Brief notes on

Christian faith, brain research, and psychology

Michael Covington
University of Georgia

It is often widely assumed that current psychology and brain research are incompatible with Christian faith. I do not think so. Here are a few brief notes about key issues.

If consciousness is a physical activity in the brain, then where is the immortal soul that Jesus died for?

(In what follows I do not distinguish between "mind" and "soul." I'm talking about the seat of consciousness and self-aware identity.)

Most Christians today are Cartesian dualists; that is, they believe that the "soul" is a ghostly object that somehow inhabits the body, and flies away to Heaven or Hell at death.

Cartesian dualism goes back only to the time of Descartes, about 400 years ago. Previously (and, I contend, biblically), Christians have had somewhat different views of the soul. Note in particular that in the Bible we do not hear of souls flying around without bodies. The Bible strongly indicates that souls in Heaven and Hell are embodied somehow, in some sort of matter that is not part of the physical universe.

In the 1200s, St. Thomas Aquinas articulated a very clear view of the soul and body that is derived from Aristotle's. It says that the soul and body are related as form and matter.

To see what this means, consider this question: "If computation is a physical activity in a computer, then where is the software that the computer scientist studies?"

You can, of course, reduce a computer to electronics. When you do, however, you are ignoring most of the things that make it a computer. The software does not cease to exist when you choose to study only its embodiment.

According to Aristotle and Aquinas, the relation of mind to body is somewhat like the relation of software to hardware. In this earthly life, it is embodied in the human body, and it cannot function without that body. Going to Heaven or Hell means being re-embodied in some other kind of matter. This is, I think, consistent with all that the Bible teaches, though it is not Cartesian.

Hasn't science made the concept of free will obsolete?

If thinking and mental decision-making are merely physical events, and if physical events are the inevitable results of their causes, then people don't have free will and are not morally accountable. But those are big ifs.

First, saying that thinking is embodied in physical events is not necessarily the same as saying that thinking is physical events. But I leave that question to the philosophers.

Second, it is amusing that psychologists are latching onto the idea of mechanical determinism just at the time when physicists are abandoning it. We live in a quantum universe. Admittedly, it's a long way from quantum indeterminacy to free will, but at least the gate is open.

Third, even if people had no free will, they could still be considered morally accountable in the same way that the defective part of a machine (rather than some other part) is "accountable" for a malfunction.

Fourth, beware of circular reasoning. Psychologists study that parts of the human mind that work mechanically. They have to assume that things work mechanically in order to study them. But until the complete working of a mind is predicted mechanically - which has never been done - the assumption that the mind is mechanical will be no more than an assumption.

Aren't religious beliefs simply psychological wish-fulfillments?

It is argued (e.g., by Freud) that religious beliefs are delusions or illusions with psychological causes.

This strikes me as putting the cart before the horse. To prove that something is an illusion, first you have to prove that it is false. Then you can investigate the psychological causes of the illusion.

Thus, if you could prove definitively that there is no God, you could then construct psychological explanations of the God-illusion.

Even then, your psychological explanations might not be scientific. That is, they might not be testable. They might be empty speculations. If the mind had worked differently, you could equally well have spun a different "explanation." This shows that your psychology does not really tell you how the mind works; if it did, you'd be able to make predictions. Instead you "explain" everything after the fact.

If we have a psychological instinct - or even a brain center - that makes us believe in God, that does not prove that there is no God. After all, we have instincts and brain centers for food and sex, too - and no one claims that food and sex are illusions.

Granted, "religious" experiences can be induced by drugs or by brain stimulation. So can visual hallucinations. We do not conclude from this that vision is all just an illusion.

Some people believe in God because of a deep psychological need. But there are also psychological reasons for not believing in God. (It is perhaps no accident that militant atheism often goes along with contempt for one's parents and/or one's predecessors.) Until you determine on independent grounds whether God exists, you have no basis for saying that belief or disbelief in Him is a delusion.