In a world of extremes where things are either black or
white, good or bad, Democratic or Republican, society has
primed us to perceive life in dichotomies. We have trouble
looking past these definitive lines and into the middle.
With this compartmentalizing mindset, the harmonious
interaction of extremes is neglected. One such example
includes the misconceived battle between faith and science.
Many people believe that these practices are independent of
one another and cannot coexist and that they are in constant
competition.1 They presume that individuals who believe in
a higher power object to scientific reasoning, and that those doing groundbreaking research have no interest in religious conviction. Unfortunately, this delusion prevents us from seeing the unity and rapport between faith and science. Thus, the purpose of this essay is twofold: 1) to refute popular culture’s perception of this divide, and 2) to propose how a more robust theology of the human person could foster not only the growth of the neuroscience department at Hope College, but also the growth of the neuroscience field in general.
To begin, I deem it important to explore the definition of “mind,” since this abstract term brings forth its own set of split opinions. To some, the mind is a physical entity congruent with the brain. To others, it is a spiritual element that operates independently of biological mechanisms. According to ancient philosopher Descartes and his mind-body dualism, the mind is a spiritual entity that receives signals and communicates with the brain to produce physical responses. In other words, “the mind is something distinct from the body”2 but “the mind and the body form a unity which is a human being.”3 Based on this ideology, the spiritual mind and physical body work in tandem.
Though this understanding establishes a more holistic view of the human person, what remains unanswered is my introductory question: What exactly is the mind? How can we define it, if at all? I believe that these questions have really stumped our discipline. The purpose of neuroscience is to learn about the brain and the mind and how their functionality, or lack thereof, impacts human beings on a physical and mental/ emotional level. To date, we have acquired much knowledge about the former. We progressed from recognizing the brain as a clump of gray and white matter to isolating neuronal cells and identifying different neurochemical circuits and signal pathways. However, in regards to the latter, little progress has been made. I would go as far as to argue that our discipline is slowly shying away from the mind because it is a concept much too abstract, a concept that cannot be explained using the empirical method. Perhaps this is true. It may be that modern science alone simply is not sufficient to answer this question.
Instead of dodging this question altogether, I suggest we consult additional resources, such as theology of the human person and Scripture, to better our understanding of the mind. In the Bible, there are ample references made to the mind of a human being in both the Old and New Testament. However, what is interesting is that Scripture does not explicitly present us with one definition of the mind. In fact, there is no one word in the Bible that can be directly translated to “mind” as we know it in English.4 Rather, a number of Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) terms are used to collectively portray the essence of the mind in different contexts.
In the Old Testament, for example, this inward dimension of man is talked about in terms of the “heart” (leb), “spirit” (ruah) and “soul” (nepes).5 The heart, despite being an actual organ in the body, was often used in a figurative sense. In 1 Kings 3:12 the prophet Jeremiah writes, “I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” Here, the heart gives man wisdom and rationality. A similar meaning can be drawn from Proverbs 18:15 where “[a]n intelligent mind acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” Since the heart provides man with such awareness, it also establishes free will. Man can choose between good and evil, and the consequences of his actions are reflected in Scripture via a corrupted and deceiving heart.6 The Spirit and the soul are also used throughout the Old Testament to depict man’s conscious thought and decision-making. These terms are often tied to man’s values and virtues. In Ezekiel 11:5, for instance, the Spirit comes down on man and speaks through him.
In the New Testament, the Greek nous alludes to man’s intellect and understanding. These cognitive capacities help man discern the world around him and subsequently shape his unique worldview. In this way, the mind also helps man stretch his thinking beyond this realm as seen in Luke 24:45: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” The New Testament also uses the negatively connotated anoetos to speak of man’s foolish mind.
Evidently, the mind of a human being cannot be constrained to one word nor defined using a single statement. It is far too complex and mysterious, as the previous examples from Scripture have shown. That said, it comes as no surprise that those in the field of Neuroscience are hesitant to approach such a philosophical concept. Be that as it may, I cannot emphasize enough the immense value a greater understanding of the human mind would bring to our field.
Another reason why a more thorough understanding of the human mind should concern all neuroscientists is because the mind is what separates humankind from all other living species. Though some may argue that non-human animals do, in fact, possess a “mental state” and are therefore “capable of understanding or forming representations about mental states in a functionally adaptive manner,” there is not significant evidence to support this assertion.7 Like human beings, non-human animals sense pain and exhibit behavioral and emotional responses including fear and anxiety.8 Despite these findings, the thought process and cognitive capabilities of humans surpass those of their non-human animal counterparts. While the brain of non-human animals works to promote survival, satiation, and social interaction, the brain (and mind) of humans is involved in so much more.
At this point, I would like to draw on Scripture once more. In the book of Genesis, we learn about the creation of the world. For the purpose of this investigation, let us take a closer look at the sixth day of creation. On the sixth and final day of creation, land animals and human beings are formed. It is important to note that humankind did not receive its own day of creation, but came into existence alongside other beastly creatures. On the other hand, we cannot forget that man was created in the image of God and bestowed dominion over “the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”9 Quite literally, man was created between the beasts of the Earth and the Sabbath. This suggests that we have a kinship with the beasts, who are driven by intrinsic needs, but are also meant for the Sabbath, a day of rest, worship, and reverence. Since we are endowed with free will and possess a rational mind, we are also capable of interpreting behavior, growing in our faith, and developing a set of values and morals that shape our personality — all of which non-human animals lack.
The reason I chose to touch on Genesis is because it serves as an excellent segue into philosophy of the human being and theology of the human person. Moving away from the mind for just a moment, allow me to explain the unparalleled body of a human being. Much of my explanation is rooted in the philosophy of Leon Kass and his book The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature.
First and foremost, human beings stand upright and are bipedal. This erect posture is fundamental because it “pre-establishes a definite attitude towards the world,” meaning that it allows us to have a unique perception of our surrounding environment compared to other creatures.10 We take our unique upright posture for granted, yet it dramatically influences our perception of the world. One of the reasons behind this unique viewpoint is that uprightness reorders our senses, placing vision above olfaction and auditory perception.11 In addition, the human form grants us greater freedom of movement. Unlike other animals, our hands are free to point, embrace, and gesticulate thereby serving as modes of communication and social interaction — two more phenomena that are commonly studied in our field.
From here, we can transition to a theology of the human person which teaches us that the body is a “vehicle of revelation” that aids in our discovery of original solitude.12 Though some may oppose this motive, claiming that it is less secular, I still think it is equally important. I make this argument because I truly believe that the lessons deduced from a theology of the human person are not limited to religious implications; I believe that these lessons can enlighten all people, religious and non-religious alike. For example, one of the leading motifs of this theology is the body-soul unity that is man. This inextricable connection looks beyond the tangible body of a human being and introduces us to the intangible quality of personhood. By way of explanation, we are not just human beings governed by our needs and intuition, but also persons capable of being present, of giving and receiving love, and of creating meaningful relationships. This is a lesson that should be learned by everyone, but understood in earnest by those in the field of neuroscience. Since many of us study neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or neuromuscular disorders like multiple sclerosis, we frequently focus on a disability and how it impairs the human body on a biological level. All too often we get lost in the science and forget about the people to whom our work pertains. Thus, theology of the human person serves as a gentle reminder that individuals with disabilities are no less a person than you and I.
What I have come to learn is that no amount of scientific knowledge can clearly define personhood. As I circle back to the idea of faith and science being separate and incompatible practices, I think people must simply learn to open their eyes and to challenge the faulty norms of our society. We neuroscientists, for instance, often boast about how interdisciplinary our field is with its incorporation of biology, chemistry, and psychology. Yet as a whole, neuroscience has failed to consider certain aspects of the mind that cannot be adequately explained through empiricism. What would happen if these two presumably distinct worlds, that of theology and neuroscience, were to collide?
Paulina Kozan ’22 is majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Biology and Spanish. She is from Norridge, IL. We thank Dr. Jared Ortiz (Religion) for his involvement with Paulina’s piece.
1 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Black Swan, 2016).
2 Daisie Radner, “Descartes’ Notion of the Union of Mind and Body,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 9, no. 2 (1971): 159.
3 Radner, “Descartes’ Notion,” 168.
4 Radner, “Descartes’ Notion.”
5 Nicholas F. Gier and Johnson Petta, “Hebrew and Buddhist Selves: A Constructive Postmodern Study,” Asian Philosophy 17, no. 1 (2007).
6 See Dan. 5:20; Isa. 44:20; Jer. 17:9; Prov. 10:20; 17:20 for additional examples.
7 Derek C Penn and Daniel J Povinelli, “On the Lack of Evidence That Non-Human Animals Possess Anything Remotely Resembling a ‘Theory of Mind,’” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 362, no. 1480 (2007): 731.
8 Charles E Short, “Fundamentals of Pain Perception in Animals,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 59 no. 1–3 (1998): 125–133.
9 Gen. 1:28
10 Leon R. Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 64.
11 Kass, The Hungry Soul, 73.
12 Carl A. Anderson and Granados José, Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (New York: Doubleday, 2009), 37.