Hasn’t Science Shown That “the Soul” Is Non-existent?
Neuroscientists have recently insisted that parts of the human brain are clearly responsive during intensive religious experience. Brain scans, they say, show that the part of the brain activated during prayer is the left temporal lobe. One researcher asserts he has proof that electrical stimulation in the brain produces the same characteristics as those claimed for mystical experiences.
So to rephrase the question, how can we talk with someone who believes “the soul” is an outdated concept, who insists it’s really the “religion sector” of the brain we’re talking about?
Focusing on the brain in this context is a way of oversimplifying the issue and it fails to account for other important dimensions of humanity. At first glance the brain may seem to account for everything traditionally claimed for the soul – will, intelligence, emotions, mind – but actually the soul involves much more in terms of personhood and selfhood.
Before we go on let’s be clear that God does not save only the “soul.” Salvation is for the whole person. We are psycho-physical organisms in whom all the different aspects of body, soul, mind and spirit make up a living person, all of which are in need of God’s saving grace. No aspect of selfhood escapes the sinful condition according to the Apostle Paul. Thus every dimension is in need of redemption.
In the Bible the focus is on the undivided person. The word for soul in Genesis 2:7 could even be translated “life.” In fact instead of the familiar “he restores my soul” in Psalm 23:4, several recent translations read “he restores my life.” The Bible does not support the idea that humans are “immaterial souls” inside “material bodies,” even though this idea was common in the New Testament era – and even though many people today still think exactly this when they hear the word “soul.”
Individual souls are made for communal relationships: with God first but also with other humans and indeed with the whole creation. And what we do in this life has eternal consequences. We have “soul” qualities for which God holds us accountable. A major “soul quality” is moral accountability, which involves brain functions but also goes well beyond that. Brain functions enable us to have intelligence and self-awareness so that we are able to relate to God and others in personal ways. Our whole being (body, soul, brain, mind) is involved in these personal relationships.
Another aspect of the larger picture of personhood deals with resurrection life. Although we do not know what kind of spiritual body we will receive, Scripture does hint at personal continuity. The role brain functioning may play in the resurrection body is not clear but self-awareness and intelligence will surely be involved.
Thus while physical correlates in the brain account for activities such as memory, emotional responses and envisioning – all of which and more are undeniably important – human life as a whole involves much more than chemical reactions in the human brain.
In the end there’s nothing wrong with agreeing that the soul and the brain are similar, at least superficially. I think of them as related and overlapping – but they are not exhaustively so.
The soul may indeed be the deepest aspect of human wholeness but it encompasses much more than the brain. We humans are an embodied soul consisting of much more than complex biology. As whole persons we carry the potential for a relationship with God and the rest of the human family. We can be grateful brain functioning has a major dimension in this potential and the accountability it carries with it.
Jimmy Cobb is professor of theology, ethics and history at Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary in Cochrane, Alta. Representatives of 10 seminaries affiliated with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada take turns writing this column. Please send your questions to: FTeditor@efc-canada.com or Faith Today, Ask a Theologian, M.I.P. Box 3745, Markham, ON L3R 0Y4.
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