September 10, 2004
The Duel Between Body and Soul
By PAUL BLOOM
New Haven - What people think about many of the big issues that will be
discussed in the next two months - like gay marriage, stem-cell research
and the role of religion in public life - is intimately related to their
views on human nature. And while there may be differences between
Republicans and Democrats, one fundamental assumption is accepted by
almost everyone. This would be reassuring - if science didn't tell us
that this assumption is mistaken.
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
Our dualism makes it possible for us to appreciate stories where people
are liberated from their bodies. In the movie "13 Going on 30,'' a
teenager wakes up as Jennifer Garner, just as a 12-year-old was once
transformed into Tom Hanks in "Big.'' Characters can trade bodies, as in
"Freaky Friday,'' or battle for control of a single body, as when Steve
Martin and Lily Tomlin fight it out in "All of Me.''
Body-hopping is not a Hollywood invention. Franz Kafka tells of a man
who wakes up one morning as a gigantic insect. Homer, writing hundreds
of years before the birth of Christ, describes how the companions of
Odysseus were transformed into pigs - but their minds were unchanged,
and so they wept. Children easily understand stories in which the frog
becomes a prince or a villain takes control of a superhero's body.
In fact, most people think that a far more radical transformation
actually takes place; they believe that the soul can survive the
complete destruction of the body. The soul's eventual fate varies; most
Americans believe it ascends to heaven or descends into hell, while
people from other cultures believe that it enters a parallel spirit
world, or occupies some other body, human or animal.
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.
In the case of abortion, our common-sense dualism can support either
side of the issue. We use phrases like "my body" and "my brain,"
describing our bodies and body parts as if they were possessions. Some
people insist that all of us - including pregnant women - own our
bodies, and therefore can use them as we wish. To others, the organism
residing inside a pregnant body has a soul of its own, possibly from the
moment of conception, and would thereby have its own rights.
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
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.
Some scholars are confident that people will come to accept this
scientific view. In the domain of bodies, after all, most of us accept
that common sense is wrong. We concede that apparently solid objects are
actually mostly empty space, and consist of tiny particles and fields of
energy. Perhaps the same sort of reconciliation will happen in the
domain of souls, and it will come to be broadly recognized that dualism,
though intuitively appealing, is factually mistaken. I am less optimistic.
I once asked my 6-year-old son, Max, about the
brain, and he said that it is very important and involved in a lot of
thinking - but it is not the source of dreaming or feeling sad, or
loving his brother. Max said that's what he does, though he admitted
that his brain might help him out. Studies from developmental psychology
suggest that young children do not see their brain as the source of
conscious experience and will. They see it instead as a tool we use for
certain mental operations. It is a cognitive prosthesis, added to the
soul to increase its computing power.
This understanding might not be so different from that of many adults.
People are often surprised to find out that certain parts of the brain
are shown to be active - they "light up" - in a brain scanner when
subjects think about religion, sex or race. This surprise reveals the
tacit assumption that the brain is involved in some aspects of mental
life but not others. Even experts, when describing such results, slip
into dualistic language: "I think about sex and this activates
such-as-so part of my brain" - as if there are two separate things going
on, first the thought and then the brain activity.
It gets worse. The conclusion that our souls are flesh is profoundly
troubling to many, as it clashes with the notion that the soul survives
the death of the body. It is a much harder pill to swallow than
evolution, then, and might be impossible to reconcile with many
religious views. Pope John Paul II was clear about this, conceding our
bodies may have evolved, but that theories which "consider the spirit as
emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of
this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."
This clash is not going to be easily resolved. The great conflict
between science and religion in the last century was over evolutionary
biology. In this century, it will be over psychology, and the stakes are
nothing less than our souls.
Paul Bloom,a professor of psychology at Yale, is the author of
"Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What
Makes Us Human."