Growing up in Christian subculture, I have seen some odd combinations of what I once heard called “the protestant stallion and the Enlightenment jackass.” One of these philosophical mules is the popular theory that the soul and the mind or personality are the same. Rather than recognizing that the brain governs what a person does and that the brain is subject to what happens in the physical world, many Christians believe that the mind is entirely separate from the body and cannot be affected physically. This pervasive dualism (that is, the belief that the mind is separate from the body in substance) seeks mystical answers to natural questions, particularly in the realm of human behavior and how to respond to it. This denial of the natural, physical origins of the mind are dangerous to those Christians that would adhere to it, those with mental disorders that they try to help, and the reputation of the entire Christian religion.
Allow me to cross the streams of neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and theology so that I might pull a Bill Murray and try to bust the ghost in the machine.
I once had a conversation with a friend that held such a dualistic view. They expressed their belief that someone’s personality comes from their soul, that supernatural part of a person that is supposed to exist after physical death. It is not a product of the physical brain or even the mind, they asserted; it is a feature entirely detached from the natural world, and consequently all of psychology is pseudoscience. If that were true, that would imply that no physical injury could affect the personality. But as anyone who has finished an introductory level psychology class can tell you, it has long been known that personality is a product of the frontal lobe of the brain.
As has been demonstrated by the now infamous account of the life of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who survived his head being impaled by an iron bar, damage to the front of the brain can cause drastic changes in someone’s personality. Rather than just impairing motor or sensory functions, Gage’s injury caused him to act differently than he did prior – to such an extent that his friends said that he was “no longer Gage.” What this simple example shows us is that the personality is bound to the physical body and not to some untouchable soul, and maybe the personality can be studied like the rest of the body.
A former classmate of mine who was particularly vocal about their faith once tried to convince me that community service and praying more often could cure depression. Rather than acknowledging that depression is a chemical disorder in the brain, they asserted that it is merely a lack of faith or weakness of character. This kind of idea is belittling to those who actually have depression; it marginalizes a real physiological issue that they have, and they are accused of not doing enough to fix an already debilitating problem. The prescription to do more good deeds to cure depression is almost insulting and shows a lack of concern for the depressed person. Rituals and rites are about as likely to cure depression as they are to bring an amputee’s missing limb back. The Almighty would not be incapable of healing such wounds, but why would he reward someone who prays more often with healing when he has already provided the ability for such mental disorders to be understood and the means by which they can be treated? That is like cutting yourself on sheet metal and then begging your mother for a kiss to make it better after she already offered to take you to get stitches.
During a conversation with an elder of the church I belong to, a man who also happens to be a certified counselor, he mentioned that he has also seen how dualism has invaded Christianity. He recounted a story about how a church had dealt with a man who was espousing seemingly blasphemous beliefs. Initially, that church treated that man as one who had a “rebellious spirit,” praying for him and continually evangelizing to him with the hopes that they might win him over, but to no avail. Eventually, a psychologist caught wind of this man’s situation and suggested that maybe there was something neurologically wrong with him as his “blasphemies” were more peculiar than just doctrinal disagreements. Sure enough, an fMRI revealed that there was a physiological problem with his brain. After undergoing treatment, the man was able to reason properly and no longer claimed such odd beliefs. His was not a conscious disagreement with his church nor was he overcome with any kind of possession; he was merely a man with a physiological problem that could be treated.
I do not categorically accuse all Christians of adhering to the ghost in the machine, nor do I think that it is an essential tenet of the Christian religion.
In fact, three of the four gospels seem to assert that the mind is separate from the soul. Christians need to understand how the mind works before they can talk of renewing it.