Is Neuroscience Doing Away With the Soul?

Cardinal Camillo Ruini on a Philosophical Challenge

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ROME, JAN. 17, 2004 ( Are the new frontiers of neuroscience and artificial intelligence doing away with notions of the soul?

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the Pope's vicar for Rome and president of the Italian episcopal conference, responded to the question in an interview with the "2004 Philosophy Yearbook," published by Mondadori. Here are some of the cardinal's answers.

Q: For the ancients, the problem seemed to be the soul. For the moderns, it is the body. If this is so, why such a profound change?

Cardinal Ruini: I would hesitate greatly before accepting such a categorical and global alternative. Limiting ourselves to Western civilization, in each one of its great phases it seems that interest is clearly present in each of these two alternatives, [...] "body" and "soul."

The denial of the reality proper to the soul, that is, its reduction to the body, was already explicitly theorized by important philosophical schools of antiquity. In the same way, among scientists of our day, there is no lack of those who show themselves to be openly skeptical to the idea of reducing the mind to the brain.

The weakening of interest in the soul is linked, without a doubt, to the so-called end of metaphysics, especially in the form that this end took with Nietzsche and those after him. It can be read as the ultimate expression and legitimization of narrow-mindedness in regard to what is relative, in what can be experienced.

Beyond philosophical and theological attempts to negotiate with the "end of metaphysics," [...] its meaning, or at least its prevailing interpretation, has been and continues to be that of denial of the existence of a reality that is not "nature," namely, the universe of all that is body.

In this connection, the "end of metaphysics" does not seem to be substantially differentiated from the preceding materialist philosophical positions and, like them, leaves no room either for the spiritual soul or the existence of God.

Q: No matter how varied the answers have been, the questions on immortality and hope have been present in human cultures for long periods. For a long time, at least in the West, this sensibility seems to have been anesthetized. Do you think the call to immortality has been diluted or exhausted in the West? Why?

Cardinal Ruini: Before speaking of immortality, it is worth asking oneself about death, as death itself, despite the fact that it obviously continues to be an absolutely certain fact, has been extremely marginalized from our concrete experience.

It is not difficult to point out the reasons and meaning for this marginalization. The progress of medicine and the improvement of economic and social conditions have led, in fact, over the last 50 years, to an extraordinary increase in life expectancy.

In a parallel way, social customs that affect relations with the deceased have also changed and have attenuated the socioeconomic consequences of death. The duration of mourning, in fact, at the public level, is limited virtually to the day of the funeral.

It is true that the death of dear ones, especially when it takes place at a young age, continues to be today -- even more than in the past -- an experience that affects one profoundly and often makes the reasons and taste for life falter.

This worsening of the tragic dimension of death can be placed in relation with the growth and deepening of personal and intimate aspects of the emotional bonds that has taken place in the modern age. In the end, hope is weakened in the immortality present in the culture and in the view of life prevalent today.

The meaning and reasons for the weakening of this hope are better understood in the light of a phenomenon that for a long time has attracted the attention of some thinkers such as, for example, Habermas. I am referring to the loss of confidence in salvation that comes from God, in redemption and in grace, phenomena that for the first time seem to be evident in European countries, although with different intensity and, of course, with great exceptions among believers.

Q: Some say that two possibilities are opening before us. The first leads to giving up the soul because of the naturalist scientific spirit that reduces the soul to the mind and the latter to the brain. The other wishes to take up again the path of rediscovery of the soul and its dwellings, overcoming the objection that anthropology and psychology are two branches of natural science. In your opinion, which is the prevailing way?

Cardinal Ruini: Indeed, in the last decades the so-called anthropological question has captured the attention with new vigor and new motivations.

It is placed next to great classical questions, such as "institutional" and "social policy," which have influenced the West's historical events for over two centuries, and which lately have assumed a global dimension.

The "anthropological question" shows characteristics that are even more radical than the others and seems to be destined to be ever more acute and present in the century that has just begun. Paraphrasing Marx's famous thesis on Feuerbach, we could say that it is not just a question of interpreting man, but especially of transforming him.

Specifically, the technologies are appropriating the totality of our body, including the brain, and of the generation of our being, namely, human procreation.

The modifications of our mental states induced by pharmacology and the extraordinary possibilities of artificial intelligence seem to offer a new and effective support and almost a definitive confirmation, apparently scientific, to "philosophies of the mind" that, taking up again former hypotheses, believe that they can reduce our intelligence and our freedom to the functioning of the brain, which in turn can be equated or surpassed through the development of artificial sciences.

This situation, however, must not be considered as irreversible. A rigorous analysis of the characteristics of our intelligence and freedom, of its ways of acting and the results it achieves, can show the problems its reduction to the brain imply.

On the other hand, a more specific analysis of so-called artificial intelligence indicates that the latter, in the end, is not really "thought," but simply a simulation of our intelligence, realized in virtue of what we know of ourselves, as Alberto Oliverio has observed.

Q: For some time, questions of the soul, of immortality, of resurrection seem to be less attractive to Christian theology. In your opinion, what is the reason for this phenomenon? Could Christian theology take up these topics again on its own, or is it necessary that it dialogue with the other scientific and philosophic disciplines?

Cardinal Ruini: To tell the truth, the theology of the 20th century, in the first place the Protestant and then the Catholic, has insisted much on eschatology, recovering above all this eschatological tension that is present in the New Testament.

Eschatology is not restricted to the question of death and the realities that come after death, but is considered as a fundamental dimension and characteristic of all theological reflection.

Some currents, which were especially strong in the '60s and '70s, such as the "theology of hope" and "political theology," and more specifically the "theologies of liberation," without a doubt have emphasized more the future that must be constructed in history and not so much the future that must be awaited as gift after death.

The emergence of the present "anthropological question" now calls, precisely, for a new effort from theological thought to demonstrate that life after death is credible and also to address in a global way the anthropological problems, so that the promise of eternal life will not seem something foreign and in the end incompatible with our concrete reality.