This blog started out as a companion piece to my book, Musings from the Christian Left (excerpts of which can be found in the July 2004 link) and to support a planned radio show. Now, its simply a long term writing project from a Christian Left Libertarian perspective (meaning I often argue for liberty within the (Catholic) Church, rather than liberty because the church takes care of a conservative view of morality.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Faith and the Materialistic Soul

A couple of issues have had me think about the nature and immortality of the soul of late. Followers of this blog or my writings know that I have already said a bit about these topics, but it seems that there is more to be said.

The debate about Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) and a few family miscarriages have me thinking a bit more about when life begins. The discoveries of neuroscientists are having me rethink how the soul occurs in daily life. The discovery of a tumor (almost certainly benign) in my right adrenal gland has me thinking more about life after death.

In my debates at America Magazine about ESCR, people often talk about how ESCR kills a human being. Can common ground be found in with this position, or with the similarly unsavory position that ESCR losses are necessary for the greater good? I say no on both counts. This is because both sentiments are, in fact, wrong.

How can that be? Isn't one or the other true? No. Neither are true. If both were true, then ESCR practioners are the monsters the pro-life movement thinks they are, since if blastocysts truly were alive in the way that even a Fetus is alive, killing them for any reason is crossing a line that scientists should not cross. No life is expendible. ESCR is only acceptable if a blastocyst is not yet alive in the sense of having an individual soul. Luckily for the science and the ethics of all involved the pro-life movement is wrong about when life begins - as I stated in the Musings. What is new and different is the proof that the harvesting procedure used to extract stem cells for ESCR tells us about the issue.

To extract stem cells from a blastocyst, the Chorion (which eventually becomes the bag of waters) is removed. The stem cells, which would have grown into a human being, are not harmed by the procedure. (If they were, there would be little point in harvesting them). If the part that would become a life is not killed, then maybe it was not alive in the first place. Indeed, after harvesting, embryonic stem cells are no different than adult stem cells - excepting the fact that embryonic stem cells are of lower quality because they have not been through gastrulation - which is where the cell must "sink or swim" - most sink bacause they are not genetically viable. The value of Embryonic Stem Cell research is that it can be used with therapeutic cloning to eventually create organs from an individual's own cells - even if adult stem cells cannot be extracted. It is rather pointless to do ESCR without cloning, although it is not murderous. Indeed, if you attempted to extract stem cells after gastrulation, you wouldn't find very many, since they are all differentiating and you would kill them. This is a sign that after gastrulation they are alive in a way that embryonic cells - who could become more than one individual if united with a chorion - are not. After gastrulation, there is no point until death where the deliberate growth of the human being stops or radically changes. The child learns a few neat tricks at birth, like breathing and eating (although even these are practiced in utero). Whatever energy stops at death seems to start at gastrulation. Whatever that energy is, is the soul - at least from a materialistic basis. It may be chemical, it may be electrical - but it is certainly measurable by its absence at death - when entropy takes over.

Neuroscientists have run tests on the "Ghost in the Machine" theory of the soul - the belief that our internal dialogue causes our actions. They have found no such thing. Our dialogue seems to come in time after the brain has directed the action, not before. Whatever soul we do have exists in total harmony with the body, not apart from it. The intellect, at least in this life, is in no way separate from the brain. This does not foreclose spiritual activity - or even eternal life - but it does not priviledge it over the biological. We seem to be biological beings, wholely entwined with our bodies. Even our use of language is bound up with the biology of the brain. For some people, their thinking is cleary about as free as a computer - Garbage In, Garbage Out. Others, however, who are more free, seem to be able to create language and concepts that go beyond what they have heard.

Neuroscience also has something to say about the end of life - particularly the "Life After Life" experiences of those who have died and been brought back. The "flash of light" seems to be an effect of the optical cortex firing, while the experience of the life flashing before one's eyes seems to reflect the memory neuron's simultaneously firing when they are restarted when given oxygen. If anything happens between these two points, no one has said (unless they are making it up). This makes sense, because the organ we use to remember such events is not working - and is not with us while we are dead. Do we find God? No one remembers - left the brain in my body.

Finding God is actually a fairly daunting prospect, since God is not only eternal and immortal, but also beyond time. To me, the difference between being in the pressence of God in all of Her Divinity and Timelessness is frankly terrifying. To be caught in an eternal and unending moment with the immortal God is not that much removed from the total annihilation that atheists expect from death. One is total Peace and mindlessness in the face of the perfect, while the other is total piece without existence. It seems to me like six of one and a half dozen of the other. Frankly, we don't know what is on the other side, these are but the extremes. While some clarivoyants seem to believe they actually speak with the dead, their claims have never been verified. The Church has an opinion on the subject as well, although a counter-belief that we sleep until reunited with our bodies on the last day has held some currency in the past - and would not necessarily be considered heresy in some Christian circles. At any rate, it is a faithful position, not a position based on direct evidence.

The only real assurance that seems to have verification is the experience of the risen Lord, both by those who claim to have seen him almost 2000 years ago and in the Sacraments. My own experience in that area is real, and not explainable by some group dynamic. In religions with a similar group dynamic, but a different belief in the authenticity of the Eucharist as the real flesh of the risen Lord, the experience is profoundly different. Even though Baptists join in communion in the same way, when they celebrate it, their lack of belief in the real pressence in the Eucharist seems to deprive them of that direct contact with Jesus that Catholics and Anglicans enjoy. Could that all be group dynamics? One would think so, although the reports I receive from Baptists who have joined me at Mass, who have received Communion (no, I did not try to stop them) seem to indicate that the Catholic rite is different, since their experience of Jesus is more real even though they did not change their belief.

Where does that leave our souls? United with our bodies this life in a way that is seemless - and in God's hands in the next. We really don't know what eternal life looks like - and we can only trust God that we will be taken care of in the next. That kind of faith is much more important, in the long run, than is the certainly of knowing. It is also comforting when thinking of the fates of little Grace Patricia and little Brian Gerard, who for whatever reason could not be with us in this incarnation. (Sniff).


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