Newsweek took a shot at the Christian worldview this week by arguing that there is no such thing as a soul. In an issue devoted to reporting on the power of the “mind”, Steven Pinker made sure we knew what they meant by that by writing a piece entitled “How to think About the Mind.” In it he explains that the mind is simply the brain. There is nothing controlling your body apart from the gray organ in your head – no soul, so non-material anything at all. And he is quite perplexed that most people still don’t understand this:
People naturally believe in the Ghost in the Machine: that we have bodies made of matter and spirits made of an ethereal something. Yes, people acknowledge that the brain is involved in mental life. But they still think of it as a pocket PC for the soul, aging information at the behest of a ghostly user. Modern neuroscience has shown that there is no user. “The soul” is, in fact, the information-processing activity of the brain. New imaging techniques have tied every thought and emotion to neural activity. And any change to the brain—from strokes, drugs, electricity or surgery—will literally change your mind. But this understanding hasn’t penetrated the conventional wisdom. We tell people to “use their brains,” we speculate about brain transplants (which really should be called body transplants) and we express astonishment that meditation, education and psycho-therapy can actually change the brain. How else could they work?
Pinker couldn’t be more wrong about this. Science has not shown that the brain is equivalent to what we traditionally have called the soul. In fact, just the opposite is true. As they wrote over at breakpoint.org yesterday,
Three years ago, the British journal Resuscitation published a remarkable article about human consciousness. It described a year-long British study that offered evidence that consciousness continues after a person’s brain has stopped functioning, and he has been declared clinically dead. As former journalist Lee Strobel notes in his book The Case for a Creator, “It was dramatic new evidence that the brain and mind are not the same,” but are rather distinct entities.
As Reuter’s journalist Sarah Tippit put it, the research “resurrects the debate over whether there is life after death and whether there is such a thing as the human soul.”
In their article, physician Sam Parnia and neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick described their study of sixty-three heart-attack victims who were declared clinically dead but who were later revived. As Strobel relates, about 10 percent of these people “reported having well-structured, lucid thought processes, with memory formation and reasoning, during the time that their brains were not functioning. The effects of oxygen starvation or drugs—[explanations] commonly offered by skeptics—were ruled out as factors.”
According to Parnia, while large-scale studies are still needed, the scientific findings to date “would support the view that mind, ‘consciousness,’ or the ‘soul’ is a separate entity from the brain.” These are important findings for Christians, who believe that human beings are both body and spirit. But it’s bad news for scientists who are determined to find a purely physical answer to the question of human consciousness. They are, Strobel says, “candid in admitting that they currently have no explanation for how the brain might spawn consciousness.”
But other scientists are determined to follow the evidence wherever it leads. As the late neurophysicist Sir John Eccles put it, “I am driven by data, not theory . . . There are solid, concrete data that suggest that our consciousness, our mind, may surpass the boundaries of the brain.”
This data supports the teachings of the Bible. As Strobel writes, “Jesus described the body and soul as being separate entities when He said, ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.’ The Apostle Paul says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
Looking at the current debate over mind and body, philosopher Alvin Plantinga concludes: “Things don’t look hopeful for Darwinian naturalists.” That dismal outlook, however, is not stopping them from trying. “Faced with data and logic that support dualism, and unable to offer a plausible theory for how consciousness could have erupted from mindless matter,” Strobel says, “atheists are pinning their hopes on some as-yet-undetermined scientific discovery to justify their faith in physicalism. And some aren’t even so sure about that. Physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg said scientists may have to ‘bypass the problem of human consciousness’ altogether, because ‘it may just be too hard for us.’” In other words, Strobel says, “it’s failing to give them the answers they want.”
This is not just an academic philosophical debate. The consequences are grave. Eternal life issues not withstanding, if we accept the idea that there is no soul and humans are just balls of matter, then free will is an illusion (as Pinker explicitly states in his article) and right and wrong are meaningless terms. And life itself is ultimately meaningless, so the main objective becomes to stay as pain-free as possible for the few days of pointless existence you have on this rock. And the best way to do that is to alter your brain chemistry through drugs. So everyone ends up on Prozac and ideas like morality, duty and responsibility become forgotten artifacts of a time long past. Uh oh – too late.