Neuroscience and the Soul

During the 2012-2013 academic year, Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought brought together a number of philosophers, theologians, and scientists to discuss the relationship between traditional views of the mind and body in light of the contemporary findings of neuroscience. Neuroscience and the Soul: The Human Person in Philosophy, Science, and Theology (2016) represents the content of these discussions and conference. Edited by Thomas Crisp, Steven L. Porter, and Gregg A. Ten Elshof, the book is divided into three major sections: 1) recent debates in philosophy about the Mind-Body Problem, 2) recent debates about the bearing of contemporary brain sciences on the Mind-Body Problem, and 3) recent debates in theology about the mind-body problem. Written primarily for non-specialists, the sections are structured as a series of essays with responses and rejoinders. The idea behind this structure is that a thoughtful non-specialist could get a glimpse into the debates happening in the pages of academic books and journals, without needing to wade through vast and technical literature.

Overview

Section one begins with an essay by William Hasker in which he argues for the view that material composition cannot make sense of the unity of consciousness. Timothy O’Connor responds by arguing that conscious experience is a property had by materially composed persons, but is such that no “part” of the experiences is had by any of those persons, or is itself had by any of their parts

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 are an exchange between J.P. Moreland and Jason Runyan regarding top-down causation. Moreland makes a case against it while Runyan argues that there are no reasons for skepticism about the existence of top-down causation in nature. He explains that if one remains skeptical about top-down causation, complex systems theory may be able to do the work top-down causation aims at.

Section two begins with a friendly dialogue between Richard Swinburne and Daniel Speak. Swinburne argues that the scientific theory that mental events are caused by brain events fails the prediction criterion, thus we can never know that it predicts successfully without assuming its falsity. Speak responds by saying that an argument demonstrating a theory is not scientifically well justified, cannot, by itself, constitute a case against the epistemic credibility of the theory.

In chapter 10 Kevin Corcoran and Kevin Sharpe build an argument for physicalism from three neuroscientific case studies; but they concede the fact that consciousness seems to be very resistant to physicalist explanations. They conclude that despite the problem of consciousness, given the explanatory irrelevance of the soul, we should accept physicalism. Erick LaRock and Robin Collins respond by arguing that Corcoran and Sharpe’s commitment to physicalism is not actually warranted by the currently available evidence, and that it is contrary to the main preferences of science, namely simplicity and being true to the data of experience.

Chapter 13, written by Erick LaRock focuses on the so-called “hard problem of consciousness” that plagues reductive physicalist accounts of the mind. He argues that reductive physicalism cannot account for a robust account of consciousness. Corcoran and Sharpe respond to LaRock agreeing that reductive physicalism cannot account for the hard problem of consciousness; so they put forward a non-reductive account of consciousness.

Section three begins with Veli-Matti Karkkainen’s explanation and defense of “multi-dimensional monism,” the view that mind and body “each denotes the entire human being, while connoting some angle of vision on who that human is and what he or she is called to be.” (212) Stewart Goetz responds by raising worries about what Karkkainen’s multi-dimensional monism does for accounts of personal survival after death.

The final three chapters of the book are a dialogue between John Cooper and Brian Lugioyo. Cooper suggests that the turn towards physicalism among Christian scholars represents the prioritization of science over the Bible. Lugioyo’s response seeks to demonstrate that, in fact, biblical exegesis supports a monistic position and that a monistic interpretation for Scripture is healthy for the church’s ministry.

Assessment

Neuroscience and the Soul is a fine collection of essays from a varied cast of authors. If the editors intended to give non-specialists a glimpse of current debates in the field, then they have certainly done their job. I wonder, however, if the purpose would have been better served if the authors hadn’t chosen to prioritize “traditional” accounts of the mind-body debate over newer accounts. As I note above, the structure is one long essay, followed by a short response, and an even shorter rejoinder. Most of the sets of essays (5 out of the 7) begin with traditional accounts. This means traditional accounts get the long form essay and the rejoinder. Naturally, it was the editors’ prerogative to prioritize whomever they wanted; however, if they really wanted to give readers a feel for the state of discussion in academia, they should have prioritized newer accounts, or at least should have tried to balance out the essays. Another critique one might make of the book, which is not unusual for edited volumes, is that some of the essays are poorer contributions than the others. For instance, I am unsure what Eric LaRock’s essay is doing in this volume. His main argument is against reductive forms of physicalism. Yet, one would be hard pressed to find any Christians in the field advocating for reductive physicalism. LaRock is arguing against a non-existent opponent. Also, I question the inclusion of John Cooper’s essay. Surely Cooper has written one of the most comprehensive accounts of dualism, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting, but this work in its original form is almost 30 years old. It’s strange to think that the editors couldn’t find a more contemporary example of a Cooper-style defense of substance dualism.

Despite these minor drawbacks, I recommend this book for those looking to get their feet wet in the pool of Christian mind-body debates but don’t have time to go for a swim. It should also prove useful as an introductory volume for seminary and graduate students.

(Note: This was originally posted on Fuller Seminary’s Analytic Theology Blog.)

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