Beware Neuromaniacs and Darwinitis (RJS)

Malcolm Jeeves is a Christian, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews (one of the founders of the department), 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. His new book, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience,  takes a conversational to the issues that arise between the scientific study of mind and brain and the Christian view of humanness and soul.

After an introductory chapter on the nature of Psychology as a discipline Jeeves dives into one of the more controversial issues in modern neuroscience – the relationship between mind and brain. Ben (the student) poses some rather common questions, and Jeeves responds with longer essays describing some of the history of this discussion (all the way back to the ancient Greek philosophers) and looking at the heart of the issues involved.   In this chapter on the mind and brain Jeeves emphasizes the importance of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms and the need to avoid excessive reductionisms, the claim that we are “nothing but” material connected by electrical impulses.

Do you think that the relationship between mind and brain poses a challenge for Christians?

Are we nothing but meat and the activity of brain circuits?

Here I will highlight what I see as the four most important points that Jeeves makes in this chapter.

(1) It is important to avoid reading beliefs into the data. This can include Christian beliefs, and it can include secular beliefs. The relationship between intelligence and religiosity is interesting – and the paper drew a variety of opinions and interest.  Both atheists and Christians read beliefs into the results. Some vocal atheists read into the data “intelligent people know enough to reject faith” others read into the data “intelligent people are too arrogant to accept faith.”  (That was not the argument I was trying to make, but it is how some read my argument.) Of course we will try to draw connections and to hypothesize on meaning – but we must always be aware of our predisposed beliefs and try to recognize the distinction between data and interpretation in our own work and in the work of others. Interaction with the data should sharpen our beliefs.

Jeeves takes this idea back into our approach to scripture as well.

The temptation to read into the text of Scripture is always with us. I was reminded of this very recently in an email I received from theologian Tom Wright. He said that we find it all too easy “to allow our traditions to echo back off the surface of the text that is trying to tell us something else,” and that “all too often the word ‘biblical’ itself has been shrunk so that it only now means ‘according to our own tradition, which we assume to be biblical.’” (p. 29)

I find that, from the Christian side of the discussion between science and faith, there is too much emphasis on tradition and too little attention paid to immersion in scripture and search for the meaning of scripture.

(2) It is important to hold many of our conclusions loosely with appropriate skepticism. Ben responded to Malcolm:

I appreciate your emphasizing the danger of reading into the data our preconceived ideas, whether the data is the text of Scripture or the data gathered by science. … [H]ow do we best think about the relationship between mental processes and the brain today? (p. 30)

Jeeves uses this question as an opportunity do point out that “the course of research never runs smoothly” and that at some level conclusions are growing, developing, and maturing. To the outsider this looks like the fickleness of science, but it is actually the normal process. Nowhere is change more pronounced these days than in the field of neuroscience and the relationship between mind and brain. Although some scientists will give the impression of certainty in their conclusions, all should be considered critically and with the potential for change.

An example Jeeves chooses to consider is the idea of “right-brain” and “left-brain” functions. Much research on the hemispheres of the brain is well-founded, but reality is more complex than the simplistic ideas allow. Recent research has pointed to a top-bottom distinction rather than left-right, for example.   He turns to Tom Wright again, this time in a somewhat more critical and cautionary frame.

For example, in a recent book titled The Master and His Emissary, Psychiatrist Iain Gilchrist has written engagingly about the left-right hemisphere differences and how they may help us to understand some of the wider trends in western thinking in recent years. Picking up on this theme, Tom Wright sees aspects of biblical scholarship as predominantly left-hemisphere, preoccupied with “microscopic analysis of details.” “Facts,” Wright says, “are left-brained business.” Wright urges us that “only when the detailed left-brain analysis can be relocated as the emissary to right-wing intuition, with its rich world of metaphor, narrative, and above all imagination, can the discipline [biblical scholarship] become healthy again.”

I do not doubt that all that Wright says in comment and criticism of some aspects of biblical scholarship is true, and I am not competent to judge, but I would be careful of seeming to tie my views on this topic to what is thought to be the last word in hemispheric specialization. Wright’s views convince me without the support of changing views of brain functioning. (p. 32-33)

It is good to explore the connections between observations of behavior with what we are learning about brain function. It is unwise to seem to tie these observations tightly to the scientific theories – especially at the cutting edge of knowledge. Left brain, right brain is almost certainly a significant over simplification.

(3) Avoid reductionism.  Jeeves points out that it is important to avoid separating separating mind and brain. We need to avoid the reduction of the mental to “merely” the physical.

The temptation to slip into unthinking reductionism is always there. It is not an issue that divides Christians and non-Christians. Neurologist and neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, who has highlighted the dangers of what he calls “biologism,” describes himself as an atheist humanist. … He has offered a trenchant criticism of reductionists who believe that our greatest human conceptual abilities can be reduced to neural firings in our brains. He calls them “neuromaniacs.” He is equally critical of those who seek to minimize human differences from other animals by, on the one hand, anthropomorphizing animals, or, on the other hand, “animalizing” humans in entirely unjustified ways. This he calls “Darwinitis.” (p. 36)

I’ve ordered Tallis’s book Aping Mankind (and a few other books I’ve found referenced by Jeeves) and will return to these issues in future posts. I think there is a big danger in trying to hard to make humans “merely animals.” Whether through natural means as Tallis would advocate, or through divine action, humankind is not merely an animal. The distinctions, I believe, are both quantitative and qualitative.  But this is too big a topic to dig into deeply here and it will come up again.

(4) The brain has a capacity to change in response to actions and thoughts. Learning, habits, discipline, these all have some power to change the very structure and signaling in the brain. Jeeves points to a study of London Taxi Drivers. When the hippocampus changed in size and shape over the course of their training, and these changes were correlated with qualifying or failing to qualify at the end of training. Another example is found in the way phobias, such as a spider phobia, can be overcome by conditioning. Brain scanning methods demonstrate that the changes are not “simply” behavioral. There are very real changes in the brain activity as the subjects overcame the phobia. “In effect, by modifying thinking and behavior, brain processes were also modified. Hence the use of the term top-down effect.” (p. 39)

Jeeves doesn’t raise this here – but I think this is why spiritual disciplines, regular prayers, liturgies, and the like are so important in Christian life. It is not that we must do something to earn God’s favor. Rather it is because the very things we do and habits we develop shape who we are at a rather profound level.

Duality … but not substance dualism. Much of the discussion concerning the relationship between mind and brain in Christian circles comes down to the the question of body and soul. Many Christians are what would best be described as substance dualists (or here). That is, they believe that an immaterial soul or person has a real substance separate from the physical body or substance that contains the person.  Jeeves sums up his discussion by noting that he, as a scientist, psychology professor, and Christian, believes that we are a psychobiological unity. There is an intrinsic interdependence, both bottom-up and top-down, between the physical brain and body and the mental processes.

It also seems to me that we cannot reduce the mental to the physical any more than we can reduce the physical to the mental. In this sense there is an important duality that we need to recognize between the mental and the physical, and I don’t believe this duality requires us to believe in two kinds of substances or a dualism of substance, and that makes me a dual aspect monist. (p. 40)

This is a tough subject for many Christians. The separation of body and soul is embedded in our language and tradition. Modern neuroscience is requiring something of a revision of thinking here. But, as Joel Green has argued (Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible) this may take us back to a view of humanity closer to that found in the Bible. (For those who may be interested, I did a long series on Joel’s book a couple of years ago – Being Human.) The notion of humans as a psychobiological unity reshapes some of our thinking, but is not in conflict with the 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.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Hello Scott, I want to congratulate you for taking the time, as a theologian, to try reaching an informed opinion about hot issues at the cutting edge of the science-faith debate.

    As many have pointed out, the questions raised by neuroscience and the materialist interpretation of neuroscience are far more significant for our faith than everything the theory of evolution or astronomy might call into question.
    Unfortunately, too many Christian intellectuals close their eyes and act as if nothing interesting were happening.

    Now I want to comment on this:

    “Duality … but not substance dualism. Much of the discussion concerning the relationship between mind and brain in Christian circles comes down to the the question of body and soul. Many Christians are what would best be described as substance dualists (or here). That is, they believe that an immaterial soul or person has a real substance separate from the physical body or substance that contains the person. Jeeves sums up his discussion by noting that he, as a scientist, psychology professor, and Christian, believes that we are a psychobiological unity. There is an intrinsic interdependence, both bottom-up and top-down, between the physical brain and body and the mental processes.”

    I agree that a platonic soul existing independently of the body can be ruled out, yet this is a far cry from saying that substance dualism has been refuted.

    As I argue here http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/on-the-feeling-of-a-lonesome-bat-von-den-gefuhlen-eines-einsamen-fledermauses-des-sentiments-dune-chauve-souris-solitaire/
    it seems inconceivable how the subjective experience of a living thing could be known just by knowing all assiciated brain processes.
    And as I’m going to argue in the future, if subjectivity is immaterial, it must have a causal influence on the brain.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • RJS4DQ

    Hi Lothars Sohn,

    Posts labeled “RJS” were written by me, not by Scot. I am a scientist and a professor. Scot lets me write and interact here (which does mean he is interested in informed opinions on the hot issues).

    It may be a difference in definition of “substance” here – but I expect we will be able to develop it further in future posts.

    And I agree – these issues raised by neuroscience are far more significant in the science-faith conversation than evolution alone is.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Hello RSJ, what is your speciality or field of expertise?

    I am a simulation chemist having a huge interest for philosophical issues.

    You would be most welcome to comment on my blog and perhaps help me correct some of my misunderstandings.

    Actually the comments are open for any post at any time.

    I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

    Friendly greetings from Germany.
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • Bev Mitchell

    RJS,

    Great post on a tough subject. Your quote from Green is key “this may take us back to a view of humanity closer to that found in the Bible.” Our evangelical/Western view of the Bible, God and humanity is undergoing a much needed review and remodelling. An over- reliance on Greek philosophy obscures the way the more eastern thought present in Scripture (including the New Testament and early patristic writers) handles these matters. A recent reread of Clark Pinnock’s “Most Moved Mover” reminded me of how well he covers the issue of the ways that presuppositions based on Greek philosophy (Plato, Augustine) condition our reading of Scripture and indeed, our world view.

    Now I’ve got to add Jeeves and Green to the reading list.

  • Phil Miller

    I read Green’s book a while ago, and while I think he makes some really good points, I don’t know if I can go as far as he can with certain things. It’s hard to completely get rid of something like the immaterial soul altogether.

    The NPR show, Radiolab did a show last week closely related to this very subject.

    http://www.radiolab.org/story/317421-blame/

    They are looking at things more from the perspective of the legal system, but the idea that there’s no separation between our brains and our minds becomes a very difficult, if not impossible, thing to swallow from a legal perspective. Our legal system is built on the idea that there is a “you” that bears responsibility for your actions. The other option on the whole other side of the spectrum is to go down the road of a “Minority Report” type of world.

  • RonSimkins

    Thanks for calling attention to this important subject. It would be great if both Christians and non-Christians could learn to celebrate what we think we are learning without turning it all into reductive paradigms that never hold up in the long run, but cause great confusion in the short run.

  • rising4air

    Tallis’ book is great: Looking forward to your posts!
    MikeK

  • Susan_G1

    I am a neuromaniac who suffers from Darwinitis. There is so much I want to say, but I’ll try to limit myself to two areas, my neuromania and my Darwinitis.

    Jill Taylor (Ph.D in neuroanatomy) studied physiological psychology and medicine before going to Harvard Med for a post-doc in neuroscience. She then studied the neuroscience of mental illness, neurotransmitters, and pathways in the brain. Her father was a minister, so she was raised with religion.

    In December of 1996, she suffered a left hemispheric stroke, of which she wrote in her book, A Stroke of insight. Because of her intimate knowledge of neuroanatomy, she could actually identify which parts of her brain were shutting down, describing alarmingly the loss, and her consequent “life” in the right side of her brain, wherein she felt limitless, joyous, and at one with the universe, what she identified as Nirvana. After surgery and years of rehab, she has regained left hemispheric function. She gave a TED talk (online.)

    What does this neuroscientist’s experience say about the existence of a separate soul? I think she is a devout neuromaniac. She may suffer from Darwinitis as well, as no longer works on animal brains because of how her experience of Nirvana influenced her ethical beliefs about animals.

    Are we qualitatively unique in the animal kingdom? Mark Bekoff (Ph.D animal behavior ’72) Ecologist and Evolutionary Biologist who is now an Ethologist (ethos, “character”+ -logia, “study of”: the scientific and objective study of animal behavior under natural conditions, across species.) Author of many books, among them, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy and Why They Matter (2007). He also cofounded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with Jane Goodall (Ph.D Ethology, Cambridge, ’65, the world’s expert in chimpanzees). He suffers from Terminal Darwinitis: “human exceptionalism is more a myth than a fact.” He blogs at Psychology Today, but google him and you’ll find lots. Is he simply anthropomorphizing? 40 years of animal behaviorial study should place him above this simplification. When he observes grief rituals and other behaviors in animals as diverse as elephants and magpies, it should tell you that animals grieve, love, feel loss; Goodall’s stories of chimps, how one ‘spoiled’ chimp (Flint, a momma’s boy) was so aggrieved at his mother’s (Flo) death that he fell into a major deppression and starved to death, frequently visiting the site where he last saw his dead mother, should be even more convincing.

    I am a Christian first – I firmly believe in God and Christ’s redemptive work, and I believe in an afterlife. I am also a physician, was for a relatively short time a molecular biologist, and am not known as an animal lover, though I had a farm (for food, milk, and experience of God’s blessings) with many different animals as my children were growing up, so maybe I have had a very limited exposure to ethology. I believe we are quantitatively more than qualitatively different from animals.

    Are we nothing but meat and the activity of brain circuits? I’d say more like organs, neurons, glial cells, regulatory hormones, neurotransmitters and a central processing unit, not all of which we understand.

    FWIW, recent studies have shown that man’s urban activities cause structural brain changes as well in animals, but that’s #3, so I won’t go there.

  • Andrew Dowling

    If it was not known from previous threads, I share and empathize with your insights and interests :) although admittedly I have been an avid animal lover since I was a child, so that without a doubt has emotionally had an impact on my view of humans’ uniqueness in the animal kingdom. Concurrently, I do think the scientific research is supporting the “darwinitis’ view more, although for me that doesn’t negate God . . but it may call into question some long-held presumptions.

    I am going to order that book by Taylor . . sounds fascinating.

  • RJS4DQ

    Susan,

    I think there is something missing in this reductionism. But my intent is to argue this position through a number of posts to get at the key issues, so it should be fun going forward.

    With respect to the influence of stroke on the brain … I remember my grandfather (an MD specializing in physical medicine) talking in the 70′s and 80′s about the relationship of stroke location to specific symptoms and disabilities induced. It isn’t new knowledge (although Taylor’s book may be interesting to add to this series of posts).

    The psychobiological unity Jeeves talks about is an important idea. I want to see where he goes with dual aspect idea.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Another book to read is Frans de Waal’s “The Bonobo and the Atheist”, where the Dutch primatologist explores human empathy, morality etc through the lense of his experiences with Chimps and Bonobo’s. Fascinating and illuminating. While being an atheist, he is very much not a neo-atheist, and goes out of his way to criticize some of the well known names (he calls Hitchens a serial dogmatist :) ).

  • Susan_G1

    No, it isn’t new knowledge, but this is the first time we have a neuroanatomist suffering a left hemispheric stroke and telling about it. Also, there is something missing in this, but I don’t know what or where it is! This is a challenge to me as much as to those around me, who challenge my thinking. But what started all this for me was looking at inerrency about 2 years ago, finding Peter Enns, and looking at the Bible and the world around me without compartmentalizing my scientific beliefs. I will take this where it takes me, labels and all.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I actually just finished reading that; one nagging thing was his take on the Golden Rule, which I thought was shallow (focusing on the ‘action’ whereas a true following of the Golden Rule would also incorporate desire of that action) but the rest of the book I thought was great, and I thought his overall ‘bottom-up’ theory of human morality was spot-on.

  • Susan_G1

    so now you won’t mix up komodo dragons and bonobos? (jk – an old comment replied to by Klasie.) Now I want to read it.

  • Susan_G1

    aargh, Phil, you got me to listen to RadioLab… my kids thought that was hilarious, because I often chide them on it’s anecdotal approach to Science. But it was intriguing and unsettling. If a part of the brain is removed, is the person still held responsible for what that part of the brain was supposed to do?

    I thought the judge in this case showed the wisdom of Solomon.


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