The Evolution of Souls
William Hasker (Huntington College) suggests a view of the human soul he claims is compatible with the science of evolution.
I wonder if we can start with a conversation that, in some ways got cut short earlier this week. You and I were in church on Sunday morning, and there was a person sitting behind us before the service, with whom we struck up a conversation. And when he learned what you think about and what you do, he told us that he was a high school physics teacher. And so he’d done some thinking about the soul, and about science. And he mentioned that, he was, I think, glad to hear that you believe in a soul. And he too confessed his belief in a soul, and said this was his main reason for being worried about evolutionary theory. He just couldn’t buy evolution because he couldn’t see how it would ever kick up something like an immaterial soul. And your response to him had to be short because service was about to start. You said something like, “Well, I can help you with that.”
And then the service started.
How would that conversation have unfolded, had there been more time?
Well, I think it could be helpful for him and for other people, for that matter, to realize that there is a conception of the soul. One that I advocate actually, but conception of the soul that does the things that Christians, I think, need to attribute to a soul, but does not create the kinds of problems with evolution that he obviously felt would be the case. I think a majority of Christians have held the view that each individual human soul is directly, individually created by God. Perhaps of time of conception, or very early in one’s life. If then, you extend that concept of the soul, as you really have to, to many different kinds of animals, it does become quite difficult I think, to see how this is going to fit in with a concept of biological evolution. And yet, I feel, and I’m sure he feels some of this too, that the evolution, the evidence for biological evolution having occurred is pretty compelling. It’s at least strong enough that you wouldn’t lightly dismiss it. The concept that I hold, which I call emergent dualism, says that, yes, the soul is a distinct entity, it’s the part of us, the aspect of us, if you like. The things that reasons that has moral awareness that is able to commune with God. But the soul, in some admittedly mysterious way, emerges from the biological functioning of the organism, especially the brain and nervous system. Now, some people find this a lot to swallow. But I don’t think there’s anything incoherent, or contrary to known facts about the view. And one of it’s merits, not the only merit, but one of the merits is that it fits in pretty smoothly with the concept of biological evolution, because as you have presumably some kind of awareness or feeling or sensation, at least, is present in quite simple forms of life. Now how simple? We don’t have to fix that definitely but it seems to start pretty early on. I think, when you step in a wasps nest, the wasp is really angry at you. [laughs] He certainly acts that way, and I believe that’s not an illusion.
So, but as the creatures themselves become more complex, their brains and nervous systems become more complex, and the creature has a soul, a consciousness that is generated and sustained, supported by that brain and nervous system, which is also gradually more complex. Now, humans are certainly unique in many ways. I mean, that’s an obvious fact to the matter. And we certainly need to recognize that, but on the other hand, there’s no reason why the human soul should not be though of as in some sense, the same sort of thing, the same general type of thing as you have, and a chimpanzee, a horse, a dog, perhaps a fish. Perhaps, on a simpler lever, an insect. So you can make sense of this continuity that seems to exist in nature, and certainly is affirmed by evolutionary theory. And still understand the uniqueness of the human being. So I think that that’s a perspective that could be helpful to that fellow who, as a science teacher, he wants to do justice to scientific evidence, but as a believer, he thinks it’s important to believe in a soul, and I think he’s right about that too. So, that’s how it would’ve gone if we had another 15 minutes before the sermon.