Friday, November 05, 2010

Are we more than our brains?

Last month we began a series on Nancey Murphy's book Bodies and Soul, or Spirited Bodies. This month I want to consider a point she makes in chapter two. The gist of the chapter is that previously unexplained aspects of humans, such as emotion, consciousness, memory, and the will, which historically were attributed to the soul have been explained by science. The idea of the “soul”doesn't come from the Hebrew Scriptures but developed as a way to explain things about us that the science of the time couldn't explain.

Now, thanks to modern neuroscience,we have other ways to understand things like emotion, consciousness and memory. Of course we don't have complete explanations for all of these. There is still plenty of really interesting work to be done. The “hard problem” for neuroscience these days is understanding how consciousness comes from brain activity. They are certainly correlated. Without brain activity we are not conscious. And consciousness appears to require an brain. But how the brain and consciousness are “connected” is still essentially unknown.

Murphy claims biblical studies and neuroscience “are both pointing in the same direction: toward a physicalist account of the person. Humans are not hybrids of matter and something else, they are purely physical organisms” (69)

She is quick to make clear that she is not claiming we are “nothing but” brain processes. Because the soul has been used to explain human rationality, morality and religion some say if there is no soul then humans are not rational, moral or religious. What we thought was morality, rationality and religion are nothing but brain processes.

Murphy wants to develop a different position.
The nonreductive physicalist says instead that if there is no soul then
these higher human capacities must be explained in a different manner. In part they are explainable as brain functions, but their full explanation requires attention to human social relations, to cultural factors, and, most importantly, to our relationship with God.

So take a particular human event- my writing this sentence, for example. Is what is going on in my brain right now an adequate explanation? Clearly not. Part of the explanation is the fact that I care about sharing my ideas with my readers. Why do I care about writing this book and doing it well? Part of the answer is that I recognized some years ago that I had a call from God to use my philosophical education for the
sake of the church. So a complete explanation involves interactions with
other people and the action of God in my life. (p 70)

It seems to me this is a difficult idea for westerners perhaps especially Americans who pride ourselves on individualism.

We know we are shaped by our family and cultures. But most of us harbor an idea that as individuals we can, if needed, overcome those forces. We all love a success story of someone thriving in spite of a dysfunctional family or overcoming social barriers. Of course those stories exist, but we often neglect to account for other cultural and relational forces which helped the person succeed. We love the "rugged individualist", the "self made man", the "I did it my way" stories.

But if Murphy is right, none of us are quite the individual entity we think we are. Non reductive physicalism, in addition to inviting us to reassess what it means to be an individual human, may also cause us to rethink what it means to be a human in community.

How might that change the way we read Scripture? How might that change the way we are the church?

I'm at the Princeton Conference on Emerging Adults this weekend and likely won't check for comments too frequently... but I will check eventually. Thanks for your patience. If you're at the conference, look me up and we can chat.


Doug Hagler said...

I think that when people say "energy" when describing what the NT would call "spirit". Similarly, I think that when we say "soul" what we mean is "emergent properties of conscious life". It isn't a floaty ghost that follows us around and detaches at death. It emerges out of conscious life, perhaps similar to how "mind" emerges out of brain (and hormonal, etc.) activity.

I really like the term "nonreductive physicalist". I've found that position (basically sounds like the one I hold) a hard one to name, but I think that works. Everything is here and now, but not everything is reducible. Score.

Muhammad said...

Doug,Your views don't sound any different then an atheist.
SUrely there are spirits.
Imagine for a minute,Did human find all the kinds of birds,or mamals or fish or germs as we speak.No answer is no.There are such plants that human being has not seen even.Similarly there are spsirits.
I suggest you read Quran also.