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Is there a ghost in the machine?

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Published on Dec 15, 2011

Dr Stuart Derbyshire, reader in psychology, University of Birmingham

Martha Robinson, neuroscience PhD student, University College London

Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor, philosophy of religion, University of Oxford; author The Existence of God and The Evolution of the Soul

Professor Raymond Tallis, fellow, Academy of Medical Sciences; author, Aping Mankind: neuromania, Darwinitis and the misrepresentation of humanity

Chair: Sandy Starr, communications officer, Progress Educational Trust; webmaster, BioNews

The spirit, spark or personality - the concept of a soul, self or mind distinct from our physical shell - has long been a cornerstone of our understanding of what it means to be human, in both religious and secular spheres. Increasingly, however, scientific fields such as neuroscience, genetics, epigenetics and psychology continue to provide ever more intricate explanations for human functioning that are rooted in the tangible and the biological. There is a widespread expectation that aspects of our lives that currently elude understanding will eventually yield to scientific explication, given sufficient time and research.

Many now believe human consciousness is a byproduct of biological processes, while others argue consciousness is more numinous, or suffused from the divine in some sense. What is often lost, in this tussle between the physics and the metaphysics of the self, is the social dimension of human existence. Historically, social consciousness has been thought to offer a means of transcending the embodied self, without having to resort to mystification. Is this avenue of realisation now blocked off, perhaps because scientific advances can explain social processes in more basic terms, such as 'the neuroscience of voting', for example? Or have we just lost the capacity to perceive or imagine the social as a transcendent sphere? Either way, it is difficult to see how we can aspire to be masters of our destiny, if we believe ourselves subordinate to, or an emergent property of, either a scientific or a spiritual account of nature.

Does today's science even allow for the possibility of a human self that is not circumscribed by bodily concerns? Can we believe in free will, or hold people responsible for the choices they make, without recourse to social consciousness? Can we establish an empirically sound view of ourselves, without detracting from the importance of morality, responsibility, solidarity and freedom? Does understanding what we are bring us closer to, or take us further away from, understanding who we are?

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