Ask Jeeves! (RJS)

I admit it, I am a P.G. Wodehouse fan. I’ve read (and have on my shelf) all of the Jeeves and Wooster books along with many of Wodehouse’s other books. One of my favorite shows is the British TV series Jeeves and Wooster starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. … But I digress. This post concerns a different Jeeves, Malcolm Jeeves, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews.

The most pressing questions at the intersection of science and faith these days have little to do with Genesis 1 and everything to do with the essence of what it means to be human. Recent comment threads on the importance of creation “in the image of God” and on free will have highlighted some of the major questions and the concerns. This is an issue that comes up repeatedly in e-mail questions off-line as well. It seems to me that for many the root of the Adam question is not first and foremost a Bible question or a science question. It is a social question and a human question. What does it mean to be human? Are we nothing but bags of chemical reactions shaped by evolution, environment, and experience?

Malcolm Jeeves is a Christian, an emeritus professor of psychology, 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.  He has a couple of recent books worth a careful look. The first, Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature, coauthored with Warren S. Brown provides an overview of the relationship between neuroscience, psychology, and religion. In this book Jeeves and Brown survey the history and current state of neuroscience with emphasis on the interface with religion. They review how current controversies of science and religion are framed and provide a model for future dialogue. Jeeves gives a brief intro to the book in this clip:

YouTube Preview Image

Jeeves: This book picks up a question that has been around for several millenia, but it does it in a context where there is so much new and exciting science at the interface of neuroscience and psychology, which sheds light on human nature, which we didn’t have before. And if we are going to understand how this relates to our wider life, including our religious life, then this book attempts to show how you can be honest about both your science and your religion and make sense of it all.

The second book, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience, brand new from IVP Press, takes a more conversational and less formal approach.  From the promotional literature:

In the tradition of C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm, Malcolm Jeeves presents a fictional conversation between professor and student which addresses the complex life issues one faces as a psychology student, and how to make sense of one’s faith in early adulthood.

The book covers much of the same material presented in Neuroscience, Psychology and Religion, but does so in a conversational, question and answer style. This being the 21st century the format of the conversation is not an exchange of long letters, but an exchange of e-mails, short and long, over a course of undergraduate studies. Although the presentation is a fictional conversation, the questions posed by “Ben” represent the cumulative experience of  more than half a century interacting with students taking psychology.  Many of the questions came to Jeeves personally, others were suggested by friends and and colleagues … questions they had been asked by students and occasionally out of the blue through e-mails from people around the world. These are real questions asked by real students, answered by a renowned expert.

I’ll end the post with one sample question.

Malcolm,

Can you tell me more about this? If religious belief is nothing more than a kind of placebo effect, and that causes the reported better health among religious people, what does this do to our understanding that there’s something special about religious belief, about being grounded in a relationship with a God who really exists? (p. 157)

We’ll look at this and other questions while working through the two books by Jeeves. It may not be as entertaining as Wodehouse, but the questions and answers are riveting and hit dead on the questions and doubts faced by many today.

What questions do you find the most significant?

Does modern neuroscience and/or evolutionary psychology pose a serious challenge for Christian faith?

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

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • scotmcknight

    Didn’t know you liked Wodehouse, too. What stories that guy can spin. I found the story of his life quite fascinating…

  • tanyam

    The most significant question in my book is whether humanity will be facing extinction (or near) because of mass starvation, flooding, and the ensuing wars for arable land and water because we couldn’t get it together to address climate change.

  • RJS4DQ

    tanyam,

    Thanks. That brings up an important question, although quite different than the questions addressed in this post or these books. I will come back to it in future posts (if anyone knows of a good book to help frame a discussion let me know).

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I’m a big Wodehouse fan myself!

  • Patrick Mitchel

    Audio books of P G Wodehouse stories about Blandings Castle had us laughing all the way through a road trip this summer. Martin Jarvis reading Pigs Have Wings – brilliant.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Martin Jarvis is good – but there is one better version, unfortunately not generally available anymore, it seems: Simon Callow. Extraordinary…

  • Susan_G1

    “…every new advance tightens the links between mind and brain.” This was the point I tried to make in the Babel post. What does this mean to us as evolutionary creatures also made in the image and likeness of God? Erecting false walls between science and the mind/spirit will only give rise to a new crisis of faith whenever these walls are (and will be) torn down.

    For the neuroscientist, our minds are unique only in the surface area of our brains. Descartes’ view was that we are animals with a soul added. This remains a predominant Christian view. It’s a comforting thought, but not one with the support of science. Every time we chart our uniqueness, it falls away when we discover species with similar abilities.

    I’m going to take a giant leap here, because I’m trying to be intellectually honest. I am not sure that we are the only creatures made in the image and likeness of God, if the image and likeness of God is physical/biological. If you study elephant or cetacean intelligence, they are self aware, grieve their dead, remembering them long after their deaths. Cetaceans sing songs, have individual names and remember the names of others they met long ago, have a language that varies with location (a North Atlantic whale cannot communicate with a whale of the South Pacific), and can create. I used to think creativity set us apart, but dolphins can definitely create. The more we find out about cetacean intelligence, the more we will realize that psychologically we are more alike than we are different. Just as chimpanzees and humans are more alike than they are different. Dogs are capable of abstract thinking (well, Border Collies are).

    Humans are different in the degree to which we can do all these things, not in the essence of them.

    Clearly this will be an offensive comment to those who view Scripture as scientifically and historically accurate. But I think about it as I journey from inerrancy to the meeting of science and Scripture.

  • mteston1

    I do think you’re on to something here Susan. Now I’m just pulling from some old narratives/visions of the likes of Ezekiel as the images of the throne of God encircled with “beings” with multiple creature like faces appear. Those faces/images/portraits seem (to me) to reflect a kind of totality of the created creatures that reflects, mirrors the image of God/creator. That of course only reflects an outward view but I suspect the more inner psychological/mind/brain issues must be mirrored in the same kinds of ways throughout the created order.

  • wolfeevolution

    I’m pretty sure C.S. Lewis touched on these themes somewhere, not in the matter of similarities between man and other creatures but in the matter of, “If this is so, then what?”. He addressed it in the context of a hypothetical discovery of intelligent space aliens, but I think parallel lines of thought could be pursued for your questions. A quick Google search brought up this blog post that might send you in a helpful direction: http://www.varsityfaith.com/2012/04/c-s-lewis-on-god-faith-and-aliens.html.

  • wolfeevolution

    I’m excited for this series, RJS. Thank you! The challenge that evolutionary psychology poses to Christian faith often seems to get lost in discussions about Adam, but I’ve long wanted to see this topic engaged with some meaty discussion; I agree that it is really at the heart of the matter. Can’t wait!

  • Susan_G1

    Thanks, Wolfe. The article was a good summery; I might have to read the book.

    Lewis wrote a space trilogy (have you read it?) that encompasses this entire idea – that the planets are populated with spiritual beings who live within God’s will, and only Earth has fallen (which is why it is The Dark Planet). Science fiction has asked these questions for decades; we Christians are far behind.

    However, it is no longer science fiction for me. There is much meritorious evidence that some non-human species possess higher-functioning human capabilities, like creativity and empathy. Frankly, when I really dwell on what this means, my poor conclusions make me doubt my own rationality.

  • wolfeevolution

    Lewis’s space trilogy has been on my to-read list for a while now but I haven’t dug into it yet! I’m thinking perhaps when my kids are a little older I’ll read it to them. :)

    May I ask, what is lost by doubting one’s rationality? Does this necessarily undermine faith? Is it unsettling on some other level? If “image of God” is *not* understood biologically or physically but rather in the sense of a relationship or role, does this resolve whatever problems arise? Can our role be seen less as domination of an inferior creation and more as servant leadership, cultivation, and creation care? Is the problem of evil the biggest one — what I’ve heard you mention in several comments about the problem of non-human suffering in an evolutionary creation model?

  • Susan_G1

    The conclusion to this (my) line of thinking is that the image of God can only be understood in our relationship to Him. I fully accept the role of servant leadership and creation care (this is why I stopped eating meat, even though we are given permission; some of these creatures are pretty intelligent.) The biggest problem for me is the problem of “good/evil”. How can a loving God call the suffering and death of countless intelligent beings – including species of hominids – “good”? I do not even want to ask the question, I have so little understanding of this God. Yet I know He exists, and that He loves and gave His son for us.

    I need some serious schooling in theodicy.


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