Niels Christian Hvidt


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The Heart and the Brain - Feature Article on the Relationship between Modern Neurology and the Concept of the Soul. Interview with Dr. John Cornwell and Prof., Dr. Med. Jes Olesen

Modern Neurology without most people being aware of it is about to change the way, we look at ourselves as human beings. Neurology has made it clear that much what is related to the soul or to the mind is located in gray brain-cells. It is no longer possible to maintain a separation of man in to hermetically separated parts – a body part and a soul part.

This way of looking at man has been dominating most areas of thinking, most certainly western culture. Since the Greek philosophers separated the world in physical and non-physical we have looked at ourselves as almost as split beings, even though we normally may walk around feeling a unity. In the thought of René Descartes (1596-1650) this separation received its most extreme expression. Man is made out of two substances: A res cogitans – the substance of consciousness – and a res extensa – the material substance.

It is this model, neurology is about to challenge to its very foundation, due to the indication of the role of the brain in mental life. This new knowledge has left an empty space. The dualistic way of thinking about man is so fundamental to us that we don’t really know what to do without it. If human feelings are so intimately linked to the operations of the brain, does it make any sense to maintain the idea of a soul? Is it not better to get over with it by simply concluding that man and man’s riches of feelings and insights are nothing more than the product of an incredible amount of chemical reactions and electrical impulses in the brain? Is, in that case, atheism not the necessary consequence of modern neurology? Or is there a golden mid-way, which allows us to maintain the idea of a non-material soul and a life of feelings that is not limited to processes in the brain?

We have spoken with two persons, that both occupy themselves with the brain. One is Professo Jes Olesen, consultant at the Neurological Department of Glostrup Hospital, Denmark. The other is Professor John Cornwell, leader of Popular Understanding of Science – an institute in Cambridge, Great Britain, who works in the area of communicating scientifical results and their implications in society to the every day normal person.

Interview with Prof. John Cornwell

Interview with Prof. Jes Olesen


Interview with John Cornwell

The Soul and the Brain

Berlingske Tidende, 07.02.98

The philosophy of science is a discipline that tries to investigate the patterns of thought that lie at the basis of the intellectual universe of science. Eksistens talked with one of the most well known philosophers of science, John Cornwell from Cambridge in order to discuss certain problems regarding the relationship between the soul and the brain.

John Cornwell in 1989 was elected to a fellowship in Cambridge in the area of what is called Public Understanding of Science. Today he stands midway between what scientists do and the implications of the works of the scientists for society. His particular interest is in the neuroscience of the brain – an area that is most likely to effect the way in which we see ourselves far more than the cosmologies of people like Stephen Hawkins.

John Cornwell has – among many other – written two books which in particular relate to the topic of this article. The first is Nature’s Imagination. It is about the philosophy of science and was published in 1994. In 1996 he published the book The Power to Harm which has sold in large quantities especially in the United States. It deals with the pharmaceutical industry, especially about Prozac and the problems related to this industry.

Today John Cornwell is the director of the Science and Human Dimension Project, which is based at the Jesus College in Cambridge. This project aims at translating to a much wider public what science has to say about human nature and society. This is done particularly through the media – through conferences, through articles, newspapers and films. Its aim is to improve people’s sense of judgement of what science actually says particularly when there is a conflict between scientists.

First of all we are constantly telling people that there is a conflict, because one of the big problems is that science often speaks with this singular oracular voice as if it is infallible and there is one language, and this is not the case. On this level of which we are talking about there are lots of different views and we see it as our task in this program to 1. Tell people that science is pluralist in its message and then what we have to do is to help people to use their own judgement.

You believe that neurology changes anthropology. You believe that the spirit of neuro-science affects the ways in which we view the human person.

Yes. Here is a very important thing. Until the mid-1980’ies it was very difficult to explore the human brain without destroying what you explored. They didn’t have the tools. The invention of what is called non-invasive ways of imaging the brain has changed that. So now you can look into the brain and see what it is doing both in a global sense the whole of the brain and the whole of the nervous system as well as specific parts of the brain – localisations – without actually having to invade it or disturb it. Especially magnetic resonance imaging is very much used. That means that instead of our ideas of the relationship between the mind and the brain – mental states and physical states – being a matter of pure theory, they are now the matter of actual facts of biology and neurobiology. It is no longer just casting around for unproved theories. What is interesting throughout the 20th Century where psychology has dominated, particularly behaviour psychology, the brain was a kind of black box and what you studies was the input and the output and this was just a mystery in what is going on in there. And that is no longer the case. We can actually see this. The important thing for me is that a lot of the functions which were associated with the spiritual soul as in Dehere is still a deep mystery. What we are moving towards is a sense in which we can elucidate in what way consciousness and volition work, without explaining it and I think that is important. I think in the philosophy of mind or human identity in regards to what neuro-science tells us about the relationship between mind and brain you really have two schools of thought. You have the reductionists who believe everything is already explained – the book of Dan Dennett called Contiousness Explained is one extreme. On the other hand you have people who are serious neuro-scientist who are also interested in the philosophy of mind who insist that in principle we are never going to plum the ultimate mystery because of the very nature of volition.

Yes, even if we could explain the machine of the brain, we could not explain the person.

I am very careful to use the word transcendence. Then you are back into dualism. One helpful way perhaps is to say that there are those, who actually are seeking finite theories of creation and human nature. They want to wrap it up in a single final theory. There are others who lean towards openness. One of the most exiting things to come out of neuroscience is to explain the way actual machines work and in which they have to work and the way in which a neurobiologist now appreciates how the brain works. There is a big difference. Now that we have got away from theory and have moved to actual neuro-biology we have a much clearer view of the distinction between machines and human beings. One thing for example is memory. If you take memory as you know it from a machine-idea of memory what you would get if the machine would remember your – say your grandmother – it would be the same picture of your grand-mother used every time. It would be like colour-transparency that would pop out of the file and – there is your memory. Whereas we actually do know to day by the elucidation of neuro-biology that every act of memory is a new act of creation. It is different every single time. Because human beings live within history and everything they do changes everything else they do. Everything is new. Everything is deeply created in that sense. For that reason you have openness. We are always opening out.

Another thing that excites me very much is the nature of the imagination and the nature of the creation of metaphor because I believe one of the most neglected areas of the human soul is what I would call religious imagination. If you like it is the religious poetry. And again we know the difference between an association of a serious of ideas, which are purely mechanical – spacio-temporal – and association of ideas in either real poetry or sacramental language in which you get a constant new blossoming of new creation on many different level. There is always this opening out. Because of this open or un-final theory I think that this does not contradict anything I feel is sacred in religion. I feel that in that one can feel happy in reaching out towards God and learning about God and God being in contact with us through that means. This is not reductionist.

No it is not a pure human faculty. It can be viewed as a genuine relationship between God and the soul.

You also mention that for you the problem is today the discussion between atheists and believers continues to be on the sphere of Descartes dualism: You are either a defender of the spiritual side of man, or you promote the materialistic view of man as the only true one. There is little dynamism in this dialogue. Your approach is that we have to get away from this dualistic field.

Yes. I believe the word materialism is very misleading. It is used to point to the difference between matter and mind. As I see it, it is not a battle between materialists, and us, who believe, because I actually think that the very term materialist indicates its opposite. It is a very dualistic term. In other words: Language is full of obstacles and pit-falls. The study of neuro-science is proven this all the times that our language for describing the mind of the human person is inadequate.

What would be your option to this dualistic approach?

I think dualism is inescapable. We breathe it, we think it and it is deep in our culture. And if you look at the history of dualism going back to Plato and Aristotle many things become clear. Plato had a strictly dualistic view of the human person – you are a spiritual essence inhabiting a vessel of clay. Aristotle had a much more unitive view. The soul was the form of the body. He was still a dualist in other senses. He talked about yearning for the higher things, so there is a difference between the higher and the lower things. Dualism is constantly renewing itself. I am not worried about that. I am happy to be a dualist provided that this is a kind of metaphorical and poetic kind. The problem with Descartes was that his sort of dualism actually took the human self out of nature. He divided the world in res extensa and res cogitans – thinking stuff and material stuff – that which you can measure and that which you cannot measure. What he actually did was to take the human being … He did it for good reasons. The one you can inspect with mathematical physics. The self was taken out of nature and as a result the whole study of how human beings can be responsible in the world is also taken out and so you have this war between the self. He went of with this intense dualism. Man separated from nature, man separated from man. I see it in a different way. What we have got now in the post-enlightenment period or the new age of neuro-science is a new opportunity to put the mind – the human being – back into nature where it belongs. If you like it is to see our spirituality in terms of being imbodied in a much deeper sense.

Yes, this is a movement back to the Jewish view of man.

Yes, I think there is an immediate crisis, particularly in the pastoral sphere, because you no longer have a theory of a separated soul in which you can talk about the intermediate after-life. So we are going to have to confront that. There are lots of different ways. There is an interesting scientist in Cambridge called John Polkinghorn, who was professor of physics and then became a Christian and studied theology and became a priest. He comes up with the theory that perhaps when we die we enter into Gods memory – the whole of our embodied self. There will be these ideas which come up to explain this. The problem I have with this is that if you are interested in an apophatic way of theology that is a very biological way of thinking at God. I don’t think meister Eckhart would have liked the idea of God having a memory.

Yes, The biggest problem to theories like these is the experience of all the recognised Christian mystics and Saints. It is impossible to have spirituality or mystical theology without the idea of the soul being superior to the body. All of the mystics had an unsurpassable belief in the life of the soul in the immediate state after the death of the person. Padre Pio, who is due to be beatified soon, used to say, that he would be able to do more fore people on earth after his death than while he was alive on earth. You have the dead person being more active after death than before death. This obviously implies the notion that the soul will live on in some state after death and follow the time and order of the world.

It is the same with Saint Thérèse de Lisieux. She used to say: Je vais passer mon Ciel a faire du bien sur la terre. I will live my heaven by doing good on earth. Her whole mission is connected with this idea.

In the beginning of the century there was such progress in science that it lead the age to believe that science would come to explain everything one day. This optimism was destroyed with the First World War. But now we have a similar situation in which neuro-science is doing such extreme progress in discovering the mysteries of the brain. One could imagine that there would be the same temptation of extrapolating these experiences of progress in the field of one area of science to the possibility of science to explain reality. Is there not the same temptation of hubris?

Well, it is a very interesting observation, because it is useful to simply contemplate the sheer numerosity of the brain. You can elucidate the problem. If you take a part of the neuro-cortex, equivalent to the size of the head of a match you would have a billion neurones. If then you were to count all the connections between these neurones in the way in which they variously connect, you come up with a figure, which is something like ten to the power of eighty, which is more than all the known particles in the entire universe. Now, the point is this that neuro-science is starting to come to the point where the question is asked: How does this work? Can we replicate it? When you then begin to contemplate the way in which a person is in relationship with his friends and language you get an explosion of number and complexity which is simply in principle beyond comprehension. You need to do some neuro-science to actually appreciate this. The notion that we are actually going to get to the point where we can fathom and explain and control all this is simply out of range.

There is another very important issue, which has to do with mathematics. Reductionists understand mathematics so it is interesting to hear what mathematics has to say about certain facts. There is a very interesting mathematician called Kurt Gödel and he devised a very famous proof in 1931, which indicates that mathematics is not a complete system. You can not prove mathematics through mathematics. His proof was expressed in a technical term. No non-trivial axiomatic system can be both complete and consistent. The point is in very simple terms that there are certain kinds of mathematics that the human brain is capable of, which no computer could ever devise because the brain is not simply a computational devise. A mind is different from a computational devise in this sense. There are certain sorts of mathematical problems that you can set an algorithmic system or computer to work to solve, but you need a mind to know, when it has been solved. The computer itself doesn’t know. Scientists are very interested in this, because this has implications for physics. Going back to my earlier thing that finite theories are falsified by these facts by mathematics and also by neurology as well. There are various people like Roger Penrose who is a great Oxford Mathematician who has said well perhaps the brain is some kind of quantum-physics computer. All he is doing that he is producing another kind of Cartesian dualism – the ghost in the machine. If you take for example volition I don’t think the act of volition is comparable to indeterminacy in quantum-physics. We know the difference between what is indeterminate and what is an act of the will.

How do you view the relationship between the brain and the human person?

It is an important question. I don’t think that simply the biology of the brain explains or relates or is equivalent to the human person, because essentially what we are realising is that the human person is a constant action and interaction with its environment and it’s relationships. You realise this very quickly as a neuro-scientist. You can spend all your life studying one neurone, but you quickly realise that there is no simple link between that and human behaviour. There is this enormous explosion of variety of relationship. The Cartesian model creates the idea of a spiritual individual who could relate directly to God without having a relationship with other people. I think what good neuro-science leads us toward is a much phenomenological sense of the self in which you are aware of your need for relationships. It is a communitarian soul. The individual means nothing in isolation. You could think that with Descartes. Within terms of the spirituality of the 17th century onwards all the idea of interiority and that you should be silent was dominant. It comes and goes with spirituality. Its origins are platonic.

So you don’t think that feelings are just chemical reactions in the brain and that the soul is just an extremely complicated machine?

The first thing any good neuro-scientist will tell you that there is not equivalence between for instance serotonine and depression. They always use the term that the drug mediates or modulates a behaviour or mood. It is only really bad neuroscientists who make these equivalencies.

How do you view the Close-To-Death-experiences?

The only light neuro-science has shed on the question is that there are certain drugs that replicate the experience of going through the tunnel. There are some good articles written on the subject, which are informed by neuro-science. It is the idea that perhaps at death or when the brain is being threatened there is a release or cascade of neuro-peptides which make you feel good and calm down. It is the same function known from when the body feels pain. Then the body releases natural peptides, which reduce the pain. I do not know what else to say about the Near-Death-Experiences. You can look at the problem from another point of view. The experiences alter from culture to culture, so you have got different stories being told, although there at the same time are fundamental similarities such as going from darkness to light.

If I understand you correct your insight into the universe of neuro-science has not lead you to become an atheist. Would you see atheism as a possible conclusion to neuro-science?

I think neuro-science is likely to prove the none-existence of the Cartesian soul, simply because a lot of the things which Descartes assigned purely to the soul can be situated in physical systems. In regards to atheism however I absolutely believe that the answer is no. Neuro-science does not lead to atheism. What neuro-science is likely to do in the community is that it will redefine and reshape what we understand by the notion of the soul. And I think that this kind of soul will be more exciting, much more interesting. I believe a lot of the problems of child-abuse and other related issues come from this splitting of the body and the soul. You can abuse the body because it does not matter, because it is just a non-important vessel. If people who think in this way were aware of the fact that the body is sacred they would not behave to people in such ways. I think the new way of viewing the human person has moral implications.


Interview with Jes Olesen
Professor, Head of the Neurological Department of the Glostrup Hospital in Denmark, and Chairman of the Committy for the Year of the Brain 1997.

The Heart and the Brain

Berlingske Tidende, 07.02.98

1997 has been the year of the brain in Denmark. It was inaugurated in January and it is now reaching its conclusion. A conference taking place from the 24th to the 26th of January will mark the end of the Brain-year and the beginning of a new commission which will take over many of the initiatives of the Brain-year. Queen Margarethe II has been the protector of the Brain-year and the three last Prime ministers Hartling, Anker and Schlüter have been Protectors of Honours. The whole country has vibrated with activities that all had to do with our fantastic brain. Every county has had its own brain-committee. 30 different working parties have been working with different issues and problems connected with the brain. One group, for instance, has worked with the problem of depressions and published different books about it. Another group has been occupied with the Alzheimer-syndrome.

Consultant, Professor, Head of the Neurological Department of the Glostrup Hospital in Denmark has been the Chairman of the Comity for the Year of the Brain. At the Commemoration of the founding of the University at which the doctoris honoris causae, all doctors and medallists of the University of Copenhagen are nominated Jes Olesen was invited to give the principal speech. As he pointed out in the speech it is strange that the brain has never before in the history of the University been the topic of the principal speech of the Commemoration, since all academic work involves the brain. Eksistens decided to meet Jes Olesen in order to have the views of a professional neurologist’s views on what is the human person. How does a brain-specialist view the relationship between the so complicated machine and the human soul?

The brain concerns us all

Jes Olesen, you have been the Chairman of the Year of the Brain. Which have been your impressions of the passed year?

The brain concerns us all. Most people know someone, who suffers from some kind of brain decease, but the desire to do something about the situation is very much in the mind of most people.

The brain and hybris

In the beginning of the century science made such impressive progress that the end was an exuberant belief in progress. Scientists thought they would one day come to understand almost everything through science. Especially in this period it is possible to discern a movement away from a religious approach to reality. But after this period the Second World War appeared as the chock that blew this blind belief in the limitless power of science. This was very much because one had seen the effect of deadly weapons that where one of the most important results of science. Do you see a certain similitude in modern neurology?

Yes, in fact I do. We have in the past years made such enormous progress in the knowledge of the smallest details of the brain. One is easily lead to extrapolate the experiences of this progress to a larger level, thinking that it will be possible one day to explain the entire human person only through the knowledge of the brain. I believe most scientist realise that we will never reach this level, because it is simply much, much too complicate. In theory it could be done. But I find it hard to imagine that there would be any scientist who would believe that it would be possible one day to explain the entire brain. The brain has 100 billions of braincells of which every cell is connected to another 10.000 nerve fibres. Simply by highlighting these facts it becomes clear that such a system can not be explained or described.

The brain and the human person

How does a brain scientist relate to what we normally call the human person?

Depression is seen as a inhibition of the human freedom. The depressed person is not himself. Now scientists are speaking of drugs that not only take away the inhibition but positively add feelings such as love or hate to the person, that would not be part of the person in his normal state of mind.

Certain scientists think that depression can be a healthy reaction to an unbearable life. They believe that depression should not be seen only as a decease but as part of the regulating faculties of the human system. Depression is a way of the system to say "stop" this is enough.

The brain and the feelings

The sickly depression has its counterpart especially with manio-depressive patiens in a pathological state of activity. But they are not very happy in this state. Have you ever heard of patients who were pathologically happy?

Many of the most fundamental things in life have to do with spiritual realities – Love, Hate, desire of power, compassion. How does this relate to the brain and it’s functions?

Close to death experiences.

The brain and religion

Some scientists see the human being as a very advanced machine. But then what becomes of the entire human person, if man is just a machine? What effects does such an image of the human person have on medical ethics?

The big wonder

Big scientists such as Bohr and Einstein by their research have come to the marvel of the beauty and immensity of the Universe. They have come to the famous wonder. Has your science led you to an increased wonder in regards to the universe?

I haven’t had time.

You say, you had a desire to believe. What happened with this desire? Has the scientist in you impeded your desire to believe, or what has happened?


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