Book Preview: Am I Just My Brain?

mind brain-544404_640 John Hain pixabay copy
John Hain, Pixabay

I will never forget the day I saw a human brain removed from a corpse. At that moment, I was already very familiar with the human brain, having spent years imaging and studying it. Yet, this experience was different altogether.

A group of us, dressed in green robes, wearing blue plastic shoes, were in a dissection room in a medical school. The  icy formality matched the cold air of the surroundings. The pungent smell of formaldehyde, used to preserve human tissue, filled our nostrils. The body of an older woman lay on the bench before us. Continue reading

When Christians disagree

Shortly before New Year an episode of the programme ‘Belief’ was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 that included an interview by Joan Bakewell with Faraday Institute Director Denis Alexander. (I have waited so long before making this post because I had hoped to link to the recording, but it disappeared for a few months. Here it is.)

The interview was an in-depth conversation with Denis Alexander about his beliefs as a Christian and a scientist. As someone who knows Denis fairly well, it was interesting to hear more about his life and faith. The first third of the interview covered his early life – growing up in a Christian home, how he came to personal faith at the age of 13, and his experiences as a student in Oxford in the 1960s (during which he was president of ‘OICCU’ – the Inter Varsity Fellowship Christian Union).  There were also quite a few questions about his 15 years working in the Middle East. In the remaining 20 minutes or so of the interview Denis clearly and concisely handled a series of very direct questions from Bakewell on everything from the evidence for the resurrection to the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and explained the Christian gospel in a very clear and relevant way.

What I found most striking and challenging in this interview was when Denis Alexander referred to the particular ethical dilemma that he encountered in Beirut when helping to set up the new National Unit of Human Genetics there in the early 1980s. This was the first time that a prenatal diagnostic clinic was established in the Arab World, so Denis was faced with the question as to what prenatal genetic tests should be established – involving therapeutic abortions for the affected foetus – all this done in the midst of a civil war without the benefit of an ethics committee. Although generally anti-abortion, the decision that Denis came to was to test for those genetic diseases that caused slow, painful death in children less than the age of around 8-10 years – a ‘liberal’ view for those who think that abortion is wrong under all circumstances.

I have thought long and hard about this interview and my own reaction to it, and am left with this thought. During his own ministry Jesus focused on a few key issues, and showed a surprising amount of indifference to subjects that are now hotly debated in Christian circles. Among his close group of followers were a tax collector who collaborated with the Romans, and a Zealot who had sworn to kill them. Developing a working theology around the issue of war just didn’t seem to be on the horizon at all for Jesus, though it was – like abortion – a matter of absolute life and death. For Jesus’ followers, their relationship with him and their focus on the primary issues cemented them together as a group that remained cohesive long after his death and resurrection, and together they impacted the world in a way that has never been seen before or since.

Of course Christians do need to debate these secondary issues and try to resolve our differences. But when that doesn’t happen we need to keep working together. The fact that I was tempted not to mention Denis Alexander’s interview on this blog because of the abortion issue shows how some topics can distract us from other very helpful things – like a scientist baring his soul and defending his Christian beliefs in a very public broadcast.

Wired for belief

I just listened to a lecture on ‘Apparitions, Alien Abductions and Hearing the Voice of God’ by Glynn Harrison, a Christian psychiatrist from Bristol University. His take on spiritual experience is similar to that of the psychologist  Justin Barrett, who works on childhood belief at Oxford, but he spends a bit longer explaining the application of the scientific knowledge from a Christian point of view.

The film Evan Almighty is about a man who hears God

Harrison explained that, based on research in cognitive psychology, we can see that our brains are wired to find meaning in our experiences. For example, we might see anthropomorphic images in random patterns. Everyone uses these non-rational intuitive thought patterns to make sense of the world, alongside more ‘scientific’ rational step by step processes. And these might result in ‘non-rational beliefs’. So as well as accepting that vegetables are good for us and that 2 plus 2 is 4, we would probably avoid buying a serial killer’s house,  or we might think it was perfectly reasonable to pay more for a dress worn by Marylin Monroe than an identical one from a charity shop.

But these intuitive thought processes can sometimes get us into trouble. People hear voices (it’s more common than you think) and ascribe significance to them. Some hold superstitious beliefs, like the huge number of people who think that astrology works. And some people are more likely than others to be ‘suggestible’.

Harrison is firmly convinced that all truth is God’s truth, and that any new scientific knowledge is to be welcomed and not feared. There are two ways to interpret the data; either our search for meaning is a survival mechanism, or ‘our faith is a reality for which the brain is prepared’.  He goes on to explain that he believes ‘intuitive processes can be a vehicle for God’s truth, and a great gift’. What is important is that the intuitive and the rational are used together responsibly. For example, the church has a long tradition of ‘testing’ prophecy using the Bible and other rational thought processes. If the two agree, a prophecy (for example), is more likely to be genuine.

What’s important here is that the findings of cognitive psychology fit with what one would expect if God did exist – that we are wired for belief. It is also a reminder for those in positions of leadership to act responsibly in teaching and guiding people in matters of faith.