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Home » Science and Theology » Cognitive Neuroscience » “From Cells to Souls- and Beyond: Changing Portraits of Human Nature” – Malcolm Jeeves, Ed. / Chapter 3: “The Vulnerability of Persons: Religion and Neurology” by David Parkes

“From Cells to Souls- and Beyond: Changing Portraits of Human Nature” – Malcolm Jeeves, Ed. / Chapter 3: “The Vulnerability of Persons: Religion and Neurology” by David Parkes




In this chapter, David Parkes (a clinical and research neurologist) explores whether there can be real freedom of choice that underlies human behavior and what role genetics and the environment influence brain activity.  He begins his chapter by telling how recent advances in science, neuropsychology, neuro-imaging, and genetics have all transformed the way we think about the human person.  If we then add our proclivity towards religion into the framework, then the problem of defining a person becomes much deeper.

Parkes explores the physical structures within the human brain and asks how much of our actions are really under our conscious control.  Take for instance the hypothalamus, which is responsible for our internal “clocks” and is like a “control center” of many of the autonomic processes of life, like sleep, growth, and reproduction.  It may even control the time of birth and death.  It also allows for a sense of consciousness and spiritual awareness.  Any damage to the hypothalamus reveals that at least part of our lives is not controllable, at least not by ourselves.  He says, yes we are automata; but not entirely.  Diseases like Parkinson’s, the wild spontaneous dance of those with chorea, the twisting postures of dystonia, Tourette’s syndrome, and compulsive thoughts of killing, were found to have organic causes (brain damage) for many conditions previously thought to lie solely in the mind.  These diseases prompted questions about the neurological basis of will and what determined freedom.  Was the brain to be seen as the origin of involuntary action, and the mind being the source of will?  Despite great advances in scientific knowledge, we still have no answer for “Who moves the Mover?”

Parkes then moves on to survey the mind-brain connection.  Here he discusses how our emotions play a dominant role when it comes to decision-making and how unaware we are of them.  For instance, atheists may vehemently dislike religion, but their emotions may fight back and despite all say, “I believe”.  Our feelings of pleasure, sex, and gratification are all produced by the electrical stimulation of the frontal and temporal lobes with the limbic system.  Diseases within these brain areas can produce severe abnormal or psychopathic behavior.  Feelings of depression, sadness, and despair are all characteristic of fronto-temporal-limbic damage of people suffering from multiple sclerosis.  The dominant role of emotions over knowledge in religious life may have at its heart the organization of the brain, and the strength of the activation of individual areas of the brain in response to the level of feeling.  Damage or disease to the frontal lobes of the brain (that are usually associated with higher cognitive functions like judgment, planning, decision-making, etc.) can cause loss of humility, wisdom, moral life, and can even be the cause of irreligiosity.  In all, Parkes wants to establish that there is an inextricable connection between our physical brain and our mental thoughts and actions.

A sense of mystery is present in almost all forms of religion.  Can they be explained by structures in the brain?  People with synethesia can “see” music in their minds with color; can religious mystical experiences be attributed to synethesia?  Diseases in parts of the brain with no known link to visual pathways can cause hallucinations; some can even become paralyzed by experiencing strong emotions.  When it comes to heavenly visions, scientists can easily dismiss them as mental delusions, but a theologian would see these as avenues to meet God.  Some visions of God don’t rely on physical sight; blind persons can have powerful experiences of God even though they cannot see.

In terms of consciousness, to Parkes, it seems to require a philosophical rather than a scientific description.  Many attempts to describe or locate consciousness through scientific means have come up short.  For Parkes, then, he believes that consciousness may not be entirely personal, but instead there might be a “shared” consciousness.  For instance, we might get an overwhelming sense of being in touch with things outside of ourselves like beauty, truth, creation, etc.  In some states of intense prayer, consciousness doesn’t seem to belong to us, but instead seems to spread out beyond ourselves and our world.

Finally, when it comes to the soul, again like consciousness, science has very little to say anything meaningful about it.  But for the Christian, the “soul” is described as the relationship between humans and God – something that is not a scientifically measureable construct.  When it comes to language, it forms a major divide between science and theology; in science the use of language is exact, but theological language expresses itself in metaphors and many different levels of meaning.  The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein recognized this when he said that ideas of God transcend those of linguistics; the certitudes of faith are found in many non-linguistic situations: in music, in liturgy, and even humor.  When we experience God, who is divine love, we come in contact with a mystery that animates the essential part of us all, where the physical brain and the mind meet the divine. There is a deep sense of relationship within this love that embraces all of creation, wherein lies the deepest mystery of all.



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