Keeping Life Human: Science, Religion, and the Soul

By Leon R. Kass

Science cannot answer the most essential questions about the nature of man.

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If once Dr. Faustus had sold his soul to the Devil for the promise of success in his search for Truth, he now tried to annul the bargain by turning scientist and insisting that, in his role as a searcher for Truth, he had no soul. Yet the Devil was not to be cheated. When the hour came, he proved that this search, conducted behind the back of the soul, had led to a Truth that was Hell.
—Erich Heller, “Faust’s Damnation: The Morality of Knowledge”.1
Two old-timers, Max and Jake, spend every hour of their retirement imagining and debating what life is like in the world to come. Eager for the answer, they make a pledge that whoever goes first will somehow find a way to communicate the news to his surviving friend. After several years of such debates, Max dies, and Jake promptly takes up his post next to the phone. A day passes, a week, a month, six months—no Max. But just as Jake is beginning to despair—“perhaps there is no world to come”the phone rings:
“Hello, Jake? It’s Max!”
“Max, where in hell have you been? I’ve been worried sick.”
“I’m really sorry, Jake, but I had a devil of a time getting to a phone.”
“Well, never mind, Max, tell me, what’s it really like?”
“So I’ll tell ya. First of all, I get a good night’s sleep—eleven, twelve hours. I get up at sunrise, I stretch a little, I perform my ablutions, I take a walk, I eat a good breakfast. After breakfast, I relax a little, I take a constitutional, I admire the scenery—before you know it, it’s time for lunch. Lunch is delicious but very filling, so after lunch I take a little nap. I get up refreshed, I wander down to the lake, I take a little dip, I have a little sex, and—before you know it—it’s time for dinner. I have a little dinner, I take a little stroll, I enjoy the sunset, and then I sleep twelve hours.”
“Max, Max, it sounds like Miami. It sure don’t sound like heaven.”
“Heaven? Jake, who said heaven? I’m in Montana. I’m a buffalo.”
Keeping life human these days is no laughing matter. Among the contemporary challenges to our humanity, the deepest ones come from a most unlikely quarter: our wonderful and humane biomedical science and technology. The powers they are providing for altering the workings of our bodies and minds are already being used for purposes beyond therapy, and may soon be used to transform human nature itself. In our lifetime, the natural relations between sex and procreation, personal identity and embodiment, and human agency and human achievement have all been profoundly altered by new biomedical technologies. The pill. In vitro fertilization. Surrogate wombs. Cloning. Genetic engineering. Organ swapping. Mechanical spare parts. Performance-enhancing drugs. Computer implants into brains. Ritalin for the young, Viagra for the old, Prozac for everyone. Virtually unnoticed, the train to Huxley’s dehumanized brave new world has already left the station.
But beneath the weighty ethical concerns raised by these new biotechnologies—a subject for a different essay—lies a deeper philosophical challenge: one that threatens to fundamentally change how we think about who and what we are. Scientific ideas and discoveries about nature and man, perfectly welcome and harmless in themselves, are being enlisted to do battle against our traditional religious and moral teachings and even our self-understanding as creatures with freedom and dignity. A quasi-religious faith has sprung up among us—let me call it “soulless scientism”—which believes that our new biology, eliminating all mystery, can provide a complete account of human life, giving purely scientific explanations for human thought, love, creativity, moral judgment, and even why we believe in God. The threat to our humanity today comes not from the transmigration of souls in the next life but from the denial of soul in this one; not from turning men into buffaloes but from denying that there is any real difference between them.
Make no mistake. The stakes in this contest are high: At issue are the moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality of science, and our own self-understanding as human beings and as children of the West. All friends of human freedom and dignity—including even the atheists among us—must understand that their own humanity is on the line.
In this essay, I will offer an overview of the danger and suggest several ways of countering it: I will first describe the threats scientism poses both to human self-understanding and to ethics. I will then identify philosophical and religious resources available for meeting the challenge.

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. This article is a slightly modified version of the 2007 Wriston Lecture, delivered at the Manhattan Institute, New York City, on October 18, 2007.

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