Monday, July 22, 2019

Neuroscience & The Soul: Why Should Christians Be Concerned About The Existence Of The Soul? (Part 1)

            We are souls with a body; not the other way around, says Christian apologist J.P Moreland in his YouTube interview about Neuroscience and the Soul.1

            If you are a thinking Christian, it is essential to understand the conflict between science and religion with respect to the existence of the soul and the findings of modern science.


            If neuroscience proves that soul does not exist, then it’s quite possible that Historic Christianity would be on shaky ground. The assault on the existence of the soul is both from outside Christianity and from within.

            In the year 2009, cognitive neuroscientist Martha J. Farah and Nancey Murphy, a Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary published their letter entitled Neuroscience and the Soul in the journal Science (Vol. 323. no. 5918, p. 1168). The crux of their letter is to emphasize that neuroscience is slowly yet surely advancing in disputing the existence of the soul. Here’s their letter:2

Neuroscience and the Soul

Science and religion have had a long relationship, by turns collegial and adversarial. In the 17th century Galileo ran afoul of the Church's geocentrism, and in the 19th century Darwin challenged the biblical account of creation. The breaches that open at such times often close again, as religions determine that the doctrine in question is not an essential part of faith. This is precisely what happened with geocentrism and, outside of certain American fundamentalist Christian sects, evolution.
A new challenge to the science-religion relationship is currently at hand. We hope that, with careful consideration by scientists and theologians, it will not become the latest front in what some have called the "culture war" between science and religion. The challenge comes from neuroscience and concerns our understanding of human nature.
Most religions endorse the idea of a soul (or spirit) that is distinct from the physical body. Yet as neuroscience advances, it increasingly seems that all aspects of a person can be explained by the functioning of a material system. This first became clear in the realms of motor control and perception (1, 2). Yet, models of perceptual and motor capacities such as color vision and gait do not directly threaten the idea of the soul. You can still believe in what Gilbert Ryle called "the ghost in the machine" (3) and simply conclude that color vision and gait are features of the machine rather than the ghost.
However, as neuroscience begins to reveal the mechanisms underlying personality, love, morality, and spirituality, the idea of a ghost in the machine becomes strained. Brain imaging indicates that all of these traits have physical correlates in brain function. Furthermore, pharmacologic influences on these traits, as well as the effects of localized stimulation or damage, demonstrate that the brain processes in question are not mere correlates but are the physical bases of these central aspects of our personhood. If these aspects of the person are all features of the machine, why have a ghost at all?
By raising questions like this, it seems likely that neuroscience will pose a far more fundamental challenge than evolutionary biology to many religions. Predictably, then, some theologians and even neuroscientists are resisting the implications of modern cognitive and affective neuroscience. "Nonmaterialist neuroscience" has joined "intelligent design" as an alternative interpretation of scientific data (4). This work is counterproductive, however, in that it ignores what most scholars of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures now understand about biblical views of human nature. These views were physicalist, and body-soul dualism entered Christian thought around a century after Jesus' day (5, 6).
To be sure, dualism is intuitively compelling. Yet science often requires us to reject otherwise plausible beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary. A full understanding of why Earth orbits the Sun (as a consequence of the way the solar system was formed) took another century after Galileo's time to develop. It may take even longer to understand why certain material systems give rise to consciousness. In the meantime, just as Galileo's view of Earth in the heavens did not render our world any less precious or beautiful, neither does the physicalism of neuroscience detract from the value or meaning of human life.
            What is the classic Christian understanding of the soul?

            J.P Moreland offers a fundamental explanation: The Bible teaches that our soul leaves the body when we die and enters an intermediate state between death and final resurrection. During the final resurrection, we will receive a glorified body to be reembodied again.3 

            In the same video, he explains why Christians should be concerned about this topic:

            (1) Over the last two decades or so, some neuroscientists are striving to do away with the concept of the soul.

            (2) They argue that we are not anything more than our brain. They contend that our consciousness is generated by the brain and that consciousness resides in the brain.

            (3) But a classic Christian understanding would be that the consciousness resides in the soul and with a deep integration and causal connection with the brain.

            (4) Hence, Christians should be concerned about the soul’s existence so to be able to interpret the modern findings of neuroscience and integrate it with classic Christian doctrine and theology.

            The existence of the soul is significant to the credibility of the classic Christian understanding of the gospel and our belief in life after death. Moreover, if the soul exists, it would largely undermine the Darwinian concept of evolution because an atheist should explain how the human mind came into existence from matter, says Moreland:4

Neuroscience and the soul is very, very important to the Christian Church for two reasons. First of all, Gallup polls have indicated that there has been a steady loss of belief in life after death as there has been an increase in the belief that we’re our brains. The idea that many people have, and sensibly enough, is that if you’re a brain and your brain dies, that’s the end of you. If there is a soul, this means that there is more to us than our brains and it tends to lend support to the idea that there’s life after death.
The neuro-scientific findings, if they do, in fact, undermine belief in the soul, it has, for many people, undermined the belief in life after death and made the gospel sort of pointless. What is the point of the gospel if this life is all there is? The second reason that this is important is because it appears that the Bible teaches that there’s a soul and if we are to revise the Bible’s teachings in this area, under the pressure of neuroscience, what’s next? It’s important to ask the question has science undermined traditional Biblical teaching?
There is actually another reason why this matters to the average person. Darwin admitted, when he came up with his Theory of Evolution, that it could not explain the origin of mind. That what his theory could do was to explain the origin of animal bodies and brains, but it couldn’t explain the origin of mind. And so Darwin was a materialist and argued that his theory should be understood as promoting a materialist view of living things, that living things are strictly brains and central nervous systems.
If, on the other hand, there’s reason to think that consciousness and the soul aren’t physical, that provides reasons for thinking that there are limits to Darwinian explanation in that there is need for a god to create the soul and to create consciousness, so this lends support to a theistic view of the world. The soul has been historically been understood as an immaterial substance that contains consciousness and animates the body or makes the body enlivened. The problem for the atheist is to explain how you could get mind from matter.
If you start with the Big Bang and the history of the universe is a history where matter simply rearranges to form increasingly larger or more complicated chunks of matter, for many thinkers, what you’re gonna end up with are rearranged chunks of matter. There will be no account for how you could get mind coming into existence. The Christian theist doesn’t have that problem because for the Christian believer in God, the fundamental reality is not particles or matter, it’s a conscious soul, God himself.
If the universe begins with a soul or a spirit that’s conscious, there is no difficulty in explaining where this comes from because it’s part of your fundamental reality. But if you say instead of in the beginning was the logos, in the beginning were the particles, then you have a difficulty accounting for where consciousness and soul or self come from.
            This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Neuroscience & Soul, which has dealt with the question, “Why should Christians be concerned about the existence of the soul?”

            Part 2 will answer the question, “Can science disprove the existence of the soul?”






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