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Time Magazine on the Soul and Morality

John on January 27, 2007 at 7:43 pm

Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker has a piece in last week’s Time magazine that I just discovered via Newsbusters. The bulk of it is a discussion of materialism as applied to neuroscience or what could be called evolutionary psychology. In essence, this is the view that the mind is the brain and science is well on its way to proving this to be the case.

Pinker believes that this reductionism is unlikely to succeed, if only because the brain is too complex to be understood by the mind. He does allow that some future genius might be able to figure it out, but he remains pessimistic.

I have a couple thoughts on this. First, it’s a really interesting question. If we assume for the moment that the conscious mind is the process of the brain, can the brain, in effect, understand itself. I’ve seen speculation in both directions. One way to look at it is through the lens of Godel’s Theorem. This is a very complicated theory of logic (and mathematics) which says:

For any consistent formal theory that proves basic arithmetical truths, an arithmetical statement that is true but not provable in the theory can be constructed. That is, any theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete.

If we apply this idea to the brain, we’re asking essentially, if a set logical rules for the brains behavior can be devised such that we have an exhaustive system for understanding it. Godel’s Theorem (if it could be applied in this way) would seem to suggest not. There will always be some functions or processes that are true but not captured by any descriptive system, even if we had an infinite list of axioms to draw from.

On the other hand, it seems possible that some future scientist will discover a language of memory similar to the language of DNA. If that were accomplished, it wouldn’t prove that the mind is the brain, but it would certainly lend tremendous credence to the idea.

Personally, I think both things are true. We are unlikely to ever have a complete understanding of the brain such that one could program a human mind on a computer. However, I do believe scientific progress will decipher some essential elements of our mental experience in time, maybe even in my lifetime.

Pinker assumes that this sort of reductionism would necessarily be fatal to the concept of “the soul” or life beyond death. It’s hard to argue the former, but I think he’s wrong about the latter. Certainly a particular conception of the soul, i.e. as something similar to a ghost, would be hard to reconcile with the idea that the mind is a function of the brain. Therefore if it could be shown that the mind is a process of the brain, this particular view of life after death would be hard to maintain.

In about half of all cases, the words for soul are translated into English as life, person or self.However, my own study of the Bible has led me to question whether the concept of souls as “ghosts in the machine” is really found there. I did a presentation on this topic for one of my classes. I began with a thorough word study of the two words translated soul (nephesh and psuche – Hebrew and Greek respectively). In about half of all cases, the words for soul are translated into English as life, person or self. Based on my study, it seems clear that when the Bible talks about “the soul” it is usually talking about “your life.”

I frankly don’t think the evidence for an immaterial soul is very strong in the Bible.

But what about life after death? Here again I think the common conception of “life after death” does not seem to derive from the scripture. Genesis specifically teaches that God kicked Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden so that they would not be able to eat from the “tree of life.” Whether you accept Genesis as literally true or only figuratively so, this is inconsistent with the idea that the soul is naturally immortal. What the Bible teaches over and over is that when you die, you sleep, i.e. you are unconscious.

The promise given to Christian believers is not a ghostly existence, but a resurrected body.The promise given to Christian believers is not a ghostly existence, but a resurrected body. Jesus did not return as a ghost, nor did he leave his body behind when he ascended to heaven. Heaven is not an ethereal home for ghosts of the dead. Resurrection is the re-creation of a body. I don’t think a material view of the soul is necessary hostile to scripture or to the concept of life after death.

Finally, Pinker suggests that, with the soul out of the way, we have the basis for a better morality. Here is where he goes from sensible to wishful thinking:

As every student in Philosophy 101 learns, nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people’s sentience becomes ludicrous. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” asked Shylock. Today the question is more pointed: Hath not a Jew–or an Arab, or an African, or a baby, or a dog–a cerebral cortex and a thalamus? The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.

If a man and a rat are “the same neural flesh”, why should one assume this fact will lead to treating rats more humanely rather than treating men more like rats.Impossible? How so? If a man and a rat are “the same neural flesh”, why should one assume this fact will lead to treating rats more humanely rather than treating men more like rats. Pinker suggests that the common ground of physicality automatically produces compassion. Sorry, but there’s just no evidence of that and quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. Most of the genocidal murderers of the 20th century held to a physicalist understanding of human existence. In Hitler’s case, this seems to have played a distinct role in his formative views on the value of human life. Physicalism does not inspire compassion. On the contrary, it is just as likely to make the bulk of humanity little better than vermin to be used in social experimentation or consigned to outright extermination.

I’ve argued it before, so I won’t rehash it all here, but once we lose the possibility of an external standard, there is no way to justify a moral “ought.” Nietzsche recognized this more than a century ago and he was entirely correct. One should never assume, as Pinker does, that materialism leads naturally to humanism. It’s simply not true.

Pinker ends on a cheap shot:

And when you think about it, the doctrine of a life-to-come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11.

Yes, it’s true they held to that view, but we just celebrated Martin Luther King Day, right around the time this article was published. Dr. King maintained a very practical and beneficial presence in this life without abandoning the hope of an eternal reward. The problem with the 9/11 hijackers was not their belief in eternity, but their belief in a god who rewards rather than abhors murder.

I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.

If Pinker wants to ride this particular train of thought, he needs to take it all the way to the last stop.This romantic language, with which he closes, is at odds with everything he has just presented. If consciousness is a purposeless evolutionary outcome, it is only as precious as we choose to make it. Should we choose not to make it so, we can do that as well. And if there is no giver, consciousness certainly can not be a gift. If Pinker wants to ride this particular train of thought, he needs to take it all the way to the last stop. Beware, Mr. Pinker, it’s a bad part of town.

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Category: Atheism, Science & Tech |

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