Creating your own character

July 3, 2007

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into either a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to one state of the other.

CS Lewis, Mere Christianity


Is there a problem with the Ten Commandments?

July 2, 2007

‘The Ten Commandments, accepted by adherents of a variety of religions, also have their limitations. Consider the Second Commandment, which, after prohibiting the making or serving of sculptured images, goes on to say, “For I the LORD you God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep my commandments.” But to punish one person for the moral lapses of another isn unethical, as is rewarding a person for the good deeds done by another. This point is made emphatically by the prophet Ezekiel, who declared: “A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent the burden of a parent’s guilt, the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone.” Incidentally, Ezekiel’s principles rule out the possibility that anyone, including God, could act in such a way as to absolve us of responsibility for our failings. Only we as individuals can atone for our errors.

The Fifth Commandment instructs individuals to honor their father and mother. Suppose, however, parents break the Second Commandment by making and worshipping sculptured image. Or perhaps they break some of the remaining commmandments by coveting a neighbour’s property, bearing false witness, stealing, engaging inadultery, or even commiting murder. Although they might still merit their child’s concern, parents who acted in such ways would not deserve to be honored.

 Two of the commandments take slavery for granted. The Fourth, which requires individuals to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, prohibits work at that time by “you, your son and daughter, your male or female slave.” The Tenth prohibits coveting anything that belongs to aneighbor, including his “wife, or his male or female slave.” Slavery we all now agree is immoral, yet the Ten Commandments treat it as an acceptable practice.

A further problem is that the commandments are stated as if they allowed no exceptions. Yet under certain circumstances, not to break a commandment would be widely regarded as unethical. For example, if a young girl’s life depended on her mother’s stealing a small amount of money from a wealthy, immoral person, most of us would view the theft favorably.

Not only do certain circumstances call for making exceptions to the commandments, but situatins can develop in which fulfilling one commandment would amount to breaking another. If, for instance, a man had to work on the Sabbath in order to take his critically ill father to the hospital, the commandment to honor one’s father and mother would take precedence over the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. The commandments have exceptions, but do not themselves provide any guidance for when or how to make such exceptions. Thus regardless of claims of their divine origin and despite their moral worth, the Ten Commandments fall short as an ultimate guide to morality.’

Steven M. Cahn, “Life without God,” God, Reason and Religion,  72-73



July 2, 2007

He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much;

who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;

who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;

who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;

who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it;

who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had;

whose life was an inspiration;

whose memory a benediction.

Bessie Stanley, 1905


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.




June 29, 2007

“It’s a bad thing not to be able to stand solitude,” he said. “Are you really a grown-up young lady?” 

“Of course I am,” I replied, laughingly. 

“Well, it’s a poor sort of young lady who’s only alive when people are admiring her but soon as she’s alone lets herself go and takes no interest in anything: all for show and nothing for its own sake.”


do it again… and again

June 28, 2007

“(God) is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” G K Chesterton


“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.”

June 28, 2007

excerpt from Nature, editorial, vol 447, issue 7146.

“The vast majority of scientists, and the majority of religious people, see little potential for pleasure or progress in the conflicts between religion and science that are regularly fanned into flame by a relatively small number on both sides of the debate. Many scientists are religious, and perceive no conflict between the values of their science — values that insist on disinterested, objective inquiry into the nature of the Universe — and those of their faith.

But there are lines that should not be crossed, and in a recent defence of his beliefs and disbeliefs in the matter of evolution, US Senator Sam Brownback (Republican, Kansas) crosses at least one. Senator Brownback was one of three Republican presidential candidates who, in a recent debate, described himself as not believing in evolution. He sought to explain his position with greater nuance in a 31 May article in The New York Times, in which he wrote: “Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as atheistic theology posing as science.”

Humans evolved, body and mind, from earlier primates. The ways in which humans think reflect this heritage as surely as the ways in which their limbs are articulated, their immune systems attack viruses and the cones in their eyes process coloured light. This applies not just to the way in which our neurons fire, but also to various aspects of our moral thought, as we report this week in a News Feature on the moral connotations of disgust (see page 768). The way that disgust functions in our lives and shapes our moral decisions reflects not just cultural training, but also biological evolution. Current theorizing on this topic, although fascinating, may be wide of the mark. But its basis in the idea that human minds are the product of evolution is not atheistic theology. It is unassailable fact.

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.

In Brownback’s defence, it should be acknowledged that these are deep waters. It is fairly easy to accept the truth of evolution when it applies to the external world — the adaptation of the orchid to wasps, for example, or the speed of the cheetah. It is much harder to accept it internally — to accept that our feelings, intuitions, the ways in which we love and loathe, are the product of experience, evolution and culture alone. And such acceptance has challenges for the unbeliever, too. Moral philosophers often put great store by their rejection of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’, the belief that because something is a particular way, it ought to be that way. Now we learn that untutored beliefs about ‘what ought to be’ do, in fact, reflect an ‘is’: the state of the human mind as an evolved entity. Accepting this represents a challenge that few as yet have really grappled with.

It remains uncertain how the new sciences of human behaviour emerging at the intersections of anthropology, evolutionary biology and neuropsychology can best be navigated. But that does not justify their denunciation on the basis of religious faith alone. Scientific theories of human nature may be discomforting or unsatisfying, but they are not illegitimate. And serious attempts to frame them will reflect the origins of the human mind in biological and cultural evolution, without reference to a divine creation.”