Of Spiders and the Human Soul
Phobias, Science and Religion
Though it often escapes popular awareness, there is a debate within academic circles that is becoming increasingly heated. The debate is over whether or not humans have free will. This debate arises from a larger philosophical issue – that issue being that if humans are able to make free choices, this tends to indicate that they are more than just the sum of their parts. For a human to act freely, there must be some immaterial aspect to human nature. Free will cannot be explained if humans are nothing more than a machine composed of a body and a brain, there must be – for lack of a better term – a soul.
If one allows that humans have a soul, this becomes a foot in the door for supernatural claims. A soul is, by definition, above the natural realm. It cannot be defined in terms of energy and matter, because energy and matter are not free to act by choice. They are bound by physical laws, and their behavior can be defined and predicted. But once one allows that there might be such a thing as a soul, then they must also allow that it is possible that things like disembodied spirits exist. And if a will can exist without a body, then it is just possible that there might be a God.
This kind of idea is understood to be outside the realm of science, and so scientists are laboring, now more than ever, to explain all human behavior in terms of genetic makeup and nuero-chemical response.
A recent news story has been hailed as a major step toward explaining human choices as merely a result of their neurology. In this news item, a man underwent some minor brain surgery. When he woke up, his arachnophobia was entirely cured. Whereas prior to the surgery, the thought of spiders was enough to bring him to the brink of panic, now he could toy with the eight-legged creatures without the slightest hint of fear. This has been touted by many as clear evidence that human decisions and behaviors are entirely a result of the functioning of the brain. Change the brain and you change the person.
This idea essentially equates the human brain to a computer. Computers have no free will, and no consciousness. All that computers have are mindless processes that function within a set of parameters. If one changes the parameters, upgrades the system, or installs new software, the functioning of the computer changes, but it becomes no more free to choose than it was before. If the computer had a program labeled “spiders” which locked the system up and caused it to reboot every time the program was run, and then someone came along and fixed the software problem with “spiders” so that it ran smoothly, this would be similar to what was done to this gentleman in the news story.
However, there is one very obvious flaw with this theory: a phobia does not equate to a choice. It does not even equate to the illusion of a choice. A man may freely choose to purchase and own a pet tarantula, however if the sight of said tarantula sends him into a panic, this is not by his choice. Presumably, if able to choose, he would elect not to have this crippling phobia.
So in terms of arachnophobia, one can easily see how this was, in fact, a very physical aspect of his brain’s makeup and not a free choice.
The fact that the brain has certain parameters and limitations which restrict a person’s exercise of free will does not prove that free will does not exist, merely that it is bound to the limitations of the brain with which it interacts.
One may think of this as the person behind the computer. The person is free to operate the computer however they like, but they cannot make the computer run programs that are not installed, nor may they make the computer do things which it was not programmed to do.
In the late 60’s, early 70’s; psychologist Walter Mischel conducted the now-famous “Marshmallow Experiment.” In this experiment, a child was placed in a room and handed a treat. The child was told that they could eat the treat now, however, if they waited 15 minutes to eat it, they would receive a second treat. This was a test of “delayed gratification” – the ability to resist one’s natural impulses and desires in order to achieve some future goal.
Following these children for a number of years after the experiment, Mischel was able to show that the children who were able to repeatedly delay their gratification had significantly better SAT scores, educational attainment, weight control, and other life measures than those children who were not.
The significant thing to note here is that delayed gratification is the struggle to resist one’s natural mental impulses. A rat who is rewarded with a treat every time they push a button will push the button every time. Gratifying behaviors such as the consumption of junk food, sexual indulgence, imbibing alcoholic beverages and other potentially addictive substances are a part of person’s neuro-chemical makeup, and, indeed, everyone has these impulses to one degree or another. There is no chemical impulse of the brain which compels a person to fight these urges for some theoretical reward in the future. This is a considered decision that swims against the tide of one’s mental chemistry.
As regards phobias, for instance, people will sometimes attempt to overcome their phobias by repeatedly exposing themselves to the object of their fear, gradually rewriting their neural pathways to deaden the natural panic impulse they otherwise feel. The decision to undergo so much mental unpleasantness in order to eliminate the fear runs counter to their mental makeup. That decision must come from something that transcends their neurons, and dictates how those neurons ought to be used.
There exists no system of human society which promotes delayed gratification more than religion.
To one degree or another, all religions establish some kind of transcendent goal towards which people ought to strive. This goal may be some kind of blessed afterlife, personal enlightenment, achieving godhood, and so on.
The Christian Bible repeatedly encourages its readers to combat their physical desires in pursuit of spiritual goals. In the book of Deuteronomy, for instance, Moses says this:
Deuteronomy 8:3 English Standard Version (ESV)
… man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
Later, Jesus quotes this same passage when responding to Satan’s temptation to break his fasting by turning the stones to bread.
The practice of fasting is a blatant denial of physical impulses. What the Bible seems to suggest is that spiritual needs are superior to physical needs such that physical needs must be placed in subjection to them.
This makes a great deal more sense if one believes that there exists some kind of God whom they seek to please, and some kind of eternal reward that exists beyond death. In fact, the belief in the transcendent composes the final two steps in the AA recovery process. They recognize that the most effective way of keeping a recovering addict from regressing back into their addiction is to recognize some power that exists beyond their physical desires and impulses.
Christianity claims that the believer must care for their physical body not selfishly, but rather on behalf of God, for “…your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God. You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
In this respect, Christianity promotes a healthy behavior – denying immediate gratification to some larger end; a practice which has been proven by the Marshmallow Experiment to be an overall enhancement to one’s life. The denial of the physical makes the existence of the transcendent all the more likely.