Steven Hawking, probably the most famous person to be afflicted with ALS, after Lou Gehrig, and who has one of the longest ALS survival records, commented in a 2011 interview with theGuardian, “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
I read recently an article by George Paxinos, “Why psychology lost its soul: everything comes from the brain” in which Paxinos, a visiting professor of Psychology and Medical Sciences at the University of New South Wales, states boldly, “. . .as a neuroscientist and psychologist, I have no use for the soul. On the contrary, all functions attributable to this kind of soul can be explained by the workings of the brain. . . For the psychologists, it is not so much that souls do not exist, it is that there is no need for them.”
As with other humanists, Paxinos reduces everything down to atoms. Thus, when the body dies and the brain with it, the human within that body ceases to exist. Paxinos quotes another humanist psychologist, Dr. Patricia Churchland, “There is no ghost in the machine.”
An interesting phone interview was held about the validity of near-death-experiences between Dr. Churchland and Alex Tsakiris and posted at Skeptiko. If there is more to near-death-experiences than a mere neurological explanation, as Churchland maintains, then the door opens widely for the possibility of consciousness after death—or, the post physical death existence of the soul.
Tsakiris comments after the interview:
“Again, the really scary thing about Dr. Churchland is that her opinion is the status quo majority opinion. It’s nonsensical; it’s indefensible, but it’s the majority opinion. And don’t question it.
. . . This isn’t about philosophy or neuro-philosophy, whatever that means. This is about science. This about the culture war debate over who we are, what we are, what we came from.”
Whether I have ALS or do not have ALS, Paxinos, Churchland, and Hawking assure me that there is nothing to fear in death. When the lights go out in my brain I will simply cease to exist. There is no spiritual component in my person called the soul.
As for the traditional idea that the soul is distinct from the human being and exists beyond the death of the physical body, as set forth by Descartes, Paxinos comments,“One of the many arguments Descartes advanced for the existence of the soul was that the brain, which is a part of the body, is mortal and divisible – meaning it has different parts – and the soul is eternal and indivisible – meaning it is an inseparable whole. Therefore, he concluded they must be different things.
“But advances in neuroscience have shown these arguments to be false.”
But what shall we do with the words of Jesus?
- “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). In that one statement Jesus not only indicates that there is a soul, but holds it to be distinct from the body, which, then, includes the brain.
- How should I interpret his further warning? ‘What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
- Jesus also identified the soul as one of the components of essential being with which I can respond to God: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27), and in doing so he distinguishes the soul as distinct from my emotions (heart), my physical body (strength), and my brain (mind).
The Apostle Peter these words: “Though you have not seen him [Jesus], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8, 9).
John adds to the conversation: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (Revelation 6:9). The martyrs in heaven are not observed as bodies, or nervous systems, or brains. They are identified by John as souls.
Thus, we have this drama featuring on the one hand, Paxinos, Churchland, and Hawking, who deny the existence of the soul (to them humans are merely a composite of atoms), over against those who affirm the existence of the soul—Jesus, the Christian apostles, as well as Descartes, Augustine, Aquinas and others.
I cannot adequately express the peace I presently enjoy from the words of Peter:
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25).