Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Biochemical Soul

When I was a child I used to wish I had been born in ancient Greece, so my ideas would be new. Every time I made some novel observation, Archimedes or Aristotle or Socrates had been there.

This is what happened with my thinking about the soul. I have already offered the relatively commonplace notion, scientifically, that most of the functions of what we traditionally called a "soul" are really biochemical reactions (see here). Now, I have been observing the similarity of the effects of psychiatric medications with spiritual and psychiatric schools of thought.

A professional whose gauging of emotions is central to her work takes such things for granted. But another helping professional relies on feelings. It is much like the experience of Kant and his idealist ideas: just because he couldn't prove that anything existed, it didn't mean that he didn't walk home for lunch like clockwork.

I'd already been beaten to the popularizing punt concerning chemicals and romance (see An Affair of the Head). And I knew I had been beaten when it comes to religious experiences and the chemicals of the brain (see, for example, The God Chemical).

Yet in everyday thought and popular art, we remain mired in traditional notions and vocabulary.

Indeed, what's missing in the film Angels & Demons, is not better research on religion (the few errors are minor compared to the gaffes in The Da Vinci Code) nor greater scientific accuracy (I'm told there are whoppers concerning anti-matter), but the amplification of the struggle between Galileo and the Catholic Church (or Darwin vs. Jesus) to include a third contender, for short, Freud.

So perhaps I could interpose that some medications tend to be more, shall we say, Freudian, in their approach to healing: slow and imperceptible. Others induce dreams and reveries closer to a silent retreat under Ignatius Loyola, guiding the person through a careful and conscious introspection resembling nothing so much as an examination of conscience.

The implications are tremendous. Everything ever thought, just as life itself (let's leave that for another post, shall we?) and everything that exists, is at the core a set of chemicals.

Our solar system, for example, resembles nothing better than the atom models of our school days. The sun is the nucleus and the planets and their moons and asteroids the electrons.

And we, what are we, then, but subatomic particles?
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