Neuroscience and the Soul - Full Interview with J.P. Moreland
J.P. Moreland (Biola University) comments on the existence of the soul, the nature of consciousness, and the relevance of neuroscience to questions about human nature, spirituality, life after death, and mental life.
About the Author
J.P. Moreland (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. He is an influential Evangelical philosopher, theologian, and apologist.
Song: “Cinnamon Hills” by Brian Lee & His Orchestra (brianleehisorchestra.bandcamp.com)
Hello, my name is J. P. Moreland. [relaxing music] Professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. My research interests here at the Center for Christian Thought involve the relationship between the soul and the brain, and I want to evaluate scientific arguments that seem to indicate that there really is no such thing as a soul. [relaxing music] For 2,000 years, the church has understood the Bible to teach that there’s a soul.
This is what Jesus appears to have taught, it’s what Paul appears to have taught, and the idea was that there’s a soul that when we die, it leaves the body, it enters an intermediate state between death and the final resurrection, where we will get a body again and forever be reembodied. Now, this teaching implies that there’s more to us than our brains and our bodies, that we are, in fact, souls that have bodies.
I have been interested in this question for some time, and in some of my previous writings, I was concerned to evaluate some of the philosophical and theological issues that surround whether or not there’s a soul, as well as some of the ethical implications for abortion and things of that sort from believing in a soul. Currently, I’ve become interested in the implications of contemporary neuroscience for whether or not there is a soul.
Now, some people claim that the findings of neuroscience in the last 10, 15, 20 years, have made it less and less plausible to believe that we are anything more than our brains. And the idea here is that consciousness is generated by the brain, and that consciousness actually resides in the brain, whereas a classic Christian understanding would be that consciousness resides in the soul, but it is in very deep integration and causal connection with the brain. So that if the brain shuts down, consciousness shuts down, and so on.
These questions are at the very root of Christianity’s interfacing with culture. And so, it’s important for more and more Christian thinkers to weigh in on this and to try to understand how to integrate contemporary findings of science with classic Christian theology and doctrine. [relaxing music] Neuroscience and the soul is very, very important to the Christian church for two reasons.
First of all, Gallup polls have indicated that there has been a steady loss of belief in life after death, as there has been an increase in the belief that we’re our brains. The idea that many people have, and sensibly enough, is that if you’re a brain, and your brain dies, that’s the end of you. And so, if there is a soul, this means that there is more to us than our brains, and it tends to lend support to the idea that there’s life after death.
So the neuro scientific findings, if they do, in fact, undermine belief in a soul, has for many people undermined belief in life after death, and made the gospel sort of pointless. What is the point of the gospel if this life is all there is? The second reason that this is important is because it appears that the Bible teaches that there’s a soul. And if we are to revise the Bible’s teachings in this area under the pressure of neuroscience, what’s next? It’s important to ask the question has science undermined traditional biblical teaching?
There is actually another reason why this matters to the average person. Darwin admitted when he came up with his theory of evolution that it could not explain the origin of mind, that what his theory could do was to explain the origin of animal bodies and brains, but it couldn’t explain the origin of mind. And so Darwin was a materialist, and argued that his theory should be understood as promoting a materialist view of living things, that living things are strictly brains and central nervous systems.
If, on the other hand, there’s a reason to think that consciousness and the soul aren’t physical, that provides reasons for thinking there are limits to Darwinian explanation and that there is the need for a god to create the soul and to create consciousness. And so this lends support to a theistic view of the world.
The soul has historically been understood as an immaterial substance that contains consciousness and animates the body, or makes the body enlivened. And the problem for the atheist is to explain how you could get mind from matter if you start with a Big Bang and the history of the universe as a history where matter simply rearranges to form increasingly larger or more complicated chunks of matter, for many thinkers, what you’re gonna end up with are rearranged chunks of matter.
There will be no account for how you could get mind coming into existence. The Christian theist doesn’t have that problem, because for the Christian believer in God, the fundamental reality is not particles or matter, it’s a conscious soul, God himself. If the universe begins with a soul or a spirit that’s conscious, there is not difficulty in explaining where this comes from, because it’s part of your fundamental reality.
But if you say, instead of in the beginning was the logos, in the beginning were the particles, then you have a difficulty accounting for where consciousness and soul or self come from. [relaxing music] There are also real implications from what we are to how we should live our lives and how we grow as Christians and as human beings. If I’m just a body and a brain, then probably at the end of the day, drugs and antidepressant medication, which I believe in, by the way, but drugs and things of that sort will be the ultimate tools to help change people, because we just turn out to be our brains and our bodies.
If, however, there’s more to me than my brain and my body, if in addition to having a brain that can be treated with medication, I have a soul, then there may very well be distinctive principles about how you grow souls, and these principles of how you cultivate the soul have been enscripturated in the history of the church’s teaching on spiritual formation.
So that we look at the spiritual formation literature, and at the field of psychology, I might add, and these fields appear to be focusing in on how do you grow a soul? How do you develop a self? How does the ego, or the I, become transformed through the process of prayer or something of that sort? So if there’s more to me than my brain and body, these extra scientific practices seem to make sense. If, on the other hand, I’m just a brain and body, eventually it’s likely that these practices will be done away with, and it will all be chemistry and physics at the end of the day. [relaxing music] Consciousness is not physical, consciousness is spiritual, it’s immaterial, you might say. Now, we all know you can’t really pull a rabbit out of a hat.
When a magician claims to pull a rabbit out of the hat, we know that there had to be a rabbit in the hat to begin with. Now, why is that? Well, because you can’t get something out of nothing, you can’t have nothing there, and all of a sudden, presto, a rabbit appears. By the same token, if you start with matter from the Big Bang and all you do is rearrange it according to the laws of chemistry and physics, you’re not gonna be able to get a conscious rabbit out of that material hat. You will end up with a very complicated hat, but there won’t be a rabbit.
What we wanna say as Christian theists, at least my own view, is that the reason consciousness exists is because we started with a rabbit, that is, a great big rabbit, namely God, who is himself conscious, and we don’t have to pull a rabbit out of an empty hat and explain how you get consciousness from matter, because there never was such a thing as just pure matter. God always existed. [relaxing music]
Ideas matter a great deal. It’s important, then, that Christians are able to think very deeply and carefully about the ideas that are being taught in the universities, through the media, in the public schools, through the entertainment industry. It’s important that Christians be able to think about those ideas and learn to spot the implications that follow from them.
And this is why I’m so excited about the Center for Christian Thought. It is unique in the Christian College Coalition, there’s really nothing like it. The Center for Christian Thought provides a place where Christians can come together, read, think, discuss, strategize, and generate ideas that will be useful to the spread of the gospel and the promotion of the kingdom of God. And so, the Center for Christian Thought is an idea whose time has come, and it’s absolutely crucial to the health of the church and the propagation of the gospel at this point in the 21st century.
One of the things I admire about Jesus’ teachings is that they were conversation starters. He would tell a parable, a story, and it would spark a conversation in the people that were around when he left. Over the years of ministry, I have discovered that one of the best ways to minister is to start conversations. In evangelism, if I can get people to start talking about things and to ponder them, that opens them up to the gospel in a way that nothing else can.
In discipling, in preaching a sermon, in having a small group in the church, sparking conversations is absolutely critical to personal growth. By the same token, the Center for Christian Thought is designed to spark conversations. One of the main things we do here at the center is we take life changing ideas, ideas that are at the very heart of what is going on in the church and in the culture, and generate thoughtful, intelligent, Christ-honoring conversations about those ideas for the good of the church and the general culture. Paul said do good to all men, especially those of the household of faith.
That’s the purpose of the Center for Christian Thought, but the way that we do that is through conversation starting. We generate ideas, discussions, literature, lectures, all kinds of communication that promote the kingdom of God and what we believe, but they start right here with conversations. [relaxing music]