Not surprisingly, I will defend proposition b. I will do so without resort to the ‘instrument hypothesis’, discussed by Lamont in the KA paper. I will not claim that OO points to SB, merely that SB is not inconsistent with OO (nor with EB, of course).

The conscious mind: evolutionary difficulties

There are still many mysteries surrounding brain function, including the still elusive nature of consciousness. This is documented in the article ‘The Origin of Consciousness’ Part 1 and Part 2 (off-site). One of the most recent advocates of a materialistic (like KA’s) approach, the rabid atheist Daniel Dennett, wrote a book called Consciousness Explained, but even fellow evolutionists have called it Consciousness Ignored. In fact, many evolutionary experts in the area admit that consciousness is a huge mystery for evolutionary theory. E.g. Richard Gregory, evolutionist and professor of neuropsychology and director of the brain and perception laboratory at the University of Bristol in England, explained the dilemma in the book Consciousness (1977, pp. 276–7):

If the brain was developed by Natural Selection, we might well suppose that consciousness has survival value. But for this it must, surely, have causal effects. But what effects could awareness, or consciousness, have?
Why, then, do we need consciousness? What does consciousness have that the neural signals (and physical brain activity) do not have? Here there is something of a paradox, for if the awareness of consciousness does not have any effect—if consciousness is not a causal agent—then it seems useless, and so should not have developed by evolutionary pressure. If, on the other hand, it is useful, it must be a causal agent: but then physiological description in terms of neural activity cannot be complete. Worse, we are on this alternative stuck with mentalistic explanations, which seem outside science.

So it is incongruous for KA to proclaim that there is a scientific case for extinction of consciousness when he can’t even explain what it is or how it arose.

There is also a self-refuting aspect: the materialists teach that our consciousness is really an effect of our brain responding to external stimuli via the laws of chemistry. But this belief itself is merely the result of neural chemistry. Therefore people like KA, according to their own belief system, did not freely reason out their belief according to the evidence. Rather, they believed their theory because they couldn’t help it—it was predetermined by brain chemistry. But then, why should their neurons be trusted over mine? They both obey the same laws of chemistry.

KA’s paper can be said to give a slightly misleading impression in that the unsuspecting reader could assume that knowledge of such things as how memory forms, for example, is further advanced than it is. The Nobel-Prize–winning neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles totally disagrees with the materialism advocated by Lamont and KA, and argues that the mind is in charge of the brain.

In reality, those who assert that consciousness is just an epiphenomenon of the brain do so because of their materialistic philosophy that clouds the interpretation of the evidence. For example, Dennett admits that he can’t disprove the existence of a mind distinct from the brain, but asserts that such a view ‘is fundamentally unscientific’ and ‘is to be avoided at all costs’. This is diametrically opposed to KA’s claim that materialism is a deduction from the evidence; in reality, materialism is an assumption before they even consider the evidence.

Let us assume—without necessarily conceding, but for the sake of the argument—that the following points, which are suggested by the evidence in the KA paper, have been demonstrated without doubt (and it is not suggested that they are necessarily unreasonable; some aspects may even appear to be self-evident).

Assumptions:

  1. An individual’s consciousness and personality, in the normal sense of the word, do not exist prior to that individual’s conception.
  2. Throughout life, they are inexorably dependent on the material substrate of the brain, similar to the way in which software and hardware interact in a computer. Thus, while the ‘hardware’ is not fully developed, in infancy or in the embryonic condition, neither is the personality. Interaction with the environment, say during childhood, is analogous to the writing of software, thus the personality develops only as the software develops, which in turn resides in and ‘rides on’ the ‘hardware’ of the physical brain.
  3. If the physical brain is sufficiently damaged, e.g. by way of injury, aging or disease, the physical order within the ‘software’ patterns which have previously been responsible for the expression of the personality and the experience of consciousness are also inevitably disrupted. At death whatever physical parameters were responsible for the software patterns are destroyed.

In short, the ‘computer model’ of brain function is assumed and it is assumed (allegorically) that when the computer and its hard disk are smashed, the magnetic patterns on the hard disk carrying the information (the ‘software’) are disrupted.

Given these assumptions for the brain, does the EC inexorably follow? Definitely not. To illustrate this, I will give philosophically valid scenarios in which OO is utterly consistent with SB being true.

In both of these scenarios, I am assuming the prior existence of an infinitely powerful Creator God as set out in the Christian Bible, beginning with the foundational statements in Genesis. KA may counter with an evolutionary objection to Genesis creation, but that is another matter; what we are discussing is whether the evidence cited forces the conclusions which KA claims it does.

It is not being claimed that the scenarios are necessarily theologically consistent with the Bible, nor that they are the only ones I could have constructed upon the foundational presupposition stated; all I need to do is to show that, given the presupposition of a supernatural, miracle-working Creator, the supremely confident conclusions of KA and those he quotes simply do not follow, from the evidence cited, as a matter of philosophical necessity.


Scenario 1

At the point of death, the hardware and the physical medium on which that part of the brain’s software representing consciousness and personality ‘resides’, is indeed destroyed. At a future point in time after the physical death of the person, God, who was able to create a man from dust originally, physically resurrects the dead person.

This involves a recreation of the person’s physical body, not only as it originally was (presumably it would be recreated as it was at its ‘peak’, minus the effects of any disease process the person may have suffered in life, and possibly a physically superior body, with no scars or deformities). To a Creator capable of such a feat (and Christians will immediately recognise the biblical promise of the resurrection of the dead in a ‘twinkling’) the reconstruction of the ‘software’ of that person’s personality, memory, etc., using the specifications given by the infinite Creator’s knowledge of that person’s software during life, does not present a problem.

Therefore even if the assumption that personality and consciousness are nothing more than complicated programming residing in complicated brain hardware is correct, then in this scenario of ‘re-creation’ the personality and consciousness are re-created identically so that for all purposes they have indeed survived. In other words, OO and SB are both true.

It is interesting to note that this scenario could be compatible with the biblical description of a future new (renewed or re-created) heavens and earth, with resurrected people occupying it with bodies which, though physical, are yet different. Particularly as they will not suffer the present-day effects of decay and death. It is also interesting to note that from the point of view of the resurrected person, there would be no conscious passage of time—it would be for that person ‘absent from the [old] body, present with the Lord’ as the apostle Paul states.

However, this notion seems difficult to reconcile with the Bible. E.g. Jesus’ account of the rich man and Lazarus, who were conscious at the same time the rich man’s brothers were still alive on earth. Also, Philippians 1:21–23, where the believer was to ‘depart and to be with Christ’, where the aorist infinitive (to depart, ἀναλῦσαι analusai) is linked by a single article to a present infinitive (to be with Christ, σὺν Χριστῷ εἶναι sun Christō einai). This linkage shows that the departure and being with Christ are at the same moment. And Christ is in Heaven, ergo Paul will go to Heaven when he dies. And in Revelation 6:9–10, the souls of martyred saints, who are with God in heaven, are shown to be conscious and asking things of God. But this is not the final state, where we will indeed have resurrected physical bodies.


Scenario 2

(Preamble for scenario 2)

It is naïve to see the information component of any software (e.g. that in a computer) as somehow purely material in the normal sense of the word. Information is obviously a real entity, but is in itself non-material—let me explain. To the best of our knowledge and observation, information appears to require a material substrate on which to ‘ride’. The nature of the matter is not important; the information in the sentence ‘the cat sat on the mat’ may ride on smoke signals, magnetic patterns in a computer disk, ink on paper and countless other possibilities. If I transmit the above message from one such medium to the other, no matter is passed along, even though the information itself is, demonstrating the non-material nature of information. Let us say I transmit a fax. The information on the ink and paper upon which the message originally ‘rode’ was transmitted many miles, but none of the molecules of the original ink and paper actually made the journey. (See also Information: A modern scientific design argument.)

It is equally naïve, in our age of quantum physics, and knowing that there have been mathematical demonstrations of the probable existence of many more dimensions than the observable three, to dogmatically state that there may not be any parallel realities which are unobservable. Though I wouldn’t want to take this too far, these may well be what is meant by the ‘spiritual realm’. At the least they serve as a useful analogy.

The relationship of such a spiritual dimension to our 3-D world might very well be analogous to that of our world to an imaginary 2-D ‘flatland’ (the analogy is not original). The inhabitants of such a world would not be able to conceive what ours was like, but when one of us stood on their world, they would perceive a foot-shape which would be as mysterious to them as any concept of ghost or apparition might be to us. By a simple lifting and replacing of the foot, the ‘apparition’ in flatland would disappear and reappear in an instant; it would seem to transport itself mysteriously into different parts of their world, and could not be contained by any trap flatlanders could construct. It would appear to be ‘natural’ in one sense, but would defy the laws of their world, reminiscent of the way in which the body of the risen Lord Jesus, though obviously material as shown by the fact that the disciples touched him and ate with him, was able to instantly penetrate the physical barriers of a locked room, to their certain astonishment. The flatlanders would be able to live all their lives right next to this 3-D world, and yet would have no way of perceiving us unless we chose to actively interact with their world. They would also have no way to even conceive of what a world with dimensionality additional to their own would be like. So presumably their scientists would, like many of ours, dogmatically insist that such an additional (‘supernatural’) reality was impossible. (See also The Gospel in time and space.)

I have gone to such lengths not to prove the existence of a supernatural realm, as that is clearly not possible. My point is that it is clearly equally impossible to disprove it, to state with dogmatic certainty that it does not and cannot exist. Yet, as we shall see after this extraordinarily lengthy preamble, the non-existence of just such a realm is what the KA paper must assume, in order to dogmatically state the EC conclusion on the basis of the evidence it presents. Not only is it impossible to prove such an assumption, it is not even reasonable to say that such a realm ‘cannot be’, especially in light of modern physics.

I have already mentioned quantum physics and I am sure that many readers will be aware of some of the seemingly weird, counter-intuitive consequences of its most popular understanding, the so-called Copenhagen interpretation. This involves such things as a particle being in neither of two states, but rather in a strange superposition of states, until the act of observation causes it to adopt one state or the other. And then there are such things as the Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen (EPR) effect. Apparently demonstrated experimentally, this effect involves two particles being somehow ‘entangled’ such that finding out the state of one particle can instantly affect the state of the other even though they are separated by vast distances.

Readers may not be aware that there are other, even stranger, interpretations vying with the Copenhagen one for acceptance. The concept of ‘parallel universes’ has been claimed to give a more consistent understanding of the evidence, especially in one of the practical fields in which quantum physics is being applied.

In fact, no less a journal than Scientific American has published an erudite defence of the claim that you could theoretically travel back in time after all. Previously, what was thought to be an insuperable objection was that if you did go back in time, it would lead to the possibility of a logical contradiction, in that you could, for example, go back and murder your grandfather, in which case you would never have existed.

The answer given in the Scientific American article to this paradox was that any trip back in time would of necessity be into a parallel universe, one in which you could murder your grandfather (or simply prevent him meeting your grandmother), yet still have existed in this universe. Please note that I am not defending this idea necessarily, merely pointing out the extreme naïvety of insisting that ‘if I can’t directly measure it, it can’t possibly exist.’ Such may have been partly excusable in an earlier age, such as when the sceptic David Hume made the comments attributed to him in the KA paper, but no longer. At least not for anyone wishing to be taken more seriously than the ‘village atheist’ level of exchange.

The substance of scenario 2

First, we allow that some sort of spiritual realm exists, which is capable of some form of interaction with the one we normally observe and experience. Let us postulate, then, that as a person’s brain (the hardware) develops in early childhood and simultaneously interacts with the environment (i.e. what the person experiences, which includes their own behaviour, choices and the like). As it does so, it has certain characteristics imparted to it, such as particular memories which definitely form a part of the person’s personality (the software).

Let us postulate that while this is happening, there is a parallel development occurring in this other realm, imparting a change in an entity within that realm which is unobservable but is intimately bound to changes in the physical realm. We will label that entity the ‘spirit’ of that person, something non-material. We have already shown the information riding on brain matter to be non-material. It is being postulated here that as the person’s (non-material) brain information content grows in the 3-D realm, so a parallel growth in an analogous (but not identical) non-material entity occurs in the spirit realm.

[Remember that there is no burden of proof on me to demonstrate the truth of these assumptions—the burden is on those making the dogmatic statements of ‘proof’ in the KA paper to show that these assumptions (or the conclusions based on them) are either philosophically or observationally unsound.]

Let us assume that this spiritual realm is not subject to the laws of entropy (decreasing information) and thus, although growth in information in the material brain is ‘recorded’ as a parallel change in the information in the ‘spirit’, a decrease in information in the physical brain (i.e., decay, disease, damage, death) is not transferred.

This spirit entity may thus be, at the same time, a created spiritual entity, one which is subject to development in parallel with the physical brain with which it is intimately connected, but is thereafter ‘immortal’. This is of course reminiscent of the Christian concept of the immortal spirit of each person. There is no sense in which this particular belief demands that there must have been a pre-existence of the adult personality in the spirit realm, as one can postulate that after it is created (or passed on from the parents1), it grows and develops in tandem with the physical aspects of personality, perhaps even being utterly dependent on these. Information may be bound to the material in our realm, while at the same time being bound to a non-material substrate in another.

At death, the ‘signature’ of that person, in the sense of the brain ‘software’, would thus still be uniquely present in the spiritual realm. Also, should the Creator choose to re-create or resurrect in some way the physical body, there is no reason why such a hypothetical ‘immortal spirit’ may not function as a (permanent?) template or reservoir for the preservation (between the time of death and the time of resurrection) of the (non-material) information in the person’s brain making up such things as consciousness and personality.

When the physical brain is re-created, the information preserved in the spirit entity would be re-created in its highest information-state. In the scenario described in the KA paper, the woman with Alzheimer’s, when her physical body was reunited with the spirit, would receive the information at its most highly developed state in that person’s lifetime. In other words, since in this postulate the spirit was not capable of losing information, only gaining it, the deterioration of her brain in later life would have no effect on the situation for her resurrected body in the eternal new heavens and new earth.

This is of course, suggestive of the way in which, as is believed by much of Christendom, a person’s spirit at death continues to exist in another place, in which it does not remain forever, but (if a believer whose ‘name is written in the book of life’) it is united with the resurrected physical body to dwell in eternity in the new heavens and earth. The personality is never extinguished in this view.


Comment

The assumption of the truth of the Bible and the existence of an infinite Creator God is not because of the sorts of speculations here—rather, there are a host of rational and compelling reasons for belief in biblical Christianity, which are not the subject for discussion here. I have used the existence of such a God as a given, and then I have developed hypothetical, even speculative scenarios which may or may not correlate with many relevant biblical truths—I am not claiming that they do necessarily match in all details. No doubt with more time and thought, even further scenarios could be constructed which would be able to pass theological and exegetical muster.

However, it should already be clear that, given the presupposition of the biblical God, the objections in the KA paper do not form any sort of logical, philosophical barrier to belief in the survival of personality and consciousness after death.

Summary and conclusion

In summary, the observations presented by KA are indeed relevant to a discussion of the connection between mind and brain. Taken in isolation, they do not in any way of themselves suggest the idea of the survival of mind/consciousness/personality after death, but neither do they demand the conclusion that such survival could not occur. The Christian who has already concluded that there is a host of evidence in favour of a reasoned, rational, biblical faith, can give a reasonable answer to the KA challenge. He/she does not have to invent the concepts of a spiritual realm and a supernatural Creator God—they are presupposed in Christianity itself.

As we have seen, these presuppositions allow more than one ‘in principle’ scenario in which all observations of human brain function, which are compatible with materialism, are perfectly compatible with one of the major associated teachings of the Christian faith, that of eternal life.

Presumably, Christianity is one of the major targets of the KA paper. It is philosophically a valid approach to challenge a belief system by starting with its presuppositions, then showing that these lead to illogical or contradictory outcomes, or are incompatible with factual observations. This is called reductio ad absurdum, and I gave an example above.

However, it seems philosophically unsound to attack a belief system by appealing to observation-based arguments which deny a priori the validity of that system’s own presuppositions. In other words, the KA paper would need to disprove the idea of the Christian God in order to deny the possibility of the survival of the persona after death. To use the apparent disproof of such survival to cast doubts on the validity of belief in the Christian God is thus seen to be a fairly subtle, but definite case of the philosophical fallacy known as ‘begging the question’.

The KA paper is therefore seen to draw inappropriate conclusions based on straw men, and is philosophically rather lightweight, in the kindest assessment. How ironic that the author should in his closing comments refer to Galileo (ignoring what really happened in that situation), when his own paper reflects a narrow dogmatism of the sort which has traditionally stifled progress in thought.

Postscript

Arguments like those of Augustine/Lamont can be superficially impressive, and it is vital that Christians know what they believe and why. The evidence for such things as fulfilled prophecy, the resurrection of Christ, and creation itself is freely available for all with a desire to see (see Did Jesus Christ really rise from the dead?). The evidence of changed lives is another.

I have also personally experienced the reality of the supernatural realm in a way that defied all explanation by way of subjectivity, psychology, etc. and totally defied the laws of physics, mathematical probability, etc. It was this which shook my previous faith in the sort of philosophical materialism which appears to inspire Keith Augustine and those he quotes. It was not something of the nature of so-called ‘after death experiences’, which can never be proved to be anything more than a person’s brain chemistry under those conditions (see also Near Death Experiences? What should Christians think?). Its nature was such (and there were two eyewitnesses) that the most hardened skeptic present would have been forced to acknowledge its validity—the only thing lacking is repeatability, so I do not recount it here in detail because the only objective validity it can have to another is my word as an eyewitness. After my household became believers in the risen Christ, all evidence of such (clearly occult) phenomena disappeared, consistent with the proposition that such supernatural phenomena are/were manifestations of the satanic/demonic.

Note

  1. There are varying views within Christendom, which do not affect the arguments here developed, on whether God creates each spirit anew, or whether the spirit is passed on from the parents in some way (Traducianism, which probably fits the biblical evidence best). Return to text.

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