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Chapter I -- 5

Let us look at the concept of ‘person’ that obtains in the West today on the basis of this philosophical rejection of the concept of ‘soul’. The main aspect of this concept of the ‘person’ that strikes one is its relativization. A person no longer begins at conception; he no longer ceases to be a person only at death. Since the dominant model posits that the person is the normal functioning of his brain, and certainly of his higher brain centres, then, before the development of the nervous system while the fœtus is developing in the womb, the embryo or fœtus is deemed merely to be a piece of tissue. When the person is dying, moreover, the loss of activity, measured electrically, of the higher brain centres is deemed to constitute a loss of personhood.

Moreover, since the dominant conception of man that obtains today in the West is based on the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, man is just another species of animal, one among many. This has two implications: First, the peculiarities of man—say his speech, his ability to use tools, his ‘spiritual aspects’—are considered to be merely the result of the fortuitous evolution of the primate brain: man is an animal with a highly evolved brain; perhaps chimpanzees are not so far from man as once thought; perhaps whales, with their very large brains, are even more ‘spiritual’ than man. Second, questions are raised among philosophers who otherwise seem to want to be taken seriously as doing philosophy in the Western tradition as to whether the life of a man who is yet to write a play is to be given any more value than the life of a dog that is yet to ‘go for one more run by the river’.[1] Even if we ignore the issue of a conception of man that sees his highest aspiration as that of writing a play—surely already a limited, very limited, conception of man—and of a conception of the dog that sees the highest aspiration of that member of the animal kingdom as going for one more run by the river—surely a limited conception of the life of a dog—we are still faced with this unwitting reductio ad absurdum by an otherwise serious student of philosophy of the position that man is just another member of the animal kingdom: since man is just another member of the animal kingdom, why should he have a greater right to life than another member of the animal kingdom, the dog?

The important thing to grasp is that these positions—and there are variants—arise from the materialistic model that St Gregory himself has put forth as an argument against the existence of a soul which survives the death of the person: only material things exist, and, since the body disintegrates at death, where can the soul be? Of course, this view is elaborated in modern philosophical anthropology in the manner we have sketched above: not only is man only a material being, but, in accordance with the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, he is merely one species of living being among the many that arose in evolution; and we have no way to say that he is in any way a better living being than any other.

Needless to say, this model has repercussions in theology and in the psychology of religious experience. For if this model recognizes God at all, it recognizes him on the one hand as the vague unity of the material world—there are of course variants—and on the other hand as a merely subjective experience.

This model tends very strongly to the position—insofar as it does not reject talk about God as mere sentimentalism—that all religions are the same: different human, subjective experiences of that ‘divine’ unity of the material world just referred to, conditioned by the cultural context—itself completely relative and equivalent—of the person who experiences that ‘divine’ unity of the material world. Moreover, since the person is his brain, or the functioning of his brain, such ‘divine’ experiences are the result of alterations to the ordinary functioning of the brain induced by various practices uncovered here and there in various cultures, which experiences empirically have been found to be effective in inducing the desired mental state by means of an alteration to the normal functioning of the brain or part of it.

A notable exponent of this view was Aldous Huxley (1894–1963), although he seems to have had a somewhat more objective sense of the divine than we have sketched, and seems even to have tended to a belief in reincarnation, at least in his later phases. The view that we have sketched, however, is in general the view of humanistic psychology.

In this view, yoga, fasting, continence, prayer and such-like are all means to induce alterations to the normal functioning of the brain, and, therefore, to the subjective mental state of the person who wishes to have, for whatever reason, such subjective experiences. Such experiences are merely that: experiences of unity seen in the context of a materialistic philosophical and scientific paradigm. These experiences have no greater significance, for the philosophical paradigm does not admit of the survival of the person after death, nor does it admit of the transcendent: when the brain ceases to function, the experiences and the person disappear. They are like a bubble which bursts and is gone. This is an image that St Macrina herself uses.

Let us see what she says:

[1] ‘Animals’ by Lori Gruen, in Singer p. 347.


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