Monkey in your soul?

Before we get to part II of my series on modern biology and original sin, I want briefly to reply to some of the responses made to part I.  Recall that my remarks overlapped with points recently made by Mike Flynn and by Kenneth Kemp in his American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly article “Science, Theology, and Monogenesis” (which, I have since discovered, is available online).  If you haven’t yet read Flynn and Kemp, you should do so before reading anything else on this subject.  As they argue, there is no conflict between the genetic evidence that modern humans descended from a population of at least several thousand individuals, and the theological claim that modern humans share a common pair of ancestors.  For suppose we regard the pair in question as two members of this larger group who, though genetically related to the others, are distinct from them in having immaterial souls, which (from the point of view of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and Catholic theology) are a necessary condition for the possession of genuine intellectual powers and can be only be imparted directly by God.  Only this pair and their descendents, to whom God also imparts souls and thus intellects, would count as human in the metaphysical and theologically relevant sense, even if the other members of the original larger group are human in the purely biological sense.  As Kemp writes:

These first true human beings also have descendants, which continue, to some extent, to interbreed with the non-intellectual hominids among whom they live.  If God endows each individual that has even a single [metaphysically] human ancestor with an intellect of its own, a reasonable rate of reproductive success and a reasonable selective advantage would easily replace a non-intellectual hominid population of 5,000 individuals with a philosophically (and, if the two concepts are extensionally equivalent, theologically) human population within three centuries.  Throughout this process, all theologically human beings would be descended from a single original human couple (in the sense of having that human couple among their ancestors) without there ever having been a population bottleneck in the human species. 

So there is no problem of reconciling the claims in question.  On the scenario proposed, the modern human population has the genes it has because it is descended from a group of several thousand individuals, only two of whom had immaterial souls.  But only those later individuals who had this pair among their ancestors (even if they also had as ancestors members of the original group which did not have immaterial souls) have descendents living today.  In that sense, every modern human is both descended from an original population of several thousand and from an original pair.  There is no contradiction because the claim that modern humans are descended from an original pair does not entail that they received all their genes from that pair alone.  As Flynn points out, critics like Jerry Coyne confuse the claim that there is one man from whom all modern humans are descended -- a claim that is part of the doctrine of original sin -- with the claim that all modern humans are descended from only one man -- a claim which need not be understood as part of the doctrine.  And as Flynn also points out, it is arguably only the male of the pair, and not the couple, that the doctrine requires all modern humans to be descended from. 

Now, recall that this whole blogospheric debate got started because Coyne boldly proclaimed that “we can dismiss a physical Adam and Eve with near scientific certainty” but also professed interest in hearing “the best way to reconcile the Biblical story of Adam and Eve with the genetic facts” (even offering as a prize for the best answer an autographed copy of his book Why Evolution is True).  So, now that he’s got his answer, what does Coyne do?  He completely misses the point.  In response to my recent post, Coyne writes:

If souls and sin are transmitted vertically, from parents to offspring—as suggested by [Feser’s]  hypothesis… —then we should still see a two-person genetic bottleneck some time in the past, tracing back to those two lucky individuals who won the soul lottery.  We don’t see that.

Moreover, all the genes of every living human should “coalesce” back to the same time and the same two people.  But we don’t see that either: each gene segment had its ancestor at a different time (and often at a different place) in the past: the Y chromosome, for instance, coalesces back to an ancestor who lived about 60,000 years more recently than the female ancestor who bequeathed us the genes in our mitochondria.  So this solution is also untenable.

How can Coyne say such things, given that one of Flynn’s and Kemp’s main points is that the doctrine of original sin does not in fact entail a bottleneck; given Flynn’s argument that it does not even require that all modern humans descend from the female of the original pair, but need regard only the male as their common ancestor; and given Flynn’s further point that the scenario proposed does not require identifying Adam and Eve with “Y-chromosomal Adam” and “Mitochondrial Eve,” respectively?  

He can say them because Coyne obviously didn’t bother reading Flynn or Kemp, that’s how, even though I cited them.  True, I didn’t say much about the details of Flynn’s and Kemp’s arguments myself in my own original post (for I didn’t have anything to add to what they said about the genetic considerations, but wanted to emphasize instead the crucial difference between a metaphysical account of human nature and a purely biological one).  But then, I doubt that Coyne read even my post.  It seems pretty clear that he was relying on Jason Rosenhouse’s summary of what I wrote.  Yet Rosenhouse did apparently read at least Kemp, and does not say the point-missing things Coyne does.  (Coyne says that Rosenhouse “overlooked” the “flaw” Coyne claims to identify.  But Rosenhouse didn’t “overlook” it; rather, he actually did some homework, and perhaps concluded that Coyne’s original objection had been effectively answered by Kemp and decided to drop the subject.)

So, Coyne has no excuse.  Had he bothered to do his own homework he would have known that his reply completely misses the point, and had already been answered by Flynn and Kemp.  But reading a blog post summary of another blog post’s allusion to what a third blog post and a journal article had to say is evidently Coyne’s idea of research, at least when he pontificates on the subject of religion.  The results are predictably embarrassing, or would be if Coyne were capable of embarrassment.  And so the real mystery here is not the doctrine of original sin.  The real mystery is why anyone still takes seriously anything Jerry Coyne has to say about religion.   Anyway, Prof. Coyne, Mike Flynn and Kenneth Kemp are waiting for their signed copies of your book.  (I’ve already got a copy, so no need to send me one.)

Rosenhouse has criticisms of his own.  But though he does not miss the point the way Coyne does, his objections have no more force than Coyne’s.  Rosenhouse says, first of all, that:

The first piece of evidence against [the scenario summarized above] is that the Bible does not teach anything remotely like what Feser is describing… Where in the Genesis story does he find a preexisting population of physically human but unensouled creatures?  And how does he account for the Genesis language, which explicitly tries to account for physical bodies and not just for mental endowments?

In other words: “Wait, you’re not a fundamentalist!  That’s not fair!”   

As I noted in my previous post, what Catholic theology requires is that all humans living today have Adam as an ancestor, and that Adam’s soul was infused directly by God.  It does not require that Adam was literally made directly from dust or clay.  And though Rosenhouse is correct that Genesis is interested in the formation of Adam’s body and not merely the origin of his soul, that too is consistent with the Flynn/Kemp account if we think of the matter God used to form that body as derived from pre-existing hominids rather than straight from the earth.  I know Rosenhouse, Coyne, and Co. would like it to be the case that all Christians are crude literalists --after all, that would facilitate atheist combox smart-assery and other forms of Serious Thinking.  But it just isn’t so.  As a matter of fact, the most traditional Christians are not crude literalists.  As Mike Flynn emphasizes in his post, that the literal and figurative senses of statements in the book of Genesis must be carefully distinguished is a long-standing theme in traditional biblical exegesis, and was famously explored by St. Augustine.  Flynn writes:

If I want to know "what Christianity teaches," I would be inclined to ask the Orthodox or Catholic churches, as they have near 2000 years of noodling over it.  Yet when the Coynes of the world want to tell us 'what Christians believe,' they agitate over the idiosyncratic beliefs of Bill and Ted's Excellent Bible Shack, whose teachings go back to last Tuesday.  Go figure.

To be sure, this does not mean that Catholic theology allows us to reinterpret just any old passage of Genesis as we see fit.  The point is just that the situation is far more complicated than claiming either that it all must be taken literally or that none of it need be taken literally.  A reader calls attention to some articles by Fr. Brian Harrison -- here, here, and here -- which detail the history of the Church’s doctrinal statements concerning human origins and evolution, and argue that Catholic teaching on the subject is more conservative than many realize.  In particular, Fr. Harrison argues that the miraculous formation of Eve from Adam’s side is binding Catholic doctrine.  At the same time, Fr. Harrison acknowledges that the Church does not condemn either “special transformism” -- the view (which Pius XII evidently had in mind in Humani Generis) that in forming Adam, God conjoined a human soul to matter derived from pre-existing hominids and “upgraded” so as to make it suitable for such infusion -- or evolutionary accounts of sub-human species.  And special transformism is all that is essential to the point that Flynn, Kemp, and I have been making about the compatibility of the doctrine of original sin with the genetic evidence.  In any event, as I say, the situation is more complicated than fundamentalists, theological liberals, and New Atheists suppose.

Even given a completely literal reading of the relevant passages in Genesis, there is less conflict with Flynn’s and Kemp’s proposal than Rosenhouse suggests.  We are told that Cain feared that others might kill him.  Who were these others?  That we are not told, and thus have to speculate.  Perhaps they were further progeny of Adam.  But Flynn’s and Kemp’s account provides another possibility -- that they were (to use Rosenhouse’s words) members of “a preexisting population of physically human but unensouled creatures.”

Rosenhouse’s other response to what I wrote is (again, perhaps because he could see that Kemp had in effect answered Coyne’s original objection) to change the subject.  The subject, you’ll recall, was whether the doctrine of original sin is compatible with the genetic evidence.  The subject was not whether the doctrine is true.  Obviously I think it is true, but that is a separate issue requiring a separate discussion.  Flynn, Kemp, and I were not trying to convince skeptics to accept the doctrine of original sin, but only to show that rightly understood, the doctrine is compatible with the claim that modern humans descended from a population well above two individuals.  Rosenhouse, however, complains that we have not established the truth of a key presupposition of our defense of the doctrine, viz. the immateriality of the human soul -- even though I explicitly said that I was not claiming to have done that in the post he’s responding to (since doing so was not necessary to answering the specific objection at hand and the post was already long enough).

I also noted that the immateriality of the human soul is something I have argued for elsewhere.  For example, I treat the subject at length in my books Philosophy of Mind, The Last Superstition, and Aquinas.  I address it in numerous previous blog posts.  Yet Rosenhouse assures us that:

Catholic theologians have not the slightest basis for saying that our nature is simply not exhausted by our physical attributes.

Hear that?  Not “a highly controversial basis.”  Not “a basis that I, Jason Rosenhouse, find unconvincing.”  No, not the slightest basis.  Now, forget about my own arguments for the intellect’s immateriality (though Rosenhouse says nothing in response to them).  A great many more important Catholic philosophers and theologians have also presented serious arguments for it, as have non-Catholic Christians and pagan thinkers in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions.  Secular writers like Karl Popper and David Chalmers have endorsed forms of dualism.  Secular writers like Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, and Galen Strawson, while they do not embrace dualism, nevertheless reject physicalism.  Yet others, like Thomas Nagel, Jerry Fodor, and Joseph Levine, have argued that there are at least serious difficulties facing physicalism which have yet to be answered.  And many materialists who think these difficulties can be answered at least acknowledge that the difficulties are indeed serious ones raised by critics in good faith.  Then there are secular non-dualists like Tyler Burge, John Searle, and William Lycan, who (as I have noted before) have expressed the opinion that the dominance of materialism in contemporary philosophy of mind owes less to the quality of the arguments in its favor than to ideological thinking.  

But for Rosenhouse, it seems, none of these thinkers has the slightest basis for his views.  It’s all just transparently feeble religious apologetics, apparently even with the many secularists among them.  No doubt that’s because Rosenhouse read a materialist philosophy of mind book once back in college which he thinks “refuted” all the objections to materialism once and for all.   (As we know from his dismissiveness towards the cosmological argument, once Prof. Dr. Jason Rosenhouse has found some particular book on a philosophical subject convincing, causa finita est and philosophers need wrestle over it no further.)  

Such preposterous overstatement would be inexcusable even if Rosenhouse had shown any evidence that he understands the issues.  But he quite obviously does not understand them.  He continues:

Intelligence and rationality appear to be things that come in degrees.  Dogs already have the ability to learn hundreds of commands.  They can form complex emotional relationships with people.  They can understand their place in a pack.  All of this requires considerable mental processing ability.  What basis is there for saying that purely physical processes in the brain can account for these, fairly sophisticated, mental accomplishments, but cannot account for abstract reasoning or rationality as well?

Even the brief comments I made in my previous post should make it obvious what is wrong with this argument from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view.  None of the examples Rosenhouse gives requires a grasp of abstract concepts, as opposed to mere sensation, mental imagery, or the processing of material symbols.  And it is abstract concepts -- for instance, the concept man as opposed to a sensation of a particular man or a mental image of a certain man’s appearance or voice,  or a neural structure that is causally correlated with particular men encountered in the past -- that A-T philosophers (and by no means only A-T philosophers) argue cannot be material.  For conceptual thought can have a determinate, unambiguous content and a universality of reference that sensations, mental imagery, and material symbols cannot have even in principle.  Rosenhouse is free to argue against this claim if he wishes, but he really ought at least to try to understand it, and the reasons A-T philosophers would give for it, before doing so.  As I often do, I would recommend James Ross’s article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought” for a fine contemporary statement of those reasons.  (That the resulting position is in no way at odds with what we know from modern neuroscience is something I have argued for here.)

Rosenhouse continues:

And that's just dogs.  Once we start contemplating apes the basis for Feser's arguments gets very rickety indeed.  Apes have sophisticated tool-making and tool-using capabilities.  They can learn sign language and have shown an ability to combine signs in logical ways to express concepts beyond what they were specifically taught.  Are you really confident they have no ability for abstraction or the use of logic?

The answer is Yes, I am confident of that, for the same sorts of reasons Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker are confident that the “evidence” for ape sign language is completely bogus.  (Last time I checked, Chomsky and Pinker weren’t religious apologists.)  But even if Chomsky, Pinker, and I are all wrong, that wouldn’t show that the intellect is material.  For if it turned out that apes really did have genuine intellectual powers, what would follow instead is that they too had immaterial souls -- and indeed, that they were arguably therefore “human” in the metaphysical sense even if not in the genetic sense, for they would in that case be rational animals.  

Until there’s real evidence for that, though -- and I won’t hold my breath -- it looks like there ain’t no monkey in any (metaphysically) human soul.  In our bodies maybe, but souls, no.  But don’t let that stop you from enjoying the classic Steely Dan tune:

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