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Squaring Christianity & Neuroscience

Malcolm Jeeves

How should Christians approach the booming field of neuroscience?

In its November 1, 2013 editorial, “Seize the Neuroscience Moment,” Science celebrated the launch of European and American brain research initiatives:

“Neuroscience research has progressed at an explosive rate over the past three decades. Never before has the often quoted adage of having learned more about the brain in the past decade than in all of recorded history been more apt.”

I approach the question of Christianity and neuroscience in the spirit of pioneering scientist and Royal Society co-founder Robert Boyle. After undergoing a conversion from nominal, unthinking Christianity to committed Christianity, Boyle stressed the need for Christians to have what he called “an examined faith.”

The above question is in fact part of a larger question: What should be a Christian response to the scientific enterprise? Thoughtful Christians worship the God who created all things and who holds them in being moment-by-moment. They seek to follow their Lord’s example and commands to show compassion, to heal the sick, and to worship God with their minds. Thus they see their engagement in science as a key part of obeying his commands and learning more of the greatness of God, by applying the fruits of scientific researches to the tasks of relieving suffering and bringing healing.


“The only way to avoid muddle and pseudoconflict is vigilance.”

Within that overall context, we should be excited about the potential for new discoveries in neuroscience to take forward those aims. Already many are benefiting from the fruits of neuroscience research as some of the most exciting developments are applicable already to the human condition, particularly in research at the interfaces between neuroscience and psychology.

So should the Christian mindset about Neuroscience be one of ‘openness’? The answer is certainly ‘yes’ and not just a grudging openness but an enthusiastic and critical openness.

Let me explain what I mean by “enthusiastic and critical openness.” In doing so we may find some guidelines to apply as we assess developments in neuroscience.

1. Being enthusiastic about neuroscience does not mean embracing an uncritical reductionism.

We should not be uncritically gullible about every reported discovery nor should we be unsettled by the interpretations that the media sometimes too quickly puts on new findings. A good example of the right approach is found in what Professor John Stein, a leading Oxford neuroscientist, wrote in December 2011: “Claims are being made about brain research that just aren’t true, and they are being accepted uncritically by the press, the public, policy makers and even the courts.” He warned about the increasing dominance of reductionism. Adding that “scientists [are] picking off the relatively easy tasks of working out how little bits of the brain work molecularly and hoping that knowing about these nuts and bolts will eventually tell us how the complex system works as a whole.”
Part of the challenge is how to grapple with the perennial mind-brain problem. It remains unsolved. One of today’s most distinguished philosophers of mind, Thomas Nagel wrote,

“As far as we can tell, our mental lives and those of other creatures, including subjective experiences, are strongly connected with and perhaps strictly dependent on physical events in our brains and on the physical interaction of our bodies with the rest of the physical world.”

But he has no doubts that “we have to reject conceptual reduction of the mental.” He acknowledges that “the mind-body problem is difficult enough so that we should be suspicious of attempts to solve it with the concepts and methods developed to account for very different kinds of things. Instead we should expect theoretical progress to require a major conceptual revolution” as radical as relativity theory was in physics. The temptation to slip into unthinking reductionism is always there, but we must resist it.

This is not an issue that divides Christians and non-Christians. Neurologist and neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, who has highlighted the dangers of what he calls “biologism,” describes himself as an atheist humanist. He has a shared concern with religious people of the need to guard against the abuse of science and its misrepresentation, at times, in the popular media. He has even offered a trenchant critique of reductionists who believe that our greatest human conceptual abilities can be reduced to the neural firings in our brains, calling them “neuromaniacs.”

2. We should avoid the trap of looking for bits of neuroscience to support our religious beliefs.

These traps are not easy to resist. A recent example has been the unthinking and enthusiastic endorsement of some brands of so-called neurotheology. Some Christians have responded to neurotheology rather as some of their forebears did to phrenology 150 years ago. Then finding a ‘God’ bump on the skulls of some religious people they claimed ‘proved’ the existence of God. But phrenology was soon shown to be fanciful nonsense.

During the decade of the brain, at the end of the last century, a book appeared with the provocative title Where God Lives in the Human Brain. It was not a particularly important book as a contribution to neurology or neuroscience, but because of its provocative title and the large number of professing Christians in North America, it received wide media attention. This was followed in 2009 by another book with a similarly provocative title linking God and the brain, How God Changes Your Brain, written jointly by a neuroradiologist and a psychotherapist. Some religious people think they can use this “neurotheology” research to prove that God exists. Some atheists see it as showing that believing in gods is nothing but an evolutionary leftover in the way our brains developed. Both are mistaken. Because an area of the brain lights up when someone is praying to God does not prove the existence of God any more than if an area lights up when you are thinking about fairies proves the existence of fairies.

3. In matters of interpretation we need to recognize the diversity of views held by leaders in neuroscience.

For example, on the relation between mind and brain we should note the varied views of Nobel Prize winners. The easy approach would be to say that all mental activity will ultimately be reduced down to brain activity. Some like Francis Crick, arguably the greatest biologist of the twentieth century, seemed to take that view. However, at times, even he backed off a bit, realizing that it meant that his own brilliant discoveries would become nothing more than the chattering of neurons. Other Nobel laureates who have studied brain processes have taken different views. Sir John Eccles had no doubt that the primary reality is consciousness and everything else derives from that. A more recent laureate, Gerald Edelman, argued that consciousness is “efficacious,” and is not an epiphenomenon. Yet another laureate, Roger Sperry argued very strongly for a model that he thought best fits the evidence, and that was to put full weight on the topdown effect as well as on the traditional upward microdeterminism, which is happening at the level of neurons and of the atoms and molecules of which the neurons are composed. Sir Roger Penrose, an Oxford mathematician, had no doubt that consciousness is a phenomenon through which the universe’s very existence is made known. In a word, it is stupid to pretend that consciousness and mental life are unimportant.

4. We should emphasise repeatedly that the best understanding we have of humans is to see them as a psychobiological unity.

It is a view underlined repeatedly in the Scriptures. Thus we should recognize that the spiritual aspects of our existence are embodied in our brain and that significant changes in our brain present challenges to our spirituality. At times these challenges are very stressful for Christians as exemplified by changes that take place in devout Christians with advanced dementia and in some forms of depression.

But what about integration? How should we think about integrating Christianity and neuroscience?

Neuroscience and cognitive science have strong links with psychology. Any claim to talk about the integration of neuroscience (or psychology) and Christian belief must, I believe, deal with neuroscience and psychology as they actually are today. In dealing with topics like clinical psychology, including personality theory, it is increasingly clear that we must take full account of the neural basis of all behaviour. In these areas questions about how properly to relate one’s personal beliefs, including religious beliefs, with one’s professional practice loom large.

Neuroscience overlaps with psychology in studies of visual perception. Some of the most powerful explanatory models are expressed in terms of mathematical equations. This helps sharpen the question about integration. It is difficult to see how you would “integrate” Christian beliefs with mathematical equations. I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that when, for example, you are studying psychophysics, you should, as a Christian, add another constant into Weber’s Law or to the Fechner fraction, on the grounds of Christian belief. If they did, they would be laughed out of court immediately.

The take-home message is clear: Watch your language.
The temptation to mix our languages happens more easily in neuroscience and psychology than in other sciences. The language used in physics or chemistry or biochemistry, for example, is so clearly technical and therefore self-evidently different from everyday language, including the everyday language of the Bible. So there is no temptation to imagine that they are the same. In the case of psychology, so many of the words we use are words used in everyday discourse—for example, thinking, remembering and seeing—and therefore there is a greater tendency and temptation to confuse the words, failing to distinguish between a strictly scientific context and an everyday context. The only way to avoid muddle and pseudoconflict is vigilance. For example, the word ‘mind’ is used in neuroscience, in general conversation (as with ‘mindset’ in the question posed) and in Scripture. But it has different meanings in the different contexts.

So should we try to find links between what the Bible says about mind and what is written by neuropsychologists? I suggest not. Let each teach us what they are given to teach in their proper context. Taken together they still give us a much enriched picture of the human person.

I imagine we agree that one of the commitments entered into in being a Christian is a commitment to truth. That can mean a lot of different things, but at least it means, I suggest, telling the story about the world, including ourselves and our brains, as it really is. If there is evidence for any statements you’re making, then you should be able to point to it unambiguously.

Finally, I would urge that this is the time when we need many more of the brightest young Christians to get into neuroscience and become leaders in the field rather than sitting up in the stands watching the game and making comments on what is happening.