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Neuroscientific Mirages: Are We No More Than Our Brains?

Neuroscientific Mirages: Are We No More Than Our Brains?

In the middle ages, scholars often began their debates and expositions with the formula: videtur quod non,meaning, “it would appear that such and such is not true.” Thus, the scholars defended their thesis in 2 steps.

First, the discussions centered on the considerations that made the thesis seemingly unlikely. Subsequently, the scholars argued that these considerations were not valid.

Here we will follow the reverse path: videtur quod sic, meaning, “it seems that such and such is true,” to subsequently show that actually it is untrue.

The issue at stake: It appears that in psychiatry, soul and mind have to retreat in favor of the brain and that brain sciences will soon occupy center stage, if that is not already the case.

Here we argue that this prediction is insufficiently grounded, and that if it should happen, the damage to psychiatry would be considerable.

Some definitions first

To begin with, briefly, the definitions of the concepts involved. The word “soul” (or psyche) is used as a metaphor for the conglomerate of psychic functions that enable man to be cognizant of both the world around him and his inner world, to make contact with fellow men, and to interpret that information both intellectually and emotionally.

The word “mind” is used to indicate those ingredients of the soul that make each individual into a unique self. It pertains to the internal structure of the self: the cognitive style of an individual, his ability to analyze, to conceptualize, and the depth and variegation of his emotional repertoire. Mind refers to his aspirations, hopes, and disappointments, his ability to love and to make moral judgments, the measure of his self-consciousness, etc. Mind also encompasses man’s urge to achieve purpose and meaning as well as his desire to provide life with a vertical dimension, to once in a while reach out beyond the horizon—where the lands lie of our dreams, our imagination, and the metaphysical experiences—and where religious sensitivity finds its birthplace.

Mind makes man identifiable for himself and others. Mind is the very essence of selfhood. It overshadows the bodily characteristics of the self by far. Phrased parsimoniously: the soul provides the basic tools with which the unique edifice of the mind is constructed.

Did Descartes err?

The relationship between body and soul has been debated by philosophers for thousands of years. Descartes is linked to the notion that a sharp distinction should be made between body and mind. The body—the res extensa—has spatial extensiveness; the mind—the res cogitans—on the other hand, does not. Both “substances” were thought to operate independently, apart from a possible hyphen Descartes hypothetically located in the pineal gland. The body could be studied with mechanical tools, like a machine; the mind could not, was a domain for philosophical studies.

Descartes has often been misunderstood, taken for a rigorous dualist. For instance, Damasio1 wrote: “Descartes imagined thinking an activity quite separate from the body.” Damasio erred. Descartes considered features such as “feelings” and “tendencies” body- (ie, brain-) dependent. The mind was not, could not be, because it was considered to be immortal. In his day and age, this viewpoint could hardly be (openly) questioned.


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