A Christian understanding of human nature holds that human beings are made in the image of God. As His image bearers we are created by God with an immaterial soul that survives death. This soul comes with the capacity and moral inclination to know and relate to God. All of this means that for Christians how we regard the relationship between the soul and the brain matters because it affects the validity of the Gospel.
This good news of Jesus has become increasingly challenged by a materialist worldview of the brain led by secular neuroscientists. They argue that science and faith in God are opposed to one another; religious belief emerges out of an evolutionary need for survival; religious experiences are simply a function of the brain; and, neuroscience disapproves the existence of the human soul.
Bradley L Sickler’s new book, God on the Brain (2020, Crossway) debunks these ideas. After reviewing each of the secular arguments, he shows us that we can still confidently maintain an orthodox, biblical view of human nature and the trustworthiness of Christian belief.
Today it is common today for people to say science and science alone can lead to knowledge. Sickler helpfully reminds us that though Science can give us a certain kind of knowledge it is inadequate for the tasks of living and certainly unable to satisfy our longings. For that, we need the certainty of faith that comes with trusting and knowing Christ. Indeed, all knowledge, properly understood, presupposes the existence of God and the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Drawing on the work of the reformed epistemology, Sickler reminds us that belief in God is properly basic. It is basic because if we do not have to hold it at the end of a chain of reasoning or a lengthy string of inferences. It is properly basic because it is within our epistemic rights to hold because it does not result from faulty memory or any other problematic source. We deserve the confidence we have in our belief in God.
The Bible presents us with an account of human nature according to which one of our faculties is what is often called the sensus divinitatis. Like our other senses, it is a sort of detector that, when functioning properly and in the right situations, will form properly basic true beliefs in us about God. It is not always in the right kind of setting to be activated, and it isn’t always functioning properly in everyone, but the sensus divinitatis can be a reliable source of knowledge.
The way to approach the question of belief in God, then, is to affirm with confidence what the Scriptures teach: we are meant to know God, and our knowledge of him is in no way epistemologically disrespectable. The complaint that it fails to meet the strictures of this or that set of criteria is not something to worry about, since those criteria usually don’t even meet their own standards; in addition, they rule out a lot of commonsense knowledge that should be acceptable.
Moreover, starting with criteria is probably the wrong way to begin anyway. Instead, we build our view of knowledge from the ground up, starting with examples of what we know and seeing what our warranted true beliefs have in common. Using this method and noting the problems with the other approaches, we can safely conclude there is no reason to exclude belief in God as being properly basic. This understanding is not in conflict with the current research in cognitive science. As Christians we are acting perfectly within our epistemic rights and more than meet the requirements of knowledge when we believe in God.
The book more than achieves it’s central of aim of providing a compelling case of why belief in God is not at odds with neuroscience research. Along the way, it makes several crucial observations about science and religion that Christians can deploy in their everyday conversation with those who are skeptical of religious beliefs. Four areas particularly stood out for me.
First, we can be confident that secular explanations for religious belief rooted in the “evolutionary benefit” argument” are inadequate because even if all of those benefits really do accrue as a result of religion, that by no means indicates that they developed for that reason. The evolutionary benefit argument suffers from the fallacy of thinking that the consequences of an action, even if they are foreknown, are the same as the reasons for that action.
Crucially, the argument fails to tell us why we have religion and why it is the way it is. It does not explain or account for the mechanisms that lead us to belief to begin with. Indeed, if we were to make a prediction about what human nature would be like if God made it, and the chief end of humanity is to glorify and enjoy God forever, we would expect humans to have an inward compulsion to believe in him. It would be more surprising if God who wanted us to know him made belief too difficult or harmful for most people to hold on to.
Second, we can be confident that neuroscience research does not provide any credible evidence that religious experiences are simply a function of the brain. The research nowhere studies the encounters mentioned in the Bible which could not be produced on demand to satisfy the curiosity of researchers in a lab. Biblical encounters were with the living and true God and totally the result of God’s initiative, and nothing they could do would be able to generate something similar for the scientists to study.
Most importantly, if God does exist, then it should come as no surprise that he would make us such that our brains are active when we encounter him. The God revealed in the pages of the Bible has made people with both physical and spiritual dimensions. A person is a mysterious and beautiful embodiment of both the physical and the spiritual working together. If encounters with God are real, we would expect them to engage the brain rather than bypass it. Brain activity, far from being a threat to God, is exactly what we would predict.
Thirdly, neuroscience has not disapproved the existence of the human soul. Studies on the anthropology of religious belief conclude that “the doctrine of souls” is a basic belief underlying social and religious practices in all human societies. In addition, neuroscience has not been able to give an account of the nature of consciousness. Similarly, Sickler shows the common argument that souls cannot exist because the non-material cannot causally affect the material is misguided, as is the slight changes argument which argues that minor changes in the brain can be correlated with changes in our mental life.
Finally, the naturalistic evolutionary approach to the cognitive science of religion undermines our confidence in the conclusions of science. We are often told that science is based on physical evidence. But In fact it is built on a lot of unproven presuppositions e.g. the existence of a theory-independent, external world the orderly nature of the external world, the knowability of the external world, the existence of truth the laws of logic and mathematics, the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as sources of justified beliefs in our intellectual environment the adequacy of language to describe the world, the existence of values used in science and, the uniformity of nature and induction.
These presuppositions are all held based solely on “what seems to be the case.” It seems like we can trust our senses; mathematics seems to work and make sense; it seems like nature is regular and that induction is reasonable and that we ought to report our findings honestly. But each of those claims is unverifiable directly. In fact, these beliefs are nothing more than “blind faith” because they are beliefs in the absence of any evidence. These things come on us with force and conviction, and they make sense of the world. They provide a cognitive framework for all kinds of useful investigations, and they ground the way we see and understand the world—even our human relationships.
Religion is under attack because it appeals to unverifiable universals; transcendent, and abstract laws of morality. In general, religious belief appeals to foundational principles that cannot be empirically verified. But the scientific enterprise does the same thing. A building is never more secure than its foundations. Dismissing religious claims because they are not scientific ultimately require dismissing science because it is not scientific either.
But it is not only science that will be in danger. No rational process or way of knowing will be safe if we are cut off in principle from knowing things that cannot be proved through sensory perception. Without some unverifiable assumptions and unobservable foundations, all knowledge will be impossible. If naturalistic evolution is right, we have no reason to believe that any of our cognitive faculties or processes moves us closer to truth. And any argument that they would do so must depend on assuming that they are already reliable and that the arguments they lead us to endorse are trustworthy.
In general, this book is a great defense of our Christian religious experience. It quite comprehensive covering a lot of difficult topics from cognitive science, neurophysiology, evolutionary morality, and evolutionary psychology. All explained in accessible language, although in one or two places I had to slow right down to take in the technical language. It is after all a topic about brain science! That said there are two areas that a second edition of this book may improve on.
The first area relates to the audience. It is not easy to figure our who this book is for. I think it is primarily for people who regularly shares the gospel with academic sceptics. That said, parents that have teenagers who are asking difficult science-based questions may also benefit from being it. Our children are picking up strange ideas all the time, so it is good for us to be able to be as informed. That said, I don’t the average person is skeptical about the existence of the human soul. If one is in doubt one only needs to go a funeral. There is plenty of belief in the human soul at funerals.
The second quibble I have is that the book at the beginning promises to “look at recent scholarship on brains to see how it provides orthodox Christian anthropology with some serious food for thought and, hopefully, develop a framework to think through what it all means”. As I have said, I think it does that. But if I were pedantic, I would say, that the book probably leans more to making a theistic argument rather a distinctly Christian argument.
The Christian view presented and defended, but it is not sufficiently contrasted with other religious views, except in discussion of religious experience. Similarly, this book does not directly challenge the whole enterprise of evolution. The silence will unfortunately put off some readers. Sickler takes the evolutionary argument as given (without necessarily endorsing it, though if pushed my guess is that he is a theistic evolutionist) and focuses on working within that argument to show, even in a world where human evolution is assumed, one must make room for reality of religious experience and the truth of the Gospel. In that sense, I think some people will find the book slightly defensive than it needs to be. It is perhaps a little more focused on reassuring those who already hold a Christian worldview that the Christian faith makes better sense of the available evidence, than it needs to be.
That of course is an important job. It is helpful for followers of Jesus to be reassured of these things because even though we know God is real, we are all experienced doubts from time to time. There are times when we may find ourselves asking, is my belief all in my brain? Is my knowledge of God inferior to other forms of knowledge? To know that our knowledge of God is not only as good as other forms of knowledge, but also that much of what constitutes knowledge is in fact predicated on the knowledge of God is very comforting in our walk with God. It strengthens our faith and trust in Jesus. And that is probably the best way to summarise this book. It is an excellent book that strengthens our confidence in God.