This is a response to a recent article on Medium.com by Allan Milne Lees entitled ‘Can Souls Exist?’¹
His question is slightly strange, since souls obviously can or might exist; the important question is whether or not they do exist. Lees concludes that they can’t exist, however, because he operates from the assumption of the truth of the philosophy of scientific materialism.
His opening four paragraphs focus upon the brain, which he assumes to be the command centre of the person. His fourth paragraph (and its continuation) is the most relevant here: “And part of the job of the brain is to maintain a sense of self, so that when we wake each morning we don’t have to reconstruct a sense of who and what we are before we get on with the daily tasks of survival. It’s this last job that gives rise to our notion of individual identity… The constant factor in all of this is our sense of self… (In the past humans) easily accepted simple notions about what we were, based on this internal feeling of self-consistency. This sense of self is, however, illusory. We are actually a collection of hardwired impulses and behaviors… This feeling of being ‘us’ is, however, an illusion manufactured inside our brains”.
These are all typical statements from the Bible of scientific materialism, which is a philosophical position that many consider to be an old paradigm which is gradually being replaced by more sophisticated ideas, even by scientists. See for example The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul², and Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness³. Lees’s definitive statements about the brain and our sense of self are merely assumptions for which there is no conclusive evidence. Other understandings of the brain are possible, for example, that it is an organ which limits consciousness, a theory known as the Transmission Model, following William James. Neuroscientists presumably assume that the self is an illusion, because they cannot see it when they do brain scans.
Lees does go into a lot of interesting detail in his argument, but here I’ll focus on the central point. He argues that a soul cannot exist by asking the question, “How could a ‘soul’ interact with the body?” He says: “We now know enough about neuroscience to account for every aspect of our functioning”. I wish I could share his confidence. Another writer on Medium has recently stated: “You would be hard-pressed to find a neuroscientist who knows how the brain works”, and “mysteries and adventures abound in the neurosciences”⁴.
We clearly do not know from neuroscience how to account for every aspect of our functioning, because we don’t know how the brain manages to create the ‘illusion’ of the self.
Lees surely does not believe in the reality of out-of-body experiences, or the weird goings-on around a near-death experience, and must consider them illusions. Again, we do not know how the brain manages to create such elaborate ‘illusions’. If these phenomena are actually real, however, then they may well require a “magical disembodied entity” (his phrase), since neuroscientists cannot explain how the brain creates them.
Nor can materialist neuroscience explain how the brain achieves ESP abilities: telepathy, remote viewing, clairvoyance. All it can do is deny their reality, despite compelling evidence. (See, for example, the writings of Dean Radin.)
Lees then says: “Nor is there any mechanism by means of which such a disembodied entity could interact with the human body”. Really? What he means is that there is no mechanism that modern neuroscience is prepared to contemplate. There is indeed a possible mechanism, for a strong candidate would be the pineal gland, otherwise known as the third eye.
It may be a bitter pill for Western science to swallow, but at some point it is going to have to realise that, despite its supreme self-confidence in its ability to discover truth, and its rejection of pre-Enlightenment thinking, it is very limited, because it deals only with what is manifest and visible. What is called new paradigm or cutting-edge science is only gradually beginning to catch up with the wisdom of ancient peoples, who often explored what is hidden and invisible, what we might call occult science.
Let’s have a look at the pineal gland from such perspectives. Philosopher René Descartes is the Westerner best known for associating it with the soul. In his book Man the Grand Symbol of the Mysteries: Essays in Occult Anatomy ⁵, Manly P. Hall observes that “It was Descartes who saw the pineal gland as the abode of the soul or the sidereal spirit in man. He reasoned that although the anima was joined to every organ of the body, there must be one special part through which the divine portion exercised its functions more directly than through the rest. After concluding that neither the heart nor the brain could be as a whole that special locality, he decided through a process of elimination that it must be that little gland which, though bound to the brain, yet had an action or motion independent of it”.
Biologist Rupert Sheldrake says: “Mechanistic science… expelled all souls from nature. The material world became literally inanimate, a soulless machine… No one could explain how minds related to the machinery of human bodies, but René Descartes speculated that they interacted in the pineal gland…”⁶
Descartes may or may not have been correct, but his thinking at least allows the pineal gland to be a candidate for the connection between soul and body. What can be said, with a reasonable degree of certainty, is that the pineal gland, if not this connection, at least allows access to a different level of reality since it is widely believed to allow ESP abilities. Thus, in her book Where Science and Magic Meet⁷, parapsychologist Serena Roney-Dougal devotes a whole chapter to the pineal gland, which she calls ‘Third Eye and Psychic Chakra’. Here she quotes Swami Satyananda Saraswati: “Yogis, who are scientists of the subtle mind, have always spoken of telepathy as a ‘siddhi’, a psychic power for thought communication and clairaudience, etc. The medium of such siddhis is ajna chakra, and its physical terminus is the pineal gland, which is connected to the brain. It has been stated by great yogis… that the pineal gland is the receptor and sender of the subtle vibrations which carry thoughts and psychic phenomena throughout the cosmos”.
Michael Talbot observes: “The pineal body is thought by many to be a vestigial sensory organ and is partly composed of light-sensitive tissue similar to that found in the retina of the eye. This, (Keith) Floyd asserts, seems ‘to lend support to the speculation that it might serve as the “grid” of patterned ambiguity on which perceptions are constructed and memories are reconstructed’. How appropriate, considering that the pea-sized organ has long been regarded in the East as the ‘third eye’ or mystical doorway to spiritual awareness”⁸.
If that is the case, then it is reasonable to conclude that the pineal gland might well be the mechanism by which the disembodied entity of the soul interacts with the human body.
Lees concludes: “So people will go on clinging to the idea of a ‘soul’ just as many children cling on to their belief in the Tooth Fairy long after their more astute peers have worked out that it’s really mommy and daddy who put the coin under their pillow while they’re asleep. It’s a harmless enough delusion for the most part and we shouldn’t begrudge people their comforts”. A more interesting question would be why so many people find comfort in the delusion of scientific materialism.
2. by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, HarperOne, 2007
3. by Alva Noë, Hill and Wang, 2009
4. Russell Anderson, https://towardsdatascience.com/i-dont-believe-in-electrons-8f1b59adc1ec
5. Martino Publishing, 2009, p211
6. The Science Delusion, Coronet, 2012, p21
7. Element Books, 1991, my copy Green Magic, 2010. The quote is on p93.
8. Mysticism and the New Physics, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, p56