Theology and Neuroscience

Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown

Neuroscience, the fastest growing scientific discipline for decades, has affected numerous aspects of Western culture. Thus, one should expect it to have influences on religion as well. This article treats one of the points of intersection with Christianity, the basic metaphysical makeup of humans. The two most prevalent views in the tradition are body-soul dualism and holism or physicalism.

This article describes four developments in neuroscience that have consequences for Christian practice and understanding: (1) agenesis of the corpus callosum (the millions of neurons connecting the right and left cerebral hemispheres); (2) the large frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex, which have massive connections with other regions of the brain; (3) somatic markers, which provide subtle emotional reactions to contemplated actions; and (4) mirror neurons, which have been found to subserve both the performance of an action and understanding of the actions of others.

Because various forms of physicalism are more compatible with the ever tightening connections between neural processes and beliefs and practices, the article begins with biblical and theological considerations showing that some forms of physicalism are acceptable options for Christians. However, in the philosophical world a number of physicalists are content with simply reducing to mere brain processes the higher mental capacities that enable understanding and practice of Christian life. So the article attempts to show why physicalism need not entail this sort of reductionism.

1 Introduction

Developments in neuroscience have had significant impacts on Christian theology. Malcolm Jeeves predicted in the year 2000 that research in neuropsychology, underlining ever tightening links between mind and brain, would lead to reopening of theological questions about the nature of human beings (2002).

Possible theological points of contact include the relation of brain science to Christian ethics: is free will a prerequisite for ethical behaviour, and can it be justified against the background of deterministic scientific laws? Where is the line between cases of biological determinism and voluntary actions called sin?

A second possibility is the question of whether the biblically supported distinctiveness of humans can be maintained against data showing close similarities between structures of human brains and our closest primate kin? How can the position called animalism – which holds that humans are nothing but complicated biological animal bodies – be avoided?

A third possibility, the one selected here, is the point of contact between neuroscience and one aspect of Christian anthropology: the basic metaphysical makeup of humans. Merely listing and explaining both historical and current possibilities would require an entire encyclopaedia article in itself. However, a number of positions acceptable to Christians will appear along the way. Although this is a great oversimplification, through many centuries the church has maintained that humans are dual entities comprising material bodies and nonmaterial entities, a soul, mind, or spirit.

A crucial division for Christians is between radical dualism, which identifies persons with their souls, and holistic dualism, which maintains that humans are essentially both bodies and souls (or minds). This is based on doctrines such as the incarnation and bodily resurrection. The church has struggled for centuries to combat radical dualism, but holistic dualism has been its predominant position from at least 400 to 1900.

Another option in the tradition (and perhaps closer to original Christian understanding before commingling its teachings with Greek philosophies) is to be holistic or monistic regarding the substance of human nature, but maintain that humans cannot be reduced to biological organisms; provision must be made for ‘higher-order’ capacities that make religiosity possible.

The relevance of new developments in neuroscience, in short, is that they tend to favour the monistic option; properties and capacities once explained as functions of a nonmaterial entity are, as Jeeves suggests, increasingly attributable to humans’ neurological complexity (2002: 3).

The developments described here (section 4) are selected because they underpin these human capabilities.

There are great variations among current positions held by scholars who take humans to be holistic beings with bodily and spiritual characteristics. While philosophers of mind have come close to an agreed term for non-dualist accounts, ‘physicalism’, there is no agreed term to cover these closely related Christian proposals. Therefore, this article borrows the term ‘nonreductive physicalism’ to stand in for this variety. Here is an overview of what follows:

Section 2. Biblical and doctrinal constraints on Christian anthropology’ – due to physicalism’s controversial status among Christians – addresses the biblical and theological acceptability of physicalism. Relevant factors include translations of the Bible over centuries, and the question of whether there are essential doctrines that presuppose dualism. While the majority of biblical scholars consider physicalism to be a genuine option, the majority of lay Christians believe dualism is essential to their faith.

Section 3. The variety of Christian anthropologies’ attempts to map current positions. These are too numerous to cover individually, but major categories are noted and a few prominent options within each are briefly explained. This will require technical philosophical terms with which some readers may be unfamiliar, so these are explained first.

The section also engages one of the two most challenging objections to non-dualism from both philosophers and Christian scholars: (1) How can one hold a physicalist account without it being reductionist? If this objection can be answered – reductive physicalism not being theologically acceptable – another objection is: (2) Without a non-physical element, how can human identity be maintained between death and resurrection? Objection 1 being prior to 2, the first is treated here.

Section 4. Neuroscience: The heart of the matter’ describes neuroscientific developments that address the central concerns of the Encyclopaedia: the cognitive assets and deficits that enable or detract from the believer’s understanding of scripture and participation in Christian community.

Section 5. Relating neuroscience to scripture, doctrine, and church practice’ relates conclusions drawn from the three major sections of the article.

2 Biblical and doctrinal constraints on Christian anthropology

The shift from dualist to holist accounts of humans, beginning over a century ago, is widely accepted in mainstream Christian academia. Nonetheless, one recent study showed that 76% of the US population believe in some sort of dualism (Wisniewski, Deutschländer, and Haynes 2019), most often expressed in terms of body and soul. Paul Bloom provides a useful term, ‘commonsense dualists’, due to the fact that most dualists would be unable to identify which type (say, radical or holistic) they hold (Bloom 2004).

Dualist readers may have two questions. First, why does the Bible contain so many references to the soul if it does not exist? Second, if monism is correct, then how could Christian scholars have been wrong for many centuries? A final subsection considers two doctrinal issues that seem, to some (often depending on denominational differences), to require a dualist account of humans.

2.1 Translation issues

Translations of the Bible have gradually tracked changes in biblical studies. New Testament scholar Joel Green notes the shrinking number of uses of ‘soul’ in the New Testament. English translations, beginning with the King James Version (1611), used ‘soul’ thirty-nine times; the New Revised Standard Version (1989) preserves twenty-two; but the Common English Bible (2011) has only three (Green 2018: 428).

New versions of the Bible are often due to recognition that words need to be interpreted according to their context. Bloom’s term ‘commonsense dualism’ is useful because there have been so many dualist accounts throughout the Christian era: Platonist, Aristotelian, Epicurean, Neoplatonist, Thomist, Cartesian, and most recently, emergent dualism. So, the word ‘soul’ in a text may be expected to mean something different depending on the era in which it was written. What might this mean for biblical interpretation? Mainline Protestant and Catholic scholars concluded by the mid-twentieth century that the Greek word psyché is not a good translation for Hebrew words that had been taken as equivalents to ‘soul’ in English.

2.1.1 Aspective versus partitive uses of anthropological terms

A particularly helpful insight (or helpful expression of a widely shared insight) is found in J. N. D. Dunn’s study, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (1998). Koine (common) Greek was used throughout the eastern Mediterranean world, beginning several centuries BCE, so it was the language of scripture for early Christians. Dunn lists and characterizes the use of various anthropological terms, along with their typical English translations: sōma (body), sarx (flesh), pneuma (spirit), kardia (heart), nous (mind), and psyché (soul). Paul uses several of these with a spectrum of connotations. For example, at its innocent end sarx refers simply to the physical material of the body, but at the other, to live according to the flesh is to live in opposition to the Spirit of God (1998: 55–91).

Dunn distinguishes between partitive and aspective accounts of human nature. Partitive accounts are more typically Greek; that is, philosophers ask, what essential parts constitute a human being? Aspective accounts are more typically Hebrew; what are the essential dimensions or relations in which humans, as wholes, participate? It is these aspects, not parts, that are designated by biblical anthropological terms (1998: 54).

2.1.2 Some grammatical musings

While Paul describes human embodiment as but one aspect of our nature, it is still tempting to think of ourselves as being bodies but having will, emotion, intelligence, and so forth. Attention to English grammar, in contrast to Hebrew, might shed light on why biblical texts are now read partitively by most Christians. English has a tendency to reify nouns; that is, for every noun there must be something to which it refers. Grammatical peculiarities force English speakers to think this way. Gender (feminine, masculine, and neuter) divides the world into three categories of entities. Hungarian, in contrast, has no gendered pronouns. Singular and plural forms suggest that entities be countable. Closely connected is the use of definite articles.

If English has a tendency toward ‘nounification’ (another noun), did ancient Hebrew work by metaphorically extending verb stems – by ‘verbifying’? Old Testament scholar Leslie Allen writes that:

‘verbify’ is a good way of defining Biblical Hebrew. It builds on a foundation of primary triconsonantal verbs and has a very complex verbal system by standard adaptations of the root or stem. Nouns depend on the verb [. . . .] There is no primary verb behind nephesh [the word most often translated as ‘soul’ in English] [. . .] but it does occur in some cognate Semitic languages. (Allen, personal communication, 7–8 August 2022; used with permission)

In recent translations, nephesh is often translated as ‘living being’. Note that this is a gerund (an adjective formed from a verb) modifying a participle (a noun formed from a verb).

2.2 Biblical interpretation and the canon

This subsection begins with a question: which Bible? Many readers know that while all Christians have the same books in their New Testaments, Catholics have more books in the Old than Protestants. The official Catholic New American Bible (1971) has forty-six; the New Revised Standard Version (1989) has thirty-nine.

The main reason for seven extra books was the creation of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The name comes from a legend that the translators were six elders from each of the twelve tribes, rounded off to seventy, and usually represented by the Roman numeral LXX.

Translation of the Hebrew was necessitated by the fact that Jews in Alexandria and across the Middle East, beginning in the fourth century BCE, increasingly spoke Koine (common) Greek. It had become an international language. The translations are said to be quite uneven; because translators of the Hebrew were Jews, they incorporated Hebraisms in grammar and syntax, even sometimes transliterating Hebrew words into Greek (Allen, personal communication, 7–8 July 2022). In fact, the LXX contained other books not in the Jewish canon, some written as late as a century into the Christian era (Skehan, MacRae, and Brown 1968: 569 [vol. 2]). This was early Christians’ scripture.

This history is important because some of these extra books made explicit contrasts between a separable body and soul. For example, Wis 6:14: ‘A person in wickedness kills another but cannot bring back the departed spirit, or set free the imprisoned soul’. These clearly dualistic texts influenced Christians until the Reformation, when Martin Luther removed them from his German translation.

Early gentile Christians could not be expected to maintain the different meanings of psyché as a translation of Hebrew nephesh, versus psyché as used by Greek philosophers. So here is a partial answer to the question of how theologians could have been ‘wrong’ in taking dualism to be scriptural teaching.

2.3 Do essential Christian doctrines presuppose dualism?

As noted, Luther removed noncanonical Hebrew books. Yet even by rejecting books easily taken to teach dualism, mainline Protestantism continued to be dualist. So, another question is: are there Christian doctrines that presuppose and therefore require dualism? Mainline Protestant reformers and Catholics debated the question of what happens between an individual’s death and the general resurrection. John Calvin was explicit in arguing that the saved soul spends a period of time consciously enjoying the presence of God, thus sharpening the distinction between body and soul. Luther held that the soul falls into a sweet sleep at death but is still vaguely conscious until the final resurrection (Williams 1992: 70, 197–199).

The (Catholic) Council of Trent met three times between 1545 and 1563. Its purposes were to refute Protestant doctrines and to reform the clergy’s abuses of power and morals. One result was reaffirmation of the doctrine of the intermediate state of purgatory (Tanner 2000: 714–715).

The Radical Reformation sprang up and spread to many parts of Europe. With one notable exception, Balthasar Hubmeier, a genuine trichotomist (Pipkin and Yoder 1989: 429–430), Anabaptists (re-baptizers) often spoke of soul sleep, some using ‘sleep’ as a metaphor for death. However, J. C. Wenger, independently of Dunn, arrived at the conclusion that these Christians read the Bible aspectively when it came to human nature. He writes that:

body, soul, spirit, mind, and heart are not the names of loose entities tied together inside one’s skin, but are rather capacities of the total personality […] One cannot be Biblical in his thinking and deny that man has material, intellectual, social, spiritual, etc., facets to his personality. (Wenger 1954: 82)

He associates spirit with the capacity to enter into fellowship with God, and notes that ‘soul’ in scripture refers to the animate life of the body. So, depending on one’s Christian subtradition, one may or may not have a doctrine of the intermediate state. For some who do, such as philosophical theologian John W. Cooper, it counts as a powerful reason to maintain substance dualism (2018: 413–426). Another doctrine that seems to require dualism is the doctrine of eternal punishment of the unsaved. Here again, one’s specific subtradition matters; Seventh Day Adventists teach conditional immortality: that is, for those who are not saved, death is simply the end of their existence (Froom 1965).

3 The variety of Christian anthropologies

Section 2 outlined the recent turn towards physicalism, supported by biblical and theological reasoning. The following subsection will lay out a few of the variety of options available to Christians, focusing especially on those that have originated with or been reinforced by neuroscience. This requires definition of technical terms (often with disputed meanings) used in formulating the options. Finally, there are serious objections raised by some scholars to non-dualist positions. Space does not allow treatment of more than one of these, the challenge of reductionist physicalism. This priority is because most forms of reductionism would rule out the very possibility of religiosity.

Section 3.1 provides a snapshot of drastic historical changes at the beginning of modern science. Section 3.2 introduces terminology used in current anthropological debates. Section 3.3 gives a schematic account of these current options. Section 3.4 attempts to counter the threat of reductionism.

3.1 How the philosophical worldview has changed

Revolutionary worldview changes occurred at the dawn of modernity in rejecting ‘the medieval synthesis’, involving thorough replacement of basic notions such as the constitution of material things, causation, and motion. Two significant medieval theses are: (1) hylomorphism – the Aristotelian account of physical things as constituted ultimately by prime matter and form (an organizing principle explaining their characteristics, development, and capacities, including causal powers); and (2) a metaphysical hierarchy locating divinity at the top and corruptible matter at the bottom. Value and causation flowed from top to bottom. Christians located humans between animals and angels (see Nonhuman Animals in Christian Theology). Body-soul dualism fits well; the great divide between spiritual and material placed souls in the spiritual realm and bodies in the physical.

Replacement of hylomorphism with atomism was central to the seventeenth-century scientific revolution. Both Galileo (1612) and Pierre Gassendi (1658) proposed atomism. Gassendi was also a student of ancient texts, who promoted Epicurean atomism of the fourth century CE, based on Democritus in the fifth BCE. Atoms were characterized only by shape, size, and motion, which was downward in an infinite universe. However, occasional ‘swerves’ had to be countenanced to explain how atoms could aggregate to form the visible bodies of the natural world. In contrast to these ancients, Christians attributed laws of nature (including those of motion) to God. Surely the God who gave laws to humans would also have provided laws determining the behaviour of all natural entities. So ‘laws of nature’ began as a theological metaphor, and only in the nineteenth century came to designate free-standing, independent powers.

Deterministic laws governing atoms at the bottom of the hierarchy, combined with the thesis that atoms are unaffected by the aggregates they form, implies that atoms are the ultimate source of motion and change; complex entities are not causes in their own right. John Dalton affirmed this, claiming that phenomena of chemistry could be reduced to the behaviour of atoms (1808). If chemistry, then why not biology, and so on? Already Thomas Hobbes had denied the existence of an immaterial soul, claiming that ideas and sensations were due to motions of particles in the brain (1651).

Thus, there developed a new hierarchy to replace the medieval hierarchy of beings. This hierarchy – one of complexity, mirrored by the hierarchy of sciences – together explain why early modern science required explanation of behaviour of complex entities by reduction to more basic entities, ultimately the atoms. While many early modern assumptions have been rejected, science has marched on.

3.2 Terminological tangles

The hierarchy of complexity is a good starting point to explain vocabulary to be used in here. Although Thomas Hobbes (1651) already had a version of the hierarchy, it was most enthusiastically championed by the logical positivists, a philosophical movement in the 1920s and 1930s. The main objective was to provide an account of the ‘logic’ of scientific method. Because the hierarchy placed physics at the bottom, all other sciences should be explainable by (reducible to) physics.

In contrast to the positivists’ reductionism, this hierarchy has been used more recently by scholars working at the interface of theology and sciences. Great credit goes to Arthur Peacocke, who filled in levels above biology within the human realm (1993: 217). His most notable contribution was his claim that theology be taken as the science at the top of a nonreducible hierarchy. He acquainted readers with conceptual developments since the positivist era that are needed to avoid reductionism. He called his position ‘panentheism’, meaning that the world is in God and God is in the world. God acts in the world by means of whole–part constraint.

This move opens the huge question of how God acts in the world. Between the publication of his 1993 book, Theology for a Scientific Age and his death in 2007 he constantly refined his position. For instance, ‘whole-part constraint’ conjures up a picture of God being outside of the world. Over time he came to stress that God does not only transcend the world, but is also immanent in it, influencing events. He has an entire subsection on immanence in his co-edited book with Philip Clayton (2004: 143–144). Another important development actually happened around him. He already had a sense of nonlinear and far-from-equilibrium systems, but his only two examples came from chemical reactions. Since 1993 the study of complex systems has burgeoned, and his response to this development and application to divine action are both spelled out in his chapter ‘Emergent Realities with Causal Efficacy’ (2007: 173–197).

3.2.1 Reduction and emergence

Some hints have appeared already regarding the meaning of reductionism, but the term can refer to at least five theses. (1) Methodological reductionism is simply the still quite useful but insufficient research strategy of analysing things into their parts and studying the parts. (2) Epistemological reductionism is exemplified by the positivists’ goal: to show that laws at a higher level could be derived from those of the next level down. (3) Causal reductionism is the view that the behaviour of the parts of a system entirely determines the behaviour of the whole. This is where the term ‘bottom-up causation’ originates.

There are two types of ontological reductionism: (4a) One is the claim that only the entities at the lowest level are really real (whatever this may mean). (4b) The interesting version for purposes here is the view that as one goes up the hierarchy of levels no new kinds of non-physical entities need to be postulated; no vital force to get life from nonlife; no mind or soul to get consciousness; no Zeitgeist (spirit of the age) to form a society.

While early modern atomism made reductionism appear inevitable, further developments in physics complicated this picture. Thermodynamics is a branch of physics beginning in the 1820s. Its second law, also called the law of entropy, relates quantities of heat, energy, and work (as is done by steam engines). It has been described technically in various ways, but colloquially it states that without the addition of a source of energy, systems always change in the direction of disorder – everything runs down. Reconciliation of thermodynamics with evolutionary biology, showing obvious growth in complex organisms over time, then, calls for explanation.

In response, the term ‘emergence’ was used in philosophy of biology in the 1920s to 1930s as an alternative to both mechanist-reductionist accounts of the origin of life, and vitalism – the addition of a new metaphysical entity, a vital force. Early emergentists in the US and Britain argued that as one examines increasingly complex organization one finds new kinds of entities with causal powers that cannot be reduced to physics. The organic emerges from the physical, and then sentience, consciousness, social organization, ethical awareness, and spirituality. A few associated names are C. D. Broad, C. Lloyd Morgan, and Roy Wood Sellars. However, early emergentists failed to make their concepts clear enough to satisfy the positivists’ drive for clarity so the movement died out.

In the 1990s the term ‘emergence’ was resuscitated and has now led to a vast amount of philosophical literature. Robert Van Gulick helpfully relates the current variety of emergentist theses to anti-reductionist theses (2001: 1–34). He distinguishes between the emergence of real-world items, such as objects, events, properties; and representational items, including theories, concepts, models (2001: 2–3). He also distinguishes, across these categories, between modest and radical kind emergence. Modest kind emergence postulates that the whole has features different in kind from those of the parts, and of a kind whose nature and existence is not necessitated by the regularities governing its parts. Radical kind emergence is controversial, in that it seems to require a powerful sort of downward causation that threatens to violate or override lower-level laws (2001: 18).

3.2.2 Downward causation and whole-part constraint

Theories of the emergence of complexity and of downward causation are interrelated in that one needs something like emergence to explain the development of more complex entities, as well as a theory to explain how the higher-level entities can make a causal difference in the world.

‘Downward causation’ or ‘top-down causation’ refer, unsurprisingly, to the opposite view of bottom-up causation. The (metaphorical) directionality is based on the hierarchy of complexity, referring to causal relations from higher in the hierarchy to those at a lower level. In ordinary life such events are unproblematic: social organizations affect the behaviour of individuals; an organism’s behaviour changes aspects of its biology, which in turn can affect chemical reactions within it. Since lower-level systems are often thought to be components of higher-level systems, another closely related term is whole-part causation or, better, whole-part constraint.

Things are not so simple in philosophy of mind. Contemporary dualists still struggle to explain how a nonmaterial entity, the mind or soul, could have causal effects on the body. Meanwhile for current physicalists there is the problem of mental causation. While bottom-up causation is presupposed, it needs to be incorporated into a scheme explaining bi-directional causation. This raises more terminological issues.

3.2.3 Supervenience and realisation

Until 1970 the only relations postulated between the mental and the neurobiological were identity or causation. The mind-brain identity thesis was debated and rejected in the 1970s. Use of causal relations is merely to restate the problem of mental causation. A third type of relation was first proposed in philosophy of mind by Donald Davidson: ‘Mental characteristics are in some sense dependent, or supervenient, on physical characteristics’ (1980: 214). At this point, supervenience is the most common relation posited between the mental and the physical.

The definition of ‘supervenience’ is contested, and the definition one chooses makes a difference regarding the possibility of a nonreductive form of physicalism. The term was apparently first used in philosophy by R. M. Hare in 1952. He used it to describe relations between moral concepts and a person’s behaviour. He writes:

First, let us take that characteristic of ‘good’ which has been called its supervenience. Suppose we say, ‘St. Francis was a good man.’ It is logically impossible to say this and to maintain at the same time that there might have been another man placed exactly in the same circumstances as St. Francis, and who behaved in exactly the same way, but who differed from St. Francis in this respect only, that he was not a good man. (1961: 145)

Many philosophers who use ‘supervenience’ would assent to a simple definition such as the following (using S for supervening properties or events and R for the set of characteristics that ‘realize’ it or constitute it):

Properties of type S are supervenient on properties of type R if and only if two objects cannot differ with respect to their S-properties without differing with respect to their R-properties.

There are two ways in which this definition fails to capture Hare’s entire meaning: first, Terrence Horgan (1995: 778–779), Daniel Bonevac (1995: 124–139), Brian McLaughlin (1995: 16–59), and others argue that it leaves out Hare’s original insight that if something instantiates a supervenient property it does so in virtue of or as a non-causal consequence of instantiating its R-properties. Second, in light of Hare’s sensitivity to circumstances, other philosophers, such as Thomas Grimes, Berent Enç, and Paul Teller, might prefer something like Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown’s definition:

Property S supervenes on property B [for ‘base’ properties] if and only if x’s instantiating S is in virtue of x’s instantiating B under circumstance c. (2007: 206)

Supervenient properties so understood are not reducible unless the circumstances can also be reduced, which is often not the case; one example, regarding coins, is provided in section 3.4.2.

However, other physicalists claim that supervenience as described above does not provide the intended nonreductive relation between the mental and the physical. Most influential here is Jaegwon Kim. His argument is illustrated by a diagram in which mental property M supervenes on physical property P, property M* supervenes on property P*, and reasonably shows a causal relation from P to P* (2005: 45). The question is what causal role M can play. He concludes that no acceptable account can be given. The unacceptable possibilities are (1) to give up physicalism and return to dualism; (2) to accept the conclusion that mental properties have no causal role in the world, a position called ‘epiphenomenalism’; or (3) that M exerts downward causation on P*. He claims that the latter is to give up on the causal closure of the physical world, implying that there can be no complete account of physical causation. Therefore, nonreductive physicalism must be rejected as incoherent (2005: 46–55). There is, at the time of this writing, no widely agreed account of this issue.

3.3 Current options in Christian anthropology

As suggested above (section 1), the most important distinction among Christian positions on the composition of humans is between dualists and physicalists. Another recent position is called hylomorphism, but this article will argue that it fits in the category here called physicalism.

3.3.1 Dualists influenced by neuroscience

There are several noted dualists who have been influenced by neuroscience in crafting their theses. For example, William Hasker proposes that mind or soul is an emergent entity, not made of the constituents of the brain, although its existence is crucially dependent on the biological (Hasker 2018: 62–72).

Another noted dualist is Richard Swinburne, who writes:

The mental life of thought, sensation, and purpose may be caused by physico-chemical events in the brain, but is something quite different from those events: […] The process of evolution so rearranged the atoms and molecules as to bring about creatures with a life of conscious experience — something altogether new in the history of the universe. (Swinburne 1997: 1)

3.3.2 Physicalism, or something like it

The non-dualist positions among theologians and Christian philosophers cannot all be covered in this article. To show the variety, here is a partial list of possibilities: ‘emergent individualism’, ‘constitutionalism’, ‘dual-aspect monism’, ‘multidimensional monism’, ‘nonreductive materialism’, and ‘nonreductive physicalism’. (Note that ‘materialism’ and ‘physicalism’, used in anthropology but not as worldviews, mean the same.) The following are brief descriptions exemplifying two of these positions.

Timothy O’Connor is a well-known proponent of emergent individualism. This non-dualist position differs from Hasker’s emergent dualism in that O’Connor considers not an emergent entity but rather emergent states or capacities such as thoughts and experiences arising from an essentially biological organism (O’Connor and Jacobs 2003).

A second position is constitutionalism, well presented by Kevin Corcoran (2006). Corcoran objects to ‘animalism’, the view that we are simply identical with a human animal. He says, rather, that we are constituted by our bodies. His test for identity is to ask if x (say, a copper statue) is identical to y (a particular piece of copper), and whether there are changes that x could undergo such that it is no longer x, while y is still essentially itself. If the statue is melted, it is no longer the statue it once was, but it is still the same piece of copper (Corcoran 2006: 65–69). Therefore, x is not identical to y. If a person has a stroke and no longer functions mentally, the person has changed, but it is still the same body. So humans are constituted by a physical organism, their body, but not identical with it.

Corcoran notes resemblances between his view and Aristotle’s, and this serves to introduce a third theory of human nature called hylomorphism.

3.3.3 Hylomorphism?

A number of recent authors label their view ‘hylomorphism’, although it is entirely different from the original hylomorphism of Aristotle and his followers. It could be argued that ‘form’ in ancient and medieval thought, as well as ‘matter’ are incommensurable with these contemporary uses. So it may be more accurate to call this the new hylomorphism. Its proponents include William Jaworski, Patrick Toner, Christina Van Dyke, and Adam Wood. It is said to be a middle way between dualism and physicalism. It is impossible to define ‘incommensurability’ here, a term coined in the 1970s regarding scientific theories (e.g. Feyerabend 1975), but readers of this article have already seen an example. To take this issue out of the contested area of human nature, consider the absurdity of thinking that when I tell you that I just bought a spirited horse, as compared to yours, I am not postulating that my horse has a component, a spirit, that yours does not have.

So the ‘hylomorphism’ of today might better be classified as another of the positions represented here by the catch-all term, ‘physicalism’. To illustrate the nature of the hylomorphist view, Jaworski presents three examples to show what it involves. However, his first example (which some readers may find amusing) actually well illustrates the constitution view:

Suppose we put Godehard in a strong bag […] to ensure that nothing leaks out when we squash him with several tons of force. Before the squashing the contents of the bag include one human being; after they include none. In addition, before the squashing the contents of the bag can think, feel and act, but after the squashing they can’t. (Jaworski 2013: 197)

This example is meant to show that

structure, organization, form, arrangement, order, or configuration is a basic ontological and explanatory principle […] You and I are not mere quantities of fundamental physical materials; we are quantities of fundamental physical materials […] with a certain organization or structure. (Jaworski 2013: 197).

However, emergentists in the 1930s already made similar points.

His second example is meant to contrast hylomorphism with physicalism, but he defines ‘physicalism’ as reductive physicalism. Given this choice, it has no bearing on the reasonableness of including his position as a variant of ‘nonreductive physicalism’.

3.4 The rise and fall of reductionism

It is now necessary to attempt to judge whether nonreductive physicalism is possible. It was noted above that a monist anthropology is acceptable theologically only if it makes provision for higher human capacities that make religiosity possible. It was noted that early modern science could be seen to require reductionism; and there are claims from a variety of directions that the current positions being discussed do not in fact evade reductionism. These include the ongoing struggle to account for mental causation (section 3.2.2), and Kim’s critique of using ‘supervenience’ to facilitate a nonreductive account of the mental (section 3.2.3). Much of this article will be entirely uninteresting unless a case can be made for a nonreductive anthropology. So a brief history of developments here is worth reviewing.

3.4.1 Arguments for the insufficiency of reductionism

One of the earliest contributions here was by philosopher of biology Donald Campbell in 1974. His account of downward causation in biology relies on the fact that environmental selection largely accounts for the genetic blueprint of the remarkably well ‘designed’ jaw structures of worker ants (Campbell 1974: 179–186).

Van Gulick strengthened Campbell’s account of selection, writing that most lower-level systems or entities have a variety of causal capacities. Their incorporation into a more complex whole at a higher level in the hierarchy allows for selective activation of the simpler system’s causal capacities (Van Gulick 1995: 251). Ants, again, provide an example. An individual ant dropped on a table might run helter-skelter, or search for a food source. Steven Johnson (2001: 29–33), drawing on work by scholars such as E. O. Wilson, describes the organization of ant colonies. All of the ants except the queen are genetically identical, yet they are able to perform a number of tasks such as foraging for food, guarding the queen, caring for ant pupae. An example of selection is the fact that the relative density of foragers triggers some to return to the nest. They are born with something we might call innate ‘ant rules’: ‘A foraging ant might expect to meet three other foragers per minute — if she encounters more, she might follow a rule that has her return to the nest’ (Johnson 2001: 76–77). But note that this rule-governed behaviour is something quite different from the laws of the basic sciences, and following the rules does not in any way violate or override basic laws.

3.4.2 Nonreducible circumstances

It was noted above (section 3.2.3) that if one’s definition of supervenience requires consideration of circumstances that co-constitute a supervenient property, and those circumstances cannot be reduced to the supervenience base level, then supervenience does not entail reducibility of the supervenient. This subsection gives an example of relevant circumstances that cannot be reduced.

Consider two physical objects – say, two small copper-coloured discs, identical to the naked eye, with ‘United States of America’ and ‘ONE CENT’ stamped on one side. They differ only in that on the other side one is stamped ‘1962’ and the other ‘1990’. They are, of course, US pennies. They have identical uses as currency in stores and are worth exactly one cent each, despite the fact that the earlier one would be worth approximately 1.5 cents if melted down, and despite the fact that the later one cost approximately 2.1 cents to make. Nonetheless, their economic value remains one cent. What constitutes them as legal tender in the US? Their history is crucial: it is either a (real) penny or a counterfeit, with no such value. Explaining their value qua currency requires resort to ever higher and more complex systems. One needs to resort to issues such as the legitimacy of US government authority, monetary policy, international practices of economic exchange, and so forth.

Note that the two objects’ physical constituents play no role whatsoever. The 1962 penny was made of 95% copper; since 1983, pennies have been made of 97.5% zinc, with only a thin coating of copper; and briefly in 1943 they were made of steel with zinc coating.

Despite examples such as this, some philosophers and scientists still question the possibility of causally effective emergent entities or properties. The problem may involve word choices. Campbell himself was uncomfortable speaking of downward ‘causation’, saying that selection over time is only a ‘back-handed’ editing of products of direct physical causation (Campbell 1974: 181–182). Because it has become so common to think of causation on the model of physical, push-pull sequences, it may be more helpful to speak here of ‘whole-part constraint’. This term leads directly to the next topic.

3.4.3 Complex systems theory

It may be fair to say that from the advent of modern philosophy, with Descartes the dualist (d. 1650) and Thomas Hobbes, the reductionist monist (d. 1679), there has not been, until around the turn of the present century, any widely agreed-upon philosophical underpinning for either of the most common theories of the metaphysical compositions of humans. For dualism, beginning with Descartes’s pineal gland, the problem of mind–body interaction has not been answered satisfactorily. Nor has there been any widely accepted account of how a physically monist position could avoid reduction of the aspects of human nature required for religiosity. In fact, if higher order reasoning is reducible to neurobiology, then there cannot be rational arguments for reductionism itself. So, all of the conceptual ingredients proposed in aid of a physicalist theology may well be mere scratchings on paper. Yet in 1997 Ilya Prigogine wrote:

I believe that we are at an important turning point in the history of science. We have come to the end of the road paved by Galileo and Newton, which presented us with an image of a time-reversible, deterministic universe. We now see the erosion of determinism and the emergence of a new formulation of the laws of physics. (Prigogine and Stengers 1997: viii)

Prigogine is joined by Peacocke (2007: 267–283); others include Alicia Juarrero (1999), Nancey Murphy (Murphy and Brown 2007), Warren Brown (Murphy and Brown 2007), Paul Cilliers (1998), Alwyn Scott (2007: 173–197), and numerous others in suggesting that we may be at a point of change as significant as that from medieval to modern.

This change can be seen in the development of ‘systems thinking’, largely derived from mid-twentieth-century general systems theory (associated with Ludwig von Bertalanffy), and from cybernetics (associated with Norbert Weiner). Both of these are concerned with systems that run on information as well as energy. Current contributors are information theory, nonlinear mathematics, study of chaotic and self-organizing systems, and non-equilibrium thermodynamics. Examples of the systems of interest range from autocatalytic processes, at the most basic, to weather patterns, insect colonies, social organizations, and, of course, human brains. Alwyn Scott, a specialist in nonlinear mathematics, states that a paradigm change (in Thomas Kuhn’s sense) has occurred in science beginning in the 1970s. He describes nonlinear science as a meta-science, based on recognition of patterns in kinds of phenomena in diverse fields. This paradigm shift amounts to a new conception of the very nature of causality (Scott 2004: 2).

Several authors call for what might be called a shift in ontological emphases. Alicia Juarrero says that one has to give up the traditional Western philosophical bias in favour of things with their intrinsic properties, for an appreciation of processes and relations (Juarrero 1999: 124). Systems have permeable boundaries, allowing for the transport of materials, energy, and information. The components of complex systems are not things but processes. So, for example, from a systems perspective a mammal is composed of a circulatory system, a reproductive system, and so forth, not of carbon, hydrogen, calcium. The organismic level of description is decoupled from the atomic level. Systems are different from both mechanisms and aggregates in that the properties of the components themselves are dependent on their being parts of the system.

Systems range from those exhibiting great stability to those that fluctuate wildly. This is due to the fact that complex systems are nonlinear, that is, the current state affects the development of each future state. The difference in stability is due to the extent to which the system is sensitive to slight variations in initial conditions, and also the extent to which there are feedback processes that do or do not dampen out fluctuations. Chaotic systems are now widely familiar. They result from having a sensitivity to initial conditions that falls into a narrow range, resulting in their behaviour falling into a predictable range of states.

More interesting are those at the edge of chaos. These systems have freedom to explore new possibilities and may ‘jump’ to new and higher forms of organization. Understanding how this can happen in terms of physics comes from the study of far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics. Such systems are called complex adaptive (self-organizing, autopoietic, or dynamical) systems. They are characterized by goal-directedness, at least insofar as they operate in order to maintain themselves. In this process they may create their own components. For example, in an autocatalytic reaction, molecule A catalyses molecule B, which catalyses more of A. The process will stabilize at some point unless additional materials are introduced into the system.

Complex adaptive systems theory has dramatic consequences for understanding causation. While ordinary efficient causation is presupposed, such causation is inadequate to describe complex systems. This is in part because complex systems operate on information as much as on energy and matter. More important is the fact that the relations among the components of a system need to be thought of in terms of constraints. An efficient cause makes something happen. A constraint reduces the number of things that can happen, due to the fact that the components are so related to one another that a change in one automatically changes the other. Juarrero says, [t]he concept of a constraint in science suggests ‘not an external force that pushes, but a thing’s connections to something else […] as well as to the setting in which the object is situated (1999: 132). For example, in successive throws of dice, the numbers that have come up previously do not constrain the probabilities for the current throw. In contrast, in a card game the constraints are ‘context-sensitive’; the chances of, say, drawing an ace at any point in the game are sensitive to history because the rules of the game, the number of cards in the deck, and so forth, create relations among the possible outcomes such that the probability of one occurrence is related to all of the others.

Due to the role of probability in complex systems, it is necessary to do away with the sharp distinction between determinism and indeterminism. The appropriate middle term is ‘propensity’, coined by Karl Popper to mean ‘an irregular or non-necessitating causal disposition of an object or system to produce some result or effect’ (Sapire 1995: 657, referring to Popper 1990).

Murphy and Brown (2007) argue that this set of new concepts, particularly that of context-sensitive constraints, gives us the conceptual tools to explain how downward ‘causes’ cause without violating the causal closure of the physical and without postulating causal overdetermination (see Kim above, section 3.2.3).

4 Neuroscience: the heart of the matter

The idea of the emergence of causal properties based on patterns of interactivity in complex dynamical/adaptive systems is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the functioning of the human brain and its outcome in higher mental processes. The characteristics of human mental and behavioural functioning emerge from hypercomplex and rapidly fluctuating networks of neural interactivity, particularly within the cerebral cortex.

Terms such as ‘emergence’ and ‘nonreductive’ are perhaps useful for philosophical arguments, but are nevertheless mere abstractions unless grounded in phenomena of the real world. For a nondualist understanding of human nature to be theologically acceptable, it must be possible to show that neurobiological systems can enable and embody such capacities as rational thought, self-awareness, reasoning, creativity, ethical decision-making, language, and meaningful interpersonal relationships. The embodiment of these mental properties in the activity of brain systems is highlighted in the following discussions of: (1) the corpus callosum, reasoning and creativity; (2) frontal lobe modulation of behaviour; (3) the insula, somatic markers and decision-making; and (4) neural mirroring and interpersonal awareness. While neuroscience is a fast-developing field whose theories change as data accumulates and positions are debated, the results and theories discussed here are still current and have remained in play for several decades at least, and thus are sufficiently supported for consideration in this context.

4.1 The corpus callosum, reasoning, and imagination

Emergence of mind from complex patterns of neural systems is realized within by complex patterns of structural and functional interconnectivity between neurons and neural subsystems. Critical to the highest levels of mental functioning is the neural interconnectivity via cortical axonal pathways – most particularly the fast conducting axonal pathways constituting cerebral white matter (see also Brown and Sternberg 2015). Therefore, it would be expected that absence or alteration of cerebral axonal pathways would have an impact on the potential patterns of neural interactivity, and consequently affect the nature of the mental properties that can emerge. While there are many examples in clinical neurology of the impact on cognitive functioning of disruptions of cerebral white matter pathways, a particularly striking example is the outcome of agenesis of the corpus callosum (ACC).

ACC is a congenital brain malformation in which the corpus callosum – the two hundred million axons that normally interconnect the right and left cerebral hemispheres – fails to develop. In many cases the cerebral hemispheres themselves have developed normally and look largely unremarkable in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), but the right and left cortices are no longer interconnected by the corpus callosum. When the rest of the cortex appears normal, this form is often called ‘isolated’ ACC. So the question arises, if the emergence of higher-level mental properties of humankind is dependent on patterns of cortical interactivity, as would be predicted from the theory of dynamical systems, what is the impact of this congenital cerebral disconnection on these properties of mind?

Surprisingly, individuals with isolated ACC can have overall intelligence within the normal range despite the absence of this large cortical pathway. Nevertheless, ACC results in a consistent pattern of mild to moderate cognitive and psychosocial deficiencies (for a summary see Brown and Paul 2019; Paul et al. 2007). These deficiencies can be seen as the failure of full and robust emergence of the highest levels of human cognitive and psychosocial abilities.

4.1.1 Cerebral connectivity and the mind

Three decades of research (summarized in Brown and Paul 2019) has shown that important human cognitive processes – such as language comprehension, social understanding, decision making with respect to consequences, imagination, creativity, and social interaction comprehension – emerge in notably less robust forms when cerebral interactivity is significantly diminished by congenital absence of the corpus callosum.

For example, persons with ACC have problems comprehending (imagining) second-order meanings in language: they have difficulty understanding metaphors, idioms, jokes, and sarcasm. Without the interactivity of the two cerebral hemispheres, many of the subtleties of language meaning are difficult to understand. Consider, for example, the impact of being unable to detect sarcasm for an adolescent, or the impoverishment of social understanding related to missing the deeper metaphorical meanings of stories.

Real-life social interactions are complex and rapidly unfolding, requiring individuals to make immediate elaborative inferences regarding the meanings implied by the ongoing interactions, as well as to infer what other individuals know, intend, or feel – a capacity often referred to as a ‘theory of mind’. Persons with ACC have a diminished capacity for detecting (imagining) the mental states of others. What family members report as most notable in their relatives with ACC is their problems in social functioning. They seem to be somewhat unaware of the complexities of social interactions and tend to misjudge the broader implications of the statements and actions of others.

Most importantly, and perhaps at the core of their other deficiencies, is a deficit in elaborative imagination that diminishes their creativity and capacity for problem-solving. In a recent study, persons with ACC provided narrative descriptions of pictures of human situations and interactions that were markedly less elaborate than those of persons with a normal corpus callosum. The narratives by persons with ACC were missing content reflecting the imagined cognitive, social, and emotional experiences of the characters (Turk et al. 2010). Similarly, ACC results in a diminished ability to imagine the consequences of one’s potential actions (that is, what might ensue if one should take one action versus another). It appears that the corpus callosum is critical to the emergence of imaginative and elaborative thought (see also Bogen and Bogen 1988).

Thus, research on ACC supports the notion that from complex patterns of interhemispheric interactivity emerge important non-reducible properties of mind. The cognitive deficiencies of persons with ACC are phenomenological outcomes that are the consequences of reduced interactivity of the cerebral hemispheres. Study of ACC strongly supports the notion that the mind is constituted by the complex interactive functioning of the dynamical system that is the brain.

4.1.2 Disconnection syndromes and Christian life

Although no research is available specifically addressing the question, it is worthwhile considering the potential impact of absence of the corpus callosum on a person’s religious life and understanding. The combination of the various cognitive difficulties shown in ACC (lack of understanding of second-order linguistic meaning; difficulties imagining the broader consequences of one’s behaviour; a defective theory of mind, and diminished imagination) would have a significant impact. For example, these deficiencies would impact the capacity for deeper and more complex forms of social relatedness; the ability to manage one’s emotions; ability to appreciate contextual nuances with respect to social and moral constraints; and capacity for empathy – all capacities necessary to engage most richly in religious community. It is not that they cannot participate significantly, but rather that their participation would be more dependent on the understanding, grace, and social accommodations of others.

With respect to their understanding of the teachings of scripture, preaching, and theological conversations, persons with ACC would comprehend well the first-order meanings – for example, the specific events of a biblical story or the concrete meanings of Christian teaching. However, they would be less likely to appreciate the second-order meanings of stories, parables, illustrations, metaphors, and religious symbolism. They understand the common and more concrete meanings of ideas expressed or stories told, but have limited capacity to elaborate and infer beyond the immediate implications of what is said or read.

4.2 Frontal cortex and modulation of behaviour

The neuroscience of an adequate physicalist theological anthropology must also include discussion of the human frontal lobes (Jeeves and Brown 2009: 63–66, 102–103). The frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex are anatomically distinctive in humans and functionally critical for much of what might be considered important features of human personhood.

The frontal lobes of the human cerebral cortex are distinctively large (compared to that of chimpanzees or other higher primates), and relatively slow to mature. While the frontal lobes of a chimpanzee have completed development around the end of the second year, in human development the frontal cortex does not reach full maturity in thickness or myelinization until the end of the second decade of life (Giedd 2004). This slow maturational process allows for greater plasticity in the development of its functional architecture so as to incorporate through experience and learning the highest levels and most nuanced forms of cognitive and social capacities. This extended developmental opportunity for experience-based functional organization occurs within the context of complex social and cultural life. Thus, neuronal system development and human culture together co-determine the unique power and flexibility of the frontal cortex and, consequently, of human behavioural and mental processes (Quartz and Sejnowski 2003).

The functioning of the frontal cortex involves massive recurrent neural interactions with other cortical and subcortical structures of the brain. From the perspective of complex dynamic systems, this interactivity between the frontal cortex and other brain subsystems results in the emergence of cognitive and behavioural properties that are more powerful and sophisticated than the processing capacities of these various structures operating alone. In this light, neuroscientist Joaquín Fuster writes:

[. . .] as networks fan out and upward in association cortex [particularly including the frontal lobes], they become capable of generating novel representations that are not reducible to their inputs or to their individual neuronal components. Those representations are the product of complex, nonlinear, and near-chaotic interactions between innumerable elements of high-level networks far removed from sensory receptors and motor effectors. Then, top-down network building predominates. Imagination, creativity, and intuition are some of the cognitive attributes of those emergent high-level representations. (Fuster 2003: 53)

The neural networks that fan out from the frontal lobes to interact with other cortical and subcortical systems are more extensive than those of other primates. Thus, the human frontal lobes have a more robust capacity to modulate the functioning of the entire brain, playing a more critical role in the regulation of human behaviour than is possible in animals.

4.2.1 Frontal lobes and behavioural adaptability

Fuster (2003) has done pioneering work on the functioning of the frontal lobes. He argues that this area is essential for:

  1. the temporal integration of behaviour – coordination of behaviour across time with respect to biological, behavioural, and cognitive goals;
  2. working memory – information held in mind for the short term in order to understand complex information and solve current problems;
  3. attention – maintenance of sensory information, or information recovered from memory, in consciousness for a sufficient span of time to allow for delayed responses or complex problem-solving;
  4. preparatory set – preparing the brain and body for anticipated action; and
  5. inhibitory control – suppression of external inputs or internal impulses that are not adaptive or useful at the moment, without which one would be overly impulsive.

Generally, the frontal cortex allows for adaptability of behaviour over time, incorporating both retrospective and prospective aspects into behavioural control.

If the capacities endowed by the enlarged frontal cortex make important contributions to mental functioning and behavioural modulation, then one would expect damage to this area to result in deficits in important aspects of personhood. A large literature in clinical neurology supports this expectation. Particularly noteworthy for a theological view of humankind, damage to the medial and inferior parts of the frontal lobes results in a syndrome characterized by poor planning of behaviour and a failure to recognize the social significance of one’s actions (Stuss and Benson 1984).

4.2.2 Frontal lobes and regulation of social and moral life

Among other deficiencies, damage to the frontal lobes in a human affects capacities for appropriate social and moral adaptability. Damage to the orbital frontal cortex (forming the medial and inferior frontal lobe just above the eye sockets) results in behaviour that is capricious, irresponsible, insensitive to social context, and/or amoral (Damasio 1994; further described below with respect to somatic markers). There are two often-cited cases of the effects of frontal-lobe damage and disruptions of the capacity to regulate social and moral behaviour (described in greater detail by Jeeves and Brown 2009: 63–66). First is the famous case of Phineas Gage who underwent a significant personality change after damage to the orbital frontal cortex, becoming amoral, capricious and irresponsible. Additional cases much like Gage have been described by Damasio (1994). Second is the case of the school teacher who developed uncontrollable paedophilia with the growth of a frontal tumour, the symptoms disappearing with tumour removal. Thus, some of what we would characterize as ‘Christian’, or more generally moral, in behaviour, particularly social behaviour, can be disrupted to one degree or another by disease or trauma that impacts the frontal cortex.

As previously mentioned, Steven Quartz and Terrence Senjowski (2003) argue that the slow development of the human frontal lobes causes them to be particularly open to progressive functional organization and reorganization based on social learning during the first two decades of life. Socially appropriate (or inappropriate) human behaviour is the outcome of learning that is embodied in the functional organization of the frontal lobes. The specifics of the functional capacities of the frontal lobes are learned, not hardwired. For example, to be behaviourally Christian is to have learned to interact socially with others in a manner that reflects Christian virtues, as in ‘the fruits of the Spirit’: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22–23).

Of course, these sorts of behaviours and affections are primarily expressed in daily life out of habit, rather than based on immediate conscious decision-making. Thus, the best in ‘Christian formation’ is the development of Christian virtues and habits through early experiences of observation, imitation, teaching, and action-with-feedback that engender a particular form of functional organization of cortical (and some subcortical) systems, particularly the frontal lobes. With respect to such habitual behaviours, theologian James McClendon argues that if a Christian has to stop and decide on the right course of action, all is lost (McClendon 1986: 45–82). Christianity is a form of embodied life, shaped by communal narratives and practices, and the formation of habits based on observation of moral exemplars.

4.3 Somatic markers

In Damasio’s book titled Descartes’ Error (1994), he attributes to René Descartes the error of considering emotions to be irrational. Damasio argued that emotions provide critical input for the processes of conscious thinking and decision-making in the form of bodily information about the implications of potential actions in the current context. This information Damasio referred to as ‘somatic markers’ – that is, bodily emotional responses that provide feedback that mark current thoughts and plans with positive or negative valences useful in modulating one’s behaviour. Damasio argued that absence of somatic marker feedback was the source of the capriciousness, social insensitivity, and amorality of persons with orbitofrontal brain damage.

4.3.1 Neural systems of somatic markers

Based on research into the behavioural deficiencies of individuals with damage to the orbital frontal areas of the brain, Damasio suggested that these frontal areas provide a relay for feedback information about the emotional state of the body (somatic markers) to the rest of the cerebral cortex for integration into wider forms of mental processing, including the regulation of social and moral behaviour.

Recent research on frontal systems has focused on Von Economo neurons (VENs). VENs are very large neurons found only in inner parts of the frontal lobes – the anterior cingulated gyrus and insula (Allman et al. 2001). The insula and anterior cingulate cortex receive information about the autonomic and visceral state of the body (e.g. heart rate, blood pressure, peripheral blood vessel dilation, muscle tone, etc.). This bodily autonomic/emotional information is relayed to areas throughout the cortex by VENs to inform mental processes about bodily states and responses.

When considering a possibility for action, our body reacts autonomically to the thought of the imagined action. When this response is fed back from the body to cortical processing systems, it marks the thought with a valence learned from previous experiences. For example, a common experience is the bodily discomfort that comes when considering saying something in a conversation that we probably should not say. This feedback provides critical information about the likely personal/social consequences of the action being considered. Thus, as one would expect, both the anterior cingulate gyrus and the insula have been found in functional MRI (fMRI) studies to be markedly active during states related to our evaluation of social outcomes: empathy, shame, trust, and while observing the emotional states of others, as well as during social and moral decision-making.

VENs are relatively unique to the human brain. These neurons are visually distinct such that they can be readily counted under the microscope. These neurons are abundant in the adult human brain and in the brains of four-year-olds, but there are many fewer VENs in the brains of new-born babies. While there are small numbers of VENs in mature higher apes, lower primates and other mammals do not have VENs at all – with the exception of small numbers in very social mammals such as dolphins, whales, and elephants (Allman et al. 2001). The implication is that VENs make bodily autonomic information (somatic markers) available to the human brain in a way it is not available in most animals. Not unexpectedly, VENs are about thirty percent more numerous in the right hemisphere, which is most involved in the processing of interpersonal, social, and emotional information. Due to the abundance of VENs, humans manifest a relatively unique ability to incorporate the emotional feedback from the body into social awareness, intuitive judgments, and behavioural regulation.

Important in Damasio’s argument were descriptions of persons with damage to the orbital frontal area of the brain – including the famous case of Phineas Gage (Damasio 1994). Damage to these brain structures (typically including those areas where VENs are found) often leaves a person unable to make rational decisions, not because they cannot think logically about possibilities, but because the bodily emotions triggered by the behavioural possibilities that are being considered do not feed back to the brain through the damaged orbital frontal cortex. The result is that decision-making is irrational in that contemplated actions have lost access to knowledge about the outcomes of similar past actions that otherwise would have been unconsciously available in bodily responses. Therefore, persons with damage to the orbital frontal cortex are capricious in their social behaviour, often acting inappropriately and without moral anchoring. Interestingly, there is a significant loss of VENs in persons with frontotemporal dementia – a condition characterized by deficiencies in social behaviour.

4.3.2 Somatic markers and Christian life

The behavioural outcome of damage to the orbital frontal cortex suggests the importance of this brain system in engendering a Christian life. In considering practical theology in light of somatic markers, it is important to be clear about the unconscious nature of this behavioural modulation. Whatever somatic markers do to support adequate behaviour is almost entirely without immediate awareness. Most of the moment-to-moment guidance of behaviour is automatically governed by habit and/or the unconscious guidance of bodily autonomic responses based on past experiences and actions. Thus, maturity in Christian life is not so much about the theology one can articulate, but about the theology expressed in one’s accumulated experiences made manifest in somatic guidance of behaviour. Perhaps this realization provides a reasonable interpretation and updating of the Wesleyan ideas of ‘holy tempers’ and ‘heart holiness’.

Late eighteenth-century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote about the possible enhancement of the role of the church in care for the poor, consistent with the notion of developing experienced-based somatic markers that support Christian living (as described by Welker 1999). Schleiermacher pointed out that contemplation of one’s undeserved economic privilege does not elicit feelings and motivations in most people that are sufficient to fuel significant benevolent action. Similarly, individual attempts at helping the poor are typically not very effective, and thus do not yield strong enough rewards and satisfactions for the learning necessary to sustain future action. By contrast, when the church acts as a body on behalf of the poor, the multiplicity of compassionate acts which can occur in a group helps the underprivileged more significantly. What is more (and here was Schleiermacher’s critical point), action within a group strengthens the intensity of the benevolent motivations and sentiments of each individual by strengthening the learning and increasing the likelihood of further action – that is, establishing benevolent-action-experience based somatic markers that are significantly more effective in engendering future behaviour than mere contemplation of the needs of the poor.

4.4 Mirror neurons, social comprehension, and empathy

Neuroscience has demonstrated that the cortical systems that organize and regulate motor activity (‘acts done’) are the same as those used to understand the observed actions of others (‘acts seen’). Observing the acts of others initiates a neural simulation of doing the same action within the motor system of the observer. This process serves as the basis for making sense of the behaviour of others. It has also been suggested that this process is implicated in empathy and imitation (Jeeves and Brown 2009: 78–79).

The idea that the brain uses the same system for both doing and comprehending is based on the discovery of mirror neurons (Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004). Originally, mirror neurons were found in the motor areas of the cerebral cortex of the brain of a monkey and were characterized by being similarly active both while the monkey made a particular movement itself, and while observing the same action being made by another (reviewed by Keysers and Gazzola 2006). Mirroring of the actions of another person amounts to implicitly imagining oneself to be doing the same act. Thus, knowing the meaning (and presumably the intentions) of an action of another person is based on knowing what it would be like if one did the same action.

Christian Keysers and Valeria Gazzola have studied such mirroring using fMRIs while people view pictures of the activities of other individuals (Keysers and Gazzola 2006). When viewing a picture of a person drinking from a cup, the arm and hand areas of the motor cortex become active, suggesting comprehension by mirroring of the action in the picture. However, in persons born without arms who must use a foot to drink from a cup, the foot area of the motor cortex becomes active when viewing this same picture. When one must drink from a cup using a foot, motor mirroring takes place in the areas of the brain controlling the foot, even though the person in the picture is using hands and arms. We mirror as we would do the particular action. These simulations also prime motor circuits in ways that increase the likelihood of imitating the actions being observed. Having observed, we are now ready to do the same thing. What I see others do activates motor activity in me as if I were doing the same act, thus creating neural activity that might cause me to do the same thing, either immediately or in a similar context in the future.

4.4.1 The psychological impact of mirroring

The research and theory around mirror neurons have been considered by some as ‘the most hyped concept in neuroscience’. Nevertheless, current research continues to demonstrate the importance of this neural phenomenon in a number of areas of psychological life. For example, most still consider the phenomenon of action mirroring to be a major contributor to the experience of empathy. By mirroring the action of the other person in our own brain we experience the feelings associated with the action. For example, by implicit neural mirroring of facial expressions and body language we vicariously experience the affects and emotions of the other person.

This relationship between mirroring and empathy has been explicitly shown in studies of brain activity using fMRI. In one study, the participants brought a close friend with them to the testing session. Electrodes capable of delivering an electric shock were placed on the hands of both the participant and the friend. While the participant was in the fMRI scanner, an arrow was presented on each trial indicating whether the participant’s own hand was about to receive a mildly painful electric shock, or whether the friend’s hand would be shocked. It was found that the subjective experience of empathy for a friend’s impending discomfort was based on the occurrence of a very similar pattern of neural activity within the participant’s pain and emotional systems that occurred when the participant received the shock. Thus, interpersonal empathy involves mirroring of the emotional experience of the other person’s pain within one’s own brain (2004). When experiencing empathy for another person, it is at least partially correct to say, ‘I feel your pain’. Interestingly, the mirroring activity in the brains of sociopaths begins, but shuts down rapidly, allowing the person to do cruel things to others without experiencing any empathy for their plight (Keysers and Gazzola 2006). In fact, even rats have been found to show emotional mirroring in activity of anterior cingulate cortex (Carrillo et al. 2019).

As noted, mirror neurons also engender a tendency to imitate behaviours observed. A consistent observation in cognitive psychology is what has been called the ‘perception-behaviour expressway’, also known as the ‘chameleon effect’ (Chartrand and Bargh 1999). By this is meant the strong tendency for people to imitate one another’s behaviours – considered an ‘expressway’ because this imitation is mostly immediate, implicit, and automatic. Interpersonal interactions create reciprocal perception-behaviour tendencies to mirror each other’s body posture, tone of voice, affects, direction of gaze, etc. In dialogue we become empathetically attuned to one another.

The tendency to imitate the actions of others is also important in children’s growing sense of themselves and their social development. This linkage between observed and imitated behaviour lays the groundwork for a child’s ability to link the first-person experiences of what it is like to behave in a certain way, with the third-person experiences of their observations of the behaviour of others. Psychologist Andrew Meltzoff and neuroscientist Jean Decety (Meltzoff and Decety 2003) have shown that within hours of birth infants will imitate the facial gestures of another person. Imitation of facial expressions begins a social give-and-take between parent and child. Tendencies to engage in reciprocal imitation build into the cognitive system of a child the idea that others are ‘like me’ – an important step in the development of an understanding of the intentions, feelings, and experiences of other persons, that is, a theory of mind.

Finally, it has been shown the comprehension of the narrative of a story, whether heard or read, requires mirroring of the actions and experiences of the characters in the story. We comprehend the human actions described by running a simulation in our own motor systems, and consequently we also know what the action is like and what the characters must feel. We comprehend by simulating and empathizing.

4.4.2 The role of mirroring in Christian life

Given the critical role of interpersonal relatedness in a life that could be called Christian (e.g. ‘love one another’), it is not difficult to appreciate the important role of the mirror neuron system and its capacity to engender social understanding, empathy, and imitation. Similarly, it is important to recognize the role of both empathy and imitation in Christian formation. As we observe other Christians and run mirror simulations of what they do, say, and feel, our action systems are primed to imitate at the moment or in some similar context in the future. As we imitate the behaviours of others, and have empathetic experiences for their feelings, we are formed, for better or worse. Similarly, hearing and understanding biblical stories engenders behavioural and affective mirroring that can foster imitation in the lives of the hearers.

5 Relating neuroscience to scripture, doctrine, and church practice

This article’s form is a product of both selection and constraints (section 3.4.3). Selection among other possible neuroscience and theology topics, and two constraints: one is to treat this Encyclopaedia’s key themes of scripture, and the believer in community; the second is the purpose of describing the neuroscience behind cognitive abilities that contribute to the lived practices of the Christian church.

The practices and social orientations addressed include the following. The results of ACC and limitations it causes in decreased ability to form tight community connections, to fully understand Bible study, preaching, and the meanings embodied in rituals. The frontal lobes, due to slow maturation, enhance human opportunities for absorbing the language and culture of the church, thus inculcating Christian virtues, and an openness to receipt of the fruits of the Spirit; also the inhibitory abilities needed for contemplation and attentiveness in worship. Somatic markers, as records of bodily experiences associated with action, provide much of what is needed for immediately responding appropriately in social and moral situations, such as recognizing and responding to people in need. Mirror neurons are perhaps the most powerful source of empathy, providing strong motivation for Christian action, priming for participating church practices, and again, imitation of the virtuous behaviour of others. The overall conclusion is that specific neurobiological features enable the practices of the church, which in turn give life to the verbal expressions of doctrine and theology. It is important to note that the higher-order capacities described that are important to Christian life are emergent properties of an embodied human being.

While the account above addresses what might be called the logical order of the task, the actual structure is reversed. Beginning with section 1 (biblical and theological constraints on Christian conceptions of human nature), the second section, devoted as much as it is to philosophy, suggests that the article’s title might well have been ‘Christian Theology, Philosophy, and Neuroscience’. A practical explanation is that philosophy constrains what can meaningfully be said and argued successfully in our current context. However, there are broader justifications for what may have seemed like a detour through philosophy. While philosophy today is clearly demarcated from both theology and science, this has not always been the case. For practical apologetic purposes, Jews, whose long tradition had not been characterized much by concern with philosophical issues, needed language to communicate with the broader Hellenized world of their day. So, careful restatements of ideas that we could now call doctrine or theology resulted in the indistinguishability, until surprisingly recently, of ‘theology’ and ‘philosophy’.

Similarly, what we know as science was intimately bound to that amalgamated philosophy and theology until surprisingly recently. It was only in 1833 that William Whewell coined the term ‘science’. Immanuel Kant provided the late-eighteenth-century philosophical rationale for the distinction. So, the natural philosophers and natural theologians of early modernity have now been tucked into our current three silos: scientists, philosophers, and theologians.

There has been a standard order of thought throughout most recent theology, which was to begin with philosophical foundations (theological prolegomena, fundamental theology), and only then take up, theological doctrines, whose implications would then be addressed in practical theology and ethics. McClendon has noted that too many theologians meant to leave ethics (better: ‘discipleship’) to last, but ended up leaving it out (1986: 42).

Unfortunately, this article may seem to follow the same order. But it is hoped that knowledge of what to look for in neuroscience, among countless other developments, exhibits its origins in the practical experiences of communal worship, Bible study, fellowship, support for those in need, and so on. It all begins, or should begin, in the life of the local church.


Copyright Nancey Murphy, Warren S. Brown (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Damasio, Antonio R. 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons.
    • Green, Joel. 2008. Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
    • Keysers, Christian. 2009. The Empathic Brain: How the Discovery of Mirror Neurons Changes Our Understanding of Human Nature. Createspace Independent Publishing.
    • Martin, Raymond, and John Barresi. 2006. The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity. New York: Columbia University Press.
    • Murphy, Nancey, and Warren S. Brown. 2007. Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Murphy, Nancey, G. F. R. Ellis, and Timothy O’Connor (eds). 2009. Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will. Berlin: Springer.
    • Quartz, Steven, and Terrence Sejnowski. 2003. Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are. New York: Harper Collins.
    • Scott, Alwyn. 1995. Stairway to the Mind: The Controversial New Science of Consciousness. New York: Springer-Verlag.
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