Neuroscience, the Person, and God: An Emergentist Account
Clayton (Philip)
Source: Russell (Robert John), Murphy (Nancey), Meyering (Theo C.), Arbib (Michael A.) - Neuroscience and the Person
Paper - Abstract

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Counterbalance Foundation Abstract

  1. Philip Clayton, in “Neuroscience, the Person, and God: An Emergentist Account,” provides a fine overview of issues spanning the range from neuroscience, through philosophy of mind, to theology. Beginning, as does Arbib, with a list of some of neuroscience’s achievements in understanding human phenomena, Clayton points out that either of two extreme positions, if true, would block any significant dialogue between the neurosciences and theology. On the one hand, strong forms of dualism that make mind into a separate substance remove mental phenomena forever from the realm of scientific study. On the other hand, eliminative materialism - the view that “folk” psychological entities such as beliefs and desires do not exist - resolves the debate with theology by removing theology altogether from the realm of possible theories. For this reason, Clayton’s essay challenges the “Sufficiency Thesis,” according to which neuroscientific explanations will finally be sufficient to fully explain human behavior.
  2. Once these two extreme views, ontological dualism and radical reductionism, have been dismissed, a wide range of interesting possibilities remains for integrating neuroscientific results and theological interpretations into a theory of the person. One set of issues hinges on how one understands the epistemological status of theology. Clayton advocates the view that while religious beliefs are not subject to proof or confirmation from science, they need to be answerable to scientific advances in the weaker sense of not being counter-indicated by the empirical sciences.The more difficult issues have to do with interpretation of the results of neuroscience. It is clear that neural states are major determinants of subjective experience and thought, yet Clayton takes the “structural couplings” between the conscious organism and its environment, the phenomena of reference and meaning, and the experience of “qualia” (the subjective side of conscious experience) to suggest that mental events or properties are not thoroughly reducible to neural states. Clayton, along with others in this volume, understands mental events as supervenient on their physical substrates; however, along with Murphy, he challenges the standard accounts of supervenience1 that seem inevitably to result in causal reduction of the mental to the physical. Clayton’s version of “soft” or “emergentist” supervenience2 defines a property F as emergent if, and only if, there is a law to the effect that all systems with this microstructure have F, but F cannot, even in theory, be deduced from the most complete knowledge of the basic properties of the components of the system. If mental properties supervene3 on physical properties in this manner, Clayton concludes, there is room for genuine mental causation4 - not all causes of human behavior are purely neuronal causes. Clayton’s account of supervenience5 leads to an emergentist-monist account of the person: “monist” because, while there are many types of properties encountered in the world, there is only one natural system that bears all those properties; “emergentist” because, while mental phenomena result from an (incredibly complex) physical system, the brain, they represent a genuinely new causal and explanatory level in the world. He notes that emergentist monism is open to theological applications and interpretations, although it does not require a theistic outlook.


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