The Mind and the Brain: “Morphic Resonance” and Other Thoughts
Here I recently blogged about “dogmas of science” and recommended that my readers listen to an episode of “Science Friday” (PBS) and watch a Youtube video of a TED Talk by scientist Rupert Sheldrake about what he considers certain unquestionable “dogmas of science.” I then went on to talk about what Rupert Sheldrake calls “morphic resonance,” especially the idea that the mind extends outside the brain.
I have often had the experience of discovering a term for something I have always believed but had no term for the belief. I don’t know that I believe everything that Sheldrake means by morphic resonance, but I am delighted to discover the term and know that at least one credentialed scientist in the world believes what I have always believed—that mind and consciousness are more than the brain even if they are connected to the brain.
Since learning about Sheldrake and morphic resonance, especially the idea that the mind, even of animals, extends beyond the brain, I have “run the idea”by several people, some Christians and some non-Christians, and have found that all of them, educated as they are, also believe this—that the mind is “more” than the functions of the matter of the brain. This seems so intuitively true to many of us that the common idea among many scientists (and others) that brain and mind are simply synonyms is almost funny.
Most religious people, at least in the past, have believed that the mind can exist apart from the body, that mind somehow or other survives bodily death, even cremation. And yet, after teaching thousands of students over forty years, I have found that many, perhaps most, of them default to using “mind” and “brain” as synonymous in certain conversations. Where did they pick up this habit? Obviously from schools they attended and from popular culture. Rarely, if ever, could they cite a scientist or science book that taught them this.
Since almost all of them were Christians I would ask them “Do you believe God has a mind?” They answered affirmatively, even if cautiously, suspecting I was leading them somewhere they might not want to go. Then I would ask them “Do you believe God has a physical brain?” Of course, they would usually stop and think and then say no. Except Jesus, of course, in his incarnate state as both human and divine.
This is unfair of me, of course, but I thought it best to engage in this reductio ad absurdum thought exercise to get them to think about whether using “brain” and “mind” synonymously is correct, especially for Christian believers and believes in God who aren’t necessarily Christians (e.g., deists).
Over the years I have “sounded out” many, many people about this issue of the mind and the brain. EVEN WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF A HIGH LEVEL CONFERENCE BETWEEN SCIENTISTS AND THEOLOGIANS. That conference was held in the HQ of the world’s largest organizations of scientists that publishes the magazine “Science” in Washington, D.C. I saw that one voluntary workshop to be led by three neuroscientists was on this very subject of the brain and the mind so I eagerly attended and asked questions, as did others, both scientists and theologians. The three relatively young neuroscientists, all with doctoral degrees from major research universities, were clearly reluctant to take any stand on the subject of brain and mind. They INCLINED toward treating the mind as a function of the brain but admitted that the matter (no pun intended) is not settled by science—yet.
And yet, I have found that most Americans TEND to use “mind” and “brain” interchangeably—until I (or someone else) challenges that habit. So where does this very common habit come from? Again, I can only assume from a combination of school and popular culture. But I have not been able to put my proverbial finger on exactly what causes it.
This habit ought to be challenged by pastors and teachers of Christian thought everywhere and often. It is evidence of a deep-seated materialism in American culture. Yes, I know there are forces contrary to materialism in especially religion and popular culture, but somehow, for some reason, this element and manifestation of materialism has dug in and become commonplace in discourse among especially educated Americans, including ones who consider themselves Christians.
Why does this matter? Because as Christians we need to resist ideas in culture around us that are inimical to having a Christian worldview. Having and holding a Christian worldview is the purpose of a Christian school. Many Christian schools, including “evangelical” colleges and universities, do not push back hard enough against ideas that are contrary to the Christian worldview they claim to hold and teach. During my forty years teaching in three different Christian universities I have often met and had conversation with professors and instructors who teach things absolutely contrary to a biblically-informed Christian worldview.
My even very cautious attempts to correct some of the things I heard them say were usually met with hostility as if I were a fundamentalist (as they understand that category) trying to control them, attempting to dominate them—a fear many, many Christian educators have about the theologians among them. Many of them, the non-theologians, bring ideas into their Christian college/university classrooms and laboratories they learned in their secular university educations. Most commonly discovered, by me, is naturalism, a bias against miracles, but also a default belief that infants are born pure and pristine and that any evil they do later is the product of social influences—an implicit denial of the doctrine of original sin.
I could give numerous examples, but I will just offer one here, for now. I had a Christian colleague who taught education and communication who often said to us, her colleagues, “If they [the students] have not learned, you have not taught.” Now that might sound right to you, but if you are a Christian you need to stop and think about the fact that many of Jesus’s “students” did not “get” what he was saying to them. Did he, then, not teach? Was it his fault they didn’t learn what he was telling them? Clearly, according to the New Testament, Jesus taught even when most of those he was teaching did not learn what he was teaching them.
However, I think even just my experience of teaching students who didn’t learn puts the lie to “If they have not learned, you have not taught.” It’s an absurd statement. However, it worked its way into how some administrators evaluated instructors and professors.
My dear , dear colleague had brought into the Christian college setting an idea from her secular university education or from secular books about education. She unthinkingly accepted an idea that is clearly contrary to a Christian worldview (the noetic effects of sin) and also contrary to common pedagogical experience. But most obviously it just flatly contradicts the Jesus story of the gospels.
One experience of my teaching career especially stands out in my memory in this regard. I was asked to speak to the presidents of the Christian College Consortium, an organization of thirteen evangelical colleges (now some call themselves universities). All thirteen were present in the room. I spoke about the meaning of “evangelical Christianity.” The presidents, hardly any of them theologians, fell into debate with each other about what it means to be “evangelical.” As I listened I discerned that some, several of them were quite ignorant theologically. And a couple of them sounded unnecessarily conservative, almost fundamentalist, to me. As I listened, I thought to myself that it was no wonder many of them could not lead their colleges/universities in the practice of faith-learning integration, a concept they all affirmed.
That is why I later wrote “Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story”—as a guide to faith-learning integration in Christian schools.
As I think about that weird experience, I put the blame for the situation squarely at the feet of the regents or trustees of the schools. They consist mostly of theologically uneducated Christian lay men and women who care more about money, the “bottom line,” than about holding the line theologically. At one of the three Christian universities where I taught, a theologian-colleague and I met with the school’s regents and the theological ignorance among them was so appalling that we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Fortunately, our president was a deeply Christian philosopher-theologian, but he struggled mightily to get the faculty to take faith-learning seriously; many of them openly rebelled against it as a violation of academic freedom. I knew some of them very well and knew that they were cultural relativists.
The idea that the “mind” IS ONLY the “brain” functioning is absolutely contrary to a spiritual-Christian worldview and ought to be contradicted by Christian instructors and educators.