We often hear that modern science requires us to reject traditional Christian views of the human person. The argument goes something like this: If we can see the physical process by which ideas are associated or feelings felt or decisions made, then surely we must admit that human beings are nothing more than physical entities. The concept of a soul, so we are told, is irrelevant.
Well, it turns out that science now points us in a different direction. These days, cognitive scientists are doing experiments that use MRI technology to visualize the brain while subjects undergo experiences, solve problems, and make decisions. This approach allows scientists to see and theorize about the significance and sources of patterns in our brains, patterns that shape the way we respond to the world. We are learning about the highway system of neurological movement, which turns out to be decisive for the way our minds work.
The new emphasis on patterns of neural activity suggests an important support for the traditional Christian understanding of the soul. The cutting edge of brain science makes it clear that it is as foolish to say that our brains are just neurons as it is to say that highways are just concrete and asphalt. After all, what matters to the motorist is the way in which the concrete is organized to create an interlocking system of usable roads. The same holds for the gray matter inside our heads.
The Christian tradition has long taught the same thing about the human person. St. Thomas drew on Aristotle's philosophy to define the soul as the form of the body. The soul is the pattern or highway system that organizes our bodies, including, of course, our brains.
What’s striking, however, is that the new scientific work on the brain offers an even more interesting and dramatic confirmation of traditional views of the soul. In a recent MRI study, “The Vulcanization of the Human Brain: A Neural Perspective on Interactions Between Cognition and Emotion,” Princeton brain scientist Jonathan D. Cohen has looked at patterns of brain activity while subjects respond to moral dilemmas and make moral decisions. It turns out that the brain patterns related to moral decisions need to be trained. The soul must be disciplined.
Our solutions to ethical problems, Cohen’s work shows, are influenced by the intercommunication between different parts of the brain. Subjects with a high degree of neural activity linking the brain stem to the frontal lobe tend to allow emotional responses to override rational assessments of moral dilemmas. Subjects make more rational decisions, he reports, when the neurological activity from the primitive part of the brain is blocked from interfering with the frontal lobe. Cohen then concludes that these patterns of open and blocked communication are not fixed by nature. They solidify over time. Our brain patterns are vulcanized, as he puts it, and this occurs by the constant repetition of these patterns. The river cuts its channel.
When I read Cohen’s results and analysis, I felt as though Aristotle and his views of the soul were being vindicated rather than overturned. As Aristotle makes clear in his Nichomachean Ethics, virtue depends on the formation of good habits, and they require careful and comprehensive discipline of the soul. Now, contemporary brain science and Cohen’s picture of the vulcanized brain lead pretty much to the same, Aristotelian vision of the soul shaped by virtuesor vices.
The Christian tradition adds the ambitions of holiness to Aristotle’s ideal of virtue, but the same view of the soul is at work. Whether infused by God as supernatural virtues or won by ascetic discipline, the soul worthy of fellowship with God is not gilded with a strange, ethereal substance. The soulthe patterns of the body and especially the brainis “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
So much for the confident materialists who thought they had the facts on their side. Today’s science seems to confute yesterday’s scientific propagandists. As David Brooks observed in a recent column, “The momentum has shifted away from hardcore materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief, and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings.”
Daniel Dennett, call your office: The human person is pretty much what the Christian tradition has always assumed. We’re not just stuff. We’re stuff given life in a very special way: We’re animals with rational souls capable of remarkable change and development. Precisely because a human soul is unstable, and subject to influence, and hardening over time, the Christian tradition has put a great deal of weight on moral and spiritual discipline in order to “vulcanize” the networks that lead to properly ordered emotions, thoughts, and decisions. Now it seems that brain science is showing that the traditional emphasis on moral and spiritual discipline was exactly right.
Of course, times have changed. You don’t need to be a sophisticated cultural historian to know that the last century has seen a massive critique and rejection of moral discipline, especially the kind that once worked very hard to pattern our brains not to give in to sexual instincts.
It was with this cultural fact in mind that I returned my attention to Cohen’s experiments. It turns out that sexual desires are closely associated with the primitive, pre-cognitive part of the brain that Cohen has shown can build durable pathways to the frontal lobe. These durable pathways threaten to flood our capacity to reason with lots of seething, unsettling neural activity more suited to instinctive life than rational reflection. Our souls, as every traditional thinker has recognized, can be disordered. This is does not conduce to good decision-making, or good behavior.
Aristotle thought that the virtues were connected somehow, so much so that he doubted that a man could be both courageous and a glutton, or prudent while nonetheless intemperate. Here again today’s science seems to vindicate the old view. I’ve long marveled at the way in which the radical left celebrates our sexual freedom while denouncing greed and the impulse to dominate others. The vices are linked, as the new research seems to show. The neural patterns between the frontal lobe and the brain stem do not know nice distinctions between the private morality and public morality. It’s a distinction much insisted upon by modern liberal antinomians who want to reassure us that the liberated id will not threaten the public good.
Doubtless it's difficult to “vulcanize” patterns that preserve the autonomy of the frontal lobe in a brain that, as evolutionary theory teaches us, has inherited a great deal from its primitive ancestors. So, maybe a severe Puritanical attention to moral discipline was right after all. Maybe the intense moral pressure of traditional morality is necessary in order to achieve the stable neural patterns that prevent our instinctual responses from overwhelming our reasoned responses. Perhaps the common good depends on the presence of virtuous, disciplined citizens who have been habituated to deny themselves immediate, instinctual satisfactions.
But I’m just speculating. We are presently engaged in a vast social experiment of moral relaxation that, we are told, will promote human happiness by freeing our instinctual desires from irrational repressions. Time will tell whether private hedonists are capable of being effective public servants.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.
“The Vulcanization of the Human Brain: A Neural Perspective on Interactions Between Cognition and Emotion” by Jonathan D. Cohen
“The Neural Buddhists” by David Brooks