Ancient Q, Modern A (?)
By Walt Hearn
Clearly, there's a major difference between a living body and a corpse. The ancients must have observed that people die and become corpses, but not the other way around. It doesn't take much brain power to figure out that a dead body is missing something. All its capacity to be “lively” has disappeared. Living persons move, converse, express emotion. Corpses just lie there, even if their organs stay intact for awhile. What is it that's gone? Is it a person's “soul” or “mind”? (To someone who isn't thinking at all clearly, we might say, “Have you lost your mind?”)
Immortal life, even mortal life, is not easy to pin down. A biological research group was once getting ready to throw a party in the lab, having heard that their leader had just won the Nobel Prize. A newspaper reporter showed up to interview the new laureate. After getting a technical explanation of the award-winning work from the participants, the reporter wanted a simple lead for his story to “hook” ordinary readers. So he asked the group, “What is life, anyway?” They all broke out in laughter. Nobody in the lab would try to answer his question, not even the Nobelist himself. Frustrated, the reporter assumed that they had drunk too much bubbly. In fact, though, when he arrived, they hadn't had time to pop the champagne corks. Is there a simple answer to his question?
If the ancients ever tried weighing a moribund person, they would have found no loss in weight when that person died. So whatever had left the body had to be some kind of weightless, invisible “spirit,” like air, which at the time was thought to be weightless. So, death has always seemed spooky, a theme reprised annually in Halloween decorations and in Mexico's Día de la Muerte. Modern people are similarly haunted by the possibility of radioactivity in the atmosphere. Some entity has been unleashed, undetectable by unaided human senses, perhaps a fearsome threat.
Natural history (now called biology) and natural philosophy (now called physics) came together in the 19th and 20th centuries. Now we have sophisticated instruments to detect physical differences at the end of life. EKGs (electrocardiograms, from Greek for “heart”) measure electrical impulses in the heart, and EEGs (electroencephalograms, from Greek for “in the head”) measure electrical impulses in the brain. When the EKG is still recording rhythmic pulses but the EEG has “flatlined,” physicians call the patient “brain dead.” When both flatline, we're just “plain dead.” Is neurophysiology approaching a final frontier? To describe a human being fully from a physical point of view would require tracing some 100 trillion connections among about 100 million neurons (brain cells). I definitely won't be alive to see it.
In 1944, physicist Erwin Schrödinger did write a little book titled What Is Life?, which I read as an undergraduate. At that time DNA's structure and biological roles were still mysteries. Schrödinger had won the 1933 Nobel Prize in physics as a founder of quantum mechanics. In What Is Life? he turned to theorizing about what kind of chemical molecule might carry genetic information. I've heard that geneticist H. J. Muller (1946 Nobelist in physiology or medicine) was annoyed at a physicist proposing an “aperiodic crystal,” claiming that he and other biologists had, some years before, outlined the properties to be expected in a genetic molecule. Nevertheless, James Watson and Francis Crick both credited Schrödinger's book as having inspired them to probe DNA by X-ray diffraction. For their 1953 discovery of DNA's now-famous double-helical structure, they shared the 1962 Nobel in physiology or medicine with crystallographer Maurice Wilkins.
Of course, knowing how DNA works doesn't tell us what life is. Schrödinger hoped to reduce biology to physics, but had to admit that something about life could not be so reduced, at least not to physics as we know it―although other laws of physics might yet be discovered. He linked the elusive quality of life to purpose and morality, perhaps thinking of conscious awareness. Using a word like mind or soul would have embroiled him in “metaphysics,” i.e., in philosophy rather than in science.
Isms and Schisms
I know zilch about philosophy even though I have a “Doctorate of Philosophy.” Training in science has taught me how to solve problems. My experience as a Christian teaches me how to accept mysteries. But I seldom even ask the kinds of questions philosophers ask, let alone try to answer them. On an issue like the relation between brain science and the soul, my question is, “Is it a problem to be solved or a mystery to be accepted?” If it's either, or both, I can then apply the appropriate methods of inquiry.
At an ASA meeting in 1959, I heard a card-carrying philosopher lecture on “What Scientists Do.” The speaker said that when we go into our labs to begin work, we start with axioms. I was seate d beside biologist Frank Cassel, who whispered in my ear, “What's an axiom?” I whispered back, “Beats me. When I go to work, I start with clean glassware.” We weren't the only PhD scientists present who didn't recognize ourselves in the speaker's presentation. Some of us cornered him afterward and asked, “Well, then, what is it that you philosophers do?” He replied, “What we do is think clearly.” Ouch.
As an undergrad, to round out my liberal arts requirement, I had actually taken a philosophy of science course, populated primarily by science majors. We doubted that the prof knew much about science. He spent a lot of time on Aristotle vs Plato, then moved rather abruptly to Kant vs Hume. As a naive chemistry student, I wrote a term paper critiquing René Descartes's Meditations on a Ball of Wax. My paper argued that Descartes would have contributed more to human understanding by chemically analyzing wax than by speculating about it. I did get an “A” on the paper, possibly for clear thinking.
That class met in Lovett Hall, Rice Institute's administration building. The Fondren Library was still under construction, so all the library holdings were scattered among the departments. I spent a lot of time in the Chemistry Library but hardly knew where any other libraries were located. One day in Lovett Hall I stumbled on the Philosophy Library, amazed to discover how many “schools of philosophy” there were. After days of browsing there, I concluded that every conceivable position had been championed by some clear thinker but negated by other clear thinkers: agnosticism, atheism, behaviorism, compatiblism, determinism, dualism, empiricism, existentialism, fatalism, holism, idealism, instrumentalism, materialism, monism, nihilism, positivism, realism, reductionism, solipsism―to name a few in alphabetical order. The “mind/body problem” came up in many of them.
Persons, Selves, and Afterlives
Neuroscientists have been studying human brains while theologians tease out biblical passages referring to what lives on after death. Are soul and spirit more or less interchangeable? Do humans have souls, or are we souls inhabiting a body? Or are body, mind, and soul related in some other way? Fuller Seminary professor of Christian philosophy Nancey Murphy unites the two disciplinary approaches with the term nonreductive physicalism, putting “body and soul” together in the process. She takes the position that our human soul is a “functional capacity of a complex physical organism, rather than a separate spiritual essence that somehow inhabits a body.” She admits that her position sounds like a monistic or holistic view of human personhood, but distinguishes it from materialist forms of monism by calling it “nonreductive.” Her thinking is clear enough, but to me, the phrase “nonreductive physicalism” resembles an expression like “reddish green” or “bluish orange.”
Even so, the book she edited with Fuller psychology professors Warren Brown and H. Newton Maloney, called Whatever Happened to the Soul? (Augsburg Fortress, 1998), is a good place to dig into “brain science and the soul.” Then there's From Cells to Soul—and Beyond; Changing Portraits of Human Nature (Eerdmans, 2004) edited by psychologist Malcolm Jeeves, whose 1995 lectures at Fuller on neurophysiology and theology gave rise to the earlier book. More recent is the second edition of In Search of the Soul: Perspectives on the Mind-Body Problem (Wipf and Stock, 2010) by theologian Joel H. Green, now Dean of Fuller's School of Theology. Jeeves and Green both contributed chapters to Whatever Happened to the Soul? [In the interest of full disclosure, I know Joel from his years at NCB (New College Berkeley), Nancey from her years at CTNS (Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences) in Berkeley, and Malcolm from a 1965 ASA-RSCF conference in Oxford, England.]
On occasion, I've dipped my own oar into these murky waters. In 1991 I was invited to give a formal response to a CTNS lecture by philosopher Holmes Rolston III. His lecture began with a protest against the reductionistic scientisms of bioscientists E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Francis Crick, Stephen J. Gould, and Jacques Monod. Rolston sought to replace ethical-sounding expressions like Dawkins's “selfish gene” with a “vocabulary of value.” His substitutions still sounded to me like metabiology. As a scientist and “metaphysical minimalist,” I said that I preferred to eliminate the meta- from science entirely and leave it to philosophical inquiry. I noted that Rolston frequently used the word self, speaking of all living things as self-organizing or self-defensive, and also of “nature itself.” As a Christian, I'm cautious about using words containing self- or the prefix auto- (meaning “self”). What does one have in mind when attributing “autonomy” to a cell or organism, or to all of nature?
Rolston's “Genes, Genesis, and God” and my response were published in the Spring 1991 issue of the CTNS Bulletin, precursor of the journal Theology and Natural Science. Professor Rolston went on to give the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 1998-99 and to win the Templeton Prize in 2003. I imagine we both went on to consider the distinguishing characteristics of a self. I wondered later, for example, if Nancey Murphy and Joel Green were equating “soul” with “self.” We use expressions like “nary a soul” or “by myself” to refer to living persons. Maybe “personhood” is the real issue. When a human being dies, we say that a person “has passed on” or “is gone.”
Over the centuries, a lot of smart folks have tried to figure out what is lost when a person dies. In recent years, other smart folks have been trying to figure out what to add to a machine to make it behave more like a living human being. In 1997, IBM's “Deep Blue” computer used its “artificial intelligence “ (AI) to defeat world champion Garry Kasparov in a chess match. Then in 2011, IBM's “Watson,” with 2,900 processors and a trillion bytes of RAM, digested enough reference works and rules of syntax to be able to defeat human contestants in TV's “Jeopardy” game. Now we have computers with “natural intelligence” (NI) that can “learn how to learn.” Is it self-awareness that makes us human? Could it be that a human soul comes into being when a human mind develops God-awareness?
From another ASA meeting I remember a lecture on the possibility of finding, somewhere in the universe, intelligent life that isn't much like ourselves. The audience was challenged to consider how we should treat such a creature, especially if it seemed to be a mechanical humanoid rather than anything biological. In the Q & A afterward, it was suggested that maybe Christians should witness to it about our faith in Jesus Christ. The speaker then posed the question: “Suppose it responds to the gospel. Should it be baptized?” I offered a hair-trigger response: “Not unless its circuits are waterproof.”
Quick draw, maybe, but not such clear thinking. Okay, so I'm not a philosopher. I can live with that.
Walter R. Hearn grew up in Houston and majored in chemistry at Rice University. He received a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Illinois in 1951. After doing research for a year at Yale Medical School and for three years at Baylor College of Medicine, he spent 17 years on the biochemistry faculty at Iowa State University. His research interests included peptide chemistry, hypothalamic hormones, and bacterial pigment biosynthesis.
For five years he was a Visiting Biologist to Colleges for the American Institute of Biological Sciences. He is a Fellow and Life Member of AAAS and an Emeritus member of the American Chemical Society. In 1972 he switched professions and moved to Berkeley to do free-lance editorial work with his wife Virginia. They have edited periodicals and some 200 books, largely for Christian publishers.
Walt joined ASA while he was in grad school and served on the Council in the 1960s. From 1969 to 1993 he edited the ASA newsletter. He was a coauthor of the widely distributed publication, Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy (ASA, 1986) and author of Being a Christian in Science (IVP, 1997).
He has also contributed chapters to a number of books, the latest being "Creation Matters" in Darwin and the Bible: The Cultural Confrontation (Penguin Academic, 2009), edited by anthropologists Richard Robbins and Mark Cohen. His articles, reviews, and poems have appeared in such publications as Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith and the Berkeley publication Radix, for which Ginny has been copy editor for over 40 years. Walt was once "poetry rejection editor" for Radix magazine. Walt and Ginny have strong IVCF backgrounds, helped to launch New College for Advanced Christian Studies in the 1980s, and are members of Berkeley's First Presbyterian Church.