John Stonestreet and Roberto Rivera on Why Neuroscience Can’t Tell Us About the Soul

In his 1996 essay entitled “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died,” the late essayist Tom Wolfe predicted that new technologies (such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI) would soon render our traditional ideas about the “soul,” the “mind,” the “self,” and “free will” obsolete. In their place would be a “brilliant dawn” of “Ultimate Skepticism.”  Today, to paraphrase another literary giant, it seems that Wolfe’s reports of the soul’s imminent death were greatly exaggerated. 

An fMRI is an instrument that measures brain activity by tracking blood flow. As with other parts of the body, “when an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region also increases.” Neuroscientists attach a good deal of significance to this increased blood flow.

For example, in one study, participants were insulted and then asked to ruminate over the insults while an fMRI measured the blood flow in their brains. Researchers concluded that while anger over being insulted spurred activity in one part of the brain (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex), “ruminating” or pondering the insults stimulated activity in a different part of the brain (the medial prefrontal cortex). Studies like this, say those Wolfe called the “ultimate skeptics,” demonstrate that things like the “soul” or the “self” are, in reality, merely brain activity.

This leap in reasoning is an example of the hammer seeing everything as a nail. Just because certain parts of the brain are associated with specific tasks or emotions in no way proves that the soul or the self are illusions. And, since “fMRIs don’t actually measure brain activity directly (but) blood flow to regions of the brain,” we cannot be certain which region of the brain is actually active during a given task.

Even worse for those who saw conclusive evidence for their skepticism, Duke University researchers found inconsistencies in the blood flow measurements on which these conclusions were based. Re-examining 56 published papers of fMRI data, they discovered when individuals took the same tests weeks or months apart, there were “wildly varying results.” As lead researcher Ahmad Harriri, put it, “The correlation between one scan and a second is not even fair, it’s poor.”

In fact, inconsistencies of neuroscience testing over time seems to be a consistent feature of the field. The “Human Connectome Project,” which is widely regarded as the “bible” of neuroscience, also yielded inconsistent results: “For six out of seven measures of brain function, the correlation between tests taken about four months apart with the same person was weak.”

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SOURCE: Christian Post, John Stonestreet and Roberto Rivera