SPIRITUALITY: EMBEDDED AND EMBODIED
Malcolm Jeeves & Warren S. Brown, authors of “Neuroscience Psychology and Religion,” remark in their book. We all have this strong intuition: “I” am an immaterial “thing.” We each experience “self” or “mind” separate from the body but inhabiting the body. My intuition is confirmed every day by my friends who share my views—they presume that I have hidden within me a “mind” with intentions, thoughts, and ideas not readily apparent in my behavior. It has also been confirmed by millions of people who have lived down through the ages, some of them the greatest thinkers the world has known. However, this intuition of ours and this intuition that we share with so many others could be wrong. It could be that the mind is “embodied”.
In modern times, the relationship between the mind and the brain is discussed, and many new research findings have shown that the so-called mind is not something that transcends the brain, but rather that the “mind is embodied. The claim that the mind is embodied is not an unacceptable theological notion, but rather is being recognized as an idea with many possibilities for the future.
Fifty years into the “cognitive revolution,” we are still asking questions that arose in centuries past: How do we define the “soul” today? Does this parallel the way we now talk about the mind? What does this say about the fundamental nature of human beings? Are we an aggregate of different parts glued together in some ill-defined way—a soul stuck to a body or to a brain—or are we a psychosomatic unity?
# The “cognitive revolution” is the general term for the intellectual movement that began in the 1950s and gave birth to the various disciplines known as cognitive science.
In the West, the belief endures that we have an immaterial immortal soul that is somehow and somewhere attached to our body. Many Christians believe that this is what the Bible teaches. However, as we noted, leading biblical scholars are opening the way for believers to hold a different “embodied” interpretation of the soul. In this book, we have argued that, by taking a new view of the soul, there is no necessary conflict between a biblical portrait of human nature, which emphasizes the unity of the human person, and a neuropsychological view of the relationship of mind and brain.
For most of human history, we have cherished the idea that there is a separate immaterial part of each of us—a mind or a soul—that must live somewhere within our body. That has gradually changed with the advent of scientific approaches to mind-body relations. We now view the mind as a functional property of the brain, not “something located somewhere.” The mind is a firmly embodied process within the brain, rather like the program that runs within a computer. However, can the same sort of embodiment be presumed for what we traditionally call the soul?
Debates between the localists and globalists have continued well into the twentiy-first century. Some neuroscientists today explore examples of tightly constrained local functions in the brain. Others probe the concept of neural networks and parallel distributed processing. They emphasize the unbelievably complex interconnections and interactions between adjacent and distant parts of the brain. In either case, the older belief that mind is separate from the brain has been completely overturned. Today, we recognize the links between brain events and mind events. What is more, data are rapidly accumulating that support a link between brain and personality, including social and ethical behavior.
Though not without occasional challenges, a general encephalic view became widely accepted. The search now became one of finding out where the mind operated inside the brain. There were just two options: either the mind functioned in specific spots, or it functioned across the entire territory of the brain. This continues to be the great debate in neuroscience. After all, history repeats itself.
Different forms of religious experience, it seems, arise from different parts of the brain. In sum, there is no single brain area where greater or lesser activity is necessary and sufficient to produce what people would take to be a religious experience.
Brain imaging uses noninvasive techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (f MRI). While MRIs provide pictures of the anatomical structure of a person’s brain, PET and fMRI make it possible to monitor regions of the brain that are more or less active while a person is engaged in specific mental tasks. The newest technique is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which can temporarily disable regions of the cortex without damage to brain structure. In that sense, its effect is “reversible.” The TMS magnetic coil is placed on the outside of the skull so that its magnetic field can simply target (turn off) different cortical areas.
These changes in brain activity, as found in imaging studies, are not unique to a religious experience. The mind may certainly interpret the activity in these more general neural systems as a kind of religious state, colored by the religious context of the experience and the personal history of the individual. An important conclusion can be drawn from the above. In the view of the authors of “Neuroscience Psychology and Religion,” it is impossible to reduce religion to a basic form of cognitive activity in the brain, unlike language function, which has clearly identifiable neural systems and structures in the brain. Different forms of religious experience, it seems, arise from different parts of the brain. In sum, there is no single brain area where greater or lesser activity is necessary and sufficient to produce what people would take to be a religious experience. This is because everyday life and religion, rather than being completely separate, overlap in many areas.
Ian Graeme Barbour, American physicist and theologian, author of “When science meets religion,” to which I refer in this article, makes the following statement in this book. The biblical assertion that humanity is created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27) has sometimes been taken to refer to particular human traits, such as rationality, free will, spirituality, and moral responsibility, that distinguish us from other creatures.
An alternative view in the history of Judaism and Christianity has been that the Imago Dei refers to the relation of human beings to God and indicates their potential for reflecting God’s purposes for the world. Human creativity can be seen as an expression of divine creativity. If “Imago Dei” refers to the human relationship to God, then we humans can make it the subject of scientific research. The “Imago Dei” here does not refer to a literal bipedal walking figure, but rather to consciousness and reason.
Malcolm Jeeves & Warren S. Brown, authors of “Neuroscience Psychology and Religion,” remark in their book. While body/soul dualism is the most prevalent view of human nature within historical Christianity, this view comes less from biblical sources than from a line of philosophical theories that can be traced from Plato to Saint Augustine to René Descartes. Descartes is most responsible for solidifying this dualist position into a strong categorical body/mind (or body/soul) distinction. Despite his dualism, Descartes was mostly a physicalist.
Descartes did not believe that the body was inhabited by many souls, or nonmaterial forces, that controlled bodily functions, as was commonly believed in his time. Rather, he believed that bodily functions were best understood as a physical “machine.” He presumed that the functioning of animals did not transcend these mechanisms. The problem for Descartes was figuring out how such a biological mechanism could result in human reason. He solved this problem by retaining one soul—the rational mind. Thus, humans were considered to be different from animals in having a rational soul that was immaterial and interacted with the physical body through the pineal gland.
It is reasonable to speculate that Descartes would probably have seen rationality as embodied in brain function if he had had the modern data of neuroscience. He would have been able to see (1) mind/brain links, (2) the overlap of some cognitive capacity between humans and other primates, and (3) the neural embodiment of religious experiences and moral decision making. But it was probably impossible for Descartes to imagine such a unitary (physicalist) view of human nature because this sophisticated knowledge was not yet available.