Thursday, July 13, 2006

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.
But does this mean that ‘spirit’ is just a secondary effect of brain functions? And does this not imply that any notion of human freedom is constrained by the neural workings of the brain? Indeed, recent studies in human sociality would emphasise that restrictions on human freedom are even more pronounced from without, not just in relation to patterns of neural synapses and the like.

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.

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At 7/14/2006 5:07 AM, Anonymous Volker said...

how would you say that humans differ from animals? Is it that God blew his S/spirit into the first human being (physically or metaphorically)? Is this their spirit or their soul? And what happens with every new human being since then - is the spirit part of them due to their human genes, or does God blow his S/pirit again on each individual (upon conception?) to impress his image upon them?

At 7/14/2006 3:12 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Well, Küng argues that it is not in the human relation to any intellectual or biological ability, but rather in relation to transcendence. Only humans have religion, so Küng argues, and that makes us unique. And Spirit would, for Küng, at least I suspect, be interpreted in terms of this transcendent relation.
Does that make sense?
All the best mate,

At 7/15/2006 8:57 PM, Anonymous Volker said...

Thanks, yes it makes sense what you say about Kansch in your answer. But what do YOU think about the questions raised above? (Yes, I'm sure now you are cursing me for asking you these difficult questions publicly. But well, I didn't start the blog...(-:)


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