Keeping Life Human: Science, Religion, and the Soul

By Leon R. Kass

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

Among many biologists today, these important limitations of science are largely forgotten, as is the modesty that they should induce. Instead, the bioprophets of scientism, exploiting powerful ideas from genetics, developmental biology, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology, issue bold challenges to traditional understandings of human nature, human life, and human dignity.
Already Darwinism, in its original version 150 years ago, appeared to challenge our special standing: How could any being descended from sub-human origins, rather than created directly by the hand of God, claim to be a higher animal, never mind a godlike one? Indeed, orthodox evolutionary theory even denies that animals should be called “higher” or “lower,” rather than just more or less complex: Since all animals are ultimately in the same businessindividual survival, for the sake of perpetuating their genesthe apparent differences among them are, at bottom, merely more or less complicated ways of getting the same job done.
 These new materialistic explanations of vital, even psychic events leave no room for soul, understood as life’s animating principle. Genes are said to determine temperament and character. Mechanistic accounts of brain functions seem to do away with the need to speak of human freedom and purposiveness. Brain imaging studies claim to explain how we make moral judgments. A fully exterior account of our behavior—the grail of neuroscience—diminishes the significance of our felt inwardness. Feeling, passion, awareness, imagination, desire, love, hate, and thought are, scientifically speaking, merely “brain events.” There are even reports of a “God module” in the brain, whose activity is thought to explain religious or mystical experiences.
Never mind “created in the image of God”: What elevated, humanistic view of human life or human goodness is defensible against the belief, trumpeted by biology’s most public and prophetic voices, that man is just a collection of molecules, an accident on the stage of evolution, a freakish speck of mind in a mindless universe, fundamentally no different from any other living thing? What chance have our treasured ideas of freedom and dignity against the reductive notion of “the selfish gene,” or the belief that DNA is the essence of life, or the teaching that all human behavior and our rich inner life are rendered intelligible only in terms of neurochemistry and their contributions to reproductive success?
Many of our leading scientists and intellectuals, truth to tell, are eager to dethrone traditional understandings of man’s special place in the whole and use every available opportunity to do battle. For example, consider how the luminaries of the International Academy of Humanism—including biologists Francis Crick and Edward O. Wilson, and humanists Isaiah Berlin and Kurt Vonnegut—chose to defend human cloning:
What moral issues would human cloning raise? Some world religions teach that human beings are fundamentally different from other mammals—that humans have been imbued by a deity with immortal souls, giving them a value that cannot be compared to that of other living things. Human nature is held to be unique and sacred. Scientific advances which pose a perceived risk of altering this “nature” are angrily opposed…. As far as the scientific enterprise can determine, [however]… [h]uman capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind, from those found among the higher animals. Humanity’s rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and hopes seems to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul that operates in ways no instrument can discover…. Views of human nature rooted in humanity’s tribal past ought not to be our primary criterion for making moral decisions about cloning…. The potential benefits of cloning may be so immense that it would be a tragedy if ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning.2
In order to justify ongoing research, these “humanists” are willing to shed not only traditional religious views but any concept of human distinctiveness and special dignity, their own included. They fail to see that the scientific view of man which they celebrate does more than insult our vanity. It undermines our self-conception as free, thoughtful, and responsible beings, worthy of respect because we alone among the animals have minds and hearts that aim far higher than the mere perpetuation of our genes.
The problem, to repeat, lies not so much with the scientific findings themselves but with the shallow philosophy that recognizes no truths but these. Here, for example, is evolutionary psychologist and science popularizer Steven Pinker railing against any appeal to the human soul:
Unfortunately for that theory, brain science has shown that the mind is what the brain does. The supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals, turned on or off by electricity, and extinguished by a sharp blow or a lack of oxygen. Centuries ago it was unwise to ground morality on the dogma that the earth sat at the center of the universe. It is just as unwise today to ground it on dogmas about souls endowed by God.3
Without irony, Pinker, a psychologist, denies the existence of the psyche. Yet he is ignorant of the fact that “soul” need not be conceived as a “ghost in the machine” or as a separate “thing” that survives the body, but can be understood instead as the integrated powers of the naturally organic body—the ground and source of awareness, appetite, and action. He does not understand that the vital powers of an organism do not reside in its constituting materials as such but emerge only when those materials are formed and organized in a particular way; he does not understand that the empowering organization of materials—the vital form or soul—is not itself material.
There is, of course, nothing novel about reductionism, materialism, and determinism of the kind displayed here; these are doctrines with which Socrates contended long ago. What is new is that these philosophies seem to be vindicated by scientific advance. Here, in consequence, would be the most pernicious possible result of the new biology—more dehumanizing than any actual technological manipulation, present or future: the erosion, perhaps the final erosion, of the idea of man as noble, dignified, precious, or godlike, and its replacement with a view of man, no less than of nature, as mere raw material for manipulation and homogenization.
The new scientism not only banishes soul from its account of life. It also neglects the ethical and spiritual aspects of the human animal. For we alone among the animals go in for ethicizing, in concerning ourselves with how to live. We alone among the animals ask not only, “What can I know?” but also “What ought I do?” and “What may I hope?” Science, notwithstanding its great gifts to human life in the form of greater comfort and safety, is utterly unhelpful in satisfying these great longings of the human soul.
Science, by design, is notoriously morally neutral. It is silent regarding the distinction between better and worse, right and wrong, the noble and the base. Although scientists hope the uses that will be made of their findings will be, as Francis Bacon prophesied, governed in charity, science can do nothing to insure that result. It can offer no standards to guide the use of the awesome powers it places in human hands. Though it seeks universal knowledge, it has no answer to moral relativism. It knows not what charity is, what charity requires, or even whether and why it is good. What, then, will remain for us, morally and spiritually, should soulless scientism succeed in its efforts to overthrow our traditional religions, our inherited views of human life, and the moral teachings that depend on them?
Nowhere will this deficiency be more readily felt than with regard to the proposed uses of biotechnical power for purposes beyond the cure of disease and the relief of suffering. We are promised better children, superior performance, ageless bodies, and happy souls—all with the help of the biotechnologies of “enhancement.”4 The bioprophets tell us that we are en route to a new stage of evolution, to the creation of a post-human society, a society based on science and built by technology, a society in which traditional teachings about human nature will be passי and religious teachings about how to live will be irrelevant.

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