Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Is there any room for the soul?

Whenever evolution is discussed in religious context, the issue of soul is brought up. Many are willing to accept evolution as long as there is room for "special" soul for humans. This way we can claim that we are different than any other creature on Earth and retain human uniqueness. But more and more it is becoming clear that human mind is simply a product of evolution without much room for the soul. Here is an article in New York Times, Science of the Soul?, that talks about this issue and presents three different interpretations:

no soul = no God (its all in the head):

The idea that human minds are the product of evolution is “unassailable fact,” the journal Nature said this month in an editorial on new findings on the physical basis of moral thought. A headline on the editorial drove the point home: “With all deference to the sensibilities of religious people, the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside.”

Or as V. S. Ramachandran, a brain scientist at the University of California, San Diego, put it in an interview, there may be soul in the sense of “the universal spirit of the cosmos,” but the soul as it is usually spoken of, “an immaterial spirit that occupies individual brains and that only evolved in humans — all that is complete nonsense.” Belief in that kind of soul “is basically superstition,” he said.

For people like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, talk of the soul is of a piece with the rest of the palaver of religious faith, which he has likened to a disease. And among evolutionary psychologists, religious faith is nothing but an evolutionary artifact, a predilection that evolved because shared belief increased group solidarity and other traits that contribute to survival and reproduction.

soul = something else or still need a definition or everything has a soul:

For Dr. Murphy and Dr. Haught, though, people make a mistake when they assume that people can be “ensouled” only if other creatures are soulless.

“Evolutionary biology shows the transition from animal to human to be too gradual to make sense of the idea that we humans have souls while animals do not,” wrote Dr. Murphy, an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. “All the human capacities once attributed to the mind or soul are now being fruitfully studied as brain processes — or, more accurately, I should say, processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems, all interacting with the socio-cultural world.”

Therefore, she writes, it is “faulty” reasoning to want to distinguish people from the rest of creation. She and Dr. Haught cite the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century philosopher and theologian who, Dr. Haught said, “spoke of a vegetative and animal soul along with the human soul.”

Dr. Haught, who testified for the American Civil Liberties Union when it successfully challenged the teaching of intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism, in the science classrooms of Dover, Pa., said, “The way I look at it, instead of eliminating the notion of a human soul in order to make us humans fit seamlessly into the rest of nature, it’s wiser to recognize that there is something analogous to soul in all living beings.”

soul = not a scientific question:

For scientists who are people of faith, like Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist at Brown University, asking about the science of the soul is pointless, in a way, because it is not a subject science can address. “It is not physical and investigateable in the world of science,” he said.

“Everything we know about the biological sciences says that life is a phenomenon of physics and chemistry, and therefore the notion of some sort of spirit to animate it and give the flesh a life really doesn’t fit with modern science,” said Dr. Miller, a Roman Catholic whose book, “Finding Darwin’s God” (Harper, 1999) explains his reconciliation of the theory of evolution with religious faith. “However, if you regard the soul as something else, as you might, say, the spiritual reflection of your individuality as a human being, then the theology of the soul it seems to me is on firm ground.”

Dr. Miller, who also testified in the Dover case, said he spoke often at college campuses and elsewhere and was regularly asked, “What do you say as a scientist about the soul?” His answer, he said, is always the same: “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.”


hedge said...

The assumption that there exist forces that exert an effect on the physical, measurable world yet are "not scientific ideas" is a cop-out. It does science (and by extension, humanity) no good to ignore complex questions in favor of any dogmatic world view.

Why hold onto the idea that something is mysterious and immeasurable when it is even more astounding that something as complex as consciousness (be it human or otherwise) is built entirely on the foundation of molecular interactions?


Salman Hameed said...

Marina - I cannot agree more with you here - and an identical claim can be made when people bring up the issue of ghosts etc.

However, I don't think Ken Miller, at least here, is making this claim. He is saying that "soul" can be thought of as "spiritual reflection of your individuality as a human being". Thus, it has no more physical impact than being moved after seeing a piece of art or a great film. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think his definition of soul appears to be simply a subset of our thinking.

hedge said...


Being moved, emotionally, causes identifiable changes in the brain that we haven't fully figured out yet, but do exist. So does any other thought or emotion or other aspect of the "soul" or personality. In that way, there is a physical impact, and it cannot be ignored by science. If Dr. Miller can come up with some aspect of the soul that honestly makes no physiological impact, then he has a point, but can he do that?


Salman Hameed said...

My bad. It is indeed true that thoughts can have a measurable impact - and from that perspective, being moved by an experience can have an empirical effect. But if Miller defines soul as having no physical impact, then it is just as likely as an imaginary dragon or a fairy or whatnot. Is it a useful concept? No, not really - I agree with you here completely. But you can imagine constructing a whole theology based on the interaction of this imaginary dragon with this imaginary fairy, etc. Neither the dragon or the fairy has any physical effect. Is there any point in believing in the dragon or the fairy? No, not really. However, the idea of the dragon or the fairy is not scientific and does not affect the physical world.

hedge said...


I see what you mean, and I think that analogy is a good one. But I wonder if people who try to allow room for such theologies within (or even outside) the paradigm of the research they do have made such a precise distinction. If pressed, I wonder where Ken Miller would draw the line between the soul and science. Allowing for that ambiguity, while it may be necessary as part of a wider diverse human society, is wholly dangerous to someone whose job it is to discover facts.

That'll be the day- when religious beliefs are stated at the end of a journal article as a conflict of interest. (Eek. I may be turning into a totalitarian in my old age.)


Salman Hameed said...

The "conflict of interest" line at the end of a journal article is a good idea :) - I think Francis Collins, who believes in actual miracles, needs it more, than say Miller.

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