Friday, October 15, 2010

Blame it on the Brain: A Review

Blame it on the Brain: A Review by Jake Magee

It seems that with each advance of the physical sciences, there is a corresponding challenge to find its integration to Biblical Theology. There are at least three responses that a Christian might make to various discoveries of the physical sciences:

(1) Questioning whether there is really an “advance” due to incompatibilities to the Christian faith.

(2) Maintaining a healthy agnosticism relative to the nature and content of the data.

(3) Affirming them as confirmations to Biblical truth.

Edward T. Welch’s book Blame It on the Brain offers us a fair and balanced theological and practical approach to the complexities found in integrating the offerings of the brain sciences with the Christian faith. The book is divided into two parts: In part one, Welch provides a Biblical paradigm of personhood in contrast and critique of prevalent secular models. In part two, Welch teases out the implications of this paradigm to the common and challenging problems of living. Let’s look at each part.

In chapter one, Welch has rightly identified the naturalist’s reductionism through which scientists interpret their findings. Armed with a superficial understanding of the history of science, many have maintained that since many phenomena (once thought to be bound to the non-physical) was demonstrated to be otherwise, then we have every right to expect that mental states will ultimately be revealed as brain states. This theoretical shift from a biblical anthropology to a naturalistic anthropology has led to a functional sterilization of biblical categories in how many institutions assess and treat human behavior. Particularly, common behavioral dysfunctions (e.g., sexual addictions) have been downgraded from the biblical appraisal of actions that are intrinsically ethical to the neutered conviction such actions are amoral. The shift has been made from sin to disease, punishment to treatment, criminal to victim, from compatibilism to determinism. The clinicians are quick to find corresponding reductionistic treatments. And so the shift is made from renouncing sin to embracing one’s condition, repentance to treatment, prayer to therapy, sanctification to moral sterilization. Pushing back, Welch maintains that Scriptural categories must be the interpretive grid for understanding the findings of science.

“What is needed is not necessarily more sophistication in understanding the brain. Instead, what is needed is a more in-depth and practical examination of Scripture that is relevant to these questions” (20).

Welch proposes that a biblical stance towards the topic will aid us to discern when it is legitimate to blame behavior on the brain, and when it isn’t. That is, to decipher “the areas where the brain has received too little credit, and to highlight where the brain has received too much” (13-14).

In chapter two, Welch presents two competing world-views on the relationship of body and mind: dualism and monism. Dualism is the belief that there are two different kinds of things that make up the universe (i.e. material and immaterial), and that the brain belongs to the first and mind belongs to the second. Monism, on the other hand, will reduce all of reality to one or the other. So, either all reality is non-material resulting in “matter” being illusory. Or, all reality is material resulting in ostensibly non-material things being illusory.

Regardless of the worldview, Welch points out that there is a general consensus on some distinctive properties of the mind, namely consciousness, or as Welch would put it, “I-ness.” The debate between dualist and monist often centers on how to understand this peculiar property. The dualist insists that this property (and associated properties) cannot be reduced to matter, and therefore is immaterial. The naturalistic monist claims that this property can be explained materially, just not right now. The monist alleges that the dualist has no way to explain how the immaterial can interact with the material. The dualist claims that these two do in fact interact causally, we just don’t know right now.

Though we may not know how mind and matter relate, Welch affirms that Scripture in undeniable that both exist and do interrelate. God is Spirit and creates and interacts with matter (32). Moreover Scripture declares that humans are created as “composite beings - a natural organism tenanted by, or in a state of symbiosis with, a supernatural spirit” (33). This seems to be confirmed by that peculiar property of mind (i.e, “I-ness”) that never seems reducible to the brain functions that support it. “The ‘I’ seems to escape all attempts to be physically located” (34).

Scripture will label this non-material “I” with terms like “spirit,” “heart,” “soul,” “conscience,” “inner self,” and “inner man” (35). Welch argues that what is distinctive of these words, and of human personhood, is an overarching and pervasive “Godward orientation.” Our personhood is unique (in contrast to rocks and trees) in how it makes us relate morally to God. The Imago Dei in creatures defines them as Corem Deo, that is, in the face of God. As to the body, in contrast to secular thought that deifies it as the “be all,” and in contrast to Greek thought that denigrates it as a rotting corpse stifling the spirit, Welch reminds us that it is described in Scripture as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the mediator of the moral self, partially defining what makes a human, and subject to the saving work of Jesus.

Welch’s exposition of God’s word on the constituent nature of human beings is not without helpful consequences. It helps us to discern moral and amoral activities. An action comes from the immaterial self and is sin if and only if it doesn’t conform to biblical commands (43). There are behaviors that arise from the dysfunction of the body rather than sin in the soul. These behaviors might be labeled sickness or suffering.

In chapter three, Welch offers four practical principles that arise from a Biblical understanding of human personhood. The first one is that the brain cannot make a person sin because we’ve identified the moral self as unique to the heart and not the body. The body mediates the moral self; it doesn’t initiate it. Moral commands are directed towards to the unique functioning of the soul, not the body. Bodily functions such as the liver producing bile, the pancreas secreting insulin, and the mind remembering facts are not in the jurisdiction of culpability. Nor can they causally determine the moral outcome of the mind.

The second principle states that each person’s abilities are unique and demand careful study. The relevance of this point is that one can easily confuse an ability issue with a moral issue. Welch gives the example of a child who fails to perform to the family average. This could have a moral root (e.g., laziness), or it may reflect cognitive limitations in the child. The take away is that one’s behavior may sometimes have two explanations: moral and amoral.

The third principle states that brain problems can expose heart problems. The proper functioning of our brains can conceal our moral condition. Let’s say that a person’s brain malfunctions resulting in turrets, and this person shouts out crude sexual comments to certain passersby. At first glance, one may reduce this to an amoral activity due to his inability to control his actions. However, it is likely that what he can’t control is the keeping quiet about his own inner thoughts. This brain condition reveals a heart condition.

The forth principal says that the condition of one’s heart can lead to certain physical conditions: an upright heart can lead to health, and a sinful heart can lead to sickness. This particular kind of connection between soul and body isn’t always obvious. Nor can one reason from bodily condition to soul condition (e.g. “if you’re physically healthy, you are probably spiritually healthy”).

In the second part of the book, Welch applies the Biblical paradigm to three kinds of cases: those cases in which a person’s behavior is caused by the brain, may be caused by the brain, and is not caused by the brain. Moral culpability and treatment will of course vary depending on the case. Welch offers some basic steps for helping people in whatever case they may be: (1) data collection, (2) distinguishing between spiritual and physical symptoms, and (3) addressing heart issues and maximizing strengths. Using depression, I will apply Welch’s classification to illustrate how it would apply in a counseling context.

Given the nature of depression, it is important to take pains to understand the counselee’s experience. Symptoms of depression may map on to multiple causes much like flu-like symptoms may point simply to the flu or to a condition that is dire. With depression, there might be chemical underpinnings (the effects of certain medications), environmental causes (the loss of job or loved one), spiritual roots (an afflicted conscience), and perhaps a combination of all of these things. This first step attempts to investigate the subject’s experience, including the theater of their experience (i.e., the backdrop of their life and experience relative to their emotional interpretation of their life and experience). In this inquiry, we want to carefully distinguish between heart issues and physical issues.

I have recently counseled a number of folks who are trying to recover from divorce due to spouses who have physically and emotionally abandoned their partner and family. In most of these cases, the abandoned spouse feels crushed with underneath the weight of financial, relational, legal, and familial strain. Of course, these are environmental pressures that are unavoidable. And of course it is not uncommon for many folks to experience symptoms that may be descriptive of depression (e.g., fatigue, depressed mood, diminished ability to think and concentrate, sleeplessness, etc). As a counselor I have to assess whether some of these symptoms are rooted only in the limitations of human beings under these kinds of pressures, or if they have roots in the heart.

In some examples I have observed that a person’s depressive state was directly related to a belief that God did not make due on some perceived promise to guaranteed familial harmony. In other cases, I have interacted with those for whom their condition was related to feelings of guilt and shame. In other cases, their experience was largely due to the external pressures and their creaturely limitations. In all of these cases, we’ve discussed the possible ways that the subject can alter the environment and alleviate the pressures from without. In addition, in all of these cases I have spent considerable time addressing heart issues. I’ve sought to compare the counselee’s interpretation of their problem with the Word of God. Where there is disparity, I have sought to encourage and equip the counselee to change their thinking and behavior so as to respond to their circumstances in a God-Ward way. In one particular case a counselee’s turbulent relationship and depression revealed a fundamental distrust of God. We discovered that this distrust in God resulted in a corresponding behavior of disobeying very clear commands from God on how to handle the particular stresses she faced. We've proceeded with practical ways to obey Biblical commands and reverse established patterns born out of unbelief.

Blame it on the Brain helps to reinforce and refine the confidence and methods of the Biblical Counselor in a culture where human progress is viewed as outside of the domain of the church.

Jake Magee, Student

Reformed Baptist Seminary