There’s a T-shirt at http://sharingmachine.com with the caption, “Serotonin & Dopamine: Technically the only two things you enjoy.” I’ve seen the shirt advertised on their cartoon sites many times, but it struck me now because of a conversation I had with a biology student interested in neuroscience. Let’s take a closer look at the (pejorative?) statement: pleasure is defined as a biochemical activity.
If pleasure — and arguably any emotion — can be explained in exquisite neurological detail, are we done then, squeezing out room for a non-physical psyche as more than a poetic affectation of person? That is the conclusion of some, and I say they are small-minded even if they may not be small-brained.
Knowing the physical aspect of emotion, even down to the molecule or electron, does not answer the deeper questions. Is there a will behind the emotion that directs the chemistry, or is it always a foregone conclusion? Yes, a response can be triggered chemically, surgically, magnetically, electrically, or by external stimuli. But can we dismiss a player in the game, capable of transcending the game, or are we biological automatons? This is where the free will versus determinism argument hits or breaks through the wall of science.
In the broader sense we are talking about the nature of consciousness. Is our awareness, self-awareness, and sentience an illusion of an advanced brain? Or is the brain merely the lens through which consciousness can act? Is seems all the observations in the world do not answer the question — presuming either viewpoint will ‘prove’ itself correct, or at least seem self-evident.
In the material model, everything is the result of complex, natural patterns, and perception of self is an illusion. (Oddly, Buddhism would agree with the last statement, but for completely different reasons.) In the spiritual model, being which finds residence in an organism with sufficient capabilities (ie, a human brain) will express itself visibly within the limitations of the residence, yet maintain faculties without or beyond.
Does the brain give us our being? If so, there is no soul, as we cease to exist upon brain death. Is there an afterlife? If so, the brain is dependent on our soul, not the other way around. The question of which comes first is not really a question of reincarnation, but dependence.
The contrast of the physical versus metaphysical, material versus spiritual, is at the heart of many a debate, not the least of which is theism versus atheism. Neither seems to trump the other, except in the minds of those incapable of seriously considering the unspoken assumptions of both.
And what if both models fit? In this physical life, our mind is intertwined with our brain, and they could be described as dependent upon each other, at least in general observation of everyday life. And like the consciousness question, metaphysical matters all the way up to matters of deity are transcendent of science, which can only observe the result, limited by it’s own tools and perspective.
After all, any model is just that — a model.