New Scientist has an article on a group of creationists who are attempting to argue that we have a soul based on the difficulty of reducing mental events to neurobiology. The article makes out that this is a new front on the ‘war on science’ but I wouldn’t be manning the barricades quite yet, as the issue has been around as long as neuroscience itself.
The creationist-affiliated researchers suggest that the ‘mind-body problem‘ – the difficulty in explaining subjective mind states in terms of objective biological processes – means that the mind must be partly non-material and, therefore, have some spiritual aspect to it (i.e. the soul).
What’s interesting in this debate as many scientists respond by simply denying there is a problem and suggesting that this is just a issue of progress and eventually we will be able to explain every mind state in terms of brain function.
This is unlikely, however, owing to the fact that the mind and brain are described with different properties and so cannot be entirely equivalent. Therefore, one will never be completely reduced to the other.
This does not imply that there must be a soul or non-material mind at work. If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, try this example.
Why does Elvis not want you to step on his blue suede shoes? You buy a copy of the track on CD but analysing the physics of the sound waves in the song will not fully answer your question.
You might find out that the volume or pitch increases at specific points to highlight certain key phrases, but you can’t fully understand why Elvis is so protective of his new shoes through physics alone.
In other words, you can’t explain everything about the song through objective scientific methods. This does not mean your CD, or the sound waves, have a soul.
The same goes for the mind and brain. There are some things we talk about in terms of experience, mental events and thoughts that will not be adequately explained at the level of objective biological measures. Similarly, this does not imply the existence of a soul.
Importantly, it doesn’t disprove the existence of a soul either, because unless you make specific falsifiable statements about what a soul actually does in the brain in an empirically testable way, science can’t test it one way or another. It can only make inferences.
On the basis of the fact that no proposed ‘soul effect’ has ever been detected, most neuroscientists think that a non-material aspects to the mind doesn’t exist. The mind, like Elvis songs, are just part of the world, even if we need to use different levels of meaning to fully explain them.
However, some neuroscientists think different, and have done for as long as neuroscience has been around, and this is why this ‘new’ development is unlikely to be a big threat.
In fact, Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist Sir John Eccles believed until his dying day that there was a non-material aspect to the mind. Dana Magazine has a great article on Eccles’ dualism which is well worth reading if you want a summary of his views.
But this just illustrates the point that the recent claims by creationist-affiliated researchers are neither new nor particularly threatening. Neuroscience has not come crashing to the ground, and science seems remarkably untroubled.
UPDATE: The Neurologica Blog also has some great coverage of the NewSci piece and has more of an in-depth analysis.