Note: Last year, inspired by words from Fr. Robert Spitzer, I ran a 10-part series in our bulletin (Aug. 12 – Oct. 14, 2018) on modern day miracles that had been heavily scrutinized by science (available when you visit our parish website and pull up the bulletins from those dates). Spitzer had said that 93% of those who lose their faith today in America claim that their primary reason for this loss of faith is that they do not believe religion can hold up to the scrutiny of modern science. In other words, faith in science is replacing faith in God for many people. Spitzer’s solution to this modern phenomenon was to challenge Church leaders to make a focused effort to report Church documented miracles that have confounded science in recent decades. However, he also raised questions around the natural sciences that were quite separate from religious miracles and the lives of the saints that, nevertheless, have religious significance. This week, I will revisit a theme brought up two weeks ago regarding the use of scientific studies on near death experiences in making a plausible case for the existence of the human soul. Now we take up that theme of the soul’s existence once again drawing from another field of science. I give you…
Episode 18: A Case for the Existence of the Soul from Human Evolution
For several centuries, fossil evidence has been mounting which essentially proves that Homo sapiens (Latin for wise or sentient humans), a.k.a. modern man, have definitely come to be as a result of real, organic progression in evolution. We now know of many primitive sub-forms of the genus Homo that were predecessors to our current human form and which are now extinct. These include the well-known Neanderthal man who lived 400,000 to 40,000 years ago in Eurasia or the Cro-Magnon man who lived from 48,000 to 15,000 ago also in Europe. There have been many such forms, in fact, each with its own fossil evidence, such as distinct skull make-up and general size differences. Later cases also include anthropological evidence of artifacts as well. Some would try to make the scientific case that this chain of evolutionary forms of man ultimately goes all the way back to the primates, although the so-called “missing link” that would complete such a chain has never been found. Let us just say that the scientific response to that question is still waiting to be made. However, for the record, even though the Catholic Church challenges some aspects of Darwin’s work, such as his claim of a transmutation of species, it does not question the scientifically established fact of evolution or the idea that man has evolved in physical form. However, our Church would also maintain that we are not simply material, biological beings. There is something more to us that sets us apart from the lower life forms, and in our faith, we call that difference sentience, made possible through the existence of the human soul.
Mounting evidence may be making a case for the existence of the human soul based on a great sentient leap that seems to have taken place suddenly and dramatically with primitive man. In his book Why Only Us?, author and scientist Noam Chomsky notes these dramatic changes which began around 70,000 years ago when primitive man began to migrate out of Africa. He says that particularly at around 60,000 years ago, in a span of only a thousand years, there was an explosion of advancement. Our predecessors moved from being unremarkable to swiftly evolving intellectually in a way unexplainable through biology alone. In that time, syntactical grammar and symbols were developed, religious rituals and burial of the dead began, art/cave paintings were created, an understanding of abstract numbers and lower math came to be, law, legal systems, social constructs and even the concept of property and kingdoms came to be and early man explored everything from the Arctic Bridge to the southern tip of South America at seemingly turbo-speed. What brought about this change? Some theologians posit that this was the moment in which God endowed man with a human soul (i.e. Adam and Eve) with the abilities of intellect and freedom. And most importantly, whatever the cause, this is something only Homo Sapiens experienced and received. No lower life form can make such a claim.
Let us take a striking comparative example of achievement from among the primates to enhance the point. There is a documented case of a chimpanzee known as Nim Chimpsky (playfully named after Noam Chomsky) who was ultimately able to learn 160 uniquely different signs from American sign-language and demonstrate understandable usage of those signs when combined (e.g. want banana, want play, want [certain researcher], hungry, thirsty, etc.). It could request favorite foods or toys, for example. However, try as the trainers and researchers might, they could never teach Nim Chimpsky the difference between object and subject. For example, it could not understand the difference between “dog bites man” and “man bites dog”. A child of similar age to the chimp could immediately tell the difference and even laugh at it. The chimp could never recognize itself in a mirror but the child could. Something, in other words, in the human brain, which lower animals simply do not possess, could easily process not only humor and self-awareness but also higher rational thought and there is no other living thing on earth capable of doing this. A dog will never have a mid-life crisis. A porpoise will never become a stand-up comic. An ape will never write a screenplay. While lower life forms seem, at times, capable of exhibiting basic emotional states, only humanity has such rational potential and more…and, as Christians, we would say the difference is the existence of our God-given immortal soul.
From Philosophy and Psychology, just to borrow from a few fields, experts have devised various measures that set us apart from other life forms. One, which I have already mentioned, is that only we are capable of humor and laughter. Another is called the test of the Five Transcendental Desires. Only humans can identify within themselves a desire for: 1) Perfect truth, 2) Perfect Love, 3) Perfect Justice or Goodness, 4) Perfect Beauty or 5) a sense of a Perfect Home that is not here in this world. We seem to become aware of the existence of these not from some evidence in the world that they are possible but more from a frustration that we cannot find them in this world. We wish there were perfect love even though we cannot find it in our relationships. We always want to know more even when we run into unsolved mysteries. We have a sense when art somehow falls short of an unseen ideal. Ultimately, as St. Augustine would put it, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee (God)” and the home that we cannot seem to find in this world is really Heaven. Lower animals do not struggle with these questions as they are governed by instinct. Humans, on the other hand, are plagued by them even though we did not place these desires within ourselves. And if the means to satisfy them do not exist in the world, their existence seems to make no logical sense apart from the existence of God and Heaven. As philosophers might put it, I am hungry because there is a need within my body for nourishment and because food exists in the world. But where does a desire for perfect love come from given that it does not exist in the world. The philosopher would reason that since this hunger also exists, there must be a means of fulfilling it outside this material universe if not within. A similar test is proposed through what are called conceptual ideas and heuristic notions. The basic idea is that our brain is capable of processing both conceptual and perceptual notions. As we ask about the who, what, when, where why and how of things we are simultaneously able to compare and contrast the results of our inquiries and file away the answers in comparison to other objects and experiences. This ability to process data seems to be innate (we are born with it) but there is no biological explanation that can be provided for how such a preexisting “package” exists in the brain (other than the existence of a soul). Other tests of logic and mathematics also arrive at the similar results unexplainable by mere biologists or materialists. In the end, as these observations converge with those of others scientific disciplines from the study of man, according to Occam’s Razor again, the easiest or most plausible explanation for the difference between man and the lower animals seems to be the existence of the soul. Did I blow your mind?