Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
light bulb chain off.jpg
Hand turning off the bulb lamp.Turning off the light.

Your Soul Has No “Off Switch”

A major modern misunderstanding of the human mind is to assume that it is like a machine with an “on” and an “off” switch

I have written, in an earlier post, about the problem of “consciousness:” — that is, the problem inherent to the word itself and to the concept it conveys. I believe that “consciousness” is a mere narrative gloss on the mind — it denotes nothing beyond the mental powers of the soul.

This is not just linguistic nitpicking. The concept of “consciousness” is much worse than useless. It leads us to misunderstand the mind in a profound way, as I will explain. The point may seem subtle but I believe that, if you think deeply enough about it, you will see that it is obviously true.

First, I am not saying “consciousness” is an illusion. or possibly a delusion. This witless assertion is a mainstay of some materialist theories of mind.

In that context, it is nonsensical. Materialists use the term “consciousness” in a vague way to mean arousal (alertness), qualia (first-person experience) and intentionality (the “aboutness” of a thought). To claim that arousal, qualia, and intentionality are illusions (or delusions) is to presuppose arousal, qualia, and intentionality. Thinking can’t be a delusion, because in order to be deluded one must think.

What I am saying is that “consciousness” is empty. I mean “empty” in the same sense that the late philosopher Jerry Fodor (1935 – 2017) argued that the concept of natural selection is empty. Fodor pointed out that biological evolution is determined by two things: the physical makeup of an organism (anatomy, genes etc.) and the history of the organism — i.e., what happens to it. There is nothing else. “Natural selection” means just these two constraints and nothing more. Natural selection is not a force or a process in itself. Natural selection is a narrative gloss, superfluous to a scientific understanding of evolution.

I believe “consciousness” is the same kind of empty narrative gloss applied to the mind. Man has a soul, and the mind is several powers of the soul — sensation, perception, sensus communis, imagination, memory, sensitive appetite, reason, and will. By “consciousness” we just mean the exercise of those powers.

At first, it would seem harmless enough to use the shorthand “consciousness” when we want to refer to sensation, perception, reason, etc., to refer to the powers of the soul. To understand how serious a mistake it is, note that “consciousness” was not a term in psychology, philosophy, or science until the late 17 th century. It was first used by John Locke (1632 – 1704) in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Classical and medieval philosophers, who described the soul in intricate detail, had no concept of “consciousness” and no word for it. Why did “consciousness” suddenly appear in the early modern era after millennia of profound contemplation of the soul and its mental powers had never invoked it?

I think the reason “consciousness” became a new concept in early modern philosophy is the advent of mechanical philosophy, which replaced Platonism and Aristotelian hylomorphism as the default scientific metaphysics. Mechanical philosophy is the assertion that nature and man are machines of a sort.

The machine analogy arose because men in the early modern era saw enormous advances in machine technology. We see the same assumptions at work today: in the computer age, the dominant view of the mind among neuroscientists is that the mind is a kind of computer. Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher in the 6th century B.C., thought the mind was fire. To Stone Age man, the mind was, undoubtedly, a stone. The answers we get depend on the questions we ask, and the questions we ask are too often conditioned by the reigning technology of our age. Mechanical philosophy grew out of the mechanical age, not out of any genuine advance in natural science that demanded it. It is an egregious philosophical and scientific mistake but that is beyond our scope here.

I believe that “consciousness” became a concept in the early modern era because of this machine analogy. Machines, after all, can be turned on and off. If a body is a machine, life is the on position of the switch, and death is the off position. If the mind is a machine, conscious is the on position, and unconsciousness is the off position. If we are machines, “on” and “off” as states of consciousness seem inevitable.

There are strong scientific reasons to reject this notion that the soul, including the powers of the mind, can be extinguished in the sense of being “switched off.” Here are some of them:

  1. Medical practice avoids use of the terms “conscious” or “unconscious” (if a medical student uses the term, I correct him). These terms for mental states are horribly imprecise, and it is not clear that they correspond meaningfully to any reproducibly measurable state of mind. Mental status is commonly assessed by the Glasgow Coma Scale which measures ability to follow commands, to open eyes, and to speak. “Consciousness,” as distinct from individual mental abilities, plays no role.
  2. When we sleep, although we would commonly be called “unconscious,” we remain aware to a significant extent of our surroundings. We wake up to noise or pain or cold. If we were not “conscious” of stimuli in some real sense, we could not respond to them.
  3. During sleep, we are aware of dreams, which often have very complex imagery and content. Dreams are often metaphorical and represent profound introspection and insights about experiences.
  4. “Unconsciousness” is a poorly defined term in anesthesiology. The fundamental goal of surgical general anesthesia is analgesia, pharmacological paralysis of voluntary muscles, and amnesia, not unconsciousness, per se. Because anesthetic drugs are generally amnestic agents and drugs are given that cause muscular paralysis, it is impossible to know to what extent awareness (without pain or movement) exists during anesthesia.
  5. Patients who are “unconscious” from concussion or other brain injury often show varying levels of awareness of their surroundings. It is common medical practice to speak quietly and avoid upsetting topics while in the room of a “comatose” patient because the patient’s vital signs often change markedly in response to upsetting nearby conversations. To speak in upsetting ways in the vicinity of comatose patient is widely acknowledged as poor medical practice.
  6. Patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), which is the deepest level of coma, have been traditionally assumed to have no mental states at all. Yet careful studies over the past two decades show that many patients in PVS have high levels of awareness and thought and are simply unable to demonstrate their thoughts to others.
  7. Millions of people have had near death experiences (NDE’s), in which awareness (usually heightened awareness) persists after complete cessation of brain function. A significant portion of these experiences are veridical, which means that the reality of the perceptions can be confirmed (e.g. the person sees things that occurred when he was clinically dead).

Mental states are powers of the soul that enable us to sense, perceive, imagine, remember, have emotions and desires and to exercise intellect and will. Many of these abilities are altered by sleep, drugs, injury, or even death, but there is no good evidence that all mental states are extinguished by any circumstance. The more we understand about the neuroscience of arousal, sleep, anesthesia, coma, and NDEs, the more it evident that “consciousness” is to neuroscience what phlogiston and the ether was to thermodynamics. It is an outdated concept that served as a scientific placeholder and obscured reality, until deeper insights are gained that render it superfluous.

Werner Heisenberg noted: “What we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

‘Consciousness’ leads us to a method of questioning based on the mechanical notion that the mind can be switched on and off like a machine. But there is no evidence — either philosophical or scientific — that the mind or the soul (of which the mind is an aspect) has an “on switch” or an “off switch.” The most reasonable scientific inference is that we are never “unconscious,” nor are we “conscious” in any meaningful sense. Our mental life is a composite of abilities — arousal, sensation, perception, locomotion, reason, etc., and these abilities appear to subsist in modified form despite dramatic changes in the body and brain. We are aware of sounds and sensations and dreams when we sleep, we are aware of many things in our environment — pain, some conversations around us, etc. — when we are “unconscious” from a concussion. There is abundant evidence that in the deepest stage of coma (persistent vegetative state) we are capable of remarkably sophisticated levels of thought. Even after death, we often seem to retain awareness that can be verified, and even have heightened awareness, as the massive literature on near death experiences demonstrates.

Neuroscience shows that we are not machines with “on” and “off” switches. Our minds are never off; we just have states in which one or more powers of the mind — sensation or perception or memory etc. — are temporarily inactive. It makes no sense to speak of an “on switch” either. There is no scientific reason to speak of consciousness or unconsciousness, and that terminology has largely been abandoned in medical practice as meaningless and even dangerous, as it should be.

“Consciousness” is a concept derived from a deeply mistaken view of man’s soul and mind — the view that man is a machine that can be switched on and off. This misunderstanding serves to conceal, not reveal, the true nature of man. We are not machines. We are never switched off — we are never unconscious — not in sleep, not under anesthesia, not in coma and not even after death.

While our mental powers can change — our vision, alertness, or memory can fail — we have no “off switch.” Most egregiously, the concept of “consciousness” perpetuates the lie that we are extinguished at death. There is every reason — philosophical and scientific — to infer that man has an immortal soul.

You may also enjoy: Does the ability to think depend on consciousness? From a medical perspective, “consciousness” adds nothing to the description of mental states. (Michael Egnor)

Note: Here is a materialist claiming that consciousness is an illusion:

Michael Egnor

Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics, State University of New York, Stony Brook
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and is an award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Your Soul Has No “Off Switch”