Some more soul searching…

So this following post would have been published about two weeks ago, but I got side-tracked by an opportunity to draft an overview of the arguments made by the popular atheist books (Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great, etc.), and how I personally would respond to them (this document was drafted for a possible speaking opportunity – more details to come).  Anyway, I am going to turn that document into a series of posts over the next few weeks, but first I’d like to finish up a conversation started during my last post.

My friend Brian wins the award for actually reading and responding to my last post, which I acknowledge was a bit dense (hopefully dense in the sense of covering complex material, not in the sense of ‘I am a dense nitwit’).  Anyway – Brian’s comment raised enough issues of its own that it seemed worth turning my response into a new post.  Here is the part of Brian’s comment that I’d like to respond to:

“As for the “new atheists,” it seems to me that the position that the only knowledge we can have is that provided by science is itself a statement of belief/faith that can’t be proven or refuted by logic. So the dualistic position doesn’t trouble me from a philosophical standpoint.”

The point Brian makes in his first sentence is crucially important, and one that I fully agree with. However, I would like to explore why I think his second sentence does not logically follow from the first, and where that leaves us in our thinking about the existence and nature of the soul.

So – regarding the first sentence: most of the atheist authors (to varying degrees) have embraced the view that the only truths that should be accepted are those that can be rationally proven based on physical evidence and the scientific method.  The clarion call of the atheists is to fight against ‘belief without evidence’.

The fundamental problem with this fight is that the atheist definition of what counts as ‘evidence’ is extraordinarily narrow, consisting only in those items that can be observed, measured and rationally arrived at through scientific observation.  Tim Keller has a helpful chapter on the flaws of this worldview in his book “The Reason for God” (chapter six “Science has Disproved Christianity”). In this chapter he cites atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel:

…(Nagel) thinks Dawkins is wrong to insist that, if we are going to be scientific at all, we must embrace “physicalist naturalism….that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed”. He asks, for example, whether we really believe that our moral intuitions, such as that genocide is morally wrong, are not real but only the result of neurochemistry hardwired into us. Can physical science do full justice to reality as human beings experience it? Nagel doubts that. (Keller, p. 91)

I doubt it as well – in fact, more than that, I know that this is too limited a view of our existence, and that those who reject truths that are discovered through art, music, literature or revelation are beholden to their own flawed belief system that is deeply in need of better supporting evidence.  In other words, I agree with Brian’s first sentence.

Now, on to the second sentence. Just because I reject a scientific worldview that only accepts scientific truths does not mean I can dismiss specific scientific truths as simply ‘beliefs’. Particularly in the case where a given scientific theory has been supported by an overwhelming amount of evidence, the choice of whether or not to accept that theory no longer lies in the realm of belief but in the realm of reason. Either you choose to deploy your God-given ability to reason and see that science has revealed a specific truth, or you choose to suspend your reasoning capacity in order to maintain your beliefs. It is this latter tendency among many faithful that has driven atheists into such a rage, and I kind of sympathize with the atheists on that score.  Examples of scientific truth that seem to me to be well supported by the evidence include evolution, and, also, a rejection of traditional dualism.

By traditional dualism, I mean the idea that ‘there is a (completely) separate, immaterial part of each of us – a mind or soul – that must live somewhere within our body’ (Jeeves & Brown, p. 24).  According to the dualistic view, the mind exists in complete independence from the body – it is its own entity that influences the body but exists on its own and will survive after the body has perished. Modern neuroscience has shown that this is simply not the case – that the mind is intimately affected by its physical basis and that aspects of an individual’s personality that may seem most integral can be completely changed by modifications to the brain. One of the most famous examples of this phenomenon is the case of Phineas Gage, who had an accident that permanently damaged the frontal lobes of his brain. As Jeeves and Brown put it “From being a reliable industrious pillar of society, he became dissolute, capricious, and irresponsible” (p. 65).  I am sure many of us have had our own experiences of knowing someone who has been radically changed by a chemical imbalance, or a stroke, or a brain injury. Heck, I have certain female friends who change into someone else once a month. Anyway, when something ‘goes wrong’ in our bodies, it can affect the core of who we are. Our mind, our core self, is conditioned by physical realities. This scientific truth about the nature of our minds directly contradicts a dualistic view of mind as operating completely independently from the body.  This is why, as a modern, somewhat educated person, I do have philosophical problems with traditional dualism.

That said, as I wrote in my last post, I do indeed believe that there is an immaterial aspect of our identities – an aspect that is  based on our physical reality but also transcends it. To further elaborate on this idea, there are two additional points I’d like to make about why I hold this belief:

1. The fact that physical changes can affect our identity has embedded in it the acknowledgement that we have an identity that can be affected. This is a complicated idea so bear with me:

  • When someone suffers brain damage as a result of a stroke, we say that ‘he is no longer himself’.
  • But by saying this, we have some concept of  the self that he used to be: he has an essence from which he has now varied.
  • Therefore, there must be some thing we call our ‘self’ that is in some way separate from our physical reality.

Wittgenstein has an interesting example of this idea in his book Philosophical Investigations. He gives the case of a person – “N” – who has died. We say that this person “N” was the one who did this, that, and the other thing, and was known for certain other characteristics. Wittgenstein asks what happens if it turns out that some of these facts about N’s life turn out not to be true – does this then mean that the statement “N is dead” is no longer true? Well of course the answer is no – because regardless of the specific elements of N’s life he still has a core essence, an identity, that is no longer among the world of the living. (see section 79 of Philosophical Investigations)

2. Scientific theories that explain our identity and behavior solely in terms of our physical basis do not sufficiently explain the tremendous variance that we see among equally healthy, genetically identical individuals.

This is an area where I feel I have at least some slight expertise, since I am the mother of identical twin boys. These boys are so identical in appearance that even their own teachers and friends can not tell them apart. They are being raised in the same environment, and I can vouch that I treat them equally and give them equal amounts of love.  Yet they are extraordinarily different in behavior, interests and sense of concern for others – and they are only six years old.  Scientists and psychologists would no doubt point to varying environmental factors reaching back to when they were in the womb (and they’d be right to do so – twin B was sitting on twin A’s head for a substantial portion of the pregnancy). Twin A is smaller, and contracted RSV at age 2 months that may have deprived him of oxygen for a very brief period of time. But fundamentally they are both extremely healthy children.  And these factors I just described are just that – environmental factors that start to make up the history of an individual’s identity even before that individual is born. This is exactly the mechanism I described in my last post: the way that all aspects of each individual’s experience molds the brain and creates a complex entity which we refer to as our selves, our soul – which is in fact an immaterial reality.

To conclude:  it seems to me that our bodies and brains are necessary but not sufficient conditions for defining our identities. We are back to a case where science explains part of the story – but not all. Our minds and spirits may require certain physical conditions, and can be changed by those conditions, but they also develop into something more than the purely physical.  This is not traditional dualism – because it acknowledges that the spirit cannot exist without the body – but nor is it the pure ‘monism’ that the atheists espouse.  I guess what I am arguing for is the idea of an ’embodied soul’.

I noted in my last post that this concept of an embodied soul creates all sorts of problems, particularly for our conceptions of the afterlife (which I promise to address in a future post). However, I have also since realized additional issues that would be raised by this idea. For example, if a soul is defined as the accretion of conscious experiences over a lifetime, then do animals have souls (my vote would be yes, especially in the case of my dog who in my opinion has more soul than most people I meet). What if someone is born with brain damage, and lives that way for most of his life, and then has an operation that fixes the damage and the person changes? Which is the person’s true ‘self’? Was his soul always there but just trapped in a damaged body? Or did his soul actually change?

Then of course there is also the big question of when is a soul ‘born’? If a soul is the immaterial outcome of material processes, then is our soul created as soon as those material processes start? If so, is it created in its entirety, or does it evolve as we mature?  Perhaps we should think of a child as a “Little Soul Happily in Training” – which would offer us a catchy acronym.

On that charming note, I will sign off. As always, thoughts, criticisms and book recommendations are welcome.

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4 Responses to Some more soul searching…

  1. DianeDavis says:

    Love how I can see you speaking in your writing… One thing I find of interest from my personal experience is that as I age my mind has significantly slowed, except in matters of faith, philosophy and psychology where my interests and education always lay. Think this is reassuring for future.

    Very much liked your argument on proven science.. Agree.

  2. Pingback: The Brain, the body, the mind | Jennifer S Benson

  3. I am currently supposed to be writing a neuropsychology essay on Crick’s famous reductionist statement and the mind-body problem and in my research I came across your blog. I can’t believe how everything that I have thought about (and many of the conclusions I came to) have been voiced in your writing. I want to read on and on and engage with you but I need to get this paper done, so if I don’t return, I would like you to know that I admire you and your thoughts. Keep writing…

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hi Thalia – thanks so much for your kind words. I actually haven’t had much time to write recently, so really appreciate the positive feedback. Good luck with your paper. I’d love to read it…I’m guessing I’d learn a lot from it!

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