Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine May-June 2010

The Spiritual Soul?

Scientific Holism

A Colloquium on "Body, Soul and Mind: Aquinas and modern developments in Biotechnology and neuroscience" in Oxford last March emphasised the relevance of the philosophy of science. Whilst the talks at the Dominican organised event were Aquinas-lite there was a notable recognition that what has been termed substantial formality in the Catholic metaphysical tradition can now be seen to be a holistic organic unity. The Dominican Nicanor Austriaco of Providence College, Rhode Island, compared such unity to that of a musical symphony. He pointed out that in the biological world structure predicts function - to change the behaviour of something you change its structural relationship with its environment. These insights he suggested enable us to update the increasingly unpopular Thomistic hylomorphism without reinventing the wheel.

He went on to suggest that the specific, organised, stable pattern of the human body "manifests the immaterial soul." In question time he refined this to say that it was only the specific epistemological capabilities of the human being that proved that our holistic formality was immaterial. Edward Holloway would want to tighten this position to point out that the intrinsic holistic structure of all matter is manifestly and necessarily immediately relative to an immaterial, specific, intelligent organising principle. The epistemological and environmental behaviour of the human exhibits its own specific, intelligent, organising principle - namely the spiritual soul.

David Albert Jones of St Mary's College, Twickenham, convincingly and scientifically argued for a criterion of death that eschewed anything less or, one might say, "lower down" than the breakdown of the top-level, holistic unity of the human body. Afterwards he acknowledged that his calling this a "metaphysical" criteria, with the implication that such is a priori to "taking a look", may not be helpful.

Such holistic unity applies to all physical things in the universe, as observed a posteriori by modern science.

The Evolution of the Human Brain

On 15th March, neuroscientist Prof. Colin Blakemore of Oxford and Warwick universities, delivered the Royal Society's Ferrier lecture. He showed that after the slow and gradual increases in brain size in the previous hominid groups over the previous three million years, there was a very sudden increase at the dawn of Homo Sapiens, by a factor of two relative to body weight. Blakemore argues that a single gene mutation could in fact have been the cause of this increase - for in fact only one extra cell-division step would cause a doubling of brain size. Despite the price the human being had to pay for this in terms of body energy (the brain being very energy hungry), the mutation was retained as more of a help than a hindrance. Blakemore is happy to identify the first individual with this larger brain with the human being commonly referred to as "mitochondrial Eve," "the mother of all the living."

This is in harmony with the anthropological vision of Edward Holloway, with its maintenance of the crucial matter-spirit distinction, whilst avoiding any opposition dualism. He posits that the emergence of the human species involved the emergence of a brain power that outstrips the relatively stable power of the environment to minister it control and direction. Such physical ministration is inherent to the purely physical realm below man, including the evolution of its most sophisticated organ, the brain. This is all immediately relative to the organising Mind of God. At the moment of the advent of man, this necessary mediation of control and direction is taken over by the spiritual soul, which is in the image of God.

The Evolution of Morality

In a recent series of articles in The Guardian, a number of authors have addressed the question of Darwinism and morality. Michael Ruse, a professor of philosophy and zoology at Florida

State University argues in his piece (15th March 2010) entitled 'God is dead. Long live morality', that "It has been said that the truth will set you free. Don't believe it. David Hume knew the score. It doesn't matter how much philosophical reflection can show that your beliefs and behaviour have no rational foundation, your psychology will make sure you go on living in a normal, happy manner."

In this way he undermines any connection between the rational basis of belief and action, suggesting that our universal concept of morality is entirely an illusion, practised by us as an accident of biological history, but without any real objective foundation. Writers such as Cardinal Newman and Edward Holloway have protested this irrational fad for divorcing reason from the basic psychological dynamic of affirmative human experience. As Pope Benedict has brought out, it is this very abstract, non-relational view of intelligibility, which is at the heart of the rationalism of Ruse and many others. It leads to their vision of reason without foundation and a world without God.

Michael Reiss, an evolutionary biologist now based at the University of London's Institute of Education, looks at the evidence of certain altruistic behaviour in the animal kingdom (19th March). He agrees that there is a background to the exercise of some altruism in the sub-human natural world which can be explained in a Darwinian sense of benefit to the individual or to a group or individuals. However, the fullness of what we experience in the human race, "not only the occasional rare and truly selfless individuals that there are, but the thousand small, routine acts of kindness that enable every society to run reasonably smoothly", simply cannot, be based solely on the human genetic make-up. He describes the move from merely reciprocal altruism in the animal world to the genuinely human exercise of morality as "the process beginning] to run ahead of itself." Another sign we would note of the non-material, spiritual soul.