A Truer Humanism

By Leon R. Kass

Science gives us many gifts, but it cannot keep us from losing our souls in the bargain.

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rof. David Heyd’s response to my essay is serious and substantive. It thus deserves a serious and substantive reply, despite the fact that Prof. Heyd is rather careless in representing my stated views and more than careless in attributing to me opinions I neither expressed nor hold. These errors to the side, there is one large issue between us, the central theme of my essay and the one that prompted him to write: how to understand our humanity, especially in an age of science and scientism. Before turning to this question, I must briefly correct a number of errors, lest silence be taken for acquiescence.
My AZURE article was the text of a thirty-minute public lecture, in which I compressed materials and arguments more fully expressed elsewhere.1 Ambitious in scope, it necessarily dealt but lightly with several large themes, offering in outline an argument begging for more expansive treatment. Still, that argument as given was orderly and tight, and I frankly had to reread the essay, so little did I recognize my thought in Prof. Heyd’s (mis-)characterization of it. My essay was, quite explicitly, not about novel biotechnologies or the ethical issues they raise. Neither was it an attack on science or scientists, nor did I even hint at a call to ban any scientific research (I oppose such calls) or even a single technological practice. (Full disclosure: I have elsewhere called for one—and only one—legislative ban, on the cloning of human beings; and I also favor retaining our current laws that prohibit euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. In large cultural matters, I believe in education and persuasion, not in legislation and prohibition.)
My essay was, instead, devoted to a critique not of science but of “scientism,” a quasi-religious faith proclaimed by a growing array of bio-prophets who insist that genetics, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology can offer a complete, purely scientific account of human life (our moral preferences and religious beliefs included), and who explicitly seek to overturn traditional religious and moral teachings and even our self-understanding as creatures with freedom and dignity. I do not “dread” this point of view; I repudiate it as false. While clearly noting my esteem for the findings of these exciting new sciences, I argued that the knowledge they provide must always be partial and incomplete, owing to science’s conceptual limitations. No science of human life can do justice to its subject if it refuses even to inquire into the nature, character, and meaning of our “aliveness,” with its special inwardness, awareness, desires, purposiveness, attachments, and activities of thought, while nonetheless believing that it has “explained” these richnesses of soul by reducing them to the electrochemical events of the brain. I pointed out the moral poverty of scientistic thinking and its failure to speak to the deepest human questions: “What ought I do?” “What may I hope?” Against the shallow teachings of scientism, I pointed to corrective philosophical and biblical teachings about our humanity, constituting an enduring wisdom that neither threatens science nor is undermined by science’s discoveries, if they are rightly regarded.

No friend of scientism himself, Prof. Heyd underestimates—if he does not altogether deny—its rise and its challenges to human self-understanding. Perhaps because he associates with and pays more attention to philosophers rather than molecular biologists and neuroscientists, he chooses to ignore the concrete examples of scientistic thinking I cited in my article (and I could cite many others, including the writings of scientists Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Michael Gazzaniga, Ray Kurzweil, Jacques Monod, Stephen Pinker, Lee Silver, Gregory Stock, James D. Watson, E.O. Wilson, and a wide range of so-called “transhumanists” and “immortalists”). Perhaps because he himself does not appear to share their materialist prejudices or their belief that man does not differ decisively from other animals, Prof. Heyd underestimates the intellectual and cultural challenge that this way of thinking poses for our contemporaries, especially for impressionable and illiberally educated students who have been taught to believe that science offers the whole truth about whatever phenomena it studies. Yet Prof. Heyd offers an equally “soulless” account of human life. Despite his lack of sympathy for reductionism, he appears to join the scientists in their refusal to countenance any notion of “soul” (or anima or psyche) as an explanatory principle in biology. By “soul” (as relevant for biology and psychology) I mean not some immaterial ghost in the animal machine, or some separable entity, infused by God, that leaves the body after death; I mean, rather, the soul as the empowering organization (or “vital form”) of the body’s materials, the integrated capacities and activities it makes possible, and the meaningful “in-formation” that it manifests in its active being and that it receives from and conveys to the outside world.
A notion of “soul” is needed in biology—and not just in human biology—not only to bridge the gap between our science of the objectified body or brain and our subjective experience (what things “feel” like to us). It is needed also for addressing and explaining the nature of vital activity itself. As I pointed out, “the eyeball and the brain are material objects, they take up space and can be held in the hand; but neither the capacities of sight and intellect nor the activities of seeing and thinking take up space or can be held. Although absolutely dependent on material conditions, they are, in their essence, immaterial: they are capacities and activities of soul—hence, they are not objects of knowledge for a materialist science.” All the fundamental features of life—“information,” “development,” “awareness,” “appetite,” “striving,” and “action”—are not truly explicable, not only in their being but also in our coming to know them in terms of the actions of genes or electrochemical brain events. We know them, as we know any idea, only by acts of mind, receiving and grasping the immaterial units of intelligibility that, mirabile dictu, hitch a ride to audible sounds or visible symbols—like those you see when reading (that is, seeing through them) on this page. While our brains are surely involved in the processing of these sounds and symbols, the immaterial meanings are not mere by-products of material events, but, in many cases, their cause. How else to explain that a verbal insult can make the blood boil—if, and only if, its insulting meaning is understood? Even if you believe that the brain resembles a hard-wired computer, you must acknowledge that it is activated and ruled by the meanings of its software.
The human animal is constituted to be at once a source of its self-directed motion, beginning with metabolism and culminating in action; a source of awareness (sensation and intellection); and a source of appetite and aspiration (hunger and eros). What accounts for the unity of these vital and integrated powers of action, awareness, and appetite, and our capacity to (partially) direct them through knowledge and choice? On principle, our molecular genetics and neuroscience have no interest in this question. A more natural science, truer to life as lived, would not be so neglectful. Readers interested in how it might be pursued should have a look at my book The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature.


Leon R. Kass, M.D., is the Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

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