Thursday, October 11, 2007

God, Neurology, and the Soul: A Jesuit Responds

As one might notice from the name of this blog, the dialogue between religion and science is an exchange with special significance for me. My ability (or inability) to reconcile the physical world with the spiritual world has tremendous impact on my perception of who and what God is. When I have difficulty, I ask people who know more than I do. Their guidance and clarity is invaluable to this pilgrim who is seeking out his God.

A few weeks ago I emailed Father Bill at the Vatican Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, seeking answers to questions related to neurology and theology. Before contacting him, I had searched for information on this subject matter but all I could find was an atheistic disposition explaining away the existence of God. Father Bill was kind enough to respond to my enquiry and I have included the email (both my questions and his response) below.

Fr. Stoeger-

My name is Tom and I write to you from Las Vegas, Nevada. For the past few years I have written to Father Chris presenting him with my bafflement in regards to religion and science, and he has been tremendously helpful in answering some of these questions (to the extent that you can be over email). I write to you to get a different angle on one such question that has been a source of frustration for me for quite sometime, since I can find no adequate answers from the theistic side of the fence. Perhaps, if your schedule allows, you can answer these for me. Please understand that I have no one else to turn to with a credible science background for guidance in these matters, so your response will be greatly appreciated.

These are my questions:
1) I have read many reports and papers on neurology that seem to suggest that God is the product of the human mind, and that evolution alone can account it's (God) invention. How does such a suggestion figure into the Christian faith?
2) The soul. Where does the soul exist? Is it in the human brain? What evidence exists to suggest it survives death?

Again, thank you for your time in reading my misunderstandings and I hope to hear from you soon.

Dear Thomas,

I am very sorry for the long delay in answering your questions!! Have been away a lot lately, and otherwise very occupied with work and other things, which I never quite catch up with .Your two questions are very good ones. With regard to the first one, it is very important to distinguish between the concept of God -- or a concept of God -- and God as God really exists. Certainly, any concept of God is a product of the human mind. There are many concepts of God -- all of them in some shape or form attempt to say something about the rich mystery of existence that we are and are part of, and the ultimate source of that. But all of those concepts are inadequate -- but some less so than others. But God God's self is independent of those concepts and also infinitely beyond any of them. We really cannot have an adequate description of God. Any description or concept of God serves, however, to disclose a reality that is at basic to reality -- ``the ground of existence and order, if you wish.'' And the less inadequate concepts of God are in some very small measure able to say a bit about who this God might be -- on the basis of what we know from philosophy and from divine revelation. E. g.that God is in some way personal, the Creator and source of existence and order, and a community of love (i. e. the Trinity). The key question from the point of view the philosophy of knowledge is, Do our concepts of God correspond to anything in reality? Does the God we conceive really exist? Certainly not in the way we ever conceive God! Because God is beyond -- much greater -- than any of our concepts of God. But, as I said above, there is a reason for our concepts of God -- there is something about reality which needs ultimate explanation and requires a basis for meaning. And our concepts of God are our very poor attempts to point to and articulate that transcendental reality. As far as question 2 goes, this presents an enormous challenge at the interface between science and philosophy. ``Soul'' is not a scientific category -- it is rather a philosophical category. And in Thomist philosophy is really equivalent to ``the substantial form of the body.'' It is NOT another substance independent of the person, but rather the form, the organization, of the person him- or herself. It is much more than the brain, or even the mind. In more scientifically accessible terms, I would say that the soul is the centered network of all the relationships --intrinsic and extrinsic -- which makes a human being (or anything else) what it is. Some of those constitutive relationships are accessible to science, and some (e. g. our ultimate relationship with God) are not.There is no purely scientific evidence that the soul survives death. But there is some definite broader evidence that it does: The fact that despite death very important relationships with those who have died persist. We are who we are because of the many people who have gone before us -- our ancestors, our parents, those who have directly or indirectly inspired us, taught us and nourished us. In some very definite way those relationships persist. And the long-term effects of our presence continue to be effective in big and small ways long after our deaths. We must also conceive that our central relationship with God as Creator also persists. Death does not sever or abrogate that relationship -- even though we only vaguely sense how that is possible.

With best wishes and prayers,
Fr. Bill


kris said...

So wait... give us your thoughts on his reply... dying to know if this helped or left you with the same qeustions...

Tom in Vegas said...

It has helped me, but more clarification is needed. I'm going to email him again once I can focus my thoughts and ask my questions satisfactorily.

Fr. Charles Ledderer said...

I like the title of your blog and the subject matter. I too find the dialog between science and religion fascinating. I have always believed that the genius of Catholicism is that, unlike fundamentalism, we do not place the two in opposition to each other.

I have a great fascination with the human brain and its workings and have pondered the same questions as you pose. I will be anxious to follow this particular discussion.

God bless you.