When Materialism Rules
This past spring I attended a weekend conference, Neuroscience and the Soul. Sponsored by the Biola Center for Christian Thought, the conference was the culmination of a year’s emphasis on the interactions between science and the Christian concept of the soul. A variety of philosophers, theologians and scientists participated in research, collaboration and writing devoted to this topic. Given the event’s association with Biola and some of the participants at past conferences (e.g. Alvin Plantinga and J.P. Moreland) I was looking forward to what I might learn at the event. What I actually learned from the event was disappointing and not what I expected.
In order to give my remarks a context, I would like to offer some background information on the topic. Historically, Christianity has believed that human beings have a dual nature, physical and immaterial, having both a body and a soul. The soul of every human being survives the death of the body and will continue to exist eternally. The soul does not remain disembodied; rather there is a final resurrection where the soul is united with a new body capable of an eternal existence. The concept of salvation is rooted in the question of whether or not each person spends that eternity in the presence of God. Therefore, the nature of the soul and its relationship to the physical body has profound implications regarding the person and work of Jesus, the core of the Christian message.
In philosophy of mind, the Christian view of the soul and body is known as substance dualism. The soul and the body are unique substances that are united and interact. These interactions operate in both directions. How such unity and interactions actually occur is not known. However, our lack of knowledge regarding how this is possible cannot change our universal experience that the soul and the body exist and interact.
With the ascendency of science, especially Darwin’s theory of evolution, many have become convinced that the worldview of materialism is true. An inevitable corollary is that science is the only source of knowledge. Fields such as philosophy and theology are merely subjective means of defining meaning and morality and cannot be sources of any objective knowledge. From evolutionary biology to neurology, science claims to explain everything about the human experience. For example, as technology to study the brain advances more and more, extravagant claims are made regarding science’s understanding of the human mind.
The reader is advised to pay attention to the almost circular reasoning at work here. Materialism is accepted because physical science has supposedly explained phenomena that were historically given immaterial (and sometimes theistic) explanations (e.g. the origin of life, consciousness, objective morality, etc.) However, these “explanations” are usually mere stories that make sense if one has already bought into the materialist worldview. The flaws in this type of thinking are readily seen when considering arguments for the existence of the soul. To put it another way, if you already accept materialism, you easily see arguments in favor of it drawn from science.
All that being said, when it comes to philosophy of mind or explanations for the nature of consciousness, materialism is a completely failed philosophy. In other words, the reality of our mental lives (thoughts, feelings, consciousness, etc.) cannot be reduced to merely physical phenomena.
In light of the tension between the reality of mental phenomena and materialism, there are two philosophical views regarding the nature of the mind or soul. The first is epiphenomenalism. For the sake of this discussion, this is simply the view that your mental life is merely an illusion caused by the electrical/chemical activity in the physical organ of your brain. There is no such thing as an immaterial soul; your sense of self is merely a trick evolution has played on you. The second view is that the soul exists but only because it emerges from the complexity of your brain and central nervous system. What both of these views have in common is the idea that the soul cannot exist, or come into existence, apart from a physical body.
With that background in place, I can now explain what disturbed me about the Neuroscience and the Soul conference. While I did not know what topics would be discussed or how many different points of view would be expressed, I did not expect the conference to be devoid of anything resembling an orthodox view of the soul. That might sound harsh, but I invite anyone who has the time to watch all of the speakers to judge for him or herself. (The program of speakers for the weekend can be found here. The conference website has links associated with each fellow featuring interviews and talks relevant to the topic at hand, including most the plenary speeches from the conference.)
There were nine different plenary speakers and four Q & A sessions. Only three of the plenary speakers directly addressed what philosophy or theology had to say about the existence of the soul. One was a technical discussion as to why the substance dualism view is not supported or even found in the New Testament. The other two were philosophers arguing for their respective views on the emergent nature of the soul. The remainder of the speakers addressed very technical philosophical topics and other subjects such as the nature of psychotherapy.
One of the speakers, Dr. William Hurlbut, presented a completely reductionist view of the human soul. His entire presentation was a thorough catalog of the neurochemical and hormonal basis for a variety of emotions and mental experiences.
The only presentation of substance dualism was another speaker presenting JP Moreland’s view in terms of its contrasts with the dualism of Thomas Aquinas. After a mere 10 minutes of description, the speaker went on to spend the bulk of their talk describing and defending emergent dualism. What was most disappointing about this presentation was that one of the key arguments against substance dualism and in favor of the emergent view are the “facts” of modern evolutionary theory. In other words, the emergent and epiphenomenal views are typically predicated on the supposed fact of biological evolution. The metaphysical implications of materialism, through the sociological force of modern science, dictate what views of the soul are valid.
The cordial and erudite dismissal of the historic and orthodox view of the soul was not lost on some of the audience. After being told how philosophy and theology don’t actually support the substance dualist view, one rather agitated questioner asked a discussion panel what should one think about the soul and the afterlife. The angst in the question was clear, “if the soul is not real, what does that mean to my faith?”
If I had the chance, I would have asked one simple question: “Would your philosophy of the soul change if modern evolutionary theory (a.k.a. molecules to men) was false?”
We live in a period of time where materialism and scientism dominate nearly every domain of human thought. Neo-Darwinism is typically the sharp tip of the spear used to force contrary views into submission. While I was surprised to see a potential example of this in a philosophical discussion regarding the nature of the soul, I should not have been.
In closing, I would like to offer an encouraging anecdote about the history of science. Consider the fact that up until the 1960s, nearly every branch of philosophy and science accepted the idea that the universe was eternal. Christian theism stood alone as the oldest system of thought to disagree with this consensus. Since the late 19th century biology and anthropology have labored under the hegemony of materialism. In the future, I hope to see a time when materialism and neo-Darwinism are as quaint and dismissed as an eternal universe.
 According to the press release announcing its creation, the Center for Christian Thought is “an ambitious new initiative that will bring world-renowned Christian scholars together to research, collaborate and write about important questions facing Christianity in the 21st Century.”
 I will use the term “soul” to refer to all those aspects of humanity that are not physical. Discussions of the nature of the soul and consciousness can become quite complex, making distinctions between mind, will and emotions or between soul and spirit. While interesting, these discussions are not germane to the critique at hand.
 In other words, the most succinct description of the Christian concept of Hell is to be absence from the presence of God. Reality is in fact immersed in God’s grace and mercy. Every person alive today benefits from what is sometimes called God’s common grace.
 The most recent example of this assessment being found in Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos.
 The following article by Greg Koukl, “How to Know Immaterial Things Exist,” is a wonderful primer on this subject.
 In fact one of the speakers at the conference, William Hasker, an Emeritus Professor in philosophy, has literally written the book on the topic, The Emergent Self.
 Scientism is the view that science is the only source of knowledge. Among the many reasons why this view is untenable is that it cannot be supported via science, it is merely a philosophical assertion. The New Atlantis has a wonderful critique, “The Folly of Scientism.”
Ken Mann is a graduate student in Biola’s Science and Religion program. Ken is a software engineer by way of vocation, a physicist by way of education, and a devout follower of Jesus Christ, in his words, by necessity. Ken is the Chapter Director of Ratio Christi at the University of Colorado, Boulder.