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Home » Science and Theology » Cognitive Neuroscience » “Neuroscience, Nolition, and Kenotic Moral Cognition” by Rev. Dr. Ron Choong, doctoral dissertation (Princeton Theological Seminary) / Chapter 4: “Neuroscience and Moral Cognition: Why are We Moral and not Merely Altruistic?”

“Neuroscience, Nolition, and Kenotic Moral Cognition” by Rev. Dr. Ron Choong, doctoral dissertation (Princeton Theological Seminary) / Chapter 4: “Neuroscience and Moral Cognition: Why are We Moral and not Merely Altruistic?”



Ok, granted that there was A LOT of material covered in Ron’s Chapt.4 of his dissertation, but the one that interested me the most was the “Biology of Memory”.

It was fascinating to see how we need “protein synthesis to make the necessary amino acids to grow dentritic spines” and how the “flow of electrochemical signals changes the shape and chemistry of the networks and thus, the information they store – as memories.” (p. 118)  Essentially, when we want to store information or experiences, a physiological change happens.  This brings to mind Gregory Peterson when he writes, “A religious transformation is also a psychological transformation. It is even a biological one.” (Minding God, pg. 95)  In other words, when one experiences conversion or is “born-again” there’s a physiological/biological change that occurs in our brain.  So therefore, there are lots of electrochemical signals and synaptic formations that are happening left and right as new memories are being formed and physically held at the dendritic spines and synaptic levels.

However, we have to bear in mind as LeDoux writes that, “[memory] is stored as circuits in the brain to be recalled and modified with each remembrance.  Each time we remember, we modify our memories.”  (p. 119)  So chances are, we won’t remember events perfectly, no matter how strongly our emotions tell us that they really  happened that way.  For different reasons, as time progresses, we store more information, experience more things in life, when we recall certain memories, we’ll (unconsciously?) modify and embellish them.

This brings to mind how we deal with personal testimonies.  Christians love hearing and giving testimonies.  We are a testimonial faith.  Oftentimes we feel great emotions when we hear them; persons giving their testimonies likewise have strong emotions when recollecting and sharing their testimonies with others.  And we trust that their testimonies are true and that they aren’t fabricating them for some egotistical or other reason.  I wonder how consciously or unconsciously personal testimonies are modified or rearranged as they’re being retold.  We selectively choose what to highlight, perhaps even adding bits here and there to make it more dramatic or spiritual, and then choose to ignore bits that may seem embarrassing or confusing.  But then another scarier aspect creeps in where false memories are involved, yet we’re convinced that these experiences happened, especially when we’ve formed emotional bonds with those memories.  (As a sidenote, this brings to mind the movie “Blade Runner” where androids were implanted with false memories to make them more human.  These memories never happened to them (like childhood memories of their “parents”), but the androids were convinced that they really experienced them.)  This doesn’t necessarily negate his or her testimony, but from now on it will give me some reason to pause (or be more prudent) when listening to one and also when I’m listening to a sermon and I hear other testimonies of great miracles, healings, visions, etc., that chances are very, very likely that that’s probably not exactly the way it really happened.   Everything gets filtered through our subjective interpretations.  Oftentimes, we see reality the way we want it to be seen.  Furthermore, this just doesn’t happen during religious talks, but just when talking about our own autobiographies.  God knows I’ve altered many aspects of my autobiography when I went on dates to make myself more attractive to the opposite sex and increase my chances for a favorable future possibility of perpetuating my genes with her!  But that’s a different story…

Another interesting point about false memories is that “We believe a belief not because we know it to be true but because we believe it to be trustworthy.”  (p. 121)  And furthermore, “Memory is a willful and imaginative act of selection that eliminates vast amounts of information to carve out a personal narrative.”  (p. 122)  This gives an explanation, I believe, to the various differing accounts of the narratives in the gospels that in a strange way gives it more credibility.  The gospel narratives, especially the synoptic gospels it can be argued are willful, imaginative, and purposefully selective writings that eliminate vase amounts of information to carve out a personal narrative of Jesus to make Jesus more memorable to the authors’ intended audience.  For instance, there are contradicting accounts of who witnessed the Resurrection – were there 2, 3, 4 or more witnesses?  Also the account of how Judas died is another.  Somewhere along the line, stories from witnesses and such were handed down, but as they recalled them, they’d inevitably get modified and embellished, and yes, [gasp!] more likely than not false memories were involved as well – it’s the most human thing to do.  Again, we must bear in mind that,

“No two recollections of the same event are identical because each recall is interpreted anew, contextualized by new peripheral knowledge or loss of old knowledge.  While consciousness, emotions and memory mutually reinforce each other in performing function of the moral mind, emotions play a major role in the construction of religious beliefs by constructing trusting relationships.”  (p. 123)

It goes without saying that the apostles and others who were close to Jesus had a close emotional bond with Jesus which shaped and formed their recollections of him.  And these strong emotional recollections and testimonies in turn shaped the memories of the early church regarding Jesus.


“The theological basis of memory for moral cognition relies greatly upon the adoptive authority assigned to the testimonial witnesses of the collective community of faith… the text of the Bible forms the collective theological [imperfect and highly selective] memory of the people of God… Hence, our inherited notions of how the Bible reveals God to humanity (theology) is constantly revised by our increasing knowledge of the world around us (science).” (p. 122)

Knowing this, we should form a more robust apologetic when confronted by others concerning the trustworthiness of the gospel accounts or the Bible itself.


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