September 10, 2004

Souls and Ethics

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at September 10, 2004 9:10 PM

An Op-Ed piece in the New York Times addresses mind-body duality:

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 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.


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 decision-making.

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.

The author goes on to argue that the debate over mind-body duality in the 21st century will be comparable to the evolution debate in the 20th. (Is the evolution debate really over?) I actually think the fact that mental functions being tied to physical processes is a much bigger problem for Western religions than evolution was, but will there be a fight over it or will the science just be ignored/glossed over entirely?

I also wanted to comment on the final sentence quoted above: the problem isn't some limitation of science, but that science has shown that these questions are ill-formed as long as they ask about some non-corporeal soul. Maybe science can shed some insight onto ethical questions related to abortion, stem-cell research, etc., but first we need the ethicists (or the President's Council on Bioethics?) to reframe the questions in a way that makes sense given the science.

Once you take souls out of the picture, discussion of abortion ethics seem to have a sorites paradox quality: a fertilized egg clearly isn't a person, and if you add just one cell to an embryo it doesn't suddenly acquire person-hood, but somehow after repeating the "add one cell" process many times, one ends up with a person anyway. So any line one draws between conception and birth is going to be arbitrary.

Now at some point in the pregnancy abortions start to become dangerous to the health of the mother, and maybe this should be the more important consideration in formulating laws. Of course this is a health risk that increases gradually with time (and varies with circumstance), so again any line that gets drawn is arbitrary. But the time window for drawing the line is narrower, so it's at least somewhat helpful. This would give an abortion policy much like the one we currently have in the US (as I understand it) wherein only late term abortions are banned. (I'm obviously not much of an expert on the legal origins of current abortion law, so maybe these sorts of considerations are how it actually came about. I'm more interested in being an armchair ethicist than an armchair lawyer.)



One comment I have is that the evolution debate is FAR from over, (unfortunately).

I'm interested in YOUR opinion of the soul as merely a number of "biochemical processes in the brain"...because that whole idea just makes me sad. It's so hopeless and pessimistic. It makes me feel like there's no purpose in the world, we're just carbon-based units put here to breed and multiply...does that make sense?

Posted by: Tracy | September 12, 2004 2:18 PM

When I first gave up the idea of duality, I had been reading books on neuroscience and had as a result found this conclusion both inescapable and disturbing. "Am I just a chemical machine?" etc. But I came to realize that this didn't really matter. My happy experiences and fond memories didn't get retroactively drained of their value by the fact that I'm a purely biochemical entity. Likewise, the things that give my life meaning are products of my experiences, perceptions, thoughts, relationships... nothing that is contingent on the physical or metaphysical nature of my consciousness. So in the end it stopped bothering me; how I think about the mind-body problem doesn't really affect my experience of life.

A lot of people expect that an atheist, materialist worldview like mine is depressing and meaningless, but I don't see it that way. From my point of view, it's very liberating: there's no god telling me what the meaning of my life should be; I'm free to find my own meaning in life. At the same time there's a sense of urgency; since this life is all I get, I'd better make good use of it. (On the other hand, there's not a whole lot of evidence that I'm very driven by this urgency.)

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | September 12, 2004 3:45 PM
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