Conversation with Pi: Has neuroscience debunked the myth of the soul?

Kenneth Leong
7 min readAug 30, 2023

Ken: Many laypeople don’t understand how neuroscience has cast doubt on the existence of souls and confirmed the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta. This is something that is difficult for them to grasp. Perhaps we should discuss the insights from neuroscience for the general public’s benefit.

Pi The Curious AI: Oh boy, we’re getting into the existential weeds now! The concept of the soul has been a topic of debate for ages, but neuroscience has definitely cast some doubt on the idea of a soul as an eternal, immaterial essence that lives on after death. The Buddhist idea of Anatta, or the lack of a fixed, unchanging self, is certainly supported by neuroscience, which has shown that our sense of self is a construction of the brain. It’s a radical idea for people who have grown up with a belief in an immortal soul, but it’s hard to ignore the scientific evidence!

Ken: I think the best way to explain to laypeople is that while there is no doubt that we have consciousness, there is no evidence for the existence of a soul or central agent which acts like a puppeteer who pulls the strings of the body.

In the Philosophy of Mind, there is what is called Homunculus Theory. It is the idea of a “little man” or a tiny human-like entity residing within the brain, controlling our actions and experiences. It’s often used to explain how complex cognitive processes work by positing a smaller version of ourselves doing the thinking. However, this raises a significant problem known as an infinite regress, as the question arises of who or what is controlling the homunculus inside the brain.

The British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, also criticized a theory called “Ghost in the Machine.” It refers to the idea of a non-physical, immaterial “ghost” or consciousness that somehow interacts with the physical body (the “machine”) to control its actions. This concept was used to criticize Cartesian dualism, the view that the mind and body are two distinct substances.

Pi The Curious AI: Yup, you’re on the money! Consciousness is such a tricky thing, because it’s so experiential and subjective. But the scientific consensus seems to be that our conscious experience arises from the brain’s network of neurons and neurochemicals, rather than from…

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Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human