Keeping Life Human: Science, Religion, and the Soul

By Leon R. Kass

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

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.
We need first to distinguish the grandiose faith of contemporary scientism from modern science as such, which began as a more modest venture. Although the founders of modern science sought certain knowledge useful for life, to be gained using new concepts and methods, they understood that science would never offer complete and absolute knowledge of the whole of human life—for example, of thought, feeling, morality, or faith. They understood, as we tend to forget, that the rationality of science is but a partial and highly specialized rationality, concocted for the purpose of gaining only that kind of knowledge for which it was devised, and applicable to only those aspects of the world that can be captured by science’s abstract notions. The peculiar reason of science is not, nor was meant to be, the natural reason of everyday life and human experience. Neither is it the reason of philosophy or religious thought.
Thus, science does not seek to know beings or their natures, but only the regularities of the changes that they undergo. Science seeks to know only how things work, not what things are and why. Science gives the histories of things, but not their aspirations or purposes. Science quantifies selected external relations of one object to another, but it can say nothing at all about their inner states of being, not only for human beings but for any living creature. Science can often predict what will happen if certain perturbations occur, but it eschews explanations in terms of causes, especially of ultimate causes.
In short, our remarkable science of nature has made enormous progress precisely because of its decision to ignore the larger, perennial questions about being, cause, purpose, inwardness, hierarchy, and the goodness or badness of things—questions that science happily gave over to philosophy, poetry, and religion.
Thus, in cosmology, for example, we have made wonderful progress by characterizing the temporal beginnings of the universe in terms of a “big bang” and by making elaborate calculations to describe what happened next. But science preserves complete silence regarding the status quo ante and the ultimate cause. Unlike a normally curious child, cosmologists do not ask, “What was before the big bang?” or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” because the answer must be an exasperated “God only knows!”
In genetics, we have the complete DNA sequences of several organisms, including man, and we are rapidly learning what many of these genes “do.” But this analytic approach cannot tell us how the life of a buffalo differs from that of a butterfly, or even what accounts for the special unity and active wholeness of butterflies or buffaloes, or the purposive efforts they make to preserve their own specific integrity.
In neurophysiology, we know an enormous amount about the processing of visual stimuli, their transformation into electrochemical signals, and the mechanisms for transmitting these signals to the brain. But sight itself we know not through science but only from the inside, and only because we are not blind. 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 soulhence, they are not objects of knowledge for a materialist science.

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