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What to Make of Modern Neuroscience

July 31, AD 2013 42 Comments

My approach to the field of neuroscience is as an interested observer. I want to know what’s going on because I think it’s a powerful influence on our population and how we think about our own minds, not just in the curing of diseases or mental disorders, but in how we view humanity.

Theology informs us that we are body and soul united as one person. Science informs us that the neurons in our brains respond to our emotions and thoughts and the other way around, our emotions and thoughts respond to our brains.

Neuroscience is an interesting intersection of theology and science. Here are some basic things I’ve noticed, and this is intended to help newcomers to the topic, a brief road map. I’m counting on my readers to add their knowledge too. There are people interested in this subject that need a place to start.

There are two basic beliefs.

#1 Our mind is all from neurons. This is basically atheistic materialism, the belief that no beings exist but material beings. The human person is reducible to matter, and everything our mind does is a function of the brain. Our brain is a computer, our mind its output.

There are other “-isms” (naturalism, functionalism, mysterianism) that try to explain how the mind is emergent property from the brain like gravity is from a planet, but they are all forms of materialism because they still hold that the mind is completely dependent on the brain. No brain, no mind.

This view necessarily rejects the existence of immaterial beings such as angels, demons, and God, which is why it is an atheistic view.

The Computational Theory of Mind (CMT) is the theory that the brain is an information processing system and that thinking is really neurons computing. Scientists have studied this question for decades now.

For a good discussion of the current opinions, see this post which contains an hour and a half long discussion by a panel of three leading neuroscientists and a leading brain-mind philosopher, along with my comments.

#2 Our mind is affected by neurons. This is the other view. It is more in agreement with the Christian understanding of body and soul. It holds that the human mind is dependent on the human brain, but not totally. The brain is necessary for the mind, but not sufficient to fully describe it. The mind is something immaterial, but still one with the brain.

This is sometimes described as either monism or dualism, but caution should be used when invoking any “-ism” to define an idea. For instance, monism can mean a lot of things. It implies a unity. If we say the mind and brain are one, that is altogether different from saying that the universe is one. The former is consistent with Christian understanding, the latter is not; it is pantheism. God, the Creator, is not creation itself.

Dualism is from René Descartes. The mind and the body exist, as separate but joined entities. He thought they interacted at the pineal gland. The Christian understanding of the human person rejects this idea, as does science. The discussion panel in the post mentioned above begins with a twenty minute review of brain-mind philosophy since Descartes.

What to do with these two views. The materialists argue that as far as science can say, the mind is totally derived from the brain. They are correct about that–science only studies material objects and what arises from them. Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, of the nerves and brain. To say, however, that all that exists is what science can study is fallacious.

This is a failure to distinguish between sense perception (i.e. imagination) and reasoning (i.e. thinking and understanding). Some scientists and philosophers believe that nothing exists except what can be sensed or imagined, and since only the material body, and hence the brain, can be sensed and imagined, this failure leads them to conclude that the mind must only be from the material brain.

The materialist view is also not without contest, even among materialists. The problem with the CMT (the theory that assumes the brain is a computer) is that of the inner life. The theory seeks to map mental states with brain states, it seeks to label all mental states and map them to a particular neuronal brain state. At some point in the future, they predict, a mental state can be predicted or controlled based on a brain state. If your neurons do X, your mind will think Y.

However, it is impossible to fully map mental states. Only the person thinking knows his own mental state, and it’s impossible to know whether one person’s description of his mental state is exactly equal to another person’s description. If I say I feel joy, and you say you feel joy, we may both feel joy, but the exact feeling nuance for nuance, situation for situation, memory for memory, hope for hope, can never be known to be the same. It would be hard for a single person to describe any mental state exactly at any moment.

It would literally be necessary to read minds to be able to produce such a map. Strict materialism insists that the only things that can be known are those that can be sensed or imagined, and since the mental states of another person cannot be sensed or imagined, strict materialism forbids the proof of…strict materialism.

Not only that, the philosophical conclusions of materialism are ultimately self-defeating. If the mind is a property of the brain and the brain is a computer obeying the laws of physics, then thinking and reasoning are no more mental than marbles bouncing in a bowl.

The ultimate conclusion of materialism is that thought is not really a function of free will, but a function of the laws of physics. In other words, there’s no such thing as free thought, which makes science meaningless.

For more, see The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology by Jerry Fodor, even just to read the introduction and browse the chapters. Also Edward Feser’s book, Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide is good, and it is a book you can read one chapter at a time, slowly, even just the first chapter.

The Christian view considers the whole human person. According to Christian theology, what makes humans unique among species is that we are made in the image of God. In the eternal Holy Trinity, the Father generates the Son (the Word) by an act of the intellect, and the Father and the Son together breath forth the Holy Spirit by an act of the will. Therefore, man is both body (as are other animals) and soul (in the image of God). Man has the same two powers of the soul, intellect and will. Usually the “mind” refers to the power of intellect in the soul.

Christian theology holds that the body and soul are united as one, just as Christ. The body affects the mind and the mind affects the body.

If you’ve ever blushed because you were embarrassed, that was your mind affecting your body. If you’ve ever been grumpy because you were tired and hungry, that was your body affecting your mind. If you’ve ever fasted, that was your mind overcoming the body. If you’ve ever suffered from addiction, that was your body overcoming your mind.

Sometimes the body, including the brain, is sick and needs medication, but the mind is something beyond. A person has the power to heal his sick mind, according to Divine Revelation, by an act of will to accept the grace to do so.

This is also why we are not able to comprehend all knowledge at once, as God in His perfect knowledge does. Our feeble intellects rely on our senses first, so we take in information and process it in steps, which is why we need the Scientific Method.

I have a series of posts about the Holy Trinity which explains this doctrine in more detail, and one on the doctrine of imago Dei which explains why humans are unique among species.

How do you prove the soul exists? A Christian must believe the soul exists because God told us that we are made in His image, body and soul. A Christian can show that it is not unreasonable to believe in the soul. In fact it is quite reasonable; it just isn’t scientifically provable with the senses and imagination.

And if a person insists the soul doesn’t exist, he is left with the same defeating and empty conclusions of the materialists (see above). I think that question is best posed to individuals to answer about themselves. I like this thought experiment.

And now I turn it over to the readers. For someone new to this topic, what do you recommend? Or if you are also new to the topic, what questions do you have? This is one of the most important topics of our day in my opinion. There are futurists working now to finish mapping the brain and upload humans to computers for immortality. Can it work?

Aside from that, this question about body and soul is relevant to how people view themselves and their choices in life regarding sex, marriage, relationships, parenting, careers, illness, and self-understanding. It’s important to know what’s going in the field of neuroscience, and follow it so you can defend the truth God told us about the human person — body and soul made in His image. Ask yourself this question: How far can the field of neuroscience progress under the assumption that our minds are controlled by our brains?

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Hello, and thank you for reading. My name is Stacy Trasancos. I am a wife, mother of seven, and joyful convert to Catholicism. I write from my tiny office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge that overlooks a small spring-fed lake. Read more about me here. Find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, or contact me by email. God bless you!
  • james

    You first have to know whether we are humans on a spiritual journey or spirits
    on a human journey – and the jury is out.

    • Leila Miller

      Angels are disembodied spirits. Men have both body and soul, we are not spirits who just happened to be trapped in bodies.

      • james

        If we are on a human journey – eastern deism – then anything within the realm of science seems possible. If we are simply on a spiritual one – Christian- then
        it would seem that anything science uploaded would be soulless and thereby artificial.

        • Leila Miller

          When has the Church ever proclaimed that our journey is “simply a spiritual one”? I am not sure of your source? We are on a spiritual and profoundly human journey.

          • james

            You have to admit that it is very possible that our church will someday declare Purgatory as another way of revealing the transmigration of souls.- I mean if Papa could use the word “gay” with respect … – this ancient belief system, if adopted would mean that two of four people would beon the same page theologically, instead of one out of four. Gospel meaning is easily substituted in this area. Jesus forgave sin before healing.- not to be used for indecent speculation about anyone. Why some people are healed and some are not has to do with predisposition and the quality of power flowing through a ie: priest This talk of ” loosing on earth and heaven ” is about miracles, not binding a persons sins. Jesus made several references about some of his apostles being there in the future. About the pharisees not knowing John as Elisha. Great souls are always needed here on earth. Great souls are made not born. The “many mansions” quote is about the different rewards after death for living right. The few are chosen part is that after a soul is rewarded it comes back down to attain A perfection. If this life is worth living once, with we co-creators (parents) making that decision then no one should have any qualms about the continuation of a human journey.

          • Leila Miller

            This talk of ” loosing on earth and heaven ” is about miracles, not binding a persons sins.

            Nope. Actually, “binding and loosing” authority is as the Jewish halakah, i.e., the set of rules and regulations that are put in place for the faithful by God’s legitimate authority. In Christianity it refers to disciplines (as opposed to doctrine).

          • james

            In Christianity it refers to disciplines – which have retractable penalties
            and such – and since we’ve been over this, let’s get over this. : )

          • Leila Miller

            Yes, and I thought you were Christian? You can’t just make this stuff up, James. If you are speaking of Catholicism, don’t pretend that what you said is compatible with Catholic teaching. Catholic teaching is clear.

          • Leila Miller

            PS: I admit nothing of the kind with regard to the Church supposedly coming up with new and contradictory “truths” as we run through the millennia. The Church does not change doctrine. It protects the Truth that was revealed and given to the Apostles by Christ, who handed it on to their successors to the present day, all guided by the Holy Spirit.

          • james

            “… all guided by the Holy Spirit.” Who is far from finished. Amen.

          • Leila Miller

            Actually, public revelation is finished. Nothing will be added or subtracted from the Deposit of Faith. The Holy Spirit now protects that Truth. That is why the Church will continue to teach what she does, and your opinion will not sway her. We look to the Church for Truth, not Jim, nor Leila. The Holy Spirit is not finished with you or with me personally, on our path to holiness, but He is finished with divine revelation. Amen. (And that’s Church teaching.)

          • Traditium

            Fascinating. Where is that?

          • Leila Miller

            Sorry, where is what? The teaching that divine revelation ended with the last Apostle?

          • Traditium

            Yes, that :).

          • Leila Miller

            It’s traditionally understood from what I have read and studied in the past 18 years. Dei Verbum #4 speaks to the fact that there is no new revelation since the final sending of the Spirit of Truth:

            4. Then, after speaking in many and varied ways through the prophets, “now at last in these days God has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). For He sent His Son, the eternal Word, who enlightens all men, so that He might dwell among men and tell them of the innermost being of God (see John 1:1-18). Jesus Christ, therefore, the Word made flesh, was sent as “a man to men.” (3) He “speaks the words of God” (John 3;34), and completes the work of salvation which His Father gave Him to do (see John 5:36; John 17:4). To see Jesus is to see His Father (John 14:9). For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover He confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed, that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal.

            The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Tim. 6:14 and Tit. 2:13).

            Interesting question though, so I googled it and found interesting discussions, this one among them:

            http://www.phatmass.com/phorum/topic/103489-when-did-divine-revelation-end/

            But I’m guessing this is a subject you already have explored at length?

          • Leila Miller

            And this. From Msgr. Cormac Burke, pg. 168 in OSV’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine:

            “Public Divine Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle.”

            Burke’s c.v.:

            http://www.cormacburke.or.ke/cv/1

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Right. Although doctrine can be developed, as in understood more deeply and applied more broadly.

          • Traditium

            I haven’t gotten around to this topic yet, exploration-wise :). I’m not schooled in this stuff, I just research deep into it as it comes to me and this was fascinating. Frankly, the idea rang a bit deist or protestant to me, whereas Catholicism seems rightly to embrace God as less frozen in time than some other faiths. Then again, if something is true, it is also timeless. Sorry, you just caught me pondering a bit :). This last comment from Kevin about doctrine’s continued development puts it into a nice context.

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  • Traditium

    To me, the “mind” is the best term for the spinning, worrying, ruminating, ego-driven whirlwind in your head that keeps you from being. The “soul” is the best word for the part of you that you can very much feel by stepping back from all of that–for the engaging, praying, curious, feeling spark that pulls you out of your own head. It is there when you experience the moment, when you come face to face with Aquinas’ ipsum esse subsistens, So, I suppose, I challenge the assumption from any side of this debate that the terms body and mind are alone sufficient to even begin discussing these issues :).

    - T

  • Rationalist1

    Whether you are a dualist or a materialist one thing that is obvious is that the soul, if it exists, is subservient to the neurons. In the many cases of neural damage, either through disease or traumatic damage, the affected person can lose higher order brain functions that we normally associated with the human mind. These in speech, memory, behaviour, etc. Dr. Oliver Sacks has documented many of these unfortunate disorders in his books. At no time does the soul exert its influence over the physical brain and legally and morally we often do not hold victims of major brain trauma responsible for their actions. The soul may exist but it’s at best secondary to the physical brain.

    • james

      The sou’ls purpose is to keep the body alive. It is the life force. Whatever the state
      of the body, cognitively or pathologicaly, without a life force it is just matter that will separate into its components. Science has yet to define the sum of the parts and
      say how it walks, talks and thinks. Unless you understand where the energy comes from you have nothing to factor.

      • Rationalist1

        But if the soul that is what is judged it must do more than provide a life force, it must be responsible for the individual actions as well.

        • james

          Exactly. the actions are imprinted, encoded, programmed to have a
          future response – in another body, unless it is freed by the instructions
          left by our Savior

          • Traditium

            I will always be one of the first to point out that Christians through the ages seem more open to giving the pagan philosophies of the Ancient Greeks and Romans a greater respect than they deserve, and reacting rather more harshly to those of the East. That said, the yardstick is truth–whether the culture or philosophy at issue is compatible with the Faith and with reason as revealed by God. (Purgatory as some kind of path to reincarnation fails that test rather dramatically it seems to me :).

          • james

            Purgatory is what the church now calls this purging of a soul’s debts.
            Reincarnation is the means by which eastern deism defines it. And
            at one time it was deemed that rocks were solid and didn’t move and
            now we know quite the opposite is true. Truth, even of the theological
            kind, is an evolving understanding of God. To think a future church will not reinterpret the words of Jesus is an affront to the very complexity of those words and parables. And that everything against rebirth is based on an obscure line by Paul in Hebrews is quite a stretch in lieu of the
            obstinacy of a 4000 year old belief held by one in four.

          • Traditium

            You’re suggesting that truth is up to a popular vote :) ?

          • james

            You’re suggesting that truth doesn’t evolve and that one in four
            haven’t found it. :)

          • Traditium

            Yes, yes I am :).

          • james

            Ok, so this is not a thru-street as the signs say in new england which
            means we turn around and go our own way. : )

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Right. The human soul has the powers of reason and free will. That is why the soul is responsible for what the person does in his or her body.

    • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

      Of course, but that would refute Cartesian dualism. If Descartes’ dualism were true, then brain damage would have little or no effect on mental functioning.

      If the body and soul are united as one, it would follow that damage to the brain would cause damage to mental function. Since speech, memory, and behaviour are processes that cannot function independent of the body, it also follows that they will be affected. However, the soul (being immaterial) could live on after the body dies.

      • Rationalist1

        But the soul living on after death is what is judged for the person’s actions, Obviously behaviour is a function of the body, but the soul apparently cannot override behaviour caused by neurological damage to the brain and that’s why if it exists, is secondary to the brain.

        • james

          It is all about culpable moral behavior. If the brain goes out due to
          injury there is no more probability of sin. The active life of the soul
          is merely to keep the body alive.

  • John Morgan

    They may be able to say that specific regions of the brain are responsible for general functions. But specific cognitive tasks, emotions, and religious experiences are spread over enumerable neural networks that will be impossible to quantify or map. Scientists also assume that the brain does not use any more energy as needed to complete a certain task. We know that is false because the brain is constantly active, at rest and even at sleep.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    I think another brain/mind position is that the brain, which is material, produces abstract thought. However, the immaterial mind cannot exist without the material brain. This would be similar to how chemistry can give rise to life, but life can’t exist without chemistry; physics gives rise to chemistry, but chemistry can’t work without physics; and ?? gives rise to physics.

  • alexander stanislaw

    “The ultimate conclusion of materialism is that thought is not really a function of free will, but a function of the laws of physics. In other words, there’s no such thing as free thought, which makes science meaningless.”

    There are two arguments buried in here.

    P1: Thought is a function of physics.
    P2: ??
    P3: From P1 and P2 science is meaningless.

    R1: Thought is a function of free will
    R2: ??
    R3: From R1 and R2 science is meaningful

    Would you mind fleshing out P2 and R2? They seem like non-sequitars. The fact that a sweater is composed of particles does not mean that a sweater doesn’t exist. There is no extra sweater essence that results in a collection of particles being a sweater. Likewise the fact that the mind is composed of the interaction of particles does not mean that the mind does not exist.

    I might also be interested in discussing the relative merits of compatibilism and libertarianism. Right now libertarianism seems incoherent to me.

  • Lydia

    I was recently reading Al Kresta’s book Dangers to the Faith http://j.mp/OSVKrestaDTF which left me somewhat interested in the topic of science v. faith in our culture and how a belief in “only science” gets us off course on our journey to God. That interest lead me here. Forgive my ignorance, since this topic is so complicated but can you unpack a bit more this thought: “A person has the power to heal his sick mind, according to Divine Revelation, by an act of will to accept the grace to do so.” I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around this :)

    Love the blog and am looking forward to reading your post on why humans are unique.

  • Jeff_McLeod

    There are folks in neuroscience who claim to be able to detect a “lie” using fMRI. A neural signature can be modeled which is reliably present when one lies and reliably absent when one is telling the truth.

    A nice little test for whether you are a materialist in your heart, or just in your rhetoric, is this:

    Suppose you are in court for a crime you didn’t commit.

    The fMRI says you are lying, but you are NOT lying.

    The jury convicts you because you manifested the neurological signature of lie.

    The reasoning is that the neurological signature IS the lie. There it is, the lie, on a computer screen, in black and white. You are a liar.

    Are you comfortable with this? Your act of lying is nothing more or less than the squiggly graph on a computer screen?

    If you are comfortable with this and willing to spend your life in jail, you are a materialist of the heart.

    If not, you are a Thomist.

    I am not talking about a lie detector test so don’t confuse the issue. I am talking about a signature that has extremely high sensitivity (detects a lie) and high specificity (does not detect a lie in an innocent person).

    Get ready, the pagans are itching to start using this technique. A scientific determination of truth.

  • John Janaro

    Stacy, you are right on the mark. Neuroscience is tremendously important. It is also compatible with an authentic Christian anthropology. It is crucial for Christians to incorporate genuinely scientific findings (as opposed to unfounded extrapolations) of neuroscience into our understanding of the human person as a union of soul and body. This union is mysterious, but real science and real philosophy keep coming back to it again and again insofar as they respect the facts and the way we know reality and ourselves. Please keep digging further into this, since you are a scientist. From the philosophical (and ultimately theological) standpoint, we must all keep in mind the principle of the great Jacques Maritain (and the principle of Thomas Aquinas) that “to distinguish does not mean to *separate*”! It is precisely by “distinguishing” that we are able to see the “unity” in a more profound way.

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