Sunday, March 1, 2009

Neuroscience: the new religion/science fault-line?

Neuroscientist Martha Farah and theologian Nancey Murphy worry that the findings of neuroscience will be a future fault-line in the religion versus science debate. Traditional theology posits the metaphysical dualism between the body and the soul, but with current advancements in neuroscience, new understandings of the mysteries of our mind are emerging:
Most religions endorse the idea of a soul (or spirit) that is distinct from the physical body. Yet as neuroscience advances, it increasingly seems that all aspects of a person can be explained by the functioning of a material system. This first became clear in the realms of motor control and perception. Yet, models of perceptual and motor capacities such as color vision and gait do not directly threaten the idea of the soul. You can still believe in what Gilbert Ryle called “the ghost in the machine” and simply conclude that color vision and gait are features of the machine rather than the ghost.

However, as neuroscience begins to reveal the mechanisms underlying personality, love, morality, and spirituality, the idea of a ghost in the machine becomes strained. Brain imaging indicates that all of these traits have physical correlates in brain function. Furthermore, pharmacologic influences on these traits, as well as the effects of localized stimulation or damage, demonstrate that the brain processes in question are not mere correlates but are the physical bases of these central aspects of our personhood.
As the author's point out, some religiously-minded neuroscientists, understanding the theological implications of their research, have developed an alternative explanation, a "nonmaterialist neuroscience," in the same way "intelligent design" responds to evolution.

There might be some prescient wisdom in Farah and Murphy's worries, as longstanding theological doctrines are implicated. For example, the traditional idea of heaven - where the post-morten soul of a true believer transcends the material realm into communion with God - would need re-imaging. And, as systematic theologies go, a correcting for this metaphysical dualism would ripple throughout traditional doctrine. Faith, however, is resilient, and a proper understanding of the universe, one focused by scientific inquiry, can open the faithful to new and deeper understandings of God. For a good first step, we need to transcend metaphysical dualisms and learn to view, as my divinity professors encouraged, the human body as an organic, complex, holistic, and singular entity, one created by a loving and benevolent Creator-God. In similar fashion, the authors conclude:
To be sure, dualism is intuitively compelling. Yet science often requires us to reject otherwise plausible beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary. A full understanding of why Earth orbits the Sun (as a consequence of the way the solar system was formed) took another century after Galileo’s time to develop. It may take even longer to understand why certain material systems give rise to consciousness. In the meantime, just as Galileo’s view of Earth in the heavens did not render our world any less precious or beautiful, neither does the physicalism of neuroscience detract from the value or meaning of human life. (emphasis mine)
(h/t Reader Darren from Andrew Sullivan)


Kent H said...

I find it almost comical that after all this time, every time a scientist publishes a theory, secularists start screaming about how their new "facts" question biblical faith or religion in general. But in my lifetime, I have seen a number of "findings" postulated, debated, found false or incomplete and then science gets back to where the Scripture says it would be. Missing links, palonium structures, molecular biology, etc., etc., have all confronted Scripture only to retreat to a theology that is thousands of years old. So come all challengers. God isn't scared by your microscope.

Thoughts said...

It is possible to have religious faith even if physicalism is accepted. See The nature of the soul

Tripp said...

@thoughts. yes.