Accommodating Science: Neurobiology and the mind 1

[This is part of the as yet unfinished section of the “Which Science? chapter.]

The argument over evolution versus intelligent design … is a relatively small-stakes theological issue compared with the potential eruption in neuroscience over the material nature of the mind. Siding with evolution does not really pose a serious problem for many deeply religious people, because one can easily accept evolution without doubting the existence of a non-material being. (Kosik 2006)

It has always been the opinion of western religion that a person is responsible for their own actions. So when Marshall Hall in the 1830s tried to demonstrate an involuntary action, in the form of what is now called the “reflex arc”, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, it was considered by some on the Council that this was too radical an idea, despite similar proposals having been published in France (Manuel 1996). In particular, Peter Mark Roget, author of the famous Thesaurus, and an author of one of the Bridgewater Treatises, was secretary to the Society, and seems to have held animosity against Hall. His ideas were later published by the newly formed British Association. After his death, he was lauded for having discovered that some reaction of organisms was due neither to the operations of a soul, nor in response to sensory stimulation (Manuel 1980).

It might be thought that this is a great case of religious sensibilities interfering with science, but in fact Hall was a Christian of some piety, and was discriminated against for a position as a result. The objection to the idea of an involuntary reflex was in fact a widely-held view that people act only when they are moved to do so by their inner nature. We might call this “secular Calvinism”, a very judgemental attitude often shared by members of the medical profession, that patients are responsible for their illnesses, whether through insufficient self-care, or through some internal flaw of character.

Science since Hall has added natural mechanism upon natural mechanism to the explanation of human behaviour, to the point where some philosophers are doubting the existence of any kind of freely chosen action at all. This is called the “free will” or “determinism” debate. It arises out of theological debates about God’s foreknowledge and our moral culpability: Luther denied the will was free, and Calvin agreed. But the determination was made by God, not natural law.

In 1848, an unfortunate fellow by the the name of Phineas Gage was tamping, that is, compressing, dynamite in a hole for blasting for the railroad being built in Vermont. It exploded, sending the seven foot long tamping rod through his cheek and up through the top of his head. Gage survived without apparent mental damage, but his personality changed. Prior to the accident he had been a sober and righteous man with great care for his money and no tendency to swear. Afterwards he was careless with money, given to fits of anger, swearing and occasional violence. To us it is obvious he suffered brain damage, but to his contemporaries, this was shocking. How could a physical cause affect someone’s personality, which was held to be a moral entity, not a physical one? Gage’s experience made it obvious that the brain made the personality, and moreover, that it determined how we behaved. [1]  A school of psychology known as “behaviorism” arose, in which it was felt that the inner workings of the mind mattered little – mind was all about its behaviour.

All this raised red flags for the religious. Most western religion was founded upon the idea that what you did was your fault or virtue, and that you chose to be the way you were; that is, you might have chosen differently. Echoes of this attitude can be found in the view that drug addiction or homosexuality are a “lifestyle choice”. The alternative, that people are what they are innately or by their physical nature, was unacceptable. It would have meant that choices are not culpable, that you cannot blame the perpetrator of a moral wrong for their action.

Behaviourism eventually gave way to a more sensible approach, in which what happens inside one’s mind affects actions as much as a stimulus and response reflex. And real progress was occurring in neurobiology. The ways in which brains work, from the very small level of how one neuron signals the next, through to the large scale in which certain regions of the brain are seen to be critical for thinking, feeling and perceiving, were uncovered and refined. It now looked as if science allowed no room whatsoever for moral responsibility (Damasio 2005).

Neuroscience doesn’t usually make the mistake often made by science journalists: your behaviour is not explained by your genes. Instead, as all biologists know, your genes provide an influence upon how you develop in a given environment. You may have the “gene for” a particular mental illness, but never be exposed to the environmental conditions of stress, poor nutrition, or lack of social support which will issue forth in that illness. Genes dispose you to respond to environments in particular ways, but the environments are just as crucial for those ways as the genes.

What genetic underpinnings do with the brain and therefore the mind, is they set up your dispositions: that is, the ways you are likely to respond to environmental cues. If you have the right dispositions then in the right context you may become a creative person (but the avenue for your creativity is going to be socially determined), or an intellectual (but whether or not you become a theologian or a scientist will depend also upon what social context you grow up in), and so on.

That this is problematic for theology should be obvious. Islam, Christianity and Judaism all rely upon moral culpability as the foundation for their religious duties and rituals. And all societies, no matter the religion upon which they are based, punish those who break the moral and cultural rules. Punishment, it may be thought, supposes that one has a choice to break of keep those rules.

Genetic determinism was for a long time the scientific equivalent of Nazism. In fact, those who argued for it were literally called fascists or nazis (Segerstråle 2000). So there is a strong political element to the results of neuroscience. Is there a religious element? It seems to me that religious criticisms of neuroscience are embedded in a wider objection to determinism in science. In order to make room for “spirit” or “soul”, religious thinkers are obliged to reject the idea that we are determined by genes, the nature of our body, and our environment. And not only religious thinkers reject this: it is the default opinion in philosophy that some aspects of mind are not reducible to the biophysical. Even if it is only intension (the “aboutness” of sentences) or qualia (the what-it-is-like to be me, or a bat, or seeing blue), most philosophers think there is a problem with a simple physical account of nature and of mind.

But the fact remains that over the past 180 years since Hall, we have explained more and more about our minds in terms of our neural bodies. And mind, like the explanatory God of natural theology, is increasingly to be found in the gaps of what we have not yet explained physically. But this is not a religious problem as much as it is a problem for the late western dualist metaphysics that is contingently that of religion. This is a bit of a novel claim, so let me explain.

It is often said that dualism – the mind-body dichotomy of Descartes – is the “default” view of humans, but in fact I believe the default view is that humans are just bodies. The dualism of Descartes was the result of the adoption of Augustinian neo-Platonic metaphysics. Before this dualism was made famous by Plato, in the ancient world (the Mediterranean and surrounding areas) defaulted to the view that when you died, your shade was not you, because it had no life, and that it was just a shadow of the real you. In the Hebrew tradition preserved in Ezekiel, the sixth century BCE prophet, resurrection was a bodily thing:

With the hand of Adonai upon me, Adonai carried me out by his Spirit and set me down in the middle of the valley, and it was full of bones. He had me pass by all around them — there were so many bones lying in the valley, and they were so dry! He asked me, “Human being, can these bones live?” I answered, “Adonai Elohim! Only you know that!” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones! Say to them, ‘Dry bones! Hear what Adonai has to say! To these bones Adonai Elohim says, “I will make breath enter you, and you will live. I will attach ligaments to you, make flesh grow on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you. You will live, and you will know that I am Adonai.” [Ezekiel 37:1–6, Complete Jewish Bible]

Although this is a metaphor for the situation of Israel, it indicates how living things were bodies with breath (ruach), and this included human beings. The notion of ruach has been interpreted by later Christian and some Platonist Judaic theologians as being “spirit” or “soul”, but this is not the case: instead it is the motivating force of living things, akin more to Aristotle’s notion of psuche than to Aquinas’ notion of a soul. [2]

Prior to certain dualistic religions like Christianity, some forms of Buddhism, Hinduism and their offshoots, the default assumption, and a very reasonable one it is too, is that we are just bodies. To be sure, we are bodies with special properties, but we are physical things. Most folk magic relies on this: we have certain substances that make us ill or evil, which can be removed with the appropriate techniques.

So the notion that we are brains in bodies, and nothing much else, while it provides a real problem for theologians, is not exactly new. How theologians deal with it depends on the theological metaphysics they are committed to. Some argue that in addition to the human physical structure, there is also a “soul” that is not physical – this is official Catholic doctrine. Others argue that though we may be physical, we still have moral properties that are not physical. Still others wander off into “humans are co-creators of the universe” territory (see Barbour 2000: for details of these moves).

The physical nature of the mind is perhaps the greatest challenge by science to the “manifest image” of ordinary thought. It is not helpful that many authors claim that “mind is an illusion” or “there is no self” when reporting these results in popular science. If there is anything like a self, and there is, then it is something made not from a single simple substance, but from multiple less complex parts – modules, as they are sometimes called – in the brain. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; just that we understand it better. If there is no homunculus sitting in my head directing things, it doesn’t therefore mean I am not a unity or behave in a deliberate fashion. It means that older metaphor was wrong. I think, and I am; the rest is detail.

But this is not comfortable for many religious believers. The manifest image is taken to be the truth, as folk ideas are taken by ordinary folk in psychology, physics, biology and history. This is hardly a surprise, but is there something more worrisome, even to elite thinkers in a religion?

Clearly there is. A slew of books under the general rubric of “neurotheology” has been published since the mid-1990s to deal with the results and theories of modern cognitive neuroscience. Some of these are obvious: for instance, the supposed results of Benjamin Libet at the University of California, San Francisco, that we “decide” to take an action long (several hundred milliseconds, which is long to a neuroscientist) after our brain starts the action (Libet 1985; 1999). Theologians who believe in free will find this physiological determinism highly offensive. So do some scientists, however, so this means nothing until we consider why the theologians are objecting.

Libet’s claim is that the readiness potential of the brain begins activating the pathways before any conscious decision is taken. This would imply that what we think is the outcome of consciousness is in fact the cause of consciousness. Assuming what some scientists have challenged, that the timings are correct in his experiments, this would imply many things for the mind, the soul and moral responsibility, let alone a free will. If the person who is the subject of moral choices, survival after death, or possession of a soul is merely (there’s that word again – always beware words like “merely” or “just” in philosophy and science) a brain and nervous system acting according to physical processes like sodium ion exchanges between neurons, this must undercut the entire foundation for religion, so they argue. Hence either religion or science is wrong, and in this case, the religious believer may push for science being at fault.

Only, and remember the lessons we learned from the previous case studies, that seems not to be what those who work on science and religion from within the religions are doing. Instead, they write books which, you guessed it!, seek to reconcile religion with this new science (Alston 2007; Barrett 2007; Joseph 2003; Newberg 2010). Why, it is almost as if the religious traditions know they are on a bad bet if they attack the science and leave eternal verities hostage to the results of empirical research!

Of course there will be, as there are in any possible topic to do with religion, cases which can be seen as rejecting religion, but by and large the response of academic believers is to reconcile.

Let us consider what topics of neuroscience conflict with long-held religious beliefs, and why.


A commonplace statement made within the philosophy of mind is that dualism is the “default” or “native” view about minds. Dualism, of course, is the view that we are a composite of a physical body and a mental but not-physical mind. It is implicit in the Christian doctrine of the soul apart from the body (a view not shared by many Jewish thinkers, as it relies more upon Greek dualism than Hebrew thought), and of course it runs rampant through European intellectual history, due mainly to direct or indirect influences from Plato. It is also implicit within many Vedic and Buddhist writings.

In the seventeenth century, at the beginnings of the scientific revolution, of course, the French mathematician and philosopher, René Descartes suggested that the body was a form of machine, working according to physical laws, but that the mind was something unconstrained by mere mechanical powers. He held that it was separate from the body. Bodies, filled space, minds didn’t. Bodies could be doubted, but one’s own mind could not be (“I think, therefore I am”, as Descartes wrote). Bodies had objective properties only, but minds had subjective first-person perspectives and experiences.

Thus, Descartes’ [Cartesian] dualism became, for a long while, the standard philosophical view in the west, until a form of “materialism” – the view that all that existed was material stuff [3] – of mind was introduced in the nineteenth century. A theory known for a while as “Australian materialism”, which I am justly proud as an Australian was developed in Australia where the heat prevents souls from long surviving, held that the mind was nothing more than the brain itself. This is more generally known now as “monism” or “identity theory”.

The general trend of neuroscientific progress has been to confirm or agree with identity theory. What had been explained by souls and ethereal passions or ideas in the past came more and more to be explained as physiological processes in a physical system or nerves, cells and chemistry. The invention of “functional magnetic resonance imaging”, or fMRI, allowed researchers to increasingly “see” the activity of the brain as it underwent experiences, made decisions, and reasoned. Despite the rather coarse grain of such images (fMRI has been compared to trying to work out the conversations on telephones by measuring the temperatures of the telephone exchanges), it is increasingly hard to deny that the brain is where thinking happens.

This has obvious implications for some, not all, religions. Those modern religions which hold that resurrection or reincarnation involves the survival of the person as a disembodied soul or mind or spirit must find the notion that all the defining characters of those entities can be explained by neurology seriously challenging.

One “solution” might be to do with the mind what the Catholic Church  did with the “substance” of the Host, and “metaphysicalise the mind”. In fact, that is exactly how the Catholic Church dealt with the evolution of the body. Another might be to say that the “soul” is a Hellenistic notion that Abrahamic religions need not appeal to. [4]

As always, when science and religion conflict, religion, not science, adapts. And this rear guard action fought by religion about this new science of the brain is always reactive.


1. Gage most likely did not exhibit the behaviours ascribed to him by his physician, twenty years later, but managed to accommodate his brain injuries through what is called social recovery, in which social influences kept urges in check and helped the patient relearn social skills. But the way his physician described Gage’s experience did affect the common view that behaviour came from the brain. It is not coincidental that the physician, Harlow, was an advocate of phrenology (Macmillan 2010).

2. In Aristotle’s De Anima he explains living things as the result of “soul”, of which there were three kinds: the vegetative, which causes growth from nutrition, the motive, which causes organisms to be able to move, and the mental, in which class only humans exist. Each of these is some kind of force that causes the dynamic behaviour, and there is no hint he thought that they survive death.

3. When fields were introduced into physics, and energy came to be seen as transformations in fields rather than corpuscles or particles, materialism changed to become, by the middle of the twentieth century, physicalism, where all that existed was what physical theories required to exist. However, the term “materialism” survives, especially in theological writings, so it must be understood to be physicalism rather than the view that matter, which fills space, is all there is.

4. The Intelligent Design movement for example, denies dualism, but also denies that one can explain all cognition in physical terms, a position they call “nonreductive physicalism”. In the end this turns out to be Aristotlelian thinking: mind is what is made possible by body, but is more than body in some manner. The point is that this “nonreductive physicalism” has no empirical consequences whatsoever.


Alston, B. C. (2007). What Is Neurotheology?, Createspace Independent Pub.

Barbour, I. G. (2000). When science meets religion: enemies, strangers, or partners? San Francisco, HarperSan Francisco.

Barrett, J. L. (2007). “Is the spell really broken? Bio-psychological explanations of religion and theistic belief.” Theology and Science 5(1): 57 – 72.

Damasio, A. (2005). Descartes’ error : emotion, reason, and the human brain. London, New York, Penguin.

Joseph, R. (2003). NeuroTheology: brain, science, spirituality, religious experience. San Jose, Calif., University Press.

Kosik, K. S. (2006). “Neuroscience gears up for duel on the issue of brain versus deity.” Nature 439(7073): 138-138.

Libet, B. (1985). “Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action.” Behavioral and brain sciences 8(4): 529-566.

Libet, B. (1999). “Do we have free will?” Journal of Consciousness Studies 6(8-9): 47-57.

Manuel, D. E. (1980). “Marshall Hall, F.R.S. (1790-1857): A Conspectus of His Life and Work.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 35(2): 135-166.

Manuel, D. E. (1996). Marshall Hall (1790-1857): Science and Medicine in Early Victorian Society. Atlanta GA, Rodopi.

Newberg, A. B. (2010). Principles of neurotheology. Farnham, Ashgate.

Segerstråle, U. (2000). Defenders of the truth: the sociobiology debate. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

8 thoughts on “Accommodating Science: Neurobiology and the mind 1

  1. A few half-baked thoughts on topics alluded to:


    I’ve long suspected that the standard narrative about behaviourism is not true — that even in its heyday, behaviourists were not as dogmatic as they are made out to be. It seems more likey to me that behaviourism was essentially the result of a young science endeavouring to answer the easy questions first, and identifying the easy questions with those that can be investigated without reference to an internal mind. The good, working behaviourists — as opposed to, perhaps, a few irresponsible popularisers — must have realised all along that excluding the mind from their working model did not exclude it from reality.

    Recall the Terry Pratchett quote about “those old farts in togas” … in modern textbooks, I’ve noticed, behaviourism fills a similar role.


    When I read articles that discuss dualism, I often get the impression that they cheat by sometimes using the term “dualism” in a narrow sense — essentially equivalent to Cartesian dualism — and sometimes in a broad sense — inclusive of aspect dualism as well — switching meanings at will and hoping the reader doesn’t notice.

    Personally, I like to entertain the notion that aspect dualism and physicalism are compatible, but perhaps we should discuss that another time…


    Whatever the historical situation, it is now of course common among Christians to believe that the soul is — like software — an abstraction and not a thing. In this view, the soul is simply the name given to the potentiality for a process to occur: that of having one’s essence transferred from an earthly body to a heavenly body. That was certainly my own view when I was a Christian.


  2. I’m still a behaviourist. Skinner did deny assert that what happened in the brain/mind was irrelevant, but I suspect he didn’t think nothing happened there.

    Aspect dualism seems to me a matter of grain or type of description rather than ontology, and as such it is rather unsatisfying.

    Good to hear that Christians are catching up, but process theology is also unsatisfying.


    1. My take is something like this.

      If you follow the chain of causality from observable phenomena to the underlying facts from which they are emergent, then presumably you get closer to an ultimate reality, the set of principles that give rise to (the potentiality of) everything else.

      But it’s not reasonable to assume that ontological inquiry all the way down is possible. At some point, you would expect to hit a sort of “ontological event horizon” below which no inquiry is possible. Actually, that’s a simplification, because I can think of at least three such horizons: first, a limit to what empirical enquiry can discover in practise; second, a limit to what empirical enquiry could discover if the universe were maximally cooperative; and third, a limit to what it is even possible to speculate/hypothesise about because one cannot possibly even conceive of the right questions. Nevertheless, the idea of a hard ontological event horizon is a reasonable first-approximation model.

      The whole point of the p-zombie thought experiment, as I understand it, is to show that it is — at the very least — an extraordinary claim to suppose that consciousness (conceived as a principle which says that physical substrate with properties A gives rise to internal state with properties B) is an emergent consequence of the ontology we can construct on THIS side of the ontological event horizon. There is no reason to think it inconsistent to conceive of a world where the laws of quantum gravity etc are exactly the same, the distribution of particles is exactly the same, the external behaviour of all things is exactly the same, and yet no-one experiences internal states. It leaves open the idea that consciousness can be an emergent consequence of an ontology from beyond the ontological event horizon, but much good may that do us.

      We can capture this in a diagram by drawing a big black dot to represent the ultimate principle of reality that gives rise to all else, a dotted circle around it representing the ontological event horizon, a line radiating from the dot representing the chain of causality that gives rise to the empirically observable universe, and another line representing the chain of causality giving rise to internal states of experience. If the assumptions are true, then there is an ontology at the level of the ultimate but unknowable reality — in which all is united and a form of physicalism rules — but there is also an ontology at the level of the ontological event horizon — where aspect dualism seems like a better description.

      So we can unite aspect dualism with physicalism by supposing that physicalism is a claim about the ultimate level of reality and that dualism is a claim about reality at the level of the ontological event horizon. I see no reason why the former should be the primary concern of philosophy.

      I have never really talked about these ideas, so although they’ve circulated in my head for some time, they haven’t been matured through conversation. That’s pretty much the point of posting them here.

      P.S. is “process theology” actually a term? I’m not familiar with it.


  3. I’.m not sure if this is just a popular myth or not, but I’ve read in many places that the ancient Egyptians thought that the mind, emotions, and personality – as well a whole bunch of other brain stuff – resided in the heart, rather than in the brain.

    When I think a thought, it “feels” as if the thought is happening in my head – the inner monologue is almost tangible in a sense (maybe that’s a illusion?), I wonder how those ancient Egyptians managed to experience thought in a different location..


  4. Say what you will, there is nothing like conscienceness in the language physics (itself a part of conscienceness). Hard to see how subjectivity can emerge from obectively observed events when it is not objective. I still await an explaination, not a correlation. Btw, the Libet bit is a bit shallow.


  5. Just found this and i’m looking to fight evolutionism.
    I do insist there is just a soul and so NO actions are done except with the consent of the soul. The brain has no control over us aside from the soul.
    All evolutionists have to do is show some involuntary action that is beyond free will or memory.


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