The Digital Soul

The Digital Soul

Daniel Black
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2211-1.ch009
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Contemporary understandings of the mind are seemingly free from the need for a soul of the kind imagined by Descartes. While for Descartes the soul represented a part of the self that could not be accounted for in a materialist, mechanistic explanation, today the soul has been replaced by the mind, which in the era of the computer is widely understood to be produced by information processing. However, while computationalist models seek to provide a purely materialist explanation for the mind, this is compromised by their reliance on a historically specific belief in the immateriality of information. Computationalist accounts of the mind cast information as an immaterial, universal substance that performs the same function as the soul and leads back into many of the problems inherent in the Cartesian account. These problems are illustrated by some of the more extreme speculation regarding the future relationship between brain and computer.
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At certain historical moments, particular areas of scientific inquiry have a special hold on the imagination. Breakthroughs in understanding energize both those conducting research and the wider public, suggesting that technologies that were once the stuff of science fiction might soon be with us. In the mid-twentieth century, the splitting of the atom and the launching of satellites and astronauts into space fired the imagination and fuelled fantasies of the future. From the end of the twentieth century to the beginning of the twenty-first, the mapping of the human genome and the leveraging of new scanning technologies to investigate the workings of the human brain have held a similar position, and have been similarly prominent in science fiction narratives and predictions for the future. While atomic energy, space exploration, and even genetic engineering have already lost much of their glamor by failing to live up to the over-enthusiastic speculation surrounding their initial presentation to the public, today the brain is still considered an exciting new frontier for scientific inquiry and technological development, which has the potential to change our relationship with technology and even change the nature of the human self. Most of the speculation regarding such future transformations relies on a mechanistic understanding of the brain which is in turn based on computation, another influential area of science and technology whose influence has been growing from the mid-twentieth century into the present, shaping our thinking about a variety of phenomena. A mechanistic account of the brain’s workings inspired by the computer has come to replace Cartesian accounts of the self which relied on a soul, but arguably has done little to make the role played by the soul redundant.

Key Terms in this Chapter

The (Technological) Singularity: A posited future moment when technical progress will become near-instantaneous, each new breakthrough immediately producing further breakthroughs. This is expected to result from technologies which can increase human and machine intelligence, and thus the capacity to produce additional technological advances.

Cartesianism: An understanding of the self derived from René Descartes’ division of human beings into a mechanistic body and an immaterial soul, which directs the body and supplies its reason and other higher functions.

Nanotechnology: A nascent technology broadly defined as working at scales of less than 100 nanometers (1/10,000th of a millimeter). There are a number of different approaches to nanotechnology, but that which informs speculation regarding the Singularity asserts the feasibility of directly assembling and disassembling molecules, and thus creating nanomachines.

TheGrand Illusion: The idea that our experience of the world is produced by our brains which process and synthesize various kind of sensory input and then fill in the remaining gaps using extrapolations and assumptions to produce a seemingly seamless and direct access to the world that is, in reality, a simulation.

Materialism: A belief that all phenomena can be explained purely in terms of physical causes.

Mechanism: A materialist belief that the physical causes of phenomena can be understood by reducing them to component parts that function together in the manner of a machine. This idea was foundational to the birth of modern science, and, although its specifics have evolved over time, it remains extremely influential.

Computationalism: A form of mechanistic thinking which takes information processing as a model for how physical processes in the brain can produce consciousness.

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