The Concept of Personhood

Aleksandra P,
© Aleksandra P,

Last week at the Faraday Institute Daniel Weiss, Polonsky-Coexist Lecturer in Jewish Studies at Cambridge University Divinity Faculty, spoke on the concept of the person in Judaism.

The Greek philosophical idea of the disembodied soul has affected the way we view ourselves, even at a scientific level. We still have the very deeply rooted idea that it’s the mind or brain alone that does our thinking, despite evidence showing that the rest of our bodies also affect the way we think. For example, it’s harder to understand sad or angry statements if you can’t frown (because of Botox injections), and children find it easier to learn when they act a story out rather than just read it.

The evidence for embodied thinking hasn’t been given very much attention, because our dualistic model of the person as ‘body plus mind’ is so deeply rooted Continue reading

Being Human

Brain MRI 370098_1349
© Max Brown, free

The more neurologists find out about the brain, the more awestruck we can become at the complexity of what goes on inside our heads. How does neuroscience fit in with spiritual experience? Is a neurologist likely to struggle with the idea of God?

Alasdair Coles has had a unique career path. An academic neurologist, conducting research into multiple sclerosis in one of Europe’s finest teaching hospitals, he has recently been ordained in the Anglican church. He is now a hospital chaplain, in addition to his clinical and teaching roles. Alasdair’s experience as a Christian in neurology has been a very positive one, and as he begins to minister in both the church and the workplace he is discovering some valuable connections between faith and science. Continue reading

A twin speaks on freewill

Dilbert's take on Freewill

It’s significant that Peter Clarke, who spoke on ‘Brain, Determinism and Free Will’ at the Faraday Institute this week, is an identical twin. As a twin he will be more acutely aware than most of the factors that are important in defining individuality, personality and choice.  Peter is Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Morphology at the University of Lausanne and, unusually for a biologist, his first degree was in engineering science. His supervisor for his PhD on electrical responses in the brain was the well-known (in science & religion circles) philosopher-neurobiologist Donald MacKay. With this background, his approach to freewill was both unusual and fascinating.

Peter Clarke’s approach to the question of whether or not our brain biochemistry is completely determined by genetics and environment was to ask which of the various philosophical solutions that have been proposed for the free-will question fit the data best. His main focus was to test the idea that randomness at the molecular level in the brain leaves room for the soul to act.  Some proponents of free will claim that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (that you can’t completely define the position of an atom) means that the brain’s biochemistry may ‘allow’ for individual choice. Peter showed, by looking in detail at the energy involved in neuronal synapses, that the brain is resistant to random forces (such as localised fluctuations in ion concentrations) that are thousands of times greater than Heisenbergian uncertainty. So quantum fluctuations aren’t going to cause neurons to fire, and are not a good candidate for the mechanism underlying free will.

It was interesting to see science being brought to bear on a philosophical problem, and also to see someone picking apart an argument in such detail. But is raises the  question that if people believe in a soul, does it matter whether or not we can see where in the brain it acts? I’m tempted to say no, because I think that if  ‘soulish’ properties such as hatred and love are outside of science, then how they emerge from our physical body is not a scientific question – just as the ‘tableness’ of a table is not a scientific question. It does leave us with a lot of questions about our brain, consciousness, freewill and so on – which I expect is why so many neuroscientists (and theologians, psychologists and many others) think that the question of the soul is more nuanced than the simple ‘ghost in the machine’ idea.

Subscribers to the journal Science & Christian Belief can see a paper by Peter Clarke that deals with this subject in more detail here.