Split Brains: No Headache for the Soul Theorist

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Split Brains: No Headache for the Soul Theorist
DAVID B. HERSHENOV Department of Philosophy, University at Buffalo, Buffalo NY, 14217 USA [email protected]
ADAM P. TAYLOR Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND, 58108-6050, USA [email protected]
Abstract Split brains that result in two simultaneous streams of consciousness cut off from each other are wrongly held to be grounds for doubting the existence of the divinely created soul. The mistake is based on two related errors: first, a failure to appreciate the soul’s dependence upon neurological functioning. Secondly, a fallacious belief that if the soul is simple, i.e., without parts, then there must be a unity to its thought, all of its thoughts potentially accessible to reflection or even unreflective causal interactions. But a soul theorist can allow neurological events to keep some conscious thoughts unavailable to others.
It is commonly thought that the phenomenon of the split brain delivers a decisive knockout blow to soul theories.1 The phenomenon is well known to neuroscientists as well as philosophers of
mind. Brain splitting involves a surgical procedure known as commissurotomy, which severs the
neural fibers of the corpus callosum, resulting in either a partial or complete interruption of inter-
hemispheric communication. As a consequence of the procedure, which was first developed as a
means to treat epileptic seizures, the patients experience a bifurcation of consciousness into two
apparent “streams-of-thought.” Materialist philosophers of mind have widely contended that these
results contradict the supposed unity and simplicity of the soul. This will be unwelcome news to the
many theists who believe their religious beliefs require they be immaterial or have an immaterial component.2
But to continue with the boxing metaphor that began this paper, we don’t think split brains
even help the materialist contenders win their bouts with dualists on points. The fact that the
splitting of the brain results in two contemporaneous spheres of consciousness that are in some

ways inaccessible to the other is not grounds for denying that there is one soul involved, the same soul that was thinking the person’s thoughts before the brain splitting. The mistake is based on two related errors. First, such a position fails to appreciate the soul’s dependence upon neurological functioning. Secondly, such a mistake is grounded in a fallacious belief that if the soul is simple, i.e., without parts, then there must be a unity to its thought. Thus unity could consist in all of its thoughts potentially accessible to (self-conscious) reflection or, at least, unreflective (merely conscious) causal interactions. But a soul theorist can allow neurological events to keep some conscious thoughts unavailable to others.
Our contention is that not only should theists realize that split brains aren’t a problem for their soul theories, but an extension of the phenomenon actually provides support for a divine creation account of the soul over the rival accounts of emergent dualists or Unger’s dispositional theory of the soul. As pointed out long ago by Parfit, if the two separated cerebral hemispheres can each give rise to conscious states then, barring technical problems, it should be possible to transplant each consciousness-supporting hemisphere into a different brain (Parfit (1984), 251-55). Assuming the two resulting thinking beings would be distinct agents and persons, then there will be a need for at least one new soul attached to one of the cerebral hemispheres. However, an account needs to be given why two more souls didn’t emerge or were disposed to interact with the separated cerebral hemispheres before the fission and transplant. The emergent dualist and the dispositional soul theorist need the hemispheres to somehow prevent the appearance of another soul prior to the fissioning and transplant without preventing the presence of the single soul correlated with the entire brain. The theist has the advantage of a less convoluted theory in which God bestows just one soul upon the typical person’s body and then bestows the souls needed in the fission and transplant scenario to ensure that there are two agents controlling their respective bodies. 3

The Split Brain Objection to Dualism Jeff McMahan offers what we take to be a standard form of these objections to the soul based on the split brain phenomenon. He believes that souls are individuated, at least in part, by the range of thoughts that are consciously grasped. Any thoughts that an immaterial subject can’t access won’t belong to that particular soul. As he says: “If the soul is understood as the subject of consciousness, its boundaries are determined by what it is conscious of. All conscious events occurring simultaneously in a single soul must be co-conscious. If, for example, my soul is the substance coextensive with this field of consciousness, then any conscious events that are occurring now that are not within this field—any conscious events of which I am not now conscious—must be events within a different field of consciousness, a different soul. …a single soul cannot have a divided consciousness” (McMahan (2002), 21). We don’t see why the conclusion follows that a soul can’t have a divided consciousness even if we grant that the soul is conscious of all of its thoughts and some mental events are simultaneously thought. The fact that a single entity can have two streams of consciousness is not at odds with the claim that the same entity is conscious of both. It is just that they don’t interact in a single stream of thought. Even insisting that a soul is self-conscious doesn’t rule out a split brain for the same soul could be self-conscious of both streams but doesn’t entertain contents of both in the same reflections. Perhaps the guiding assumption is an understanding of “co-conscious” that renders consciousness or self consciousness of simultaneous thoughts to mean that they can be thought in relation to each other. This would involve each thought related to another in that each can influence the other or be compared with the other. It seems that it is only that understanding of necessary co-consciousness that rules out the soul having a divided consciousness.

Why maintain that each thought of one and the same soul should be (potentially) involved with every other thought of that soul? Well, it might be because the soul is not extended with parts that can be physically cut off from each other thus blocking communication. This guiding assumption is still spatial in that it treats the soul as if it is either point-like and all of its thoughts are in the same place, or the soul is an extended simple, spread out but without parts able to block access of one conscious state to another. Since they are all together at the same partless location, they must be involved with each other. Notice the spatial language of being co-extensive with a field in McMahan’s earlier quote. It seems that McMahan pictures the soul as being (at least somewhat) analogous to a spatial region. Such regions have clear boundaries, and for any such region, R1, all events occurring within R1 must be co-located within R1. Any events that are not co-located within R1, must be happening in another region, Rn.
In a split brain scenario, certain streams of thought occur in ignorance of each other. A materialist conception of a thinking organism or brain with its spatial parts can easily make sense of thoughts cut off from each other. They are just realized in different parts of the brain, the connections between such segments severed. But a soul doesn’t have spatial divides, so all of its contents should be available to such an immaterial thinker.
It would then seem that a split brain must involve a creation of a new soul or two. And since souls are simple, the original soul can’t split into two. So either the original soul goes out of existence or remains as one of the two resulting souls. But then when the corpus callosum is restored and unity regained, either we have a new soul which mysteriously has the contents of the predecessors or one of the two souls disappeared and its contents miraculously transferred to the other.
Parfit sees the split brain phenomena as reasons to deny what he calls non-reductionist account of the person, the paradigm example being the Cartesian soul. The person is not something

over and above the brain, body and its thoughts. Parfit introduces a thought experiment involving two hemispheres that are each equally able to support the person’s full psychological profile, and a subject who has been equipped with a means of deliberately blocking the communication between hemispheres. When the subject is faced with a difficult physics problem, she decides to activate the device and pursue separate possible solutions to the problem with each hand, the right hand will work on one possible solution, the left on another. When the solutions have been reached, the hemispheres will be reunited and the subject will be able to recall both streams of consciousness. Parfit argues that it is mistaken to object that this picture ignores the necessity of the unity of consciousness. This is because Parfit denies any such necessity. He argues that consciousness is more like a river than a canal. It can divide and reunite as a river does while flowing around an obstacle. When the mind of the subject in the physics exam case divides, two separate consciousnesses are produced. Each consciousness is itself unified, and each is distinct from the other. And neither is the person. Parfit thinks for reasons such as these we do better to adopt a reductionist account of persons which redescribes facts about persons in which the world could be given an entirely impersonal description. He claims:
Because we ascribe thoughts to thinkers, it is true that thinkers exist. But thinkers are not separately existing entities. The existence of a thinker just involves the existence of his brain and body, the doing of his deeds, and the occurrence of certain other physical and mental events. We could therefore describe any person’s life in impersonal terms. In explaining the unity of the life, we need not claim this is the life of a particular person…these claims are supported by the case where I divide my mind. It is not merely true here that the unity of different experiences does not need to be explained by ascribing all of these experiences to me. The unity of my experiences, in each stream, cannot be explained in this way. There only two

alternatives. We might ascribe the experiences in each stream to a subject of experiences which is not me, and, therefore, not a person. Or, if we doubt the existence of such entities, we can accept the Reductionist explanation. (Parfit (1984),. 251). Perhaps lurking in the background of McMahan and Parfit’s thought is an understanding like van Inwagen’s of the soul as a long distance remote control device interacting with the brain or body (van Inwagen (1993), 179). If neurological structures are damaged or inhibited, that should stop communication but not thought. The soul should be able to think during the period that the body is incapacitated, but it would not be able to communicate those thoughts via the organs of the body. But we think this involves a failure to appreciate the dependence of the soul on the brain. It is not actively engaged in thought when the brain is not providing sensations. It isn’t as if it has its own resources which are all self contained, so when the brain is cut off as a source of sensations, the soul can still entertain various thoughts, drawing upon its memories to engage in further reasoning. We don’t conceive of the soul as such an active and independent thinker, able without the brain, to reflect on anything that has transpired before. Let us first point out that emergent dualists such as Hasker (1999) and Zimmerman (2010), as well as those who believe souls are divinely paired up with bodies like Plantinga (2007), or those who accept Unger’s (2006) dispositionally paired soul, all posit a dependence of thought on the brain.4 Zimmerman goes so far as to say that “All contemporary dualists (among philosophers, at least) admit that the ability to think depends on a properly functioning brain” (Zimmerman (2010), 135). The emergentists argue that consciousness arises whenever the brain reaches a certain threshold level of organizational complexity. In less complex states, matter exhibits no consciousness. But when properly organized in the brain, it gives rise to the conscious soul. Hasker uses the analogy of the field generated by a magnet in order to help us grasp the emergentist’s

position. Magnets generate magnetic fields in virtue of the alignment of the micro-fields of their constituent iron molecules. But the magnet and the field it generates are not identical. This is shown by the fact that the magnetic field occupies a region much larger than the magnet does. Furthermore, once the field is generated it takes on sui generis causal powers, moving the magnet itself (Hasker (2002), 190). Similarly the brain produces a soul-field which gives rise to causal powers distinct from those of the brain (for instance allowing for libertarian freedom and the unifying of conscious states, both of which Hasker thinks raises difficulties for property dualism ). Zimmerman, also an emergentist, likewise maintains that the soul depends on the brain. He argues that once there is sufficient neural activity to give rise to consciousness, there will be a subject for that consciousness which is also generated (Zimmerman (2010), 146).
Plantinga argues for a different account of the dependence of the soul on the brain. On his view, which presumes theism, souls are paired with brains by divine act. And while he admits that “appropriate brain activity is a necessary condition for mental activity” he resists the urge to identify mental activities with the brain activities they depend on (Plantinga (2007), 135). He points out that many activities (e.g. walking, mountain climbing, and digesting) depend on the proper function of the brain, but this alone does not make them activities of the brain and nothing else. Dependence is not identity. If it were, Plantinga argues, then, since brain activity depends on blood flow and the proper functioning of the lungs, we’d have reason to conclude that brain activities were really cardiopulmonary activities.
A third option for the dualist is Peter Unger’s dispositionally paired soul (Unger (2006), 151155) Unger’s account of the soul’s relation to the person’s brain (or brains) begins, quite speculatively, in the “monistic plenum” that preceeded the primordial physical universe. He imagines a “Super Big Bang” which then splits reality into two realms. On the one hand there is the spatial realm which contains the physical universe, and on the other hand there is a non-spatial, but

spacelike, realm that contains immaterial simples.5 The immaterial simples possess the requisite dispositions to pair with sufficiently complex “brainy” matter so as to manifest a singular consciousness. He imagines that these souls would have been waiting around for billions of years for their reciprocating material partners to take shape. Elsewhere Unger claims that all souls (not just human souls, but also animal souls) are equivalently rich in their dispositions to produce thought (in concert with the right matter). So how do we explain the differences in the quality of thoughts these equivalently rich souls in fact produce? He argues that difference between a cat and a human is that the human has a better brain to go along with his richly “propensitied” soul.6 As he puts it the human has “got a grand piano” and the cat has “got just a darned kazoo.” This dependency upon our brains, also explains, Unger suggests, how damage to the brain effects thought. In order to exercise its rational powers to the fullest, the soul needs a well-functioning brain.
As will be discussed in a moment, we believe that many critics of soul theories, and indeed many soul theorists, have failed to take seriously enough the proposition that thought depends upon the brain. Critics of soul theories, like McMahan and Parfit, fail to take seriously the notion that the thoughts of the soul are determined by the functioning of the brain. They seem to think of the soul as somewhat independent of the brain, rather like an omnipotent homunculus sitting at the controls of the brain and capable of controlling and correlating its states, regardless of what is going on within. And this mistake makes the soul theory seem weaker than it really is with respect to split brain phenomena. On our view, the brain makes a crucial contribution to the production of thought but it is not a thinker. A rough analogy for a materialist is that they believe the full materially person needs his eyes, but the eyes aren’t the perceiver. Just as we can’t see without our eyes, so is it that we can’t think without a brain (or a similarly cognitively functional substitute). As Aristotle and later Thomas observed, the eye is to sight as the body is to the soul. The soul is not empowered so as to actively shuffle about the contents provided by the brain without regard for how those contents are

organized in the brain, any more than the person is capable of arranging the contents of her vision without regard for how that eyes and brain organize that experience. Rather the soul is more passive or dependent with respect to the brain, receiving its mental contents as they are in situ, and unifying them into the thought life of a single subject. Without the unity and subjectivity provided by the soul, thought couldn’t occur, but nor could it occur without the contributions provided to the soul by the properly functioning brain.
Now let’s turn to the question of the soul’s unity which is allegedly threatened by the split brain case. To soften up the reader to the idea that that the soul’s thoughts need not be always accessible to self-conscious reflection or mutually influencing each other, consider first the diachronic case involving memory loss. Surely opponents of soul theories aren’t going to deny that the soul can be diachronically cut off from some of its past. We don’t think it is different souls that are involved when one can’t recall a name or event from one’s past experience. Thus it appears that the same soul can have contents at one time that are inaccessible to it at another. So does synchronic inability of some thoughts of the soul to be about other thoughts of that soul give us a distinctive reason to abandon one’s belief in the soul? We think the diachronic and the synchronic can be treated alike. Some readers may think the degree of inaccessibility distinguishes the synchronic from the diachronic but we think that consideration will lose its force from what is said later in this paper.
Moreover, a soul need not be self-conscious. If newborns are ensouled and conscious, they are not self-conscious. But the same soul will later actualize such capacities. Why then say the thoughts belong to the same soul and newborn person? One reason is the causal connections between stages of the child’s mind. But we think it better to stress the sameness of the brain linking a soul at one time to the same soul at another time. Of course, when the brain is split, there won’t be causal connection, at least not the ordinary ones within a normal person.

Now onto our main defense which unifies the neurological dependence thesis with the inaccessibility to consciousness. The same soul can be thinking both streams of thought of the split brain patient. Parts, which the soul lacks,7 are not needed to explain the division of thought, that is, a single subject with a divided mind. The dependency on the spatially dependent brain and its parts is enough.
Souls are paired with brains. As a result they have access to thoughts subserved by that brain, and that access occurs in a manner unlike the manner in which they have access to another person’s thoughts. When the brain is split, the soul still thinks all the thoughts realized or subserved somehow by the brain, but those thoughts lack some of their standard interactions. This is a synchronic version of someone being unable to recall something for a period, yet perhaps later being able to. The soul’s dependence upon the brain explains why thoughts in the soul can be isolated from each other. The physical realizations in the brain are isolated from each other. The soul will not be entertaining thoughts independently of certain brain activities. One should avoid being misled by the soul’s simplicity to mean that all of its thoughts must be involved with each other. Perhaps, as we hinted earlier, such an error still involves something like spatializing the soul as a simple all in one place, perhaps the soul is being conceived as point-like or an extended simple without internal barriers. One then assumes that either the thoughts are “piled up” on each other or flow into each other. But that is a mistake; it is projecting the spatial relations of the brain onto the soul. The soul’s having no parts is no reason to claim that all of its thoughts are stored together in some sort of coconscious causal interaction. The simplicity of the soul doesn’t mean that it can compare any thoughts it thinks. The soul’s comparing thoughts, like its thinking any thoughts, depends upon the brain. If the neurological structures are not properly related, neither will be the thoughts of the soul. The split brain prevents neurological interactions which prevents the soul not from thinking the

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Split Brains: No Headache for the Soul Theorist