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April 2015 Pulse

Without a doubt, some of the most important and exciting developments in biotechnology today are taking place in the new and vast field of neuroscience. The brain is seen as the organ that has the closest and most profound connections to the personhood of the individual – his character traits and behaviour. This has even led some philosophers and scientists to claim that the self is merely an epiphenomenon of the brain. Concepts like the ‘synaptic self’ and the ‘model self’ advanced by some neuroscientists and philosophers state that human subjectivity is nothing more than the product of the electromechanical and computational processes of the brain.

It is therefore not surprising that the most fascinating development within neuroscience is the technology that enables scientists to study changes in brain states. Neuroimaging in the form of computed tomography (CT), postrion emission tomography (PET), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and functional computed tomography (fMRI) enables scientists to ‘read the brain’, it is sometimes claimed. According to scientists, the potential of this technology is staggering, as it will not only allow them to study neurological diseases but also predict behaviour.

Much of the knowledge that we currently possess about human consciousness is attained by the use of one or some combination of these technologies. Neuroimagining has also led scientists to change their theory about the immutability of severe injury, leading to exciting opportunities to address the challenges and needs of such patients. Brain imagining has also some applications in the court of law, although their reliability as evidence has been questioned in some countries. For example, in 2007, the British Home Secretary John Reid announced that convicted paedophiles must be subjected to MRI scanning to ascertain the risk of re-offense.

Legal philosopher Henk Greely therefore notes that neuroscience may ‘provide new ways to distinguishing truth from lies or real memories from false ones. This ability to predict behaviour with the help of neuroscience could have important consequences for the judicial system as well as for society as a whole’.

Although brain imaging offers exciting possibilities in brain studies, some scientists and theologians have cautioned against exaggerating what it is in fact able to accomplish. Some have rightly pointed out that neuroimaging raises so many important issues related to reliability and validity that scientists must not be too confident of the results. Others have also alerted the scientific community to the complex problem of interpreting the images obtained from MRI or fMRI.

Still others have raised the issue of causality. For example, studies have shown that there is a connection between lesions in the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain to impulsive and anti-social behaviour. But it is not clear whether the lesions caused the change in behaviour or it is the aberrant behaviour that caused the damage. And is it also not clear whether we should be even thinking in terms of causality or simply of correlation.

The warning that W. J. Winslade and J. W. Rockwell sounded must therefore be taken seriously: ‘Humans are forever prone to make premature and presumptuous claims of new knowledge … One may think that brain imagery will reveal mysteries of the human mind. But it may only help us gradually comprehend organic life, chemical and physiological features of the brain rather than provide the keys to unlock the secrets of human behaviour and motivation’.

Christians should encourage the development and application of brain imaging technology, especially in diagnostics. But Christians should at the same time be weary of the reductionism that is embraced by some neuroscientists, especially with regard to the relationship between the brain and human behaviour.

This reductionism is sometimes articulated by some of the most eminent scientists in the field. For example, in his now famous book, The Astonishing Hypothesis Francis Crick argues that ‘“You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’.

This means, in the final analysis, that human freedom and responsibility are illusions. The freedom that we think we enjoy may itself simply be the product of our brain activity and how this most superior of organs is hard-wired. To think in this way is to submit to a form of determinism that would in the end absolve us from taking responsibility for our actions.

This issue is intensely discussed in the fascinating studies conducted by neuroscientists, philosophers and legal scholars on psychopathology. If one espouses the reductionism and determinism discussed above, psychopaths who commit murder cannot be said to be responsible for their crimes. Such a view would have profound implications to current laws.

Thankfully, many neuroscientists and bioethicists do not accept this naïve causal explanation of the relationship between brain states and human behaviour. Brain dysfunction alone, they argue, does not constitute sufficient reason to excuse people from taking responsibility for their actions. Other factors, like one’s social environment, also influence the way one behaves.

Psychopaths, writes Walter Glannon, ‘do not completely lack the capacity to control their impulses. Moreover, although they act without concern for the needs and interests of others, they have some understanding of what it means to harm someone and that other people can be harmed by their actions’.

An important significance attached to the Christian understanding that the human being is created in the image and likeness of God is that although humans are bodily beings they can never be simply reduced ontologically to their nervous or neurological systems. As bearers of the divine image, humans also have a spiritual aspect that enables them to relate to their Creator.

Genesis portrays the complex nature of the human being: ‘the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (Gen 2:7). Although the human being was formed from the ‘dust of the ground’ human nature can never be understood in purely materialistic or physicalist terms. For it is only when the lump of clay received the breath of life from God that it became ‘a living being’.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.