Küng on freedom and neuroscience
Review of Hans Küng’s, Der Anfang aller Dinge, section E, Pt. 2 of 4.
2. Turning from physical development, Küng addresses the question of ‘freedom’.
The question of ‘freedom’ Küng calls a ‘problem’, one that shall concern him for much of the rest of the section. Having declared the traditional body/spirit dualism of Plato-Augustine-Descartes futile, Küng observes that ‘soul’ is hardly the commonly used label these days anyway. Today, one speaks of the psyche, thus resisting dualism. Agreeing with the general theses of Pannenberg’s extensive study, Küng concludes:
- the Person, the ‘I’, is neither the ‘soul’ nor the brain, but the entire living, feeling, thinking, suffering, acting person – a line of reasoning that shall be of value for his later discussions on the nature of freedom in relation to the brain.
- body and psyche are a unity, and ‘soul’ should only be understood metaphorically, poetically, liturgically etc., but never literally.
- ‘Consciousness’ is a psycho-pyshcical process, not a spiritual ability outside neural substratum.
Nevertheless, Küng affirms, the human is precisely within these constrains, free. Yes, the human is environmentally conditioned, but surely humans shape the environment. Yes, the human is genetically pre-programmed. But even here, the human is not entirely ‘pre-programmed’. However, Küng will devote considerable space in the following in expanding on how one can understand human freedom in light of modern science.
3. Brain and spirit
Discussions concerning ‘freedom’ have come particularly to the fore recently in light of the latest brain research. Surely the soul didn’t fall from heaven; it is a product of evolution. Hence, one may be correct to assert that the ‘I’ is entirely determined by physical-chemical brain processes. Thus ends the ‘freedom’ debate? Indeed, no theologian should ever, Küng insists, simply bring ‘God’ into this debate, and too quickly seek a theological resolution, as such language would simply speak past the scientist. Küng, on the other hand, wants to build bridges between theology and science and will do so by focusing his analysis upon the question: ‘Is freedom of will an illusion?’ In answer to this question, Küng simply insists upon more scientific humility. Physicists, Chemists and neuroscientists cannot answer such philosophical questions in their studies. They are focused upon the empirical, the concrete structures of consciousness, but to answer questions of freedom is to immediately colour scientific research with (perhaps unintended) philosophical commitments. Especially in light of the impotence of brain research to answer responsibly to questions of responsibility and guilt, one must resist reductionism. This line of reasoning, Küng expands in the next subsection.