"Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist...Has Discovered How Human Souls Are Made"--The Sunday Times 

Oh, the promise is so high:

"A Nobel prize-winning scientist says he has discovered how human souls are made. It is an epic story of struggle and triumph in the womb - and it could end the worldwide rift over human-embryo experiments."

That's the lead for a July 1 Sunday (London) Times article, (ambitiously titled "Masters of creation?") to which commenter SteveK alerted me by email. It comes just days after a NY Times article on science and the soul, which has generated much attention in the science/religion blogs, including my own response. This more recent article is far superior to the one in the NY Times, especially for its breathtaking overview of human neural development. One looks in vain, though, for the promise in the article's lead to be fulfilled. 

The Nobel prize-winning scientist in question is Gerald Edelman of the Neurosciences Institute in southern California. His contribution to the science has been to show how neurons compete with each other in the presence of environmental factors during development. He calls it "neural Darwinism." Individuality in the brain is far more than a matter of genetics, he says. Crucially, this growth and competition comprise a process with no clear defining moments; so since the individual is not defined just by her genes but by a process, says Edelman, she is not instantly defined as a person at the moment of her conception. It's an ongoing process throughout development.

Then how does that help answer the ethical issues of embryonic stem cell research? The answer seems to be that we know less than we thought we did about what it means to be or to have a human soul.

"Edelman believes that if the assumptions of neural Darwinism are correct, 'We cannot think of a clear starting point of human individuality after conception'. He stresses, moreover, that individuality is a continuing process throughout development in the womb and throughout a person's life: 'Every act of perception is to some degree an act of new creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.'"


"For one noted Cambridge ethicist and lawyer, Peter Glazebrook, 'It is hard to see a fixed point at which you can say now the organism is not a person, and now it is.

"The more we see individual life as a process the more the ethical problem is about caution, and about slippery moral slopes as you enter grey areas, for example the early stages of life after conception.' For another philosopher, one specialising in religion, Dr Michael McGhee of Liverpool University,

"'It seems that process is crucial, but so is the status of the embryo within the mother. Once an embryo has been extracted and put inside a Petri dish, it is not the same thing at all.' In other words, the partnership between mother and embryo is what gives the embryo its human sustenance, potential for becoming a person, and therefore humanity. Hence there is an argument, in his view, for using spare embryos from IVF treatment for medical research."

So has Edelman discovered how human souls are made, as the lead said? If so, the writer, John Cornwell, neglected to tell us; for nothing in here brings us any closer to understanding what the human soul actually is. Edelman seems to define it in terms of gradually developing individuality, but there's already massive genetic individuality in a fertilized ovum. There's massive individuality in fertilized turtle ova, for that matter, so we need a better principle to guide us than that.

Later we read,

"The debate continues; but the notion of personhood occurring with an instantaneous, divine infusion of a spiritual substance seems increasingly just as implausible, in the light of new development [sic] biology, as its creationist parallel: the idea that God created the world in a series of six instants spread over six days."

Let's set aside the fact that many on one side of this debate still see a six-day creation as very plausible. Let's just ask whether new revelations in embryology make it any less likely that God might instantaneously infuse a spiritual substance into the child. What new information do we have now on this topic? What do we know now about human development that we didn't know, say, a hundred years ago, that says God couldn't choose a moment to imbue a person with a soul?

We know a great deal more than we once did about the complex biochemical inner workings of life, so that we can now imagine it happening without some direct divine intervention (some can, that is; others of us see the incredible complexities of life as signaling something going on that's greater than nature). For those who can see organisms as just grand machines, one prior conception of soul can be discarded: they no longer need to hypothesize it as a mystical physical vitalizing force. But that's of mere historical interest. Current discussion on the reality of the soul revolves around completely different topics and problems. The chief among these would be Biblical revelation. There are also philosophical considerations based on human experiences of free will, reflective self-awareness, interpersonal relatedness, continuity of identity, and many other topics that have nothing to do with just animating the machinery.

So it seems the "implausibility" of "divine infusion of a spiritual substance" comes not from the current research, but from a general attitude, turning away from a spiritual way of looking at the world. I would prefer it if people would just say this. If they don't believe in God, the Bible, or soul, they're welcome to make that their choice. But why, other than ignorance of the state of the philosophical discussion, should they say that research like this has anything to do with that decision? Are we once again seeing an example of that old error, "if it isn't science, it isn't knowledge"?

P.S. Along with a recent Washington Post article, we now have three of the most influential English-language newspapers writing on neuroscience, purporting to show how it dismantles moral and religious beliefs. What gives? Why this sudden convergence of topics? 

Posted: Mon - July 2, 2007 at 07:43 PM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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