Whatever Happened to the Soul?
by Dr. Benjamin Wiker
Filed under Anthropology, Christianity and Science
Bad news, friends. You have no soul, according to a few professors at Fuller Theological Seminary. I say this after happening upon a copy of Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, edited by Warren Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony, all full-fledged Fullerian professors. They say the soul is now scientifically, and hence theologically passé.
What happened to the poor soul, that it should suddenly be shuffled away? According to Murphy, the theologian-philosopher of the group, it's been downsized by science, for "nearly all of the human capacities or faculties once attributed to the soul are now seen to be functions of the brain" (p.1). Therefore, we are invited to embrace what Murphy, Brown, and Malony have dubbed "non-reductive physicalism," a form of materialism that includes all the benefits of having a soul—"rationality, emotion, morality, free will, and, most importantly, the capacity to be in relationship with God" (p.2)—but just without the soul.
This, however, is an impossibly contradictory position. You cannot deny the existence of the soul, and then appropriate all of its capacities, as if nothing happened. All physicalism is reductive. "Non-reductive physicalism" will show itself to be an impossible compromise.
What accounts for their attempt to offer such a compromise? That will take some explaining, and hence some patience on the part of the reader.
I would like by proposing that human beings are rational animals, a fundamental unity of an immaterial, rational soul and material body. This is a view as old as Aristotle and as common as common sense.
It sits in the seat of sanity between two extreme views of human nature. One extreme holds that we are essentially spirit-rational but not animal. This extreme may be called "Gnosticism," and its devotees claim that human beings are purely intellectual creatures sitting incongruously in their bodies like ghostly drivers in alien machines.
The other extreme believes human beings are merely animals, and that the rational soul is a fiction. This extreme, commonly known as "materialism," insists that humans are purely material beings. Murphy, Brown, and Maloney are in the grip of this latter view, and it has caused them to heave the soul overboard. Yet, as we have seen, they are trying to avoid the inevitable reductionism.
"No, no! You misunderstand!" I can hear them shout. "We were forced to jettison the soul by science."
In my book, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, I show how despite many of its founders' intentions, modern science came to be defined by materialism. According to this extreme, the belief in immateriality, especially the immateriality of the soul, was illusory. The goal of science, as defined by materialism, was to strip away such illusions by reducing everything to purely material causes. In regard to the soul, then, the entire research program was aimed at showing that all thinking, willing, and acting could be reduced to bodily causes. It aimed, in sum, to replace the soul with the brain or some other material thing.
"Why then," you might ask, "has modern science found so much evidence of the material nature of our thinking, and no evidence, so it seems, of our having a rational, immaterial soul?"
That is quite simple. It is difficult to find what you are not looking for. Modern science, defined materialistically, has made grand progress in examining the intricacy of our animal nature precisely because its goal was to reduce us to mere animality.
If, however, scientists suddenly decided to examine the ways in which our rationality cannot be reduced to our animality, they would also discover the forgotten half of our nature. If scientists began to search for proof that our reasoning capacities extend beyond the material instrument of the brain, and indeed control the brain's activities even while relying on them, then they would discover the immaterial soul. But insofar as they continue to hold to the materialist belief that only material things exist, they will only find what they are looking for.
Further, if we realize that we are rational animals, then the latest brain research poses no real problem. It is simply a half-truth distended illicitly into a whole truth. If we are indeed rational animals, we should expect to find that thinking depends on our animal nature, including our brain, in the same way that our rational volition, for its execution, depends on the use of our hands, legs, eyes, or ears. If our thinking didn't depend on the brain, then we truly would be angels trapped in animal suits.
So, I don't need to poke about in the brain to realize that a good cup of coffee makes thinking a whole lot easier after a bad night's sleep. Of that a good jolt of java helps me approach near angelic intellectual clarity (for a couple of hours, anyway). Then again, I also experience my control over my entire being. My acts of volition are real, and I use my body, not like an alien machine, but as part of my unified being. I am able to think new thoughts, muddling and musing my way to discovery and new insights, and I use my brain to do it. I am often lost in thought, and forget to eat on time, utterly abstracted from my body, but after a while, I find I am so hungry that I have become weak and I can't think until I eat.
In short, my everyday experience undermines both extremes, and sets me firmly back in the seat of sanity. I am neither a Gnostic angel with no need of a brain or body to think, nor am I a slightly elevated ape for whom thinking is merely an elaborate form of sensation. I am, to repeat, a rational animal, an essential unity of immaterial soul and material body. If we try to cling to either extreme, and neglect this golden mean, then we are forced into denying what we actually know and experience.
And so, speaking to Nancey Murphy in particular (since she is the lone philosopher-theologian of the three), I offer the following. Again, the position of non-reductive physicalism is contradictory. To begin with, as you yourself rather curiously assert, "no amount of evidence from the neurosciences can ever prove dualism of soul and body to be false, or physicalism true" (p. 127). This amounts to saying, it seems, that materialist science cannot prove either that the immaterial soul does not exist or that materialism is itself true. Given this strange assertion, it would seem less than reasonable to offer a new and improved soulless theology.
Finally, as Murphy admits, "The concept of the soul has played a major role in the history of Christian ethics for centuries, for example, as justification for prohibition of abortion and euthanasia, and for differential treatment of animals and humans" (p. 24). So true, so true, and it has become increasingly clear, as the exclusively materialist account of human beings has taken hold of society, that abortion has become commonplace, euthanasia will soon follow suit (along with infanticide), and any distinction between human beings and other animals is fast fading away. Knowing this danger, it causes me to wonder if there is some other reason Murphy is bending her theology to a particular view of science.
In summary, the latest scientific findings concerning the brain should not be startling. We are indeed animals and our thinking depends on our brain even while it transcends it. Such a "discovery" is parallel to the ancient argument that all human knowledge begins with sensation. But, in the same way that you destroy knowledge itself if you reduce knowledge to sensation, you will destroy the soul and all its capacities, if you simply replace "soul" with "brain."
And so, I am happy to report, the death of the soul has been greatly exaggerated.
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