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Mind over matter: How what we think shapes us

DESPITE AMAZING technological advances over the years, there is one thing scientists still struggle to completely understand: the human brain.

Dr Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy at the Fuller Theological Seminary in California, was in Australia in August and delivered the annual Rollie Busch Memorial Lecture at Trinity Theological College in Brisbane.

The seminar, entitled “Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?”, delved into the concepts of physicalism (“the rejection of dualism of body and mind or soul”) and why it is an acceptable position for Christians.

“My interest in this topic is both philosophical and theological,” she said. “Most philosophers of mind now count themselves as physicalists, and the main topic of discussion is whether physicalism necessarily implies reductionism.

“This is the thesis that all human thought and behaviour are determined by the laws of neurobiology. If human thought is determined by neurobiology, then in what sense can it be determined by reason?

“For Christian physicalists there are additional issues at stake: can we still speak of our moral responsibility before God, or even of coming to believe in God, in part at least, on the basis of reason?  Or do we have a new scientific version of predestination?”

Dr Murphy said scientifi c advances are on the edge of beginning to understand the brain.

“Neuroscience is now locating brain regions and systems responsible for all of the functions once attributed to the soul or mind,” she said.

The philosophy of knowledge

Kenmore Uniting Church minister and post graduate student, Rev Heather den Houting, is fascinated in the dialogue between science and religion.

If neuroscience is discovering that our brains may be hardwired for religious belief, how do we know God is not just a construct of our mind?

“That question is almost impossible to answer,” said Ms den Houting. “It is really the philosophy of knowledge. How do we know things are real or truthful? How do we know about how we know things?

“When it comes to things like maths and science, you have to ask, do those things exist independently of the way that we think about them or by the fact that we have constructed a pattern or system around them.

“The things that will never be subject to rational thought or deductive reasoning could still exist, but we will never encounter it because the tools that we are using won’t let us get there.

“Really the argument is that faith does not have a deductive, rational or scientifi c approach; it has to be a different approach.

“The way we generally do it, through religion, is that we say the approach is through revelation. Something happens to encounter the divine that can’t be pegged down.”

Ms den Houting said as a physicalist, Ms Murphy “posits that we are biological beings and can accept the reality of our being, but what we can know (in terms of moral responsibility) is driven by autonomous complex adaptive systems (something beyond our biological makeup).”

To hear the Rollie Busch lecture visit www.trinity.qld.edu.au