Cover story -- Mystery of the Mind
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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008


Rethinking the soul

When Mary declared that her soul magnified the Lord, in her hymn known as the Magnificat, was she in effect saying that her brain magnified him?

Those scientists who equate consciousness exclusively with activities of the brain would say that is the case.

In theology today consciousness has largely taken the place of soul as a construct for explaining our human identity. “If we search for ways to speak of the essence of an individual, consciousness is the primary candidate,” said Gregory Peterson, chair of the department of religion at South Dakota State University and author of Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences.

“Ask anyone what religion says about the afterlife and the likely answer will be that our soul survives the death of the body,” Peterson said. Implied is that while the body, including the brain, is physical the soul is supernatural and essentially distinct from the body.

“This dualistic view has been rendered problematic by what we know about the brain and mind from neuroscience. While there is much yet to be explored it’s clear that those elements that we think of as most constitutive of the soul -- reason, personality, emotional awareness -- are embodied in the brain and its sea of chemicals.”

While our consciousness may not be reducible to lower-level components it cannot cut loose and have a life of its own beyond them. Neuroscience, Peterson told NCR, “seems to support the view that ‘to be is to be embodied.’

“Most likely consciousness does not descend from above but emerges naturally as the result of biological development.”

The language of Genesis 2, which portrays Adam as being created from the earth’s dust, seems more accurate now than it probably did for much of Judeo-Christian history, Peterson said.

Consciousness makes best sense in a framework that emphasizes its habitat within a body, he added. “Those who would make consciousness into a surrogate for a soul independent of the body would be making a mistake. Consciousness is embodied. We are natural, embodied spirits that grow, flourish, wither and die.”

This view may be closer to a biblical account than the traditional view of a radical split between soul and body, according to Peterson. “St. Paul speaks not of immortality but of resurrection, for example, and even of a spiritual body. In the Hebrew Bible, there is no clear correlate to ‘soul’ as we use the term. Terms such as nephesh suggest a closer connection between body and soul than we are inclined to suppose today.”

To affirm our bodiliness is not to deny the hope of a resurrection but it does affect how we think of ourselves now, Peterson said. “Our bodies are not an inconvenient burden but an integral element of what God made us to be.”

Warren Brown, a psychologist at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and coauthor of Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, agrees.

“It is becoming difficult to avoid the conclusion that the powers and experiences of the soul and mind are in reality functions of the body and brain.”

The splitting of soul from body has extra-Christian roots, is not supported in scripture and, in fact, is a kind of Gnosticism that causes problems in many areas, Brown said.

“Relegating the body to low status and elevating the soul creates great difficulty in thinking adequately about health, disabilities, medical therapies like stem cells, evolution and creation, sex, gender identity, and the environment. It’s difficult to work through these issues when the soul is seen as privileged while the body is relegated to second place.”

For this view of a nonexistent soul to stand in Christian theology, Fuller said, “you have to postulate that our spirituality represents our ability to be in relationship with God, but it’s not necessary to postulate that we possess a spirit, another entity that or determines our behavior and experiences.”

At the core of human nature still resides a mystery acknowledged also in our scripture, Peterson said. “Theology’s encounter with cognitive science is not simply one of confirmation or disconfirmation of particular doctrines but a process of creative, mutual exploration.”

-- Rich Heffern

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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