Patricia Churchland doesn’t have a soul.
At least she believes she doesn’t. And she’s one of the world’s top neuroscientists, so who am I to argue?
What many people think of as their consciousness – and as their conscience – is nothing more than a series of circuits and chemicals in the brain, Churchland believes. Or at least that’s what the circuits and chemicals in her brain are having her believe she believes.
Churchland appeared on The Colbert Report earlier this year to promote her book Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain. When host Stephen Colbert asked if she’d ever read a certain book called The Bible, she replied, “Little bits and pieces.”
“You don’t really understand the world completely yet,” Colbert said.
Of course, Colbert was in his ultra-conservative Bible-thumping character and was going for the joke. But he is a devout Catholic in real life, so some of his “medulla oblon-gotchas” were probably sincere.
Churchland’s argument that there is no soul is based solely on the scientific observation that circuits and chemicals cause us to think and emote. But she has no way of proving an outside creator didn’t allow for the development of those circuits and chemicals, alling us to have a physical means in a physical world to do our thinking and emoting.
Think about it. Emote about it if you must.
Once you have done so, you might realize that a supposed “scientific conclusion” that there is no God doesn’t even follow the scientific method: It actually claims to have reached a final conclusion – a no-no – on a claim that cannot be empirically tested or falsified – more no-no’s – and is not based on controlled, repeated experiments. Yet another no-no.
Scientists of late have taken on an evangelistic zeal in fighting off what they perceive to be anti-science religionists. Some of their criticisms are well-founded. The young-earth creationist Ken Ham, for instance, isn’t doing any favors to the pro-God side of the debate when he says the universe was created in six 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago.
He also believes dinosaurs co-existed with humans.
So let’s put him aside. If you agree with him, you’ll always agree with him and there’s no point debating.
My concern lies more with those of a scientific bent who are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt there is nothing that exists if science itself cannot prove its existence.
That’s heresy. Not against religion, but science.
In a recent Salon.com article, author Greta Christina laid out four reasons she believes “intelligent design falls flat.” Despite the headline, Christina is not simply arguing against the idea that the universe was created by God, but against the possibility there is any higher being at all.
Christina makes compelling arguments for evolution, but not a single one against the existence of a divine being. It’s impossible to prove a negative. There is absolutely no way of knowing there isn’t a God standing outside of this existence.
She may well be right and there is no God. But she can no more prove it through scientific argument than Ken Ham can prove the age of the earth through theology.
Riddle Me This
What am I holding in my hand? I’ll give you three guesses.
Heck, I’ll give you three googolplexes of guesses. If I never open my hand, you’ll never know whether you guessed right.
It’s entirely possible that God could create a universe and leave no fingerprints. There’s no denying that. You might think such a higher being was mean or uncaring, but there’s no way to know for certain unless he opens his hand and shows you.
But no religion I know of thinks God is like that. Most believe he cares about something and has some sort of control over it. If so, Christina must have a valid point – that science completely rules out any possibility God has guided evolution on earth or the expansion of the universe.
Not necessarily. A few years ago I wrote an essay in which I attempted to harmonize predestination and free will.
It’s mostly irrelevant to this conversation except for the concept of counterfactual creations. A God could indeed consider all possible universes and choose to actualize only one – the one in which we live.
If this God has infinite knowledge, it is no problem for him to imagine every single possible universe then choose to actually create the one that he wants to happen. He’s essentially given all his creations free will, but he’s determined which of all his theoretical creations he is going to actually call into existence. In that sense, he has predetermined all their decisions.
In some of these potential universes, the laws of nature might have been radically different. Others might have been very much like our own, but life evolved completely differently, or not at all. The fact that God cared about who or what came into being and chose to bring the universe in which we live into existence shows what he cared about and what he wanted to happen.
In Christina’s essay, she argues that a wildly meandering path of evolution took endless side roads and left many of its children with useless parts. This, she believes, proves beyond doubt that God didn’t spark this whole engine.
I come from a theistic background that influences my ideas on just about everything. Therefore, I have no problem believing God exists. Admittedly, my belief isn’t provable by scientific methods.
Christina and Churchland come from secular backgrounds and are far more likely to be skeptical of God’s existence. As philosophers and pundits with a strong interest in the sciences, that’s where their strength lies.
My problem is when such philosophers attempt to say science supersedes theology. That’s like trying to measure IQ with a yardstick.
Even the “world’s best-known atheist” Richard Dawkins actually calls himself an agnostic, saying he can’t know beyond certainty that no God exists.
Dawkins lays out a 7-point scale of theism to atheism with 1 being 100 percent certain there is a God and 7 being 100 percent certain there isn’t. Dawkins says he is 6.9 on that scale. I’m on the other end at about a 1.1.
I haven’t heard Churchland and Christina rank themselves on Dawkins’ scale, but Churchland certainly implies she is beyond doubt that there is no human soul.
With all due respect, this isn’t her area of expertise. She deals with physical reality, and it’s been 100 years since anyone suggested that the soul is part of the physical world.
The soul, rather, is a theological point of argument. Discussion of the soul should be left in the hands of theologians and theistic philosophers – even armchair ones.
To say science trumps theology is as ridiculous as it is to say the opposite. Or that orange juice trumps a Corvette.
If scientists – or better put, those who idolize them – can use their expertise to say there is no soul or no God, then theologians should be allowed to weigh in on superstring theory.
I’m a person who loves science and theology, but as a two-time college dropout – once from a public university and once from a Bible college – I don’t claim any expertise in either field. But I do love reading about both because the subjects give me a sense of awe and wonder about how this whole thing ticks.
But the attempt by those who place science over any other ways humans have sought to seek out truth is a cultural appropriation of persons of faith.
It makes me wonder if they aren’t jealous of something.