Neuroscience, Freedom, and the Human Soul

Posted on December 13, 2010



The second blog in our series on human freedom examines the claim that we cannot be free, because our higher faculties of knowing and willing are determined by our brain states.

Many scientists today operate not only with a healthy methodological naturalism, but with an overtly philosophical naturalism.  That is to say, it is one thing for scientists to realise that anything not natural and material falls outside the proper domain of their subject area, and quite another thing to claim that nothing actually exists outside of the natural and material, and that therefore the domain of one’s subject area extends over the whole of reality.  The former is merely good science, the latter is bad philosophy with a dose of megalomania thrown in for good measure.

Common experience, however, tells us that there is something more to man than the purely material side of his being.  I see with my eyes, for example, but is there any physical explanation for my ability to understand complex mathematical formulae, or, crucially, for my ability to choose one good over another?

The materialist megalomaniacs would argue that there is.  From the observable fact that certain brain states accompany certain mental operations – they say – we can safely infer that these brain states cause these mental operations.  Such is the extent of the megalomania that it does not seem apparent that they have even stopped to consider whether the chain of cause and effect may be the other way around, or whether perhaps the explanation might be even more complex still.  No, they tell us.  Memory, free will, understanding, the most exalted emotions such as love and piety, are little more than the sloshing of chemicals inside the soulless cranium of homo sapiens.

The Human Soul by Hildegard of Bingen

Yet this critique rests on the false assumption that those who assert the existence of the soul believe that body and soul are distinct from one another, the soul being the ‘ghost in the machine’, as it were.  Perhaps this is true of unreflective individuals, but trained philosophers who have considered this question have held that body and soul are two aspects of the same being.  The soul is the immaterial ‘principle’ that makes a man what he is, but it generally depends on the body to be able to do what it does.  Some scientists claim that because they have demonstrated the relation of sensory functions to certain parts of the brain, it is only a matter of time before they also ‘explain’ how our rational functions are biologically determined.  But neither Aristotle nor Thomas Aquinas (and it is notable that both were writing a long time before the advent of neuroscience), for example, would have denied that physical organs are involved in certain human activities.  What they would have affirmed – pace the materialists – is that it is the soul which gives rise to the various activities of man, both material and immaterial.  This is why it makes sense to say ‘I see, I hear, I understand’, rather than ‘my body sees, my body hears, my soul understands’.  The soul is the unifying principle that makes a man who he is.  This is why we recognise one and the same person even after he has been hideously mutilated and brain damaged in a road accident – because he is not just a collection of body parts and chemicals, but first and foremost, he is a soul.

Although traditional religious practice has declined, go and look at the size of the ‘Mind, Body, and Spirit’ section of your local bookshop and you will see that the average person is not convinced by the ideas of the materialists, for whom the concept of ‘spirit’, in particular, is anathema.  The materialists would have us believe that this is down to ignorance, the fading embers of a more superstitious age.  But who looks more foolish?  The uneducated, unreflective, man who knows instinctively that he is more than matter, and in particular that he is endowed with the capacity of free will, or the materialist who wants to have his cake and eat it?  For the reader will search in vain for the materialist who shrugs off the fact that somebody has burgled his house with the serene observation that it was merely a result of neuro-chemical reactions in this or that part of the brain, and in no way a free choice on the part of a human being with a spiritual soul, and therefore with free will.  Whatever else might be said about the spiritual junkies who haunt the aisles of Waterstones searching for the latest book on crystal healing, it can at least be said that they have grasped a basic truth overlooked by the materialists: that, as Oscar Wilde once said: ‘ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.’ Such is human freedom.

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(Human head and brain diagram: CC: © Patrick J. Lynch, Medical Illustrator. No endorsement implied.)