Field of Science

Will There be a Neuroscience Culture War?

Martha Farah (Neuroscientist, UPenn) and Nancey Murphy (Theologian, Fuller Theological Seminary), writing in a recent issue of Science, argue that "neuroscience will post a far more fundamental challenge than evolutionary biology to many religions."

The reason is straightforward:

Most religions endorse the idea of a soul (or spirit) that is distinct from the physical body ... However, as neuroscience begins to reveal the mechanisms underlying personality, love, morality, and spirituality, the idea of a ghost in the machine becomes strained. Brain imaging indicates that all of these traits have physical correlates in brain function. Furthermore, pharmacologic influences on these traits, as well as the effects of localized stimulation or damage, demonstrate that the brain processes in question are not mere correlates but are the physical bases of these central aspects of our personhood. If these aspects of the person are all features of the machine, why have a ghost at all? [Emphasis mine.]
While not at all detracting from their point, it's interesting that neuroscience does not yet seem to be a major target of religious conservatives. The authors argue that such a backlash is a brewin' ("'Nonmaterialist neuroscience' has joined 'intelligent design' as an alternative interpretation of scientific data"), but the evidence is a recently published book. The term gets a paltry number of Google hits, the first few of which, at least, are people attacking the concept.

They make one further interesting point: dualism is a relatively new concept, which came into existence about a century later than Jesus. By implication, those who insist on a strict interpretation of the Bible actually should support materialism. If the culture war comes, this is unlikely to make a compelling argument, but it does say something very interesting about human nature.


Neuroskeptic said...

To be honest I get the feeling that many neuroscientists are just itching for their to be a culture war over neuroscience - it would make life more interesting. Why else would so many people be writing about it before it's started?...

Thoughts said...

What about non-materialist physicalism? See Materialists should read this first

Anonymous said...

Curiously, the term "ghost in the machine" was coined by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his 1949 book "The Concept of Mind" and was meant to emphasize the absurdity of dualist systems like that of Rene Descartes that separate mental states and physical mechanisms. Philosophers like Ryle really didn't believe in the "ghost" in the first place. Now arguably Descartes did and Descartes certainly was sensitive to religious teaching about the soul. But how that translates into a potential "culture war" with fundamentalists, I am not so sure. Maybe someone could do an MRI on an unborn fetus. (-: