Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2006 | People

Soul Searching

By Tina Owen

Inside a classroom in Schaeffer Hall, students brace for a clash of the titans. On one side of the room sits science personified. On the other, religion. Between them, a chalkboard diagram of the human brain maps out the ideological battlefield.

In this particular session of "Values in the Contemporary World: Science and the Soul," physics and astronomy professor William Klink and religious studies professor David Klemm face off on either side of the room while a guest speaker takes center stage. They chime in with occasional comments as clinical associate professor of psychiatry Janeta Tansey, 99R, leads the 20 students on a guided tour of the human brain and its capabilities. Students work their way past the medulla and the cerebellum, skirt around the lamina terminalis, navigate the aqueduct of Sylvius, and eventually advance to the thalamus and hypothalamus. Intricately drawn and labeled, Tansey's handouts chart every nook and cranny of the brain. But nowhere do these anatomical diagrams reveal the location of the soul.

That's the crux of this class—and the point where science and religion often part ways. Even people who don't consider themselves particularly religious may buy into the concept of the soul without really giving it much thought. It's an ancient idea that still resonates in our modern, high-tech world. In scientific terms, though, the existence of the soul can be neither proved nor disproved. It requires a leap of faith.

Both faith and logic are put to the test in "Science and the Soul," which addresses the perplexing questions that have stumped centuries-worth of theologians, philosophers, and scientists. Do humans have a soul—an invisible entity that animates us and invests us with a special capacity for higher thought and feelings, intellectuality and spirituality? Or, are we organically housed computers, wholly reducible to the physical firings of our brains?

"Most of the debates of our time can be boiled down to a clash between [these viewpoints]," says Klink, who cites as a key example the conflict between proponents of intelligent design and evolution.

When Sam Connet, a junior from Des Moines majoring in classics and Literature, Science, and the Arts, signed up for "Science and the Soul," he thought the title was a misnomer. He expected science versus the soul. "A physics and a religion professor in the same room?" he says. "I thought there would be fireworks."

If sparks fly in this classroom, though, it's not from any heated argument between the professors, but from the connections that they and their students make as they bring different academic disciplines to bear on some of the most fundamental questions of life. In the words of the course description, this is a debate about "who we are and what our destiny is as human beings." While the class can't aim to fully resolve such complicated matters, it does help students explore issues and make judgments for themselves. "[When some students] come to the university and see science dominating the discourse, they look back at their religious upbringing and ask how they can reconcile these things," Klink says. "'Science and the Soul' is that attempt."

The course focuses on the notion of the soul as the place where consciousness originates. Students begin the semester by reading about and discussing the two primary theories of consciousness-dualism and materialism. Dualists, such as philosophers Rene Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Manfred Frank, support the idea of a soul that endows a person with self-consciousness and subjectivity. Materialists, many of them neuroscientists, claim that consciousness is simply the product of neuronal activity in the brain.

Both theories seem intuitively plausible. Our first-hand experiences of thoughts and pain, our instinctive and ingrained self-identification as "I" help us relate to the concept of something else that exists within our physical bodies. Yet, some scientists and philosophers argue that even self-consciousness and subjectivity can be explained through neurophysiological causes. After all, evidence of the link between brain activity and consciousness comes from various scientific studies that show how neurological damage can dramatically impact personality.

"People from both sides of the question have this lurking suspicion that the theoretical framework with which they are comfortable has limits and can't explain the full experience of being a conscious human being," says Klemm, 80PhD.

While theological and philosophical arguments have their flaws, so does the scientific approach. "Even if you could know everything there is to know about the neurophysiology of the brain," adds the professor of religion, "would that knowledge give you any insight into the question, 'How should I live my life?'"

The professors regularly pose such profound queries to the class, fully aware that they lead to many more questions than answers. Silence pierces the room as the students wrestle with complicated notions. It's a common experience in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) program, in which courses team-taught by faculty from different academic backgrounds challenge students to approach a particular topic from a variety of perspectives. A fixture at the UI for some 35 years, LSA represents a passion for interdisciplinary intellectual exploration that appeals to faculty and students alike. In these courses, students learn how to understand and analyze complex arguments—skills that are vital to their future academic or professional pursuits. "They're getting material they've never seen before and probably don't know how to handle very well," says Klink.

Because they represent different areas of expertise, the professors admit that the class provides them the same kind of learning experience. "You're never quite sure what you're in for, what's going to happen," says Klink. "There's a kind of open-endedness here that isn't the same as when I teach a [more structured] quantum mechanics course."

Their students are a diverse group—engineering, political science, English, and arts undergrads who are usually sophomore standing or higher. Many are attracted by the course's emphasis on independent thought, although they soon realize the hard work involved, which Klemm describes as "always thinking and reading above your head." While some undergrads initially flounder in such deep intellectual waters, many relish the challenge. "The main goal of college is to learn how to learn," says Connet. "A class like this forces me to study in ways I'm not accustomed to—rethinking, rereading, and challenging long-held ideas."

For the last part of the semester, students also have to formulate—and defend in a ten-minute presentation—their own notions of consciousness, drawing upon what they've learned in this class, from their other academic endeavors, and from their personal experiences. Some use jazz, schizophrenia, and the idea of universal human rights to help define the human condition. Perhaps the most ambitious theory comes from their professors, whose collaborations have produced a model of consciousness based on quantum mechanics that fuses the best of dualism and materialism.

The professors argue that materialism doesn't take into account quantum mechanics' insights into the nature and behavior of atoms—the building blocks of everything in the universe, including humans and their brains. In contrast to the determinism or lack of free will implicit in materialism, quantum mechanics shows that even the tiniest atomic particle seems to possess a type of "protoconsciousness" and the ability to make choices.

From this perspective, explains Klink, "materialism is dealing with an impoverished notion of matter and thus a fragmentary account of consciousness." He adds, "Needless to say, students are somewhat snowed by this." As they strain to wrap their minds around such recondite theories, students may sometimes feel as if their brains are about to burst under the weight of these new ways of looking at their world. Nonetheless, it's an exhilarating journey of discovery.

"I hope to keep applying these questions for a long time," Connet says. "They won't be answered easily or quickly, but that's good, because the goal is to keep questioning."