Editorial by Anthony Freeman
from Modern Believing Vol 57:2 - April 2016

It is over twenty years since Nobel laureate Francis Crick published The Astonishing Hypothesis, a book whose opening paragraph reads:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’ This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing.[1]

Crick’s book was subtitled ‘The scientific search for the soul’, and by using that provocative word soul, rather than the more neutral ‘self’, he threw down the gauntlet to Christians and other religious adherents to take seriously the advances in neuroscience then under way, and still making giant strides year on year. This themed issue of Modern Believing is offered as a contribution to that engagement.

By focusing his search on the physical aspect of human nature, Crick unwittingly played to one of his opponents’ strengths: their biblical roots. The body was central to the Hebrew understanding of humans. A living person was a live physical body, animated by an impersonal breath of life, and a dead person was a dead physical body, lacking the breath of life and destined to decay — dust to dust — with the possibility of post-mortem resurrection developing only as the centuries went by. It was the ancient Greeks, following Plato, who by contrast saw the essential human being as a non-physical soul. For them a living person was an embodied soul, and a dead person was a disembodied soul. The Christian Church (and by extension western culture more generally) was heir to both these approaches, and to this day we live with the consequent muddle. Being made to re-focus on human embodiment may help to clarify Christian thinking about human identity and personhood.

For a thousand years and more, the biblical resurrection of the body and Plato’s teaching on the immortality of the soul were uneasily held together within the patristic doctrinal consensus, reflected in the catholic creeds. Then came the rediscovery of Aristotle, and the consequent rewriting of Christian doctrine by Thomas Aquinas (1226–1274). For Aristotle, the soul was not a non-physical self, whose association with the body was a temporary and unfortunate necessity. It was the functional structure or ‘form’ of the body, which enabled an organism to function purposefully. So unlike the Platonic soul, it was not immortal, but came into being with the physical organism, and also perished with it. This alternative Greek approach fitted better with the Hebraic model of human personhood, but the immortality of the soul was now too entrenched in Christian doctrine to be set lightly aside.

Aquinas compromised. He accepted Aristotle’s definition of the soul as the form of a living organism, but made a special case for humans because they could think. For Aquinas, mental activity involved no bodily process or change; so by engaging in thinking, the human soul (unlike the souls of plants and animals) could do something not directly dependent on its body. This small wedge, unique to humans, inserted between the activities of the organism’s form (or soul) and its body, opened up the possibility that the rational soul might continue in existence even after its body had died and decayed. Furthermore, according to Aquinas’s way of thinking, if the human rational soul really could survive bodily death, it cannot (like animal and vegetable souls) have come into being with its body, simply as part of the natural process. In other words, Thomas was led from his Aristotelian starting point to posit an immortal non-natural human soul, such as the Christian faith rooted in Platonism demanded.

Aquinas had managed to have his cake and eat it. Moreover, he found it had icing on it. Bear in mind that this Aristotelian rational soul was still first and foremost the life-principle of a human body, not some free-floating spirit; so positing its existence in isolation from the body did feel awkward, the thinking process notwithstanding. This apparent problem, however, enabled Aquinas to resolve the long-running contradiction in Christian teaching on the afterlife, between the Bible’s demand for bodily resurrection and the Platonic soul that neither needed nor wanted such a body. Thomas deduced that even if the rational soul could maintain some kind of existence after the death of its body, it was nonetheless a very unsatisfactory state for the soul to be in. It still needed a body in order to receive information, act, communicate with others, and so on. In short, what the soul needed was to have its body back again, to restore the whole person. Here at last was a practical purpose, lacking in the Platonist version of Christianity, for the resurrection of the body. It would be the occasion for the reuniting of the bodies and souls of those who had died, ready to face eternity as complete selves.

Here was a sound workable description of human persons; but as the centuries rolled on from the thirteenth to the seventeenth, Aquinas’s authorities—Aristotle and the Bible—both began to wane as secure sources of knowledge in science and philosophy. Into their shoes stepped a new pair of twins, empiricism and rationalism. As the late Middle Ages finally gave way to the Enlightenment, the carefully observed and recorded world of the senses on the one hand, and the self-authenticating reasoning of the human mind on the other, would become the hallmarks of a new intellectual age. In terms of understanding human identity, René Descartes (1596–1650) was a pivotal figure. Aristotle and Aquinas had been mistaken, he said, to suppose that the rational soul (that is, the thinking mind) and the physical body were bound together by any kind of necessity. Returning to a more Platonist stance, he insisted that the mind and not the body constituted the self, the human subject. The ‘I’, of whom Descartes famously wrote, ‘I think, therefore I am,’[2] was his mind alone.

Descartes had moved decisively away from Aristotle’s view that the mind was dependent for all its knowledge on the bodily senses, but there was a difficulty with his new position. It might be possible in theory for humans to function as pure minds, without bodies, but in practice none of us ever does. Our minds and our bodies are always experienced as interdependent. Descartes knew this, and it bothered him. In a rare holistic moment he admitted, ‘I am not just lodged in my body, like a pilot in a ship, but . . . so intermingled with it that I seem to compose with it one whole.’[3] Yet he still maintained that mind and body were quite different kinds of stuff, although he was never able to explain how they might interact. Despite this ‘interaction problem’, Cartesian dualism held the field until the mid-twentieth century when it eventually began to crack through its inherent contradictions. The story of how, in the last century, neuroscientists and philosophers have worked together to forge a more satisfying picture of human personhood, is told in the first two contributions to this collection.

Shaun Gallagher is a philosopher with strong links to the neuroscience community, and his opening paper ‘On the limits of finding human identity in the brain’ demonstrates the way in which scientific observation of the brain and its functions has fed into philosophical theories of the self, theories which in their turn have helped to direct the course of neuroscientific research. William Lyons’ survey of ‘Philosophy of mind in our time’ displays the fruits of a life-time immersed in the subject as a writer and teacher. The focus is on the constant changing of how we understand the mind and the body and the nature of the relationship between them. As Lyons charts the inexorable decline over the last century of Cartesian dualism, he describes the consequent ebb and flow of various rival theories to account for conscious experience and our sense of bodily control (the mind–body problem).

One promising avenue of research treats consciousness and selfhood as emergent realities that evolve when physical organisms reach a given degree of complexity. In our third paper, ‘The emergent self’, theologian Philip Clayton explains how this physically rooted but non-reductive view of personhood unfolds naturally into areas like moral responsibility and continuing existence after death, but without needing to make unsupportable metaphysical claims. A few Christian philosophers have embraced a more robustly reductive understanding of the findings of neuroscience, as demonstrated in Kevin Corcoran’s article, ‘A materialist view of human persons and belief in the afterlife’. In his view, the fine-grained dependence of consciousness on neural activity renders any additional level of self or soul superfluous, whether to explain causal agency or to account for personal existence after the death of the earthly body.

In the final article in this collection, ‘Religion and the brain: what can science tell us about belief in God?’, Michael Fuller examines the frequently made claim that cognitive neuroscience explains away religious belief and undermines the truth and integrity of religion, a claim that he shows to be unsubstantiated.

Personally I find it interesting that opponents of religion find a ground for attack in the fact that religious experience is known to be accompanied by measurable changes in the brain. To my mind, the presence of these neural correlates of reported religious experience serve, if anything, to affirm the reality of such experiences in the life of embodied human persons. Francis Crick overstated his case when he said we are ‘nothing but’ a pack of neurons, but it remains true that we are ‘not less’ than the sum of our embodied experience. It should give us confidence to know that neurotheology points to a physical substrate for our mental and spiritual experience and our sense of personhood.


[1] Francis Crick, 1994. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Simon & Schuster), p.1.

[2] René Descartes, 1641/1901. Meditations on the First Philosophy, trans. J. Veitch (available in various print and electronic formats, e.g. http://philos.wright.edu/Descartes/Meditations.html), Meditation 2.

[3] Descartes, Meditations on the First Philosophy, Meditation 6.