129. The Brain as Transmitter?

Psychologist Stephen Pinker, in his book The Blank Slate (Penguin, 2002), writes:

“When a surgeon sends an electrical current into the brain, the person can have a vivid, lifelike experience. When chemicals seep into the brain, they can alter the person’s perception, mood, personality, and reasoning. When a patch of brain tissue dies, a part of the mind can disappear: a neurological patient may lose the ability to name tools, recognize faces, anticipate the outcome of his behavior, empathize with others, or keep in mind a region of space or of his own body” (p. 41).

Don’t these observations show once and for all that our sense of self is completely dependent on matter? It certainly seems that way.

However, American philosopher and founder of modern day psychology William James (1842-1910), in his essay On Human Immortality, writes: “My thesis now is this: that, when we think of the law that thought is a function of the brain, we are not required to think of productive function only; we are entitled also to consider permissive function or transmissive function. And this the ordinary psycho-physiologist leaves out of his account”. This is interesting. We usually think the brain produces thought. But perhaps the brain can also engage in transmissions. He continues: “Admit now that our brains are such thin and half-transparent places in the veil. What will happen? Why, as the white radiance comes through the dome, with all sorts of staining and distortion imprinted on it by the glass, or as the air now comes through my glottis determined and limited in its force and quality of its vibrations by the peculiarities of those vocal chords which form its gate of egress and shape it into my personal voice, even so the genuine matter of reality, the life of souls as it is in its fullness, will break through our several brains into this world in all sorts of restricted forms, and with all the imperfections and queernesses that characterize our finite individualities here below” (see his book The Will to Believe and Other Essays, p. 16). This account paints the picture of our brain as a transmission device through which soul can act and through which “the genuine matter of reality” can break through in an imperfect manner. It would be a matter of a brain-threshold opening. Our brains, to be sure, would be involved in the transmissions; but the brain would not be originating the transmissions. This opens up the possibility that when the brain is damaged the instrument of transmission is harmed not the soul that is transmitting.

Of course, we would have to defend some form of soul/body dualism for this possibility to make sense. For one possible defense of dualism with reference to Plato’s Wooden Horse Argument go here. Moreover, even if there are souls we would have to ask: what are they transmitting? Well, it is plausible that a brain is simply not the kind of thing that can reason, entertain true or false propositions, make free decisions, have a moral sense, and possess unity over time. So if souls have these abilities then perhaps they can be conveyed to the brain in ways that allow the body to reveal to other souls justifications for truth claims, freely chosen acts, moral deeds, and, indeed, something about who they, as unified souls, really are. Obviously, many, many questions can be raised about these controversial claims: how does the transmission take place? Is ‘how’ even the right word here if souls aren’t physical? Why don’t transmissions always take place as planned? What are the limits and possibilities of transmission? And so on. But James’ insight, when aligned with cogent answers to the questions just raised, can provide helpful support to those who claim, on the one hand, the mind is more than a set of brain functions and, on the other hand, that the soul might survive the breakdown of the brain.

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