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Why Us? (RJS)

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There is a new book out Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves by James LeFanu (HT TG).  I have not read this book (yet anyway) – but it has received a fair bit of attention lately. It was also cited by AN Wilson in the interview Scot linked to in Weekly Meanderings last Saturday. 

James LeFanu is a medical doctor, a general practioner, in London. He also writes a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph. The central theme of Why Us? questions the validity of an “exclusively materialist view of Man.” This doesn’t make LeFanu a creationist or a “closet creationist”.  In fact he points out in his blog that he doesn’t deny the basic facts:

This is not to deny the ‘fact’ of evolution as there can be nothing
more self evident than that the history of the universe is an
evolutionary history – from the simplest elements of matter to the
evermore complex. Nor is it to deny the ‘fact’ of natural selection, as
again it is self evident that nature selects the strong and robust over
the frail and vulnerable.

Yet he claims:

But the findings of genetics and neuroscience of the recent past have
changed all that, buttressing the commonsensical scepticism about
Darwin’s (evolutionary) ‘Reason for Everything’ with the extraordinary
revelations and hard empirical data of the Genome Projects and the
findings of sophisticated brain scanning studies. Memorising,
perceiving and interpreting the world out there. Together they tear
away at science’s fa?ade of knowing to reveal the depth of our radical
ignorance of the most elementary principles of genetic inheritance and
brain function.

You can find an interesting review of the book from The Literary Review here and a more critical review from The New Scientist here.  

Is there a profound mystery in nature of human experience and conciousness?

From the Literary Review article by John Cornwell:

His aim is to debunk purely materialist, reductionist accounts of what
it means to be a human person. … Daniel C Dennett boasts of
having ‘explained’ consciousness in a purely materialist, scientific
fashion, yet neglects to describe its central mystery. In essence, [LeFanu]
argues, Dennett’s failure consists in his inability to explain how the
‘monotonous firing of neuronal circuits can give rise to qualitatively
different experiences as the smell of a rose or a Bach fugue’. Dennett
would say that the ‘onward march of science will decipher the code …
then all will become clear’. But another philosopher cited by Le Fanu,
Colin McGinn, responds that such is the nature of consciousness that
science, in principle and forever, cannot explain it, since objective
descriptions can never entirely encapsulate subjective states.

LeFanu takes a somewhat dualistic approach separating body and soul as he wrestles with what it means to be human – and Cornwell disagrees with this in his review.  Yet he notes:

To be unhappy with mind-body dualism, however, is not necessarily to be
on the side of the demons. One of the interesting aspects of
contemporary neuroscience is its insistence on the idea of the soul
being ‘embodied’. This is nothing new. Aristotle believed that the soul
was the ‘form of the body’, and he was followed in this by Thomas
Aquinas. It has taken new brain science to challenge Cartesian dualism,
which reduced the body to a kind of machine, while relegating the soul
to a kind of spooky stuff. The idea of an embodied soul is closer to
Judaic and early Christian construals of the human person than

What do you think – is there a body-soul duality or is the “soul” embodied an inseparable from material existence?

And – whether the soul is embodied or not – is the nature of human experience and conciousness ultimately the most significant evidence for design in the universe?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

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posted July 24, 2009 at 2:04 am

(Jesus the Christ.)
Master teacher,master carpenter and reported to be the son of God.
Not recorded to have ever written anything with no one on earth having any idea as to what he may have looked like.
(Jesus the Christ.)
Man,myth,or legend???

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posted July 24, 2009 at 3:03 am

It may be impacted by your views on the next life. We are given new bodies, which would seem to suggest that our souls are not inherently a part of this current body. But others may say that the body is merely improved and renewed, not altogether replaced, which wouldn’t be as clear.
Another line of questions would go into emotional and spiritual states in relation to the physical body — is the body solely the source of feeling spiritual guilt, joy, etc.? If so, then could drugs fix all of that? Would that be a good thing?
Personally, I shrug my shoulders and say that I don’t know. It’s worked well so far :)

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Ted M. Gossard

posted July 24, 2009 at 5:51 am

What can be frustrating to me is the notion by some that if science explains something, then theology must walk in lock step with it. I’m not suggesting that theology should alter science. But I don’t know how to talk to one steeped in a rigid naturalism to help them see that though science in theory might be able to have explanations for all that is observed, it is not in itself therefore the alpha and omega of our existence.
But then isn’t our faith called a revelation from God? And if a revelation from God then science is on the outside looking in, on that, I would think.
Good posts, as always, RJS. Thanks!

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posted July 24, 2009 at 8:31 am

I’m certainly no human dualist. I’ve never, even as a child, been able to make any sense of the idea that some part of me is disassociated from my bodily existence. When I sleep, I know nothing. Where’s the place for some kind of continuous ‘soul’ existing in that equation.
Humans need bodies. In this life, and in the resurrected next.

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Travis Greene

posted July 24, 2009 at 8:59 am

phil @ 4,
Do you really know nothing when you sleep? What about dreams? Are we then a separate person every time we wake up?
I agree, human life is inherently meant to be embodied. We are, as C.S. Lewis says (even though he tends toward dualism sometimes), “composite beings”. But we’re more than particularly clever animals.

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posted July 24, 2009 at 9:44 am

Nonreductive physicalism or holistic dualism seem the best likely options to me. I think the latter probably best accounts for the Biblical witness and the Tradition as well as the science.
Interesting book blurb — are we back to arguments from ignorance again though?

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James McGrath

posted July 24, 2009 at 9:59 am

My own view is that what we call the ‘soul’ is an emergent phenomenon, inseparable from physical phenomena like brain activity but no more reducible to a description at that level than a symphony is reducible to description in terms of frequencies of vibration (or, to use a more modern analogy, no more than Mario Kart is accurately described as “a series of ones and zeros”).

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posted July 24, 2009 at 10:05 am

I am not going to argue proof or any such, and whether there is a “natural” explanation or not – I have long thought that human consciousness and capacity for creative and abstract thought, imagination, is the strongest argument for some kind of design/designer. This is what give the capacity for real relationship – which is the key feature of God revealed in scripture.
But – I am not comfortable with a classical duality – perhaps the terms you use – Nonreductive physicalism or holistic dualism are the best options, but I would have to look up the terms to understand the differences.

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John L

posted July 24, 2009 at 1:11 pm

RJS asks, “Is there a profound mystery in nature of human experience and conciousness?”
If we fail to feel and marvel and wrestle and be awestruck and terrified and humbled by the breathtaking mystery of creation, then what is religion?

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posted July 24, 2009 at 1:24 pm

TRavis, I agree, dreams to exist in a sort of half-way house. My point should have been that our conscious self – i.e. the thing that we consider to be ourselves, is not existent during the time period when we are fully non-consciouss. i.e. coma/deep sleep. This seems to counter the idea of a temporally continuous, non-material soul.
It appears to me (emphasis on appers, in can’t be sure, im en environmental scientist, not a neuro-scientist!!!) that what holds us together is the memory of what has occurred before. Dreams seem to be a type of partly consciouss sleep where we can form memories. Without formation of memories, we’d be a ‘new’ person each day. See the famous medical case of Clive Wilding for more details on what happens when memories don’t form.

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posted July 24, 2009 at 1:26 pm

I’m also in a hurry, and my previous post contained more spelling and grammar errors than a text message. . .. apologies.

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Ray Ingles

posted July 24, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Why the jump from “this isn’t understood scientifically yet” to “this can’t ever be understood scientifically”?
Before the 1700’s, was it reasonable to say that God (or Thor, or the Thunderbirds, or Zeus, or Seth, or what have you) caused lightning? No, the proper response to “What causes lighting?” was “Darn if I, or anyone else, knows… yet.” Then Franklin came along…

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posted July 24, 2009 at 2:24 pm

RJS (#8):
Nonreductive physicalism: “mind” is an emergent property of neuorobiology, which is capable of exerting downward causation on the biological system from which it emerges, and hence cannot be reduced to that system. Representative theologians: Nancey Murphy, William Hasker, Joel Green
Reductive physicalism: “mind” is an epiphenomenon of neurobiology. If we had all the information, “mind” could be explained reductively entirely with reference to neurobiology.
Holistic dualism: “soul” is a spiritual property imparted by God in some way apart from biology, but the soul is inextricably intertwined with the body (biology) in such a way that neither soul nor body exist independently. Representative theologian: John Cooper
Substance dualism: “soul” is a separate substance from the body that can exist independent of the body. Representative theologian: J.P. Moreland

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Randy G

posted July 24, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Re: Ted M. Gossard (#3)
One thing that impressed me in my work in campus ministry was the fluidness of “knowing”; or to put in other terms, the role of passion and excitement in knowing. I saw this most clearly in seeing Cal De Witt speak about Creation to hard headed scientists. The “wonder and awe” he expressed in his presentation of naturalistic phenomena as just that, helped him pierce the hard skins of some of these folks. Once he caught them up in the wonder and awe of the relationships he described, they were much more amenable to what they might be about. (Please note that this was not any kind of instantaneous conversion, but a foot in the door sort of pheneomenon).
Randy G.

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