“I Expect to be Surprised…”

by Eric Ecklund-Johnson

I was asked to write something about the intelligent design debate from a behavioral science perspective. I guess the first thing I should say is that, although I believe in an Intelligent Designer, I think that the idea of intelligent design is probably best kept as a matter of faith, rather than scientific theory. However, although that assertion may sound fairly confident, balancing my personal and professional beliefs has not always been easy and I would have to say that my education and training have certainly changed some aspects of how I believe. I hope my personal observations here will be accepted as one individual’s thoughts on intelligent design and what I see as matters of faith and science that are (probably only tangentially) related to this debate. These thoughts likely are not very representative of the thinking of either Christians or behavioral scientists.

During the course of my training, one of my mentors mentioned to a group of aspiring neuropsychologists that, in order to be a neuropsychologist, one really must be a reductionist. That is, if you do not believe that all human behavior has its origins in the central nervous system, your ability to be an effective brain researcher and clinician is limited. Stated another way, in order to make sense of the relationship between brain and behavior, one must make the assumption that the latter is a result of the function of the former and can ultimately be explained by it (i.e., it is theoretically only a matter of time and continued research before we can explain all behavior, including less observable events such as emotion, cognition, and even consciousness by reference to brain function).

While this may seem a very basic premise for any self-respecting neuroscientist, I had not to that point considered this issue in any depth. My impression is that most people have not considered the implications of this because our culture (and I think most cultures) are infused with a more or less implicit dualism in their explanations of human behavior. It is certainly deeply ingrained in Christianity. The idea of one’s identity resting in a soul that is eternal and in some way separate from the physical body has been a central belief since well before Descartes explicitly described the mind and the body as two distinctly separate realities. I had always thought in these terms, having absorbed at least some of what I had read and heard in Sunday school and various other religious studies. However, I had to agree with my mentor that a neuropsychologist must accept the premise of biological reductionism. Indeed, it was clear from my dissertation study of the lack of awareness of deficits among patients with dementia that even the highest of cognitive functions, such as self-awareness, are vulnerable when the brain is damaged by disease or injury. Of course, this posed (and still poses) a dilemma for me as a Christian – if the biological brain is the source of all behavior and cognition and the source of each person’s individual identity, then what in us is divine or eternal?

In a similar way, if evolution, a seemingly random process, has resulted in the current state of human existence (including the brains that make our individual identities possible), in what way does this reflect the work of God? I have to admit that this is a question that remains at least partially unsettled in my mind (or brain – I should be consistent here, I guess). Evolution, a theory to which I and most scientifically trained individuals subscribe, does not appear to require an omnipotent creator – just certain conditions favoring life and lots and lots of time. Nevertheless, it cannot explain the reason why our current stage of development (or indeed, life at all) should exist. Furthermore, without cheating and knowing what has happened in the course of evolution, I am not sure it could be predicted that self-consciousness and belief in God would have developed as a result of the contingencies governing what appears to be an essentially random process.

I think it is best that science avoid trying to insert an unknown quantity (God) into this process because it takes us away from striving to explain in a verifiable way the laws that govern life in our universe.

To return to the point from which I started this piece, my belief that my own self-consciousness is the result of neurons firing in organized patterns that are not yet completely understood, but presumably knowable, makes it no less a miracle. In a similar way, the belief that my young daughter and her rapidly developing identity are the result of many millions of years of evolution makes it no less a miracle to me that she exists and is unique. The belief that something of our identity might survive beyond our biological life remains of course a matter of faith. The words of a wise old Jesuit priest (who happened to be a biologist) come to mind, “I expect to be surprised when I die.”

Eric Ecklund-Johnson is a neuropsychologist at the Kansas University Medical Center, Kansas City, Kansas.

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