Can a Soul be Cloned?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/01/1998

The cloning confusion continues.

Doctor Richard Seed, a cum laude graduate from Harvard with a Ph.D. in physics, has promised to produce the first human clone in less than two years in a clinic in the Chicago area, if he gets funded.

“We are going to become one with God,” he boasted. “We are going to have almost as much knowledge and almost as much power as God.”1

Public response was immediate. The White House condemned the project as “unethical.” The Food and Drug Administration announced that regulation of human cloning is in its jurisdiction because the procedure presents “serious health and safety issues” for the mother and her unborn. A presidential commission has recommended an immediate federal ban on all human cloning research.

Many Christians are nearly apoplectic about the prospect. I’ve consistently heard comments like, “It’s wrong to play God,” or “A clone wouldn’t have a soul,” conjuring up the specter of an army of blank-eyed zombies shuffling stiffly across darkened moors.

I’m glad the country is shaken by the possibility of human cloning, but I’m not sure they really know why the procedure is questionable. I have little confidence that even Christians understand the issue.

Ethical Confusion

First, how is the government going to make any sense out of its alarm? How, for example, can the FDA challenge cloning out of concern for the safety of the unborn when abortion can’t be challenged for the same reason? Does a mother still have the right to do whatever she wants with her own body? Is the federal government now becoming anti-choice?

The White House has condemned human cloning, and politicians are lining up to voice their opposition. Legislation is already being drafted to prohibit it. The political posturing is confusing, however.

How are we to take seriously the President’s claim that cloning is unethical? A thing is considered unethical when it violates a moral rule. Car theft is unethical because it’s a specific violation of a larger principle: It’s wrong to steal another’s property.

That same rule has other applications, however. The ethical principle that covers car theft equally covers plagiarism. If you object to car theft based on the broader rule against stealing, but then condone your plagiarism on a term paper, it’s fair to question your commitment to the broader moral principle.

It seems like you’re picking and choosing based on what’s convenient rather than on a genuine commitment to morality. If an ethical rule is not applied consistently, then moral claims begin to look like mere personal preferences. There’s no reason to take them seriously.

My question of the President is this: Precisely what ethical rule does cloning violate? (Incidentally, this is an important question for Christians to answer, too.) This is a mystery I’d like to have cleared up.

Here is the problem. Whatever rule the President might suggest is going to have other applications as well. Mr. Clinton and other members of Congress condemn as unethical the manipulation of human genes. However, these same people do not consider it unethical to completely destroy a fully developed human child through partial-birth abortion. Why is it wrong to manipulate genetic material to create a human, but completely acceptable to destroy the human created from those very same genes?

Not Nice to Fool with Mother Nature

Christians are not much clearer in their thinking about cloning.

I hear two common objections from believers. The first is that those who would clone a human are trying to play God. The concern here is a bit unclear. “Playing God” could mean two different things.

It could mean that creating a human is something only God can do. In that case, cloning would be impossible and the issue would be moot. Man could try to clone, but he’ll never succeed. Creation is something only God can accomplish. Dr. Ian Wilmut disproved this view with Dolly, the famous cloned sheep.

The phrase could also mean that creating a human is something only God should do. Like the builders of Babel’s great tower, would-be cloners are trespassing on divine territory. Dr. Seed’s boastful comment, “We are going to have almost as much knowledge and almost as much power as God” seems to affirm as much.

But this second objection needs justification. It seems we create human beings all the time. It’s called parenting. In fact, we create clones, too, in the case of identical twins. That doesn’t seem to offend God at all.

“But twinning is one thing,” some say. “It’s natural. Artificial cloning is different.”

I asked one woman why she assumed God would not allow a clone to have a soul. “It’s not a natural process,” she said. I then asked her if she was against artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization. Neither of those are natural, but she had no problem with them.

Further, if God withholds souls for “unnatural” forms of reproduction, what of the thousands of children born through in vitro fertilization or other reproductive technologies? Are they all without souls?

“Oh, no, they have souls,” she assured me. But why would God give souls to them and not to the others? “Because the clones are more unnatural.” When I hear comments like these I begin to suspect that Christians are making it up as they go along.

The Night of the Living Dead

The second objection to cloning I hear from Christians is that a clone wouldn’t have a soul. All attempts at successful cloning could at best only produce a race of vacant-eyed zombies. Believers who make such statements demonstrate they are not clear on what a soul is or what a soul does.

Once a seven-year-old boy called the radio show and asked, “What is a soul?” Simply put, I told him, your soul is your invisible self. A soul lives in a body similar to the way a hand wears glove. A soul makes the body move much like your hand makes the glove move. When you remove your hand from the glove, the glove can’t do anything. The same thing happens to a body when the soul leaves. It just lies there.

I went on to make two clarifications to my young caller. First, souls aren’t actually in bodies in exactly the same way a hand is in a glove. Our hands are physical, but our souls are not. Souls are invisible, but they are still real.

Second, if we wore gloves all the time and never took them off, some people might say we didn’t really have any hands at all because they never saw them. They’d say that gloves were the only things that were real, that hands didn’t actually exist.

This would be a mistake because when we look closely at gloves, it becomes very clear that they would not be able to do the things they do all by themselves. Hands do things that gloves alone can’t do.

In the same way, souls do things that mere physical bodies can’t do.

The Soul Chip

Just today I heard a report on the radio that a group of scientists are working vigorously to produce a very special kind of computer chip. It will be placed behind the eye and will be capable of recording every single thought, memory, and sensation. It’s called the “soul chip.”

This project is doomed to failure for a very simple reason. It is not possible to record thoughts, memories, or sensations in that way on a computer chip because none of those things are physical. Your thoughts don’t have chemical composition. Your memories don’t weigh anything. Your sensations don’t take up any space.

These scientists have confused the hand with the glove. They credit the body (and computer chips) with being able to do things only a soul can do. Here’s how I know.

Think for a moment about five mental states you are capable of: thoughts, sensations, desires, beliefs, and willings. Each of these is a unique ability you have. Each is completely your own. They are utterly private unless you choose to reveal them.

By contrast, all physical things are—at least in principle—available for inspection by anyone. Physical things have physical characteristics that can be examined equally by all parties. If all physical things have physical properties and are also third-person public, and if your mental states have no physical qualities and are utterly private, then your essential self is not the same as your physical body. The hand is not the glove.

Your soul is your essential self, the thing you reflect on when you introspect. It is the source and “container” of every one of your thoughts, sensations, desires, beliefs, and willings. Even if you had no body you would still be yourself, because that which is essentially you is not physical.

Your private mental states cannot be recorded on a computer chip. The only way to make a record of a thought or sensation is for the one experiencing it to report it in words. The mental state itself is not recorded, only a description of it. Since mental states are first-person private, the individual himself must report them before they can be recorded on computer chips.

In fact, mental states are so private they not only can’t be recorded, they often can’t even be described in words by the one who is having them. The word “ineffable” is used for personal experiences that are incapable of being expressed.

Humans without Souls?

Note that each of these mental states are necessarily oriented to the first-person. The ability to have first-person experiences (thoughts, sensations, etc.) is not a characteristic of matter. It takes an immaterial self to have a first-person perspective.

Therefore, anything that has a conscious, first-person perspective—anything that can do the things only a soul can do—must have a soul (or, to put it more accurately, must be a soul).

The idea that there might be human beings with no souls walking around the earth is completely absurd. A human without a soul can’t have thoughts or beliefs, can’t have desires or sensations, and can’t make any decisions. They do nothing, they don’t even breathe. Human beings without souls are called corpses.

If a human clone is ever made—and I see no good reason why it can’t be done—it will have a soul, like all sentient creatures. Souls don’t appear magically out of thin air by an act of God. Instead, they seem to the product of the miracle of human reproduction set into motion from the beginning by God Himself.

Further, all creatures that have conscious mental states are ensouled. Humans souls are different from those of other creatures, though, in that they bear the image of God. Therefore human beings have transcendent value. This one fact makes all the difference.

One Simple Rule

Earlier I asked what general ethical rule would the President offer as a guideline to judge the morality of cloning. Here it is: Human beings bear the image of God, and therefore have transcendent and intrinsic value.

Once you understand what a soul is, what it does, and what makes it valuable, the cloning issue comes into focus. Cloning might turn out to be unethical, but only because it violates a core principle of human dignity that is also violated by abortion. Ethical arguments against the one are also arguments against the other.

All humans have value, including any future clones, because each bears the imprint of God. This foundational principle is at the core of all morality pertaining to the treatment of others. A person’s value does not depend on how he began life, what his body looks like, or even whether he is wanted, but on what he is: God’s image-bearer.