The Evolution of the Soul: A Thought Experiment

The Evolution of the Soul: A Thought Experiment

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AscentFor all its success in sounding Roland’s horn to save planet Earth, Al Gore’s multi-media ecology lesson An Inconvenient Truth may well have muffled other notable calls-to-environmental-action. Published simultaneously, E. O Wilson’s The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth —the author’s twenty-first book on evolutionary biology—is framed as an appeal to a Southern Baptist pastor. In it, the noted entomologist argues that avoiding ecological disaster depends upon overcoming the mutual alienation between Enlightenment science and biblical religion. As such, it represents an important change in tone from Harvard’s famous founder of sociobiology.1

Previously, Wilson’s magisterial Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge advocated for science to replace religion as the center of the effort to unify human knowledge.2 Now he wishes to weave into a whole fabric all that humans have learned across the entire range of our cultural, scientific andreligious heritage for the sake of reversing humanity’s history as a planetary killer. Wilson’s conciliatory approach to overcoming the intellectual animosity that characterizes “science and religion” in the U.S. has planted some seeds of hope that other conversations can take place between protagonists of the party of evolution and of the party of transcendence. Specifically, between those whose understanding of the brain leaves no room for spiritual identities unbounded by our physical bodies and others who still cherish belief in a creator God and the Creator’s gift of a human soul. To date, such a conversation has been difficult to stage because, according to many evolutionary scientists, neurobiology, by the principle of Occam’s razor, makes any notion of a soul redundant.3

In the soul’s place, they find merely the operation of evolved and genetically-transmitted neurons in the brain. Thus the Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker speaks of the self, the soul, or the “conscious mind” as but an illusion that “the brain works hard to produce.”4 In this view, millennia of evolutionary adaptation have haphazardly and accidentally thrown off a self-referential symbol-generating feedback system (i.e., the human brain) that “gives rise to what feels like a self” as Douglas Hofstadter puts it in his brilliant but problematical work I am a Strange Loop.5

A card-carrying member of today’s cognoscenti, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979) and collaborator with philosopher Daniel Dennett, Hofstadter avers that “the strange loop of selfhood” is a trap into which all humans fall “nilly-willy.”6 The “I” feedback loop, an endless hall of mental mirrors, tricks the brain into perceiving itself as a subject or self. Fortunately, avers Hofstadter, the trap of selfhood does no harm if taken with a grain of salt. Without doing so, humans evidence the swollen neurology diagnosed by the late Steven Jay Gould, spinning out even grander illusions, e.g., religious beliefs about a divine creator. Nothing more than grandiose attempts to escape mortality, such religious illusions create the bevy of social and political ills that Dennett, among others, decries so vehemently.7 Therefore, any notion that the human soul is spiritual, an exception to evolution, should go the way of the flat earth. In response, believers have insisted that human beings as human exist via a special and immediate creation by God of each individual’s spiritual essence.8

So here is the conversational challenge: Can religious thought encounter the ever-increasing physical, chemical, and biological evidence for humanity’s evolution in a more positive way than with the caveat “We’re not like the rest of creation!”? Perhaps. But only if we can find some common ground on which to start a conversation. And here, Wilson invites both bio-scientists and believers to discover such common ground by affirming together that humanity bears a unique responsibility for “creation,” the biosphere, the totality of living things in their glorious diversity. Onto this common ground, the evolutionary science of creation brings evidence that human consciousness, as evolved, exists in a continuum with all living things but bears a unique moral responsibility for the biosphere. For their part, believers bring their conviction that the very existence of the biosphere argues for a bottom-line Integrity to Reality, a oneness or unity (but not identity) of the Creator and the whole of creation, which remains the common belief behind Judaism’s Echad Hu (“God is One”), Christianity’s Credo in Unum Deum and Islam’s Allah Hu Akbar (“God is Great”)—a deep agreement lying athwart all the other variances that keep the religions of the Book apart.

If we can occupy this common ground, even tentatively, then believers might be able to relate to the emerging science of the soul in a similar way that Thomas Aquinas related to the natural philosophy of Aristotle. Accepting the cosmic reality of evolution, we today might extend the principle that “grace elevates and perfects nature” to this astounding natural phenomenon. For Christianity’s profession that the Originating Divine Principle created “all things visible and invisible” should be able to encompass the mind-boggling discovery that we live in a fourteen billion year-old universe made up of as many as 400 billion galaxies among which one alone, our own Milky Way, holds up to 400 billion stars like our Sun. And Christian faith’s view of the human being should be able to embrace the evidence that our brains have evolved from the very star-stuff that has, in us, become conscious of our kinship with the stars. Which brings me to propose the following thought-experiment: that what is most human about us, our “soul,” indeed has evolved but that, as evolved rather than immediately created, human consciousness is no less a gift of the cosmic Creator.

For what is at stake in our ability to reconcile a faith that emerged in a one-Sun cosmos and a growing body of scientific knowledge that even challenges our common-sense notions of the “visible and the invisible” is nothing less that the unity of know­ledge and truth. So it seems vital that we explore ways to re-house our spiritual selves in an unimaginably vast cosmic project, whose very finiteness beggars our ability to imagine the eternal. To share the life of God, now or in the future, we have no place to stand but in our biologically enfleshed human existence. And this introduces us to a central paradox at the heart of this new way of thinking: can we recognize the random nature of the evolved universe while, at the same time, holding firmly to transcendent meaning that is nevertheless discovered in our contingent molecular makeup?

This paradox may seem foreign to our common ground project since many scientific thinkers perceive paradoxes merely as puzzles to be solved. But others seem less averse to wrestling with paradox as concomitant with evolutionary processes. Among them are a physicist and a theologian whose insights, taken together, may well expand the boundaries of a religious conception of the self and justify the riskiness of my thought experiment. The physicist is Robert B. Laughlin, a Stanford-based Nobel-prize winning member of the National Academy of Sciences. In his somewhat contrarian A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down, he confidently asserts, “I am carbon, but I need not have been. I have a meaning transcending the atoms from which I am made.”9 Laughlin bases his optimism not on some ungrounded meta­physical claim or belief, but on a sound scientific hypothesis witnessed at all levels of the evolutionary continuum: that the whole is more than equal to the sum of its parts. Unpacking this simple truth turns out to have profound implications.

Looking at the most basic form of physical reality, the nano-scopic world of energic activity, Laughlin describes how quantum waves composed of nothing collectively emerge as the building blocks or particles of something, i.e., matter. Yet this sub-atomic, material state cannot be predicted from its non-material matrix. Rather, when particles emerge from waves of non-matter, they cross an invisible, qualitative threshold as new, collective existents. At this intermediate level of continual genesis, then, these nano-particles defy the laws of location and motion, interacting randomly and probabilistically, unchained, chaotic and barely measureable. But collectively these particles emerge as atoms, the stuff of all stable and reproducible Newtonian phenomena. So evolution occurs as newness arises in and through the principle of emergence. In brief, emergence is nature’s inbuilt ability collectively to organize otherwise chaotic properties into new emergent realities that somehow escape the pull of the very different fundamental laws from which they develop. Coalescing from earlier phases of matter as wholes not determined by the sum of their parts, emergent realities are literally unimaginable viewed from their previous non-collective phase of existence.

For example, at the most basic level of electromagnetic waves, particles would seem to be impossible or illusory just as, at the level of sub-atomic particles, the periodic table of atomic elements seems as likely as the tablets of the Ten Commandments. But, despite their unlikelihood, emergent realities are not illusions; they expand the boundaries of the real. At different phases of the continuum of reality, Laughlin affirms, different rules apply.

He even brings this observable hypothesis to bear on one of the most mind-boggling discoveries of Einsteinian physical cosmology: the phenomenon of space-time, the astounding datum that space and time manifest the same underlying reality. As a collective property of the cosmos, space-time fails in the observable short run, separating into what seem to the clear evidence of human senses to be two entirely different dimensions. But at really long-lengths, space and time correlate in increasingly exact ways. In other words, space and time as we experience them on our planetary scale of existence do not constitute the whole reality of space-time. Yet as an organizational phenomenon, the fabric of space-time itself may well be another emergent reality telling us “there might be something beyond” that we cannot imagine.10

This “bottom down” perspective takes issue, then, with reductionist science that breaks down the world into smaller and smaller parts in order to gain predictive power over the laws of nature. Rather, by looking at the histories of “large systems,” Laughlin claims that only collective phenomena can account for the big picture with which reality presents us. And part of this big picture is that the thin line between non-living and living things may well be physically unknowable, that laboratory exper­iments in themselves may never discover the principles of life itself. Scientists who dismiss the possibility that biological unknowability may be real may be relying on an ideology rather than a valid scientific theory.

But make no mistake. Laughlin’s scientific paradigm shift is not an appeal for mystery. This becomes clear when he throws ice water on other physicists’ unfalsifiable hypotheses about alternate universes that promise an Ultimate Theory of Everything.11 Still, the paradigm’s openness to a future not completely determined by earlier-and-simpler phases of evolution dovetails in provocative ways with the work of Georgetown University’s Distinguished Research Professor of Theology John F. Haught. Like Laughlin, he sees ideology at work in the reductive worldview of scientific naturalists that casts suspicion on all “pre-theoretic” forms of knowing. Building upon the Jesuit Bernard Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, Haught asserts that human conscious­ness, whatever its biological substratum, universally manifests a desire to know. This occurs, first, at the level of feelings, then via relationships, story-telling, and responses to the appeal of beauty—all before thinking grasps an over­arching theoretical structure for understanding the world. As a natural phenomenon, human knowing shares with all of nature in a “leaning toward the future.”12 And critical intelligence itself represents a promise that the goal of our desire to know can be fulfilled. If it did not, the scientific community’s multi-level search for intelligibility would itself be unintelligible; nor would trusting in scientific knowledge or truth make any sense. Mind is of nature; but mind reveals something about the scope of created things.

Behind this argument that mind and nature are commensurable, we can hear the distinctive voice of Teilhard de Chardin. In his thought, evolution, as a process of world-becoming (cosmo­genesis), becomes self-reflective and conscious of itself in human consciousness (the noosphere).13 Correlating this vision with Laughlin’s physics, we can then affirm that human consciousness (for which the “soul” is shorthand) arose in continuity with a whole spectrum of emergent phenomena across evolutionary time. But it emerged (and continues to do so) as more than the neuronal firings in the brain. For just as elementary particles of matter emerge through, but beyond, the waves of non-matter that give rise to them, so thinking subjects emerge through, but beyond, the electrical activity in their brains. As emergent, no later stages of becoming can be reduced to earlier, less collective phenomena. So just as we cannot understand atoms and their role in the cosmos by reducing them to the improbable actions of their underlying particles, so we cannot comprehend the subjective mind merely by tracing how the brain’s neurons fire. And if this is so, human consciousness is paradoxically transcendent because it is real, just as minerals are hard because their component parts occupy empty space!

Hence, neither the self nor its difficult-to-achieve ability to act freely and graciously in the midst of the chaotic order of the cosmos are mere illusions created by the brain’s electricity. They are emergent phenomena existing in a continuum not only with past evolution but also in anticipation of future change as well. Human consciousness is reality-based not only because it collectively grew out of a less-than-conscious evolutionary past but also because it is uniquely future-oriented. This future-orientation itself represents a collective capacity manifested in humanity’s fitful desire to seek the Hidden Wholeness of Reality.

So if emergence accounts for a qualitatively expanding universe of the real, then the evolutionary theory of the self need not lead down the blind-alley where some empiricists would take it. What is more, evolution actually presents us with an overarching vision of how our created natures share in an unfolding, eons-long drama of creation (and redemption). In fact, Haught argues that an evolutionary view of subjectivity helps avoid escapist notions of salvation that take the isolated self as the primary entry point into communion with God. Our salvation narrative must begin, as the biblical narrative does, with the cosmos as the original manifestation of grace—here, in the cosmic dust from whence we came and unto which we shall return. When it does, we widen and deepen our vital religious concerns.

For cognitive science itself actually reveals important facets of our psychic and spiritual inter­textuality for the conscious self emerges in and through the interactivity of all the neural flares, feedback loops and perceptions that individuals share with and among others. As individuals, we are interconnected through a vast web of information (in genes, in brain cells, in our communications) that joins us to those who have come before us and to those around us, actually as well as virtually. All of us, as Hofstadter argues,are tradents of shared past events, knowledge, commitments, and of one another—for good or for ill. The self as a repeatedly reconstructed neurobiological state is neither a static spiritual soul awaiting its release from the body, nor a mere looping quirk of biology, but a dynamic reality always in a state of becoming.

Haught develops such a vision of consciousness as part of the unfolding unity of all things in and through their extravagant diversity and multiplicity. He also sets the stage for some reflections on what believers in general, and Christians in particular, can gain by growing beyond an attachment to a non-historical, purely metaphysical notion of the soul as the object of God’s salvific activity. Towards the end of Deeper than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution, he writes:

The fact that the cosmos is even now perhaps in the early phases of full emergence helps us understand why, religiously speaking, we remain always somewhat in the dark, why our answers to the biggest of our questions will always be frustratingly opaque, why we must walk by faith rather than by sight, but why it also makes more sense to hope than to yield to despair.15

For it is not the task of religious faith to produce the kind of clarity for which scientists strive. Faith, as “confidence in things hoped for and conviction about things not seen” (Heb 11:1), anticipates future knowing; faith does not claim present certitude because it bases itself on different evidentiary grounds than scientific knowledge. Even more, since believers wager on their ability to encounter Ultimate Reality in time and beyond time, their faith concepts and language will change over time in order to remain life-giving; they must remain open-ended, reformable, and provisional in nature. Because faith encompasses the Biggest of Big Pictures, it is necessarily diverse and multiform even as believers seek the deep unity of all things.

Today, this ancient belief in reality’s Oneness has been fleshed out and stretched out on a mega-cosmic skein by a century’s worth of scientific discoveries. But this new framework does not rule out belief because “creation” can bridge two complementary worlds of reference. For its part, evolutionary science must continue to investigate creation’s sub-atomic, physical, chemical, biological, and noological spheres of reality, discovering more and more about the short-run failures that we experience in an overlying, collective reality we call the cosmos or creation. But faith, as it continues to seek understanding by dialoguing with scientists, will keep the vision alive, even now, of the long-long-length correlation of reality’s fabric beyond space and time—from now even until “the end…when God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:24-28).


1 E. O Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, W. W. Norton, 2006.

2 See E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Random House, 1998) p. 6 where he defines science as “religion liberated and writ large” though he later admits that ethics and religion are far too complex for present science to explain (p. 290).

3 The principle of Occam’s Razor may account for the non-dialogical neo-atheism with which John F. Haught’s new book God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) takes issue. See excerpt in The Global Spiral, Vol. 9, No. 1 (April, 2008).

4 Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin, 2002), p. 43.

5 Douglas Hofstadter, A Strange Loop (Basic Books, 2007), p. 95.

6 Hofstadter, Loop, p. 205. See Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett, The Mind’s I, Basic Books, 1981.

7 See Daniel C. Dennett’s unfortunately simplistic Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Viking, 2006.

8 Without explicitly arguing for the existence of a created soul, Francis S. Collins, head of the Human Genone Project, argues in The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006) that humans are “unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation” (p. 200).

9 Robert B. Laughlin, A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down (Basic Books, 2006), p. xiv.

10 Laughlin, Universe, p. 126.

11 Laughlin, Universe, p. 154.

12 John F. Haught, Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science (Cambridge University Press, 2006) p. 211.

13 John F. Haught, Deeper Than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution (Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 163.

14 Hofstadter, Loop, p. 250.

15 Haught, Deeper Than Darwin, p. 142.