Academic journal article Ethics & Medicine

Till We Have Minds

Academic journal article Ethics & Medicine

Till We Have Minds

Article excerpt


Nothing is yet in its true form.

C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces1

A panel of Princeton University scientists recently gathered together to deliberate "whether strong religious belief can coexist with reliance on science."2 Constraining their definition of truth to "factual human knowledge," the panel, led by professor of molecular biology Lee Silver, posed the provocative question, whether "science has effectively demonstrated that religious beliefs have no place in the rational mind."2 How one decides that question guides the answer to a related question essential for the Christian physician. How can faith in Jesus Christ coexist with medical science?

Central to newfound confidence in the claim that science has superseded faith is the expanding scientific account not only of nature but also of human nature. At the leading edge of this research, neuro science is unveiling spectacular discoveries about the brain. Neuron by neuron, the brain is yielding its intimate details to sophisticated neurochemical, neurogenetic and neuroimaging methodologies. The molecular basis of perception, reasoning, decision, faith and belief- every category of thought - has become accessible to the scrutiny of neuro science. Neuroscience thus offers an increasingly detailed account - in purely physical terms - of mental processes that previously were understood to be within the purview of philosophy, religion and the arts.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which detects regional increases in blood flow that accompany neural activity, has become a powerful tool to investigate the neuronal architecture of the brain systems underlying specific cognitive functions. Whereas in the past, localizing brain functions relied on the study of patients with brain lesions that happened to destroy those functions,3 fMRI permits precise, noninvasive, spatial and temporal resolution of psychological processes in the intact, living brain. Brain regions showing increased metabolic activity over baseline will "light up" on fMRI scans. Language, for example, has been mapped in this way, as fMRI studies have shown involvement of the occipital cortex in reading text, the left posterior temporal lobe (Wernicke's area) in comprehending language, the right temporal lobe in assessing context, and the left inferior frontal lobe (Broca's area) in producing speech.4

In recent years fMRI has turned to investigating the moral domain. Studies of subjects presented with moral dilemmas have shown that there is no one moral center in the brain.5'6 Rather, moral thought corresponds to a complex network of complementary cognitive processes traceable to a variety of discrete brain regions. Moral discernment engages systems of sensory decoding and abstract reasoning. Intuitive judgments heed long-term memories' emotional tags. Conscious decision integrates the sometimes competing neural streams of reasoning and intuition in the dorsolateral prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices, where there exists what C. S. Lewis recognized metaphorically as a liaison between "cerebral man and visceral man."7'8 Finally, implementation, planning, and self-control of moral action require healthy frontal lobes.

Religious thought, too, has reclined under the scanner for analysis. Some of the brain correlates of belief and disbelief have recently been identified.9 Just as for language and moral judgment, investigations have not found any one "God spot" in the brain, as if religious ideas were compartmentalized and detached from other thoughts and concerns.

In an experiment that produced a brain phenomenon apparently indistinguishable from spiritual experience, neuro scientist Michael Persinger applied transcranial magnetic stimulation to the cerebral cortex of healthy volunteers. Even when the subjects were not told that the device was turned on, they reported a mystical sense of another's presence.10 Philosopher Patricia Churchland cites that study as evidence that all religious experiences are ultimately neurobiological in cause. …

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