Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force

June 30, 2007


Published: June 26, 2007

In 1950, in a letter to bishops, Pope Pius XII took up the issue of evolution. The Roman Catholic Church does not necessarily object to the study of evolution as far as it relates to physical traits, he wrote in the encyclical, Humani Generis. But he added, “Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.”

Pope John Paul II made much the same point in 1996, in a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an advisory group to the Vatican. Although he noted that in the intervening years evolution had become “more than a hypothesis,” he added that considering the mind as emerging merely from physical phenomena was “incompatible with the truth about man.”

But as evolutionary biologists and cognitive neuroscientists peer ever deeper into the brain, they are discovering more and more genes, brain structures and other physical correlates to feelings like empathy, disgust and joy. That is, they are discovering physical bases for the feelings from which moral sense emerges — not just in people but in other animals as well.

The result is perhaps the strongest challenge yet to the worldview summed up by Descartes, the 17th-century philosopher who divided the creatures of the world between humanity and everything else. As biologists turn up evidence that animals can exhibit emotions and patterns of cognition once thought of as strictly human, Descartes’s dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” loses its force.

For many scientists, the evidence that moral reasoning is a result of physical traits that evolve along with everything else is just more evidence against the existence of the soul, or of a God to imbue humans with souls. For many believers, particularly in the United States, the findings show the error, even wickedness, of viewing the world in strictly material terms. And they provide for theologians a growing impetus to reconcile the existence of the soul with the growing evidence that humans are not, physically or even mentally, in a class by themselves.

The idea that human minds are the product of evolution is “unassailable fact,” the journal Nature said this month in an editorial on new findings on the physical basis of moral thought. A headline on the editorial drove the point home: “With all deference to the sensibilities of religious people, the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside.”

Or as V. S. Ramachandran, a brain scientist at the University of California, San Diego, put it in an interview, there may be soul in the sense of “the universal spirit of the cosmos,” but the soul as it is usually spoken of, “an immaterial spirit that occupies individual brains and that only evolved in humans — all that is complete nonsense.” Belief in that kind of soul “is basically superstition,” he said.

For people like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, talk of the soul is of a piece with the rest of the palaver of religious faith, which he has likened to a disease. And among evolutionary psychologists, religious faith is nothing but an evolutionary artifact, a predilection that evolved because shared belief increased group solidarity and other traits that contribute to survival and reproduction.

Nevertheless, the idea of a divinely inspired soul will not be put aside. To cite just one example, when 10 Republican presidential candidates were asked at a debate last month if there was anyone among them who did not believe in evolution, 3 raised their hands. One of them, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, explained later in an op-ed article in this newspaper that he did not reject all evolutionary theory. But he added, “Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order.”

That is the nub of the issue, according to Nancey Murphy, a philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary who has written widely on science, religion and the soul. Challenges to the uniqueness of humanity in creation are just as alarming as the Copernican assertion that Earth is not the center of the universe, she writes in her book “Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies?” (Cambridge, 2006). Just as Copernicus knocked Earth off its celestial pedestal, she said, the new findings on cognition have displaced people from their “strategic location” in creation.

Another theologian who has written widely on the issue, John F. Haught of Georgetown University, said in an interview that “for many Americans the only way to preserve the discontinuity that’s implied in the notion of a soul, a distinct soul, is to deny evolution,” which he said was “unfortunate.”

There is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on earth.

For Dr. Murphy and Dr. Haught, though, people make a mistake when they assume that people can be “ensouled” only if other creatures are soulless.

“Evolutionary biology shows the transition from animal to human to be too gradual to make sense of the idea that we humans have souls while animals do not,” wrote Dr. Murphy, an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. “All the human capacities once attributed to the mind or soul are now being fruitfully studied as brain processes — or, more accurately, I should say, processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems, all interacting with the socio-cultural world.”

Therefore, she writes, it is “faulty” reasoning to want to distinguish people from the rest of creation. She and Dr. Haught cite the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century philosopher and theologian who, Dr. Haught said, “spoke of a vegetative and animal soul along with the human soul.”

Dr. Haught, who testified for the American Civil Liberties Union when it successfully challenged the teaching of intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism, in the science classrooms of Dover, Pa., said, “The way I look at it, instead of eliminating the notion of a human soul in order to make us humans fit seamlessly into the rest of nature, it’s wiser to recognize that there is something analogous to soul in all living beings.”

Does this mean, say, that Australopithecus afarensis, the proto-human famously exemplified by the fossil skeleton known as Lucy, had a soul? He paused and then said: “I think so, yes. I think all of our hominid ancestors were ensouled in some way, but that does not rule out the possibility that as evolution continues, the shape of the soul can vary just as it does from individual to individual.”Will this idea catch on? “It’s not something you hear in the suburban pulpit,” said Dr. Haught, a Roman Catholic whose book “God After Darwin” (Westview Press, 2000) is being reissued this year. “This is out of vogue in the modern world because the philosopher Descartes made such a distinction between mind and matter. He placed the whole animal world on the side of matter, which is essentially mindless.”

Dr. Haught said it could be difficult to discuss the soul and evolution because it was one of many issues in which philosophical thinking was not keeping up with fast-moving science. “The theology itself is still in process,” he said.

For scientists who are people of faith, like Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist at Brown University, asking about the science of the soul is pointless, in a way, because it is not a subject science can address. “It is not physical and investigateable in the world of science,” he said.

“Everything we know about the biological sciences says that life is a phenomenon of physics and chemistry, and therefore the notion of some sort of spirit to animate it and give the flesh a life really doesn’t fit with modern science,” said Dr. Miller, a Roman Catholic whose book, “Finding Darwin’s God” (Harper, 1999) explains his reconciliation of the theory of evolution with religious faith. “However, if you regard the soul as something else, as you might, say, the spiritual reflection of your individuality as a human being, then the theology of the soul it seems to me is on firm ground.”

Dr. Miller, who also testified in the Dover case, said he spoke often at college campuses and elsewhere and was regularly asked, “What do you say as a scientist about the soul?” His answer, he said, is always the same: “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.”



Correction: June 29, 2007

An article in Science Times on Tuesday about evolution and the soul misstated the views that Nancey Murphy, a philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary, expresses in her book “Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?” Dr. Murphy argues that neither humans nor animals have souls, not that both have souls. She cited the ideas of Thomas Aquinas on animal and human souls to contrast with her view, not to support it.




  1. Thanks for the article, Pony. It raises an interesting point that is also very important- that regarding the soul- so i guess your position is that soul is God’s creation and leaves open the present homosapien structure and faculties as evolved? Hmm I am sympathetic to this view – but the problem i guess is that the Bible specifically says that God created man direct and not from primates. I guess maybe we can go for micro-evolution (say the gradual disappearance of the tail-bone) but not macro ones. (In fact, even for micro, i may also have my reservation- say the appendix for example.)

    Hmm consider Gen 2:7:
    And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

    I think both body and soul are God’s creation. 🙂

  2. Something just struck me. Consider Gen 1:26:

    And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness

    If we are really evolved from apes, does that mean God looks like ape and that we wants to be more God-like, we have to ape the apes? 🙂

  3. i understand the argument to be:

    (1) Humans are made in the image of God
    (2) Humans evolved from apes
    (3) If humans evolved from apes, then the image of God is ape-likeness.

    even if (1) and (2) are true, why should we accept (3)? could you say a bit about that?

    this argument seems similar to the following passage from the Nature editorial:

    “This does not utterly invalidate the idea that the human mind is, as Senator Brownback would have it, a reflection of the mind of God. But the suggestion that any entity capable of creating the Universe has a mind encumbered with the same emotional structures and perceptual framework as that of an upright ape adapted to living in small, intensely social peer-groups on the African savannah seems a priori unlikely.”

  4. Quoting the signature of the Great Ola,

    “Let me put it this way”:

    Consider Gen 1:26:

    And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness

    (1) The first man is created in the image of God. (according to the Bible)

    (2) The first man is ape-like. (given evolution theory)

    (3) Therefore God is ape-like. (Bible+evolution)

    Does the rephrasing make a difference? 🙂

  5. well…

    do you think the following is true:

    (1) Humans are created in the image of God
    (2) Humans have physical bodies.
    (3) Therefore, God has a physical body.

    the reasoning is similar to the claim about ape-likeness:

    a) Let a property humans have be P.
    b) Since humans are made in the image of God, then if humans have P, then God has P.
    c) Humans have P.
    d) Therefore God has P.

    does this seem plausible to you?

  6. Hmm interesting, lets build on P… just thinking aloud….
    Consider Gen 1:26a:And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness
    If P is “our likeness,” what could be included in P?

    1. Disposition? cant be, cos of original sin

    2. Dominion? seems likely, cos the rest of Gen 1:26 seems to suggest that:
    And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth
    Though the “and” after “likeness” seems to suggest that the front clause and second clause is unrelated.

    3. Physical resemblance? possible:
    Consider Gen 1:27:
    So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
    See “God” and “him” vs “male and female” vs “them.” I wont go for “likeness” understood as gender- i think it could be physical image.

    4 possessing soul/ mind? hard to reconcile the likeness between infinite mind and finite mind. So we have to settle for souls?- Are we then playing with the possibility that early ape-like man have souls? – That really depends on how evolved must man be to be considered conscious/ sentient enough to possess a soul…. hmm…

  7. hmm… i don’t find (a) – (d) plausible as (b) is highly questionable. i understand humans being made in the image of God as, roughly, their resembling God in certain respects. I believe these to include rationality and freedom. But resemblance is not the same as equivalence: God’s rationality and freedom far surpasses ours but that does not stop us from possessing some measure of His nature and thereby resembling Him.

    on another note, even if humans are evolved from apes, it is not clear to me why our resemblance to God has anything to do with the apes’ resemblance to God. the claim of resemblance concerns only humans and not apes, so how did the part about evolution and our ape ancestors come in? hmm…

    concerning point 3, i’m wondering how physical image fits in with the view that God is spirit. How could a spirit and embodied beings be alike in terms of physical image? could you clarify this point – thanks!

  8. So image= likeness! Good point Jason. Thank you!

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