Is Behavior Determined, or are we Free?
One powerful reason for holding to mind-body, or body-soul,
dualism in the modern period is that the major perceived alternative
has been a reductive physicalist account, which seems to imply
determinism. Therefore, it is important in theological discussions
to distinguish between reductive and nonreductive versions of
physicalism. To see the difference, consider a recent finding
by V.S. Ramachandran at the University of California, San Diego.
Ramachandran and his research team studied patients suffering
from temporal lobe epilepsy. It has long been known that such
patients often experience intense mystical and religious experiences.
This recent study involved testing patients' involuntary responses
to a series of test words about sex, violence, and religion. This
was done by measuring the electrical conductivity of their skin,
a standard measure of emotional response. The result was that
the test group showed a stronger response to the religious language
than did a group of "normally" religious people and
a neutral control group. This led to speculation that the temporal
lobe is part of the neural machinery involved in religious experience.
Now, what further conclusions are to be drawn from such claims?
One commentator says "there is the quandary whether the [brain]
created God or whether God created the [brain]." Others
say "these studies do not in any way negate the validity
of religious experience or God." A reductionist response
to this research would affirm that religious experience is nothing
but a neurological event in the temporal lobe. However, to see
why this is not the only (or even the most likely) interpretation,
consider a parallel case. As described above, neuroscientists
have done a great deal to explain the processes involved in visual
perception. When these neural pathways are mapped out, it becomes
possible to question whether objects in the external world produce
visual images in the brain, or whether the brain produces the
(apparent) objects in the external world.
Just as it is possible to distinguish between visual perception
and visual imagination, similarly it is possible to make a distinction
between authentic religious experience and experiences that are
merely psychological and/or neurological phenomena. Religious
believers have established communal procedures for "testing"
religious experience for authenticity. These tests include consistency
with Scripture or earlier teaching, and whether the experience
fits into the life story of the individual and the community.
For example, does it lead to an increase in the "fruits of
the Spirit," such as love, joy, and peace?
The issue of reduction versus nonreduction can be stated this
way. Is it possible to identify mental states with brain states,
while avoiding the implication that mental life is totally determined
by physical laws? If such determinism cannot be avoided, then
human freedom is an illusion. As such, we are deceived about the
aspects of our humanity we hold most dear; religious faith, love,
morality, and intellectual endeavors are merely the outworking
of blind laws of physics. The reductionist says these experiences
are nothing but brain states. The nonreductive physicalist says,
instead, that the brain (or the brain in the body and in social
relations) is the means which make these experiences
of God and other humans possible for a physical creature.
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| Contributed by: Dr. Nancey Murphy