[Paleopsych] NYT: The Duel Between Body and Soul

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sun Sep 12 15:30:33 UTC 2004

The Duel Between Body and Soul
NYT Op-Ed September 10, 2004

New Haven - What people think about many of the big issues
that will be discussed in the next two months - like gay
marriage, stem-cell research and the role of religion in
public life - is intimately related to their views on human
nature. And while there may be differences between
Republicans and Democrats, one fundamental assumption is
accepted by almost everyone. This would be reassuring - if
science didn't tell us that this assumption is mistaken.

People see bodies and souls as separate; we are
common-sense dualists. The President's Council on Bioethics
expressed this belief system with considerable eloquence in
its December 2003 report "Being Human'': "We have both
corporeal and noncorporeal aspects. We are embodied spirits
and inspirited bodies (or, if you will, embodied minds and
minded bodies)."

Our dualism makes it possible for us to appreciate stories
where people are liberated from their bodies. In the movie
"13 Going on 30,'' a teenager wakes up as Jennifer Garner,
just as a 12-year-old was once transformed into Tom Hanks
in "Big.'' Characters can trade bodies, as in "Freaky
Friday,'' or battle for control of a single body, as when
Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin fight it out in "All of Me.''

Body-hopping is not a Hollywood invention. Franz Kafka
tells of a man who wakes up one morning as a gigantic
insect. Homer, writing hundreds of years before the birth
of Christ, describes how the companions of Odysseus were
transformed into pigs - but their minds were unchanged, and
so they wept. Children easily understand stories in which
the frog becomes a prince or a villain takes control of a
superhero's body.

In fact, most people think that a far more radical
transformation actually takes place; they believe that the
soul can survive the complete destruction of the body. The
soul's eventual fate varies; most Americans believe it
ascends to heaven or descends into hell, while people from
other cultures believe that it enters a parallel spirit
world, or occupies some other body, human or animal.

Our dualist perspective also frames how we think about the
issues that are most central to our lives. It is no
accident that a bioethics committee is talking about
spirits. When people wonder about the moral status of
animals or fetuses or stem cells, for instance, they often
ask: Does it have a soul? If the answer is yes, then it is
a precious individual, deserving of compassion and care.

In the case of abortion, our common-sense dualism can
support either side of the issue. We use phrases like "my
body" and "my brain," describing our bodies and body parts
as if they were possessions. Some people insist that all of
us - including pregnant women - own our bodies, and
therefore can use them as we wish. To others, the organism
residing inside a pregnant body has a soul of its own,
possibly from the moment of conception, and would thereby
have its own rights.

Admittedly, not everyone explicitly endorses dualism; some
people wouldn't be caught dead talking about souls or
spirits. But common-sense dualism still frames how we think
about such issues. That's why people often appeal to
science to answer the question "When does life begin?" in
the hopes that an objective answer will settle the abortion
debate once and for all. But the question is not really
about life in any biological sense. It is instead asking
about the magical moment at which a cluster of cells
becomes more than a mere physical thing. It is a question
about the soul.

And it is not a question that scientists could ever answer.
The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls
are purely corporeal; they emerge from biochemical
processes in the brain. This is starkly demonstrated in
cases in which damage to the brain wipes out capacities as
central to our humanity as memory, self-control and

One implication of this scientific view of mental life is
that it takes the important moral questions away from the
scientists. As the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker
points out, the qualities that we are most interested in
from a moral standpoint - consciousness and the capacity to
experience pain - result from brain processes that emerge
gradually in both development and evolution. There is no
moment at which a soulless body becomes an ensouled one,
and so scientific research cannot provide objective answers
to the questions that matter the most to us.

Some scholars are confident that people will come to accept
this scientific view. In the domain of bodies, after all,
most of us accept that common sense is wrong. We concede
that apparently solid objects are actually mostly empty
space, and consist of tiny particles and fields of energy.
Perhaps the same sort of reconciliation will happen in the
domain of souls, and it will come to be broadly recognized
that dualism, though intuitively appealing, is factually

I am less optimistic. I once asked my 6-year-old son, Max,
about the brain, and he said that it is very important and
involved in a lot of thinking - but it is not the source of
dreaming or feeling sad, or loving his brother. Max said
that's what he does, though he admitted that his brain
might help him out. Studies from developmental psychology
suggest that young children do not see their brain as the
source of conscious experience and will. They see it
instead as a tool we use for certain mental operations. It
is a cognitive prosthesis, added to the soul to increase
its computing power.

This understanding might not be so different from that of
many adults. People are often surprised to find out that
certain parts of the brain are shown to be active - they
"light up" - in a brain scanner when subjects think about
religion, sex or race. This surprise reveals the tacit
assumption that the brain is involved in some aspects of
mental life but not others. Even experts, when describing
such results, slip into dualistic language: "I think about
sex and this activates such-as-so part of my brain" - as if
there are two separate things going on, first the thought
and then the brain activity.

It gets worse. The conclusion that our souls are flesh is
profoundly troubling to many, as it clashes with the notion
that the soul survives the death of the body. It is a much
harder pill to swallow than evolution, then, and might be
impossible to reconcile with many religious views. Pope
John Paul II was clear about this, conceding our bodies may
have evolved, but that theories which "consider the spirit
as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere
epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the
truth about man."

This clash is not going to be easily resolved. The great
conflict between science and religion in the last century
was over evolutionary biology. In this century, it will be
over psychology, and the stakes are nothing less than our

Paul Bloom,a professor of psychology at Yale, is the author
of "Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development
Explains What Makes Us Human."


More information about the paleopsych mailing list