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Arbib, Michael A. “Towards a Neuroscience of the Person."

Michael A. Arbib, in his essay “Towards a Neuroscience of the Person,” provides an excellent framework for relating the neurosciences to the concerns of the human sciences and theology. The organizing idea of his essay is the following: a discussion of what neuroscience has to contribute to an emerging science of the person will provide a bridge between the narrow foci of individual researchers’ efforts in the cognitive neurosciences, on the one hand, and the far broader but less scientifically grounded considerations of humanists, including theologians, as they seek to explicate the nature of the person.

Arbib begins with a survey of topics on which neuroscience has offered insights into mental phenomena such as memory, emotion and motivation, social behavior, and language. This sampling of scientific developments raises the question whether the cognitive neurosciences will eventually provide a framework for understanding all of the phenomena that define human nature. In particular there is the question whether the study of the brain can explain the religious dimension of human life, or whether the subject-matter of theology will always elude neuroscientific investigation. Arbib maintains that a complete science of the person must take account of theology, but argues that theology ought to be understood not as the science of God but as the study of human belief in God. This latter understanding would open the discussion for nonbelievers (such as Arbib himself) but would incorporate the former understanding of theology if God in fact exists. Neuroscience cannot address the concept of God directly but can make progress toward theological questions, especially if theology is defined in the broad sense.Another important issue is the relation of neuroscience to questions of morality. Arbib notes that both religion (even on a nontheistic account) and neuroscience can provide insight. Neuroscience cannot answer questions of right and wrong, but it can elucidate aspects of morality such as decision-making, empathy, and social behavior.Arbib then sketches the possible role of computational neuroscience in bridging levels between neuron and person. Schema theory provides a link between “cognition-level” and “neuron-level” descriptions of the person. Basic schema theory operates at the level of cognitive science, and explains mental operations and behavior in terms of functional units. There are schemas for recognition of objects, planning and control of actions, and more abstract operations as well. Mental life and behavior result from the dynamic interaction, cooperation, and competition of many schema instances. The individual can be understood as a self-organized “schema encyclopedia.” Schema theory provides a bridge between neuroscience and the humanities: it can be extended “downward” by studying the neural realizations of simple schemas; it can be extended “upward” by recognizing that schemas have an external social reality in collective patterns of thought and behavior. Arbib claims that while schema theory can contribute to many open questions regarding the dependence of aspects of the person on the brain, Christian teaching parts company with science on the issue of the resurrection.

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