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Do We Have Souls?: William Struthers on Teaching Neuroscience and the Soul

If you've ever sat in a college-level course in neuroscience or psychology, you probably noticed that one of the first things covered in every introductory textbook chapter is the mind–body problem. But what lies behind the mind–body problem are older questions about the nature of humanity.

The question, “What does it mean to be human?” has been answered by many religions like so: human beings are composed of two parts: body and soul. The soul is an immaterial, spiritual essence from which our psychological experience emanates. When our bodies die, our souls go on into the spiritual realm.

Within Christian traditions the concept of the soul plays a critical role in Church teaching and theology. For many philosophers, the soul was assumed to be a fundamental part of human nature and a starting point from which ethics and metaphysics extend. But since the Enlightenment, and with the recent advances in neuroscience, the concept of the soul has come into question. In the last 200 years, with all of the psychological, biological, and neuroscientific research that has been conducted, many are asking the question, “Do we have souls?”

In my Wheaton College course on “Neuroscience and the Soul,” we will be exploring the different philosophical, theological, and neuroscientific perspectives on these questions. This course addresses the impact that recent discoveries in the interdisciplinary field of neuroscience have on our understanding of the soul and human nature. It explores the various theological and philosophical positions about the soul and examines recent neuroscientific data and frameworks proposed to explain our psychological experience.

While it is a course that has the sort of scholarly readings one might expect, there are two things that we are particularly excited about in this course:

First, it is designed to be intentionally interdisciplinary. A significant portion of the class is devoted to bringing in theologians, philosophers, and neuroscientists to speak directly to students about their discipline’s perspective on the soul. Too often the nuances of different disciplines are lost in translation when a single instructor represents them outside his or her disciplinary training. By bringing in key thinkers from all of these disciplines, students will be exposed to a variety of perspectives and frameworks.

Second, we intend to use case studies taken from the neuroscientific and medical literature that specifically look at the impact of various forms of psychopathology, trauma, and experimental manipulation of the brain on spiritual and ethical dimensions—those that we might normally referred to as ‘soul-ish’. By examining these case studies and framing them within the realm of neuroscience we hope to create an understanding for how we are beginning to answer the age-old question of what it means to be human.

Neuroscience is a rapidly progressing field, but we must take care not to overestimate or overextend its explanatory power when it comes to psychological experience; nor should we abandon philosophical or theological contributions. We hope that through this course students will gain a richer appreciation for what neuroscience does and does not say about the ancient concept of the soul, all through the integration of these different sources of wisdom.

For more information about CCT Course Development Grants, click here.