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Are our deepest feelings just the product of brain chemistry? Graham Lawton of Slate kicks that idea around with Patricia Churchland, author of Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain who “says our hopes, loves and very existence are just elaborate functions of a complicated mass of grey tissue.”

Graham Lawton: You compare revelations in neuroscience with the discoveries that the Earth goes around the sun and that the heart is a pump. What do you think these ideas have in common?

Patricia Churchland: They challenge a whole framework of assumptions about the way things are. For Christians, it was very important that the Earth was at the center of the universe. Similarly, many people believed that the heart was somehow what made us human. And it turned out it was just a pump made of meat.

I think the same is true about realizing that when we’re conscious, when we make decisions, when we go to sleep, when we get angry, when we’re fearful, these are just functions of the physical brain. Coming to terms with the neural basis of who we are can be very unnerving. It has been called “neuroexistentialism,” which really captures the essence of it. We’re not in the habit of thinking about ourselves that way.

What are the implications of Churchland’s argument for people of faith?


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tobias haller

Ah, well, that explains it. Or rather it doesn’t, since it has no interest in the Why question — and can only offer a description instead of an explanation. Not being interested in that question, however, doesn’t in itself prove that there is no answer. Or that radical materialism is the placeholder for an answer.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Tobias, No, the universe does not “wake up” and become conscious. That would be prosopopoeia, representing an inanimate object or absent person as speaking. The universe does not speak. Apostrophe is a similar term. Ventriloquizing the absent or dead other is a feature of language.

Language would be part of natural selection, something that was achieved at random, without any planning or purpose.

Science doesn’t deal with the why but only the how.

Gary Paul Gilbert

tobias haller

Thank you, Murdoch. And Gary, That is more or less what I was trying to say above. The question raised by Jim was “What does this [Churchland assertion] have to say to people of faith.”

I appreciate the thoughts about language and symbol. I was a language major before getting into theater and then the church… so all of these things are important to me. But the question must be raised: if language and symbol are the things that give shape to the universe, where do they come from? Do they simply arise as a process of the working of the anti-entropy upbuilding of complex forms leading to self-consciousness? Does the universe “wake up” at some point and recognize itself for the first time? Perhaps so; but that still doesn’t answer the ultimate question, Why? One can take the zen approach and say, “No why! Just is!” And I’m fine with that. But that is in itself a faith statement. Some see God as a Why, others as an Is. Perhaps God is just the name we give to our questions or our answers…


Love and meaning are human concepts. Projecting them onto the universe worked better before we knew about the billions of years preceding humankind and the vast and impersonal forces of the cosmos.

Says who? I can look at Hubble Telescope pictures of stars&galaxies long since burned out, *or* look at the bones of pre-Homo sapiens hominids, and feel MORE confident about Love&Meaning projected, BOTH within the self and onto the universe. Alleluia!

It seems to me that, if our brains are receivers for Divine transmission, there should be more consistency in the messages. Instead, we must constantly “discern” the will of God, distinguish between the gospel of love and inclusion and the gospel of sin and punishment.

“If God is God, then God SHOULD ___________” is a pretty bog-standard objection. OK, if that’s what you believe. Certainly the repetition of this objection hasn’t weakened my faith (i.e. trust). “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”: same thing, *for me*, w/ a God who didn’t have to be constantly (and subjectively, via our individual brainmeat) discerned.

JC Fisher

Gary Paul Gilbert

Nelson Goodman emphasizes the importance of language and the impossibility of getting outside of symbols. People swim in language. In physics the earth moves, but in everyday activities such as getting off a bus, the earth doesn’t move.

Some of the brain research is disappointing because it replaces “mind” in Cartesian dualism with the word “brain,” as if that could solve anything. The human person is more than an animated hunk of meat. Greek mind/body dualism lives on in science,especially when it claims to have escaped dualism.

As Kant said of the faith of seminary students, it can’t be tested because faith is untestable. Who else would answer a public essay competition on such a question? It is, as Kierkegaard said, a leap of faith. Scholarship can be tested but not faith.

It is like Wittgenstein saying that if one were lost in the woods at night and thought one saw a light, then one mind as follow what appears to be a sign. Maybe it is the way to go or maybe it isn’t.

The point is to do something and gladly move on if the hypothesis is wrong.

Gary Paul Gilbert

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