Science, Religion, and Cultural Myths: A Different Kind of Post

When I started this blog, I imagined that I would stick to a narrowly focused topic, and that this strategy would give this blog purpose, make it easier to write for, and build readership faster. Lately though somethings have changed. I’ve followed friends blogs that aren’t narrowly focused, and found the character of the author gives them more focus than expected. I’ve found that what I want to write about isn’t always directly tied to what my overall “topic.” And I’ve stopped worrying about readership, but instead value this blog as more a place where I can continue developing ideas and concepts, with an audience or without. So I think I will begin moving away from discussions simply about information, about technology, etc, and into a more broader focus and mission. Of course I think that the broad focus will stay true to my vision and original title, that it will still focus on cultivating knowledge, and moving beyond pure information overload into meaningful personal and intellectual growth, but the direct link will be less clear.

On that note, I’ll be making a post today about a different sort of topic, about the interplay between science and religion, and about how a number of cultural myths in our society prevent these too from really working together as well as they should.

This post doesn’t address a topic that’s particularly new. It’s a debate that’s been going on since the Enlightenment, and even it’s current form with new players like Dan Dennet and Richard Dawkins has been around for quite some time. However, it’s something that I’ve put a good deal of though into recently because I’ve run into the atheist view point again recently, through Dan Dennet’s TED talk, and through some editorials written in my former college newspaper.

What I see again and again in the views espoused by Dawkins, Dennet, and the others are two underlying assumptions that I think I completely false. These assumptions actually exist throughout our culture, and even in the minds of some believers in some form or another, so I think I’m justified in calling them “cultural myths,” in that they are ideas that our held with little questioning, and generally defended with an appeal to common sense, or a very skeletal and simplified logical argument.

These too myths are as follows: that science has left no room for the notion of a soul, and that science has made religion obsolete. I’ll address each one in an individual post.

There is No Soul

Before we dive into this statement, I think it’s important that we define clearly what we mean. So let’s take a look at a quote from Dan Dennet about the soul and see if we can puzzle out just what he’s getting at.

I certainly don’t believe in the soul as an enduring entity. Our brains are made of neurons, and nothing else. Nerve cells are very complicated mechanical systems. You take enough of those, and you put them together, and you get a soul. (ref)

That first sentence captures the general opinion of modern atheists quite succintly. To put it another way, Dennet and those like him do not believe that there is a component to human beings that persists after death. The general justification for this opinion is exactly as Dennet explains it. We’re made of “neurons and nothing else,” therefor once our neurons are destroyed the brain, and any facet of our intelligence, personality, and consciousness are destroyed with it.

The Device Independent Personality

The argument that Dennet makes is not particularly complicated. He has one assumption, our basic components are entirely material, and one conclusion, therefore our consciousness is the result of a specific arrangement of basic components and does not persist when that arrangement is broken. There’s little doubt that modern research backs up  his assumption, and it seems that his conclusion follows quite naturally. There’s only one problem, the modern world is filled with specific concrete examples where this logic breaks down.

I’m talking about the world of computing. The computer offers a perfect testing ground for Dennet’s theory. Here we have a device whose basic components are entirely physical, merely a specific arrangement of silicon and metal with electrons running through it. Here, just like in humans, the specific arrangement of these components leads to complex behavior embodied in the software we run.  But we see something very interesting, something that doesn’t jive with Dennet at all. I can run the same software, open the same files, perform the same actions, on two completely different computers. The behavior that matters is the same on a variety of different base configurations. The important parts of computing are device independent.

Of course you can make the argument that there are slight differences. Differences in speed, in graphics, in backend computation. But those differences are less important than the similarities. By all reasonable definitions a word document on my desktop is the same as a copy of that document on my laptop.

This is even more true in the area of disaster recovery. There are entire companies (mine one of them) who sell products whose sole aim is to ensure that if your computer is destroyed in hurricane, fire, tornado, etc., that an exact copy of the data, operating system, applications, and everything else, is up and running on an entirely different computer, often within a matter of hours. These people essentially deal in the preservation of the “soul” of a computer when it’s body has been destroyed.

Some may make the argument that the human brain is too complex to perform a similar feat, and that there are fundamental differences between a brain and a computer. However, this argument invalidates the original principle of the “no-soul” argument. If both the brain and a computer are composed entirely of material components, how can they be fundamentally different. If the only differences are matters of complexity, then replicating consciousness is a problem of technology, not an unsolvable challenge. And if consciousness can be replicated, it’s possible for a part of human personality to go on existing after the body has been destroyed. It’s possible for the soul to be an enduring entity.

Now this still means that the soul requires a physical carrier of some sorts.1 Ultimately that’s fine and can easily fit into the Christian belief system. Christianity believes that the final resting place of the soul is a ressurected and transformed body on a renewed and transformed earth. Even the concept of Heaven works, since all God needs is a copy of our “data” to run us on whatever he wants, be it a physical body, or some sort of celestial virtual machine. In fact the world of computers offers an incredibly rich set of metaphors and concepts for dealing with some of the thorniest problems of religion, a topic perhaps for an entirely separate post.

The point here though is that Dennet’s logic breaks down. Yes it’s true that at a basic level we are entirely material beings. If you pour through my individual atoms, electrons, or quarks, you aren’t going to find some sort of soul particle. And these same material components make up objects which few would argue have any kind of soul, rocks, bacteria, water, etc. And it’s true that what we call the soul, in fact what we call consciousness emerges from the complex interactions of those material components. But what’s not true is that this soul must perish with it’s material birthplace. Just like any good piece of software the soul is device independent. It endures so long as a copy of the data resides somewhere. It has it’s own life which may be inexorably tied to the physical world, but is still separate in a fundamental way.


1. Even this statement may not be entirely true. Greg Egan, the science fiction author has a novel called Permutation City which explores the possibility that information has an existence entirely separate from physical embodiment. Basically he proposes the idea that if a collection of material components can exist, then it in fact does exist, that potential is the same as actual. Don’t ask me to explain it here, just read the book.


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