The Clash of Science and Spirituality

by Lee M. Silver

Lee M. Silver is a professor of Molecular Biology and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. His book discusses the politics and science of embryonic stem cell research and genetic engineering. Dr. Silver is a humanist whose goal in life is to serve mankind, not God.

After describing a religious service he attended conducted by Rabbi Daniel Brenner, he says:

Brenner knows that many of the adults in this particular congregation are well-educated, left-leaning agnostics or outright atheists. In either case, they—as I—do not believe in any kind of transcendent God who inspires from above on a daily basis. (p. 14)

The existence of God is not a matter of “belief” or faith. We know God exists from reason. The first one to prove the existence of God was Aristotle, but the logic of the reasoning was firmed up and made more explicit and by Thomas Aquinas.

The best way to explain the proof is to begin with the metaphysical concept of God: You exist and I exist, but I am not you and you are not me. In other words, we are two different beings or finite beings. God is a being that is not like this. God is an infinite being. Another way it is sometimes put is that God is totally other.

The reason an infinite being exists is that a finite being needs a cause outside of itself. A finite being can’t be the cause of its own existence because it can’t exist except as finite. An infinite being, on the other hand, can be the reason for its own existence. If every being in the universe needed a cause, the universe would be absurd. Hence, there must exist at least one infinite being if there exists a finite being.

What is a matter of faith or belief is whether God has communicated Himself to mankind. Christians, Muslims, and Jews believe our freedom is before God and when we die our past will somehow be gathered up and this will be the defining moment of our lives. Faith is a positive response to revelation.

I believe in the Bible because of our salvation history, which is told by the Jewish prophets Moses and Jesus and the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Another reason I believe is that when you ask people why they don’t believe in the Bible, they give very bad reasons. Dr. Silver’s discussion of free will is an example of the kind of answer you get from nonbelievers:

Free will is commonly interpreted to mean “the power of directing our own actions without [total] constraint by necessity or fate.” The conviction that human beings are endowed with such a power is pervasive, even more so than a belief in the human soul…As a philosophical concept, free will is like an onion whose skin has been completely peeled away: at its core, it ceases to exist. (p. 59)

That human beings have free will is especially clear when you do something hard, like staying on a diet. It is so easy to break the diet that there is no doubt that we have the ability to either do it or not do it. Just as it is irrational to reject an experimental result because it does not support a preconceived theory, it is irrational to deny human beings have free will.

Pierre Duhem (1861–1916), an historian of science, gave a pointed analogy: Imagine a man who collects seashells and arranges them according to their colors. He has built a chest of drawers and has labeled each of the draws one of the colors of the rainbow. When he finds a blue seashell he puts it in the blue draw, a red seashell goes in the red drawer, and so on. One day, he finds a white seashell. He goes back to his chest of drawers and says, “White seashells don’t exist.”

Dr. Silver discusses in his book the souls of chimerical, identical, and fraternal twins. Free will’s twin is knowledge. We could not choose between alternatives if we didn’t know what the alternatives were. But, what is knowledge? Consider the color of an object in your line of vision. Knowing an object is green means more than light is entering your eye and a signal is going to your brain. It means there is an awareness that the object is green.

The questions what is free will and what is knowledge is equivalent to the question: What is man? Saying man is a rational animal does not shed light on the question. Nor does Dr. Silver’s analysis:

In the early twentieth century, many philosophers and psychologists who dismissed the existence of free will (on the basis of the logical argument I’ve just presented) came to the conclusion that consciousness, feeling, imaginings, and subjective inner self must be illusions as well…But how can we explain the “self” in the context of a physicalist [materialist] theory that declares free will to be an illusion? A startling solution to this dilemma was described in 1755 by the Swiss biologist Charles Bonnet: “The soul is nothing more than a simple spectator of the movements of its body. It may believe itself to be the author of them, but the body alone is responsible for all the actions that constitute life. It is the body alone that solves problems, imagines, and executes all kinds of plans.” This philosophical view of life and soul, now called epiphenomenalism, is supported by a massive amount of experimental evidence obtained with the tools of modern neurobiology. (p. 61)

What Dr. Silver is discussing here is the famous mind-body problem of philosophy: I have a hand and I can move my hand about as I wish. But, if an accident severs my hand, I still continue to exist. My hand is something that I have. In general, my body is something that I have. The mind-body problem is: What is the relationship between ourselves and our bodies?

Mr. Bonnet’s answer is no answer at all. It is an example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The experience is precisely that our body is something we have. Saying there is only the body and that the experience is an illusion is nonsense.

The reason Dr. Silver doesn’t see the unreasonableness of epiphenomenalism is that he sees very clearly the irrationality of saying human beings possess a separate spiritual substance called a soul. The soul, according to Dr. Silver, is infused into embryos when they are formed and continues to exist after human beings die. Mr. Silver knows that this is not true and it makes him feel invulnerable. The trouble with this feeling is that “educated people,” a category he refers to a number of times, abandoned this concept of the soul in the Middle Ages. This idea comes from Greek philosophy and primitive religions. As a result of the experience of the body as something we have, people are inclined to believe that when they die, it is only their body that is destroyed and their soul will survive. Dr. Silver is quite mistaken to attribute this point of view to Catholic bishops:

They [Catholic bishops at a meeting] all agreed with the official position of the Vatican that a human being was not just an organism, but a special organism with a human soul provided immediately—that is, directly and instantaneously—by God. (p. 106)

Catholics and many other Christians believe in the Nicene Creed the last line of which is: “We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” The sins referred to includes original sin, also called hereditary sin or birth sin, which is passed on to infants through sexual generation from Adam and Eve. The idea infants inherit original sin from their parents, but get their souls from God is theological nonsense.

According to Thomas Aquinas, man is a composition of two incomplete beings: a material incomplete being and an immaterial incomplete being that are metaphysically combined to form one being. The way Karl Rahner, a prominent Catholic theologian, put it is that man is an indefinability that becomes conscious of its own existence. The trouble with the concept of the soul is that it implies there are two beings: man and this other thing called the soul. Medieval philosophers realized that man is a being, not many beings, and discarded what is called Greek dualism.

I agree with Dr. Silver’s ideas about why people believe in the Bible:

It is easy to understand how people in primitive societies could conclude that such otherworldly ceremonial sensations were spiritually evoked. A shared feeling of spirit would instill a heightened sense of community among members of the tribe. Individuals would be more eager to cooperate, and men would show greater valor in battle. The promise of heaven for the virtuous and the threat of hell for laggards amplified the effect. As a result, more spiritually inclined tribes would gain an advantage in warfare over less spirited neighbors…With each generation, the proportion of spiritually-inclined people would tend to increase. (p.71)

I might add to this that natural selection operates within the tribe itself to make the tribe more spiritual. A tribal member who is perceived as being antisocial, or a moral idiot, might have trouble finding someone to mate with. To give a more timely illustration, a woman on a date with Sigmund Freud in 19th century Austria might think he was not a good match because he would have trouble explaining to their children why they should be good. Sigmund Freud, I should explain, was a proseletizing atheist. He is quoted in Ernest Jones’s book (Sigmund Freud, 2:465) as follows:

When I ask myself why I have always behaved honorably, ready to spare others and to be kind whenever possible, and when I did not give up being so when I observed that in that way one harms oneself and becomes an anvil because other people are brutal and untrustworthy, then it is true, I have no answer.

It is clear from his book that Dr. Silver has a happy family life and I’m sure his kids are great. I hope, however, they are not paying attention when he says things like this:

And eventually, according to fundamental principles of physics, life in general must come to an end…So what’s the point? Although I keep listening, because it’s depressing not to, I have yet to hear a good answer, other than there is no point. (p. 214)