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Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

The Brain on Faith: Part 3 of a Four-Part Interview

We’re back with Stanford neuroscientist Saskia de Vries in a conversation about neuroscience and faith…

I’m curious about how you read Scripture these days, and want to spend some time here.  How do you read the creation story, for instance? 

In a soundbite, I take Scripture seriously, but not literally. That always sounds a bit trite to me, but I think it’s pretty accurate. I love Scripture, and I love to study it, but I don’t believe all of it is literally true. Some of it I think is myth – such as the creation stories in Genesis. I do not think the world was created in six days – with the sun being created after plants (how did they photosynthesize with no sun?). I don’t think Eve was made from Adam’s rib. But, I don’t think that myths are bad. While I don’t believe them to be literally true, I do think that they contain truth. I do believe that the world is good. I love the care and the validation of each part of creation. Light and dark. Dry land and water. I love the image of God breathing life into Adams lungs. If it had been written after microscopes were invented, there would be bacteria and microbes in the mix as well. Myth isn’t bad, myth is useful. And I find inspiration in these myths.

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Adam and Eve utilize their prefrontal cortex to do some higher-level reasoning.

But I think we run into problems when we base doctrines on a literal reading of them. For instance, our understanding of sin, original sin, seems predicated on the Fall of human beings, Adam and Eve eating fruit in the garden. I know that many Christians (though not all) are comfortable with evolution, but what does that mean for the Fall? What does that mean for our understanding of the human condition? What does that mean for our understanding of redemption and atonement? If these doctrines are contingent on the Fall, what are we to make of them?

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I like to speculate that the Fall was an evolutionary development that was unique to humans. Perhaps the development of the prefrontal cortex, or the emergence of language or tool use is what demarcates our fallen state. None of these are unique to humans, though, simply much more developed in humans than other animals. And I don’t think I’d say any of these are bad developments. Of course, perhaps the idea of Original Sin isn’t accurate. Who’s to say Augustine got that right?

What do you make of supernatural occurrences in Scripture, such as Jesus’ miracles?

Other parts I read differently…I don’t know if [the miracles] all actually happened; I don’t know that they didn’t. I’m generally skeptical, but I think we get distracted when we get hung up on whether they actually happened or not. It becomes a litmus test – in order for Jesus to have actually been divine he had to be able to do these things. And if there is any natural explanation for what happened, or if there were ever evidence that the miracles did not happen as recorded in the Gospels, then Jesus couldn’t have been God. Well, why? Why must God act outside of the natural world? Where did this rule come from?

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I don’t think that’s the point of these stories. To me the mechanism isn’t important, it’s the acts. Jesus feeding five thousand people. Did he really make 5 loaves and 2 fish into enough food for all the people, or did he inspire people to share their food with strangers? To me the how is less important than the feeding, the fellowship among strangers. All those healing stories – did Jesus really heal them? I don’t know. But I do know that Jesus touched and included the outcasts – the bleeding women, the leperous Samaritans, the lame and the blind. All of these people, who had been excluded from community, from worship, from physical touch, he embraced and included – no small feats. These are some of my favorite stories, and I believe they are pivotal to the gospel. If we were to go through the Bible, a là Thomas Jefferson, and cut these out because we don’t believe they happened literally, I think we’d lose much more than stories of magic. The miraculous acts, to me, are highlighters indicating that there is something really critical about these encounters. But I don’t think it’s the mechanism of the interactions that’s critical – I think it’s the end result.

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Then there is the apostle Paul’s own wrestling with the reality that he does the very things he does not want to do….

Romans 7. I find that this passage wonderfully describes decision making. This is a very interesting area in neuroscience, currently, that relates neural processes to psychology and economics, among other fields. We have a notion that we have the capacity to be completely rational. If we could control our passions, or our sinful nature, then we could always choose the optimal behavior, the correct response to the array of information we receive. And Paul could have always done what he wanted to do. But the evidence is that this is a misrepresentation of reality. The reason that we sometimes do what we don’t want to do is not because we are weak, it’s because that is how we are wired. Our behavior, our decisions, are rarely made rationally. The evidence is that most of our behavioral choices are made instinctively and subconsciously, and that the rationalization of those choices – when we think we are actively making them – happens after they are made. Much like Hume’s thought that reason is the slave of the passions.

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"My brain made me do it, Mom."

I think this is really important, on many levels. For starters, this false notion that we could potentially act perfectly rationally is very unhealthy, and the more we learn to trust our instincts and emotions, how to use them and not fight them, the healthier we will be. I also think this has important implications for education and moral development. We learn moral behaviors not by learning the right answers, but rather by learning the right actions. We need to train our behavior much like we learn to play musical instruments or how we learn to perform athletic feats, or even how to speak languages. It’s not by studying the theory and learning the right answers – it’s by practicing the actions. Learning the motions, learning how to make decisions, when to slow down, when to swing. To the extent that we limit our education to teaching our children, and ourselves, to think the right thoughts and give the right answers to moral questions, we are crippling ourselves.

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