Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 18, Issue 3, pp 503–507

Haunted by the Ghost in the Machine. Commentary on “The Spirituality of Human Consciousness: A Catholic Evaluation of Some Current Neuro-scientific Interpretations”


    • Presbyterian Association on ScienceTechnology and the Christian Faith

DOI: 10.1007/s11948-012-9389-0

Cite this article as:
Miller, J.B. Sci Eng Ethics (2012) 18: 503. doi:10.1007/s11948-012-9389-0


Metaphysical and epistemological dualism informs much contemporary discussion of the relationships of science and religion, in particular in relation to the neurosciences and the religious understanding of the human person. This dualism is a foundational artifact of modern culture; however, contemporary scientific research and historical theological scholarship encourage a more holistic view wherein human personhood is most fittingly understood as an emergent phenomenon of, but not simply reducible to, evolutionary and developmental neurobiology.


DualismDescartesKantPaleoanthropologyNon-reductive physicalism

The phrase “ghost in the machine” was coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle (2002) in his critique of Rene Descartes’ mind/body dualism (1996). Developments in the neurosciences and in studies of human evolution raise important religious issues for heirs of the Abrahamic traditions and particularly for Christians. In a post-modern ironic manner, these scientific developments provide an opportunity to recover much earlier holistic religious understandings of the human person, understandings that have been overshadowed by the bifurcation of the world attendant upon the rise of modern culture.

While some classical philosophical and religious perspectives [e.g., Plato (1988), the Gnostics and Manicheans (Jonas 2001)] assumed a dualistic view of the world and particularly human nature, separating body and soul, matter and spirit, these were ameliorated by the persistence in classical Christianity of an Hebraic understanding of the human as a psychosomatic unity. However, Rene Descartes’ dualism (1996) was not simply about mind and body. It was also metaphysical and epistemological. For Descartes there were two metaphysical substances: material and spiritual. There were also two forms of knowledge: acquired and revealed. This dualistic vision was further reinforced and broadened almost a century later with Immanuel Kant’s distinctions between phenomena and noumena, pure reason and practical reason, facts and values (Kant 1999, 2001, 2008.)

Descartes’ modern form of dualism, further nuanced by Kant’s Critiques, has been the prevalent metaphysical and epistemological perspective within modern Western culture, especially American popular culture. Two recent examples are, first, the idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” coined in 1996 by the late Stephen Jay Gould (1997, 1999) in response to Pope John Paul II’s (1996) address to the Pontifical Academy of Science on evolution, and, second, the statement on evolution affirmed in the Clergy Letter Project (2004). Terence McGoldrick’s (2012) article, “The spirituality of human consciousness: A Catholic evaluation of some current neuro-scientific interpretations,” exemplifies the application of this metaphysical and epistemological dualism in the normative Roman Catholic understanding of the relationship of the contemporary sciences and the human person.

However, neither Descartes nor Kant were satisfied with their divisions of the world and each sought in his own manner to reconnect the separated domains (e.g., Descartes’ search for the material point of union of mind and body, and Kant’s exploration of the interaction of pure and practical reason in the act of judgment). Nevertheless, with regard to science and religion, science came to be characterized as the analytic exercise of objective rational empiricism to develop mathematically expressed knowledge of the material world. Religion, on the other hand, came to be characterized as the synthetic exercise of subjective intuitive existentialism to develop poetically expressed faith in a spiritual world.

The deep seated cultural status of this dualism can be seen in that many who reacted against such a division still expressed a presumptive dualism not by seeking a reconciliation or integration of the two domains but by seeking to reduce one to the other. So with regard to the human person, some philosophers and scientists have sought to reduce conscious selfhood to the status of an epiphenomenon of material phenomena (Crick 1994; Dennett 1991). In contrast, some advocates of religion, like those associated with the so-called “creation science” movement [e.g., Institute for Creation Research (1972)], have sought to domesticate science such that it is servant to dogmatic convictions rooted in pre-Copernican expressions of religious tradition. In both cases the resolution of the dualism is to accept the division and then effectively eliminate one side. These attempts at philosophical reduction are at the root of the understanding of the science and religion relationship as one of conflict.

Although Cartesian/Kantian dualism may be vulnerable, as Ryle argues, to philosophical critique, the cultural dualism it engendered is alive and well in popular Western, and especially American, culture and has been reinforced by the popular religious traditions that have been prevalent in American history. Whether “modernist” or “fundamentalist,” “enlightened” or “orthodox” the majority of Christians in America believe that human beings have a spiritual “soul” that departs from the body at death and enters the divine presence in “heaven” or goes elsewhere. It is only necessary to attend a funeral within almost any church in the United States to hear this understanding of the ultimate end of the human person expressed. In popular American Christianity, the disembodied “soul” is equivalent to “person.” It is common among many Christians when they speak of the afterlife as the “soul going to heaven” (the body remaining on Earth), they also speak as though the identifiable personal features of the individual are somehow preserved and manifest by that heaven bound soul (Burpo 2010).

Yet, this perspective stands in contrast with the Hebrew roots of Christianity as well as the creedal traditions that reflect those roots. The second creation story in Genesis (2:4b-24) states that “…the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (NRSV 2001) The phrase “living being” is a translation of the Hebrew word nephesh, which is sometimes translated as “soul.” Within the Jewish tradition humans do not have souls, they are souls—humans are a psychosomatic unity. As a consequence, the understanding of afterlife that developed within Pharisaic Judaism was that of resurrection, material embodiment in the “world to come.” (The Sadducees, contemporaries of the Pharisees, did not believe in an afterlife. When the body died the person was forever gone.) This understanding is also reflected in Christian creeds (e.g., the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds), which affirm not “the immortality of the soul” but “the resurrection of the body.”

Over the past three quarters of a century, renewed scholarly interest in the historical and cultural interactions of science and religion, in conjunction with 200 years of discoveries about nature, have converged to provide an opportunity for a more coherent understanding of the human person, philosophically and religiously. Though a robust neuroscientific theory of personal existence has yet to be offered, research in the neurosciences is generating insights into the material foundations of that experience without denying the authenticity of the experience itself (e.g., Damasio 2005, 2010). Converging with the scientific investigation of brain structures, processes and their development in the person is paleoanthropological research on the evolutionary emergence of Homo sapiens (e.g., Potts and Sloan 2010). Western religious traditions have held that a personal soul is invested in each individual human at some point in his or her process of gestation, or in paleohistory such a soul was invested in Homo sapiens to make them “human” in contrast to earlier species. Recent scientific studies in the neurosciences are beginning to show how the human person emerges with the development of a neurological system without being simply reducible to that system. Paleoanthropological research is showing how what is identified as a distinctively “human” being emerges slowly with the accumulation of features over a six million year time span. While there is a flowering of these features in Homo sapiens, some of these behavioral features reach back well beyond hominids and can even be observed in contemporary non-human species (e.g., de Waal 2007).

Within philosophy a non-reductive physicalist view has emerged that allows for a full appreciation of the material foundations of human personhood without making the person an epiphenomenon of the physiology of neurons or the reactions of neurotransmitters (Murphy 2006). Christian theologians are beginning to consider theological anthropological issues in the light of paleoanthropological research (e.g., van Huyssteen 2006). More broadly there is an emerging theo-philosophical perspective that views nature theologically without positing a supernatural domain (Griffin 2000). These scholarly developments and grassroots movements within American Christian communities (e.g., Ecumenical Roundtable on Science, Technology and the Church)1 exemplify a post-modern recovery of a more comprehensive and integrated philosophical and religious position that is declared with intellectual humility rather than asserted with absolute intellectual certainty. It is a vision that begins with the assumption that, historically and intellectually, science and religion have exhibited mutually constructive significance for one another, even if the points of construction are and have been distinct. Here science and religion are not competitors such that one might be prey to the other’s predator. Nor are they reproductively isolated from one another. Rather their relationship is more akin to that of symbiosis, where each serves the wellbeing of the other. From this perspective there is neither machine nor ghost but biologically emergent embodied personhood in psychosomatic unity.


The Ecumenical Roundtable on Science, Technology and the Church is comprised of the following denominational initiatives: the Episcopal initiative on Science, Technology and Faith ( Accessed 18 July 2012); the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s initiative on Faith, Science and Technology ( Accessed 18 July 2012); the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith ( Accessed 18 July 2012); the Roman Catholic initiative on Science and Human Values ( Accessed 18 July 2012); the United Church of Christ Science and Technology Network ( Accessed 18 July 2012); and a United Methodist initiative ( Accessed 18 July 2012).


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012