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Chapter I -- 4

St Gregory’s third case is rather easier to understand. St Gregory says: if the soul is not in the elements of the body (the first case) and not connected to them (the second case), well, where is it? For there is nowhere else in the world where it could live appropriately to its own nature (evidently, as the soul of someone). And that which is nowhere at all does not exist at all either. The only ambiguity is this: does St Gregory mean that the soul is nowhere in the sense that with the assumptions given there is no soul at all in the living person or that, under those same assumptions, the soul is nowhere after death—that it cannot survive death, having nowhere to go? An attentive reading of St Macrina’s replies further on indicates that the second reading is meant: the soul, if it is not in the elements of the body and is not connected to them, cannot survive the death of the body.

Generally, St Gregory poses counter-arguments based on treating the soul as a material sort of thing.

These three cases constitute St Gregory’s rendition of the materialistic argument against the existence of a soul which survives the death of the person, although it certainly could accept the existence of a soul which did not survive the death of the person.

There is another argument, that which is advanced by Watson and his fellow authors in Molecular Biology of the Gene, an argument which St Gregory does not make. This argument goes something like this: Let us take a phenomenon such as fermentation: by fermentation, grape juice pressed from grapes becomes wine. To the naïve person, this process seems to require a ‘living thing’—yeast. However, modern science has uncovered the chemical reactions which given the right environmental conditions convert the sugars of the grape juice into alcohol. These chemical reactions can be duplicated in the test tube, and alcohol produced, without yeast.[1] Hence, what the naïve person thought was an aspect of ‘life’—fermentation—is just a series of chemical reactions. So it is, paradigmatically, with all the phenomena naïvely thought to be due to some phenomenon called ‘life’: they are in principle—we say ‘in principle’ because not all the chemical reactions have been elucidated yet; it is merely a matter of time—also merely chemical reactions which can be uncovered and duplicated in the test tube. Witness cloning, freezing and thawing without ill effect of fertilized human eggs, genetic manipulation of human chromosomes and so on. Hence ‘life’ is a meaningless concept. And ‘soul’, taken as ‘being alive’, its absence as ‘being dead’, is just as meaningless. These are artefacts of a prescientific, prelogical way of thinking.

Given the manifest success of modern biochemistry and molecular biology in elucidating the chemistry of the cell, including the human cell, and the advances in medicine that this success has brought about, this argument has a great persuasive force today.

All of these arguments—the three that St Gregory has put forward, and the one we think underlies the writing of the introduction to the Fourth Edition of Molecular Biology of the Gene—hinge on the materialistic philosophical understanding of what can and cannot exist.

This materialistic position can be put thus: Only material things exist, and material things are those which can be perceived by the senses, perhaps with the assistance of scientific tools—microscopes, telescopes, radarscopes and so on.[2] All other things do not exist. They are imaginary, figments of the imagination, fantasies. The world is a world of nuts and bolts, trees and stars, flowers and atoms. These things exist. Nothing else exists.[3] It is a world in which the chief science is physics, in which the paradigm for all the sciences is modern or even classical physics.

On the basis of this philosophical position, the materialist rejects the existence of the soul, and for the reasons that St Gregory or Watson and his fellow authors largely give. Either it is a part of the body, or the functioning of part of the body, in which case ‘soul’ is an unnecessary concept; or, if it is not, it is a non-sensible absurdity.

The importance of this materialistic philosophical rejection of the soul cannot be overestimated.

[1] By means of the cell-free extracts referred to earlier.

[2] Electromagnetic waves and fields are deemed to exist as material things of a special sort.

[3] Of course, this is not to suggest that materialists do not accept four fundamental forces and so on.


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