Sometimes I’ve written entries which point to various scientific evidence that our soul-like characteristics are actually founded on matter and arise first of all, but not only, from such physical processes as hormonal flows or brain-cell activity. Soul-like characteristics seem to be matters of relationships rather than strictly of physical activity or physical states, so the hormonal flows that restructure a new mother’s behavior and perceptions work towards the benefit of her child. The hormonal flows and brain changes work to generate and strengthen maternal love.
It doesn’t bother me at all to think my stuff is ‘just’ the stuff of my body. It’s stuff that God made for His purposes. And, in its perfected form (think of the risen Christ), it’s sufficient for life without end as a companion to the Lord Jesus Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas had this to say about the relationship between a human being, his body, and his soul:
My soul [in Thomas the organ for thought] is not I; and if only souls are saved, I am not saved, nor is any man. [From the Commentary to 1 Corinthians 15 by St. Thomas Aquinas as quoted by Hannah Arendt in "The Life of the Mind" (page 43).]
Aquinas’ major mistake in regards to understanding human nature was thinking an immaterial entity was necessary for human (mostly abstract) thought, but he never made the mistake of placing core human attributes, which we share to some extent with other animals, in the soul. It is the physical man who loves, has faith, and has hope even if Aquinas thought those to be refined by association with the higher thoughts of the ‘soul’.
We’re creatures, embodied objects of God’s love. It bothers me not at all, surprises me not at all, to see growing empirical evidence indicating that our substance is that of our body and that, unlike even Aquinas’ moderate views, we probably are not some sort of pasting together of physical substance and some soul-stuff. It seems to me better to be this stuff that sits and types rather than some mysterious stuff with radically different properties than anything the biological me can even detect. Who would I be if I were not this flesh-and-blood me? My soul is not me. My soul is even less than St. Thomas thought. The soul is a set of aspects of this biological me, aspects coming from my relationships to God and my fellow-men and to this world created by God. And so, I retract my claim — my soul is part of me but it comes into being when the flesh-and-blood me responds actively to God and God’s Creation.
We shouldn’t be overly disturbed by the various scientific findings that tie us ever more tightly to this flesh-and-blood which is us. So, I’ll continue to make note of some of those findings, noting also that we do possess those aspects and characteristics which are considered by man to belong to the soul. In fact, we are heirs to a profound understanding of important aspects of human nature that was developed in the Bible, in the writings of Virgil and Shakespeare, in the music of Bach and Beethoveen. What we did was to fool ourselves into thinking that we have an invisible and undetectable substance that somehow controlled our flesh-and-blood substance. This was a dangerous understanding. Errors of such magnitude will always cause loss of faith in our human selves and even in our Creator when they’re seen as errors. Errors of this sort have likely played a role in the loss of faith in this age where we have good reason to know that science gives us certain kinds of truths and those truths which must be accepted on faith are presented by most Christians as being tied to ideas in conflict to those lesser but verifiable truths of science. Our children and neighbors will either think us to be crazy or lying.
Let me discuss a couple of recent empirical findings about human nature, starting with The right side of fair play:
Now, Daria Knoch and colleagues at the University of Zurich have discovered that this desire for justice is influenced by a small part of the brain – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or DLPFC – which constantly suppresses our more selfish urges.
Note that word ‘influenced’. Think also back to those poor sons or daughters of alcoholics who also had an overly strong taste for the elixir of life. When we’re concerned for another human being, we freely admit there is something to this inheritance of traits which have a bearing upon our behavior and characters but some of us are insulted when evolutionary biologists or geneticists say something similar. At the same time, we must remember We do have a substantial amount of moral freedom. It takes effort and patience and often a humble willingness to seek help for us to exercise proper moral control over our tendencies, but we can do much even when we lose the battle. With conscious awareness, we can sometimes overcome our selfishness, probably even when our DLPFC isn’t doing its job.
Some believe that we human beings are in a war of sorts against fallen souls when we’re actually in a struggle to discipline the different parts and aspects of our organic selves to higher moral standards. The explanations of evolutionary biology and the books of Moses are different but the reality is the same, even when it concerns male promiscuity as in this article: Of voles and men: exploring the genetics of commitment where we read
Love is all around us and love is in the air, and if I know my mainstream science reporters, today they will have you believe that love is in our genes too. A new report suggests that variation in a gene called AVPR1A has a small but evident influence on the strength of a relationship, the likelihood of tying the knot and the risk of divorce. It’s news for humans, but it’s well-known that the gene’s rodent counterpart affects the bonds between pairs of voles.
Humans have our own version of the vasopressin receptor, with its very own unmemorable acronym – AVPR1A. Like its vole counterpart, it’s preceded by an important stretch of DNA that is rife with repetitive sequences. These are known as “repeat polymorphisms”; they are short genetic leitmotifs that vary in number from person to person. According to earlier research, these variations in this sequence can affect human behaviour and are linked to altruistic tendencies, the risk of autism and the age at which people first have sex.
We can now add the strength of relationships to that list.
Vasopressin is far [from] the only molecule involved in forming relationships, even in voles and there is still much we don’t know about the other players involved.
On the morning of June 7, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI “received participants in the sixth European Symposium of University Professors, which is being held in Rome from June 4-7 on the theme: Broadening the Horizons of Reason. Prospects for Philosophy.” [Vatican Information Service press release of June 7, 2008.] I discussed this address in Engaging the Thought of Pope Benedict XVI: Broadening the Horizons of Reason. In that address, Pope Benedict said:
Modernity is not simply a historically-datable cultural phenomenon; in reality it requires a new focus, a more exact understanding of the nature of man.
What we are seeing in all these scientific research results is the empirical foundations of that more exact understanding of man. What we modern men need to do is to take these mountains of empirical knowledge, some of it so raw as to be facts or data and not yet knowledge, and make sense of it in light of our higher-level understandings of human nature and our small treasure of revealed truths, especially those which tell us of the relationship between creature and Creator. In an age where too many men are able to use modern empirical knowledge to more brutally exploit others or to simply kill them in large numbers, we have a chance to use this “more exact understanding of the nature of man” to do some good, to help us shape our own moral characters and those of our children. We have a chance to help us shape ourselves and our children to better serve God.