September 10, 2004
DUAL WON THE DUEL:
The Duel Between Body and Soul: In this century the great conflict between science and religion will be over psychology, and the stakes are
nothing less than our souls. (PAUL BLOOM, 9/10/04, NY MTimes)
What people think about many of the big issues that will be discussed in the next two months - like gay marriage, stem-cell research and the role of religion in public life - is intimately related to their views on human nature. And while there may be differences between Republicans and Democrats, one fundamental assumption is accepted by almost everyone. This would be reassuring - if science didn't tell us that this assumption is mistaken.
People see bodies and souls as separate; we are common-sense dualists. The President's Council on Bioethics expressed this belief system with considerable eloquence in its December 2003 report "Being Human'': "We have both corporeal and noncorporeal aspects. We are embodied spirits and inspirited bodies (or, if you will, embodied minds and minded bodies)." [...]
Admittedly, not everyone explicitly endorses dualism; some people wouldn't be caught dead talking about souls or spirits. But common-sense dualism still frames how we think about such issues. That's why people often appeal to science to answer the question "When does life begin?" in the hopes that an objective answer will settle the abortion debate once and for all. But the question is not really about life in any biological sense. It is instead asking about the magical moment at which a cluster of cells becomes more than a mere physical thing. It is a question about the soul. [...]
Some scholars are confident that people will come to accept this scientific view. In the domain of bodies, after all, most of us accept that common sense is wrong. We concede that apparently solid objects are actually mostly empty space, and consist of tiny particles and fields of energy. Perhaps the same sort of reconciliation will happen in the domain of souls, and it will come to be broadly recognized that dualism, though intuitively appealing, is factually mistaken.
I am less optimistic. I once asked my 6-year-old son, Max, about the brain, and he said that it is very important and involved in a lot of thinking - but it is not the source of dreaming or feeling sad, or loving his brother. Max said that's what he does, though he admitted that his brain might help him out. Studies from developmental psychology suggest that young children do not see their brain as the source of conscious experience and will. They see it instead as a tool we use for certain mental operations. It is a cognitive prosthesis, added to the soul to increase its computing power.
The body has taken over in Europe and the Blue States, while the soul still reigns in Red America. But the Blues are dying out, suggesting the body's victory contained the seeds of its own destruction. Posted by Orrin Judd at September 10, 2004 8:41 AM