The Soul and Science

We are one.  According to Genesis, each of is an integrated whole being, composed of the dust of the Earth and quickened by the breath of God.  I have always loved the word “quickened” because it captures the idea of a spark that activates us and gets us moving under our own power.  When we talk about this breath, this power, this movement, we use the word soul and it tells us something about ourselves.

Christians have always felt the soul was important.  We speak of it as key to our humanity.  More than that, we speak of it as key to life.  Both the Old and the New Testament speak of the breath that enlivens us, which moved over the face of the deep, quickened the animals, and turned dust into living humanity.  In Mark’s gospel (8:36), Jesus asks what profit is there in gaining everything, if we lose this breath, this life.  Clearly he means something other than physical life, for Jesus gives that up.  Notably, he surrenders his breath, his life, to God (Mark 15:37).  These phrases, like the wind they represent, are so close to us that we often forget their significance and their original meaning.  “The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” “…he gave up the ghost.”  Scripture tells us that this breath is both central to who we are and infinitely valuable.  At the end of the day our soul is who we are and caring for it should be our highest priority.

Alas the concept of soul has become slightly alien to most of us.   In trying to express this fundamental truth, theologians and mystics have written about what soul means using familiar words.  In the early centuries of the Church, they used the words of Greek philosophy, substance and eternity.  In Medieval Europe, they used the best of contemporary medicine and physics, words like “quickening,” “supernatural,” and “essence.”  And in the Enlightenment, most of Christianity bought into a specific vision of the world as a great and harmonious machine, whirring at the will of God and moved by the God’s breath and the souls of humanity.  You may be familiar with the phrase “ghost in the machine,” which refers to this very concept.  [In truth, that phrase was coined in the mid-twentieth century by Gilbert Ryle to parody Rene Descartes’ idea of mind as pilot of the body.  Nonetheless, it sums up mind/body dualism even better than Descartes’ original metaphor of a pilot in a ship.]  But these words have become something of a mystery to us, as our philosophy, medicine, and physics change.  What does soul mean to us today?  How can it maintain its central place in the Christian perspective, if we cannot relate it to daily life and our best understanding of the world?

From the perspective of science, the concept of soul sounds a little off.  Beyond the practical benefits of medicine, chemistry, and physics, science offers insights into who we are and how we interact with the environment.  I will return to the question of why science and the soul parted company shortly, but first I’d like to say something about what science has to offer in terms of how we think of ourselves.

Science tells us we are integrated whole beings, mind and body.  The more we know about human biology, from biochemistry to neurology, anthropology, and evolution, the more capable we are of predicting how people will behave and the choices they will make.  We know that blood sugar can affect kindness, that humans have strong social motivations, and that we often fail to choose the thing that will bring us the greatest happiness.  I’m happy to recommend books by Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and Kathryn Schulz, for easy to read accounts of the state of the art.  Of course, these are not new insights.  We have known for millennia that it is easier to be generous when you are well fed and easier to love in a community of loving people.  St. Paul famously said “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)  Rather than provide a whole new understanding of humanity, science gives us ways of analyzing the things we know, being specific and being confident in our knowledge.  We now have a better idea of how much and how often we need to eat to make the best choices.  We see more clearly how other people’s words and actions influence our own.  We even know more about the forces of nature and history that constrain the things we do, even the things we want.

In short, science allows us to draw causal links between what the world does to us and who we are.  It allows us to better choose the actions that will make the world a better place.  Science gives us the tools to tie together a desire for good and a good outcome.

Does this mean we don’t have free will?  Maybe our biology, chemistry, and environment force our hand.  Maybe evolution or genetics makes our choices for us…  I don’t think so, but even if I did, this is not necessarily inconsistent with theology.  Christians have flirted with complete predestination for the whole history of the church.  And yet, we are still left with daily choices.  We are left with questions of how we will use the best of our memory, reason, and skill – the best of our science and philosophy – to act in ways that actually achieve our ends.

Does this mean we are just bodies?  Have I reduced all that we are to genes and hormones and neurons?  I don’t think so.  Why should we distinguish between dust that has the breath of life and living, breathing flesh?  We are more than bodies, we are selves; and science, like theology, tells us we can reach beyond our physical form.  Technology, like prayer, allows us to communicate.  It allows us to recognize that the physical flesh and blood perspective cannot capture the wholeness of who we are.  A person diminished in body is not diminished in self.  Christianity affirms this and technology proves it every time we meet someone fitted with a prosthetic limb or talk by phone or internet.  Physical wholeness is not the only criterion for personal wholeness, nor even the most important.

Perhaps one day, we will integrate notions of human biology and Christian souls.  Perhaps one day the latter will be reduced to the former.   Again, I do not think so, but I’m willing to try very hard to find out. These are important questions.  If the two ideas can be reconciled, the new system will have to incorporate the best insights of each.  Currently, science comes nowhere near fully predicting human actions, preferences, or even pleasures.  Our motivations are complex and subtle.  Christian theology provides us with ways to look at our greatest good and happiness – in God and neighbor – our inability to make the right choices – in selfish fallen-ness – and our way through the muddle – in faith, hope, and love.  Science provides details about how to go about that work.  From Greek philosophy to German ritual to Enlightenment reason, Christians have embraced the tools of local culture to do the work God has given us to do.  An effective worldview will need to deal not only with bodies moving in space, but with individuals longing for relationship.  Until we have this one great psychology/physics, I’m happy to use the tools available, because I want things that can only be provided by a combination of both perspectives.

What then, is the real issue?  If souls are compatible, if not currently coherent, with biology, why has there been so much concern?  Why do scientists find souls such a disturbing concept, and why are so many Christians worried that psychology, neurology, and evolutionary biology will rob them of something essential to their life of faith?  I think there are two reasons:  an ancient habit of dividing up the world and a modern desire to see everything reduced to single, overarching narrative.

The Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) divided creation into two parts: the physical world, including minerals, vegetables, and animals, and the spiritual world, including souls and angels.  Humans were the one point of overlap, where spiritual soul met physical body.  He did this for the best of reasons: to focus human attention on two important aspects of our selves, to show their integration, and to help us peer into the mysteries of both realms.  Following the famous Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BC), he saw the ideal perfect world of forms as a complement to the changeable world of matter.  Souls and bodies fit nicely into the science of the day, Platonic science, and helped people understand the world and their place in it.  It also set up the distinction we have come to think of as natural and supernatural.  Plato and Aquinas both thought that the two different worlds followed two different sets of rules.  A good start, but it set us up for some dangerous competitions within our hearts.  Despite Aquinas’ insistence that both creations were good, it encouraged people to think of the true home of humanity only in the spiritual realm.

Aquinas’ disembodied soul also set the stage for the dualism of Rene Descartes (1596-1650).  In order to accommodate the rising knowledge provided by physics – and helping it on its way – Descartes proposed that the world of the mind was ideal, like the spiritual creation, while the world of the body followed the rules of natural science.  He drew on a very different Greek philosopher, Lucretius (99-55 BC), who had imagined a world made of nothing but particles (like atoms or quarks) and universal forces (like gravity).  In order to save this clockwork universe for perfect mechanical accuracy, Descartes had to move souls to another plane of existence.  The world of mind provided agency (the power to choose) and reason (the power to comprehend) space outside the natural laws.  For good and ill, science could be justified by saying that minds, outside the world, were the only things capable of objectively understanding the world.  After all, if they were inside, they would be hopelessly compromised by participation, not to mention subject to all the changeable emotions that affect the body.  His work laid the foundations for objectivity in science, setting aside some of the really difficult problems of life and perception while setting up the idea of a perfect observer.  Descartes gave us the perspective needed to gain confident knowledge of the world, but at the cost of moving the difficult questions (soul, agency…) into a different world entirely.  Ideal souls were then able to impartially assess the mechanical world of bodies.

This new perspective on the natural world was too successful.  The insights we gained from objectivity meant our knowledge of the physical outpaced our knowledge of the spiritual.  We forgot the two categories were primarily meaningful in relation to humans.  We forgot that they meant something like right and left, with meaning coming from the comparison of the two.  Words for the integration of breath and body disappeared.

But Christian theology, indeed the very doctrine of the soul, was meant to teach us that breath and body go together.  To be ensouled in Greek and Hebrew does not mean to have something added.  It means to exist as a hybrid, literally to be inspired flesh.  Even if we were not entirely confident of the “inspiration” in Genesis, we would be convicted by St. Paul’s insistence that we are resurrected in the flesh.  The soul is not a substance that persists beyond death; rather eternal life means that the entanglement of Spirit and body will be re-instated after our death.  We will be as we are, but the new body will be a spiritual body – that is flesh made specifically for the breath of life.

Will it be prone to the same sufferings as our current flesh?  We do not know.  We do know that Jesus, in the resurrection, had form as we do, touched and talked, ate and drank.  So it seems likely that many of the rules that make us carnal, fleshly creatures will continue.  We also know that Jesus, in the resurrection walked through walls.  So we must admit that some of the rules will be different.  Nonetheless it is a movement from one incarnate breath to another, not from a world of flesh and spirit to a world of pure spirit.

Nor, as the Enlightenment thinkers would have it, are we pure mind.  Quantum mechanics and relativity have revealed that we can never be perfectly impartial observers.  We participate in and change the world we observe.  Objectivity remains an important ideal but, in its perfect form, an unachievable goal.  We can only try to account for limitations of our embodied minds, which science and theology both affirm are unavoidably bound together.  What happens to one happens to the other.  And we, our very souls, cannot be limited to either camp.

Truly, I fear it is not a reduction to bodies that the current scientific materialism seeks.  It is a reduction to minds.  The success of science tempts us into thinking we can reside all of our lives within the impassible, perfect realm of the mind.  The Enlightenment calls for a removal of all physicality and limitation from our reasoning.

Genesis reminds us that we are no more disembodied minds than we are mindless bodies.  We are whole beings.  “Soul” speaks to the self, whatever it is that lies at the core of our being.  Christian theology asks us to accept that souls exist and have value which cannot be summed up in the nature of bodies.  Nor can it be summed up in the clarity of minds.  Rather it comes from the breath of God, which fills the ever present dust.  The incarnation and resurrection mean this if they mean anything.  Existence cannot be separated from the flesh and happens through the Spirit of God moving in the world.

I do not know how we can understand the ways of the body, the ins and outs of living incarnate, without the gifts of science.  Our genes and neurons tell us something important about the very essence of our selves.  Evolutionary forces, no less than gravity, provide insights to the hopes and fears that drive us.  The doctrine of souls, however, tells us there is an “us” to begin with, that we are not alone, and that every single one of us has dignity and power.



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