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Succumbing To A Very Unchristian Idea (Post 2 of 2)

Last week I shared that recently two ministry leaders asked me for input (one on a book he is writing and another on a speaker he is hosting). I had bad news for them. This week I’ll share the email I sent to my friend writing the book on doing business as a Christian (removing any identifying features). I hope that you will more easily spot this unChristian assumption, bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, and now so deeply entrenched in our culture that it is often hard to resist.

The Email I Reluctantly Sent To My Friend

Dear [NAME],

I’m not in business, so I bring an “outsider” perspective, and specifically, that of a Christian philosopher…. I think a lot about how Christian assumptions are and can be latent in books written by Christians. I’m so excited that you always seek to make Christian assumptions latent in your work, including this one.

A central part of bringing the Christian worldview into our writings, and at the same time standing against non-Christian assumptions, relates to how we understand and communicate a biblical view of the human person. Our culture, since the Enlightenment, has increasingly eschewed the fact that we are immaterial beings (there is no “image of God,” no soul, no mind, etc.) Physicalism rules the day–we are fully and merely material beings, completely explained by a naturalistic story of our origin, our functioning, and our future. If there is no soul (or, in philosophical terms, “mind”), then we can redefine all other theological concepts (such as redemption, sin, belief, virtue, eternal life, etc.) in secular categories.

From this overarching physicalism has come the movement to reduce all of our human experiences down to–and thus explain all our human experience in terms of–physical processes. Specifically, this has been the reductionist movement in philosophy of mind, which has influenced all other disciplines: to reduce mental activities (thoughts, beliefs, desires, choices–aspects of our soul) to brain events (neural firings and relationships). 

So the fatal flaw [in your book,] the way it is currently framed, [is that] physicalism is latent, rather than the Christian worldview that affirms our immaterial reality as the central feature of who we are. …[I]t follows the physicalist view (the worldview of [the author he quotes extensively throughout the manuscript, who I’ll call Dr. Smith]) by framing the discussion and assuming decisions are based on brain chemistry (unpacked in terms of the relation between left and right hemispheres of the brain). [Dr. Smith’s] underlying physicalism comes through in his view that the brain thinks, evaluates, and chooses paths of action. See, for instance, pages … of the current manuscript.

The good news is that I believe the fix is quite easy. I am not suggesting that we discount the reality of neuroscientific research. Indeed, our brains are related to our thoughts, desires, choices, etc. But the logical leap made by [Dr. Smith] et al., driven by their physicalist assumptions, is that there is nothing beyond/beside/above the brain activity. They are confusing constant conjunction (when we have a thought, there is corresponding brain activity) with identity (a thought is nothing more than that brain activity). This is a logical error that even some fellow secularists point out (such as Thomas Nagel at NYU). Christians have even more reason to not buy into this reductionism but boldly affirm, given the Christian worldview, that it is I (my self, my soul) who uses my brain to think, in the same way that I use my hand to pick up a drink. 

So it is important to affirm the reality of what we find in neurophysiology, but not make the philosophical leap to reductionism. Instead, we must be clear that ultimately it is I who am responsible for these choices, not my brain. So this fatal flaw in the book can easily be corrected by, at appropriate places (including the first time you mention neuroscience), making clear that a person uses his or her brain to these ends. 

Saying something like this may be a way to frame it, making the Christian worldview latent: “We are embodied beings. So we use our brains to engage the world in important ways. And neuroscience has discovered neural pathways which show how we use our brains to think about many things.” (I’m sure you can wordsmith that in a better way to make it clearer, but that’s the point.)

[Someone else quoted in the manuscript] affirms this Christian assumption on page X where he says, “And yet, at a soul level, …” — implying that we comprehend in our souls (not in our brains). [Another author cited on] on page Y latently affirms this Christian conviction: “The most important power we have is the power to select the lens through which we see reality.” (italics added) He is affirming it is we who choose, not our brains. (Again, while embodied, we do use our brains in this process. But there will be a day, after our death, when we are in God’s presence and having thoughts, emotions, etc. without our brains. And of course, God and angels have thoughts, desires, emotions, etc. without brains. So brains are clearly not necessary for these mental events, though during our embodied state God has deeply connected the mind to the brain.)

We can say much more about this, and others can say it better than I can. Dallas Willard has this as a central theme underlying much of his Christian writings. (For instance, in his The Spirit of the Disciplines, he unpacks why practices of the soul affect the body, and practices we do bodily affect the soul, because the two, while different, profoundly influence the other.) There is also an excellent  chapter on this in Moreland and Craig’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. And I’ve written on this more briefly in a blog series I posted here: [link].

I could be wrong, but from where I sit, from my “outside” perspective, that’s the fatal flaw I see, and how you might fix it in the next draft of this manuscript. And it seems to me doing so is somewhat straightforward and easy by being sure to frame neurophysiology, not as the ultimate explanation of our understandings and choices, but how we (as immaterial beings–as souls) process information and make choices.

Grace and Peace,

Stan

The Response

About a week after sending my friend this email, we had a video chat to discuss what I had shared. He asked further questions, and we had a great conversation, delving into my concerns in more detail. He graciously agreed that the manuscript of his book needed revision before publication, and thanked me for my input. I was relieved that he was not offended or defensive, but willing to honestly engage these issues as he seeks to write a book on business based on truly biblical principles.

As I mentioned last week, shortly after I sent this email, another friend, who coaches church planters, told me about an author he had invited to do a webinar for those in his network. The author’s book is Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (by Curt Thompson, M.D.). 

Connecting neuroscience and spiritual practices sounds like a fascinating topic. But what gave me pause was the use of the word “soul” in the title, followed by a subtitle that was all about the brain. Something fishy was going on. My hunch was that Thompson, like my friend writing the business book, was confusing the mind and brain. Worse yet, perhaps he was even reducing the mind to the brain. Again, doing so implicitly denies the soul’s activity, if not its very existence. 

So I shared my concerns with this friend as well. He was very interested, and when I mentioned I had just sent an email to someone else about this issue, he asked if he could see what I wrote (without any identifying information). So I forwarded him a redacted copy of the email (as reprinted above). 

When we next talked, he thanked me for sharing the email with him. Based on my critique, he had decided to reconsider if and how he might interview this author for his audience. 

I was encouraged that his response had been the same as my friend writing the book. I was relieved that he would not unknowingly propagate this Enlightenment physicalism further within his network of church planters. I was thankful for friends like him, and my author friend, who seek to promote biblical truth, not cultural fancy, in what they say, write, and promote.

Conclusion

I’m sure you notice this reductionist tendency in our culture as well. I hope that what I’ve shared will help you be more attentive to this assumption. I also hope you will be able to think Christianly about what is being condoned, what is being denied, and the implications of both. 

Until next week, grace and peace.

4 Comments

  1. Jerry H
    Jerry H July 30, 2020

    Are you sure that, "there will be a day, after our death, when we are in God’s presence and having thoughts, emotions, etc. without our brains."? If Jesus remains a man for eternity, as orthodox Christian theology holds, will we not also remain human for eternity?

  2. Kenn Freedman
    Kenn Freedman July 30, 2020

    Hi Stan,
    Kenn Freedman here. I find this discussion particularly interesting as it is an important topic to me. I see the brain as a conduit and control center, but with our mind as separate entity and interacting with and through the brain. I actually spoke about this in two lectures at a University in China in 2017. I would love to share the lectures with you or talk with you more about it. Doing Neuro-ophthalmology and seeing stroke patients I am forced to think about this issue. For example if there is a patient who has had a major stroke and lost his ability to communicate – does that mean we ( and the family) have lost him/her as a person or have we just lost that conduit by which they can communicate. This has profound implications.
    Well I won’t go on further, but would be interested to discuss it further,
    Kenn

  3. Stan Wallace
    Stan Wallace August 1, 2020

    Jerry, good question. I am referring to the intermediate state, which Paul is referring to in 2 Cor 5:8, when he says he would "…prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." Or where Jesus tells the thief on the cross he will be that day, after his body dies ("with me, in paradise" Luke 23:43). John Cooper, in his Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting exegetes many more of similar passages. This is before the final resurrection of the body, in which we will be made "whole" again, at the end of the age.

    Secondly, we absolutely do remain human for eternity. Our humanness is an essential property, and so we would cease to exist if we lost it. However, "humanness" is not identical to being embodied, as the passages above make clear. Embodied is the natural state for humans, but not an essential state. So we, as well as Jesus, remain a man (human) for eternity, though this does not entail we have a physical body.

  4. Stan Wallace
    Stan Wallace August 1, 2020

    Kenn, good to hear from you! I agree with how you frame the brain and mind’s relation. I’d love to see the paper you presented on this in China!

    As to your question re. your patient, I think he has just lost the lower-order capacity to exercise higher-order abilities (expressing his thoughts). This has to do with lower and higher-order capacities. I’ve written on this topic here: https://www.stanwallace.org/blog/2018/8/9/four-steps-to-determining-the-morality-of-abortion-5-of-9?rq=lower-order (third response). Would love to discuss further as well!

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