Beware Neuromaniacs and Darwinitis

Jeeves 2 dsMalcolm Jeeves is a Christian, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews (one of the founders of the department), and of late he has been thinking and writing about the intersection of mind and brain and the relationship of the psychology and neuroscience with Christian faith and religious belief. His new book, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience, takes a conversational to the issues that arise between the scientific study of mind and brain and the Christian view of humanness and soul.

After an introductory chapter on the nature of Psychology as a discipline Jeeves dives into one of the more controversial issues in modern neuroscience – the relationship between mind and brain. Ben (the student) poses some rather common questions, and Jeeves responds with longer essays describing some of the history of this discussion (all the way back to the ancient Greek philosophers) and looking at the heart of the issues involved. In this chapter on the mind and brain Jeeves emphasizes the importance of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms and the need to avoid excessive reductionisms, the claim that we are “nothing but” material connected by electrical impulses.

Do you think that the relationship between mind and brain poses a challenge for Christians?

Are we nothing but meat and the activity of brain circuits?

Here I will highlight what I see as the four most important points that Jeeves makes in this chapter.

(1) It is important to avoid reading beliefs into the data. This can include Christian beliefs, and it can include secular beliefs. The relationship between intelligence and religiosity is interesting – and the paper drew a variety of opinions and interest. Both atheists and Christians read beliefs into the results. Some vocal atheists read into the data “intelligent people know enough to reject faith” others read into the data “intelligent people are too arrogant to accept faith.” (That was not the argument I was trying to make, but it is how some read my argument.) Of course we will try to draw connections and to hypothesize on meaning – but we must always be aware of our predisposed beliefs and try to recognize the distinction between data and interpretation in our own work and in the work of others. Interaction with the data should sharpen our beliefs.

Jeeves takes this idea back into our approach to scripture as well.

The temptation to read into the text of Scripture is always with us. I was reminded of this very recently in an email I received from theologian Tom Wright. He said that we find it all too easy “to allow our traditions to echo back off the surface of the text that is trying to tell us something else,” and that “all too often the word ‘biblical’ itself has been shrunk so that it only now means ‘according to our own tradition, which we assume to be biblical.'” (p. 29)

I find that, from the Christian side of the discussion between science and faith, there is too much emphasis on tradition and too little attention paid to immersion in scripture and search for the meaning of scripture.

(2) It is important to hold many of our conclusions loosely with appropriate skepticism. Ben responded to Malcolm:

I appreciate your emphasizing the danger of reading into the data our preconceived ideas, whether the data is the text of Scripture or the data gathered by science. … [H]ow do we best think about the relationship between mental processes and the brain today? (p. 30)

Jeeves uses this question as an opportunity do point out that “the course of research never runs smoothly” and that at some level conclusions are growing, developing, and maturing. To the outsider this looks like the fickleness of science, but it is actually the normal process. Nowhere is change more pronounced these days than in the field of neuroscience and the relationship between mind and brain. Although some scientists will give the impression of certainty in their conclusions, all should be considered critically and with the potential for change.

An example Jeeves chooses to consider is the idea of “right-brain” and “left-brain” functions. Much research on the hemispheres of the brain is well-founded, but reality is more complex than the simplistic ideas allow. Recent research has pointed to a top-bottom distinction rather than left-right, for example. He turns to Tom Wright again, this time in a somewhat more critical and cautionary frame.

For example, in a recent book titled The Master and His Emissary, Psychiatrist Iain Gilchrist has written engagingly about the left-right hemisphere differences and how they may help us to understand some of the wider trends in western thinking in recent years. Picking up on this theme, Tom Wright sees aspects of biblical scholarship as predominantly left-hemisphere, preoccupied with “microscopic analysis of details.” “Facts,” Wright says, “are left-brained business.” Wright urges us that “only when the detailed left-brain analysis can be relocated as the emissary to right-wing intuition, with its rich world of metaphor, narrative, and above all imagination, can the discipline [biblical scholarship] become healthy again.”

I do not doubt that all that Wright says in comment and criticism of some aspects of biblical scholarship is true, and I am not competent to judge, but I would be careful of seeming to tie my views on this topic to what is thought to be the last word in hemispheric specialization. Wright’s views convince me without the support of changing views of brain functioning. (p. 32-33)

It is good to explore the connections between observations of behavior with what we are learning about brain function. It is unwise to seem to tie these observations tightly to the scientific theories – especially at the cutting edge of knowledge. Left brain, right brain is almost certainly a significant over simplification.

(3) Avoid reductionism. Jeeves points out that it is important to avoid separating separating mind and brain. We need to avoid the reduction of the mental to “merely” the physical.

The temptation to slip into unthinking reductionism is always there. It 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 offered a trenchant criticism of reductionists who believe that our greatest human conceptual abilities can be reduced to neural firings in our brains. He calls them “neuromaniacs.” He is equally critical of those who seek to minimize human differences from other animals by, on the one hand, anthropomorphizing animals, or, on the other hand, “animalizing” humans in entirely unjustified ways. This he calls “Darwinitis.” (p. 36)

I’ve ordered Tallis’s book Aping Mankind (and a few other books I’ve found referenced by Jeeves) and will return to these issues in future posts. I think there is a big danger in trying to hard to make humans “merely animals.” Whether through natural means as Tallis would advocate, or through divine action, humankind is not merely an animal. The distinctions, I believe, are both quantitative and qualitative. But this is too big a topic to dig into deeply here and it will come up again.

(4) The brain has a capacity to change in response to actions and thoughts. Learning, habits, discipline, these all have some power to change the very structure and signaling in the brain. Jeeves points to a study of London Taxi Drivers. When the hippocampus changed in size and shape over the course of their training, and these changes were correlated with qualifying or failing to qualify at the end of training. Another example is found in the way phobias, such as a spider phobia, can be overcome by conditioning. Brain scanning methods demonstrate that the changes are not “simply” behavioral. There are very real changes in the brain activity as the subjects overcame the phobia. “In effect, by modifying thinking and behavior, brain processes were also modified. Hence the use of the term top-down effect.” (p. 39)

Jeeves doesn’t raise this here – but I think this is why spiritual disciplines, regular prayers, liturgies, and the like are so important in Christian life. It is not that we must do something to earn God’s favor. Rather it is because the very things we do and habits we develop shape who we are at a rather profound level.

Duality … but not substance dualism. Much of the discussion concerning the relationship between mind and brain in Christian circles comes down to the the question of body and soul. Many Christians are what would best be described as substance dualists (or here). That is, they believe that an immaterial soul or person has a real substance separate from the physical body or substance that contains the person. Jeeves sums up his discussion by noting that he, as a scientist, psychology professor, and Christian, believes that we are a psychobiological unity. There is an intrinsic interdependence, both bottom-up and top-down, between the physical brain and body and the mental processes.

It also seems to me that we cannot reduce the mental to the physical any more than we can reduce the physical to the mental. In this sense there is an important duality that we need to recognize between the mental and the physical, and I don’t believe this duality requires us to believe in two kinds of substances or a dualism of substance, and that makes me a dual aspect monist. (p. 40)

This is a tough subject for many Christians. The separation of body and soul is embedded in our language and tradition. Modern neuroscience is requiring something of a revision of thinking here. But, as Joel Green has argued (Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible) this may take us back to a view of humanity closer to that found in the Bible. (For those who may be interested, I did a long series on Joel’s book a couple of years ago – Being Human.) The notion of humans as a psychobiological unity reshapes some of our thinking, but is not in conflict with the Christian faith.

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

If you would like to comment please see Beware Neuromaniacs and Darwinitis at Jesus Creed.

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