Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Soul: Another Book

The conversation mentioned in the previous post kicked me back into gear and my brother told me about another book on this subject called Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio. This is a relatively old book. He has newer ones out on the subject but this is the one that I could get my hands on. So that’s what I read. First I’d like to say that Dr. Damasio seems like a lot nicer guy than Dr. Crick, but not having meet either of them it is probably premature to pass judgment. Anyway he has a more pleasant writing style.

Damasio proposes that Renee Descartes made an error by holding that the intellectual rational part of man was completely separate from the physical part of man. He demonstrates that experimentation on the brain and body have all but proven that what we think of as the mind or soul is actually a phenomenon generated by the actions and interactions of the brain and body. That the body as a whole, with a large burden of the work falling to the brain, is responsible for all the behaviors and actions typically attributed to the soul. “To say that the mind comes from the body is indisputable…” he states and does a very convincing job of backing up his statement. I won’t be able to do him justice but I’ll try to give you a feel of Damsio’s book. He works with a lot of people with various types of brain damage and in his work they are able to identify the specific areas of the brain that are damaged. They put these folks through a variety of rather creative exercises which pinpoint various behaviors. Exercises involving ethical choices, tolerance for risk, etc. In so doing they are able to identify what parts of the brain have a significant influence on those behaviors. He also spends some time talking about how the body affects the brain and the brain affects the body through chemicals generated by the body in a sort of continuous feedback loop generating feelings and emotions. The basic gist boils down, in my opinion, to the fact that things that we normally think of as the domain of the soul like love, morals, feelings, courage, sense of duty, even religious beliefs can be explained by the brain, the body, and their interactions. And to take it a step further he says it gets kind of hard to distinguish between the brain and the body. After all the brain is part of the body.

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