Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Encountered a new word yesterday: ensoul.

I was reading an article on the New York Times Science page, under the headline "Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force." As neuroscientists learn more and more about how the brain works, philosophers and theologians must adapt--unless they're the kind of theologians who choose to deny evolution and cling to the six-day creation. The duality of body and soul, deeply embedded in western thought, doesn't jive with the scientific evidence that emotional reactions, moral reasoning, even the illusion of free will are the result of physical processes. There's no more "mind over matter." Mind is matter. And nothing more than matter.

Mind, soul, consciousness--don't ask me about the metaphysical distinctions--whatever you want to call this thing that we believe makes us uniquely human can be explained away as a function of neurons and neurotransmitters. Human emotion and human thought begin as physical reactions. The nervous system sends impulses to the brain, chemicals are released, and other brain centers are activated. The experience, the recognition of the experience, and its effect on future experience can all be explained by brain structures and processes. What human thinkers identify as a rational thought, a sense of control, or a spiritual encounter can be viewed with an MRI. And pictures of a chimpanzee's brain, or a pig's, are not all that different from pictures of human thought.

What part of my brain is lighting up now, as I think about "what does this mean?" When I was a child, lying in bed at night and not sleeping, I would wonder if I was really alive, or if I was just an elaborate robot that my sisters, parents, and schoolmates only thought was real (though a bit odd). Maybe the real part was hidden deep within me, and just the exterior was the robot. Were other people real, that is, really alive, possessors of souls, life force, unpredictability? Or were we all just machines, and nothing meant much of anything? This dark-of-the-night path scared me almost as much as contemplating eternity. It led to the same kind of tossing and turning now caused by a) financial matters and b) teenage offspring

How did my brain at the age of seven or nine have this capacity to reflect on itself? Did something going on at home or school make me want to disassociate myself from me? Did other children share my awareness? I remember being aware of God's presence as this debate raged in my mind. God lived in the dark and under the covers, or hovered in the air, just beyond the words of my prayers. God was there to snatch my soul away (if I had one) were I to die before I waked.

That soul would leave behind a body that was curled under the pink-striped sheets and the chenille bedspread.
The body was clay, dust, corruptible--and not me. The soul was me, the mysterious image of God bestowed on Adam at creation. It made him different from the beasts of the field and the fish of the air, over which he had dominion.

But now, neuroscientists see the same patterns in the brains of mice as in the brains of men. Cats and cat people are not that different. Lions and tigers and bears--oh my!--may have interior lives like we do.

Neuroscience is the new epistemology (how do we know what we know?), and theology and philosophy must catch up. One of the experts interviewed for the New York Times article, philosopher Nancey Murphy of Fuller Theological Seminary, compared the dilemma created by brain science to the earth being knocked out of the center of the universe by Copernican theories of the solar system. She and theologian John F. Haught, also interviewed for this article, agreed that if humans have souls, whatever it is that souls may be, animals must be similarly ensouled.

And there's my new word: ensouled, or, endowed with a soul.

What would a God-denying scientific materialist have to say about this solution? That religion just gets crazier and crazier? Or would he turn to experiments and experimental designs for studying consciousness in people, plants, and animals? Cruising the internet yesterday, I read a long article about studying consciousness. (Typical summer vacation reading for someone who used to lie in bed wondering if she was a robot.) The author meandered through mainstream and fringe consciousness research, with side trips into the history of brain science, quantum mechanics, meditation, spiritual oneness, and near death experiences. He was not going to yield to anyone who says the brain is it, all of it, and the body is the boundary.

God? Always beyond our knowing, yet known through the matter that is mind. The image of God become flesh.

My brain is too tired to go any further.

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