In this last part of the discussion we’ll examine the neural correlates and morality and summarize the discussion.
Do Neural Correlates Mean There’s No Soul?
The last sentence in the article on the NPR site really caught my eye: “If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, [the scholar said], it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.”
First, to repeat the point made in the previous blog post, it’s simplistic to claim that morality has a “mechanical explanation”– in other words, that morality boils down to “just” the operations of the material (= mechanical) brain – simply because there are neural correlates to moral experience and action.
Second, to the heart of the matter, the closing sentence refers to the view, held by different religions and philosophies, that the fundamental source of morality – and by extension, human goodness, compassion, altruism, kindness, etc. – is transcendental, such as a proposed soul, divine spark, or Mind of God. In the culture wars of the last few decades, studies on the neural substrates of the loftier realms of experience and behavior (including the one discussed here, on moral judgment) have been taken as evidence by some that we don’t need transcendental factors to account for those aspects of a human life – and by extension, that such transcendental factors do not exist: in other words, that “people do not have or need a soul.” Let’s try to unpack this.
Human psychology alone – without reference to transcendental factors – can fully account for morality, or it cannot. (And as we’ve seen, that psychology is inextricably intertwined with our neurology.) Separately, either there are transcendental factors or there are not. If we do not make the assumption that morality is based on God, then evidence that morality requires only a mind and brain is not evidence against the existence of God.
You see a similar fallacy in the cultural conflicts over the implications of biological evolution. If one believes that “God created Man,” then evidence that modern humans gradually evolved from hominid and primate ancestors sounds like an argument against the existence or importance of God. Those who think that evolution would somehow eliminate God consider evidence for it to be a kind of blasphemy, so some school boards have tried to slip creationism into science textbooks.
Yes, the evolutionary account of life on this planet does undermine the story of God the Creator in the book of Genesis, but that’s just one portrayal of the nature of God. Setting aside that particular portrayal leaves plenty of other ways that God could work in the world. Evidence that God did not create Man is not evidence that there is no God: in principle, God could exist and not have created Man. In other words, a reasonable person could believe both that evolution has unfolded without being guided by the hand of God and that God exists – and similarly believe that morality does not require God and that God exists. It is a category error, and a deeply unscientific one, to think that evidence for the neuropsychological substrates of morality is evidence against a soul (or against other transcendental factors).
In this light, one does not need to resist evidence for evolution, or for the neuropsychology of morality or spiritual experiences. This point has significant social implications, because the resistance to scientific findings out of a fear that they somehow challenge faith has dramatically lowered scientific literacy in America. For example, in the 2008, biannual survey by the National Science Board of scientific understanding, only 45% of respondents agreed that, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” Th is percentage is much lower than in Japan (78%) , Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). Similarly, only 33% of those surveyed agreed that, “The universe began with a big explosion.”
To be clear: I am not asserting that there is or is not God; nor am I asserting that, if God exists, he/she/it/none-of-the-above plays a role in mind, consciousness, or morality. I am asserting that attempts to draw inferences from neuropsychology about God’s existence or role in human affairs are usually a waste of time. At most such inferences can refute a particular theory about God’s role in life – such as God is necessary for human morality, or for the existence of our species altogether. But that leaves all sorts of other theories about God that are not yet disproved – as well as the fundamental matter that God is by definition categorically outside the realm of proofs or disproofs within the material universe.
God may or may not exist. You have to find your own beliefs in that regard – and brain science will not help you.
To go further into this topic, you may also want to check out this Key Scientific Paper on Neural Correlates of Human Virtue Judgment.