Why people believe in the soul (& 3): How does the brain perceive itself?

“The entire Self Reflected microetching under white light” by Greg Dunn Design.

In the past entries we have examined three types of ‘abnormal’ psychic experiences that have surely had an important role in the creation and diffusion of the idea of an ‘immaterial soul’ that contains our personal identity, and that can be ‘separated’ from our physical bodies, obviously including the possibility of surviving the biological death of our organisms. However, as I mentioned then, these are not experiences that everybody has, and, though of course the immateriality of the mind may be accepted by means of the testimony of other people on whose word we happen to trust, the idea of immateriality in itself seems so far from our common sense, and from our common experience of the world surrounding us, that we can reasonably suspect that there must exist some kind of predisposition to believe in it, even in the case of people that have never experienced in themselves such events as out-of-body, near-death or mystical experiences. That is, the idea of the mind as something different and ‘separable’ from the body must have some kind of ‘naturalness’ for common people. I think that there are, indeed, some psychological mechanisms, common to all human beings, that are the most direct cause of our impression that ‘the mental’ and ‘the physical’ are as radically heterogeneous as we described in the beginning of this series; an impression that is so natural, that probably people would have ended believing in an immaterial soul even if the extra-ordinary experiences we have just mentioned didn’t exist. These ‘psychological mechanisms’ are basically two: the ‘theory of mind’, and the ‘transparency of the mental’.

You surely know that our brains come genetically programmed with a huge number of what computer scientists would call ‘routines’ and ‘sub-routines’, mechanisms or processes that usually are run in a totally unconscious way. Many of these ‘programs’ are responsible of allowing us to classify and recognize in an intuitive way (i.e., without the need of consciously reflecting or deliberating about that) the objects and events surrounding us, according to categories that are useful for our interactions with these, or to partially know what can be expected from their behavior. Psychologists have identified two major ‘super-programs’ within this category of ‘cognitive routines’, to which they usually refer as “naïve physics” and “naïve psychology”, respectively. The first one allows that, from a very early age, we tend to expect that material objects have some properties, some things they can do, and some things they cannot (e.g., that they follow continuous trajectories, that they don’t evaporate when we stop seeing them, etc.). The second program is what is often called ‘the theory of mind’: the intuitive understanding that some of the entities in our environment behave on the basis of beliefs, emotions and desires, i.e., on the basis of mental states.

It is not yet clear whether babies develop these mental concepts (or “concepts of the mental”) by learning first to apply them to other individuals, and later to themselves, or if the chronological learning order is the opposite, or just a mixture of both things, but this is not relevant for our argument. The only really important thing is that we are genetically programmed to employ two heterogeneous sets of cognitive tools in order to interact with ‘(merely) physical’ objects, on the one hand, and with ‘people’ (or ‘animated beings’), on the other hand. All boys and girls are innately endowed to learn to navigate the world with the help of these two different tools, in a similar way as how the rest of their organs are programmed to develop in a pre-determined way as they grow. Naïve physics and naïve psychology would be two of the real and most important “innate ideas”, if you allow me to use the classical Cartesian terms (though, of course, their scientific explanation would be rather different from the one Descartes himself gave). We are, hence, genetically programmed to intuitively understand a part of reality in mental terms.

Lastly, the phenomenon called ‘transparency’ consists in the fact that our brain does not make us being conscious of its own perceptual processes, and not only that: it makes us perceive the result of these processes, not as a ‘mental (or brain) state’, but as if it were the reality itself. The content of our perceptions are not the objects themselves, nor, more properly speaking, the events that cause those perceptions, for those causes occur before perceiving them, in some cases a long time before; e.g., the explosion of a far supernova, but even in more familiar cases this can be easily noticed: think, for example, in the outburst of a firework, whose sound you perceive some few seconds after seeing the light, and, of course, after the sound itself as a physical phenomenon started to exist. You may carry out another simple experiment to help you perceive clearly that the content of our perception is not the object that causes it: just extend a finger upwards in front of your eyes, and look to anything that happens to be also in front of you, but further away: you will perceive two fingers, instead of only one, each image corresponding to the perception of the finger with a different eye; since the content of your perception consists of two extended fingers, but there is only one as a physical object, it follows that the former cannot be the same as the latter. However, as I have just mentioned, our brain makes us interpret, or intuitively take, the content of our perceptions as if they were the objects themselves, not as “images reconstructed by our neural circuits” (which is what they really are). Our impression is that we are just perceiving the things in themselves; this impression is biologically very useful, because it makes us devote our attention to the things themselves, without having the necessity of losing time and mental effort carrying out conscious inferences from “what our senses get” to “what is really out there”. It is not that these inferences do not exist, but just that they are unconscious, and hence are ‘transparent’ for us.

The phenomenon of transparency applies not only to perception, but also to the other cognitive activity most related to our sense of reality: belief. In this case, it takes an interestingly different shape. Imagine that I ask you the following couple of questions:

  1. Was there life on Mars?

  2. Did Stephen Hawking believe that there was life on Mars?

It is obvious that these are two very different questions. In particular, the kind of information you need to gather in order to find out the answers could not be more disparate: in the case of 1, you need to investigate about Mars; in the case of 2, you need to investigate about Stephen Hawking. Whether a particular proposition is true or false, and whether a particular person believes the proposition to be true or false, are very different things. But consider now question 3:

3) Do you believe that there was life on Mars?

Is 3 a different question from 1 for yourself? It seems it isn’t; rather, they look like two different ways of asking the same: when someone asks you a question like 1 (whether there was life on Mars), she is really is asking you if, according the knowledge you possess, you are of the opinion that there was life on Mars. In the same way, asking to you something like 3 seems to be nothing but a way of asking you whether there was life on Mars. In particular, it would be ridiculous for you to try to find an answer to question 3 in a similar way as how you happen to look for the answer to question 2 (i.e., looking for ‘external’ information about your beliefs or opinions). In a nutshell, the sharp distinction between 2 and 3 in respect to a question like 1 suggests that we cannot (usually) make a difference between the facts, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, our beliefs (not in the ‘weak’ sense of unsure opinions, but in the ‘strong’ sense in which we ‘firmly’ believe something when we say we almost certainly know it). Our own beliefs, in this sense, are ‘transparent’ for us, for we tend to identify them with ‘the truth’ just by having them.

What has all this have to do with the topic of the soul? My opinion (my ‘weak’ belief, in this case) is that the transparency of perception and belief makes us feel that our cognitive activities belong to a kind of immaterial substance, because they make us blind to the causal processes that end in our being in the cognitive states (perceptions, beliefs) that are the final product of those activities. So, contrarily to the topic that the idea of the immaterial soul comes from our most ‘subjective’, ‘intimate’ mental states or experiences (anguish, fear, intense love, hard thinking on hard problems, etc., experiences that, by the way, were not much valued nor commented as reasons in favor of the immateriality thesis by Ancient philosophers, nor by the most Ancient religious documents, which were rather typically ‘behaviorist’, so to say), I would like to suggest that what made the existence of a separate soul more easy to swallow was the feeling that being-in-the-world is not a kind of causal-physical relation with the things and facts ‘out-there’, but just a kind of miraculous co-existence or identity between our mind and those facts and things. Aristotle, for example (which was intelligent enough to deny the immortality of the soul as something not granted by the psychological facts known to him), said that the peculiarity of the mind and intelligence (psykhé and noûs) was that they were the only entities that had the potentiality of becoming everything: for example, perceiving and understanding a volcano was, in a sense, being the volcano. This (I repeat) ‘miraculous’ capacity of identifying with the rest of the world would be what makes us intuitively understand our minds as a ‘special’ kind of stuff, not subject to the base laws of the material things that can only be what they are.


Aristotle, De anima (on the soul), translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin, 1987.

Carruthers, P. and P. Smith (eds.), 1996, Theories of Theories of Mind, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Fernández, J., 2013, Transparent Minds, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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  • […] Muchos humanos creen que existe un yo, independiente de sí mismos, que algunos llaman alma. En realidad todos los humanos sois cerebros percibiéndose a sí mismos. Jesús Zamora Bonilla en Why people believe in the soul (& 3): How […]

  • But subroutines run on binary computers. The mind does not.
    Control-F search of article for “quantum”; “not found”.

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