Science Book Club: When Science & Christianity Meet Ch 10

Photo of crocheted Sigmund Freud doll

Yet another marvel of the human mind – crocheted dolls of notable scientists. (Photo by Zoria )

The more we evolve, the less we need God. That’s the proposition up for debate in a recent Intelligence Squared event. And if that phrasing wasn’t enough to raise the eyebrows of Christians, the pro-God side is represented by Deepak Chopra and Anoop Kumar, who share a concept of God that seems more pantheistic than personal. Of course, no two people could represent the full range of religious beliefs, and in many other comparable debates or dialogues one or a few Christians wind up standing for all believers of all faiths. So personally, my concern is not with Chopra or Kumar, but with the binary nature of such debates. Both sides are supposedly given equal hearing, but in reality this is not a topic with just two sides. God obviously means a variety of things to people of different faiths, not all of which have even have a single God. For that matter, there are plenty of skeptics, agnostics and atheists who don’t feel that Michael Shermer speaks for them either.

I mention that contemporary debate because it reminded me of this week’s chapter from When Science and Christianity Meet, not least because Jon Roberts’ essay opens with an account of a debate from a century ago. At the center of “Psychoanalysis and American Christianity, 1900-45” is Sigmund Freud, who promoted the idea that religious beliefs were part of humanity’s childish ways and need to be put aside if we are to mature. Freud’s argument was rooted in his understanding of the human mind, how it works and how it develops. Interestingly, although it is not apparent in the proposition, the mind is central to the Intelligence Squared debate as well. Chopra and Kumar put consciousness central to their thinking about God, about the universe, about medicine, and really everything. The other debater arguing for the proposition that we are evolving beyond God was neuroscientist Heather Berlin, whose view on the question is also informed by her understanding of the human mind.

As Roberts’ notes and as both history and current conversations indicate, the intersection of neurobiology, psychology, psychiatry, and Christian thought is complex. Freud may not have looked favorably on religious belief, and so religious believers did not all look favorably on Freud and his ideas, but the study of the mind was and remains relevant to Christians. I actually wished that the history in this chapter went beyond 1945, as I was curious how some of the threads advanced. For example, psychology and counseling became quite prominent in some Christian circles and ministries, probably most notably through James Dobson and Focus on the Family. How does that late 20th century development connect to the early 20th century conversations? I’ll admit that’s an area where my knowledge of the history of science and religion is wanting.

Graphic of a balance between a heart and a brain

Another linguistic challenge: the Bible speaks often of hearts, but from a cultural context that assigned to the heart functions we now associate with the brain and nervous system. (Photo by mohamed_hassan )

Adding to the complexity is the evolution of language about the mind and related concepts. The Bible talks about minds, souls, and spirits, although defining and differentiating between the three is not entirely clear. The Greek terminology of the New Testament makes it challenging to separate the words from what Greek philosophers wrote about them. Those philosophers inform our understanding of the meaning of those Greek words. For that matter, in present day English there is still a variety of ways to think about minds and souls and consciousness, providing sufficient ambiguity for a wide range of interpretations of the relevant Bible passages. Again, you can get a sense of that ambiguity in the Intelligence Squared debate. Chopra and Kumar have such an expansive view of consciousness that it encompasses everything. Some may see that as powerful flexibility, while others might feel that it lacks the specificity needed to be useful.

Or maybe I’m just projecting my own uncertainty about how to talk about the mind and the brain. It makes sense to me that the mind is not fully reducible to the brain and its activity, and that mental states are causally meaningful. At the same time, it makes sense that the mind is mediated by the brain, arising from the numerous interactions of nerve cells and other biological entities, possibly as an outgrowth of sensory perception turned inward. Consciousness seems like an important and meaningful phenomenon, and unconscious emotional reactions and cognitive biases also seem crucial to fully understanding how we arrive at certain conclusions. Treating mental health concerns medically and pharmacologically has benefits, and improving mental health can improve physical health also, although there is also a need for psychological solutions to psychological challenges and physical solutions to physical ailments. I think, but am not certain, all of those ideas might put me closer to Berlin’s perspective than Chopra’s or Kumar’s, yet at the same time I retain a belief in God. Even if there is some neurological basis or even bias pointing me toward such a belief, the specifics of Christian theology and history are still counterintuitive and contrary to my impulses in a way to suggest that they aren’t purely the path of least neurological resistance.

Since I’m uncertain, I’d love to hear from you. How do you think about minds? How do you interpret what the Bible says on the topic? How do you interact with current neuroscience and psychology? How do you interact with the idea that consciousness is the fundamental element of the universe? Chime in below with your thoughts.

We’re going to have one more video chat to wrap up our discussion of this book. I hope you can join us in two weeks on 4/25 at 7:30pm Eastern.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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    Stan Wallace commented on April 11, 2018 Reply

    Great topic. The question “what is the mind” is a philosophical question that a number of Christian philosophers have worked on these past few decades, making considerable progress. This has informed other fields, such as spiritual formation (I think here of the work of Dallas Willard, a Christian philosopher who applied his understanding of the mind to spiritual formation in his _The Spirit of the Disciplines_.)

    The good news is that the Scriptures seem to paint a rather clear and coherent picture of the nature of the mind, as well as the nature of the body. The philosophical picture is equally clear if naturalistic, a priori assumptions are set aside. Both Scripture and philosophical work on the subject indicate we are a deep unity of soul and body (similarly mind and brain), in which each is separate from the another but has causal powers in relation to the other. Therefore, all attempts to reduce one to the other, or suggest one arises from the other, fail (though such attempts are very popular these days).

    I’ve said more about what I believe can be defended as the most biblically grounded view of what the mind (soul) is, and how it is related to the brain (body) in a recent blog post here:

      Andy Walsh commented on April 12, 2018 Reply

      Stan – Thanks for your comment. I took a look at some of the blog posts you shared. I think there is a lot of value in clearly articulating one’s position on topics where there is some collective uncertainty. So I appreciate the detailed discussion of how the mind and body relate.

      I agree that the picture Scripture provides is one of deep unity between soul and body. I was wondering then if you could elaborate on your interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, as it sounds like you take those verses to indicate that our souls will be in the Lord’s presence without bodies. I’m trying to understand how to reconcile that with the unity of the two.

      I would also be curious to hear your thoughts on the notion that Scripture provides a picture of substance dualism because that category was most readily expressed in the available language.

        Stan Wallace commented on April 13, 2018 Reply

        Andy, thanks for your kind and insightful reply. You have raised a very important question. 2 Cor 5:6-8 does imply that we can live apart from our bodies, at least for a time. Scripture does seem to clearly communicate that we are fundamentally a soul.

        However, other texts seem to indicate we are fundamentally physical (e.g. the doctrine of creation which sees physical reality, including our bodies, as good and natural, as well as the promise and hope of the final resurrection and restoration of our bodies as part of the redemption of all things.)

        So how does this all fit together? I believe a duality of soul and body is expressed in scripture. I also believe this is most defensible philosophically. Technically, this is a duality of “substances.” For more of my thinking on this, as well as other resources, I again suggest my blog series on “What Are We?”

        To your last point, the issue is not language used, but the metaphysical reality referred to as “substance.” This is a technical term in Aristotelian metaphysics referring to that which “stands under” properties, but is not “had” by something more basic. As such, substances are capable of independent existence (ontologically, though still contingent and ultimately causally dependent on God). Hence the term substance dualism. The best treatment of the biblical data in support of substance dualism is John Cooper, _Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting_.

        But it is important to point out that there are two versions of substance dualism: Cartesian and Thomistic. Cartesian dualism (arising from Plato and developed by Descartes) sees the relation between soul and body as very superficial, much like water is related to the glass it is in. This is Plato’s view that the body is the prison house of the soul. Thomistic dualism (grounded in Aristotle and developed by Thomas Aquinas) maintains that we are deep unity of soul and body. This is our “natural” state, in which our soul naturally actualizes it potentialities in part by forming and growing a body to realize these potentialities (of course, we have other potentialities, in addition to physical potentialities). I believe Thomistic dualism is better defended theologically and philosophically. I’ve said more about this in my blog series.

        Interestingly, the vast majority of critiques of substance dualism are actually of Cartesian dualism, and it is then assumed all forms of substance dualism are not viable. But these critiques do not apply to Thomistic dualism.

        Yet 2 Cor 5:6-8 initially seems to be a challenge for Thomistic dualism. It indicates we are able to exist apart from the body for a period of time. This is consistent with Thomistic dualism, which maintains that only the soul is capable of independent existence. Souls are not dependent on bodies for their existence. However, bodies are dependent on souls for their existence—the body is not a machine that can just run “on its own,” but rather it is what it is in virtue of being ensouled. So technically there are not two substances per the definition of “substance” above (able to exit ontologically independently). Yet the view is still commonly referred to as “Thomistic dualism.”

        Therefore, the disembodied soul, while not in its natural (embodied) state, is nonetheless an enduring substance, which ensures our continuity through time as the same self until reunited with our bodies.

        So Thomistic dualism seems to make sense of all the biblical data, incuding 2 Cor 5.

          Andy Walsh commented on April 22, 2018 Reply

          Stan – thanks for the additional information; it took a little while to digest. I think you make good points about Thomistic dualism being more consistent with the picture from scripture than Cartesian dualism. Of the two, it makes more sense to me as well. You also anticipated my question about whether the body satisfies the definition of a ‘substance;’ that was a helpful clarification. The dependence of bodies on souls got me thinking about the rest of life. Do all bodies need souls, or is that unique to humans? I read your discussion of animal rights as important yet distinct from human rights, but if you discussed specifically whether animals and other living creatures have souls, then I’m afraid I missed it.

    Stan Wallace commented on April 27, 2018 Reply

    Andy, great follow-up question. Yes, on the Aristotelian understanding everything is a combination of “matter” and “form” and so for living things this means that all living things are what they are in virtue of their “souls.” Aristotle offered three “soul types”: Nutritive (able to assimilate nutrients and reproduce), Sensible (nutritive capacities plus movement) and Rational (sensible capacities plus ratiocination). Hence “soul” is a genus with many species.

    As to uniqueness, I’d also say the doctrine of the imago dei also plays in here, as one of the properties of the human soul type which makes it unique, “even above the angels.”

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