Wednesday, October 31, 2007

NeuroScience And Christianity (I)

By Ron Choong: This 21st century has been hailed as the century of the mind. Brain/Mind studies are now the hottest subjects in both 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 abstracts of future chapters soon, stay tuned

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