A Scientific Case for the Human Soul? | Sojourners

A Scientific Case for the Human Soul?

Quantum Theory is still in its relative infancy within the entire discipline of science, although it finds its roots as far back as Plato and Descartes. But if some of the notions being pursued by contemporary scientists prove true, it may result in a convergence of science, art, philosophy, and even religion that the world never imagined possible.

I’ll admit from the start that investigating the literature for this particular article literally made my head hurt. To fully conceive of all that is discussed and examined in Quantum Theory takes a scientific sophistication that I lack. But fortunately there are some out there who are trying to make these complex ideas more digestible, without a string of letters after our names.

One such scientist is Stuart Hameroff, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Anesthesiology and Psychology and the Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona. To distill a very complex idea down into a few words, the general consensus in science is that consciousness can be attributed to computations conducted within the neurological networks in the brain. Basically, all consciousness can be explained by algorithms, which makes our brains essentially like big, highly sophisticated computers. There are some limitations thus far to this perspective, such as how such algorithms account for things like aesthetic experience, love, and even our sense of smell. Researchers in the area of Artificial Intelligence believe that discovering the algorithmic bases for such phenomena can lead to the construction (given the necessary technology) of an artificial human brain.

However, there are those, like Hameroff, who believe there is more going on than algorithmic computation in the brain. Enter Quantum Theory, which basically looks at the probability of a particle being in a particular point in space-time. Though the particular particle cannot be observed without disrupting the quantum process, the entire process of quantum mechanics actually behaves more like a wave, and is not bound by the traditional laws of physics.

So basically, scientists like Hameroff believe that there are little microtubules in the brain (built from proteins) within which these quantum processes take place independent of the observable neurological processes that we attribute to normal brain activity. So although the two work in partnership to construct the experience of human consciousness, one is not necessarily dependent on the other to function. In fact, Hameroff suggests, such quantum processes might be a part of a larger “proto-consciousness” that has been around since the dawn of the universe.

So what happens when someone dies? Hameroff theorizes that the quantum processes previously taking place within the brain rejoin the larger proto-consciousness that exists in the universe. He proposes that, perhaps, this greater phenomenon of proto-consciousness of which we are a part, is what many would call “God.” Hameroff even proposes that, although such quantum processes are unbound by the physical body when normal brain function stops, those same processes can rejoin the physical brain if the subject is revived. However, they return sometimes with some residual information picked up during the out-of-body journey.

This, he says, might help account for the many thousands of out-of-body experiences some report during near-death trauma.

Many in the scientific community are skeptical about such claims, as they do not conform to the traditional models of science. One such skeptic was Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, at least until he was revived from a severe coma after seven days.

“I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys described by those who narrowly escaped death,” says Alexander in a recent Newsweek article. “In the fall of 2008, however, after seven days in a coma during which the human part of my brain, the neocortex, was inactivated, I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.”

By all accounts, every part of Alexander’s brain that is attributed to human consciousness was inactive during his seven days in the coma. Following is an excerpt from the Newsweek article, quoting Dr. Alexander:

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind — my conscious, inner self — was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility. But that dimension — in rough outline, the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states — is there. It exists, and what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world: a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.

Did Dr. Alexander’s “soul” or proto-consciousness experience things beyond his physical body while his conscious brain was inactive? Or did his mind confabulate the supposed recollections upon his awakening, fumbling to make sense of lost time, filling in a blank space otherwise filled by nothingness?

Will future advances in Quantum Theory bear out Hameroff’s ideas? Or will we ultimately discover that, indeed, the brain is merely a vastly complex computer, whose function can entirely be reduced to a series of mathematical formulas?

I have no idea, of course, but I hope I live long enough to find out, before I experience it all for myself, first-hand.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date."