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Neuroscience & the Soul in Philosophical Perspective

Adam Green

A Philosophy Course on "Neuroscience & the Soul"

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Azusa Pacific University
August 1, 2012

This is a course description and syllabus developed from our 2017 course development grant competition. See below for a downloadable syllabus.

This course gives students the resources to assess, critique, and explore the intersection of neuroscience, philosophy, and theology. The course will utilize both high end (for the classroom) and low-end (for student practice and presentation) neuroanatomy software to provide an enhanced, multi-modal learning environment. This course will focus on two broad areas where empirical work and Christian interests intersect. The first area concerns the nature, scope, and moral status of human agency. The second area concerns the epistemology of recognizing qualities associated with the soul. Topics include: the role of the concept of “soul” in Christian theology and philosophy, the relevance and limit of the brain-computer analogy, the unique contributions of the frontal lobes and hemisphere lateralization in the human brain, automaticity, the origin of action, neuroethics, cognitive dissonance, confabulation, mirror neurons, near death and out of body experiences, and the relation of temporal lobe activity to religious experience.

Click here to download the syllabus for Neuroscience & the Soul in Philosophical Perspective

Course Objectives

That the student:

  • Understand at an informed non-specialist level how the brain works in general and the nature of the systems within the brain that are of special interest to concerns connected to the traditional Christian notion of the soul.
  • Think critically and constructively about the nature of the soul and how neuroscience may be used as a resource in the project of faith seeking understanding.
  • Gain a measure of expertise in navigating the interface of neuroscience and human agency on the one hand and that between neuroscience and the knowledge of persons on the other.

Course Readings and Schedule

Week 1: Conceptions of the Soul, part I

Selections from the works of Augustine (De Anima Quantitate and De Libero Arbitrio)

Selections from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (starting with Prima pars, question 75)

Week 2: Conceptions of the Soul, part II

Murphy, “Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues”

Excerpt from Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting

Week 3: Brain Basics—the Computer Analogy

Excerpt from Von Neumann, The Computer and the Brain

Chp 4 of McCorduck, Machines Who Think

Week 4: Brain Basics—Modularity and Centralization

Excerpt from Swanson, Brain Architecture

Fodor, “Precis of The Modularity of the Mind

Week 5: Refining the Basics—The Split Brain

Excerpt from McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary

Sperry, “Consciousness, Personal Identity, and the Divided Brain”

Week 6: Refining the Basics—The Frontal Lobe

Excerpt from Goldberg, The Executive Brain

Week 7: Refining the Basics—Neuroplasticity

Excerpt from Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself

Week 8: Agency—The Scope of Automaticity

Wegner, “Precis of The Illusion of Conscious Will

Bargh, “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being”

Fiedler, “Exerting Control Over Allegedly Automatic Associative Processes”

from Psychology of Self Regulation (2009)

Baumeister, “Self-Regulatory Strength”

Week 9: Agency—Consciousness and the Genesis of Action

Libet, “Do We Have Free Will?” The Volitional Brain

Mele, “Decisions, Intentions, Urges, and Free Will: Why Libet Has Not Shown What He Says He Has.”

Week 10: Agency—Neuroethics, Moral Judgment, and Moral Motivation

Excerpt from Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil

Greene, “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul”

Huebner, Dwyer, & Hauser, “The Role of Emotion in Moral Psychology”

Prinz, “The Emotional Basis of Moral Judgments” 

Week 11: Agency—Cognitive Dissonance and Weakness of Will

Thagard, “The Moral Psychology of Conflicts of Interest: Insights from Affective Neuroscience”

Kalis et al, “Weakness of Will, Akrasia, and the Neuropsychiatry of Decision Making”

Week 12: Detecting Soul—Confabulation and Self-Knowledge

French et al, “False Memories: A Kind of Confabulation in Non-Clinical Subjects”

Mele, “Delusional Confabulation and Self-Deception”

Coltheart & Turner, “Confabulation and Delusion”

Week 13: Detecting Soul—Mirror Neurons, Mindreading, and Others

Goldman & Gallese, “Mirror Neurons and the Simulation Theory of Mindreading”

Green, “Perceiving Persons”

Excerpt from Iacoboni, Mirroring People

Week 14: Detecting Soul—Near Death and Out of Body Experiences

Excerpt from Habermas & Moreland, Beyond Death

Nelson, “Does the Arousal System Contribute to Near Death Experience?”

Nelson, “Out-of Body Experience and Arousal”

Week 15: Detecting Soul—Spirits, Altered States, and the Temporal Lobe

Excerpt from Persinger, The Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs

Excerpt from Cohen, The Mind Possessed

Short Excerpt from Atran, In Gods We Trust

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