Monday, July 2, 2007

Reflections on the Body, Soul, and Spirit

Hello comrads in the great and mighty battle!

Trust all is going well for you. I'm still out here in Quincy at the Science and Theology Conference. I'm starting to really ache for my family and friends, but I'm also loving the academic camaraderie and am having a good bit of fun with some of the folks. There's this guy out here named Dean Zimmerman who is just a riot! He's got a monster brain and is well known in philosophical circles for his work on metaphysics. But he also loves to kick back and have a blast. Among other things, we've spent several nights watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- which, by he way, I'm starting to really like. Hilarious.

Anyways, today (Monday) we heard from Dr. Warren Brown, Professor of Experimental Neuropsychology at Fuller Seminary. He's the author of the book Whatever Happened to the Soul?, and recently co-authored a book with Nancey Murphy entitled Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?

The bulk of his presentation consisted of a very interesting and in-depth look at how various parts of our brain are activated when we recognize faces, ponder possibilities, make ethical decisions, have religious experiences, solve mental problems, etc. If these parts get damaged, a person's ability to engage in these activities is diminished, or completely extinguished. Warren gave examples of people who, as a result of a brain injury, went from being very moral people to extremely immoral people. (Good luck to God sorting THAT one out on the judgment day!)

Warren also gave some very interesting data showing that we humans aren't nearly as rational or free as we might think. Our frontal lobe, which is in charge of our conscious reasoning, lags behind other parts of our brain that are already responding to our environment by the time we're aware of it and thinking about it. So, in many respects, our reasoning and conscious decision-making activity is more of a "caboose" than it is the driving "engine" of the train we call our self.

Also, Warren gave an interesting argument for viewing "mind" and "free will" as an emergent property from the complex dynamic system that is our brain. He believes in free will (within limits), but denies that humans have a "soul" or "mind" that exists as a separate entity. In other words, he's NOT a dualist (one who believes humans are comprised of two fundamentally different realities -- a physical body and a non-physical soul).

Much of our discussion afterwards was on this topic. I and others had trouble seeing how genuine freedom can be an emergent property of a system that is otherwise deterministic. One could easily explain THE EXPERIENCE of freedom as an emergent property, but not freedom itself. In this case, we FEEL free, but actually we're determined.

Warren's response was simply to insist - a number of times -- that dynamical systems are capable of producing emergent properties that none of the components have. The sum is more than the parts. This is a non-controversial point in and of itself, but I and others think it's being stretched too far in the attempt to explain freedom.

So far as I can see, Warren's position really amounts to a) simply observing how the brain works b) observing that we experience ourselves as free, and c) concluding that freedom is an emergent property of how the brain works. But this isn't really an EXPLANATION. It's just a CLAIM. And it’s a claim that goes beyond the scientific evidence. Scientifically, it seems to me, Warren should simply conclude that the EXPERIENCE of freedom is an emergent property of the brain, not that we are IN FACT free.

For my two cents, I'd argue that "mind" and "soul" IS an emergent property of the brain, just as Warren does, and for all the reasons Warren does. But I don't think this exhausts what a human self is, for I would argue (see below) that humans are also "spirit." While our conscious experience of freedom is clearly rooted in the brain (as an emergent property), I think the REALITY of freedom is more fundamentally rooted in our essence, which is spirit.

The four best arguments I'd offer in favor of this view would be (in VERY succinct form):

1. The Bible suggests humans are more that psychical processes. We are body and soul, and, in several cases, body, soul, and SPIRIT (I Thess. 5:23; Heb. 4:12). See Boyd & Larson, Escaping the Matrix, for more on this.

2. For theists, we already believe in "spirit" since we believe in God. What objection could there then be to believing God created humans as spirit as well as physical beings?

3. As I argued above, I don’t' see how we can adequately account for the REALITY (not just the experience) of freedom without appealing to something that transcends physical processes. (And note, appealing to quantum indeterminacy at this point doesn't help, for quantum indeterminacy is no closer to our experience of freedom than determinacy is).

4. Finally, there is a growing body of impressive documentation of people who have had "out of the body" experiences (usually "near death experiences") through which they acquired information they could not have acquired by natural, physical means. This strongly suggests, and perhaps conclusively proves, that something conscious and non-physical survives the cessation of brain activity.

That's all for now. Keep thinking, growing and loving!