The New York Times yesterday published a full-scale assault on the Biblical understandings of mankind being created in the image of God. Their basis for this seems similar to that of a Washington Post article I wrote about not long ago. The science reported in the Times article is rather vague: it amounts to conclusions pronounced by authorities, without much supporting evidence presented. Therefore a clearly stated response is also difficult to make. The heart of it seems to be the same in both reports: scientists are finding close correlations between certain human experiences and specific brain structures and activities. Therefore the belief is strengthened that human experiences are just the product of physical processes in the brain. The Times article also adds that the functional distance between humans and animals is shrinking, scientifically speaking, which also challenges ideas of a uniquely human soul.
Several different viewpoints were quoted, including some religious and quasi-religious ones, but center stage seemed to go to this one:
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.’
As I said last time, it is surprising that discoveries of what goes on in the brain are considered relevant to philosophical questions of morality. The same applies to questions regarding the soul. Some thinkers may hold conceptions of soul that are affected by this, but there is at least one view, substance dualism, for which discoveries like these add no relevant new information. A substance dualist view of the soul is quite comfortable with the brain’s being a necessary component of the person’s (soul and body) action in the world; and comfortable also with that extending down to any level of detail in the brain’s structure and activity. Being a necessary component does not make it sufficient, however. I won’t go into the arguments for an immaterial soul here, because I’ve done it before and it’s not a good evening for me to spend the time on it again now; but I can at least assure you that none of those arguments are even addressed, much less defeated, by science like this.
It would be nice to be able to respond to specifics in this article, but when all you have are authoritative pronouncements, that’s hard to do. The authorities quoted are primarily philosophical materialists, and of course they’re going to see the brain as just natural. None of the actual arguments for soul were actually mentioned here. Some straw men were raised, such as that for humans to have a unique soul, we must be very, very different from the animals. Of course, we are very, very different from the animals, but apparently not enough to satisfy the authorities quoted. I wonder if it’s because the differences are so much concentrated in aspects of our beings that are not susceptible to scientific measurement. If you look only at the physical, and see only the physical, you’re going to conclude there’s nothing there but what’s physical.
When a major periodical like the Times purports to present what’s going on in the world of thought on an issue like this, it would be nice if they actually did so. They missed a major portion of it this time.
Note: This article was originally published on my previous iBlog platform. It is one of a select group of articles I’m including here on the WordPress platform.