New studies refute Descartes but still miss the mark

An article in The Independent discusses some recent studies in neuroscience which disprove the idea that consciousness is unified. In other words, there’s no central place in the brain where the sense of “self” can be located.

The scientific evidence shatters Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” which holds that “a coherent, structured experience of the world is inextricably linked with a sense of a self at the heart of it.” Clinical neuropsychologist Paul Broks says we now know the two can indeed be separated:

People with Cotard’s syndrome, for instance, can think that they don’t exist, an impossibility for Descartes. Broks describes it as a kind of “nihilistic delusion” in which they “have no sense of being alive in the moment, but they’ll give you their life history”. They think, but they do not have sense that therefore they are.

There are other conditions that can produce the opposite effect: In something called a commissurotomy (the separation of both sides of the brain), a person has two centers of awareness. The separation of the self and conscious experience has long been experienced through things like meditation and hallucinogens as well.

While some neuroscientists want to say the self doesn’t exist because there’s no center in the brain where everything comes together, others say there are different ways to understand it:

This can be most simply explained by thinking about what it means for anything other than fundamental particles to exist. In Buddhist philosophy, there is an analogy attributed to Sister Vagira, a contemporary of the Buddha’s, which compares a person to a cart. There is no cart, she says, only the wheel, the axle, the flat bed and so on. In the same way, there is no self, only experiences, thoughts, and sensations. But, of course, there is a cart it’s just that it is nothing other than the ordered collection of parts. In the same way, there is a self it is simply no more than the ordered collection of all our experiences.

I suppose these are neuroscientists, so talk of the soul is out of the question, nor can they discuss the existence of the self apart from what can be observed or reported. It’s a little bit like trying to catch a beach ball with one hand.


Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in "Catholic Digest," "Faith & Family," "National Catholic Register," "Our Sunday Visitor," "Urbanite," "Baltimore Eats," and Zo

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