»  New English Review

July 2007

  The I's Have It


A clergyman (Anglican, of course*) once told me that the question he was most often asked by parishioners was: "Will my dog go to heaven?" That was thirty-something years ago. If the good reverend is still around, and can hold on for just a few years more, he may be able to offer his parishioners a definitive answer.

So at any rate says the New York Times. In an article under the title "Science of the Soul? 'I Think, Therefore I Am' Is Losing Force," the Times introduces us to Nancey Murphy, a philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary, and John F. Haught, a theologian at Georgetown University. The Times quotes Dr. Murphy to this effect:

Evolutionary biology shows the transition from animal to human to be too gradual to make sense of the idea that we humans have souls while animals do not. All the human capacities once attributed to the mind or soul are now being fruitfully studied as brain processes.

And therefore, the Times says she says, it is "faulty" reasoning to want to distinguish people from the rest of creation. The newspaper then quotes Dr. Haught, thus:

The way I look at it, instead of eliminating the notion of a human soul in order to make us humans fit seamlessly into the rest of nature, it's wiser to recognize that there is something analogous to soul in all living beings.

This is astonishing stuff to hear from a couple of Christian theologians. I get pulled in to a lot of the evolution/creation debates, and friends who don't follow these things sometimes ask me: "What's it really all about? What's the beef with poor old Darwin? What do these people want?" My stock answer is: "It's about human exceptionalism. People want to believe that we are the Chosen Species — the only species possessed of moral sense, responsible for the moral order of the world. If human beings are just another twig on nature's tree, then human exceptionalism is harder to believe in, and faith harder to sustain."

Harder, but not impossible. If it were impossible, the good doctors Murphy and Haught would be looking for new jobs. As their examples (and that of Ken Miller, introduced later in the Times article) show, there is latitude enough within Christian theology for all sorts of ideas about animal souls. Human exceptionalism, in a form that satisfies at least some Christian believers, can certainly be squared with modern biology. I'd guess that the same is true of the other Abrahamic religions. Further afield, there are religions even more generous towards our furred, feathered, and finned friends, that yet manage to fulfill the spiritual longings of believers.

The Times article does, though, offer yet another glimpse into the fast-developing field of cognitive science, now being fed by new techniques for imaging brain activity, and almost daily developments in our understanding of genetics, in application both to the development of organs, including the brain, and to the history of our species.

It's exciting stuff, with all sorts of potential consequences for our core beliefs about ourselves and our world. Novelist Tom Wolfe spotted the rise of these developments over a decade ago, though he got a bit carried away with the speed of progress. That's forgivable, and we're not actually far from where Wolfe thought we'd be by now.

Anyway, I get carried away by this stuff, too. I'll confess that articles like that — the one from the Times that I started this column with — catch my eye particularly because they impinge on the topic of consciousness, and this is a topic that fascinates me.

What on earth is consciousness? I wake up in the morning and here it comes, switching itself on: "all the uncaring / Intricate rented world begins to rouse" (Larkin). Where was that world for the previous seven or eight hours? Well, it was there, of course, going about its business — if you don't believe that, then you are not, in my opinion, a sane person. But where was I? Where was the … the … the I, the me, the little guy who squats behind my eyeballs looking out at it all and directing the action? Where was my soul?

Most of us ponder these things now and then. We ponder them only briefly, if we are mentally robust, before going on to ponder more manageable things: wives and children, salaries and bosses, cars and planes, stocks and bonds. It's the very unmanageability of it that snags my attention, though. We've been asking my "What on earthis it?" question about consciousness for just about ever. The possibility that we might soon have a clue, strikes me as irresistibly interesting.

And we might. "Consciousness Studies" is nowadays a flourishing field in which some first-class minds — along with, of course, their brains! — are working. It has had, since 1994, its own Journal of peer-reviewed papers. It has developed a colorful jargon: the Cartesian Theater, the Chinese Room, Leibniz's Mill and Nagel's Bat, zombies and zimboes, and so on. (I refer curious readers to Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained for definitions of these terms.) I often think, as Tom Wolfe seems to in that article I linked, that if I were twenty again, with the curiosity about things I had at twenty, but a much better student than I actually was at twenty, I'd be trying for a career in cog-sci research.

Also, like those parishioners, I am curious about my dog's chances of a life hereafter. Boris is now 16 years old, at least. He is not likely to be with us much longer. I look into his dear old eyes — now blind with cataracts — and wonder what's happening in there, and where it will all go.

Daniel Dennett's book, informative though it was about the philosophical jargon of Consciousness Studies, left me very little wiser about the actual nature of consciousness, or about Boris's prospects in the Hereafter. I got more sense from the book he co-edited ten years earlier with Doug Hofstadter: The Mind's I.

As it happens, Hofstadter brought out a new book this year: I Am a Strange Loop, in which he tries to develop a measuring scale for consciousness. His basic unit is the huneker, which he explains as follows.

In my teens and twenties I played a lot of Chopin on the piano, often out of the bright yellow editions published by G. Schirmer in New York City. Each of those volumes opened with an essay penned in the early 1900s by the American critic James Huneker … In his preface to the volume of Chopin's études, Huneker asserts of the eleventh étude in Opus 25, in A minor … the following striking thought: "Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it."

Hofstadter then applies this measure to the ensoulment of human beings in various conditions, and of other creatures, by postulating that an ordinary person, awake and in an ordinary condition of awareness, rates 100 hunekers of ensoulment. (Adding that: "I could just as well have spoken of 'having a light on inside,' 'possessing interiority,' or that old standby 'being conscious'.")

A mosquito, Hofstadter estimates, when fully alert — whatever that means! — is possessed of about one ten-billionth of a huneker of soul. Hofstadter ponders the obvious ethical questions: "How many hunekers would dogs have to have, on the average, for you to decide to organize a protest demonstration at an animal shelter?" He wanders — though diffidently and respectfully — into territory that has the footprints of some of my National Review colleagues on it. How many hunekers of soul does a newborn infant possess? An Alzheimer's patient? A psychopath?

Nor does Hofstadter fail to notice that this application of calipers to souls has been going on for a long time — is in fact a normal human activity. The word "magnanimity" and the title "Mahatma" both have the notion "large-souled" at their etymological roots, though not in the same original sense.

Well, well, I wouldn't want you to get the idea I spend all day ruminating on this stuff. That, it seems to me, would be unhealthy — unless, of course, one could contrive to get paid for it. It comes and goes. I return to it now and again — a book here, a newspaper article there, the occasional relevant website — and quietly, for an hour or two, wonder what's going on behind the curtain. Then I plunge back into the churning waters of worldly reality.

Yesterday, on a long drive to a shooting event and back, I took in all twelve of Professor Daniel Robinson's lectures in The Teaching Company course on Consciousness and Its Implications. Like Daniel Dennett's book, Prof. Robinson's course left me feeling nothing like as much wiser as I had hoped to be. (Though it did leave me having some second thoughts about the case of Terri Schiavo.) However, Robinson and Dennett are professional philosophers, and it may be that this whole topic has now, as Tom Wolfe predicted, got away from the philosophers and theologians, into the labs.

Life, someone has said, is the stuff that happens when you can't get to sleep. That's not quite right. What is actually happening when you can't get to sleep is consciousness, of which life is a by-product.

No, that's too belittling. Our individual life is at the next organizational level up from consciousness. It has consciousness as its foundation. One further level up from our individual lives is the human world — the world of politics, history, and culture that we talk about here on New English Review.

It all rests on consciousness, without which there is nothing, and about which, if you had asked me before I got hooked on all this, I would have replied that there is nothing interesting to be said. In fact there are a great many interesting things to be said, and some of them have been said by the greatest of minds, from Aristotle on. It's only that this is a field in which it is extraordinarily difficult to come to any clear conclusions. This century may be the first, in all the twenty-four centuries we have been pondering consciousness, in which we actually find out some true facts about it.

* "When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England." — Mr Thwackum in Tom Jones.