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?
About the Author
About the Author
: Mother of seven. Joyful convert to Catholicism. Ph.D. in Chemistry. M.A. in Dogmatic Theology. I write from my tiny office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge that overlooks a small spring-fed lake. More about me here
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