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A Further Response to Larry Arnhart, pt. 2: Darwinism, Free Will, and the Soul

This is the second installment of a four-part series responding to Larry Arnhart’s comments about my book Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest. The first installment can be found here.

2. Darwinism, Free Will, and the Soul

In my book I pointed out that leading Darwinists and Darwin himself drew implications from Darwinism contrary to human free will and moral responsibility. In response, Arnhart says that he regards “human moral freedom as an ’emergent’ product of the evolution of the human brain.” But it is highly questionable whether the Darwinian account of evolution can account even for the emergence of human intelligence let alone the emergence of human moral freedom. After all, how does intelligence “emerge” from a completely unintelligent material process of chance and necessity? If you begin with unintelligent matter and energy alone, how do you magically get mind somewhere later in the process?

Most committed Darwinists seem to grasp the negative implications of their theory for free will, which is why so many of them have denied or at least diminished human free will. Ironically, in order to defend the idea of “emergence” in his book Darwinian Conservatism, Arnhart ends up citing the research of a neuroscientist who is skeptical of Darwinism and supportive of intelligent design. At the same time, he must disassociate himself from the consistent reductionism of leading Darwinists over the past century who have agreed with Darwin’s own view that free will is a “delusion.” If Arnhart wants to add credibility to his claim that Darwinism is compatible with free will and personal responsibility, he first needs to persuade the leading proponents of Darwinism that their reductionistic view of the human person is wrong.

In my book’s discussion of “emergence,” I also point out that Arnhart’s redefinition of the human soul as simply a large and complex neocortex “conflicts with the traditional Judeo-Christian belief in an immaterial soul that gives equal dignity to each and every human being, no matter how physically incapacitated.” As I explain in my book, Arnhart’s materialistic conception of the soul makes it very difficult for him to effectively criticize the views of Darwinian bioethicist Peter Singer:

While Arnhart agrees that “only human beings have a soul,” he redefines the soul in material terms as simply a large and complex “neocortex, which allows for greater behavioral flexibility….” If this is the case, however, what is the worth of human beings with damaged or undeveloped neocortexes? Does a person who has a damaged brain—say, an elderly woman with dementia—merit treatment as a human being? Or can she be treated as a defective dog or cat, which can be euthanized? What about a newborn infant with a genetic defect like Down’s Sydrome?

As Arnhart himself notes, Darwinian bioethicist Peter Singer has sought to justify infanticide and euthanasia of mentally defective individuals precisely on the grounds that their damaged brains makes them worth less than lower animals… To his credit, Arnhart tries to refute Singer, but his attempt to do so exposes the ultimate weakness of his own position. Unlike traditional opponents of euthanasia, Arnhart cannot argue for the intrinsic value of handicapped infants or adults. Instead, he condemns Singer for saying that in the case of defective infants “we should put aside feelings based on the small, helpless, and—sometimes—cute appearance of human infants.” According to Arnhart, such advice is a mistake because it “assume[s] that we can organize our moral lives around norms derived from abstract reasoning without guidance from our natural emotions.” Since our emotions were developed through a long process of evolution, Arnhart believes that ignoring them would be tantamount to going against human nature.

Arnhart’s alternative to Singer seems to boil down to “if it feels good, do it”—hardly a position most conservatives would want to embrace.

Actually, Arnhart himself recognizes that his argument is insufficient, because he quickly adds: “Of course, when our moral emotions conflict, then we must employ practical reasoning to develop rules of action to resolve the conflict.” But this concession eviscerates the force of Arnhart’s original objection.

Consider again the case of infanticide. Yes, parents usually have a natural emotional attachment to their baby. But if their baby is seriously defective, they will likely have other emotions as well: They may experience sadness about the child’s plight, and pity about his suffering. They may feel anxious and overwhelmed by the burden of dealing with a handicapped child. If the baby’s face or limbs are physically deformed, they may even feel revulsion. In other words, those situations where most parents would consider infanticide would be precisely the situations where Arnhart admits that our emotions are insufficient to help us make a moral choice. Given that parents considering infanticide will likely face conflicting emotions, why is Singer’s use of “abstract reasoning” inappropriate? Arnhart supplies no convincing answer.

Instead of responding to my critique of his effort to disassociate himself from the views of Peter Singer, Arnhart simply denies that there is a “traditional Judeo-Christian belief in an immaterial soul,” claiming that “[t]he dualism of immortal soul separated from mortal body seems more characteristic of pagan philosophy than Biblical teaching” and that “the New Testament teaching about the resurrection of the body suggest[s] that the resurrected soul depends on a resurrected body.” It is certainly true that the New Testament portrays human beings as far more than disembodied spirits. Human beings are properly considered body-soul unions, and a material body is a natural part of the completed human person. At the same time, the New Testament clearly indicates that human beings are more than their physical bodies. An immaterial soul is also a requisite part of the completed human person, and this immaterial soul is able to survive death and continue its existence before the resurrection of the body. (See, for example, Hebrews 12:23; Rev. 6:9-11; Matt. 10:28; Luke 16:19-31, 23:42-43.) Anyone who doubts that this has been the consistent teaching of historic Christianity should read theologian John W. Cooper’s definitive analysis in Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate. Regardless of whether one accepts the idea of an immaterial soul (and one need not be a Christian or a Jew to do so), it is simply untenable to claim that the modern materialist understanding of human beings can be squared with the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of the human person.

In my next installment of this series, I will address Arnhart’s comments about the relationship of Darwinism to religion and his response to my defense of intelligent design.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.