Reading the Bible Through Neuroscience: Is Your Brain Different From Moses’ Brain?

Reading the Bible Through Neuroscience: Is Your Brain Different From Moses’ Brain? September 20, 2017

NC.001What can neuroscience teach us about how to read the bible? James Kugel has some suggestions.

Kugel is a Jewish biblical scholar & former Harvard professor. His new book, The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times, makes some fascinating observations about the difference between the Hebrew mind and the modern mind.

The main difference is in our “sense of self.” Modern readers don’t have the same assumptions about what it means to be a human being. We differ in two key ways:

Self as Internal v. External to the Body

At this moment you have an idea about what it means to be you. This is your sense of self. Kugel says that the modern sense of self is quite different from the ancient sense of self:

“We tend to think that there is some central part of our brains that acts as a clearinghouse, processing all the outside sensory data that come into our heads via our eyes and ears and so forth and then deciding what to think and how to respond. The problem with this picture is that scientists cannot find anything physical in the brain that seems to act as the clearinghouse. In physiological terms, there is no “I myself”; such an entity seems to be a mental construct, something human beings evolved over millions of years but which has no independent, physical reality.” (From The Atlantic)

What he means is that most of us have this underlying assumption that the real me is not limited to my own body. The real me is the owner or possessor of my body and brain. The real me is over the body and brain, possessing them but not identical to them.

Ancient Hebrews did not share this modern sense of self, and modern neuroscience sides with the ancients.

Kugel says this sense of self that is over the body, distinct from it, “as far as most neuroscientists are concerned, is simply a mental construct. Science doesn’t need an ‘I myself’ to explain what goes on in our brains, but apparently we do.”

Ancient Hebrew writers of scripture assumed that what it means to be you is bound up in your physical body, including your brain. What it means to be human is that you are a human being. A person’s sense of self—in reality—cannot be separated from the physical body. (BTW: this is why the Jewish & Christian hope is in the bodily resurrection, not in some disembodied heaven, because in order to live, one needs a body).


The Self-Contained v. Semipermeable Mind

Another key difference between modern people and ancient people is that moderns assume that their mind is a closed system. For us, the mind is individually wrapped, closed off to the outside so that no one else can access it.

Ancient people didn’t share that belief, and modern neuroscience seems to confirm the ancients here as well.

For ancient people the mind could always be possessed by God and sometimes be possessed by evil spirits (hence it is semi-permeable). For them, the mind was not a closed system, so it was no big deal when they heard voices or had visions. They were looking for those kind of connections, expecting them.

In the modern world we pathologize any instance of a person who is “hearing voices.” We can’t have that, because we believe the mind to be a closed system. So it is.

Modern Neuroscience, however, confirms the ancient belief that the mind is porous. The mind can be invaded by all kinds of external forces. The actual structure and chemistry of the brain is changed in significant ways as it relates to the world, to language, and to other people. Everything you encounter shapes your brain, and conditions your mind.

We are alarmed when we hear of people who hear voices—despite the fact that nearly 15% of the population admits to hearing voices—and we tend to pathologize the phenomenon. Ancient people embraced that… hence the prophets.

The Hebrew people would likely be alarmed by modern individualism and egocentricity:

“They would be astounded at encountering a sense of self that is just huge, virtually filling the heavens. Each of us would seem to them so important, so big! Their sense of self was far more collective than ours; their own existence was tightly connected to that of siblings and cousins and clan-mates far and wide, and who they were was very much defined by who they came from as well as by their inherited social roles. All this, quite apart from semipermeability, simply made them much smaller than we are today. In fact, from this perspective the semipermeable mind was just another aspect of human smallness. I think the challenge facing religions in the West nowadays is to try to help people shrink down to a more realistic size, and then to let the divine take over where the human leaves off.” (From The Atlantic)

I love that. We need to shrink down to a more realistic size if we are going to be good biblical readers. We need to become smaller, not bigger, if we are ever going to hear from God.

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  • Charles Winter

    But what if we saw that the visions of the prophets were just the ravings of schizophrenics? Would we dismiss those like Ezekiel, who saw supernatural things, and more embrace the writings of Amos, who saw everyday injustice?

    • LastManOnEarth

      Yes. That would be a good start.

  • Perhaps our concept of self has evolved into something closer to what is true, rather than the reverse. Descarte’s metaphysical claim for the supremacy of the critical thinking mind led to Kant’s perception that the external world is a construct of our minds, a concept now corroborated by neuroscience. If there is no duality of body and mind, how can we have these thoughts? Then, too, what of the sense of detachment of self we see in near-death experiences? Conscious thought seems to exist separately from biological life in the cases of NDEs. To me, the dualism of Greek philosophy seems to clear up such issues, even while they may create others (how does the biological self give rise to the mental self? This is a problem for dualists…)

    Modern theologians have coined the phrase “panentheism” to try to resolve these metaphysical conflicting ideas. There is transcendence and immanence, simultaneously, both in God and in us creatures. The problem of maintaining we are only our biology limits us – we cannot transcend ourselves, we are biologically determined. Dualism (such as Descarte) leaves us without a connection between body and soul, and God is removed from creation, incapable of being immanent. The panentheism of process theologians like Hartshorne and Cobb attempt to address these problems.

    Going back in time to embrace the concrete thinking of the ancient Hebrews may seem appealing to some, but it also creates problems for the modern mind – the mind which created space travel, the Internet, and quantum physics. While an enlarged sense of self may create a sense of hubris for some, a larger, better sense of self also gives us capacity for something quite in keeping with God’s character: empathy.

  • Tim

    “I think the challenge facing religions in the West nowadays is to try to help people shrink down to a more realistic size, and then to let the divine take over where the human leaves off.” (From The Atlantic)
    I love that. We need to shrink down to a more realistic size if we are going to be good biblical readers. We need to become smaller, not bigger, if we are ever going to hear from God.”

    John 3:30 says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Along with Paul’s comments about it being no longer he that lived, but Christ in him, would seem to express the same idea.

  • Tim

    I think one of the biggest problems that modern dualistic thinking has created is too much of a sense of extreme individualism and self-centeredness. It has also grossly perverted much of the modern evangelical understanding of scripture.