The Struggle for the (Possible) Soul of David Eagleman
There’s a struggle inside the brain of David Eagleman for the soul of David Eagleman.
That is, there might be such a struggle if Eagleman’s brain believed that Eagleman had a soul, which he is not sure about. In fact, Eagleman’s brain is not completely sure that there is an Eagleman-beyond-Eagleman’s-brain at all—with or without a soul, whatever that term might mean.
Welcome to the world of “possibilian” neuroscientist-writer David Eagleman, to life in the space between what-is and what-if, between the facts we think we know and the fictions that illuminate what we don’t know.
Eagleman-the-scientist would love to rev up his high-tech neuroimaging machines to answer the enduring questions about the brain and the mind, the body and the soul. But Eagleman-the-writer knows that those machines aren’t going to answer those questions.
Eagleman rejects not only conventional religion but also the labels of agnostic and atheist. In their place, he has coined the term possibilian: a word to describe those who “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.”
Taking seriously the old saying “the absence of proof isn’t the proof of absence,” Eagleman recognizes that people who don’t believe in God (at least not in God defined as a supernatural force or entity) can never say with certainty what doesn’t exist. So, the difference between agnostic and atheist is typically a matter of attitude, and such is the case with adding possibilian to the mix. Eagleman is not trying to support or rule out any particular claim but simply suggesting that it’s healthy to imagine possibilities.
While he reports on what-is in scientific journals, Eagleman’s brain and mind run free pondering the what-ifs. In his 2009 book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, Eagleman imagines life beyond death, in a playful series of short philosophical musings: What if there were an afterlife in which we relive all our experiences but shuffled into a new order? What if in an afterlife we confront all the possible versions of ourselves that could have been? What if we experience death in stages: when the body stops functioning, when we’re buried, and the moment when your name is spoken by another for the last time? Sum offers 40 such what-ifs. The stories aren’t meant as serious proposals about what an afterlife may be. They are vehicles for Eagleman’s ruminations on the vexing philosophical questions of human life.
Sum has been a success in the United States and abroad. The Syndey Opera House in Australia staged a theatrical adaptation of the stories, with an original score written and performed by musician-producer Brian Eno. Eagleman hopes he’ll get a shot someday at a larger stage, where he can fulfill his dream of becoming the Carl Sagan of the brain, explaining the billions and billions of neurons in our head to a curious public. And that seems to be possible: Sum’s speculative musings have captured the imagination of a small but lively group of people who claim the possibilian label, leading Eagleman to begin writing Why I’m a Possibilian to flesh out the ideas.
Though Eagleman’s scientific and literary lives seem radically different on the surface, they are part of the same creative endeavor: to deepen our understanding of a complex world we can never fully grasp. Since scientists mostly talk about what they know, Eagleman’s emphasis on our ignorance may seem out of character. Eagleman offers an analogy: The work of science is like building a pier out into the ocean. We excitedly add on to the pier little by little, but then we look around and say, “Wait a minute, I’m at the end of the pier, but there’s a lot more out there.” The ocean of what we don’t know always dwarfs what we do know, he says. “During our lifetimes, we will get further on that pier. We’ll understand more at the end of our lives than we do now, but it ain’t going to cover the ocean.”
Settling in at his office at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Eagleman swivels 180 degrees in his chair, his foot pushing off the various pieces of office furniture to propel him around like a kind of wind-up machine. His verbal velocity fluctuates between fast and faster, depending on his fascination with a particular idea. His thoughts can range from the reflections on the latest experiments he’s running in the five fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines down the hall, to philosophical questions about free will and its implications for the legal system, to speculations about an afterlife.
Eagleman is working on the last chapter of his forthcoming book Dethronement: The Secret Life of the Unconscious Brain. His central project in that book, as in all of his scientific work, is to understand how the human brain constructs reality. One of Eagleman’s most basic concerns is the mind: Is our consciousness the product of anything beyond the material realm? Is there anything beyond the physical brain? If there is something beyond, is that what we should call the mind? What does all this mean for the concept of the soul?
Eagleman wants to know how the brain works. “Understanding the machinery is not a bad pursuit at all,” he says. “It doesn’t rob the myste…, doesn’t rob the awe from everything.”
Why does he stop himself from saying “mystery”? Why replace it with “awe”?
Eagleman explains that Frances Crick, the Nobel laureate biologist whom he got to know at the Salk Institute, once told him, “What we lose in mystery we gain in awe,” and the phrase stuck with him. “Our goal in some sense is to reduce the mystery, but that doesn’t reduce the awe,” Eagleman says. If scientists could produce a neural map that explains why chocolate ice cream tastes good, it would still taste just as good. The mystery would be gone, but the experience wouldn’t be diminished. Eagleman makes clear that he is a possibilian, not a mysterian (one who believes that there are things humans can’t understand, problems we can’t solve). Eagleman acknowledges that in his lifetime we won’t come up with the theories to explain everything and that some of science’s stories may turn out to be wrong, but they usually are better than any alternative stories.
Eagleman rejects fundamentalism in religion, politics, and economics. But he sometimes sounds like a technological fundamentalist—someone who believes that humans, using science, will always find high-energy/high-technology solutions to problems, including the problems created by previous high-energy/high-technology processes and gadgets. For example, Eagleman is optimistic about the possibility of finding significant ways to replace current sources of energy. He believes that the more dire the problem, the more creative humans are: As we get closer to running out of oil, the incentive to solve the problem will pull us through.
Besides contributing to scientific and philosophical inquiry, current research on how the brain constructs reality raises questions for criminal law. Eagleman’s work on the brain and the law, in the new interdisciplinary field called neurolaw, explores the implications of brain science for culpability, sentencing, and rehabilitation. Imagine, for example, that Charles Whitman had not been shot dead in 1966 after he killed 14 people and wounded dozens with a rifle from the top of the Main Building at the University of Texas at Austin. What if the brain tumor found by an autopsy had instead been revealed by neuroimaging, and it had been demonstrated that the tumor caused his murderous rampage? If he had lived and gone to trial, should that have affected a legal determination of guilt? The type of sentence? The evaluation of when he might be paroled?
Eagleman acknowledges that in labs such as his, neuroscientists work under the assumption that “you are nothing but your brain,” and many scientists and philosophers suggest that this is not merely an assumption but a proven fact. Eagleman refers to this as the “hardcore” reductionist/materialist view—reducing the mental to the material, reducing the mind to the physical brain. That could be the case, he says, but it makes him nervous. We shouldn’t presume, he says, that we know about all the pieces that make us up or all the forces that structure the world in which we operate. Enter the possibilian. “Almost certainly, we’re missing giant pieces,” Eagleman says, just as previous generations were missing a big piece of the puzzle when they attempted to understand the world without the concept of gravity. “We’re in that situation now, and the reason we know we’re in that situation is because for the most fundamental questions we have, like consciousness, we not only don’t know the answer but we don’t even know what the answer could look like.”
What does Eagleman mean by the question of consciousness? “How do you put together a bunch of physical pieces and parts, and get private subjective experience out of that? How do you get the taste of feta cheese or the redness of red or the feeling of pain?”
Neuroscience labs are busy mapping neural circuits—the signals within the brain, and between the brain and the rest of the body. But “that’s just mechanical stuff, Eagleman says, “and every single discovery in every neuroscience lab is just mechanical stuff.”
“We’re stuck with this very deep problem, this 800-pound gorilla: If it’s all just mechanical stuff everywhere we look, and if every part of the brain is connected to, and driven by, other parts of the brain, then where’s consciousness?” For most folks, the answer might be, “Well, it’s in my mind.” But that begs the question of what we mean by the mind, beyond the physical brain. What is a mind? (Your brain weighs about three pounds. How much does your mind weigh?) Eagleman has no clear way to frame the question of consciousness, much less a way to describe subjective experience: “There’s no equation that can give us the taste of feta cheese.”
Eagleman, a hardcore neuroscientist who loves the data coming out of his lab as much as conventional religious believers love the scriptures in their holy books, isn’t a hardcore materialist. But what could the missing pieces of the consciousness puzzle be?
Eagleman is quick to make it clear he’s not saying there’s a force X; he doesn’t want to be lumped in with the folks peddling New Age flakiness. He just wants to keep an open mind, which is what he thinks science is all about—extend the pier but don’t forget about the vastness of the ocean, expand what we know but remember that what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t know.
Human beings, including scientists, Eagleman says, are storytellers. He believes scientists have some of the best explanations for how the world works. But the way that the “facts” of the science of one era are replaced by new discoveries should remind us that science is always just telling stories. The earth is pushed out of the center of the universe, Newtonian physics gets nudged by quantum mechanics; science marches on, with lots of “facts” left by the side of the road to rust.
Throw a stone into any contemporary university English department and you’ll hit at least one postmodern literary theorist who will talk about science as narrative, but it’s rare to hear it from a scientist who is as committed to the scientific project as Eagleman. Here’s someone running a lab with five high-test fMRI machines, 16 employees, and a half-million dollar-a-year budget. And it’s all just stories?
“I don’t want to say ‘just stories.’ These are the best stories we have on the planet,” Eagleman asserts, the stories that cure disease and make space travel possible. “I’m just saying that they are narratives that can change. Science is a tremendously successful pursuit, but there’s a lot of wiggle room.”
The awareness that there is always potentially a game-changing discovery around the corner is, for Eagleman, the allure of science. “I don’t think people would want to go into science unless they thought there was something big to be discovered. You go in because you think, ‘I want to kick over the whole fucking chessboard.’ That’s what makes a good scientist.”
Growing up in Albuquerque, NM, with a psychiatrist father and biologist mother who both loved books, Eagleman was exposed to lots of discussion about what makes good science and good literature. When he went off to college to major in literature at Rice University in Houston, he dabbled in space physics and engineering but avoided biology; his last biology class had been in the 10th grade, at which time he pronounced the subject “gross.” But late in his undergraduate career he found himself drawn to questions about the brain, and once he started reading he was hooked.
After doctoral work in the neuroscience program at Baylor College of Medicine, he spent five years in San Diego in a fellowship at the Salk Institute before taking a faculty job in the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center. Baylor lured him back three years ago. With funding from the National Institutes of Health and a few smaller grants, he pays for a lab in which student researchers and regular staff members work out of six cubicles. Conversations about work, along with various pieces of hardware used in experiments, spill over to the office’s combined conference table/lunch room. The whiteboard walls (which are actually a light blue) sport a kind of scientific graffiti—ideas for projects, questions about projects, lists of things to be done on projects—that reflects the serious but anarchic spirit of the lab.
Don Vaughn was a high school student in San Diego when he met Eagleman at his school’s Science Day. After graduating from Stanford and working in investment banking for a summer, the mohawk-coiffed Vaughn bugged Eagleman to give him a job. Now he’s collaborating with Eagleman on a new study on empathetic responses in the brain. Greg Bohuslav is a University of Houston undergrad who loves the nimbleness of the lab. When people have ideas, he says Eagleman will let them run a quick experiment to test it, most of which fail. To do that work without big grants, Bohuslav likes to help design devices used in experiments. “We build a stimulator (device that shoots puffs of air to stimulate the skin) for $2,500 that would have cost $35,000 to buy,” he says proudly. “There’s a value placed on ingenuity here.”
The confident Eagleman talks fast and then faster, offering elegant summaries of complex scientific theories and constructing analogies to explain the firing of our neurons. He hits roadblocks and thinks through solutions on the fly. Conversation with him is just plain fun.
The more ruminative side of Eagleman appears when he runs up against a truly troubling question, when he’s stopped cold by the limits of human intelligence confronting the overwhelming complexity of the world—both outside and inside us. Instead of tossing off a stock response, he slows down and reveals the struggle inside Eagleman, between the confidence-bordering-on-hubris of a neuroscientist and the humility-that-produces-doubt of a writer who knows he’s chewing on questions that won’t be solved in this or any other age.
In five hours of conversation, Eagleman and I ran into those walls a handful of times, most notably when I asked whether the size of the human brain means we are a tragic species: Might our intellectual capacity to achieve great things contain the seeds of our own destruction? Given the multiple crises and threats, especially to the ability of the ecosystem to sustain life, I ask, “Is the human story a tragic story?”
“That’s interesting. I would say…” he starts before pausing for 20 seconds, an eternity in Eagleman time. He reframes the question: “Do we hit the solution or the disaster first?”
Eagleman offers an upbeat answer: “We’re leveraging human capital more than we’re ever done before. So I feel like that makes it even more likely for solutions to come along. I don’t mean to be a panglossian scientist and say that science progresses, it’s always going to lead to solutions, but yea, I …”
His voice trails off. Eagleman may be a hopeful possibilian, but he remains true to possibilianism. He repeats his confidence that we can meet challenges, but he knows the question can’t be dismissed. Being a serious possibilian is exciting, but it also can be scary. Are there any possibilities that scare Eagleman-the-scientist?
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and I sometimes feel like, oh my god, what if I’ve gone just a little too far?,” Eagleman says.“When you reach your arms down into it, sometimes I feel like I’m seeing the matrix in a sense. Oh my god, this is all a construction. So the same question that excites me [how does the brain construct reality?] can also scare the shit out of me a lot of times. Because it’s much more comfortable to imagine that you open your eyes, and the world is full of color and things just exist and time flows like a river. But when you start breaking all that down and seeing that it’s a construction of the brain, it’s kind of awful, I guess, because it makes you feel so alien to everything you’ve ever known and loved.”
Does that mean Eagleman-the-writer wants to believe that he has both a brain and a soul? How does he respond to the question, “Does David Eagleman have a soul?” He pauses again.
“So, I can answer that in two ways. I can tell you from my internal experience, and from my scientific training. Internally, I have felt as I’ve gotten older that I am not the same as my body, despite all of the neuroscience. How do I put this? What’s clear is that I depend entirely on the integrity of my body. As things in my brain change—if I were to develop a tumor, for example—that could completely change who I am, how I think. So I’m somehow yoked to my brain in a very strong way, and the question for all of us is, are we yoked to it 100 percent or is there some other little bit going on? From the inside, I have an intuition that I’m not just equivalent to my body. That said, intuitions always prove to be a very poor judge of reality. So, if you ask me, ‘do I have a soul?’ I would say ‘you know, I kind of feel like there’s something about me that’s a little separate from the biology.’ But I have no evidence for that.”
The struggle between the brain of a scientist and the soul of a writer continues in Eagleman. Maybe the brain allows itself to imagine a soul in order to take the sting out of mortality of the brain. Maybe the soul allows the brain to pretend to be in control, secure in the knowledge that the soul is immortal.
Hard to say, but in the space between the materialist and mystic, anything’s possible.
An excerpt of this article first appeared in the May 28, 2010, issue of the Texas Observer.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009). He also is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Reach him by email, and read more of his articles online.