Are We Just the Sum of Our Neurons?

We’ve been working through Joel B. Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. This book makes the connection between the embodied nature of human existence as revealed by modern neuroscience and the nature of humanity as revealed in the Bible. Today I will take a step back from the book and point to a few videos that deal with aspects of neuroscience and Christian faith.

The web site Test of FAITH contains excerpts from interviews with Christians active in the sciences. One series is particularly relevant to some of the aspects of our discussion of Dr. Green’s book. Professor Bill Newsome is a neurobiologist at Stanford University School of Medicine.  His group website describes his research and methods. The goal of his research program is to understand the neuronal processes that mediate visual perception and visually guided behavior. To study this process his research group conducts parallel behavioral and physiological experiments in animals that are trained to perform selected perceptual or eye movement tasks (paraphrased from his website). Dr. Bill Newsome is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and, according to the Test of Faith site, is the faculty sponsor of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship graduate student group at Stanford.

There are a number of short videos featuring excerpts of interviews with Dr. Newsome on the Test of Faith site – and the topics complement the discussion of neuroscience in Dr. Green’s book. In the video below Dr. Newsome discusses the title question of this post, Are we just the sum of our neurons?

In the video Dr. Newsome emphasizes the different levels of understanding, including the social levels and the neural level. There is more than one level of reality to our being.  The point about the social level is interesting – and relates to the emphasis that Dr. Green places on community as a forming and transforming influence in the conversion of persons. The transformation of persons occurs through the power of God but in the context of his people, his church.

Are we more than the sum of our neurons?

If so what does this mean for us as humans and as Christians?

In this second video Dr. John Polkinghorne and Dr. Bill Newsome discuss the possibility of real choice in the light of neuroscience .

Finally, in this video Dr. Newsome addresses the question “Does my brain shape me, or do I shape my brain?

His answer is both. Our brains shape us but we also can shape out brains by the choices we make, relationships we form and people we interact with.

Neuroscience and church. We are not just the sum of our neurons, and we shape and are shaped by the choices we make and the things we do. This leads me back to the points that Dr. Green made about conversion and human nature. Community is an essential part of human formation – when we say that there is no salvation without the church it is not because the church is an authoritative gate keeper, but because the formation and transformation of human persons occurs by the power of God, through his Spirit, using the nature of the way that he has made us – his natural processes.

God himself interacts with us personally and this shapes and forms our nature and being. He also acts through his people and this interaction with fellow Christians in the context of community shapes and forms us. I will come back to this point again, but I would like to stop here today and ask a simple question.

How is what we do in church as a people of God designed to shape and form us as Christians?

What role does the Sunday morning service play in this process? What role should it play?

I’ll be provocative here – I think it means we should shorten the sermon, introduce multiple participatory activities within the church service in an embodied worship of our God and Savior. Passive entertaining services dominated by charismatic speakers form passive Christians.

But more than this it means that we should demand more from ourselves; more commitment, more involvement and more mission.  And we should (re)introduce real teaching outside of the worship service. What do you think?

There are a number of other excellent clips from Dr. Newsome on the Test of Faith site – I encourage you to check them out.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you have comments please visit Are We Just the Sum of Our Neurons? at Jesus Creed.

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