Can a Person be a Soul? - Susan Blackmore | Closer to Truth

Can a Person be a Soul? - Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore - Psychology and Sociology

Susan Blackmore

Susan Jane Blackmore is an English freelance writer, lecturer, and broadcaster on psychology and the paranormal, perhaps best known for her book The Meme Machine.

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Susan
Blackmore

Writer, Lecturer, Psychologist

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Sue, the postulate of an immortal soul is very significant for those people who believe in God. Now that's part of what we call the mind/body problem. I'm an old neurophysiologist and so I'm very familiar with how the brain works. But help us understand the issue of that question, is there an immortal soul in terms of the mind/body problem?

Susan Blackmore:

I think we have to start from how it feels. It feels like there's an immortal soul. It feels as though what's important about me is that I'm conscious. There's things I'm conscious of and there's me. And that me is something that feels as though it lives in the body and has free will and can, you know, make my arms move, that sort of thing. It just seems to feel that way. There are lots of reasons in the evolutionary theory why it should feel that way. But, you then go and look in the brain and what do you find? I mean, you know what you'll see in there, don't you?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right.

Susan Blackmore:

Actually, I've never looked in my own brain, but you will see a great kind of porridgey mass in there of billions of neurons connected up in billions of ways. How can a soul be that? The more we understand about the brain the further neurophysiology and neuroscience progresses, the less room there is for a soul. Or even room for self. Because all of the jobs that were previously given to the soul, being conscious, causing actions, thinking, having insight, thinking up new ideas, being creative, all of those things. We, we are beginning to see how the brain does them. Also, there's no middle. The concept of the soul is very much related to the idea that stuff comes into me and I'm conscious of it and then I decide what to do. As though, there's a sort of middle or a top where I am. But the brain isn't organized that way. It's massive parallel, lots and lots of different things all going on at once with no middle. So, this huge clash between neuroscience and how it feels.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And so that's the genesis of the problem.

Susan Blackmore:

That's the genesis, the genesis of the problem goes way, way back. Long before people knew anything about neurophysiology and how the brain works. They still could see there was a mind/body problem in the sense that, you know, there's all these physical things and hands and arms that move a bit like machinery. And there's also experience. So, the origin is long before neurophysiology. But interestingly, neurophysiology seems to make the problem worse, not better. It's as though it's kind of pushing us and pushing us and pushing us to realize that we've got a completely wrong view. We need a massive paradigm shift. You know, the old-fashioned view is absolutely I'm a spirit or a soul and I'm important and I'm, you know, I might even live forever. That's the kind of starting point for all human cultures. And science is forcing us, forcing us, and forcing us, and forcing us, as it forced us to see that the earth is not the center of the universe and, you know, we're not the only reason for life on this planet. It's forcing us, I think, to come to that truth. We're not, we're not a spirit, we're not a soul, we're not even a little self-inhabiting our brains.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

The more sophisticated arguments today start by saying that I look at your beautiful coat, that I'm, I'm perceiving the colors and the reds. And yet if you look at my brain at that same time and had billions of electrodes and to billions of neurons, you would see a lot of spikes and a lot of activity that would directly relate to it.

Susan Blackmore:

Yeah.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

But spikes and, and evoke potentials and electrical responses in that description is not in any way the same kind of description of what I'm seeing. The two have, are totally different. They may be 100% coral, there may be cause and effect. But there is absolutely no similarity in the descriptor of each. That's where the argument starts today.

Susan Blackmore:

That's how it seems, and that's a wonderful explanation of why it's a mystery. So how do we get out of that? It's an extraordinary position that we're forced into, isn't it?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right, right.

Susan Blackmore:

How can neuron firings be your experience of this red? And yours might be different from mine.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right, right.

Susan Blackmore:

How do we get out of those traps? I think we get, we got into them by thinking about ourselves in completely the wrong way. And we've got to get out of that somehow. So, is it possible to give up the idea that there's a little self in here or that there's free will? The things that tie us endlessly round in that trap. And I think it is. I think there are two ways we have to do this. One is the science. The more neurophysiology we do, the starker the problem comes. And we just keep doing it and keep doing it until we really know exactly what's happening when you're looking at the red thing. The other thing I think we do is work with our own experience. So, I've been meditating for nearly 25 years now. I do a lot of meditation as a way of training the mind to look. Well, what is it like to look at red? It's easy enough to just go, oh I know what it's like to see red. But actually, odd things start to happen. Take interesting drugs, try all kinds of mind altering techniques. Do all sorts of things to try and actually say, well, what is it like to see red, or to experience this amazing museum? How can we bring those two things together? Now I think when you let go of the idea that there's a little self in here and let go of the idea that there's free will and that I am a free thing in here that's doing stuff, and actually just behave as though it's all just the universe doing its stuff, the problem begins to ease a little. Somehow that's the way we need to go.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, what does that mean, the universe doing its stuff?

Susan Blackmore:

There's not separate souls and spirits. Okay, if there aren't, that's what the science seems to be telling us. Let's try and live that way. So right now, I'm not thinking, in here is not thinking, oh I am now doing a TV interview. Rather it's all happening. This TV interview is happening. There's all just stuff pointlessly going on.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

You don't have to be unkind about TV. That's not that pointless. It has a little bit of a point.

Susan Blackmore:

What I mean is, what I mean is, gosh, this is taking us a long way in the sense from the mind/body problem, but it's all tied up with it. I think from the science that I know and all those years of studying this stuff, that this is a pointless universe. We are here for no reason at all. We evolved the way we did because of the, the happenstance of the way this planet is, and it is all just stuff happening. Everything happens because of what happened before, and it's that kind of a universe.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And you're completely convinced that we can explain everything about out self-consciousness, our mental life, by what resides exclusively in our heads.

Susan Blackmore:

Well I think we will but not as a materialist. I mean, that's the trouble. People so often, when they say that, I think they mean, oh well we'll get rid of consciousness. We'll explain it away and it'll all be matter. But that won't work. Somehow, we have to see through the duality. I don't know how we're going to do it, but I know certain things won't work. You know, inventing spirits and souls that can't be found, for goodness sake, I spent 25 years as a parapsychologist looking for those things.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And we loved you for it.

Susan Blackmore:

Thank you. But I was hit again and again and again with the facts. I mean, it's not like that. You know, I couldn't find any telepathy, I couldn't find any clairvoyance, I couldn't find any evidence of life after death. All the evidence, again and again, just disappeared the deeper I looked into it. So, I think, you know, we are forced to try to understand it without recourse to all those kinds of things. Without recourse to our soul or our spirit. We haven't done it. That's what makes science at the moment so absolutely, or neuroscience, so absolutely gripping and wonderful because it's pushing us up against that most human of questions. You know, who am I? Why am I here? What is this? And we will, sometime I'm sure, come to some resolution. But it won't be by getting rid of consciousness or getting rid of matter. It will be somehow seeing how they're the same thing.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

But having no souls, no spirits, nothing, nothing non-physical as part of the picture.

Susan Blackmore:

No, nothing non-physical in that sense of, you know, something in another dimension or some sort of waffly little spirits. Not that sort of thing. But what quite we'll end up by meaning physical and non-physical, fundamental changes are going to be needed to bring together mind and matter to see that they are the same thing. They've got to be somehow, and I don't see how. And I don't think anyone sees how yet. But that's the way we have to go.