Science of the Soul
click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​




Science of the Soul

Science of the Soul

Is the human being inherently different from any other creature?

by

In August 2005, the London Zoo was the first in the world to highlight a new exhibit: human beings. After an exhaustive contest, eight candidates (a chemist included) were selected to serve as pioneers for this trailblazing attraction. In cages, with keepers in tow, these eight men and women "monkeyed around." Like the rest of their caged neighbors at the zoo, the humans had a variety of toys to keep them entertained -- board games, music, paints, and balls.

"Warning: Humans in Their Natural Environment" read the sign at the entrance to the exhibit, where the captives could be seen on a rock ledge in a bear enclosure, clad only in bathing suits and pinned-on fig leaves.

Tom Mahoney, age 26, decided to be a participant. He said, "A lot of people think humans are above other animals. When they see humans as animals, here, it kind of reminds us that we're not that special:"

Twenty-first century science believes that the human being is just a sophisticated primate. According to this view, there is nothing wrong with behaving like an animal, because we are, after all, animals.

What is the truth? Are human beings mere animals with a better-evolved intellectual capacity? Or, as Judaism teaches, is the human being only part animal with a special soul, modeled in God's image?

Are human beings mere animals with a better-evolved intellectual capacity?

The most emphatic contemporary effort to obliterate the distinction between human beings and animals comes from Princeton Professor of Bioethics Peter Singer. Professor Singer, the inaugurator of the animal rights movement, is a champion of "animal liberation;' which he equates with the liberation movements of blacks and women.

Professor Singer coined the pejorative term "speciesists;' akin to "racists" and "sexists;' to describe people who "give greater weight to the interests of members of their own species when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of other species."

Is it a coincidence that Professor Singer, whose career started by championing the equality of animals with humans, has in later years become infamous for his enthusiastic support of infanticide and euthanasia? He has written, "Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all." (Washington Times, Oct. 22, 1999)

Professor Singer cannot be dismissed as an eccentric intellectual. His book Practical Ethics is one of the most widely used texts in applied ethics, and he is the author of the major article on Ethics in the current edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Could Professor Singer be right? Is there no essential distinction between humans and animals?

And what difference does it make, anyway?

The ramifications are simple. In the animal world there is no moral accountability. A lion is not labeled a "criminal," "murderer," or "deviant" for killing.

Survival of the fittest is the rule of the day. Social Darwinism, a spin-off from Darwinism, resulted in the idea that the human being, a sophisticated ape, is also subject to natural selection and survival of the fittest.

Darwin himself foresaw the consequences of his theory. He wrote: "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world." (The Descent of Man, 1871)

Using this idea, Hitler was able to convince much of the civilized world that a certain people, the Jews, were savage and deplorable -- worthy of annihilation. German racist theory viewed man as just another species of animal, to which the laws of "natural selection" applied in full. From a purely Darwinist viewpoint, the Germans were as justified as the organizers of the London Zoo's "Human Being" exhibit. In theory, what could be wrong with a Darwinist, who didn't like the color or style of your hair, weeding out your genes from the human gene pool?

The Soul of the Matter

Is there a distinction between humans and animals, and if so, what is it?

Physiologically, we are more or less the same. Science recently revealed that chimpanzees have a 99.4 percent genetic similarity with humans. There are even those scientists who are seeking to propose that chimpanzees be classified as Homo sapiens.

Even our daily activities are more or less the same as those of most animals. Both humans and animals eat, sleep, socialize, play, mate, propagate, tend to their young, and live in social groups. Where do we differ from animals?

Professor Singer, in his attempts to prove that "the differences between us and the other animals are differences of degree rather than kind" summons -- and dismisses -- a list of supposed differences:

It used to be said that only humans used tools. Then it was observed that the Galapagos woodpecker used a cactus thorn to dig insects out of crevices in trees. Next it was suggested that even if other animals used tools, humans are the only tool-making animals. But Jane Goodall found that chimpanzees in the jungles of Tanzania chewed up leaves to make a sponge for sopping up water, and trimmed the leaves off branches to make tools for catching insects. The use of language was another boundary line -- but chimpanzees and gorillas have learnt the sign language of the deaf and dumb, and there is evidence that whales and dolphins have a complex language of their own.

Perhaps Professor Singer is right. If the singular difference between animals and humans is based on the mere fact that we genetically surpass monkeys by 0.6%, then we are only different in degrees and not kind. How dare we then discriminate between animals and human beings?

An elephant's trunk can lift weights that would cause the strongest human being to collapse.

In fact, in many ways, we are inferior to various animals. We could in no way compete with the swimming speed of the majority of fish. Our agility cannot compare to that of the monkey. And elephant can lift weights with its trunk that would cause the strongest human being to collapse. A dog's olfactory sense is 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than ours. A blind bat, through its sonar ability, can maneuver its way through the most complex obstacle course.

Professor Singer notes, "That there is a huge gulf between humans and animals was unquestioned for most of the course of Western civilization." Why? Because most people believed in the biblical account of God creating man "in His own image," as the Bible states that God blew into Adam a soul -- an immortal soul -- and this soul formed the essential distinction between humans and animals.

The Bible also recounts God's plan for the creation of man and the divine mandate for humans to have dominion over animals (significantly, in the very same verse):

God said: "Let us make man... and they shall exercise dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and over the beasts of the land and over all creeping things that creep upon the earth."

The human being's superiority to animals seems to be only because of the alleged divine soul.

If I can demonstrate the existence of such a soul, even Professor Singer would have a reason to eat beef burgers and let handicapped infants live.

How to Make a Cow Happy

Let's say that for some reason you were delegated a job to make a plant happy. How do you make a plant happy? Give it the right amount of light, air and water, and you'll probably have a happy plant.

Your next assignment is to make a cow happy. How do you make a cow happy? In addition to light, air, and water, the cow needs food, exercise, and the opportunity to propagate. Cows supplied with all of the above ingredients seldom complain of depression.

Now here comes the challenge: How do you make a human being happy?

Dr. Abraham Maslow spent years studying psychologically healthy people. His research pointed to a "hierarchy of needs" experienced by human beings. On the lowest rung of this ladder are physiological needs such as air, water, food, sleep, etc. -- those needs humans share with animals. When those needs are satisfied, however, the human being does not rest contented. Instead he feels the need for safety, i.e., stability and consistency. When this need is satisfied, the human being hungers for love and belongingness. After achieving love, humans long for esteem.

When all these "lower" needs are satisfied, the human being feels the need for self-actualization, which Dr. Maslow defines as "the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming." This uniquely human need manifests as the search for knowledge, peace, aesthetic experiences, self-fulfillment, religious expression and altruistic activities.

No cow or chimpanzee will ever contemplate a Rembrandt painting, seek to learn something that has no bearing on his own personal existence, or join the Peace Corps. This is a qualitative, not quantitative, difference between humans and animals.

The seat of this uniquely human need for self-actualization is purported to be the human soul. Can the existence of the soul be proven?

Where Dwells the Self?

The catch-22 here is that "seeing is believing," but because the soul by definition is a spiritual, non-physical entity, it cannot be seen by even the most sophisticated electron microscope. So how can one possibly prove that the soul exists?

Virtually all physicists agree that black holes exist, even though no one ever has or ever will see one. The extreme density and strong gravitational field of a black hole keeps everything, including electromagnetic radiation, from escaping from it. Therefore, black holes are impossible to detect by any instrument whatsoever. Their existence is inferred by the behavior of other celestial bodies around them. For example, in 1994 astronomers found that an object of 2.5 billion to 3.5 billion solar masses must be present at the center of galaxy M87. That's a pretty big something to infer.

In the same way, various phenomena strongly suggest the existence of a soul. First, I would like to pose a few questions:

•  Neurologist Robert Collins said, "It's amazing that the body feeds the brain sugar and amino acids, and what comes out is poetry and pirouettes." The same biological ingredients travel to the brains of human beings and animals, yet the outcome is so different. Why?

•  Point to yourself. Where did you point? In all probability you pointed to your heart. Is your heart you? Isn't the heart just a mass of muscle? Would there be a more appropriate place to point?

•  When you say, "I am feeling happy," which part of you is the "I" who is feeling happy? Is it your cerebrum? Your medulla? Your lungs? Your liver? Who is the "I" that owns the feeling?

•  If you were a paraplegic, and you heard that you just won the lottery, you would probably feel elation. Which part of you would feel that elation?

Christopher Reeve explained that, "The real me is not my body."

The late Christopher Reeve of Superman fame stated that he was in a severe depression for a lengthy period following the accident that left him a quadriplegic who could not even breathe without a machine. Then his attitude changed. His perspective and outlook became optimistic and happy. He embarked on a mission to help others who suffered from paralysis and neurological challenges. How did things change? Christopher Reeve explained that he realized that, "The real me is not my body. The real me is something far, far greater. Happiness isn't limited to my body. Happiness is the pleasure I derive from my wife's and children's smiles. Happiness comes from the real me bringing happiness and faith to others."

At this point, you are probably acknowledging that the "real you" is not your body. Even if you didn't have your body or its use -- due to a macabre operation or a debilitating accident -- you would still be you.

Perhaps "the real you" is centered in your brain? Let's investigate this possibility.

The science of cybernetics has discovered many similarities between computers and the human brain. Computer technology allows one to program a memory transfer, taking all the information contained in one computer and transferring it to another. Imagine that electromagnetic brain transfers were also possible. Information from the brain of one human being would be electromagnetically transferred to another person's brain.

Imagine that all your "information" -- your memories, knowledge, etc. -- were transferred to another person. Would that person now be you? And, now devoid of your memories and knowledge, would you still be you?

An amnesia patient who cannot recall his own name or any of his past history, experiences, and acquired knowledge still has a sense of self. Is that sense of self tantamount to the biological brain?

Consider identical twins. These two human beings share the exact same DNA; they are genetically identical. If "self" is located in the biological brain, then assuming that these twins are raised in the same environment, they should have identical personalities, ambitions, and predilections. Yet experience reveals that even identical twins are disparate individuals with their own unique personalities. If their brains are the same, how can they be different?

Going a step further, let us analyze a hypothetical human clone. Cloning theoretically works by extracting DNA from any cell of a person and then denucleating a donor egg and transplanting the DNA of the person being cloned into the egg. The egg is then transplanted into a woman's womb. The baby who is born is an exact genetic replica of the person cloned. Physically the baby and the human being cloned are identical. They have the exact same brains. Will the clone have a different and distinct sense of self or will he be like a well-copied CD?

In the late 1940s, Dr. Donald Hebb began to suggest that consciousness is not distinct from the brain and that the mysteries of the mind are reducible to biomechanical mechanism. In other words, the human being does not have a distinct soul. He was joined by a chorus of scientists, among whom were the likes of Dr. Francis Crick of DNA fame, who dubbed his theory the Astonishing Hypothesis: "The Astonishing Hypothesis is that you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

Others, thankfully, disagreed.

Philosopher of science Sir Karl Raimund Popper wrote, "I intend to suggest that the brain is owned by the self." That means that the real you is an entity separate from the brain.

The famous neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield stated that the mind is a basic element in itself, which cannot be accounted for by any neuronal mechanism. Other scientists were so perplexed by the mind (as opposed to the brain) that one scientist referred to it as the "Ghost in the Machine."

Dr. Penfield drew his conclusions on the basis of research that patients could be aware of what was going on in the operating room and, at the same time, when their brains were stimulated with electrodes, they could have vivid flashbacks of the past. These patients would essentially relive past events as if they were happening right then. Yet they were not confused by these simultaneous occurrences. They could actually say to Dr. Penfield, "You made me do that." There was clearly a "self" that was aware and knew what was happening, and there was a brain, or data bank, which was being activated to elicit events from the past.

Dr. Penfield couldn't find any place in the cerebral cortex where electrode stimulation caused a patient to believe or decide something. The functions of the "self;' or the real you, cannot be accounted for by any neuronal mechanism. As neuroscientist Professor Sir John Eccles, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology, opines, "It is a mistake to think that the brain does everything and that our conscious experiences are simply a reflection of brain activities.

Dr. Gerald Edelman is the preeminent director of the Neurosciences Institute and a Nobel Prize winner in immunology. Despite the fact that he set out to prove that the mind does not exist as an independent entity but is a product of Darwin's selectional process, he capitulated recently and admitted, "It's not totally reductive, meaning that it can't be totally attributed to mere physical reality or evolution."

Another scientist, Dr. David Chalmers of Australian National University and director of the Centre for Consciousness, said that consciousness has to be considered a fundamental category like space, time, or gravity -- explicable only by "special psychosocial laws."

In other words, the real you is more than the biological, neuronal, and chemical systems allowing you to read this article. The real you must be something that transcends the physical.

What these scientists refer to as the "mind," Judaism would call the "soul."

That is the essence of a human being. We nourish our bodies with food, sleep and exercise. We nourish our brains with books and seminars. And we nourish our souls through doing acts of kindness, prayer and Torah study -- which is the key to unlocking the science of the soul.

That, in a nutshell, is what Judaism, and the unique creature called Human Being, is all about.

Excerpted from Search Judaism: Judaism's Answers to a Changing World by Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer. Click here to purchase Search Judaism at an online discount.

Published: October 11, 2009


Give Tzedakah! Help Aish.com create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Visitor Comments: 15

(15) Joey, June 7, 2010 1:01 AM

Very insightful!

Thank you for this excellent and well-researched article, and God bless!

(14) Anonymous, February 17, 2010 7:30 PM

Compelling and insightful

I greatly enjoyed this article and shared it with some friends. Almost all of us found the article to be clear, educational and well written. However, our resident atheist (everyone has at least one avowed atheist in their group of friends) felt quite threatened and -naturally- tried to bash this article, first with diplomacy, then with heavy artillery. His arguments were all basically boiled down to defamation and empty ammunition; he had no real critical/justified bone to pick.

(13) Anonymous, November 16, 2009 5:11 PM

Confusing conclusion

I was expecting this article to explain the soul in scientific terms or offer scientific proof of its existence. It didn't achieve this, however. I’d be keen to know if any of the scientists would agree with his conclusions. Rabbi Fingerer does not provide any evidence to suggest that ‘the real you must be something that transcends the physical.’

(12) Anonymous, October 26, 2009 9:25 PM

Rabbi Fingerer is a brilliant Rabbi. I believe that what he has written allows others who are less knowledgeable to really inderstand the true essence of the soul and what it is all about. The thought of being compared to monkeys leaves no room for intellect or soul. G-d created each of us uniquely and we are brought into this world to achieve things that "animals" cant do...The soul is the essence of every human being..

(11) Adam, October 18, 2009 2:43 AM

Wonderful

Just wanted to say that I really appreciated this very well-thought-out, brilliant presentation of a topic desperately needed to be understood today. I would love to see how Dr. Singer would respond to this article.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.


  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment
stub
Sign up today!