The conclusion of Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damascio reveals the mind of a humanist neuroscientist who nobly struggles to affirm soul and spirit while holding to the view that these higher realities are products of the mind, which is a product of the brain.
“Mind comes from the brain.” (251) “The mind as a function of the organism . . . .” (255). “No one can say how the brain goes about the business of making mind.” (258)
“Brain’s neurons behave in such a thoughtful manner.” (251)
“The truly embodied mind . . . does not relinquish its most refined levels of operation, those constituting its soul and spirit. From my perspective, it is just that soul and spirit, with all their dignity and human scale, are now complex and unique states of an organism. . . . The difficult job . . . is to move the spirit from its nowhere pedestal, while preserving its dignity and importance, to recognize its humble origin and vulnerability, yet still call upon its guidance.” (252)
Is this a philosophically coherent position? When Damascio speaks of “moving the spirit from its nowhere pedestal” he seems to imply that religion—which regards God as spirit and the divine presence in the mind as spirit—is an error. But Damascio wants to preserve the dignity and importance of spirit as a source of guidance. I admire his readiness to state his humanism so lucidly in all its seeming incoherence.
Does it matter that someone holds an incoherent philosophy? Coherence is a philosophical virtue, one that matters in life insofar as we perceive, interpret, evaluate, decide, and act on the basis of our philosophy. But we all have incoherence in our idea systems, or so I believe. No one’s thinking is perfectly, completely, coherent all the time. And there are more important virtues in life than intellectual coherence, especially when our great spiritual teachers have so often expressed deep truths in paradox, for example, “Those who would be greatest of all must serve everyone else.”
My own view of the classic mind-body problem is that it acknowledges two few elements in the problem to facilitate a solution. The mind should rather be situated “between” body and spirit. I use spatial metaphor at this point; I am convinced that we as creatures of space and time cannot eliminate metaphor from our speaking about such things. I imagine the reality of the body as a spectrum, ranging from bone at one end to the neurons of the brain, which can control or be controlled by mind. Mind is a spectrum ranging from its interface with living cells material interface to its interface with spirit. And spirit ranges from the presence of God within us to the universal Father on Paradise, creator of all these dimensions of the real and the secret of our capacity to integrate and unify the aspects of our nature. These three realities—body, mind, and spirit—are different; the language proper in describing one system does not work (except as metaphor) for another system, but in the human being they come excitingly close, allowing us to experience and know all three levels and to make our choice of where we will establish our center of gravity.
The question for me that stirs a prayer for this gifted, accomplished, noble, and infinitely loved neuroscientist Antonio Damascio is this: Where is the center of gravity of the heart? When I say “heart” I mean “motivational center.” Philosophically speaking, that center appears ambiguous in this book’s conclusion; but in life, sooner or later there comes a parting of the ways. I believe that a person may intellectually accept physicalism in his metaphysics or ontology (no matter how exquisitely he labors to avoid reductionism), but he can nevertheless effectively center his life in the dignity of the soul and the guidance of the spirit.