Secular humanism is impossible.
Well maybe not. There may be a way to get there that I don’t know. But I say “it is impossible” to draw attention to a massive contradiction, a huge crack in the foundation, of contemporary atheism.
The problem arises if we start with the amateur philosophy currently being attempted by some biologists. They have presented arguments against the existence of God that I addressed somewhat in my previous post “Belief vs. Unbelief: Cleaning Up the Playing Field.” These biologists are eager to reduce reality to a mechanical material basis as opposed to a personal spiritual basis. That is understandable because they want reality to fit the language they speak, to fit the methods of inquiry they use. It is extremely inconvenient for those whose language has no word for “snow” and whose field of inquiry is the Sahara desert to consider that something such as snow might also be real. To be fair, the biologists’ discipline has been under attack by fundamentalists for decades. The shouts of the fundamentalists echo in biologists’ ears, so they are – perhaps understandably -- responding to those shouts rather than to the softer voices of a reasonable faith.
But here is the contradiction for a secular humanism that relies on the work of these biologists to deny God: the same biologists are equally committed to denying the existence of the human soul. This much is consistent. If the universe is devoid of meaning, value, truth, beauty, goodness, and spirit, then humankind as a part of that universe must be equally worthless. They argue that our religious sentiments, along with our feelings for each other, our appreciation of art, and our moral values are all just bio-chemical processes. They assert that, although I may think that I love my family, my feeling for them is just a set of biochemical processes triggered in my brain when I am with them. It doesn’t really mean anything about our relationship. Philosophers call that kind of argument “reductionism” – saying that something we generally regard as significant is actually insignificant. Please understand, I am not saying all biologists are reductionists. Quite the contrary. Francis Collins, for example, is one of our foremost bio-geneticists and a defender of faith in the midst of science.
The result of reductionist reasoning – which I intend to challenge – is that humanity is no more important than anything else. Consciousness does not matter. Sentience does not matter. Our capacities for philosophical interpretation, artistic expression, and most certainly religious intuition do not matter. The content of our minds – hopes, dreams, aspirations, compassion, etc. – are of no importance since they are just bio-chemical processes. Herein lies the contradiction for secular humanism, which makes an ultimate value of humanity, something science has proven to be worthless.
Do human beings matter? Does life have value? Is our presence on this globe is of any importance? These are large questions. I would hold that we can have value only if value itself is possible. Linguistic philosophers would call that “a necessary truth.” It has its own internal logic. Human life can be meaningful only if the universe as a whole is meaningful. Given that any individual life is brief, and the universe will outlive our species, it is very difficult to make a case that a life has lasting meaning unless it is part of a larger meaning, albeit a mysterious one.
But for now, I will limit this inquiry to the reductionist scientists' main point of attack – the existence or non-existence of the soul – which they rightly see as connected to the existence or non-existence of God. Again, they have found that our thoughts and feelings correspond to demonstrable bio-chemical processes. Therefore, they reason, the soul is a mumbo-jumbo hoax.
Their point calls for two basic responses. The first is to challenge their philosophical interpretation of their findings. (One can be a perfectly adequate scientist without being particularly adept at philosophy of science, just as one can be a fine athlete without being a terribly astute analyst of the sport for TV commentary. The biologists might be as adept at philosophy and theology as philosophers and theologians would be at biology.) The second is to ask what we mean by the “soul” since the thing they claim does not exist may not be what we mean by the “soul” anyway.
First, let’s look at their interpretation of the demonstrable fact that thoughts and feelings correspond to bio-chemical processes. The bias of reductionists is to construe this correspondence in terms of a materialistic (stuff that has a chemical composition is real; things that do not have a chemical composition are not) mechanical (cause and effect relationships like billiard balls or falling dominoes, as opposed to personal interaction like people dancing) explanations.
However, even the staunchest atheist philosopher, David Hume, said that such causation is merely a hypothesis. Mechanistic cause and effect of the sort the reductionists assume is philosophically questionable, to say the least. And the greatest skeptic of all time, Renee Descartes, would have pointed out that the observations of their experiments and certainly the interpretation of their findings are merely descriptions of the bio-chemical processes in the brains of the reductionist scientists. Their own observations and interpretations, are by their own admission, mere bio-chemical processes occuring inside thier own skulls. The biologists have no basis for claiming objective truth for their own biochemical processes that deny the truth of someone else’s experience. (A case of needing to take the plank out of one's own eye.) Everything they observe may well be, as the Vedic philosophers would have put it, “a dream in the mind of God.” I do not accept the views of Hume, Descartes, or the Vedantists. I merely note the huge mountains the reductionists have ignored rather than climbed over.
To put a point on the issue of causation (which is the basis of the reductionist argument): If two things happen together, how are we to say which has caused the other? If I am in a room that is 95 degrees and begin to sweat and so remove my sweater, what would the bio-chemical analysis say? It would say my bio-chemistry caused the room to become hot. Take for example two lovers: did their inner biochemistry cause them to love each other or did their love affect their biochemistry? Is it a new or surprising discovery of science to say that my heart beats faster when I see the one I love? Does my pulse rate cause the feeling of love or did my feeling of love affect my heartbeat?
My challenge to the biologists’ materialist/mechanist leap of faith is this: Suppose two people feel kindly toward each other, admire each other, and remain devoted to each other’s well being. A musical composer might observe them and write a sonata to express the relationship of these two people. That would be a spiritual way of expressing what is happening. The composer would see the dynamic between the two people as essentially personal and relational rather like music. The reductionist scientist would observe the same dynamic and describe it in terms of bio-chemistry, thus reducing their relationship to the material and mechanistic.
Ah and who wins? Obviously the biologist, since scientists are the high priests in our time. (Who ordained them?) They have the greater authority. (Who gave it to them?) But wait. What about the physicists? Are not the very molecules the biologists study made up of atoms and the atoms of sub-atomic particles? According to the physicists, these atoms and sub-atomic particles are not behaving like a material mechanistic reality. Rather, they behave personally and relationally. According to the physicists, these two people, at their most basic “material” level, are quite spiritual, and their connection to each other appears to be an expression of their essentially spiritual nature. (See e.g., Tervethick, “Quantum Spirituality”; Winter, “Paradoxy: Spirituality In A Quantum Universe”; Aaron, “A New Reality: A Wakeup Call To Life’s Mysteries”; Zukov, “The Dancing Wu Li Masters”; Capra, “The Tao Of Physics.”)
It seems that any event may have layers of interpretation: spiritual, then material, then spiritual again, and so on – a vertiable parfait of interpretation -- as if perhaps spirit and matter are inter-related, as the scientist theologian Pierre Teilhard Chardin said and as the doctrines of Incarnation and Sacrament teach.
Events are only what they are. True. But what are they? We cannot perceive an event without interpretation. (See Martin Heidegger & Hans Gadamer.) And we interpret through the lens of our own worldview. There is no way out of that for any of us. We can only try to be aware of the subjectivity of the lens through which we look at things. The reductionists who deny the soul, and with it the meaning of life, are the epitome of Eurocentric rationalist arrogance – not in reaching a facile conclusion but in failing to see the limitation of their perspective. This is the attitude that gave us colonialism, with all its barbarous cultural genocide. It is incongruous to see the surge of such arrogant materialist rationalism in the Post-Modern world, which is supposed to be beyond that kind of pseudo-objectivity.
Now to the second response: what do we mean by “the soul”? The thing the reductionists purport to have disproven is a non-material vaporous entity that can be infused into a body and slip out of the body. It is ostensibly immortal since it does not die but floats away when the body dies. That may in fact be a common idea of the soul, but is it what Christianity means by the word? Is it what our theologians teach?
A bit of history: Various ancient peoples believed similar, though perhaps not identical, things about a life-force that animated living things, especially people. They believed that this life-force came from somewhere before birth and went somewhere after death. We find that belief in ancient Egypt, Greece, India, Ireland, Mesoamerica, and generally around the globe. No one seems to have had a very clear explanation of it, but the belief was important for them.
Plato gave the soul real significance in philosophy. He thought that the material world was real only in a secondary, derivative way. The basic reality was abstract. The soul was an abstraction, a spiritual reality which manifested for a time in material form as the body. Plato’s view of the soul influenced Judaism through Philo and it influenced Christianity through Sts. Justin, Augustine, and others. Was he right? I don’t know. But if he was, then the biochemical processes the scientist observes are not an anomaly. They are precisely what Plato meant by the material manifestation of a spiritual reality.
If the soul as Plato undertood it is too speculative for you, Christians in the Middle Ages felt the same way. They turned away from Plato toward the ideas of his student, Aristotle. For Aristotle, and then for St. Thomas Aquinas, the soul was not in the least bit spooky. The soul was essentially the blueprint for the body. It was the shape of our material selves. To say that emotions have a physical pattern and form -- the form observed by biologists -- is not to deny the existence of the soul as Aristotle and St. Thomas understood it. Quite the contrary, it is to describe the soul. For Plato, their findings would be the footprints of the soul. For Aristotle and Thomas, they would be a description of the soul itself.
There is a third view of the soul, one which I find more helpful than the vague-life force of the Ancients or either Plato’s or Aristotle’s more philosophical descriptions. It is the view we find in several schools of psychology, though it goes by different names. Some psychological schools use the word “soul.” Others call it the Self, the Personal Self, the Core Self, etc. One really needs to have done the exercises of these disciplines -- or even better, to have practiced Buddhist meditation -- to grasp what they mean by Soul or Self. The Soul, in this view, is essentially a capacity to observe the world but more importantly to observe one’s own inner dynamics from an emotionally centered “still point.” UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Daniel J. Siegel describes this capacity in neurological terms that the biologists should be comfortable with. (See Siegel’s books, “Mindsight” and “The Mindful Brain.”) It is this core of our being that does not change. It has the extraordinary capacity to observe the fractured parts of ourselves, each of which has its own neurological hard-wiring. By force of its differentiated observation, it brings compassion and healing. The Soul is not the processes the scientists observe so much as it is another observer of the same processes, but one who watches with a kinder eye.
The interesting claim, which I readily grant partakes of faith, is the transpersonal psychologists’ belief that the universe has a Cosmic Self which underlies all the interpersonal dynamics from nations to quarks – and that the Cosmic Self and Personal Self are inextricably connected. (See e.g. Roberto Assagioli, “Psychosynthesis”; Firman and Gila, “Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of The Spirit.”) This Personal-Self-to-Cosmic-Self connection is perfectly consistent with the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and directly in line with the mystical insights of Lady Julian of Norwich. How ironic that the reductionist scientists have grasped the same point, the same connection. The soul, if it exists, is of God. They have realized that to effectively deny one, you must also deny the other.
If, indeed the Spirit of God blows across the deep (Genesis I), that divine wind will not be registered by a meteorologist’s instruments but by a harp. The right tool for the right job, after all.