In a Spiritual Dimension
One hears, from time to time, statements that suggest that advancements in neurological science will negate belief that the self is anything other than an illusion created by electrical and chemical processes. I’ve always thought such a view to be astonishingly wrong-headed and, in some cases, deliberately misleading.
Stephen Barr takes up the topic in a review of a book about the related science and religion:
It is no less reasonable to accept the existence of both mental and physical aspects of reality and to say that they do in fact affect each other in predictable ways that can be described, without having in hand or even supposing that there exists a “mechanism” for that interaction. Indeed, this is really all that neuroscience itself can do. For instance, it can tell us that a lower than normal concentration in the brain of a molecule called dopamine (a certain arrangement of eight carbons, eleven hydrogens, one nitrogen, and two oxygens) leads to the subjective experience of boredom or apathy. It can find that the electrical stimulation of a certain tiny region of the brain produces mental states ranging from mild amusement to hilarity. It can report, as Jeeves and Brown do, that “damage to a certain small area of the cortex serving vision (called ‘V4’) can strip color” from one’s visual experiences.
But in none of these cases can it explain the connection between motions of material particles and mental experiences any better than Descartes was able to do. For neuroscience, in effect, the entire brain is just Descartes’ pineal gland writ large.
But there is one key difference. Neuroscientists, unlike Descartes, tend to see the action as one-way: Matter can affect mind but not the other way around. Some justify this by saying that any effect of mind on matter would violate the laws of physics. Nothing that is known about physics, however, compels that conclusion.
What’s amazing? That the application of chemicals and electricity to an organism that runs on chemical and electrical reactions can elicit a physical and emotional response, or that some well-chosen squiggles on a piece of paper can do the same thing? The former merely offers a shortcut for something that we’ve always had the power to accomplish.
We would be foolish to dispute that there is some mechanical process for the entirety of an exchange of humor, for example. There’s an economic reason, rooted in biological need to support one’s self, for a comedian to make jokes. There’s a culture and a society through which he knows what makes something funny. There are mental processes by which his brain coordinates that information, mechanical processes whereby his mouth enunciates its conclusions, economic processes that put him on a stage in front of cameras, electrical processes whereby the cameras function and send those signals to your television. And then there are biological processes that bring the light into your eyes and the information to your brain.
Even without minute detail about each step, we can trace the whole thing from beginning to end. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing more. Much like the movement of electrons begets an electrical field and a magnetic field, the existence of those electrons does not make the field less real. Moreover, you can act on the field without any knowledge of the mechanical basis for it. Just so, we can acknowledge the mechanics of the self and still understand there to be a sort of spirit field.
The major risk of the scientific inclination is that the more efficiently we can manipulate processes — as we move from having to go through an elaborate system of getting a comedian to learn how to make jokes and practice his delivery and work through a major network and a whole industry of entertainment in order to spark the pleasing sensation of laughter to simply being able to offer a pill or a shock to the brain — we can manipulate much more significant and dangerous things than laughter. As we advance, it becomes imperative that we develop our appreciation for this spirit field, and yet, our tendency to give credence to such a dimension at all decreases.
This, indeed, may be the mechanics of the Eschaton. The theological end of the world may have something to do with the fact that, as we “play God,” our appreciation for what God has done, our belief in God, decreases. There are two paths based on increasing knowledge: You can become more God like, more like Jesus (for the Christian), in your actions, or you can become more arrogant and prideful in what you can do to manipulate reality, more skeptical that there is a God. If a series of accidental process, and not an intention, brought us to this point in reality, then there’s less reason to be concerned about the idea of messing with it.
The intelligent being who has mastered laughter has reason to believe that he can put that power to better use than arbitrary circumstances of nature. If, however, there is a God who has thought the whole thing through from beginning to end, we ought to have a greater respect for, and be more humble in our application of, our new powers.
An apocalyptic narrative appears in the assurance that, no matter how far our civilization goes, we can move closer to God as individuals. The more skeptical, secular, and anti-religious the world becomes, the more opportunities there are to behave in a Christ-like manner. Those who take seriously the promise that they are blessed when persecuted will have plenty of opportunities for that blessing, and those who distrust the promise will have plenty of evidence that conversion will mean persecution. In other words, the separation of humanity into binary categories of religious belief and irreligious belief, which sciences dealing with the nature of being accelerate, might, itself, be the process of the end times.