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If the mind is immaterial, is human cloning impossible?

I agree with Mike Egnor that the mind is immaterial but I don’t think human cloning is impossible

Mike Egnor has argued here at Mind Matters News, on the basis of his commitment to “Thomistic dualism,” that human cloning is impossible.

“I believe that human reproductive cloning will never work,” he writes, “because the human intellect and will are immaterial and cannot be cloned.” Indeed, he argues that the successful cloning of a human being would falsify his view.

Although he says that there may be biological reasons that prevent human cloning efforts from succeeding, his argument depends on what he takes to be the metaphysical and theological implications of his view.

As he puts it:

2. Metaphysical: In the Aristotelian/Thomist view to which I subscribe, the animal soul has only material powers—i.e., the powers arise from and are caused by matter. The human soul has the material powers of the animal soul but also has immaterial powers of intellect and will. These powers do not arise from nor are they caused by matter. Thus, from a metaphysical perspective, it should not be possible to copy (i.e. manufacture) a human soul by cloning, which is a wholly material process.

3.Theological: In the Catholic tradition (and I think most Christian traditions), the human soul is spiritual, in God’s image, and is created directly by God at conception. As cloning alone does not entail divine creation, cloning could not create a spiritual human soul. The argument that God might choose to cooperate with the scientists and create a spiritual soul at just the same moment that a human clone is made is theological nonsense. Cloning a human being is an attempt to create a being that is made in God’s image, and it is manifest evil. There is no Christian theology I know of that proposes that God would participate in manifest evil.

I share Mike’s Thomistic understanding of the human person (traditionally called hylomorphism), including the immateriality of the mind. But I think he (and materialists who also make this argument) are quite mistaken in concluding that this view implies or entails that human cloning is impossible.

Interaction Between the Material and the Immaterial

As Catholics, Mike and I follow Catholic doctrine when it comes to the question of the origin of the human soul. That doctrine teaches that each and every human soul is created directly by God. Why? Because matter can’t create an immaterial and immortal thing with powers that clearly transcend matter. But the ability to produce a human being through cloning would not show this doctrine false nor would it show that we are only material.

First of all, God has clearly made our world with all manner of interaction between the material and immaterial. Chemical drugs, for instance, can impede our highest rational powers. This doesn’t show, as Mike knows and has argued, that the mind just is the brain and its chemical reactions. Rather, God has made the world, including human beings, so that both God and immaterial realities cooperate in regular ways with the physical world.

For instance, there seem to be regular psycho-physical laws governing mind-brain interaction (in the other direction too, by the way, as in the case of the placebo effect).

The Thomistic view implies that under certain physical conditions, God will create certain immaterial realities. Under certain biological conditions, for instance, God will create human souls, just as under certain liturgical conditions (such as valid consecration), Catholics believe bread and wine will be transformed into Christ’s body and blood. God has freely chosen to bind himself to his creation in this way.

Clear Counterexamples

Mike’s second argument is this: While God might cooperate in this way under some conditions (the normal conception of a human being, or proper consecration of bread and wine by a priest), it would be morally repugnant for God to ratify an attempt to clone a human being. That is, since human cloning is (let us grant) immoral, God would not allow himself to be dragged into creating a human soul under such conditions.

But if that followed, then in vitro fertilization and pregnancy as the result of rape should also be impossible. Rape is clearly a great evil. Nevertheless, God participates in bringing about some human beings by way of rape. Since it is possible for human beings to come about by in vitro fertilization and rape, there must be something wrong with Mike’s argument.

Does anyone think that cases of rape invalidate the idea God creates the human soul? Surely not. Rather, God apparently creates new human life whenever the biological facts are just right. That is, under certain conditions, he cooperates with the material world he created to bring about new human life. (Indeed, Thomists argue that God cooperates with every cause to produce every effect). This gives us the dignity, even when we don’t deserve it, of being true causes of significant events in the world. This can happen even through morally repugnant events such as rape, as long as the right biological conditions are met.

So, if pregnancy as the result of rape doesn’t disprove the immateriality of the mind (or the soul), then why would cloning do so?

The Thomistic view of how God relates to evil avoids the dilemma Mike identifies. God never commits evil. Rather, he cooperates with human and other agents some of which bring about evil actions and effects. God is a true cause of all positive realities (beings as well as actions) but he does not supply the defects in them. For instance, when I say a harsh word to a loved one, God keeps me in being and supplies the causal powers I have and helps them take effect. What he does not supply is the lack of charity in my action—because it is not a thing but rather a privation. So, while we both cause the positive action, only I cause the defect in the action. See here for a clear articulation of this point.

In the same way, if scientists succeeded in cloning a human being, God would be a true cause of it but would not supply the defect of evil intention or any other defect in the act. Cloning is no more a case of impermissible divine action than is God’s “cooperation” with every other evil action in the world.

Cloning Isn’t Copying

Mike describes cloning as “copying” a human soul. But cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer) does not involve literally copying a human individual (despite the hype and science fiction that treats it that way). We don’t have machines where actual human individuals can be copied from (non-biological) scratch. Rather, scientists, in cloning an organism, would remove the nucleus from an ovum of that organism, and then supply the DNA from a somatic cell of a donor. Then that cell is stimulated electrically to begin the process of cell division (assuming all goes as planned).

Mike is right that scientists have had a harder time producing human clones than they have had with other organisms. But I don’t see any good reason—whether biological or metaphysical—to doubt that they will eventually succeed. But if and when they do, they will not have copied a person. They will, in effect, have produced a twin of a human being using biological precursors quite similar those that naturally give rise to a human being. And that twin will be less similar to the donor than two identical twins are to each other. After all, identical twins don’t just share DNA. They share the original ovum from their mother as well.

What I think Mike should say instead is that, whatever happens in the future, human cloning would not threaten the immaterial nature of the soul. That’s because materialists would have to show not just that there is a new human life, but that God is not bringing about a unique human soul to animate the new living being. And how would they do that?

There are, of course, empirical implications of both the materialist and non-materialist understanding of the human mind. But the success of human cloning won’t weigh on the question one way or the other.


Note: My thanks to Logan Gage for his comments in private email correspondence, which I have integrated here.

Also by Jay Richards: A short argument against the materialist account of the mind


Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow, Assistant Research Professor, Executive Editor
Jay Richards, Ph.D., O.P., is an Assistant Research Professor in the School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America, Executive Editor of The Stream and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute where he works with the Center on Wealth, Poverty and Morality. In addition to writing many academic articles, books, and popular essays on a wide variety of subjects, he edited the award winning anthology God & Evolution and co-authored The Privileged Planet.  His most recent book is The Human Advantage. Richards has a Ph.D., with honors, in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, an M.Div., a Th.M., and a B.A. with majors in Political Science and Religion. He lives with his family in the Washington DC Metro area.  

If the mind is immaterial, is human cloning impossible?