Of Souls and State Machines

by  —  January 30, 2008

William is packing for, and in transit to, Italy this week where he’ll be doing a couple months of work on The American Memory Project with Justin Bennett. So, you’ll have just Doug and myself this cycle.

Many known belief systems in the world feature the idea of a ‘soul’ — a sentient component of an entire human being; in most of these systems, the existence of this soul continues beyond the corporeal existence of the human being, maintaining some carry over from its time spent in the host body (depending on belief system, ranging from actual memories and feelings, to more hand-waving-vagaries like ‘psychic energy’). I won’t address the varying theories about where these souls are supposed to come from, what their state of existence is prior to the physical existence of the host form, which is an article unto its own; i will, instead, focus on what the continual march of scientific discovery brings to light on dark age notions of the soul.

Let me define what a ‘state machine’ is; it’s a bit of a nerdy term which might detract a bit from what you may have anticipated just reading the title. (If so, i say, ‘you’ve already bought the horse, so you might as well give it a ride.’)
The ‘state’ of an object can be thought of as a description of all of the meaningful attributes of that object at any specific instant in time. For example, the state of my car this morning could be described (incompletely) like, ‘the gas tank was 5/8 full; the FL, FR, RL, and RR tires were measured to have 33, 33, 31, and 31 PSI; there were 8 CDs in the changer with the following titles: …; etc etc etc’.
A ‘State Machine’ is a name that is given to an object that has some number of finite states and performs transitions from one state to another state due to some condition. Without straying too far from strict definitions, the human body — as well as the brain1 — can be considered to be state machines, like the automobile.
In more complex state machines (like cars and humans), damage can be taken which doesn’t end the functioning of the machine but instead just prevents some of its states from being reached while in the damaged state:

The implied part of that sentence is that there is, of course, damage which is not mendable:

Now that we’ve gotten through that, for those that believe in a soul what the exact role that the soul plays in the human host tends to be varied, nebulous, and a bit fluffy; given this, i’ll avoid trying to corner that slippery pig and instead suggest that we look at two types of functions which the brain has been recognized to provide:
Event (and personal history) memory
      The evidence that the formation, re-writing, and storage of the memory is performed in the brain is outstandingly documented — if in doubt, i’d invite the reader to start by listening to an episode devoted to this topic by the world’s best public radio program – Radio Lab.2 It could be argued that ‘object preference’ is largely related to the memory function3 since the repeated positive exposures to an object that would increase preference are likely instigated due to memory of previous positive exposure. (An analogue argument would be that an Alzheimer’s patient who forgets what their favourite food is, is unlikely to seek it out and will thereby cease manifestation of that preference.)
      In both cases of a wasting disease, and of changed memories due to re-writes, there is not the slightest evidence to suggest that there is a secondary storehouse of the original information.
The amorphously defined ‘personality’
      While object preference plays a large role in defining the personality of a person, there are other factors which are brain based. Likelihood of aggressivity (which one might nudge gently into the larger group of ‘value system’), for example, has been shown to be related to brain architecture, and as well could be both apparently seen in the post-explosion version of Phineas, and is an all too frequent occurrence in Alzheimer’s patients.

What’s common in these is that the biological brain matter is the storehouse for these things, for were it some other object (such as a soul), it would be expected that the functions would still exist despite the destruction of the grey and white matter. I suppose one could argue that a soul is a one way device while its host is living — in other words, that it is acting as purely a container of state — and after death could become transformed into an emitter of state as well. The poison misstep in that argument, though, is that it also argues that the soul has no contribution to a living human’s personality and value choices, which seems contrary to the described role of a soul in at least one or two major belief systems.

To boil that all down a bit, we have fairly compelling evidence that the biological lump we refer to as the brain is the actual container of the state descriptors which make up that person which we, and others, recognize us as. Since those qualities are manifestations of the underlying biological matter, after the physical cessation of a human host an attached hypothetical soul would have no semantic relation to that human host (or so little recognizable semantic commonality that two souls from hosts A and B would be unable to be ascribed to A or B in any of the ways that we, as living humans, identify unique individuals).
Due to that, one has to ask what it means, what value it provides, to describe the human form as having an ethereal component when that ethereal component is forcibly divorced from nearly all of the qualities which make us, as humans, unique individuals.

  1. … as reasonably posited by Alan Turing []
  2. Andrei Codrescu’s [awful] spoken piece in this episode is thankfully an uncharacteristic addition to Radio Lab episodes. []
  3. Though the identical twin studies of Turecki and Rathus strongly suggest that there is a genetic component as well. []

Marked as: Belief SystemsIntrospection  —  13 comments   (RSS)

13 Comments so far
  1. FatalTwilight January 31, 2008 4:17 pm

    Nice topic… It was nice to make some neurons flicker again.

    I was kind of confused at the aim of the topic though.

    Were you diffusing the concept of a ‘soul’ or were you stating that it’s not the soul that makes the person…its the brain.

    In either statement it makes sense to me. One can maybe even go as far as stating that the mind creates the soul? If that person is attatched to such a concept.

    If anyone here has researched psychic phenomena, this is also something that is being debated in what makes psychic things happen. The Soul or The Brain?
    So far I have proved to myself that deja-vu is not just eye messages that are delayed relays. I beleive that the brain has a very good potential that we have not noticed ‘publicly’.

    Sorry if this is off-topic but the brain intrigues me.

  2. Loki der Quaeler February 1, 2008 12:19 am

    I was asserting that a number of the important attributes that are attached to the idea of a soul in many belief systems cannot actually be attached to the ‘soul’, but rather are properties of the host’s biological matter (the brain). (… and on the way to asserting that, i attempted to point out that things that largely make up the individuality of each person (memory recollection, object preference, value choices) all appear to be strictly based in biological matter.)

    Continuing on the path – i wondered what the purpose of insisting on the existence of a soul was, once it has those properties removed from it — as without the biological matter, it could reflect none of those characteristics of individuality, including memory, that the living host had and so would become an unrecognizable entity (unless one wants to sacrifice the tenet that the soul has influence over the host during the host’s corporeal existence.)

  3. magdalene February 1, 2008 8:14 am

    I think the “ethereal component” is how many work around the absence of evidence for the existence of a soul. If the soul is unobservable it needn’t stand up to scrutiny. Believers can scoff at the silly idea of trying to measure something immeasurable.

    Your article arrived in my sphere at an interesting time. I’m in a developmental psych seminar on, roughly, memory and the sense of self. So memory is this complicated phenomenon, there is a long history of research that is or may be obsolete, the most basic questions left unanswered (i.e., what IS a memory?). We’re discussing current & historic literature on this question in particular, I’m in near euphoria considering that my sense of self, temporally, interpersonally (the sense of myself in relation with other people), and my experience of others exists solely because sitting in my cranium is this 1.6 kg “lump” of tissue (oversimplification, of course, but this isn’t a neurophysiology lesson), and that there is so much more to know. My reverie is disrupted when a classmate chirps, “I don’t want to know. I don’t want my sense of self to be reduced to a physical structure.” I don’t understand this feeling and respond with something like, “How is it a reduction to understand that your sense of self arises from a physical organ?” (also an oversimplification; it would be important to consider also how these physical organs interact with the brains of others in giving rise to the sense of self). The probability (fact?) that this is the case makes it awe-inspiring, and, in fact, I’m making somewhat inappropriate noises in class. So we continue with the discussion, “what is a memory? how does it contribute to a sense of self?” As the tension of being unable to comprehensively & accurately answer this question rises, a few people start hinting. They don’t actually ever say the word, but are barely containing it. All inappropriate noises cease, crinkly face ensues, and I am thinking I should wait until next week to confront their implications because it’s obvious I’ll say something rash and heedless. It’s not as if this is my first encounter with this sort of thinking, but it is more than perplexing. Has “the soul” become the filler for everything we do not yet understand about human experience?

  4. magdalene February 1, 2008 8:56 am

    Eh, probably more accurate to ask, “when will thinking people stop using ‘the soul’ as filler for everything we do not understand about human experience?”

  5. william February 1, 2008 3:37 pm

    I find it interesting that people assume that memory is only stored in the mind. I think every sense organ is capable of storing memory in one form or another. Indeed some of these physical memories are the most profound. In this case I wonder if the brain isn’t the storage device, but rather, the interpreter.

  6. Loki der Quaeler February 2, 2008 1:29 am

    Ya sure… it wasn’t really an article about memory specifically – but indeed, if one defines memory as a capturing of state, then just about everything in the body can be thought to store memory. Further, as you say, the brain is in the interpreter of a lot of those ‘memories’.

    For example, i do my knee in nicely while playing soccer; not only is there at least temporary state (memory) of that injury stored in the knee, but the feedback sent back to the brain about degrees of freedom, pain, etc. allows for further interpretation of the knee’s ‘memory’ when plotting and performing actions.

  7. magdalene February 2, 2008 5:26 pm

    The term ‘storage’ in reference to memory is itself interesting. Evokes the file cabinet or computer analogies. I’m not satisfied with ‘storage’ as a descriptor for what is going on.

    As for so-called body memories, I’d guess that there is no “memory”, per se, that is actually being “stored” in the eye, knee, or integument proper, but that a replication of a salient sensation in the eye (knee, whatever) might trigger certain patterns of neuronal activation *in the brain*, resulting in the experience of remembering (whether conscious, self-aware autobiographical memory, or the trigger of related emotional states without conscious awareness of recall).

  8. william February 3, 2008 9:56 pm

    If we are moving forward with the idea that self awareness is a result of the interplay between complex systems then I would argue that the physical component is just as much part of the “memory” as the reaction in the brain. In fact, in some instances, it may be the proverbial horse that leads the cart.

  9. doug February 4, 2008 10:09 am

    It’s interesting, William, that you intuit that it’s “the proverbial horse that leads the cart” (assuming you’ve not read the material I’ll cite). Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote a book titled Descarte’s Error that I think you’d find helpful. He states that the “mind is embodied… not just embrained”, meaning that this common perception of a separation of mind and body is inaccurate. Emotions, it seems, are generated by the body – or, rather, the physical and mental are too dependent upon one another for the idea of a separation to be useful. After all, what would terror be without an increased heart-rate and adrenaline rush? A good description of this can be found in Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust Was a Neuroscientist in the first chapter.
    Damasio did an experiment in which subjects were given two decks of cards to draw from. One was heavily stacked to be advantageous to the subject, given the rules of the game, and the other was negatively stacked. Damasio found that physical response long preceded conscious realisation of which deck was which. The hand grew increasingly electric and “nervous” when reaching toward the negative deck well before the subject’s brain seemed to understand the game. “The hand,” says Lehrer, “led the brain.”
    Perhaps more relevant to the question of the “soul” is Damasio’s research demonstrating our emotions play an integral role in our general reasoning. Brain damage to the frontal lobe has sometimes rendered its victims incapable of proper emotional response, while their general skills of logic seem unharmed. These people tend to make horrible decisions, lose friends, and end badly.
    “Soul” suffers from a lack of real definition, but often I believe that there is an idea that our souls are our “true selves”, our inner nature, while our brains are rational computers. Character-changing brain injuries would seem to disprove that notion.

  10. magdalene February 4, 2008 8:16 pm

    The brain isn’t some wifty ethereal blob; it’s also a “physical component”. Though I am loath to concur with anything Doug says, I agree with his assertion that the separations we tend to make between brain and the rest of the body may be erroneous (at least in part). Even if one could assert that the brain and spinal column appear to be somewhat separate from the rest of the body, from there the peripheral nervous system extends and winds throughout the entire body. [So the idea that emotions can be “generated” in the (non-brain part of the) body could have some merit; emotions being, in gross and in part, patterns of neuronal firing and neurotransmitter action. Though I think it’s safe to say that interpretation & attribution of such “body” emotions occur in the brain.] Even so, while I’ll wager research will continue to result in support for a more holistic model, there’s got to be some specificity: There’s no evidence to indicate that the experience of consciousness, self-knowing, personality, might arise from the kneecaps or the toes, but quite a bit that suggests it arises from the brain.

    To return to the original topic, and the “purpose for insisting on the existence of a soul”, anyone who has experienced the fear of annihilation of the self or even garden variety death anxiety should be able to answer that. Regardless of the lack of objective evidence, the idea of a soul is comforting (to some). Though I myself have fluctuated between “Shit, I’m going to die and that’s it!” to “Maybe there’s more. Ah, that’s comforting.” to “But wait, that doesn’t make any sense. Eww.”

  11. doug February 4, 2008 10:05 pm

    “There’s no evidence to indicate that the experience of consciousness, self-knowing, personality, might arise from the kneecaps or the toes, but quite a bit that suggests it arises from the brain.”
    Yes, but I think what we are driving at is that consciousness doesn’t “arise” from the brain so much as it collects in the brain, all of the physical aspects being integral components. I am not exactly certain (and I don’t have the motivation search sources just now), but I believe I read that there is evidence of brain degradation associated with prolonged sensory deprivation. I would be shocked if such was not the case, but I’m not certain if there has been any solid studies. The relevance to the topic here should be obvious…

  12. magdalene February 5, 2008 6:40 am

    That’s an interesting idea, and of course the non-brain corpus has influence and interacts with the brain. But applying a little logic here, if you lose your arm, you’re still Doug. If you lose both feet — still Doug. You retain awareness of your Doug-ness. Lose certain parts of your brain — not so. However, yes, your brain would stop receiving stimuli from from aforementioned lost feet. Does degradation occur? I don’t know. Seems plausible, though with brain plasticity, it also seems plausible that shifts rather than degradation occur (or perhaps some of each?). And since we’re talking about brain/body, here’s a fascinating article about representations of the (non-brain) body in the brain (i.e., the sensation of having a body occurs in the brain):


  13. doug February 5, 2008 9:33 am

    Ah! Thank you.
    Here is a great TED lecture by Dr. Ramachandran regarding phantom limb:

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