Since the Renaissance there has been a radical shift in the Wests view of God. After we began on the road to naturalism, we have gradually displaced God from the center of society, to the extent of attempting to erase God totally from Western culture. Until recently, one of the sacred areas in our naturalistic world has been the soul. Though non-theists have always claimed the soul is merely a projection of our own wishes for immortality, current research into brain and psychology is making a direct assault on what has generally been thought of as the house of the soul: the brain. Naturalists have attempted for centuries to disprove the existence of anything beyond phenomenological reality. Neuroscience is an attempt to break through one of the final frontiers of scientific research, which is to break the secrets of the brain, thus exposing the soul for all to see-- as merely a porridge of chemicals, just like all the rest of the universe.
The primary goal of neuroscience is not, however, the overthrow of supernaturalism. The goals are as diverse as curing mental disorders, increasing mental capabilities, and the sheer understanding of what makes us function. These, and all of the other goals which surround brain research (be they neuroscience, psychology, cognitive studies, etc.), are valuable to humans, and should not be shunned by the religious. We are already reaping many benefits from brain research such as effective therapies for several forms of depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and epilepsy, to name only a few. Regardless of how much brain research is protested or denounced, science marches on, and those who refuse to accept this are left to the fate of those who still believe the earth is flat.
Therefore, as Christians, we should be able to interact thoughtfully with brain research, and to speak to the questions that are raised with each new finding. If, by some chance, it is found that all thought processes and behaviors can be explained by brain alone, what will be our response? Many strong arguments are already surfacing which claim to do just that. One can even imagine that in the next century vehement naturalists will find precise explanations for our thoughts and actions. We must be able to assess their arguments accurately, being able to refute error, as well as to uphold faith in light of scientific findings. As religious leaders (whether ordained, or lay), we should be able to help people retain their faith, even if it is discovered that the mind is totally explicable with science. Moreover, as the concept of personhood is increasingly reduced to chemical action, we must be prepared to struggle in the public sphere for an ethic which protects the uniqueness and value of human life and experience.
If it is possible to explain love, creativity, faith, and ethics in terms of brain chemicals, then what are our possible options? One option is to reject all science as just an alternative religion that makes sense from within, as do all other religions, but falls apart when scrutinized from without. This rejection option is currently chosen by many fundamentalist groups. A second option is to accept that maybe our religious concepts of mind and soul are actually culturally derived (as opposed to being Scripturally derived), and construct more appropriate definitions.
The first areas we will deal with in this paper are mental disorders and brain function on an holistic level. How do brain defects/trauma and altered neurochemistry affect our behavior? How do they affect the mind? What are the implications of medical neuroscience for the study of mind and soul? There are incredible and counter-intuitive findings about how the brain works that lead us to certain pictures of thought and emotion that challenge the traditional picture of mind and soul.
The second topic we will discuss in this paper is one of the most likely candidates for the study of mind, the philosophy of language. Of the many attempts to make an empirical distinction between humans and animals, language is one of the last remaining pillars. In its complexity and practical infinity, human language seems to be one of the few certain, phenomenological traits making humans different from all else on earth. Thus, on the assumption that only humans have mind, language would seem to be a prime tool to study the construct we call mind. In chapter three we will deal with quantum physics. One of the things that gives me confidence that free-will is safe, no matter how much explanation we achieve, is the inherent randomness associated with quantum physics. As the study of the biological processes of the brain becomes more detailed and comprehensive, we are pushed to define biological processes in terms of chemistry and physics. As we hone in on the workings of the individual neurons, and discover how they function within the system as a whole, we find the explanations given by classical physics lacking explanatory power in such a micro-environment. In this gap we find quantum mechanics provides possible viable solutions. It is the quantum mechanical explanations of brain action that will be the most likely target of research in the 21st century.
The fourth chapter will look at different views of the soul-body interaction throughout history. Most of the discussion will focus on monistic and dualistic viewpoints, concluding with a Biblical description of soul and spirit in relation to their interaction with the body. The fifth chapter will try to bring all of these issues discussed into a comprehensive picture of how the brain works and to incorporate them into possible theories of mind. There are several ethical points which the study of the mind/brain affects. In fact, there are very few philosophical questions not in some way addressed by the study of mind. For example, if it is found that mind is equivalent to soul, and mind doesnt develop until a certain biological age, would that potentially legitimate abortion? Would the absence of an adequately demonstrable mind legitimate euthanasia? What about the status of animals and intelligent machines: if either can be shown to have a mind, should they then have the same rights as humans? The final chapter will address these bioethical and theological questions, given the conclusions we draw from the preceding discussion of brain-quantum physics-soul/spirit interactions.
The study of brain function is one of the fastest growing, and most promising fields of this decade. Undoubtedly we will learn much that will astound and help us as research progresses into usable technology. As Christians, we have the responsibility to speak to the heart of the human situation. The study of the brain promises to be one of the most exciting and insightful efforts to answer the enduring questions from a worldly perspective (purpose questions, ethical questions), but answers derived from science can only take us so far.
It is at this point that the Christian can step in and provide a larger frame of reference: supporting the description of the universe with its meaning, describing how with knowing why (Loder 1992:10). For knowing all the data about how the universe works only tells us the method nature uses in its attempt to reach thermal equilibrium by means of entropy (entropy being the ultimate end of all closed systems and the result of Newtons Second Law of Thermodynamics: heat death) which certainly can not give us any indications of how humans ought to behave towards one another, or even why it is important to exist at all. It is here that the human situation needs to look for instruction from above. It is only from a system which transcends the chaos inherent in the eschatology of the natural order that humans can achieve personal transcendence from the grip of the inhumanity of brute animal instincts and the survival-of-the-fittest mentality.
Spirituality is the system which transcends this chaos and provides a framework which escapes the nihilistic necessities of pure naturalism. We should be capable of responding to the challenges of science and enter into productive dialogue with it, creating meaning and purpose to fill the vacuity of nature. The purpose of this thesis is to address one small part of science (neuroscience) in an attempt to describe it for the ministerial community and to provide possibilities for spirituality despite scientific reductions of thought and emotion. Hopefully it will aid all Christians in their attempt to integrate faith with the complexities and challenges of the contemporary world.
As a cautionary note, although this is a theological thesis, only the final chapter is thoroughly theological. The first three chapters are introductions to neurobiology, philosophy of language, and quantum physics, respectively. These chapters may seem to have nothing to do with theology, and may be quite difficult to work through for the non-scientist, but the implications of the findings in each of these fields shed significant light on the problem of mind as seen from the scientific community (which is of course the dominant paradigm in Western culture). Without the background from these three fields, our pondering about mind would be no different from the medieval people who pondered about the stars without the benefit of telescopes and spectrometers: we would be attempting to think about unfathomables. But with the advent of modern astronomical tools, we have learned quite a lot about how the universe works on a grand scale, vastly changing our ideas about our planet, our sun, and about our place in the universe. Similarly, three of the tools we currently have to study mind are presented here, and without them, our understanding of mind is inconceivably short-sighted. Great effort has been made to make the material concise and simple, with the unfortunate result of leaving out many details. But the essential concepts are hopefully preserved, and will lay a solid foundation the readers understanding for the final chapter. It is my contention, no matter how much mind is reduced by science (and it will undoubtedly continue to be exhaustively reduced), that there will always be room for a concept of soul.
If we were to add a multitude of simple processors together, we would come up with a machine that could respond by way of reflexes. Amoebas, ants, and our own neurons function in this way. Through chemotaxis, ants and amoebas are able to sense their environment (through individual acts of simple processing) and alter their behavior appropriately. Ants will follow chemical trails in order to find food, while amoebas will seek out ingestible materials while avoiding toxins by means of these multiple processing acts. The patellar reflex, in which the leg jerks in response to a sharp tap just below the knee-cap (patella), is caused by the action of many simple processing events in nerve cells that cause the muscles to contract. Word-processors, like-wise, would be considered to engage in reflexes, since several distinct simple processing events are combined to give an holistic behavior (making letters appear, disappear, or move on a screen, checking spelling, grammar, etc.).
There is a difficulty already in that the distinction I am setting up between simple processing and reflex in that it is very artificial. Simple processing is not really simple at all, and can not be explained as a single unitary event given the complexity of the physical processes which must interact to cause a virus to sense its environment and eject its genetic coding. There is no qualitative difference between what an ant does and what a virus does, only a quantitative difference. Likewise, each step up in our definitional schema will be artificial, and will constitute quantitative changes rather than changes in an ontological sense.
Above reflex is awareness. Here this term is used not in a neurological sense, but in much simpler sense. While an amoeba may not actually be aware of the material it is ingesting, a dog would certainly be considered aware of the food it eats. While to the amoeba, ingestible matter is ingestible matter, a dog will choose not to eat certain foods that are perfectly digestible. While at one level, a person could develop a theory of mind around this behavior, a much simpler explanation is that the dog has a preference for having certain taste-buds stimulated over other taste-buds. The concept I am bringing in here is the processing of several different systems to cause certain behavior patterns, as opposed to the reflex arc, which is no more than a few connected neurons, all part of one discrete system. The receptors of the tongue process information, sending this to an interpreting center in the brain, which then sends information out to other parts of the brain to engage certain behaviors. This distinction is made not only by the magnitude of difference in the number of processors involved, but also because of the discriminative level of behavior. The amoeba, like the virus, has no choice other than ingest the appropriate material, assuming it has a need for the material, while the dog can choose to eat or not eat, depending on its circumstances. Again, however, it is possible to put the amoeba at the same level of the dog by saying that dog chooses not to eat, or to eat depending on the dogs need, just like the amoeba. The only difference is that the needs of the dog are much more complex than those of the amoeba, and there are many more systems which need satisfaction While this is a valid critique, it still seems obvious to most people at a common-sense level that there is a distinction here, for which reason I feel a putative (as opposed to a philosophically rigorous) distinction can be made between awareness and reflex.
The next level up is consciousness. Consciousness would be a first level interpretation of awareness, putting the various systems into a global representation of their surroundings, and showing active intention. While intention seems to be present at the level of awareness as I have defined it, I want to qualify awareness by subtracting out any intentionality. Awareness would be a multi-system processing event, but this would not have to be tied to specific behavioral output. It is the representation, or the information output that I would define as the awareness, not the consequent observed responses.
Dogs, for example, show intentionality and a global awareness. They can put their awareness from each modality (each of the standard senses) into a global picture of their environment and act on that representation. Not only do each of the modalities have their own individual awareness, but an integrated picture of the surroundings appears. The neural reticular formation (RF) is a strong supporter of consciousness--with a damaged RF, coma almost always results. The person is still able to control internal functioning (thus it is aware of itself), and often the post-comatose patient will remember certain events that occurred in their environment while the person was comatose (thus aware of external stimuli). However, there is no compilation of a global world, or intentionality expressed with a lack of consciousness.
As with the previous levels, jumping up to mind is artificial. Most people would agree that dogs are conscious given the above criteria. Fewer, however, would say dogs have a mind, which would go one step of analysis further than consciousness. Secondary (complex) language usage is a possible distinction between humans and all other creatures, including computers. I include here, secondary tool usage. Many creatures exhibit primary tool usage: birds use straw to make homes, chimps use grass to get termites out of their nests to eat, certain fish spit water balls at insects to knock them into the water to be eaten, etc. But all of these are examples of primary tool usage, similar to primary language (apes can be taught to memorize words and their meanings, but not to use complex syntax and creative grammar). Humans, however, use tools in secondary and tertiary ways: we create a computer (the primary tool) to represent symbols (the secondary tool), to manipulate and calculate those symbols, so we can then re-translate those symbols into the "real world" and use those calculations to create a better car, spaceship, pastry maker, etc. This secondary representation of awareness (both secondary tool usage and secondary language usage), and the ability for complex thought is what I call mind.
Soul is the highest level in this schema. As discussed in the body of the paper, mind in the case above, could realistically be attributed to computers (though not animals). Soul may be an artificial concept (certainly from a naturalistic perspective it is an entirely meaningless concept), but given the circumstances it would be the only distinction between "intelligent" computers and humans. Soul would of course represent the spiritual, eternal character of humans which interacts with the body. It, in conjunction with the body, represents the totality of the person whereas for a computer, the "body" is all that it has, and since it has no soul, is not a person.
Feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
"Open your eyes. Don't let your mind tell the story here." Tonic, 1996
"Our lies have made us angry with the truth." Five O'Clock People, 1997