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Professor discusses idea of soul

Nikki Taylor | Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Nancey Murphy, an author and professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, spoke about the concept of the soul in a lecture Tuesday called “Neuroscience, Christian Anthropology, and the Role of Women in the Church.”

The lecture was the second of a three-part series on “Science and Religion in the Abrahamic Faiths” at Saint Mary’s, a series sponsored by a John Templeton Foundation grant.

The concept of the soul, Murphy said, encompasses whether or not humans have a soul, if the idea of the soul is necessary to science or religion, and the implications of these ideas.

A physicalist herself, Murphy believes that due to current advances in biology, the concept of a human soul is no longer necessary.

“With the development of modern biology it is no longer assumed that anything non-physical needs to be added to inorganic matter to produce a living organism; rather, life is due to complex organisms,” Murphy said. “Thus, insofar as the soul was understood as the life principle, there is no longer a need for such a concept.”

Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote elaborately about the purpose and job of the soul. Neuroscientists can now prove many of the traits and tasks Aquinas attributed to the soul to be brain functions, Murphy said.

“I would elaborate on this claim by emphasizing that these are capacities enabled by our complex neural systems, in interaction with cultural resources, and also resulting from our interaction with God,” Murphy said.

An example of this, she said, is emotion, which Aquinas attributed to the soul. Scientists now know, however, that emotion is controlled by the temporal lobe of the brain. When it is damaged a person can recognize an object, but not always the emotional significance behind the object, Murphy said.

Murphy did concede, however, that there is really no way of knowing whether humans have a soul.

“It is important to note that no such accumulation of data can ever amount to a proof that there is no mind or soul,” Murphy said.

Nonetheless the concept of the soul is one that Murphy believed Christians can and should do without. This, she said, is not a question of science but rather one of history. When the Bible was being translated from Hebrew to Greek, some of the Hebrew words were translated in terms of Greek philosophy, Murphy said.

“The clearest instance of this is the Hebrew word nephesh, which was translated as psyche in the Septuagent and later translated into English as ‘soul,'” Murphy said. “It is now widely agreed that nephesh did not mean what later Christians meant by ‘soul.'”

Murphy went on to speculate that perhaps women would have been better off had early Christians not believed in body-soul dualism, the idea that humans have both a body and soul. She said the soul was respected over the body, and women were more associated with their bodies, making them of less value than the men who were in tune with their souls.

Though Murphy does not believe in the soul, she said this does not also mean a disbelief in God. She said while “physicalism” refers to both the human person an lack of spiritual realities, she treats the phrase to refer only to the human person.

“Physicalist anthropology has no implications regarding the existence of God,” Murphy said.

To wrap up her lecture, Murphy said the physical makeup of humans does not limit their ability to feel emotions.

“My goal here has been to show that our status as embodied creatures in no way contradicts the fact of our sociality,” Murphy said. “It does not undermine our ability to attain the highest heights of reflective thought, or our capacity to be sustained by deep emotions and motivations.”