by Jim Frazier
After 6 years of marriage to my beautiful, intelligent wife, during which time we have discussed almost every major topic we could think of, I finally got asked if I believe that human beings have souls. Truth be told, I believe that most people do. I have to exclude Politicians, Litigation Attorneys, and DMV workers, for all of the obvious reasons (traded them for power, sold them for a quick buck, and had them scraped away by years of working in the 3rd circle of Hell). Every human being is the culmination of their life’s experiences. Every person has their own unique perspective. Everyone dreams and feels emotions. Something has to make us alive and separate us from the unflattering bags of meat and bone that we become once the living soul has left us (or when most of us hit the beach in a Speedo). The real questions, however, are not so easily dismissed.
Can the soul be physically separated from the brain, or does it simply cease to exist once the chemical reactions stop making it dance around? From a physical standpoint, death isn’t all that mysterious. Once the heart stops pumping oxygenated blood to the brain, enzymatic reactions quickly drive the brain’s pH towards the acidic end of the scale. The normal pH range is 7.25 to 7.45, which would be a narrow band for a swimming pool, much less something with 100 trillion nerve junctions fueled by coffee and whatever other crap we ate for breakfast. When things go bad in the blood chemistry department, they go really bad really fast. Delicate, fatty brain tissue will stop being neurologically useful long before it actually turns to mush, so you’re only moments away from Cream of Wheat when the O2 gets turned off. Tests have shown that the part of your brain that stores and integrates short-term memory (the Hippocampus) lasts all of about 11 seconds before it throws in the towel, so if you want to remember going towards the light, then you’d better make it snappy. Considering the delicate balance of subtle neurotransmitters acting across nanometer-wide synaptic gaps, it’s really a wonder that our brains function as well as they do. Then again, perhaps it is the minor malfunctions that really make us who we are. More on that thought later.
Personally, I believe that in the purest sense, the soul is destroyed with the physical mind that created and housed it. In my mind, it simply has to be that way, because no matter how subtle the chemical reactions are, they are still driven by physical processes that occur within the confines of the human skull. It is not outside the realm of possibility that they are influenced by the infinitesimally small particle spins and quantum wave functions that effectively form the background of the universe, but even if that ultimately proves to be true, it would still be like kicking in the screen of your TV set. The station may still be broadcasting, but you’ll never get any closer to figuring out what the heck is happening on Lost. If the mind really is a purely biochemical process, then it’s Bedtime for Bonzo once the doctor calls time of death. If, however, quantum forces are at play, then some underlying portion of what makes us “us” might be imprinted on the fabric of reality. If you dig down deeply enough, time, space, and matter are all patterns of energy, and energy cannot be created or destroyed. I don’t believe that a human soul could continue to think, feel, or even sense the universe around it, but strong patterns (like emotions, perhaps?) could possibly continue to resonate through space and time even after Elvis has clearly left the building. We just don’t know enough yet about the true nature of reality to shut the door on that one, and I’d prefer to save pretending to know for the TV evangelists of the world.
The other big question in my mind is whether human consciousness could be stored in something other than a brain. Could we soon clone ourselves and download our lives into fresh new bodies? It sounds like a great idea, but is consciousness truly portable? Short of the Vulcan mind-meld, I just can’t see any possible way for the whole enchilada to be downloaded. The reason I say this is that organic brains (us meat-sickles) don’t function anything like electronic brains, even the ones that don’t run Vista. Silicon transistors are purely digital devices, meaning that they were engineered from day one to only have two possible states, off or on. You can assign various meanings to the off and on states, but at the end of the day, there’s only two ways they can go. They are entirely predictable and infinitely repeatable, which makes them most unfit for carrying on an interesting conversation. I suppose they could be compared to the stereotypical accountant; great for doing your taxes, but not somebody you’d ever want to party with.
Human brains, as I briefly touched on earlier, are anything but perfectly repeatable. The chemical processes that drive synaptic junctions have a vast range of potential interactions, some of which end with the synaptic gap being bridged, and some that don’t. The neurotransmitters that drive these reactions are numerous, and the body is supposed to maintain them in ideal proportions, but who are we kidding? The body’s Circadian rhythms are supposed to keep us awake all day too, yet I myself need an Adrenaline I.V. to keep my brain going after lunch most days. When it comes to neurotransmitter production, distribution, and absorption, perhaps just having enough of each on hand to keep the train running is about all we can hope for. Most of the modern arsenal of psychoactive pharmacopeia acts by adjusting the balance of neurotransmitter compounds in the brain, which is why not everybody has a good trip on LSD, and why mildly depressed teenagers on anti-depressants sometimes get suicidally depressed. Balance is essential to the well-being of the whole, and some drugs are a little too much like hunting squirrels with a bazooka. Sure, the squirrel buys it, but at what cost to your Azalea bushes? Computers might soon be able to store the full 100 trillion bits of data that scientists estimate the average brain to contain, but they aren’t about to do it with a melancholy sense of ennui. Unless somebody invents a computer that gets fuzzy after a couple glasses of wine, I’m pretty sure that myself will be dying with me someday.
I really do hope I leave an echo somewhere. It would sure make death suck a lot less.