One of the most incredible claims of the Christian faith is that God is love, and in fact, God defines the notion of love. Since love is an expression of an emotional state of being, the science of emotional cognition ought to be of interest to the scientific theologian or the theologian of science. One of the foremost explorers of emotional cognition is Joseph LeDoux. In The Emotional Brain, he outlines the relationship between the cerebral cortex (reason) and the amygdala (emotions). He argues that the evolution of the cross-wiring between these two parts of the human brain promises a time when we can be in full cognitive harmony between our reasoning and emotional cognitions. Emotions are crucial for the possibility of joy and pleasure. This means that moral and religious cognition demands some understanding of the evolution of emotional consciousness in the human brain. The 10,000,000,000 neurons in a typical human brain can accomplish a lot of incredible feats, but none as amazing as the creation of emotional cognition. The biological role of emotions in cognition is the subject of LeDoux’s study. He also notes that synaptic changes physically modify the neurons as it creates memory in the brain. He cites Gerald Edelman’s argument that synapses in the brain (the gaps between brain cells through which neurotransmitters pass on information) compete to stay alive.
This theory of neural selectionism points to the claim that the synaptic experiences of each individual brain prompts it to ‘select’ which synapses to keep and which to let die off. More synapses are made than are kept. The active synapses are kept and connections that are not used are eliminated. Such creation and regression of synapses form the core of neural circuitry formation. If this is correct, then we subliminally select which memory to keep and which emotions to relive. The capacity for belief also draws from our capacity to relive emotional memories. Thus, how we narrate our cultural stories impact our belief-formation processes. This is why ritual and memorialization are crucial aspects of religious life. The very acts of preparation and participation in religious rituals generate new synaptic storage for our emotional intelligence. It also contributes to the quality of our beliefs. Emotions motivate our cognitive processes to select which memories to preserve.
Moral cognition plays an important role alongside emotions in belief-formation. Physical survival in societies depend on the accurate judgment of which authorities to adopt and which to reject. We make judgments on authoritative claims around us every day when we make decisions on what or whom to believe. Moral cognition provides the cognitive adaptation for the adoption of authority - the capacity and the will to believe another. This is because adoption of authority presumes its veracity when there is no way to verify by our natural senses. We are moral so that we can believe! True belief beyond mere intellectual assent is only possible because we have the capacity for moral cognition. It is the cognitive capacity to adopt the authority of another that both permits and demands moral cognition. Trust is an element in belief by which adoptive authority drives our behavior. Shift of belief (trust) from God to the serpent recorded in the Garden of Eden account, suggests the imperative of moral cognition to sustain a status of belief (adoptive authority). In summary, religious belief formation requires the capacity to harness the power of emotional intelligence to select memories alongside the moral cognition to select which authorities to adopt. Let us trace the biological evolution of the mind by tracing the evolution of the brain as it evolves moral cognition.
In the biological evolution of multicellular organisms, increased sentience gave advantage for creatures of high mobility. This came at a cost, the increased exposure and capacity to register pain and suffering. While pain receptors are adaptive features to increase survival prospects, it also paralyzes mobility when relief is not reached in time. This created motivation to avoid pain and suffering by escaping the source of it. The capacity to do so marks the facility of judgment, an exercise that utilizes emotional intelligence and the free will. This free will may be seen to seek personal advantage. However, we observe in nature that altruistic behavior exists. How can we account for this? A theory of moral cognition is called for. Judgment takes place in a context of comparative assessments. At this point, biological assessment meets ethical judgment. The capacity for ethics emerges. An agent with free will, judges to seek advantage or justice. This notion of justice has to be a universal concept- everyone has to agree that they can recognize it when they encounter it.
In Homo sapiens, the significant increase in brain size yields sufficient complexity that is necessary for a strong emergence. The result is sufficient synaptic connections for the development of symbolic language, cognitive fluidity, and emotional intelligence. We find in the biological emergence of emotional intelligence, an adaptive feature that evolved to apprehend the moral notion of justice.
While the above flowchart does not demonstrate the existence of God or even the philosophical coherence of religion, my goal is more modest.
Cognitive neuroscience has established that with the existence of emotional intelligence, we have reached the boundaries of what biology and indeed, the natural sciences can explain about the uniqueness of human consciousness. That we alone among life on earth possess the persistent trait of religious and moral cognition that displays itself most dramatically in the ritual of true altruism, not disguised kin-selection or other sophisticated adaptation for survival.
I propose that while biological inference can explain the limited circumstances when judgment leads to advantage for survival, altruism marks the response to divine justice that only a theological approach can adequately explain. The task before the interdisciplinarian of science and theology is to find the point of convergence and a method to forge an interdisciplinary framework. Since science is a self-limiting reasoning strategy, it is up to a re-imagining of the theological boundaries that holds the promise for a full scientific engagement.
If the moral mind consists of the freedom to veto volitions generated by biological possibilities of action, does this diminish the theological demands of what it means to have free will? I think not. Most animal actions are instinctive - they are generated subconsciously and are response mechanisms. If most animal actions were reflective, they would take too long to generate and would be unhelpful under emergency conditions.
We were made to evolve moral cognition so that we too can receive and give love, but most of all, so that we can possess the capacity for religious belief.
It appears that science cannot explain why we believe in morality or in God. We may conclude that there is indeed belief beyond biology!
NEUROSCIENCE & THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
This 21st century has been hailed as the century of the mind. Brain/Mind syudies is now the hottest subject inboth science and philosophy. I hope to persuade you that it ought to also be the hottest subject in Christian theology.
In the last 50 years, the various fields of inquiry dealing with the physical brain and its expression as the mind, has begun to converge. Disparate fields such as cognitive psychology, molecular biology, neurobiology, moral philosophy, consciousness studies and philosophy of mind, to note a few, have found themselves trampling on each other’s sacred ground. Advances in PET and fMRI technology have emboldened experimentalists to make inferences and predictions that impact our understanding of human behavior. For the first time, we are able to ‘look’ inside a living brain while it is thinking and make some crude but valuable measurements about its workings, principally its consumption rates of sugar and oxygen. Using false color imaging, we can locate areas of neuronal activity in real time. These exciting advances in technology demand equally exacting theories of science to interpret what we observe to convert knowledge into understanding. Here lies our Achilles’ heel. We are always far better at acquiring information than we are at interpreting them. This has been historically true of the revealed religions of the world. In the Christian faith, the early founders pass on what they claim to be divine revelation encoded in texts of human language. While its preservation has mostly been successful, great debates continue to rage over its precise interpretation. Thus we find in both the science of mind (neuroscience) and theological reflection of the Bible, the imperative of epistemic hermeneutics. We are concerned with making sense of what we know so that we can achieve understanding.
In this series of Neuroscience & Theology (NST) seminars, we shall explore various topics in which our increasing knowledge about how our brain works (or rather, how it may seem to work) may offer correctives to our best interpretations of what it means to be human (made in the image of God). This is not a quest for a scientific account of the Bible nor is it a theological account of neuroscience. Rather, it is an attempt to seek a convergence of understanding who we are in the light of the Christian Bible aided by responsible study of the scriptures, critical theological and philosophical reflection, and assessment of scientific inferences drawn from experimental and theoretical work in the sciences of the brain. The primary field of inquiry is theological in nature and is purpose is to achieve a better understanding of our relationship to our creator.
Central to the Christian doctrine of humanity is the claim that we were made in the image of God. Theologians have long included among the many meanings of this, the possession of moral consciousness. It is the existence and function of morality that is at the heart of the conversation between the neurosciences and theology. The method of analysis we shall follow assumes that both the modern sciences and reflective theology are different but not incompatible sources of knowledge about reality. This means that a quest to understand the human nature and our sense of morality ought to consider both what the Bible teaches about why we think as we do and what the modern sciences infer about how we think as we do.
Although theology is concerned with truth claims received by faith as true, its implications engage the world of the sciences and medical therapy. (1) Similarly, although both the basic and the social sciences are limited to explaining the biological and psychological mechanics of how moral behavior plays out, such explanations often veer towards making theological statements. (2) It is therefore important for both science and theology to be open to mutual correction when necessary, for theological reflection itself relies on the art and science of interpretation based on our reasoning strategies, which themselves are shaped by our prior understanding, control beliefs, and adoptive authorities.
Thus we note that philosophy, religion and the sciences are inextricably intertwined. Indeed, what we now call philosophy used to be called metaphysics; religion used to be under the rubric of moral philosophy; and modern science used to be called natural philosophy. In fact, no academic discipline is truly free from theological implications and no theological doctrine is free from engagement with every human sphere of cultural influence. This series of lectures seeks to examine some of the theological implications of philosophy and science as commonly misunderstood by some proponents who commit the Aristotelian ‘category mistake’ of mixing methodologies. The lesson to learn is that a responsible apologetic theology must account for the provisional but influential findings of contemporary religious philosophies and the natural sciences. This is the central concern of the Academy for Christian Thought as we minister both to those outside and inside the Church by offering a theological safe space (TSS).
Among the many issues raised by the ‘new science of mind’, as the Nobelist Eric Kandel calls it, are the characteristics of the human mind that mark us off as human:
the existence of a universal morality (3).
the reality and nature of free-will (4 ,
the location and nature of consciousness (5),
the structure and function of memory (6),
the role of experience in perception and reasoning (7),
the implications of emotions such as fear and love (8),
the process by which we make judgments (9), and
In the first of this series, we shall consider the existence of a universal morality, or a universal moral grammar, as Marc Hauser (10) calls it.
[I shall post abstacts of future chapters soon, stay tuned]
(1) What Christians think of the body and its destiny after physical death influences how they relate to scientific and medical assistance. If a Christian believes that physiological healing can only come about through prayer and non-human intervention, she will reject medical help. If a theological doctrine claims that the human body cannot be resurrected properly if any organ is missing, he will not wish to donate his organs after he dies. Some misinformed Christians reject blood transfusion or pharmacological treatment because they are deemed evidence of lacking in faith. A strong rejection of biological evolution may lead a Christian to consider denying standard scientific education to their children in favor of Creationist Christian education. Expectation of miracles defined as the suspension of physical laws of nature might lead a Christian to expect divine intervention as God’s answer to her prayers, often leading to deep disappointment or a distorted view of one’s rightful relationship with God.
(2) One example is the eminent cognitive neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga’s The Ethical Brain. This is ostensibly a survey of the intersection between science and ethics. Not surprisingly, it culminates with describing morality as a social glue that served as an adaptive advantage for survival in social animals. In buttressing his claims, Gazzaniga felt obliged to explain away the preponderance of religious belief. Describing the left-hemisphere interpreter function of the temporal lobe in our brain, he suggested that a disorder called temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). He concludes that religiosity may have an organic basis, and names Moses, Socrates, the Buddha, St. Paul, the prophet Muhammad PBUM, Joan of Arc and Isaac Newton may have had TLE. What is his source of this knowledge? He claims that “evidence found by some historians that certain religious leaders might have TLE” inform his postulate (158) but he strangely omits to footnote any documentary source. He invokes Norman Geschwind’s observation of personality changes in TLE patients and Andrew Newberg’s bold neurotheology hypothesis to support his own view that we can identify neural correlates of religious experience (159-160). Gazzaniga’s conclusions effectively makes the theological claim that religious belief is the outcome of brain disorder coupled with the psychological demands for good survival strategies. He writes that “It is not a good idea to kill because it is not a good idea to kill, not because god or Allah or Buddha said it was not a good idea to kill.” (165). While this charming statement is surely correct, it suffers from providing no biological advantage short of a universal moral command. Today, we sense that it must surely be right not to kill only because we as a species have been universally inculcated by religious beliefs. His belief that killing is wrong cannot be demonstrated to have arisen from any non-religious influence. This means that even Michael Gazzaniga cannot escape his own baptism into religiosity and moral consciousness as an American, so that his own disavowal of religious moral consciousness and claim to objective distance must be suspect.
(3) Is human morality independent of human biochemistry? Why are we moral? Is it sinful to be immoral? Is sinfulness a sign of guilt or a mark of evolutionary capacities taking the path of least resistance.
(4) Do we actually have free will or are we slaves of our biological bodies? Does evolutionary psychology explain our preferences and therefore, explain away the religiosity of humans? Is there a God gene?
(5) What is it and where is it location in the brain? We still do not know.
(6) Can memory loss or false memory alter our personality to the detriment of our beliefs in and about God? Can memory be regained after dementia? How reliable is human memory and hence, recollection of eyewitness testimony?
(7) How do the composite sensational registrations of stimuli direct our perception of reality and shape what we deem as rational and reasonable?
(8) Do our beliefs shape our emotions or do our emotions condition what we believe? The emotions of fear and love are the most powerful for shaping our beliefs. What happens when our emotions betray us and do not reflect reality?
(9) By what criteria do we judge a proposition to be reasonable or true? How do we judge our judgments?
(10) Marc D. Hauser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, (New York: HarperCollins. 2006).
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