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The Limits of Physicalist Reductionism and the Possibilities of Faith

December 14, 2012

In Ancient Christian Wisdom, the teachings of the fathers on thoughts, emotions, and behavior are compared and contrasted with the theory and practice of Cognitive Therapy.  In our age of exciting developments in neuroscience, psychologists are eagerly seeking to establish neurobiological correlates, which means linking emotional responses and metacognition with specific regions of the brain or discrete neural circuits. In philosophical terms, this is known as physicalist reductionism, in this case entailing the reduction of mental processes to the activation of neural circuits. Most people see this as a hopeful endeavor, but there is reason for caution. This kind of reductionism can lead to an exclusion of the Spirit and the spiritual that is even more comprehensive than the marginalization of spiritual issues in present-day psychological theories.

In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note, “Patristic texts distinguish among thoughts that are angelic, demonic, and human.” I further explain that “demonic thoughts are hatched from musings about sensual pleasures or about an illusory good that is in fact evil. These thoughts weaken the will and lead to sinful conduct. Angelic thoughts are thus divine gifts guiding the soul to a safe harbor, whereas demonic thoughts are temptations casting her into an open and raging sea. Human thoughts involve ideas automatically arising from ourselves, when in the course of nature we recollect what we are in the process of doing or have done or have heard.” What I don’t elaborate on is the fact that the fathers do not view thoughts as being solely generated from the person or to put it in neurological terms, they don’t believe thoughts to be the exclusive products of the human brain through the elaborate processing of the cerebral cortex.  The fathers also believe that temptation and illumination come from without and in a way that is not limited to the human perceptual apparatus of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. This is something Christians traditionally believed, like beliefs in the Virgin birth and bodily resurrection. Clinical psychologists have another term for it, “thought insertion,” which also happens to be one of the many ways of fulfilling the delusional criterion for a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Scientific theories and hypotheses, however, are not dogmas revealing the truth and in fact must necessarily give way when they are proved false. Establishing the neurological correlates involved in thinking processes does not exclude other possibilities, nor prove that the tested scientific explanations are exclusive. The latter assertions are matters of faith by those who naively subscribe to them. When, however, evidence cannot be accounted for by known theories, it is often time for such theories to open up or admit other explanations. With respect to the thoughts, some relevant evidence is offered by the now documented experience of a respected neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, who taught at Harvard Medical School. He relates states of consciousness that he experienced while in a meningitis-induced coma in which CT scans indicated that his entire neocortex was inactive. Within a reductionist framework, this is impossible, but not within a patristic framework that includes both the physical and the spiritual. I also recall a father from my monastery on the Holy Mountain who was in a coma and considered to be brain dead. My elder instructed another monk-priest to tonsure him to the great schema in that state. Some may have questioned such an action. But the father in a coma later returned to consciousness and was able to recall the tonsure service, hearing the questions and answering them in his heart as a quiet beautiful light enveloped him. The doctors may have declared him to be brain dead, but his soul was very much alive.

These occurrences will, of course, not convince skeptics, but they do point to what Christianity has long believed. There is such a thing as a soul that is more than the body and more than the mind. And that thoughts are not only generated from within, but can be inspired by God or by the enemy of the human soul.

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