Some weeks or months back now, I had some brief exchanges with one diligent reader, known as Hephaestion, about human nature. Heph contends that the Biblical view of humanity distorts our thinking about ourselves, contradicts what we know from science, and has seriously undermined the progress of the species. I promised that I’d respond properly to his thoughtful comments, but have put it off for so long because of the scope of what is required for a satisfactory answer. Seeing that I am unlikely to meet those requirements any time soon, I have to opt for an unsatisfactory answer instead.
The short answer to the supposed conflict between Christian and scientific views of human nature – in my opinion – is firstly that science is not infallible nor objective (so that its conclusions are devoid of speculation and opinion), and secondly that Christianity has often misunderstood what the Bible says about humanity, or ‘filled in the gaps’ in what the Bible says with Plato or Aristotle or whatever else is fashionable. In consequence, the lack of harmony between Christianity and science is often only apparent, and where conflict exists, there is no reason to think that the ‘scientific’ view is cold, undeniable fact and therefore preferable to the Christian one. The interpretation of the evidence gleaned from science is not necessarily and freer of speculation and metaphysics.
Christianity and dualism
Referencing Pinker’s Blank Slate (which I have not yet read, unfortunately), Hephaestion aligns Christianity with a doctrine of human nature labelled ‘The Ghost in the Machine’, translated in Christian terms into the doctrine of the soul, particularly, the idea that people are flesh suits that spring to life (eternal life, no less) when they have a soul inserted into them.
Although the Creation story gives superficial support to dualism when it pictures God creating us from mud and breathing life into us, it is very unlikely that dualism is a Hebraic way of thinking. Certainly, dualism is far from consistent in scripture. Scripture represents the whole human being from multiple perspectives, not simply body and soul. We are described as body, soul, mind, spirit and flesh, each of which refers to an aspect of the whole person rather than a divisible part. ‘Flesh’, for example, refers literally to our meatiness, but also to our relatedness to those things that are fleeting, sensual or sinful, which is (in dualist thinking) a soul activity. Soul (whatever that is) and body are a unity.
Furthermore, some key doctrines seem to oppose dualism. Outsiders to the faith often don’t realise that spiritual existence in heaven is not the eternal resting place of Christians. The Bible teaches a resurrection to bodily life in a new earth as our final state. Certainly, any notion that the physical is bad and the immaterial is pure and eternal comes from Plato, and not from Christ.
Science vs the soul
In terms of the scientific arguments against a soul, these seem also to be problematic.
According to Heph, dualism between mind and body (and by extension soul and body) is refuted as follows:
“But, for all our wishes, it seems there is no mind-body dualism – one gives rise to the other. As Michael Shermer cheekily put it, hit yourself over the head with a brick and see what faculties you lose. All the evidence indicates that our minds arise from our brains, and our brains are a complex neural network. Destroy the network and you destroy the mind.”
One could add to this the recent research that discovered a zone in the brain responsible for moral thinking. By merely applying magnetism to this zone, subjects became incapable of reaching ethical conclusions that they had uniformly agreed upon before in the absence of the magnetism.
It is fact that destroying the brain destroys the mind (and the soul to the extent that those are synonymous), but the implications of these facts depend very heavily on the presuppositions that one brings to the table. Even though killing the brain kills the mind, it does not follow that brain and mind are the same thing. Smashing my radio puts an end to the music that it plays, but the radio itself is not the musician. It is a conduit for music, but not the source of the music. Similarly, crackly radio speakers play crackly music, even if the original broadcast was perfect quality. In the same way, one’s soul/life may be considerably more than brain function, yet the soul may interface with material existence by means of the brain. This means that its ‘transmission’ will be played only as effectively as the brain is functioning.
The scientific facts do not allow us to say anything with conviction but that the brain is important to our thinking. It doesn’t even rule out the dualist belief in soul/life independent of the body; it only shows that the brain is an indispensable point of interface between the two.
So whatever one’s objections to the idea of soul, science has not proved anything this way or that, and certainly nothing has been scientifically demonstrated that would compel us to worry that upholding the Christian view is backward or damaging to society.
What is the soul?
We tend to speak about the soul as though everyone knows what it is, but I’m convinced that virtually the opposite is true. There is so little consensus over what a soul is that we simply find it less tiring to take its definition for granted than to try and hammer out an answer. I’m not sure that scientists have ever thought that ‘soul’ might be something empirically discoverable (perhaps some soul ‘stuff’ kicking around our pipes, or a measurable force within a person, like an aura, except real), but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some who have thought it possible. For others, the soul is by definition immaterial, and so the search would be absurd.
In the Biblical languages, soul is rendered by nephesh in Hebrew, meaning literally the throat, and by extension the soul, self or life. Greek typically uses psuche (a cognate of ‘to breathe’ and referring to the soul or self), and possibly pneuma (rational soul, spirit, breath, mind). It is questionable, therefore, whether it is necessary to think of soul as something separate from one’s life and personality. Some have gone so far as to say that the soul is no more than a blueprint in the mind of God for who you are, a personality to be recreated at the Resurrection at the end.
The Biblical data is also not as supportive of an eternal soul as one might imagine. It is again more on Plato’s account that we have long believed that souls are eternal in themselves (his argument for the eternity of soul towards the end of the Republic is a quaint example of the limits of rationalism). Scripture by contrast teaches from the start that life is breathed out by God and sustained by ‘the Tree of Life’ in the garden (the death sentence upon man is carried out by barring him from access to the Tree, not by actively killing him). Eternity for souls, then, depends upon God granting them existence, and ‘eternal life’ in the New Testament is a gift that is carried out by Christ drawing man up into the life of God. Eternity is seemingly not something that man possesses by virtue of being human, but only by relationship with the Eternal One.
On this account, one that I favour, the soul corresponds to the Image of God given to man in Creation, and refers (simplistically speaking) to our capacity to relate to Him. Our existence after the intrusion of death is only possible because relationship with God persists if He chooses to persist with it. Indestructible life will be given as a gift by the one who possesses life within Himself. Souls per se do not.
A brief comment about one additional critique
“Christianity subverts this notion of personal responsibility and accountability through such things as inherited punishment, divine providence, future punishment (post death) and vicarious redemption. Ultimately, responsibility is conceded to the absolute sovereignty of God. Beyond even the most extreme form of totalitarianism one can imagine, in Christianity one’s thoughts are under constant surveillance (giving rise to thoughtcrime, in which thinking “sinful” things is equivalent to doing “sinful” things), and punishment lasts for eternity.”
Christianity holds in tension God’s sovereignty over events and human responsibility for our own behaviour. Whether or not one finds this to be an acceptable paradox or a gross contradiction is happily besides the point here, which is merely to assert that Christianity (in its Biblically dependent form at least) repeatedly holds people to account, and never adopts a fatalistic position towards human behaviour. Even Judas, though he was a necessary figure in God’s plan, is held responsible for betraying Christ (Mark 14:21 “For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”). Future judgment is also never used as a licence for immorality. It is used as a motivation not to take revenge and as a comfort that injustice will not rest, but it does not ever function as an excuse for injustice.
On ‘thoughtcrime’, it is not the case that thinking is made equivalent to doing. Judgment in the Biblical law is only levied against actions. Jesus makes lust and anger akin to adultery and murder not to suggest that they are exactly the same, but to show that our inner life demonstrates what we truly are. We cannot consider ourselves to be morally perfect merely by maintaining a clean public image, because lust and hate belong to the same family as adultery and murder. We can’t claim to be holy (‘other’ with regards to sin) if our inner life bears the family resemblance of moral depravity.
James 1:15 says that temptation fuels inappropriate desire, and “desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin” which clearly indicates that the primary moral concern remains with how we act. Nevertheless, in scrutinising our thought life, God demonstrates that it is our inner being that requires transformation, not our external behaviour. Conversion of the heart (i.e. the will) is what matters, and a transformed will ultimately issues forth in transformed behaviour. As James goes on to say “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” Superficially good behaviour from a rotten source is not truly good. God cares about who and what you are, ultimately, not that you did this or that, or refrained from doing this or that.
In this regard, pejoratives such as ‘totalitarianism’ cloud the issue here. ‘Big Brother’ watches everyone intently, ready to punish any variation from the regime. By contrast, God knows all of our deviations from the straight and narrow – all the things that we have stolen without anyone seeing, all of our physical, verbal and sexual abuse of one another, all of our lies and hate – and in spite of that He invites forgiveness and reconciliation. “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” A totalitarian regime loves its power and its ideals but not its people. They’re like cattle to be kept in check. God has power and perfection, but sets it aside in order to be incarnated as Good Shepherd and to die for His flock.
God’s knowledge of our darkest secrets is not an invasion of our privacy, it’s a fact of His being. Another fact of His being – His love – means that He has responded to our darkness by doing something about it.