May 25th, 1997
by Paul Pardi
Recently, in an op-ed piece for Newsweek magazine, George Will roundly criticized Princeton philosopher Peter Singer for holding to a form of utilitarianism that allows him to deny that humans have intrinsic dignity and value and that, in some cases, killing a newborn could be morally justified. In the same vein as Singer, philosopher and professor of psychology at MIT Steven Pinker argues that personhood probably is a degreed notion having to do with possessing “morally significant traits” like memories and a sense of community; traits that “immature neonates don’t possess . . . any more than mice.” His conclusion: perhaps newborns aren’t truly persons and the immorality of taking their lives isn’t as clear-cut as some moral philosophers pretend it is.
Certainly one of the main themes in the philosophy of religion regarding immortality and personhood is that of deciding what to do with the soul. Should the soul end up in the intellectual discard pile along with phlogiston and witches or does the soul actually exist? Much of the current thinking on this subject focuses on this question. At first this may seem like an issue for philosophers of mind rather than for philosophers of religion. Actually, the issue concerns both. The philosopher of mind is interested in determining the ontological question: Does the soul exist? The philosopher of religion is interested in the implications of that ontology. In addition to moral implications, there are theological ones as well. For example, If we have no soul, then it is hard to make sense of the idea of immortality, yet immortality is a core tenet of most religious belief. As William James once noted, “Immortality is one of the great spiritual needs of man. The churches have constituted themselves the official guardians of the need . . .”
So there are two issues that concern the philosopher of religion. First there is the ontological question of whether or not there actually is a soul. Second, there are the moral and theological (and one might say anthropological) implications of the answer to that question. The apparent tension that exists between the current work being done in philosophy of mind and religious teaching seems to be constituted by a disparity between the “hard facts” of science that tell us that we’re nothing more than our bodies and brains, and religious dogma that seems to go contrary to that claim. For religion in the West, much of the religious teaching on the soul and the afterlife comes from a revelation from God (such as the Bible). In much of Eastern thought, the idea of immortality constitutes a fundamental principle upon which the entire religious structure is based. Boston University has been looking at solutions from both sides of the divide. For the past year, the university’s philosophy department has been examining this issue in its Institute for Philosophy and Religion. The title of this year’s program is “If I Should Die: Life, Death, and Immortality. Some of the titles of upcoming seminars are, “If I Should Die Before I Am Awakened: Buddhist Reflections on Death” and “Is There Life After Death? Where Are The Dead?” by Jürgen Moltmann.
Taking the lead from the current trend in philosophy of mind, many philosophers of religion are opting to dissolve the tension between the soul and the body by getting rid of the soul and translating “soul talk” into body or brain talk. They accept the current scientific thinking on mind-brain reduction and then argue that revelation claims are completely compatible with that thinking. A recent book edited by a team of theologians and philosophers at Fuller Seminary entitled Whatever Happened to the Soul? by Fortress Press (this book recently was reviewed in the current issue of the journal Philosophia Christi) does just that. In light of the current trend toward materialist views of consciousness, this book does not have anything new to offer regarding the ontological status of the mind. It does, however, have a lot to say about how one ought to understand religious claims regarding the soul and the afterlife in light of that trend. (Another novel approach to this problem was taken up recently by Australian philosopher Peter Forrest in his God Without the Supernatural by Cornel University Press.)
More traditional philosophers of religion balk at this approach. Many of these thinkers hold to some form of substance dualism. First, they argue that if we reject the idea of a substantial, immaterial soul, many aspects of the mind and personal identity simply cannot be explained adequately. Second, it becomes very difficult to understand the idea of an afterlife without talking about it in terms of a soul. Two new books argue against reductive materialism and for forms of substance dualism in just this way. William Hasker’s latest, The Emergent Self also from Cornell (part of the Cornel Studies in the Philosophy of Religion series) attempts to argue for a form of dualism (which he calls “emergent dualism”) while still recognizing “the critical role of the brain and nervous system for mental processes.” Whereas the Fortress book tends lean much more heavily on the side of mind to brain reduction, Hasker seeks to preserve the more traditional role for the soul while taking into account the recent discoveries in brain research. Given the newness of the book, Hasker’s contribution has not been adequately evaluated as to its viability as a player in the discussion.
The second book, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics by J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae (due out in March by InterVarsity Press) takes a more traditional view and defends a substance dualist view of the soul. The first part of the book, treated by Moreland whose particular strength lies in metaphysics and philosophy of mind, deals with the important metaphysical questions related to this issue. In the second part, ethicist Rae teases out the implications of the view for bioethics. Recently there has been a rash of articles and reviews that, like Moreland and Rae, call into question the viability of a purely materialistic view of the mind. William A. Dembski in the Catholic journal First Things, “Are we spiritual machines?” in an article with that title. Similarly, Matt Donnelly, in the most recent issue of Books and Culture entitled an article with the question, “Is Science Good for the Soul?” in which he explores the recent (what he calls) monist-dualist debate.
Western thinkers aren’t the only philosophers and theologians dealing with these questions. For example, Robin Cooper has written a book on Buddhist thought and its compatibility with recent brain research called The Evolving Mind: Buddhism, Biology, and Consciousness. The issues that are raised in Buddhist thought vis-à-vis Christian theology are markedly different. In a review for the Catholic University of America, Charles Jones wrote, “As one might expect, the resonances and tensions that emerge from the juxtaposition of Buddhism and modern science differ markedly from those that arise from the current struggles to position science within a Christian theological framework.” The point here is that the tensions that exist between modern science and traditional views on the body and soul cross religious traditions and the east-west boundary.
Which side will end up winning the favor of the academy is tough to answer. As far as philosophy of religion goes, there does seem to be a trend towards more traditional thinking regarding the soul and afterlife. This is true in spite of the opposite view dominating philosophy of mind. Given that the majority of thinkers historically have held to the existence of both a soul and an afterlife, this may be one area where philosophers of religion would be wise to refrain from too quickly abandoning their roots.