Volume 10, Number 2
Nancey Murphy Gives Talk on 'Neuroscience and the Soul'
Eugene E. Selk
On October 12, 1998, Dr. Nancey Murphy, professor of Chrisitian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, gave a lecture at Creighton University entitled "Neuroscience and the Soul" to an audience of over eighty students, faculty and members of the public. In a sense, this was a homecoming for Dr. Murphy, a 1973 summa cum laude graduate of Creighton University. She subsequently received a doctorate in philosophy of science from the University of California at Berkeley and a second doctorate in theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She is the author of nine books, numerous articles, and has lectured widely in Europe and the United States. At Creighton University's May 1998 commencement, Dr. Murphy received the alumni achievement award.
In her lecture, Dr. Murphy laid out her project as the formulation of a theory of the human person which takes into account the findings and research programs of modern neuroscience and psychology and is consonant with the Biblical account of the human person as interpreted by modern Biblical studies and the Christian tradition. According to Dr. Murphy, in order to make the move from neuroscience to a theory of human nature one needs philosophy of mind. In order to make the move from Biblical studies and the Christian tradition to a theory of human nature one needs systematic theology.
Dr. Murphy used Aquinas's account of the soul as representative of one tradition within Western Christianity. This account divides the soul into three areas of activity- the vegetative, animal, and rational. The activities assigned to the vegetative soul (growth, nutrition, and the like) have long been explained by biology. One of the principal functions of the animal soul, according to Aquinas's account, is locomotion. But this can also be accounted for by biology.
Neuroscience has located regions of the brain which explain the motions of the body. Another fuction of the animal soul for Aquinas is to account for the five exterior senses. Again, neuroscience has had much success in locating these activities in the brain. But perhaps Aquinas's interior senses are more resistant to neuro-scientific explanation? Again Murphy argued that this is not the case. One of Aquinas's interior senses is the sensus communis - the ability to collate data from the exterior senses into meaningful objects. Neuroscience calls this the "binding problem" and has made strides in developing research programs to explain this phenomena. What about Aquinas's highest level of the soul- the intellect and will? Again, promising neuro-scientific research programs are under way in this area. Studies of persons with brain tumors show that they lose different parts of speech depending on the location of the tumor. Different parts of the brain seem to be involved in semantics and syntax. Persons with frontal lobe damage lose the connection between their emotional systems and their intellect and do not appear to be able to make deliberate choices (will) about some things. They cannot live morally because they do not know the difference between right and wrong. In sum, Murphy proposes that neuroscience has either explained or has promising research programs to explain all of the activities which Aquinas assigned to soul.
Professor Murphy next turned to Biblical studies, suggesting that there is an increasing consensus among Biblical scholars that the Hebrew Scriptures present a picture of the human as physical. The New Testament is a bit more complicated. It appears to contain a mixture of Hebrew physicalism and Greek dualism. But, she proposed, we can say minimally the Hebrew and Christian scriptures do not contain body-soul dualism.
For the Christian tradition, Dr. Murphy (aware of time constraints) referred only to the John Paul II's 1996 statement on evolution. John Paul II refers to Pope Pius XII's 1950 statement that evolution is acceptable but the Church also holds that the human soul is immediately created by God. John Paul II goes on to state that science alone cannot account for the human "experience of metaphysical knowledge, of selfawareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again, of aesthetic and religious experience." He refers to this as an "ontological difference, an ontological leap" between non-human life and humans. Dr. Murphy's interest is in the shift, admittedly very subtle, between the statements of Pius XII and John Paul II. Pius XII is clearly committed to some form of dualism. But John Paul II's statement does not talk about body-soul but about an "ontological difference." The emphasis is on human nature as more than simply the material from which it emerged in the evolutionary process.
Now taking account of contemporary neuroscience, Biblical studies, and the Christian tradition, can we arrive at a coherent theory of human nature? Professor Murphy proposes that we can, and she labels it "non-reductive physicalism." This is the position that humans are made up of multiple levels of organization (atomic, molecular, organic, conscious or mental, social, ethical, and religious) and that each of these levels has properties which cannot be reduced to the next lower level. Mental activities, then, are emergent properties which cannot be reduced entirely to the next lower level of reality. Mind/soul is a higher level of organization in the human person. This is not substance dualism or for that matter any form of dualism. There is no soul in the sense of a substance distinct from the body. Human beings are a unity, but they are more than a sum of their physical constituents. (In her writings, Dr. Murphy uses the notion of supervenience to characterize the relations between the mental and the physical.) Mind or soul is a higher level of organization in a universe of multiple levels.
As an afterword, Dr. Murphy briefly addressed the issue of life after death. Most Medieval philosophers and theologians were dualists, probably because two of the most influential of the early Fathers of the Church, Origen and Augustine, were dualists. The Christian tradition evolved into a combination of Greek immortality with Semitic resurrection. The soul at death enters an intermediate state and the self is not completed until the final resurrection. But since Professor Murphy rejects dualism, she proposes that death is complete and thus the possibility of life after death depends entirely on the power and gift of God. This is the meaning of resurrection. Thus Dr. Murphy rejects intermediate state resurrection (the soul survives death and exists in an emaciated state until the final resurrection) and immortality (the soul naturally survives death and continues to live).
For further reading, see the newly published Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, eds. Warren S. Brown, Nancey C. Murphy, and H. Newton Malony.