Why fMRI scans explain not one human behavior

A therapist once tried to explain to me why people in states of extreme anger aren’t able to reason: if you monitor the brain of someone in such a state on an fMRI scan, you’ll see the frontal cortex — where reasoning is ostensibly “housed” — go dark, shut down. An enraged person literally can’t reason, she solemnly intoned; the hardware that runs that particular piece of cognitive software is temporarily off-line.

But here’s the thing: that whole line of reasoning gets this topic completely backwards. We’ve known since Aristotle (hell, since Homer, writing about Achilles), that rage and other intense passions inhibit reasoning. No surprise there. And in fact, it’s only because we know this about people — only because we understand what a rational person looks like and does, and what an enraged person looks like and does — that we’re able to interpret the fMRI scan in the first place. We look at the activity in the brain of an angry person, notice that the amygdala is particularly active, and think, “Hey, maybe the amygdala has some relation to anger.” If the amygdala lit up when someone was smiling and chatting cheerfully, do you think anyone would’ve drawn the same connection? (I’m told by people better informed than I that the idea that complex processes like higher-order reasoning or anger can be tightly correlated to particular brain structures is mostly fantasy, but let’s just keep things simple.)

Far from substituting for the supposedly superficial “folk psychology” of ordinary life and traditional philosophy, the neuroscience of human behavior is entirely parasitic on it, because (as Roger Scruton argues in The Soul of the World, among many other works) the persons to whom that behavior belongs exist only on the surfaces of things, in the social world where we meet one another face to face and “I to I.”

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The Book, in Outline

Introduction: Explain here why Berkeley ought to be thought of as a theologian who wrote (like Justin Martyr, Augustine in some works, Pascal, and Newman) principally in the “apologetic” mode. Explain also why he’s rarely so thought of today. Argue as well that theology that ceases to be “philosophical” equally ceases to be theological. Finally, argue that theology ought to be “useless” in Newman’s sense, and that this book of speculative theological metaphysics will be an instance of such uselessness.

Ch. 1: Creation without Matter: Argue here that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo effectively consigns God-independent entities, whether elements, atoms, or prime matter, to the order of the concept, as a logical abstraction; that such a theology of creation (illustrated especially, but not only, from Augustine) is effectively “idealist,” in maintaining that all of sensible reality is radically dependent on mind, e.g., God’s; that Berkeley’s “immaterialism” is a recognizable installment in this tradition, with particular links to the biblical doctrine that God creates by his Word, and that the world is consequently a form of divine language (liber naturae); and that by Siris, Berkeley is forthright and enthusiastic about his metaphysics being a form of Christian Platonism.

Ch. 2: Creatures without Matter: Argue here that one of Berkeley’s besetting problems, not unlike those of the pagan Platonists such as Plotinus and Proclus on whom he relies so heavily in Siris, is offering a principled account of the Creator-creature distinction; that Christian theology developed a grammar for articulating that distinction without undermining the creature’s dependence on God, namely in the doctrine of the Trinity (illustrate with particular, though not exclusive, reference to Augustine); that Berkeley’s immaterialism is rendered more compelling as a doctrine of creation if articulated in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Ch. 3: Change without Matter: Observe here that a key motivation for the appeal to prime matter, from Plato to Aquinas (with stops in at least Aristotle and Plotinus) is the problem of continuity within substantial change. Show the good reasons for this concern, but then suggest that a properly a-temporal account of the LORD’s relation to the cosmos dissolves them.

Ch. 4: Knowledge without Matter: Argue here that Berkeley’s divine-language thesis offers a compelling account of the mind-world relation, taking up the virtues of rationalism and empiricism without their vices. Argue as well that there are theological reasons for thinking that Berkeley’s immaterialism needs to be fortified by something like Augustine’s Christological illuminationism (the De magistro thesis), along the lines proposed by Bruce Marshall in relation to Davidson’s coherentism.

Conclusion: The Doxological Stance

Discuss Berkeley’s repeated insistence that neglect for the dependence of the sensible world on divine creation was a great breeder of impiety and atheism, and that his metaphysics reminds us that the creature’s proper stance toward that world is doxological. Center this on the collect from Morning Prayer in the BCP: “Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being. We pray you so to guide and govern us by the power of your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of this life, we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight, through J-C our Lord. Amen.”

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Barthian Shankara

Early in his commentary (bhasya) on the Brahma Sutras of Badarayana, Shankaracarya, the greatest sage of the Advaita Vedanta, offers a theory about the Brahman-world relation, and our knowledge of it.

The second of 555 sutras reads as follows: “(Brahman is that) from which the origin, &c. (i.e. the origin, subsistence, and dissolution) of this (world proceed)” (1.1.2).  Shankara comments, “The full sense of the Sûtra therefore is: That omniscient, omnipotent cause from which proceed the origin, subsistence, and dissolution of this world–which world is differentiated by names and forms, contains many agents and enjoyers, is the abode of the fruits of actions, these fruits having their definite places, times, and causes, and the nature of whose arrangement cannot even be conceived by the mind,–that cause, we say, is Brahman…The origin, &c. of a world possessing the attributes stated above cannot possibly proceed from anything else but a Lord possessing the stated qualities,” though Shankara insists that neither he nor the Sutra is proving this by reason, but in fact is simply commenting on “Scripture” (the Upanishads) (1.1.2).

He grants that, in principle, “inference also, being an instrument of right knowledge in so far as it does not contradict the Vedânta-texts, is not to be excluded as a means of confirming the meaning ascertained,” but that in this case, “as Brahman is not an object of the senses, it has no connection with those other means of knowledge. For the senses have, according to their nature, only external things for their objects, not Brahman. If Brahman were an object of the senses, we might perceive that the world is connected with Brahman as its effect; but as the effect only (i.e. the world) is perceived, it is impossible to decide (through perception) whether it is connected with Brahman or something else” (1.1.2).

Shankara here rejects so-called “cosmological” (or a posteriori) proofs for the existence of God (assuming, for the moment, some kind of equivalence between Brahman- and God-talk), using arguments similar to those that Kant would later deploy in the Antinomies of Pure Reason in the first Critique. (Both take it that “cause-talk” is meaningful only within the world, and can’t in any meaningful sense be applied to the world as a whole.) Since such proofs fail, we must conclude that “the Sûtra under discussion is not meant to propound inference (as the means of knowing Brahman), but rather to set forth a Vedânta-text” (1.1.2). Here, he goes beyond the critique of inferences from the world to Brahman, and argues that, since the world possesses no (so to speak) Anknupfungspunkt with Brahman, we can only grasp its mode of dependence on Brahman by way of special revelation — in this case, the Upanishads.

Francis Clooney summarizes this passage as follows: “By itself the sutra appears to describe Brahman in terms general enough to allow for inference, and opens the way to such reasoning. Shankara accordingly declares that only Brahman, the Lord, can be an adequate source for the complex and varied world we observe around us…But then, one might argue, if Brahman is in fact the cause of this observable world, one should be able to draw an inference from the world, the effect, regarding Brahman as cause…Shankara rejects this inference, though he has no problem with its conclusion. He insists that there is a unique textual basis for saving knowledge; UMS [= the Brahma Sutras] 1.1.2 does not mean that Brahman is a source that can be inferred; rather, it tells us that the word ‘Brahman’ is designated to the useful name of what we learn from the upanishadic texts” (Theology after Vedanta, 97-98).

As I said at the top: so far, so Barthian!

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The Stoicheic Backdrop of Atonement Theology

Peter Leithart (Delivered from the Elements of the World) argues that the proper backdrop for the doctrine of the atonement is the “stoicheic” structure of the fallen world. Both Jews (Gal 4:9) and Gentiles (Gal 4:3) were enslaved under the “elements (stoicheia),” manifest in ritualized cosmology and cosmic liturgies, social worlds kept in delicate equilibria through rites of purifying the polluting and the fencing of the holy. Paul insists that, somehow, Jesus brought this old order to an end (cf. ch. 1, esp. 41) — an atonement theology is a description of how this happened.

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Shakespearean Berkeley?

One of Berkeley’s most distinctive theses is the claim that the world that appears to us in perception and experiment constitutes a “divine language,” an address from God: “There is a certain analogy, constancy, and uniformity in the phaenomena or appearances of nature, which are a foundation for general rules: and these are a grammar for the understanding of nature, or that series of effects in the visible world, whereby we are enabled to foresee what will come to pass, in the natural course of things. Plotinus observes, in his third Ennead, that the art of presaging is in some sort the reading of natural letters denoting order” (Siris §252). Think of this as an answer to Hume’s objections to induction avant la lettre: we know we can interpret natural events as rationally ordered, as intelligible; we know that this ordering isn’t a function of human conventions;  therefore, there must be an orderer, an intelligence manifest to us in and through the world’s appearances. This is God, of course; Berkeley’s argument is strikingly similar to Aquinas’s fifth way toward God, from natural teleology (cf. ST 1.2.3).

Costica Bradatan (in his marvelous The Other Bishop Berkeley) has shown that Berkeley’s divine-language thesis fits comfortably within the patristic and scholastic “liber naturae” tradition, which saw the world as a “book” given to illumine and edify the faithful; but a closer analogue, albeit surely influenced as well by that same tradition, is Shakespeare. In his As You Like It, Duke Senior enjoins his companions-in-exile: “This our life, exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything” (II.1.562-66). Like the Duke, the good Bishop sees the whole world as a conversation had between the LORD and those whom he calls friends.

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Genesis 3 as Psycho-Drama

Augustine famously argued that the “fall narrative” of Genesis 3, while depicting a real historical event, was also a figure of the rational soul’s disordered relation, through the imagination, to the sensible world. The story depicts how reason (Adam) is seduced by temporal things (the fruit) through the suggestions that the evil one makes to the imagination (Eve). “For certainly bodily things are perceived by the sense of the body; but spiritual things, which are eternal and unchangeable, are understood by the reason of wisdom” (DT 12.12.17). Augustine sees this reading as warranted in part by St. Paul’s own use of the Genesis narrative in 1 Cor 11, where he claims, “man…is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man” (1 Cor 11:7). Augustine knows, however, that all human beings bear the image, and so he resolves the tension by suggesting that Paul takes the married couple to serve as a figure for the way in which the human mind images God, with the husband standing in for the mind’s attention to the eternal good, and the woman standing in for the mind’s attention to temporal things (DT 12.7.10). Nonetheless, he insists that the couple is a figure of an image which, “it is clear, not men only, but also women have” (DT 12.7.12). 

Augustine doesn’t, so far as I can tell, notice a telling textual cue in Genesis itself that invites us to read the fall narrative in the way he suggests. One of the consequences of the fall about which God warns Eve is that, “וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ (your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you)” (Gen 3:16). But then, just a few verses later, God offers Cain a similar warning: “לַפֶּ֖תַח חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֨יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֹ֔ו וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בֹּֽו (sin is crouching at your door. Its desire is for you, but you will (or may) rule over it)” (Gen 4:7). Genesis itself suggests a kind of interpenetration of (fallen) Eve and Cain’s sin; Scripture allegorizes itself.

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Resurrection Age

In one of his Sermones Catholicae, Aelfric of Eynsham (10th c. AD) writes, “The apostle Paul says, that we should arise from the dead in the [same] age which Christ was when he suffered (Se apostol Paulus cwaeð, þaet we sceolon arisan of deaðe on ðaere ylde þe Crist waes þaða he ðrowade, þaet is embe þreo and ðritig geara)” (p. 237). Where, I found myself wondering, does Paul comment on so obscure a question? Aelfric doesn’t quote from Paul directly, but a quick consultation of Augustine’s discussion of the resurrection in De civ. Dei cleared things up:

All shall rise neither beyond nor under youth, but in that vigor and age to which we know that Christ had arrived. For even the world’s wisest men have fixed the bloom of youth at about the age of thirty; and when this period has been passed, the man begins to decline towards the defective and duller period of old age. And therefore the apostle did not speak of the measure of the body, nor of the measure of the stature, but of the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ (CD 22.15).

What he’s quoting there is Eph 4:13, which the KJV renders, “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature (ἡλικίας, maturity or age) of the fulness of Christ.” “ἡλικία,” which admittedly in the Greek probably ought to be glossed as “maturity” in a developmental sense, sometimes also has a more chronological sense (e.g., Matt 6:27), which is how both Augustine’s Old Latin version and Jerome also seem to have taken it: “in virum perfectum in mensuram aetatis plenitudinis Christi.” Read that way, Paul can be read as making a point, not merely about the growth of the church into conformity with Christ, but specifically about the character of that growth, as involving a resurrection to the very age Christ was when he died, in the full flower of adult vigor.

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