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Exorcizing the Ghost from the Machine?


Not too long ago Patrick Schultz wrote a most interesting article for StrangeNotions.com on the nature of the “self” (or rather, the lack of one) if we attempt to describe human beings in material terms. Specifically, he says, when materialists try to explain the human person, “something quite puzzling (and frightening) occurs—human subjectivity disappears; that which makes humans human is explained away. The personal pronoun ‘I’ is swallowed up.”

Shultz then illustrates this idea through the words of one of my favourite popular science writers, Carl Sagan. A materialist himself (he famously imagined human beings as “stardust”), Sagan once described himself as “a collection of water, calcium, and organic molecules called Carl Sagan. You are a collection of almost identical molecules with a different collective label.”1 When talking about himself, Sagan does not describe a single entity, but a collection of many diverse particles, piled five feet and eleven inches high (or so Google told me when I asked it how tall he was). I might refer to Sagan, were he alive and standing near me today (along with myself), as a particular assortment of chemical compounds, the sum total of all those little “parts”.

But this is of course contrary to my intuitive experience, and I’m sure the same is true for you as well. As a matter of fact, I happen to be standing in front of my computer right now typing these words, just as (a bit later from my point of view) you now happen to be reading them. In either case, “I” and “you” are singular pronouns, and I certainly experience this moment as a single united experience: there are my thoughts as I write, the movement of my hands across the keyboard, the David Bowie album I happen to be listening to (1976’s Station to Station), my simultaneous Facebook chat with a good friend (Hello Paulina!) and the sight of these very words as they appear on the screen. All these things, occurring simultaneously in this present moment, are part of a single noisy, busy, (yet somehow) unified experience, which I am now living.

But how can that be? How can I be, if I am really nothing but an assemblage of collected chemical compounds, or (perhaps better), a mobile bag of (mostly) water? Where am I located, in the midst of all these collected bits and diverse streams of experience? It seems strange that I should be only “one”, experiencing the world as a single thing (my “self”), for the many particles composing my body are not one, and water molecules are not conscious (otherwise, since the brain is about 75% water, we might hope to increase our intelligence by drinking more of it). Schultz ends his article with the illustration of the Iron Man’s empty suit (sans Tony Stark), and asks us to imagine that materialists are essentially saying that this is all human beings really are (though I prefer the more timeless idea of an empty suit of knight’s armor. But I digress). So has Schultz pointed out the Achilles’ heel of materialism? After all, how could something so absurd be true?

Even though Schultz and I certainly play for the same team, theologically speaking, I would have to disagree with him. Because the reality, I think, is so much more complicated. The self does indeed exist (it would be silly to deny such a thing, for one must have a “self” if one is to deny it, accept it, or try to imagine it). And so the question is this: Where does the “self” come from? Put differently, how can I understand my “self” in relation to the particles composing my body? What I would like to do with the remainder of is article, then, is to consider these questions.

Mind and matter and matter and mind

One fact that we must take into account, if we are going to explain the existence of the mind, is its apparent dependence upon the “stuff” of the brain. Neurons, the pathways between them, and the activity in which they engage, all seem instrumental and necessary if we hope to think, act, or interact with the world. Drop a brick on my head, damage or destroy a part of the brain, and my abilities will become impaired.

The correspondence between damage to the brain and cognitive ability was noted famously over 150 years ago by the French physician Pierre Paul Broca, and the discovery he made while doing the autopsy of a man known as “Tan”. Tan had been hospitalized for many years, and had almost completely lost the ability to speak; the only word he could say, in fact, was “Tan”, and he repeated it over and over as he attempted to communicate. Following Tan’s death, when Broca removed and studied his brain, Broca found extensive damage to the frontal lobe of its left hemisphere, to an area known today as “Broca’s area”. Later studies confirmed that this particular brain region was responsible for producing spoken language. Damage it, and you would destroy anyone’s ability to speak.2

This, and many other cases (such as the famous example of Phineas Gage, whom I would recommend you read all about) suggests a definite correspondence between my subjective experience and abilities, and the particles composing my body (and more specifically, my brain).

Do You Want to Build a Snowman?

Another idea I would like to consider, as we contemplate the nature of the mind (and of the self) is the idea of “emergence”. This is basically the idea that things can in fact be more than the sum of their parts. In other words, I can be made of all the things Carl Sagan listed (water, calcium, and organic molecules), and yet still be more than that, as a unique, living, thinking being.

Consider water, for example. Not only does the stuff comprise most of our bodies, but it is itself comprised of two distinct components (hydrogen and oxygen). Hydrogen and oxygen are two completely different things, each with its own chemical and physical properties. And yet when they combine together, as two hydrogen atoms bond with an oxygen atom, they produce something new (water!), with chemical and physical properties all its own. And so the many combine into one, and the one is different from those components out of which it is comprised. Water behaves in a way in which hydrogen or oxygen alone never would. Other chemical compounds behave differently with one another, then, than they otherwise would. And this may be something important to keep in mind (no pun intended).

Sagan may have described himself as a collection of chemical compounds, but it’s important to realize that these compounds may behave in distinct and unexpected ways when in “close quarters” (or held together by the same skin and skeletal structure). Perhaps self-awareness and intelligence are very unusual (even miraculous) sorts of chemical reactions arising from compounds composing the human body?

A simple illustration. I cannot build a snowman out of one hydrogen atom, or even a the contents of a tank filled with hydrogen, but bond a hydrogen atom to an oxygen atom (many times), accumulate a large amount of water, freeze it under the right conditions, and make the proper deliberate actions (rolling the snow into balls and stacking them) and I can! I can hardly accurately describe my snowman as a collection of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. After all, the temperature, the structure and properties of snowflakes, and my wish to build a snowman have all combined to create something which is more than just the sum of its parts.

The point is, a suit of armor (or Tony Stark’s suit) is indeed inert and “nothing-buttery”; it is only a fancy hunk of metal, so long as there’s no one inside it. But the human body is very different from a suit of armor; it is active and alive, containing a plethora of varied chemical compounds that act and interact with one another. My “self”, then, could be such an emergent property, arising from the structure, properties, and interactions occurring between my own component parts.

I am Large; I Contain Multitudes

Let’s put all this together now, with one other interesting fact about the brain, as I think it will shed some new (and surprising) light on the nature of the mind. We’ve been searching for the one “self” amongst the bits and pieces and particles composing the body (and especially the brain). But what if the truth were more complicated? 160 years ago the poet Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.”3 And though he could not have known it then, Whitman may have been literally right. While treating patients suffering from epilepsy, neurobiologist Roger Sperry cut the nerves connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This experimental surgery was done to prevent seizures from spreading from one side of the brain to the other. But then something incredible happened: each half of the brain, severed from the other, appeared to take on a life of its own. Each hemisphere became the source of a separate mind, each one of equal intelligence but differing in abilities.4 Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, who worked under Dr. Sperry at that time, describes what happened:

In later experiments with other patients, we put assorted objects within reach of the left hand but blocked form view. A picture of one of the objects was flashed to the right hemisphere, and the left hand felt among the objects and was able to select the one that had been pictured. When asked, “Did you see anything?” or “What is in your left hand?” the patient denied seeing the picture and could not describe what was in his left hand. In another scenario we flashed the picture of a bicycle to the right hemisphere and asked the patient if he had seen anything. Once again he replied in the negative, but his left hand drew a picture of a bike.5

But Gazzaniga does not suggest that every human being is in fact a pair, or two minds sharing one body (recall Aristophanes’ story from Plato’s Symposium). Rather, Gazzaniga goes much further than that, suggesting that each hemisphere is composed of many smaller “minds”, and that these little minds (or sites of particular mental process) connect together to form larger and more complex structures capable of doing and understanding more and more. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, growing larger and larger as it accumulates more and more snow. Smaller brain structures connect together to form the two hemispheres, which in turn connect together to form a whole brain and a single “self”. [vi] Out of many, one.

Though a strange idea, it isn’t really all that new. Long before Walt Whitman, Plato suggested the same thing in The Republic. There we can read Socrates’ comparison of the human being to a city, and his suggestion that the former is just a smaller version of the latter. After all, our bodies are composed of cells which perform specific tasks, and so too are cities composed of people who go to do their jobs every day. Human bodies are “cities” built up out of cells, their tissues which are made of cells, their organs (made of tissues), and systems (made of organs), thus making the body a complete whole of cooperating interdependent parts. Plato thought our cities were built the same way: our countries are formed of similar units: people instead of cells, families and associations composed of individual people, institutions made of families and associations, and society as a whole. As above, so below.


So we might be able to understand the “self” as a real thing that nonetheless depends on a very specific combination of chemical compounds, chemical reactions, structure, and environment (since human bodies would not survive on the surface of the sun, for example). Naturally, though, plenty of mysteries remain, as the complexity of this structure and the nature of all the chemical reactions taking place within our bodies continue to lie beyond our present understanding. We can remain open to the mystery of how such a remarkable thing as the “self” could have ever arisen in nature (if we are naturalists, that is. Theists, of course, already know the answer to that mystery). And we can marvel at the nature of the “self” that emerges from such a remarkable set of circumstances and is capable of doing so much (music, art, novels, pyramids, rocket ships, roller-coasters, and everything else we can create).

One last thing deserves a mention. I would like to remind readers that the idea of the “self” as a result of environment, structure, and chemical reactions does not invalidate the idea of the soul. Not at all. Already, I have noted the similarity of Gazzaniga’s idea of the mind as a collection of smaller minds to the idea of the human being described in Plato’s Republic. And any student of Aristotle knows that the soul is best understood as the form (or the “living structure”) of the body. According to Aristotle’s understanding, the soul is the power a human being has to grow, move, or think. Even if the “self” is indeed the result of a collection of chemical compounds or an assemblage of particles, I don’t think Schultz has any reason to worry.

I am still here.
(Image credit: New Statesman)


  1. Sagan, C. 1980/2013. Cosmos. New York: Ballantine. pg. 134.
  2. Seung, S. 2012. Connectome: How the brain's wiring makes us who we are. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pg. 11-12.
  3. Whitman, W. 2010. Song of myself and other poems. R. Hass & P. Ebencamp (Eds). Berkeley: Counterpoint Books. pg. 131.
  4. Gazzaniga, M.S. 2011.Who’s in charge? Free will and the science of the brain. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. pg. 31.
  5. Ibid., pg. 57.
Matthew Allen Newland

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Matthew Allen Newland, PhD (c) studies at the Dominican University College of Ottawa, Ontario. He lives in Montreal, Quebec with his lovely wife, Olesia, and their two young children. He recently published his first book, Waiting in Joyful Hope: Reflections on Humanity’s Desire for Immortality and Its Possibility, which considers the possibility of bodily resurrection in greater detail.

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