Neuroscientific Research on the Self: A Case for Panentheism?
Why is it important to explain the self in an interdisciplinary manner? Let me answer that question by presenting one example. People who are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease are constrained by a decaying brain; even their own person. Hence it is argued that the person slowly disappears. If there is nothing more to the person than a decaying brain, how should we consider the personal relationship of the sick person to herself, others and God if it is maintained that there is no person left? “[Can there be] a metaphysical basis for the human person that this disease does not destroy”?1 Neuroscientists alone are not able to give us the answers to these questions. We need a more holistic approach that brings together the different aspects of the person and also shows how these different aspects interact.2 For example, theology has an important role to play because, as Stephen Sapp observes, “how one deals with life depends ultimately on how one understands God and that is what theology is”.3 Theology concerns all because whether one believes in the existence of God or not, one reflects on whether some Ultimate Reality might exist or not. Indeed, everyone, at least once in their lives, reflects on whether there is more to life than the life given to them by nature. Often, but not always, the question is raised when people undergo personal crises. The question is also a philosophical question, since it concerns what we refer to as the self. This means that how we live our lives corresponds to how we understand others, ourselves and God; how we deal with love, joy and sorrow, pain and suffering and how we are nested in the world. As Donald McKay recognized, “we need a whole hierarchy of levels and categories of explanation if we are to do justice to the richness of the nature of man”. These explanations, he continues, are “neither identical nor independent, but rather complementary”.4
Layout of the paper
The first section concerns the neuroscientific question what happens in the brain when we behave and experience in a certain way i.e., why neurologically do we behave and experience as we do. To obtain an answer to that question, two different neuroscientific approaches to an explanation of the self are considered, clinical and experimental neuroscientific approaches. It will be shown that the neuro-correlation of the self is complex; the subjective self seems to be neurologically sustained by a neural hierarchy as well as by specific neuro-correlations. The self thus far will be understood as one self comprising a neural and subjective neural self between which there is mutual causation: S(NS ↔ SNS).
The second section will deal with the philosophical question how the subjective self might be related to the brain. Some philosophical positions are analysed. It is argued that both dualism and materialism/physicalism are less fruitful, not least due to the underlying neuroscientific data. Non-reductive and emergent models are hence preferred and argued for. The formula of the self in section one will be revised and is now to be understood as an emergent self comprising a neural and subjective neural self between which there is mutual causation: ES(NS ↔ SNS).
The third section concerns the philosophical question who or what the self might be. In other words, what is the function of the self? Hence, some phenomenological explanations concerning the function of the self are analysed. It is argued that not only the first and the third person perspective are important to take into account, but also and perhaps especially, the second person perspective. Indeed, the second person perspective seems to be a quite important link between neuroscientific and philosophical understanding of the subjective self. The second person perspective of the self is understood as the subjective transcendent self (STS). The formula becomes: ES((NS ↔ (SNS ∩ STS)); STS > (NS ∩ SNS). The emergent self comprises a neural self, a subjective neural self and a subjective transcendent self. There is mutual causation between the neural and subjective selves. The subjective transcendent is bigger than both the neural and subjective neural self. Furthermore, the NS, SNS and STS have specific functions.
The fourth section argues that if we want an interdisciplinary understanding of the self that also includes theology, i.e. if we also want to postulate the existence of God, we need to take a look at the potential of the Christian doctrine of the image Dei as an explanation of the purpose of the emergent self. In this way, the question why there is something we refer to as a self, can be answered from an interdisciplinary point of view that includes theology.
The fifth and final section argues that, again, if we want an interdisciplinary understanding of the world, contemporary neuroscientific research on the self supports a non-dualistic understanding of the God-world relationship rather than a dualistic or materialistic/physicalistic one. Indeed, the results point to a panentheistic understanding of the God-world relationship rather than to a theistic, pantheistic or atheistic one. However, today there is a variety of panentheistic models, some fruitful and some less so. Hence, the panentheistic model suggested will include those elements deriving from different panentheistic models that seem to be necessary for our purpose. It then becomes:
EU(UR ↔ (NR ↔ ES)); ES > NR and UR > (NR ∩ ES); There is only one Emergent Universe comprising Ultimate Reality (UR; GOD), Natural Reality (NR; world) and all Emergent Selves (ES). There is mutual causation between God and the world, between the world and Emergent Selves (the ES being part of it) and between God and Emergent Selves within the world. Furthermore, the Emergent Selves are bigger than the world and God is bigger than both the world and Emergent Selves.
Why neurologically do we behave and experience as we do?
Daniel Dennett’s answer to the question why we, neurologically, experience and behave as we do, is because natural selection (Mother Nature) designed our brain and nervous system in this way, though not deliberately.5 His view is an ontological reductionist one and fails to consider the mutual causal affection that seems to occur between the neural and the mental. A more correct question would be how exactly does the interaction between the mental and the neural work? The self is a very complex issue. It refers to our experiences, our relations with and understanding of ourselves and others (including the world) and, for a lot of people, God (including the Ultimate world), our feelings and emotions, our attitudes and behaviour, our thinking, dreaming, and so forth. Therefore we expect the underlying and correlating neural activity to be complex as well, if it is to sustain the self in all its expressions.
Neural Complex Hierarchy
Indeed, neuroscientists explain the self neurologically in terms of complexity, embodied within the entire hierarchical system across multiple hierarchical neural levels. According to Niels Henrik Gregersen, there are several degrees of complexity and there is no consensus of the “exact nature of ‘complexity’”.6 One degree of complexity is interesting for our purpose, namely, the autopoietic complexity degree.7 Roughly, such a complex system cannot be understood merely through its parts; it is autonomous, multiply flexible and, in principle, non-predictable. It seems that the neuro-correlations involved in all possible expressions of the self reported by the patients or participants of the experiments are complex in just such a way. However, Todd E. Feinberg and Julian Paul Keenan remark that we should not understand the hierarchy in terms of a non-nested hierarchy, which would imply that lower and higher levels of hierarchy are physically independent entities. Such is not the case according to these neuroscientists.8 Therefore, they argue, for example, that Descartes’ view that the neural substrate of the unified self converges at a particular place in the brain has to be incorrect.9 Instead, Feinberg and Keenan suggest a nested hierarchy, which implies that the elements comprising the lower levels of hierarchy are physically combined or nested within higher-levels to create increasingly complex wholes. In other words, there is a process of emergence steered by multiple causations between the higher and lower levels of the self. Hence, instead of independency we have a mutual dependency.10
Not only the unification of the self, but also its subjectivity (analysed subjectively), as well as its location, are neurologically understood as a nested neural hierarchy.11 Hence, every complex subjective self is related to a complex nested neural hierarchy.12 However, when we are in the process of thinking, for example, we would expect specific neural activity to correlate with it, even though it would be embedded in the nested neural hierarchy. We expect this correlating neural activity to be specific in the sense that it would show an unmistakable altered activity during a process of thinking compared to when there is no such process.
Within this hierarchical complexity of neural systems there are specific neural correlates that especially support the self in its different expressions. Neurologists agree that these specific neural correlates are the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC), which is significant for the theory of mind, (Decety et al.)13; meta-states of self-awareness (Johnson et al.),14 thought to be necessary for reflecting upon (Fossati et al.);15 and regulation of one’s own emotional state (Ochsner et al.).16 When it comes to the emotional/reflective self, Feinberg, Keenan and Fossati emphasized the significance of the functions of the right frontal, temporal and parietal regions.17 Furthermore, the prefrontal, frontal and parietal regions of the brain were considered to especially correlate with experiences during meditation (Kohls and Walach, Newberg).18 The right posterior parietal region has been found to be a particular key in the ToM, because this is significant for distinguishing cognitive thought and actions from first person perspective to third person.19 I will return to these studies in more detail below.
To conclude, for every complex hierarchical emergent subjective self there seems to be a complex hierarchical emergent neural self between which there is mutual causation. Also, for every specific subjective self experience there is a specific neural correlation. There is also mutual causation between the two. In short, the self as a whole (ES) consists of a neural self (NS) and a subjective neural self (SNS) between which there is mutual causation. Just to take a simplified example: if there is altered activity in the prefrontal lobes it causes the person to think and verse versa, if the person is thinking it will cause altered neural activity in the prefrontal lobes. Because neuroactivity as well as subjective activity never stand alone, these activities are embedded in a complex nested neural hierarchy and a complex nested subjective hierarchy between which there is also mutual causation.
The Relationship between the Subjective and Neural self
As mentioned earlier, neuroscientists dismiss a dualistic view on the basis of their findings. Indeed, dualism is a problematic stand. Whether dualists defend strong or essential dualism (Eccles/Descartes), transcendental dualism (Ibn Gabirol/Bonaventura) or implicit dualism (Augustine), they struggle with the problem of how to explain the relation between the mind and the physical (brain). There always seems to remain a gap between the physical and the mental on one or another level. Still, it might not be wise to completely dismiss the dualist comprehension of the self. As Roger Trigg rightly points out “our unreflective understanding of ourselves is dualist”, and that “[w]e know we are selves persisting through time and changes to the body with lasting responsibilities”.20 Similarly, Eugene d’ Aguili argues that human beings, having a normally functioning brain, apprehend reality through two vividly real categories. Firstly, the conscious self seems to have a light, changeable and ethereal quality often referred to as mind, spirit or soul. Secondly, the conscious self seems to have an external reality often referred to as matter or material reality.21 However, this does not mean that a dualistic explanation is the best explanation of how to understand the relationship between the brain and the mind, at least not from an interdisciplinary point of view.
Nevertheless, I believe the subjective emotional description of a dualistic feeling of the self needs to be taken into account. Hence, if we want a holistic explanation of how the brain and the mental processes are related, covering both neuroscientific findings and subjective emotional descriptions, we need to find an explanation that also takes the dualistic understanding of the self into account but without giving into dualism.22
Advocates of materialism and physicalism maintain that the self can be entirely reduced to (Churchland), is identical with (Armstrong) or derivative of (Dennet) the neural activity of the brain. Materialists argue that no mental states, processes and events exist over and above bodily states, processes and events. Physicalism is the view that there are only physical facts23. Hence, in the view of those defending materialism or physicalism, the case is settled; simply nothing exists over and above neural activity.24 The problem is that materialists and physicalists fail to address the phenomenology of the self. They are unable to tell what it is like to have such-and-such experiences, which is to deprive human beings of their experiential reality. For this reason, among others, materialistic and physicalistic understandings of the relation between the mental and the physical are not fruitful options.
That leaves us with non-materialistic and/or non-physicalistic models of the relationship between the brain and the mind. Non-reductionists argue that there may be states, processes and events over and above bodily states, processes and events. Often non-reductionists rely on a combination of the Token Identity Theory (TIT),25 and the Principle of Supervenience (PS).26 According to token identity theorists, particular brain-tokens correlate with particular mental-tokens. Together with the Principle of Supervenience, they can argue that there is a difference at the physical state level for every difference at the mental state level, on which the difference of the relevant mental state in some sense depends.27 However, it is important to note that, even though mental states depend on physical states, they are not reducible to them. Because of the irreducibility, Philip Clayton and Jaegwon Kim call this type of supervenience weak supervenience.28 Hence, there is a dependency relationship between mental states and the brain. Indeed, this is what neuroscientific research on the self reveals. However, as Philip Clayton argues, non-reductive physicalism (or materialism) has its problems. Indeed, non-reductionists need to explain the “over and above the physical or material”, without falling into dualism, physicalism or materialism.
Lockwood tries to solve the problem by arguing that mental states and events are real, because they follow the same temporal and spatial order as physical states and events. Therefore, and supported by Einstein’s Special Relativity Theory, Lockwood assigns mental states independent locality (mental states must be in space given that they are in time). He writes,
Let A be a physical event that causes a mental event B, which in turn causes a physical event C. If we know the time of occurrence and spatial locations of A and C, then we can at least place bounds upon the time of occurrence and spatial location of the mental event B: it must lie within the intersection of the forward light cone of A and the backward light cone of C.29
Because Lockwood gives phenomenal qualities real existence,30 he challenges the philosophical view that only physical and material properties can be said to exist because they can be traced in space and time. Inspired by the discoveries of quantum physics, he argues that there is only one universe called a multiverse (U) and only one mind called a multimind (M), which together combine multiple levels of hierarchies of biographies.31
Lockwood’s move is a fruitful one. The mental state has its legal place in space and time; it is real and is itself a multiple level hierarchical property. As such it supervenes upon the physical/material, correlates with it but is not entirely reducible to it. What is not clear is whether this relation between the mental and physical also implies mutual causation. Furthermore, Lockwood’s view does not consider that and how new mental and physical properties emerge from this relation. Hence, something is still missing in this non-reductionist explanation, not least because neuroscientific research on the self points to a process of emergence.
The Principle of Emergence has to do with the emergence of novel and irreducible properties. The eighteenth century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel applied this principle to the history of the world. Roughly, during the course of history there are ideas (theses), which provoke counter-ideas (antitheses). From the two, new ideas may be (and often do) come about (syntheses). These syntheses are novel and neither reducible to the theses nor the antitheses even if they have their origin in both and carry with them some elements of both. According to neurologist Roger Sperry, the mind is an emergent property of the brain and, furthermore, there is a “mutual interdependence” between “the sustaining physico-chemical processes and the enveloping conscious qualities”.32 Since Sperry, the Principle of Emergence (PE) has become a widely discussed issue. 33 However, for my purpose, the most important variant of the principle is the Principle of Strong Emergence (PSE), because as Philip Clayton who defends the PSE argues, “if life and mind are genuinely emergent, then living things and mental phenomena must play some sort of causal role; they must exercise causal powers of their own”.34 The self is emergent because, “[t]he activity of the emerging human subject produces reality in an iterating, dialectical process whereby the subject is repeatedly confronted with an “other” (das Andere seiner selbst) and overcomes the difference in a new synthesis that both transcends and preserves (hebt auf) their difference”.35 This “other” will also be understood to include God.
However, we need to ask the question whether mental causation is possible? Mostly, causation is understood to be directed from the material/physical to the mental; the other way around is often seen as problematic. Because of the plasticity of the brain, such opposition is difficult to understand from a neuroscientific point of view. Indeed, our brains change continually in relation to what we learn, read, and experience. My brain has changed since this morning; yes, since I have written this sentence. Furthermore, there is other neuroscientific evidence that supports the idea of mental causation. For instance, according to Harald Walach, experiences of meditation include, among other experiences, the experience of transcendence of the self. The meditators describe such experience as experiencing something larger than this self but of which the self seems to be an integral part. This experience becomes a “source of a wider knowledge and gives rise to the potential of wider action”.36 Newberg and d’Aquili discovered that the meditators in their study had a significantly different thalamic laterality index at baseline (before the act of meditation began) compared with the control subjects. The differences in the thalamus led them to assume that the meditators might have undergone changes in their brain.37 It seems that the acquirement of this wider knowledge as well as the different thalamic laterality index is due to the emergent properties initiated by mental activity.
To conclude, a fruitful understanding of the mental-neural relationship seems to include the following. The mental process supervenes on the neural and corresponds with correlating altered neural activity. The mental properties are real in the same sense as the non-mental are, i.e. they follow the same temporal and special order. This implies that properties exist over and above the material and physical, but both the mental and the neural belong to one complex nested hierarchy, in which through mutual causation, new distinct mental and neural properties emerge. I suggest we call the model of the relationship between the mind and the brain the emergent process of the self, i.e. ES(NS ↔SNS).
What or Who is the Self, What is its Function?
In order to answer the question who or what the self might be, and what its function is, we need to return to some neurological research of the self and investigate it closer. Hitherto we have established an understanding of the self which is emergent and comprises a neural self and a subjective self between which a mutual causation takes place. In this section, a third element will be suggested, namely, a subjective transcendent element of the self. Hence, the dual notion of the emergent self will turn into a threefold notion of the self: ES (NS ↔ (SNS ∩ STS)), STS > (NS ∩ SNS). To open the analysis, let us take a look at what clinical neuroscientists can tell us about the phenomenological self.
Clinical neuroscientists investigate those who suffer from brain disorders or brain damage and ask what consequences these disorders and damages have for the human self in terms of behaviour and personal experience. In other words, they investigate how important neural patterns that correlate with specific brain disorders and brain damage are for the human self.
- It took a vacation without telling me it was going. It didn’t ask, it just went.
- What did?
- My pet rock. [She lifted her lifeless left arm with her right arm to indicate what she was talking about].
- You call that your pet rock?
- Why do you call it your pet rock?
- Because it does not do anything. It just sits there. […] She belongs to me and she’s a her. She’s mine but I don’t like her very well. She let me down. […]
- […] what is your job?
- I am a computer person.[…]
- Where are we right now?
- We’re at [name of his company] in New York…My office is right around the corner [pointing]. If they have problems with their computers I solve them.
- [pointing to a therapist of the facility that the patient had previously claimed he knew]. And you know her?
- Yes […] Her job is to do research on certain items and then bring them to [his company][…] when she has problems with her computer she comes to me.
Neurologically, what do these disorders and damages tell us about the self?
As mentioned earlier, it tells us that at least one element of the self, call it the subjective neural self, embedded in a nested subjective hierarchy, seems to be hardwired to specific functions of the brain, namely, the right frontal, parietal and the temporal regions of the brain; these are also embedded in a nested neural hierarchy. This means that when specific neural functions become impaired the personality of the person changes in accordance with the impairment. In other words, the patients react and experience as they do because these brain regions fail to establish the appropriate ego boundaries.41 Sigmund Freud noticed that “there are cases in which parts of a person’s own body, even portions of his mental life – his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings – appear alien to him and as not belonging to his ego”.42
We have seen that the frontal lobes are the control centre for our personality. The anterior prefrontal regions are associated with self-awareness, social interaction and judgment as well as awareness of the mental states of others, which is known as the theory of mind (ToM).43 In both Shirley’s case and in the case of the 41-year old man, frontal neural activity altered in a way that caused impaired motor functions (Shirley) impaired judgement (Shirley and the 41-year old man), and impaired social behaviour, interaction and judgement (the 41-year old man).
The parietal lobes have two functions. It is important to note that it is especially the right parietal lobe that is associated with our personality. Damage to this region may cause the neglecting of parts of the body or space.44 Indeed, Shirley thinks of her arm as something alien. Neuroscientists maintain that right hemispheric lesions can produce significant changes in personality. Indeed, again, Shirley’s altered personality was due to a right hemispheric infarct. Finally, temporal lobe activity is especially important for the formation of our personality as well as for our affective behaviour. Hence, following the clinical neuroscientific observations, when something goes wrong in the neural circuits of the frontal, parietal and/or temporal regions, simultaneously, something goes wrong with a person’s self-self and self-other (or self-world) experiences.45
Experimental neuroscientists, in order to understand the brain functions underlying or correlating with the subjectively experienced emotional or cognitive self-self, self-other and self-God relation, investigate healthy individuals by letting them perform (for example) emotional and/or cognitive tasks (religious or other) in order to understand the brain functions involved.
From experiments, in which people were presented with both familiar faces and faces of the self, we learn that the right hemisphere is twice as active when images of the self are presented compared to images of a familiar person. Similar results came from studies with familiar voices compared to the person’s own voice.46 The self-self relation is suggested to strongly correlate with the right prefrontal and frontal regions while the right parietal regions are significant for the self-other relation (ToM).47 Because temporal activity has to do with human emotional behaviour, the right temporal lobe will show increased activity in correspondence to increased emotional behaviour towards the self (compared to emotional behaviour toward others). Hence, both clinical and experimental neuroscientific studies emphasize right hemispheric activity when emotional evaluation of the self is at stake.
For example, in their studies on self-reflection both Johnson et al., Stuss et al. and Ochsner et al. emphasize the significance of the medial prefrontal cortexfor our judgments of internal states of others guided by our own feelings of self, but argue that there is no significant distinction between the right and left hemispheres.48 The reason no right hemispheric activity is emphasized is because the tasks given to the participants did not necessarily trigger a subjective emotional reaction. Indeed, the task of the participants in Johnson’s study was to deliver an oral statement (yes or no) to questions such as “I often forget things; I’d rather be alone; I can be relied upon; I am good at my job etc”. 49 On the other hand, when Philippe Fossati presented emotionally charged words (positive and negative) to the participants during a fMRI scanning, he found, similar to Johnson and Ochsner, the medial prefrontal cortex to be significant but also emphasized the right side of the MPC, and suggested that the right MPC represents states of an emotional episodic self.50 The difference between Johnson’s, Ochsner’s and Fossati’s results suggests that the right hemispheric regions, especially the right medial prefrontal cortex, are significant for the more subjective aspects, requiring a perspective, involved in emotional evaluation of the self.51
Experimental neuroscience and religion
Neurological studies done on advanced Zen-meditation also showed the right prefrontal/frontal and parietal regions to be significant.52 During the self regulation of emotion and because meditation is a training in focusing, altered right prefrontal, frontal and temporal activity was observed. Also Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili found significant increased activity in the right frontal lobes.53 These neuroimaging studies are supported by Electroencephalogram (EEG) studies of meditation.54 Because decreased posterior superior parietal lobe activity is associated with decreased self-other boundaries (a mental state that typically results from the effort to silence all thought), a significant decrease in both the right and left posterior superior parietal lobes (PSPL) was observed by Newberg and d’Aquili in their study.55
The results of the neuroimaging study is once more supported by EEG studies from which it was concluded that meditation practice increases the frequency of both spiritual experiences and experiences of ego loss, implying decreased activity in the PSPL.56 Newberg’s research on glossolalia diverges from his research result on meditation. Instead of increased prefrontal activity, decreased prefrontal activity was observed during the glossolalia state. However, this finding is in agreement with the subjective description of the participants of a lack of intentional control over the performance of glossolalia. Also the left hemispheric structures had significant decreases in activity, which Newberg explains by suggesting that perhaps the language parts of the brain are not that directly affected by glossolalia, as expected. Finally, instead of decreased neural activity in the PSPL, he found increased neural activity, which means that there was no loss of self during glossolalia states compared to meditation states.57
Once more, the relationship between the mental and the neural properties has been clarified; if something goes wrong or is affected in either of these properties, something goes correspondingly wrong in the other. Let me conclude this analysis by presenting the following graphic:
The Phenomenological Self
What does all this mean? From the analysis of clinical and experimental neuroscientific studies of the self it seems that the phenomenology of the self is vulnerable. Wittgenstein noticed this and maintained that “whatever seems to the subject right about his state of consciousness is right” may be incorrect.58 Wittgenstein’s argument is the argument against private language, of course, but nevertheless, he rightly remarks that, if the private phenomenology is always correct, there would be no intra- or intersubjectivity possible. For something to be as it is there ought to be rules for how that something ought to be. Rules that ought to be used in self-self, self-other and other-self relations. Remember Shirley who calls her paralyzed arm her pet-rock that took a vacation without telling her. This is a clear example that one’s private phenomenology can be incorrect. The self-self relation has turned into a self-other relation within the person’s own self. Shirley still says that the pet-rock belongs to her. She might still have intrasubjective rules, i.e., she might still have good reasons for why she calls her paralyzed arm her pet-rock. She might compare her arm with other things she calls pet-rocks. However, there is no intersubjective rule that would agree with her intrasubjective rules for what concerns her arm. Concerning the 41-year-old man who suffered from the FrÈgoli syndrome, we might even wonder whether he has proper working intrasubjective rules when he mistakes the hospital for his office and the hospital staff for his colleagues. In these cases, to put it in the words of Hans Runehov, a computer scientist, only the brain seems to have some kind of read-write authority; whereas, in normal circumstances, there is a read-write collaboration between the neural and subjective self.
Nevertheless, the examples mentioned above also show that, despite the read-write capacities of the brain, the subjective self seems to be some authority that continues to have a restricted write authority or in some cases a read-only contact with the disordered functions of the neural and subjective neural self.
Split-brain patients may illustrate what a restricted write authority looks like. One of Kathleen Baynes’ patients reported on her experiences after split-brain surgery. What surprised Baynes was that the patient could write only out of the hemisphere not associated with language. According to Baynes, “this dissociation confirms the idea that the capacity to write need not be associated with the capacity for phonological representation”.59 In other words, it seems that the capacity to write is independent of the neural language system. The capacity to write seems to “[…] stand alone and does not need to be part of our inherited spoken language system”.60 Of course, due to the nested neural hierarchy correlating with the nested subjective hierarchy, one expects there to be neural support for the writing action in some way. However, it seems that this neural support does not derive from the one expected for such behaviour. Hence, the mental self seems to have a restricted authority, i.e. it is able to command the neural circuit in a restricted manner.
The following example illustrates a read-only contact. Reverend Bob Davies who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and, for as long as possible, wrote a diary, and wrote: “When the darkness and emptiness fills my mind, it is totally terrifying. I cannot think my way out of it.61 In Davies’ case there is no longer a restricted authority. Nevertheless, read-only authority seems to notify Davies of the current situation: something is definitely wrong with both what I called the neural and subjective neural self.
We can ask, who or what is the I seeming to observe and seeming to be aware of what is happening? Who or what is this I “who cannot think his way out of it”? Who or what is the I realizing, concluding and crying out “why”? The I aware of the darkness surrounding the mind, the I that calls her arm a pet-rock that does not listen to her anymore or the I writing merely from the non-linguistic part of the brain?
Does not that at least strongly suggest that there is some element of the self that seems to be able to transcend both the neural self (the neural correlations of the self) and the subjective neural self (the subjective self that correlates one-to-one with the neural self)? Could one element of the self be a subjective transcendent self to which John H. Brooke refers to as the rational self, the suffering self, the unique self.62 Could there be a transcendent element of the self that notices how brain disease or brain damage strikes but simultaneously points to another, deeper layer of a self-concept?
The Threefold Self
There is yet no consensus for what or who the self and its function might be and I do not claim that I will solve the problem. However, let me suggest a notion that is at least in accordance with the neuroscientific and philosophical analyses above. Thus far we postulated an emergent self (ES) comprising a neural self (NS) and a subjective neural self (SNS). However, this model seems to be in need of reconsideration. Instead of a dual-emergent self, neuroscientific results seem to point to a threefold-emergent self. The third parameter of this threefold self I suggest is called the subjective transcendent self.
The idea of such a transcendent self is perhaps not new. What I refer to as the subjective transcendent self has been explained in different ways. For instance, neurologist Harald Walach names it consciousness but means the “personal awareness of being myself and knowing this fact. […] [T]he ‘internal’ side of our being”.63 Also Lockwood refers to it in terms of consciousness and explains this subjective transcendent self as a searchlight. According to him, “what we see are the objects that the searchlight illuminates for us. We do not see the searchlight. Nor do we see the light: merely what the light reveals.64 Hume could not discover impressions about himself: “I never catch myself at any time without a perception and can never observe anything but the perception”.65 Husserl speaks of an inner consciousness (inneres Bewusstsein) that is always present; he could not catch it but it is somehow always there. Heidegger introduced the term Dasein(being-there) which is the “entity which in each case I myself am”. This entity is according to Heidegger the only entity that cares about the meaning of its own being and that of others. This being is never exhausted by any conditions; it always “stands out” into possibilities, so that “at any given moment it is at once what it is, what it has been, and what it may yet become”.66 These philosophical understandings give us a hint of what the subjective transcendent self might be, for example, the phenomenological experience of always there.
If we postulate a threefold self, we also need to postulate a threefold function of the self. Norton Nelkin distinguishes between the being in-control and being not-in-control, which to him, is the basis for the distinction between me and not-me or self and not-self. Furthermore, according to him, there is an underlying essential subjectivity, an introspective capacity that makes one aware of this distinction in one’s own experience. Indeed, the examples above show that human beings realize when their body and their mind are out of control. Nelkin concludes that “the subjectivity associated with a sense of control is the deepest sort of subjectivity, underlying all concept formation, including one’s concept of one’s very self”.67 Might this underlying essential subjectivity be understood as the subjective transcendent self that, under normal circumstances has read-write authority (is in-optimal-control of the self and not-self); under other circumstances a restricted read-write authority (is in-restricted-control of the self and not-self) and under the worst circumstances merely a read-only authority (is not-in-control of the self and not-self but remains observant)?
Another way to understand the threefold self is to understand it in terms of first-, second- and third-person perspectives, of which the subjective transcendent self would be represented as the self with the second-person-perspective. The subjective transcendent self would then function as a mediator between the neural self with the third-person-perspective and the subjective neural self with a first-person perspective. Also Eleonore Stump emphasizes the importance of the second-person perspective and suggests that it serves as a bridge between the first- and third-person perspectives.68 This means that the second-person perspective has a relational function; it becomes the analyst. Following Lluis Oviedo, when a certain behaviour or experience is neurologically objectivised, (third-person perspective) it becomes something else, i.e. neural activity. On the other hand, if a certain behaviour or experience remains introspectivised (first-person perspective), the scientific objectivity will be missing.69 The role of the second-person perspective or subjective transcendent self would be to be the subjective observer and to mediate between inner and outer reality. If mediation is no longer possible, the task remains to be the observer between inner and outer reality; to always be there.
Threefold Self and Threefold Function
By now we have postulated a (strong) emergent threefold self consisting of a neural self, a subjective neural self and a subjective transcendent self. The relationship between the three elements is as follows: ES((NS ↔ (SNS ∩ STS); STS > (NS ∩ SNS). The function of the NS is to neurologically sustain the subjective selves. The function of the SNS then is to express the neural self. Finally, the task of the STS is to be the essential observing subjective self, transcending the former two. To put it differently, to be the self that always was and always is itself, irreducible to neither the neural self or the subjective neural self, i.e. dasein, being in optimal control or being the observant mediator from a second-person perspective. By way of mutual causation, the three elements of the self cause the emergent process of the whole self (ES).
However, I need to account for one possible objection, namely, that there cannot be any part of the self without neural activity supporting it. I agree, but my point is that whatever neural activity may lie behind the seemingly transcending self, it is not that neural activity that neuroscientists typically associate with the subjective activity. Because the self is embedded in a nested neural hierarchy, there is somehow neural support in order to make the subjective self able to remain observant, even during the very last stage of Alzheimer’s, when almost every function of the brain has decayed. Exactly which neural function(s) are the supporting factors so far remains undiscovered.
The question to answer in the next section is why there is an emergent threefold self; what would its purpose be? Why does the self have a function that seems to be, as it were, superior to the brain? How do we answer this question without going into dualism?
Why is there a Threefold Self, for what Purpose?
From a materialistic or physicalist point of view the question of purpose is not a priority; purpose becomes a matter of survival or of natural selection. For some materialists and physicalists it is even superfluous. There is simply nothing more to life than material and physical life itself. From an interdisciplinary non-reductive point of view, on the contrary, the question of purpose becomes important. From a non-reductive point of view that includes theology we also need to investigate the hypothesis that God exists and that God has a purpose for human beings.
As Wentzel van Huyssteen argues: “For Christian theology one of the most crucial questions today should be whether there is a way in which we may rediscover the canonical function and orienting power of a concept like the imago Dei without retreating into metaphysical abstractions [and that would] facilitate[e] interdisciplinary reflection?70 In Genesis 1:26-27 we can read,
[t]hen God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
However, according to Gannon Murphy, there is as yet no definitive theological explanation of the imago Dei. He presents three schools of thought attempting to make some sense of the concept, the substantive view, the relational view, and the functional view.71 The substantive view refers to human qualities such as rationality, morality and affection, mirroring those of God. 72 Karl Barth, known as one of the proponents of the relational view, the analogia relationis, understands the image of God as human beings’ relationship with God and other humans.73The image Dei, he writes “finds its locus in the human capacity to reflect the internal communion and encounter the present within God”.74 Finally, the functional view has to do with what humans do or have to do.75 Is such a distinction necessary? Is it not rather the case that all three views are needed? Indeed, taking a look in a theological dictionary I found that the imago Dei should best be understood as “humans mirror God’s divinity in their ability to actualize the unique qualities with which they have been endowed, and which make them different than all other creatures: rational structure […], complete centeredness, creative freedom, a possibility for self-actualization, and the ability for self-transcendence”.76 In short, being imago Dei means to possess those qualities, those relationships and those functions similar (but not equal) to God’s and to use them similarly (but not equally) as God would do. Postulating the imago Dei view means postulating that the purpose of the self is to be all that.
There is however at least one opposition that needs to be taken seriously. While the imago Dei view might work in a Christian-interdisciplinary context, we need to ask whether it would function as an inter-religious-interdisciplinary concept. At first sight it would not, because, among other reasons, not all religions accept the idea of a creator. Nevertheless, careful analyses of the concept of the imago Dei may offer novel understandings and hence inter-religious explanatory possibilities. However, such analyses are too immense to fall within the scope of the present essay. Hence, for the time being the view is restricted to a Christian-interdisciplinary understanding of the self.
For the time being, a final understanding of the human self has been proposed. I suggested the self is best understood in terms of an emergent threefold self comprising a neural self, a subjective neural self and a subjective transcendent self. The function of the emergent threefold self is also threefold. The purpose, from an interdisciplinary point of view that includes theology, is to be the image Dei. In other words, the threefold self, possessing the qualities, relationships and function similar (but not equal) to God’s has its center in the imago Dei with the purpose of using these abilities similarly (but not equally) as God would do.
There is only one emergent self (ES), comprising both the mental (including the spiritual) and the neural. There is mutual causation within a multiple hierarchy of mental and neural levels. This model, I believe to be in accordance with neuroscientific, philosophical as well as theological understandings of the self.
ES(NS ↔ (SNS ∩ STS); STS > (NS ∩ SNS).
From Neuroscience to Panentheism
Because one aim of the present paper is to understand a God-relationship in the world in an interdisciplinary manner that also includes theology and furthermore, that corresponds to the proposed model of the emergent self, I belief panentheism needs to be reconsidered as a potential explanatory model of such a relationship. However, since there are a variety of types of panentheism, the question is which “type” would be the most fruitful one? Or perhaps none is fruitful per se but some have the necessary elements, which, when brought together, combine to form an adequate model? I believe the latter option to be the case. At least the following elements are needed for a panentheistic model to correspond with the model of the emergent self (imago Dei).
- There is only one universe (U) comprising both Ultimate (UR) and natural reality (NR).
- God created the world from within Godself and interacts with it from within the world through the nested hierarchy of the world by way multiple causations.
- God is immanent and transcendent in relation to the world and human beings (ES). UR > (NR ∩ ES).
- There is emergence; hence, the one universe U becomes EU.
- Because of the threefold view of the self and because human beings are understood as imago Dei, the panentheistic view includes the doctrine of the imago Dei.
- From this it follows that the world becomes the mediating authority between God and human beings.
The first, second, third and fourth elements are covered, among other models, by Arthur Peacocke’s panentheistic model which implies that there is only one closed universe that includes both the natural and an Ultimate world.77 God is seen as the ultimate ground of all necessities and possibilities, which are two necessary parameters for a self-organising world. Together with most panentheists, Peacocke defends the view that God is immanent and transcendent in relation to the world and human beings. Peacocke’s and Clayton’s panentheistic models also emphasize there being a process of emergence. According to Clayton, the principle of emergence expresses more clearly the relation “‘in’ or ‘is internal to’” the nested hierarchy in which “parts are contained within wholes, which themselves become parts within greater wholes, and so forth”, because it represents a logical relationship better than a localised one.78 God is relationally in the world but is not the sum of the world and, simultaneously, human beings are relationally in God. This is in analogy with the mutual relationship between the threefold self and the brain. The threefold self is relationally in the brain but is not the sum of the neurons and, simultaneously, the neurons are relationally in the self through different neural correlations. EU(UR ↔ NR); UR > NR.
The justification for including elements 5 and 6 in the panentheistic model is as follows. Nicolaus Cusanus’ panentheistic model comprises the concept of the imago Dei.79 One important difference between Peacocke’s and Cusanus’ view is that, even though human beings are, similar to the natural world, God’s similitudes, they are also God’s images (Deus secundus). This implies that the world (God’s similitude) becomes the mediating authority where God and humans (God’s similitudes and images) meet and that there is mutual affection between the Imago-Dei, the world and God. There are hence multiple causations. God created the world from within Godself and interacts with it from within the world through the nested hierarchy of the world. EU(UR ↔ NR ↔ ES); UR > (NR ∩ ES).
Before concluding this section, it will be helpful to take a look at the meaning of en in Pan-en-theism.
The en stands for a relationship between the world, human beings and God. Celia Deane-Drummond asked what the purpose of a relationship between God, the world and human beings might be. Her answer is that the purpose is friendship. “Jesus as the Wisdom of God”, she argues, suggests that the relationship between God, the world and human beings should be understood in terms of friendship. God, being the friend of the world and humans, participates in the distress of the world and of human beings but also in the world’s development, and in human accomplishments and creativity.80
Thus, firstly, the “en-relation” should be understood as a “with-relation” in order to represent the relationship God → (world ∩ humans). However, the panentheistic model suggested above implies that the world is the meeting place between God and human beings. Hence the “en-relation” also denotes that God is “with” human beings “in” the world. Secondly, the “en-relation” needs also to denote either an “and-relation” or a “with-relation” when it comes to the relationship from human beings toward God, because human beings have the free will to choose whether they want a “with” or an “and” relationship with God. A with-relationship from the human being toward God means that the human being “wills” a friendship relationship with God. Because there always is a “with” relationship from God towards human beings, whether the human beings recognize this or not, even if the human being does not want such a relationship, there will still be an “and” relationship towards God. According to the Christian religion, God calls all human beings to be God’s friends but does not force them. This implies that the “and” relationship from human beings toward God may change into a “with” relationship. Thirdly, the “en-relation” will also denote an “in-relation” between the world and God, i.e. the world is in God and God is in the world and human beings. However, since human beings are part of the world and part of God, they also need to be “in” the world as well as “in” God. To summarize, the en in panentheism denotes several relationships:
- With to denote the friendship relationship from God toward human beings
- With or and to denote the friendship relationship from human beings toward God.
- In to denote (a) the mutual relationship between God and the world and human beings, (b) the relationship between human beings and the world, i.e. human beings are in the world.
To conclude there is only one emergent universe comprising both the natural and Ultimate worlds forming a complex nested hierarchy in which parts are contained within wholes, which themselves become parts within greater wholes, etc. and there is a process of emergence. God or Ultimate Reality is seen as the ultimate ground of all necessities and possibilities and is in the natural world but is not reducible to it. The world is God’s similitude but human beings are also God’s images; the world is the mediating authority where God and humans meet.
EU(UR ↔ NR ↔ ES); UR > (NR ∩ ES).
Neuroscientific research points to an understanding of the self in terms of a threefold self; the neural self (NS: the neural correlations of all the possible expressions of the subjective self); the subjective neural self (SNS: if the specific neural functions are damaged, so are the corresponding specific subjective expressions); the subjective transcendent self (STS: the subjective self that does not seem to be under total control of the specific neural correlations of the self). The function of the NS is to neurologically sustain the subjective selves. The function of the SNS then is to express the neural self. The task of the STS is to be the essential observing subjective self, transcending the former two. The purpose of the ES was said to lie in the notion of the imago Dei. Possessing the qualities, relationships and functions similar (but not equal) to God’s the purpose is to use these abilities similarly (but not equally) as God is understood to do.
Neuroscientific research also suggests that the complex nested hierarchical subjective self correlates with a complex nested neural hierarchy. Hence, there is causation from the mental properties towards the physical as well as from the physical towards the mental faculties, giving rise to new and irreducible properties by way of a process of emergence.
The model of the emergent self thus implies that (1) there is only one closed emergent self, which includes both the brain and the mental processes, in which through the mutual causations of hierarchies new distinct mental and neural properties emerge. (2) The mental activity supervenes on the neural and corresponds to different correlating altered neural activity. This concerns both specific and complex pathways between the mental and the physical. (3) The mental properties are real in the same sense as the non-mental are, i.e. they follow the same temporal and special order.
The model of the emergent self in turn suggests a panentheistic model of the relationship between God (Ultimate Reality) and the world. This panentheistic model comprises the following: (1) there is only one closed universe comprising both the natural and Ultimate worlds forming a complex nested hierarchy in which parts are contained within wholes, which themselves become parts within greater wholes, etc. Again there are multiple causations of hierarchies by way of which new distinct mental and physical properties emerge. (2) Mental properties supervene on physical properties, which means that for every difference at the mental state level, there must be some corresponding difference of physical state, on which the difference of the mental state in some sense depends. (3) Ultimate Reality (God) is seen as the ultimate ground of all necessities and possibilities and is in the natural world but is not reducible to it; also note that mental states are real in the same sense as non-mental states are. (4) The world is God’s similitude but human beings, besides being God’s similitudes, are also God’s images; the world is the mediating authority where God and humans meet.
The present paper has not, of course, given any proof that God or Ultimate Reality exists, but at least it makes it harder to ignore or explain away the special feature of human beings in the way, for example, that evolutionary theorists attempt to do.
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7 Gregersen, N.H. https://www.metanexus.net accessed 10 March 2008.
10 Hence, lower and higher level neurons contribute to consciousness and mental unification is possible, and intentional action is embedded within the entire hierarchical system across hierarchical levels. Feinberg, T.E/Keenan, J.P. (2005) 663.
11 The subjectivity of the self, when analysed objectively, i.e. when neuroscientists map the different brain functions, the self is related to a non-nested hierarchy, i.e. lower and higher levels of hierarchy are physically independent entities. Feinberg, T.E./Keenan, J.P. (2005) 664.
12 Feinberg, T.E/Keenan, J.P. (2005) 673. Advocates of the complexity view are, among others, Todd E. Feinberg, Julian Paul Keenan, Philippe Fossati, Thilo Hinterberger, Andrew Newberg Kevin N. Ochsner, Sitaram Ranganatha, Sterling C. Johnson and Harald Walach.
40 The FrÈgoli and Capgras syndromes are two versions of Delusional misidentification and reduplication (DMS). FrÈgoli syndrome roughly implies that strangers become well known persons. A nurse is seen as the patient’s sister or mother etc. The Capgras syndrome is roughly the brain disorder which causes patients to misidentify persons, places, objects and events. For example, doubles or impostors have replaced a familiar person. The patients cannot be convinced that the husband is who he says he is and they deny that they are mistaken when the delusion is pointed out to them. But also, the patients may misidentify a part of their own body. Shirley suffered from Asomatognosia which is related to Capgras syndrome. Hence, Capgras syndrome is about negative doubts, hypo-identification and under-personalisation, while FrÈgoli syndrome concerns positive doubts, hyper-identification and over-personalisation.
41 Feinberg, T.E/Keenan, J.P. (2005) 675. Some patients suffer from a two-way ego disturbance which means that there is both an alienation from the arm (it’s not my arm) as well as the projection of the arm into the environment (it belongs to my sister). Sigmund Freud already noticed that “there are cases in which parts of a person’s own body, even portions of his mental life – his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings – appear alien to him and as not belonging to his ego. […] Thus even the feeling of our own ego is subject to disturbances and the boundaries of the ego are not constant”. Freud, S. (1930) 66.
43 Johnson, S. et al. (2002) 1808—1809. The theory of mind (ToM) commonly refers to a specific cognitive capacity, namely the capacity to attribute mental states: beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc., to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own.
44 Also, difficulties in constructing things (constructional apraxia) and denial of deficits (anosagnosia). Damage to the left parietal lobe may cause difficulties with writing (agraphia), difficulties with mathematics (acalculia), difficulties with language (agnosia) and inability to perceive objects normally (agnosia).
46 Feinberg, T.E/Keenan, J.P. (2005) 673—675. The function of the left hemisphere is associated with sequential analyses such as systematic, logical interpretation of information; interpretation and production of symbolic information language; mathematics, abstraction and reasoning and also with memory storage in a language format. The function of the right hemisphere then is associated with holistic functioning such as processing multi-sensory input simultaneously to provide a “holistic” picture of one’s environment; visual spatial skills. Holistic functions such as dancing and gymnastics are coordinated by the right hemisphere. Memory is stored in auditory, visual and spatial modalities.
48 Johnson, S. et al. (2002). Hypermetabolism in the posterior cingulated gyrus was also associated with very-early Alzheimer’s disease, because this is the period when patients clearly start to show difficulties with memory. This hyperbolism was also exhibited by individuals who are at genetic risk from Alzheimer’s. Johnson, S. et al. (2002) 1811. Stuss, D.T. et al. (2001). Ochsner, K.N. et al. (2004). Discussion of the results: pages: 1749—1750/1752—1754/1765.
51 Ochsner, K.N. et al. (2004) 1752. However, in all studies it is emphasized that the specific brain functions do not work in isolation to sustain the self. Self and other perception of emotion rely on a complex neural network. According to Ochsner the posterior cortical regions support bottom-up processing (recognition of intentional behaviour) while the medial prefrontal cortex supports top-down processing (attributes about mental states that guide them).
55 Deafferentation means that all neural input or flow into a certain brain structure is cut off. This cutting off may be partial or total. It is the latter that is associated with Absolute Unitary Being. The total deafferentation of both the left and right posterior superior parietal lobes is considered as a final point of meditation neurologically. Thus there seems to be conformity between the narratives of meditators and neuroscientific theories. However, in their SPECT study, Newberg and d’Aquili only observed an overall tendency in that direction. d’ Aquili, E./Newberg, A. (1999)/Newberg, A. et al. (2001) 117—122/ For analysis and evaluation: Runehov, A.L.C. (2007) Chap. 5/6.
56 Kohls, N./Walach, H. (2006) 144. Depending on one’s personal and spiritual outlook they are regarded as potentially stabilizing or destabilizing. The crucial point seems to be that those with regular spiritual practice assess experiences of ego loss much more positively.
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