Faith & Reason: The Soul Is Coming Back into Science New Ideas about Consciousness Have Sent Modern Thinkers Back to Some Old Ideas, Writes Andrew Brown

Article excerpt

WHAT is the distinction between an eternal and an immortal soul? One answer seems to be that, east of the Oder-Niesse line, they're still immortal. Western Christians will settle for eternity. This all matters because the soul is coming back into science: a statement which is a lot less mystical than it can sound.

The dominant intellectual current in the scientific world at the moment is one of confidence that there are enough grand principles and cute technologies around to explain anything, including consciousness and the soul. A lot of this current is aggressively atheistic. Nick Humphrey, the author of one of the earliest current theories of how consciousness might have evolved, has argued that the state should prevent parents from teaching their children religious beliefs that he finds abhorrent, and written a book dismissing Jesus as a sort of conjuror.

Against this, religions of all sorts have two strategies. One is to hope that science will never explain the soul. The other is to get there first, and defend their territories on whatever will be found. The omens for the first plan do not look good. It concedes, for one thing, the idea that religion is there to explain the things that science can't, which leaves a remarkably passive and insecure position from which to await developments. The assumption will rapidly grow that scientific knowledge is the only sort that is reliable, and the only sort capable of growth. In fact that is pretty much what has already happened in popular culture - except that large swamps of bottomless credulity have also appeared there, in which strange monsters roam, devouring science and religion with equal voracity. The idea that the soul is a kind of necessary cognitive illusion, a trick of perception like the illusions that allow us - or compel us - to see a succession of still pictures as a river of seamless movement across a screen might seem like the ultimate triumph of science against this first strategy. It dates back at least to Freud, who saw religion as rooted in the natural inadequacies of human perception, so that we mistake our parents for cosmic principles. However much of the rest of his theories have been discarded, this has stayed alive in the popular imagination. But actually it is much older than that; and in this fact lies at least one route for religion to occupy the high ground before the troops of science get there. …