Why are genetics, neuroscience and evolution perceived as corrosive to notions of free will, personal responsibility and the possibility of negotiating a universal code of ethical values1? Steven Pinker (2002) brilliantly unveils a history of major debates on issues that have become increasingly strident.

Pinker reveals the underlying fear of a religious and secular nihilism engendered by materialist theories of consciousness in which the mind emerges solely from the forces of living matter2. Pinker concedes that ‘debating the Pope [on the ontological leap about the existence of the human soul, the higher purpose of knowledge and love of God] is the ultimate exercise in futility’ (Pinker 2002:187). But Pinker’s argument is that the theory that the mind is purely a physical organ is as humane as the doctrine of the immortal soul. In fact Pinker continues, the doctrine of the immortal soul and the reward of life after death, devalues life on earth (Pinker 2002:189).

Picture this, an exiled, persecuted Persian spiritual leader, invited to speak to distinguished audiences in London, Paris, New York . . . to respond to divergent philosophies that had emerged during his decades of imprisonment. In 1911 after strolling through the Trocadero Gardens near the Eiffel Tower he shared his thoughts on the relationship between mind, body and spirit. He acknowledged the way in which the terminology of soul, mind and spirit differed between the ancient and modern philosophers. The ancient philosophers used the term ‘soul’ as sensations of emotion as a function of the reality. The concept of ‘mind’ was used to describe the power that discussed the reality of phenomena. The concept of ‘spirit’ was used to discuss ‘consciousness’.

Abdul-Baha (1911) offered an alternative to the way in which philosophers described the relationship between body, mind, soul and spirit. He described how the mind as a faculty is a power superior to the soul because through the mind man can investigate the reality of every phenomena. The spirit is a third power differentiated from the soul and the mind. This third power, the spirit, involves an ontological leap of faith and cannot be deduced from a purely rational, scientific investigation of material phenomena. The soul is the motive power of the physical body, the intermediary between the body and the spirit. But it is the mind that can investigate the nature of reality choosing rationally to either open the soul to the spirit or to focus completely on the embodied self dependent on material comforts and needs. Each individual is called to use her rational mind and intellect to investigate truth individually. According to Abdul-Baha, those who choose to live in an entirely material world without need for spiritual qualities risk a weakening and eventual atrophy of the soul.

Pinker replaces the concept of ‘spirit’ with ‘consciousness’ and rejects the concept of the immortal soul leaving us with a mortal brain and a mind dependent on and emanating from purely material living matter. He argues that the “doctrine of a soul that outlives the body is anything but righteous, because it devalues the lives we live on this earth.” (Pinker 2002:189) He argues that it is more humane to use the sciences of physiology and genetics to alleviate suffering from Alzheimer’s and major depression than to rely on the ontological leap of spiritual souls based on the premise that thought and emotion are manifestations of an immaterial soul. What Abdul-Baha is saying is that we don’t need to choose between the two. Science will provide cures for those aspects of mental illness caused by purely physical, physiological or genetic manifestations in the body. But how many of us seriously believe that science will provide answers for existential crises? And what about the ethical and historical relationship between incidents of suicides and the structural, political, economic realities that engendered unhealthy environments in which certain groups of people are socially excluded and at heightened risk for mental collapse? Despair is not a state of consciousness, brain or mind but of the human spirit.

The dilemma lies then with the ethical topography of self and the other to which Pinker responds convincingly. This intrigues me. How far can we go towards a set of universal values within an entirely materialist framework? Or how humane is human nature when disengaged from a higher form of consciousness called the spiritual?

Belief that a purely materialist view that human nature, body with consciousness but not spirit, will lead to a more humane world, a golden age of understanding human nature, resonates with the belief that the science of economics with its dogma of free trade will provide the solution to the extremes of wealth and poverty.


Abdul-Baha. 1911. Causeries d’Abdu’l Baha à Paris (Les ). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Talks

Abdul-Baha. 1911. “Concerning Body, Soul and Spirit.” Paris Talks.

Bergson, Henri. 1907. Creative Evolution (L’Evolution créatrice).

Bergson, Henri. 1932. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion).

Ferguson, A. 1999. “The End of Nature and the Next Man: Review of E. Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption.” Weekly Standard. January 12.

Gould, S. J. 1976. “Criminal Man Revived.” Natural History. 85:10-21.

Kass, L. 1997. “The End of Courtship.” Public Interest. 126. Winter.

Lewis, C. S. 2002. [1952]. “Mere Christianity.” in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: Harper Collins.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.

Rose, S. 1978. “Pre-Copernican Sociobiology?” New Scientist. 80:45-6.

Wolfe, Tom. 1996. “Sorry but your Soul Just Died.” Forbes ASAP. December 2.

Wolfe, Tom. 2000. “Sorry but your Soul Just Died.” Ellipses.


1 Pinker cites partisans on the political left and right (Rose, Gould, Kass, Wolfe and Ferguson) who ironically are in agreement that the ‘new sciences of human nature threaten the concept of moral responsibility’ (Pinker 2002:132-3).

2 Pinker’s materialist view of human nature is part of a vast spectrum of materialist theories that are as numerous as divergent religious views. Henri Bergson’s (1859-1941) who enjoyed a cult-like status in his lifetime presented his view of Creative Evolution, Emergent Evolution, the Life-Force through the concept of un esprit vital, which vivified the entire universe with purposeful life. In Creative Evolution (1907) Bergson integrated findings of biological science with a theory of consciousness. According to some readings of the theory of Creative Evolution, Bergson denied the existence of the God of static religion but accepted that some force provided the impetus so that lowest forms evolved purposefully into the more perfected form of Man. (In 1914 the Roman Catholic Church, placed Bergson’s books on the Index of prohibited books. Bergson’s theories were in opposition to Catholic dogma as defined by the 13th century Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas). C. S. Lewis (2002:31-2 [1952]) argued that this Life-Force was really a tame version of God and an open dynamic inclusive religion without the discomfort of moral consequences of rigid Kantian moral imperatives. (Lewis suggests Bernard Shaw as a source of the wittiest version of Creative Evolution.) Bergson’s ideas and the man himself became an object of ridicule to the next generation of French Marxist humanist intellectuals, like Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) although Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Lévinas acknowledged his influence on their thought. Gilles Deleuze’s (1966) Bergsonism realizing the enduring contribution of Bergson’s concept of multiplicity, revitalized his work. Since the 1990s there has been an increased interest in Bergson’s thought.

© 2007 Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Can science bring us into a golden age of understanding human nature? (Pinker 2002)” > Speechless. April 26. http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddp3qxmz_219dwbrzk

There were six siblings and we each experienced it differently. I was in my first year of university when he had the third and final operation which meant that both his legs were gone. The weekend I brought Dave home to meet the family, during his sleep my Dad, not yet used to the shortness of both stumps rolled out of his hospital bed- which was set up in what used to be our living room. He didn’t want to wake my Mom so he reached up to his bedside table for his pipe. When my Mom saw the empty bed in the morning, for an instant she thought he had died and gone to heaven, literally. But then she saw the familiar trail of the smoking pipe. She called for Dave. Dave had been working all summer as a lifeguard and he lifted my Dad back into his bed effortlessly clinching my Dad’s admiration for him.

Creeping gangrene, war wounds and phantom limbs were part of everyday life vocabulary during my teen years. He never complained. He was always so grateful for my mother’s care. He was gentle. They spoke of the phantom limb phenomenon with visitors as just another small detail of interest in an otherwise routine life. He didn’t speak of pain but of an itch. I think he even chuckled at the thought.

As I try to piece together the disjointed readings on consciousness that have consumed me lately, I was surprised at how often the phantom limb phenomenon entered into the conversations. It challenged assumptions about the relationship between mind and body.

In 1637 René Descartes referred to the phantom limb experience of a young girl to argue for the dualism of mind-body where the body is fragmented while the mind is unified See also Wade (2006).

In the late 20th century these dynamic neural processes became the topic of more detailed investigation (Ramachandran 1993). Neuroscientists using powerful sophisticated MEGs and MRIs are challenging scientific assumptions about the neural plasticity of the adult brain. Phantom corporeal embodiment is one of the areas of investigation.

I am not attempting to trace a complete history of the debates around the concept of consciousness. I am concerned with what is being done in the name of consciousness studies that may impact on memory work, ethics, self and the Other-I, at-risk populations and most importantly the political implications of the study of consciousness on the way mental health is constructed. During the1970s academic disciplines became increasingly fragmented. With the study of consciousness various disciplines such as cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology (qualia, Folk psychology), psychiatry (pharmapsychiatry), psychobiology, pharmacology and literature (chroniclers of consciousness) and philosophy (phenomenology) and even neuralphenomenology will hopefully benefit from more collaborative inclusive research projects. This will perhaps lead to the dissemination of useful academic research in stages which will include articles written for those outside individual distinct disciplines. At the end of the twentieth century philosophers of the mind have also been more open to investigating what has been done in the name of consciousness studies in religious practice.

Phenomenology studies conscious experience from the first-person point of view. See Smith (2003).

Something must have triggered or stimulated a similar pattern from Dad’s memory, something from the past, and suddenly he could feel something that wasn’t there. Following major wars there were many of them and they must have talked among themselves. But this was just a disorder of bodily perception. The concept of feeling pain in a missing limb was counter-intuitive. It could only be reported through first-person experience, qualia.

Selected Webliography and Bibliography

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Barthes, Roland. 1977. Death of the Author. London: Fontana. http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/wyrick/debclass/whatis.htm

Burge, Tyler. 1992. “Philosophy of Language and Mind: 1950-1990.” The Philosophical Review. 101:1.

Burge, Tyler. 1992. “Philosophy of Language and Mind: 1950-1990.” Philosophy in Review: Essays on Contemporary Philosophy (Jan., 1992), pp. 3-51.

Wolfe, Charles T. 2007. “De-ontologizing the Brain: from the fictional self to the social brain.” 1000 Days of Theory. 2007-02-14. CTheory.

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Clark, Andy, Chalmers, David J. 1998. “The Extended Mind.” P. Grim, P. Ed. The Philosopher’s Annual, vol XXI.

Damasio, Antonio. 2003. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. New York: Harcourt.

Dennett, Daniel C. 1991. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown.

Du Bois-Reymond, Emil. 1872. “About the limits of natural knowledge.”

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Timeline of Consciousness.” > Google Docs. Uploaded March 2, 2007. ©© Creative Commons Copyright License 2.5.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Timeline of Consciousness.” > Speechless. Uploaded March 2, 2007. ©© Creative Commons Copyright License 2.5.

Goldman, Alvin I. 1993. “The Psychology of Folk Psychology.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 16:15-28.

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Johnson, Mark. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. University of Chicago.

Johnson, Mark, Lakoff, George. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books.

Kluger, Jeffrey. 2007. “The New Map Of The Brain.” Time. Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007.

Lemonick, Michael D. 2007. “The Flavor Of Memories.” Time. Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007.

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McGinn, Colin. 1989. “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?Mind. 98:391: 349-366.

McGonigle, David J. 2005. “The Body in Question: Phantom Phenomena and the View from Within.” The Phantom Limb: a Neurobiological Diagnosis with Aesthetic, Cultural and Philosophical Implications.

McGinn, Colin. 1993. Problem of Consciousness: essays towards a resolution. Blackwell Publishing.

Nadeau, Robert L. 1991. Mind, Machines, and Human Consciousness. Chicago: Contemporary Books.

Penrose, Roger. 1989. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pinker, Steven. 2007. “The Mystery of Consciousness .” Time. Friday, Jan. 19, 2007.

Ramachandran, V. S.; D. C. Rogers-Ramachandran & M. Stewart. 1992. “Perceptual correlates of massive cortical reorganization.” Science. No. 258/5085: 1159-1160.

Ramachandran, V. S., and Blakeslee. S. 1998. Phantoms in the Brain. London: Fourth Estate.

Smith, David Woodruff. 2003. “Phenomenology.” > Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Van Gulick, Robert. 2004. “Consciousness” > Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Van Gulick 2004)

Wade, Nicholas. 2005. “The legacy of phantom limbs.” The Phantom Limb: a Neurobiological Diagnosis with Aesthetic, Cultural and Philosophical Implications.

Wilson, Edward O. 1971. Insect Societies. Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-45490-1.

Wilson, Edward O. 2006. The Creation: A Meeting of Science and Religion. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Wilson, Edward O. 1975. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Belknap Press, ISBN 0-674-81621-8

Wolfe, Tom. 1996. “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died.” Forbes. 158:13. pp.210.

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Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Timeline of Consciousness.” > Speechless. Uploaded March 2, 2007. ©© Creative Commons Copyright License 2.5.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Timeline of Consciousness.” > Speechless. Uploaded March 2, 2007. ©© Creative Commons Copyright License 2.5.