So far, what they’ve managed to do is scan a small section of a rat’s brain into a supercomputer. To scan the entire rat’s brain will take more capacity than is currently available in any computer in the world, but they’re counting on Moore’s law (that computer processing power doubles every two years) to make it possible in the near future. Scanning a human brain is the longer term goal, requiring a computer with tens of thousands of times more processing capacity than Blue Gene, the supercomputer they are currently using.
One of many things that I found interesting is that they could show the simulated cortical column that dealt with visual information the picture of a flower, and it responded with activity. The scientists were very excited, saying that this verifies that, if they can just get a computer large enough, they can scan in an entire human brain and intelligence – perhaps even consciousness – will happen.
Now this seems to me a bit of a leap. They have activity. But how do they know it is meaningful activity? And, even if they manage to scan the substructures of an entire human brain (hopefully using somewhat less destructive scanning techniques than the one they use for rats), what makes them certain that what they will get is intelligence, consciousness, and memory?
This led me to reflect on the difference between life and not-life.
The standard definition of life is: being made of one or more cells, being capable of reproduction, responding to the environment, adapting and changing, requiring a source of energy, and growing and/or developing.
By this definition, however, a brain tumour is life.
Let’s play with the idea that I read a few years back – I can’t recall the source, but I was on a “physics and the origins of life” kick at the time. Not-life tends to chaos; life tends to order. Or, to put it another way, not-life tends to dissolution, life tends to organisation; not-life slips, life climbs.
If you add this to the above definition, a brain tumour is not-life.
Let’s try it: being made of one or more cells ordered to a purpose, being capable of reproduction, responding to the environment, adapting and changing, requiring a source of energy, and growing and/or developing.
Which brings us back to the soul.
Most religions and philosophers agree that the soul is life – plant, animal, or human. That is, the soul is that quality of an organism that makes it an organism rather than a collection of chemicals – that inner direction towards order. Without the soul, the organism reverts to its base chemicals (or – more commonly – is consumed in which case its constituents become ordered to the purposes of another soul).
So is the human soul different, and if so what makes it different?
It seems to me that most of the things we count as being part of our difference can be explained as emergent properties of our developing intelligence. We may (or may not) be more developed, but there is a recognisable precedent in the higher animals. Here are some of the things animals have that we also have:
- social organisation
- tool use
- a sense of humour
- a sense of aesthetics
- a sense of self
- the ability to plan for the future.
You might be able to add to the list, but I have seen research for each of these areas that credibly describes deliberate acts by animals that seem to indicate that some individuals, at least, share these characteristics.
Here are two things we’ve not observed:
- symbolic thinking
- an awareness of god.
It is possible that we just haven’t done the right experiments, or perhaps these two things really are unique human characteristics. So have we found the characteristics of the human soul?
The Church tells us only three things:
- the soul is the innermost aspect of the human person (and this may just as easily apply to other animals as well)
- each human soul is created directly by God
- the human soul is eternal.
It seems to me that this doctrine is compatible with the idea that the difference between our first human parents and other hominids was that they had an awareness of God, and sufficient freedom from instinct that they could chose freely to do something that was against their instincts.
How do you like it so far?