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?