I am not a bunch of molecules, I am a human being!

I am not a bunch of molecules, I am a human being! November 6, 2007

An extraordinarily banal essay (Keeping Life Human), the text of a speech by one Leon R Kass, has turned up on the website of the American Enterprise Institute. Under the guise of saving the humanity of the individual from the remorseless reductionism of science, it’s a textbook case on straw men, slippery terminology, and confabulated logic. How is this art of prestidigitation done? Well, strap yourself in and come with me on a journey to a parallel universe!

Step 1. Begin with a perfectly reasonable account of the achievements of science, but moan a bit about how everything was much more fun when it the world around us was more mysterious.

In a word, our remarkable science of nature has made enormous progress precisely by its decision to ignore the larger perennial questions about being, cause, purpose, inwardness, hierarchy, and the goodness or badness of things…

Step 2. Complain that science is intruding on your patch.

The new materialistic explanations of vital, even psychic, events leave no room for soul, understood as life’s animating principle … Feeling, passion, awareness, imagination, desire, love, hate, and thought are, scientifically speaking, merely “brain events.” There are even reports of a “God module” in the brain, whose activity is thought to explain religious or mystical experiences.

Step 3: Scare your audience with the science bogeyman.

Many of our leading scientists and intellectuals, truth to tell, are eager to dethrone traditional understandings of man’s special place in the whole, and use every available opportunity to do battle … They fail to see that the scientific view of man they celebrate does more than insult our vanity. It undermines our self-conception as free, thoughtful, and responsible beings…

Step 4. Create your straw man. In this case, we need to pretend that scientists reject emergent properties – an astonishingly conceit given that countless scientific disciplines (salient in this case being psychology) do nothing but study emergent properties. But we won’t mention those…

Without irony, Pinker, a psychologist, denies the existence of the psyche … He does not understand that the vital powers of an organism do not reside in the materials of the organism but emerge only when the materials are formed and organized in a particular way…

Step 5. Confuse your readers by redefining the term “soul” to mean something that is fundamentally material and naturalistic, and not supernatural at all.

…he is ignorant of the fact that “soul” need not be conceived as a “ghost in the machine” or as a separate “thing” that survives the body, but can be understood instead as the integrated powers of the naturally organic body–the ground and source of awareness, appetite, and action.

Step 6: Denounce, out of hand, scientific contributions to our understanding of ethics and morality.

How do we know whether any of these so-called enhancements is in fact an improvement? Why ought any human being embrace a post-human future? Scientism has no answers to these critical moral questions.

Step 7: Once your audience is on board, you can really go wild with the rhetorical absurdities. Be sure to build upon the straw man you invented earlier.

The most unsophisticated child knows red and blue more reliably than a blind physicist with his spectrometers. And anyone who has ever loved knows that love cannot be reduced to neurotransmitters.

Step 8: And finally, introduce your solution. If you have spun out sufficient paradoxes, mischaracterizations, and straw men, then with a bit of luck no-one will notice if your solution is a logically incongruous ‘Deus Ex Machina”. In this case it’s – what else – the Bible!

The Bible here teaches a truth that cannot be known by science, even as it is the basis of the very possibility of science–and of everything else we esteem.

Well, for Leon R Kass’ benefit, the reality is that we are indeed a very small speck in a very large universe. It’s also a reality that many of the qualities we once thought were uniquely human are in fact shared by other animals. This is the reality, and accepting reality is never a bad thing. In fact, in this case, it’s a great thing! Understanding who we are and where we come from has been one of the great scientific projects, and it has added to our humanity, not taken away from it.

And yes we are, just like everything else, composed of molecules and atoms. But no scientist claims that we are ‘just’ a bunch of molecules. Does Kass really believe that scientists can’t tell the difference between a dead person and a living one? The atoms are the same, after all. In fact, one fascinating scientific tidbit learned over the past century or so is that ‘we’ are most definitely not ‘just’ molecules – our constituent molecules are continually broken down and lost, only to be replaced by others, and yet we remain. Science has resolved Theseus’s paradox.

Each human individual is an emergent property of a self-organizing system. The same can be said of plants, the weather, and the solar system. Do they all have souls? Clearly not! So why introduce the term here? It’s because the term ‘soul’ comes with emotional baggage. By hooking into this, and pretending some sort of commonality with the ‘soul’ as understood by his Christian audience, he can indulge in his next leap of faith. In short, it’s intellectual skullduggery.

In fact, science does not just concern itself with the smallest scale – with atoms or individual nerve cells. Science is a powerful tool for understanding what makes us human, but understanding how (and, yes, why) we feel the way we do in no way diminishes those feelings. ‘Love’ cannot be reduced to neurotransmitters. But we can be equally sure that love is something that exists in the real world – it’s a product of the human body, the brain in particular. Understanding what it is does not take away from the human condition. It adds to it. Kass is misrepresenting science and scientists in an effort to manufacture fear, and he wants to use that fear to scare people into Christianity. But the result is not pretty.

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