Neuroscience, Neurotheology and Graced Nature

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Religion has a profound impact on the entire person of a human being. The effects of religious belief on the human brain and behaviour led to the emergence of a new discipline that we call neurotheology. Neurotheology tries to understand brain functions associated with spiritual experiences. Brain imaging techniques or brain scans have manifested that religious thought does not just come from the brain but such thoughts arise in specific spots of the brain that are sometimes colloquially called ‘God spots’. There are several neuroscientists who are engaged in the research of God spot. But there are several hurdles to this research as it requires the cooperation of religious persons who have to freely consent to brain scans during their religious experiences. Often such brain scans can have the effect of being invasive and spoil religious experiences. It has been much easy to observe how religious beliefs have impacts on human health, especially mental health. This has also opened the doors to research for the practical applications of religions via neuroscience. Neuroscience can also assist us to expel toxic thoughts and behaviours and lead us to paths of self-actualization and fulfilment. The biology of love via the release of the hormone oxytocin may enable us to stay loving and caring. This means neuroscience can assist us to enhance our positive and loving behaviours. It can also enable us to trigger love in those who refuse to love us. Does that mean that we will control and manipulate other people? Will we use brain scanning techniques and other neurotechnologies to manipulate and control the behaviours of others? These are ethical questions. Religion and theology can assist us to come to enlightened discernment on the same. In fact, social neuroscience opens a window on mass behaviours and shows us paths that can have multiplier effects on human behaviour. It does give us insight into what mass harmful cults or crowd frenzies do to people. But this may also dangerously open us ways of manipulating the masses too. Hence, a religion that is the custodian of values and ethics is still needed to discern the path and applications of neuroscience for the good of entire humanity.

Neuroscience can also provide natural explanations to what is deemed as a religious source of spiritual behaviours. These can let us think that religions are useless. Natural explanations are interpretive and positivist. Hence, do not necessarily tell us the full truth. Theology teaches us that grace works on nature. There is therefore what we may call the discovery of complementarity of grace and nature in this context. But one has to agree that these new developments do away with the arrogance of theologians. But at the same time findings of neuroscience are contesting reductive physicalisms that simply deny soul and spirit and the divine. But this does not mean that the way things are shaping today in neuroscience, we seem to be moving towards a dualists view where nature and grace cannot intermingle. In fact, on the contrary, we seem to be tilting towards graced nature or natured grace. This kind of dynamic holism appears to be the way ahead. Maybe this paradigm provides us with a deep insight to look at why neuroscience might enable us to use neurotechnologies to trigger religious behaviours in persons. This is possible because nature is already graced. Maybe we have to turn to the teaching: rationes seminales of St. Augustine. It is through these seeds sowed by the divine that nature remains graced and is activated and actualized. But this will not occur without human cooperation with the divine. This is why neurotechnologies like scanning of the person in deep prayer might fail if it becomes an invasion to the person. But this does not mean that certain neurotechnologies will not manipulate persons without their knowledge. This can result in mind reading as well as brainwashing. We can still account for these through the paradigm of graced nature through what has maybe termed as the abuse of human freedom.

It is through the paradigm of graced nature that we might be able to understand how developments in science do not take us away from human destiny that God has gifted us in creation and redemption. Neuroscience does lead to some unintended consequences but it does not cancel or take us away from human destiny or life afterlife. Openings to graced nature are found in non-reductive physicalism in philosophy of the mind as well as non-dualism that we know as Advaita in India. We do have conceptual tools to dialogue with new developments in neuroscience. This dialogue has to continue. It can enrich humans and illumine us to the wonder of being human in the wonderful world created by God. Such a dialogue can bring light to human origin, life and destiny.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao