A Brief Reflection on Neuroscience and the Soul
The great Presbyterian scholar J. Gresham Machen once observed: “I think we ought to hold not only that man has a soul, but that it is important that he should know that he has a soul” (J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man [New York: Macmillan, 1937], p. 159.).
From a Christian perspective, Machen offers a trustworthy saying. Christianity is a dualist, interactionist religion in this sense: God, angels/demons, and the souls of men and beasts are immaterial substances that can causally interact with the world. Specifically, human persons are (or have) souls that are spiritual substances that ground personal identity in a disembodied intermediate state between death and final resurrection (See John Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, rev. ed., 2000)]. Clearly, this was the Pharisees’ view in Intertestamental Judaism, and Jesus (Matthew 22:23-33; cf. Matthew 10:28) and Paul (Acts 23 6-10; cf. II Corinthians 12:1-4) side with the Pharisees on this issue over against the Sadducees (N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003], pp. 131-34, 190-206, 366-67, 424-26).
In my view, Christian physicalism involves a politically correct revision of the biblical text that fails to be convincing (See Joel B. Green, Body, Soul and Human Life [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2008]. Cf. John Cooper, “The Bible and Dualism Once Again,” Philosophia Christi 9 (2007): 459-69; “The Current Body-Soul Debate: A Case for Holistic Dualism,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13 (2009): 32-50; “Exaggerated Rumors of Dualism’s Demise,” Philosophia Christi 11 (2009): 453-64).
Nevertheless, today, many hold that, while broadly logically possible, dualism is no longer plausible in light of advances in modern science. This attitude is becoming increasingly prominent in Christian circles. Thus, Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy claims that physicalism is not primarily a philosophical thesis, but the hard core of a scientific research program for which there is ample evidence. This evidence consists in the fact that “biology, neuroscience, and cognitive science have provided accounts of the dependence on physical processes of specific faculties once attributed to the soul” (Nancey Murphy, “Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues,” in Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy and H. Newton Malony, Whatever Happened to the Soul? [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998], p. 17. cf. pp. 13, 27, 139-143; cf. Nancey Murphy, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? [N. Y.: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Dualism cannot be proven false—a dualist can always appeal to correlations or functional relations between soul and brain/body–but advances in science make it a view with little justification. According to Murphy, “science has provided a massive amount of evidence suggesting that we need not postulate the existence of an entity such as a soul or mind in order to explain life and consciousness” (Nancey Murphy, “Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues,” p. 18).
I cannot undertake here a critique of physicalism and a defense of dualism. Suffice it to say that dualism is a widely accepted, vibrant intellectual position (See J. P. Moreland, Scott Rae, Body and Soul [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000]. Cf. John Foster, The Immaterial Self [London: Routledge: 2001]; William Hasker, The Emergent Self [Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press: 1999]; Richard Swinburne, Rev. ed. (1997) The Evolution of the Soul [Oxford: Clarendon Press]). I suspect that the majority of Christian philosophers are dualists. Still, it is important to mention that, upon reflection, it becomes evident that neuroscience really has nothing to do with which view is most plausible. Without getting into details, this becomes evident when we observe that leading neuroscientists—Nobel Prize winner John Eccles, U. C. L. A. neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz, and Mario Beaureguard, are all dualists and they know the neuroscience. Their dualism–and the central intellectual issues involved in the debate- are quite independent of neuroscientific data.
The irrelevance of neuroscience also becomes evident when we consider the recent best seller Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander. Regardless of one’s view of the credibility of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) in general, or of Alexander’s in particular, one thing is clear. Before whatever it was that happened to him (and I believe his NDE was real but do not agree with his interpretation of some of what happened to him), Alexander believed the (allegedly) standard neuroscientific view that specific regions of the brain generate and possess specific states of conscious. But after his NDE, Alexander came to believe that it is the soul that possesses consciousness, not the brain, and the various mental states of the soul are in two-way causal interaction with specific regions of the brain. Here’s the point: His change in viewpoint was a change in metaphysics that did not require him to reject or alter a single neuroscientific fact. Dualism and physicalism are empirically equivalent views consistent with all and only the same scientific data. Thus, the authority of science cannot be appropriated to provide any grounds whatsoever for favoring one view over another.
*JP Moreland is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He was a research fellow in the Center for Christian Thought at Biola University during 2012-2013, where the topic of exploration was “Neuroscience and the Soul.” This piece was reprinted with Dr Moreland’s gracious permission. You can learn more about Dr Moreland at www.jpmoreland.com