Souls, Brains and People: Who or what are we?
By Gareth D. Jones
In 1980 IVP published my book Our Fragile Brains, aimed at presenting a Christian perspective on brain research. In this I touched on the relationship of the soul to the brain and argued for a unitary vision of a human being and against any compartmentalized view. More explicitly I wrote: “The principle repercussion of the biblical view is a discarding of the Greek idea of an “immortal soul.” What is stressed is not the immortality of the soul (and dissolution of the body) at death, but the Christian hope that God will reconstitute the whole person.” (p274) At the time one of the reviewers of the book seriously wondered whether I could possibly be a Christian. Strange as this riposte was to me, it should not be totally unexpected. After all, no less a giant among theologians than John Calvin, appeared to argue that the soul is an ‘incorporeal substance’ that is an immortal, yet created essence, which is the person’s nobler part.” (Calvin Institutes 1, 15, 2). This dualist anthropology and the existence of an intermediate state after death were enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646, XXXII). Here we read: “The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them . . . . “
Contemporary evangelical worship does not shy away from the soul, utilizing this concept as much as, if not more than, traditional hymns. In some instances, the words are based on psalms such as ‘Lord I lift up to you my soul’ (Psalm 25), while some are hymns dating from the 19th century, such as: ‘It is well with my soul’ (1876). Others, however, are far more recent. Think of: ‘I love you, Lord, And I lift my voice, To worship You Oh, my soul, rejoice!’ (1978); ‘Awake my soul God, resurrect these bones’ (2013); ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul O my soul, Worship His holy name, Sing like never before O my soul, I’ll worship Your holy name’ (2012). There are even ‘Christian worship songs for the soul.’ It is far from clear what those singing these songs mean by the soul and whether or not they are dualists, but of one thing you can be certain, they have little idea of the relationship between the ‘soul’ and the brain.
If this is correct, it forces us to ask how our worship reflects contemporary thought forms, both within and outside the church. What connection does it have with our lives as 21st century Christians? To ignore the significance of our brains in making us what we are is to court intellectual and, I would suggest, even spiritual disaster. It is a massive failure in science-faith dialogue, since it ignores what is known about the brain and the relationship of the brain to what we are as persons. These are not idle theoretical ruminations, but have intensely practical outcomes.
As a neuroscientist by training, I have no doubt about the centrality of the brain for so much of what makes us human. This immediately sets me on a collision course with those commentators whose starting point is the duality of body and soul. I am using my scientific expertise to throw light on biblical teaching and theological thinking. This is far from unique, since we readily accept that an understanding of the functioning of the gastro-intestinal tract, the liver or the kidneys is vital for an appreciation of numerous aspects of health and disease. Mental health is no different.
The fear expressed by Christians is that the person will be reduced to a material organ, the brain, with its neurons, synapses, neuronal networks, fibre tracts and specialized brain regions. This is reductionism writ large, as epitomized by Francis Crick’s famous aphorism that all human joys, sorrows, memories, ambitions, sense of personal identity and free will are nothing more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. In similar vein, neuroscientist Dick Swaab, argues that “Everything we think, do and refrain from doing is determined by our brain. From religion to sexuality, it shapes our potential, our desires and our characteristics.”
While I have some sympathy with these assertions, they do not lead inevitably to determinism. And yet the attractions of dualism are obvious. Why not allow the material brain its role, but ensure that it is balanced by a non-material soul or mind? Theologians and philosophers have debated these issues ad nauseam, leading to a plethora of perspectives, such as substance dualism, holistic dualism, emergent dualism, and nonreductive dualism (physicalism).
One neuroscientist who stood out against the crowd was Nobel-laureate and Roman Catholic, Sir John Eccles who, in the late 1970s (in conjunction with philosopher Karl Popper), defended human dignity and meaning on the basis of an explicit dualism between the self and the brain. For him, the self-conscious mind acts on neural centres in the brain thereby modifying the dynamic spatio-temporal patterns of neural events, especially in the neocortex. The fundamental problem for this form of dualism is the feasibility of one sort of substance acting on another sort of substance. Even postulating such an interaction takes one beyond the legitimate boundaries of scientific investigation.
As an evangelical neuroscientist Donald MacKay provided an alternative perspective: comprehensive realism. Although human beings are an indivisible whole, they can be described in two different ways: the I-story (Inside story) and the O-story (Outside story; also referred to as the brain-story). These correspond to what we know as conscious agents (Inside story) and how we can be described in terms of our brains (Outside story). Both are equally real aspects of what makes us what we are, complementing one another and each needing to be taken seriously in its own right.
For MacKay these two stories point to a duality of aspects rather than of substances. Consequently, there are no rational grounds for thinking that the material aspect is more ‘real’ than the mental. He was adamant that Christian perspectives start from the dependence of physical events on God leading to a positive incentive for Christians to take seriously the physical aspect of human nature, including the brain and neural events. His emphasis on the primacy of consciousness (I-story) and brain activity (O-story) is in stark contrast to Crick’s view of the ‘I’ story solely in terms of neural activity.
After surveying the neuroscientific and theological literature, psychologist Malcolm Jeeves concluded that the primary ground with which we have to deal is not mind or matter, but self-conscious human agency. This does not provide any simple solution to the dualism/monism dialectic, but it warns us against advocating any extreme form of dualism.
It appears, therefore, that when serious attention is paid to neuroscience, there is no escape from incorporating it into a view of personhood. However, neuroscience by itself is not the only or even the determinative factor in moving in this direction. In his assessment of what it means to be human, theologian Joel Green argues that the Genesis narrative does not provide a “basis for the existence of an ontologically distinctive entity known as the “soul” […] nor with the identification of a person’s true “self” with such an entity”. For him both theology and neuroscience highlight the embodiedness and relationality of human beings. There have to be neurobiological correlates of all our actions, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs – from prayer to love, from forgiveness to hope. Being created anew in Christ (2 Cor. 5:16-17) will be accompanied by neural changes underlying profound differences in all that we are becoming. The neural repercussions of growth in holiness and increasing spiritual maturity will, in turn, make possible ongoing changes in both brain and behavior.
While a scientific study of the nervous system will not by itself tell us all we want to know about people and their functioning, a barely functioning brain or a severely damaged one will have major consequences for the individual and their relationships. Extreme damage to the brain demonstrates that there is an intimate relationship between the brain and the person, even if this is not the whole story. We are embodied persons rather than brains ensheathed in bodies. This embodied persons idea sits far more comfortably with the Christian claim that we are created in the image of God. Nevertheless, we have moved a great distance from an immaterial soul, an idea that continues to be ardently advocated in some Christian circles.
For Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy, the New Testament writers attest that humans are psychophysical unities and that the Christian hope for eternal life depends on the reality of bodily resurrection and not on the ongoing existence of an immortal soul. Additionally, what is central to human existence is the network of relationships with others and also with God. However, she does not consider that study of the biblical writers leads definitively to either physicalism or dualism. For Murphy a satisfactory resolution lies in what she calls ‘nonreductive physicalism’. The complexity depicted in this conclusion is to be expected. The centrality of a material brain is to be viewed within the context of human social relations, cultural factors and most importantly God’s action in the lives of human beings.
There is much we do not understand and will not understand, no matter what position we adopt. However, this does not allow us to use concepts and terms we have never questioned and that are foreign to the culture within which we live. As we grapple with the mysteries of the brain we may realize there are depths of understanding here that help us to interpret the expectations Jesus had of how his followers were to think and act.
What might this mean in practice? When challenged by the Pharisees over the failure of the disciples to wash their hands before meals, Jesus rebuked them for their hypocrisy since they were merely paying lip service in their worship. In reply he stated: “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 14: 10-11). His explanation was that “whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer. But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles” (vv 17-18). While it is clear what Jesus was getting at, these are the thought forms of his time and not ours. For me the impact is far greater if we think in terms of the effects on our brains of what we see and hear. The organization of our brains is altered by what we see and hear, thereby influencing our responses and attitudes, our likes and dislikes, our priorities and preferences. What we are and what we are becoming have a neural basis. If we took this more seriously, we would be far more careful about what books we read, what films we watch, what activities we participate in (including online activities), because all these influence our brains and have ongoing repercussions – for good and for ill. In other words, growth in grace (or lack of it) is reflected in modifications to our brains that, in turn, influence how we will live in future. Jesus might have said “whatever comes out of the mouth proceeds from the brain, and this is what defiles.”
Gareth Jones is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He trained as a neuroscientist, but has also written widely in the field of bioethics especially in relation to the human body.
Gareth served as Head of the Anatomy Department for many years, since which he has served as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) and Director of the Bioethics Centre. He currently consults in a number of areas in the University, mainly over leadership issues.
Gareth has written widely in academic circles in neuroscience, bioethics and anatomical education, and for a general readership on the interrelationship of Christian faith and science. His books include: Speaking for the Dead: The Human Body in Biology and Medicine (Ashgate 2009), and Peril and Promise of Medical Technology (Peter Lang 2013).