A new challenge to the science-religion relationship is currently at hand. We hope that, with careful consideration by scientists and theologians, it will not become the latest front in what some have called the “culture war” between science and religion. The challenge comes from neuroscience and concerns our understanding of human nature.
Most religions endorse the idea of a soul (or spirit) that is distinct from the physical body. Yet as neuroscience advances, it increasingly seems that all aspects of a person can be explained by the functioning of a material system...as neuroscience begins to reveal the mechanisms underlying personality, love, morality, and spirituality, the idea of a ghost in the machine becomes strained.
Brain imaging indicates that all of these traits have physical correlates in brain function. Furthermore, pharmacologic influences on these traits, as well as the effects of localized stimulation or damage, demonstrate that the brain processes in question are not mere correlates but are the physical bases of these central aspects of our personhood. If these aspects of the person are all features of the machine, why have a ghost at all?
By raising questions like this, it seems likely that neuroscience will pose a far more fundamental challenge than evolutionary biology to many religions. Predictably, then, some theologians and even neuroscientists are resisting the implications of modern cognitive and affective neuroscience. “Nonmaterialist neuroscience” has joined “intelligent design” as an alternative interpretation of scientific data.
I predict religions will react in the familiar pattern: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Denial: Those stupid atheist scientists don't know what they're talking about. Did you hear about that one fMRI machine that was configured improperly?! And just a little while ago, scientists were arguing that the mind was located in the heart! Man, scientists are so dumb.
Anger: THESE SCIENTISTS HATE GOD AND HATE AMERICA! THEY'RE TRYING TO RUIN EVERYTHING GOOD ABOUT BEING HUMAN.
Bargaining: Okay, maybe there's something to this whole neuroscience thing. But it can't measure everything, and we can still squeeze a non-material soul into the gaps!
Depression: Sigh. Looks like neuroscience was right. I guess life is meaningless and without purpose.
Acceptance: Of course there's no nonmaterial soul. "Soul" is just metaphorical. Everybody knows that. Praise Jesus!
Fundamentalists will of course stay in the denial and anger zones for a long time, apologists in the bargaining, XGH in the depression, and liberal theologians will enter acceptance a generation or two before the rest.
Atheists, of course, are ahead of the game. The typical atheistic response is "Duh!"