Friday, July 06, 2007

Will the soul survive?

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom (author of Descartes' Baby) said in a New York Times editorial back in 2004 that "The great conflict between science and religion in the last century was over evolutionary biology [natural selection vs. intelligent design]. In this century, it will be over psychology, and the stakes are nothing less than our souls." The Times science section on evolution a few weeks ago included a piece on the science of the soul which suggested he might be right:

For many scientists, the evidence that moral reasoning is a result of physical traits that evolve along with everything else is just more evidence against the existence of the soul, or of a God to imbue humans with souls. For many believers, particularly in the United States, the findings show the error, even wickedness, of viewing the world in strictly material terms. And they provide for theologians a growing impetus to reconcile the existence of the soul with the growing evidence that humans are not, physically or even mentally, in a class by themselves.
Consciousness and our mental life, including reasoning and imagining, seems the last redoubt of dualism, and therefore, possibly, of supernaturalism. If we can come up with a transparent explanation of how the operations of the brain entail subjective experience, then we'll have pretty much closed the case on the soul and rehabilitated the reputation of "mere" matter. We'll see how the brain does everything the soul was supposed to do, short of surviving death. But clear and testable definitions of mental phenomena are so elusive, and theories of consciousness so arcane (thus far), it's unlikely that the soul will be put out of a job anytime soon. It just isn't at all obvious how one gets pain, for instance, out of neurons, even though a naturalist would insist there's nothing "spooky" going on. Absent a clear physicalist-functionalist account of our mental lives that a layperson can grasp, the concept of the soul will live happily on, no doubt, giving aid and comfort to those who want to be more than just physical.

In the article, theologians Nancey Murphy and John Haught try to reconcile the soul with science, but don't give much comfort to dualists since they admit we're basically material creatures. The soul, as they describe it, becomes pretty much a metaphor or vague untestable concept, very much like god in liberal theology. But it's a way to soften the blow of naturalism, permitting the use of a word that inevitably retains supernatural and immaterial connotations.

Despite best efforts of hard-nosed scientists and philosophers, the transition to naturalism will likely be by very slow and halting degrees since the required change in our self-concept is so radical. Part of that transition will involve the gradual redefinition of words and phrases with dualistic implications (self, soul, spirituality, religion, free will, responsibility) in a more naturalistic, non-dualistic direction. If the soul survives under naturalism, it will mean something quite different from what it does now.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home