Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Soul Exists - But Only In The Mind.

In the 17th Century, René Descartes was the first to claim that the pineal gland was the 'seat of the soul', without so much as demonstrating that there was anything that could be shown objectively to be 'the soul'.

Descartes arrived at his conclusion because he believed that (a) the soul was given by the Xtian 'god' to homo sapiens, (b) that the soul is one substance, and (c) he had observed from anatomical studies that the pineal gland appeared to be unique among brain structures in that it was not divided into two halves.

Descartes was wrong on that account too, for closer examination has proved that the tiny gland does in fact have both a left and right hemisphere.

Like other hubristic theists (with apologies for the oxymoron), Descartes believed also that that animals could not have a pineal gland because his religious faith had taught him that only humans have souls, though it is an inconvenient fact that many animals do have them too - pineal glands, that is.

Not that Descartes would have let such a tedious fact divert him from his spurious endeavours to prove that his 'God' existed and that homo sapiens had been created by 'Him' and in 'His' image. But then Descartes is a much over-rated philosopher - and an even worse scientist - and perhaps his most egregious endowment to the history of critical thought is his famous, and wrong, dicta: 'cogito ergo sum' . Even a callow schoolboy could have told him that he'd got it completely the wrong way round and it should have been - 'I am therefore I think'. Still, what can one expect from a devout Jesuit.

Last month, however, an interesting paper was published in 'Nature Precedings', which bills itself as 'a journal for pre-publication research and preliminary findings'. The paper is entitled "Correlation between Pineal Activation and Religious Meditation Observed by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging" by a team at the National Taiwan University in Taipei, which may be downloaded as a PDF file from this link.

Whilst scientists say there is no evidence that our so-called immortal connection to the afterlife exists - or as Gautama Buddha pointed out some 2,600 years ago, "There is no soul" - brain scans using the latest fMRI technology now suggests the area surrounding the pineal gland is activated when people meditate.

The study co-leader Dr Jyh-Horng Chen said that:
"There is no definition of 'soul' in the scientific field."
He went on to conclude:
"But our results demonstrate a correlation between pineal activation and religious meditation which might have profound implications in the physiological understanding of mind, spirit and soul.

Whether this correlation is merely a psychological effect or a real physical phenomenon remains to be further explored."
Incidentally, the subjects of the study - 11 men and 9 women - were all practitioners of the esoteric 'T'ienti Teachings', also known as 'Chinese Original Quiet Sitting', and it should be noted that the T'ienti Teaching movement describes itself as an international religious organization which also goes by the name of 'The Lord of Universe Church'

In other words, the population chosen for the study is (a) statistically insignificant, (b) completely unrepresentative, and (c) already believe in ancient esoteric mumbo-jumbo that has no basis in the objective world, science or logic - despite claiming to be over 5,000 years old.

Some of the other claims made by the movement are:
"Chinese Original Quiet Sitting is the sole legacy, passed down 5,000 years from Chinese ancestors, that strengthens bodies and genes, nurtures life, gives longevity, and makes mankind unify with Heaven. For ancient Taoists it was the prime practice for tempering soul and body, taking them beyond constraints of the physical world to a marvelous(sic) integration of spirit and flesh. In it they found everlasting life."
The movement then goes on to state:
"Chinese Original Quiet Sitting was personally imparted by the First-Appointed Master Emissary of the T'ienti Teachings, Mr. Lee Yü-chieh(1901-1994)..."
From which one is forced to conclude that the "everlasting life" claimed by the adherents of the T'ienti Teachings is not to be taken literally.

However, if one is not to take that claim literally, what evidence is there for any of the other claims made by 'The Lord of Universe Church'?

And why should we take the paper "Correlation between Pineal Activation and Religious Meditation Observed by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging" seriously?


Hilary said...

Nature Precedings does not contain peer-reviewed research and documents posted on the site frequently discuss preliminary (e.g. unpublished) findings. The FAQ on the site states "Q: Is [Nature Precedings] a new journal? A: No. Nature Precedings is complementary to peer-reviewed journals. Nature Precedings aims to provide a way to share, archive and cite unpublished or soon-to-be published material. Documents on Nature Precedings are not peer-reviewed and, as such, should not be considered 'published' works."


While we hope that much of the research on the site will eventually be peer-reviewed and published, please note that none of it has been at the time of posting. The site aims to help researchers share and solicit feedback on pre-publication work, but is not a journal, nor a substitute for one.

Hilary Spencer
Product Development Manager
Nature Precedings

The Merchant of Menace said...

Thank you for that clarification, Hilary - I have amended my post accordingly and I apologise for the error. In my defence I can say only that I read a reference elsewhere to your journal (in 'The Times', if my memory serves me correctly)which referred to 'Nature Precedings' as 'peer-reviewed' and simply assumed that the reference was correct as it was from such an otherwise authoritative source.