In a previous post I summarized my remarks at “Souls or Selfish Genes,” a conversation at Stevens Institute of Technology about religious versus scientific views of humanity. I represented the agnostic position and David Lahti, a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York, a position more friendly to theism. Below Lahti summarizes his opening comments. –John Horgan

I’ve been asked to deal with the question of “Souls vs. Selfish Genes”. And whereas I am sure this is a false dichotomy, I’m not quite sure how exactly to fit the two parts of the truth together. But I’ll give you a few thoughts I’ve had about it, which can at least start us off. 

First, selfish genes. This of course is a reference to Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book of the same name, which is a popular and sensational description of a revolution in our understanding of the way evolution by natural selection operates. Briefly, we discovered in the 1960s-70s that the organismic individual was generally the most important level at which natural selection operates, meaning that evolution by natural selection proceeds primarily via certain individuals in a population reproducing more successfully than others. 

In fact, this is too simplistic. Hamilton’s theory of kin selection showed that it’s actually below the level of the individual where we really have to concentrate in order to explain certain traits, such as the self-sacrificial stinging of bees and the fact that some young male birds help their mother raise her next brood instead of looking for a mate. Those individuals are not being as selfish as we might predict.

However, analyzing natural selection at the level of the genes explains these situations. Those individuals share their alleles (forms of genes) with their family members; and what Hamilton showed is that natural selection favors traits that maximize the passage of underlying alleles to the next generation, whether or not those alleles are in the individual with that trait.

In fact, Dawkins’ Selfish Gene book was a bit prescient, as not until the 1980s-90s did we realize just how helpful the gene-level perspective could be. We discovered more fully during that period that the body is essentially a community of mostly cooperative cells, with occasional rebels that reproduce out of control (= cancer). And, at a level below this, we discovered that a genome in any particular cell is essentially a community of mostly cooperative genes, but likewise with occasional rebels that effect their own reproduction at the expense of other genes in the genome (= intragenomic conflict).

Our multicellular bodies and our genomes are full of parts that are remarkably cooperative because by cooperating they produce the most effective composite individual, and it’s the individual that reproduces. But the system breaks down just enough for us to see that selection operates primarily at the individual level only because levels beneath this have been constrained. All the cells, and all the genes, are mostly “in the same boat”.

So, are we comprised of selfish genes? Well, genes can’t literally be selfish, but yes, in a poetic sense that has some biological basis, we are. But this fact in and of itself has limited metaphysical implications. The term “selfish gene” is mainly a rhetorical device to explain the evolutionary process as I have described it above. 

Here is where we should rap the knuckles of some of our evolutionary popularizers, for going way beyond the science. Richard Dawkins titled his first chapter “Why are people?”, meaning, Why are we here? What is our purpose? And gleefully he said that the process I just described was the only answer there is. We are, in his words, “robot vehicles blindly programed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”. E. O. Wilson, in his own summary of the same evolutionary revolution published a year before Dawkins’, said “the organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA”. 

In other words, these two biologists bowed down to the mechanism they described and made it their Lord and Master. They chose biology to define the ultimate meaning of their lives—they made it their religion. That is not entirely true of either of them, actually, as it’s probably impossible really to live that way. Their writings very soon contradicted those strong statements.

Now, on to the soul. We see a very similar thing happening on that score, in certain circles. We’ve got a science of the body, specifically the brain, that is making advancements by leaps and bounds. Most significantly, neuroscience has come to the point where we can say with greater certainty than ever before that there are neural correlates of consciousness—that every time we have an experience, every time we remember something, every time we feel something, there is something physical going on in our body that can be measured and described. That is an amazing state of knowledge, although we’ve only just scratched the surface of how it all works, not to mention what it all means. 

But we’ve got some fans of neuroscience out there as fiercely enamored of that field as Dawkins and Wilson are with theirs, who have decided that consciousness therefore, including the mind, is somehow an illusion, and therefore needs no explanation, no respect, and no discussion. This is the position, for instance, of Daniel Dennett, who wrote a book called Consciousness Explained in which he does nothing of the sort. 

And this all goes for the soul too—for although the etymology of these things is confusing, generally in Greek the mind is the word ψυχή (psyche), that in many religious and philosophical writings we see translated as “soul”. You can see the soul as your self, your inner narrative if you will, the unified experience of being you. It’s a phenomenal thing, this experience, this soul, this self. But someone like Daniel Dennett essentially sells it to neuroscience for a clean narrow worldview where nothing remains outside his grasp, not too differently from the way the fictional Faust sells his soul to the devil for power. 

What I’ve described here is called reductive elimination, whether fans of evolution are getting rid of meaning and purpose, or fans of neuroscience are getting rid of consciousness and the self. This strategy is often sold by an appeal to Occam’s razor, the principle that one should cut away any unnecessary assumptions to produce the simplest possible solution to any problem (often called parsimony). Although practically helpful within science in order to identify effective hypotheses and test them against alternatives, the principle loses its footing outside of science, and does not warrant or justify being radically minimalistic about reality as a whole. In fact its originator, William of Occam, was a man of faith and would have been horrified at his principle being wielded to slice off parts of his worldview (like God) that he held most dear.

So, what’s the alternative to reductive elimination, for instance when it comes to consciousness or the soul? There are many. This is the province of the philosophy of mind. Some options seem way too simplistic, for instance treating souls as if they were quasi-bodies themselves, a thing taking up space and time but sort of transparent and wispy. Others try to be more sophisticated and use decorative terms like “supervenience” and “emergence”, that mostly represent our ignorance, just as the terms “instinct” and “innate” do in behavioral science. In fact we have very little real understanding of what the soul or self is, and we should be honest about this. But we all have to have something to go on, right? A working hypothesis? So we’re not kept up at night worrying about it (ha ha)? 

I’ll just share four rules of thumb that I use myself when trying to construct my own worldview (a lifelong process), including my view of life, consciousness, and the self. I’ll phrase them as recommendations in case they’re helpful to anyone else. 

First (since we were talking about science above), sure, respect the science! Science is any self- correcting way of finding out about the universe, and so our views of ourselves and the world should be consistent with it. This includes evolution and neuroscience of course. 

Second, pay attention to yourself, your own experience, and realize that this is where it all starts for you. It’s the root of everything, even your attention to science. As Descartes said, your own consciousness is your private but undeniable demonstration that you exist—it is in that sense even more fundamental than matter. Who knows, mind could turn out to be more fundamental than matter in other ways too. 

Third, building from your consciousness, what things do you personally find deeply meaningful that are not fully covered by science as we know it? Love? Beauty? Goodness? Hope? Whatever they are, protect these things and don’t be bullied in our scientific age into cheapening, reducing, or eliminating them just because science cannot fully validate or encompass them. 

Fourth, and most controversial I suppose, be risky in what you commit to. Be bold. We each have one shot at this, that we know of. Your worldview can be your expansive landscape, or your confining prison. Don’t let others tell you to put up walls where you’re not sure they belong, because those walls will restrict your thought and experience for the rest of your life. -- David Lahti

Further Reading:

In Defense of Disbelief: An Anti-Creed

Meta-Post: Posts on the Mind-Body Problem

Mind-Body Problems (free online book, also available in Kindle e-book and paperback)

Webpage of David Lahti(which includes links to his writings)