Blog Archives

The Top 10 Myths about the Brain

The Smithsonian has an excellent article on the Top 10 Myths about the Brain. It’s amazing how well-entrenched these are in the popular consciousness. So, before you say anything about the human brain (especially in a sermon), please consult this list.

My favorite insight from the article was that “There’s a long history of likening the brain to whatever technology is the most advanced, impressive and vaguely mysterious.” We describe the brain as a computer, earlier people described it as a steam engine or telephone. We’ve always been fascinated and confused by what makes the human person tick, constantly searching for some analogy that will make us make sense to ourselves.

You’ll want to read the entire article to get the explanation for why these are myths, but here are the Top 10 Myths.

  1. We only use 10 percent of our brains.
  2. “Flashbulb memories” are precise, detailed, and persistent.
  3. It’s all downhill after 40 (or 50 or 60 or 70)
  4. We have 5 senses.
  5. Brains are like computers.
  6. The brain is hard-wired.
  7. A conk on the head can cause amnesia.
  8. We know what will make us happy.
  9. We see the world as it is.
  10. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.

That last one is contentious enough that it’s worth quote a bit of the article in full.

Certain sex differences are enormously important to us when we’re looking for a mate, but when it comes to most of what our brains do most of the time—perceive the world, direct attention, learn new skills, encode memories, communicate (no, women don’t speak more than men do), judge other people’s emotions (no, men aren’t inept at this)—men and women have almost entirely overlapping and fully Earth-bound abilities.

Read the rest of the article and let me know what jumps out at you. Do you have any long-cherished beliefs about the brain on this list? Are there any that you would dispute?

Flotsam and jetsam (12/27)

This article challenges that belief by questioning some of Dembski’s assumptions, pointing out some limitations of his analysis, and arguing that a design inference is necessarily a faith-based rather than a scientific inference.

I conclude that most if not all of Foucault’s condemnatory remarks concerning the subject are not intended as a death sentence for the subject per se; rather, his objective is to lay to rest a particular socio-historical construction of the subject and subjectivity. That is, Foucault’s critique is directed expressly at themodern construction of an ahistorical, autonomous subject as sovereign originator of meaning, one untainted by his own particular historical and socio-political context.

Pride – Plagiarism is driven by the refusal of limitation. A student comes up against their own intellectual limits, the time allotted in a busy semester, etc., and, unwilling to accept limitation, compensates by deception.

Christology and anthropology – a very nice summary of my book

Kyle Strobel has just posted a very nice summary of my book Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies: An Exercise in Christological Anthropology and Its Significance for the Mind/Body Debate. This is the published version of my dissertation. So, if you don’t have the time (or the money) to read the whole book, go on over to Theology Forum and check out Kyle’s post. I’d be happy to interact with thoughts/comments/questions there.

By the way, if you’re a Th.M. student involved in this semester’s philosophy and theology class may find this post particularly interesting. My dissertation is really an exercise in philosophical theology and in many ways it displays my understanding of how philosophy and theology interact. When we get a little further along in the class, I’ll be using the mind/body debate to explain my approach to philosophical theology.

Eccentric Existence 12 (the Spirit)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

With chapter 12, Kelsey is ready to move on the second part of his 3-part approach to theological anthropology. As we discussed a while back, Kelsey takes an intentionally Trinitarian approach to theological anthropology: “It is the Father who creates through the Son in the power of the Spirit; it is the Spirit, sent by the Father with the Son, who draws creatures to eschatological consummation; it is the Son, sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit, who reconciles creatures” (122). Having completed his reflections on God relating to create as Father, he is now ready to move into his discussion of God relating to draw his creatures to eschatological consummation as Spirit.

And, since Kelsey sees each of these three perspectives as different narratives with their own narrative logic, each also serves as a legitimate starting point for a theological anthropology. They are all “equi-primordial” (449). In other words, for Kelsey, you basically have to start the anthropological enterprise over again every time you move from one narrative to another. Having recounted the basic shape of a theological anthropology told from the perspective of creation, Kelsey now wants to narrate a theological anthropology from the perspective of eschatology. Thus, “part 2 promotes an analogous set of anthropological proposals that are held accountable to canonical Christian Holy Scripture’s narrative of God relating to all that is not God to draw it to eschatological consummation.” And, for Kelsey, this means that particular attention must be paid to the role of the Holy Spirit in theological anthropology.

Kelsey argues that a primary function of the Spirit in the NT is to draw humans to eschatological consummation and that this “is an aspect of creatures’ most embracing and most necessary context” (443). As part of humanity’s ultimate context, human persons simply cannot be understood adequately apart form an understanding of the Spirit in his relation to human beings and their destiny. This in itself is notable in Kelsey’s theological anthropology.  Many anthropological projects make no effort to reflect on the importance of pneumatology for anthropology. And, Kelsey does more than any other recent theological anthropology that I am aware of to probe what this might actually mean for the shape and content of a truly Christian theological anthropology. Thus, although Kelsey was clear at the very beginning that theological anthropology must be christocentric, it is also quite evident that he thinks this christocentric shape requires a strongly pneumatological emphasis as well. (Indeed, Kelsey’s work serves as a great example of the fact that a truly christocentric theology will always also be both trinitarian and pneumatological. Done well, there is no real tension between these.)

As we’ve noted several times in our discussion of this book, Kelsey is fond of complexity. At least, he’s very comfortable with it, and he feels no need to reduce the complexity by offering systematic ways of organizing complex data. And, this is no exception. So, surveying the NT data, Kelsey concludes that there is no simple way of categorizing the diverse ways in which the Spirit relates to human beings.

New Testament texts, both by the structure of their narratives and by the metaphors they employ, characterize the Spirit’s way of relating to human persons in a wide and not entirely consistent variety of ways. However, a certain bipolar pattern is consistent. The Spirit is regularly characterized both as persons’ environing context always already there and enveloping them, and as intimately interior to them. (444)

This bipolar pattern will guide much of Kesley’s reflections. He reflects on the many ways in which the Spirit serves as one who is always-already shaping our proximate contexts while at the same time shaping us as human persons in the most intimate ways. Thus, unlike other anthropologians who take the time to reflect on the significance of pneumatology for anthropology, Kelsey does not do so by reflecting exclusively on how the Spirit affects the “inner” person. Indeed, Kelsey rejects any such simple dichotomy between inner and outer.

Unsurprisingly, Kelsey argues throughout that this pneumatological approach requires us to see both the “already” and the “not yet” of human being. Although the Spirit is already with us as both proximate and ultimate context, the fact that the Spirit is the one drawing us toward eschatological consummation means that there must always be some element of futurity in the Spirit’s relation to us.

Finally, the fact that the Spirit comes as both gift and promise means that we can rule out any idea that the human person alone has the responsibility to bring about the eschatological consummation through his or her own efforts.

The adventus character of eschatological blessing rules out use of metaphors of human creaturely action to build or co-create the eschatological kingdom of God. It also rules out use of metaphors of a cosmic physical or spiritual evolution into the eschatological kingdom. (453)

We certainly have a role to play in our own development, but the gift-character of the Spirit and the already/not yet nature of eschatological consummation means that we must anticipate the future as gift and promise. Grace is not an addendum to nature, but has been there from the very beginning.

A hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will?

According to Roger Olson, there’s a glaring hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will. And, it’s a hole that Calvinist’s generally refuse to acknowledge.

To see why, Olson points out that many Calvinists contend that incompatibilism as a view of free will is simply incoherent. (There are many different kinds of incompatibilism, but in a nutshell it’s the idea that my having true free will in a given instance is not compatible with the idea that my action in that instance could be caused by some prior event or state of affairs.) The Calvinist contends that if an actually is truly “uncaused,” then it is irrational or random. And, if our actions are irrational and/or random, then they do not come from our choices and they they are not the kinds of actions for which we can be held responsible – i.e. they are not “free.” Consequently, there is no such thing as incompatibilist free will. For the Calvinist, according to Olson, that is an oxymoron; it is incoherent.

But, Olson goes on to argue that this raises a problem for our understanding of God’s free will. If the very notion of incompatibilist free will is incoherent, then God himself cannot have incompatibilist free will. This, in turn, would mean that God’s own actions are caused by some event or state of affairs. And, many Calvinists will agree here, contending that God’s actions are “caused” by his nature. He does the things that he does because he is perfectly the kind of God that he is. But, and here is the real nexus of Olson’s argument, this would seem to mean that all of God’s actions are necessary. He created the universe because he had to; it was an expression of his perfect and immutable character. There’s really nothing else he could have done.

And the problem for Olson is that this account of God’s creative act was clearly rejected and declared heretical by quite a number of early theologians. Most of these thinkers insisted that God’s creative act had to be understood as a free act of his will. God was free to do otherwise, though it was perfectly fitting for him to choose to create.

So, the tension that Olson sets up is this. If you are going to claim that incompatibilist free will is incoherent, then you must also affirm that God’s actions are all necessary consequences of his character. Conversely, if you are going to claim that God has incompatibilist free will, then you cannot also claim that incompatibilist free will is incoherent.

I’m sure that Olson is perfectly aware that none of this actually serves as an argument for maintaining that humans actually have incompatibilistically free wills. But, he maintains that it does place the Calvinist in quite the quandry, and he argues that most Calvinists are unwilling to face it head on.

What do you think? Is this truly a hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will?

My favorite emotionally disturbed TV characters

Thanks to Pat’s recommendation, I’ve been working my way through season 3 of Battlestar Gallactica. I’ll probably post some reflections when I’m done with the show, but at this point I can definitely say that this will go down as one of my favorite shows of all time.

As I’ve been watching the show, though, I’ve been fascinated by how much I like and resonate with Kara Thrace, the emotionally disturbed, selfish, violent, alcoholic, and yet deeply passionate, caring, and committed viper pilot. If there’s a character on the show who is my polar opposite in almost every way, it would be her. But, she’s also unquestionably my favorite character. At first, I wrote this off as the result of excellent acting and stellar writing. As I’ve reflected on it more, though, I’ve realized that my favorite characters in many TV shows demonstrate the same combination of deep, emotional disturbance combined with a surprising capacity for compassion and dedication:

  • Kara Thrace (Battlestar Gallactica)
  • James Ford (Lost)
  • Tim Riggins (Friday Night Lights)
  • Jack Bauer (24)
  • Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

I could probably think of more, but these are the ones who came to mind right away.

So, that raises the question, why do I find these kinds of characters so compelling when they are so different from me? Is it the whole “opposites attract” stereotype? Or, do I just find this kind of honestly flawed character more sincere? Maybe I like the idea that each of these was able to rise above their own flaws (at times) to accomplish meaningful and important deeds. In a way, maybe this resonates with a deep desire to believe that we humans really aren’t so bad off after all. Or, it could be that I just like the raw emotionality of these characters, expressing themselves in ways that my own more reserved personality finds impossible. Maybe these characters help me connect with dimensions of being human that lie outside my typical experience.

Most likely, it’s some combination of all these.

It’s a good thing I’m not a teenage girl. I’d probably fall for the brooding bad boy every time. That’s a depressing thought.

Flotsam and jetsam (8/12)

Desiring the Kingdom 8

Moving into the final chapter of the book, James K. A. Smith deals with the question of what all of this emphasis on “liturgy” has to do with Christian education. He begins by continuing his critique of the traditional “worldview” approach to education. He sees this as trying “to produce professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy League and state universities do, but who do them ‘from a Christian perspective’, and perhaps with the goal of transforming culture or redeeming society” (218).  But, he thinks that this approach leaves their desires untouched. ” So, he asks, “Could it be the case that…while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?” (218).

Instead of this “domestication of Christianity” (220) that does little to disrupt or transform our way of being in the world, he argues that Christian education should have the same goal as Christian worship: “to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being god’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation – but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s cruciform cultural labor” (220). Thus, Christian education needs to be seen as “extensions of the mission of the church.”

He then walks through three specific practices that he thinks would help make this happen. First, we need to reconnect “Church, Chapel, and Classroom.” Tapping into his argument that we are shaped by liturgical practices, he sees the chapel as an excellent way to connect the practices of the church with the everyday world of the university, so that Christian teaching is formed by “a Christian social imaginary” (225).

Second, we need to reconnect “Classroom, Dorm Room, and Neighborhood” as providing the proper environment for learning. He argues that residential universities provide unique opportunities for creating “intentional communities” shaped by “full-bodied Christian practices,” which could then be extended into the surrounding community. In this way, what is learned in the classroom stays vitally connected to the lived practices of people in community.

Third, we need to reconnect body and mind. He doesn’t comment on this one very much because it’s really been the argument of the whole book. We don’t learn as disembodied minds, but as embodied persons. A truly Christian education should be shaped by this anthropology.

Acton roundup

Here are all of the posts from my recent trip to the Acton conference:

Sustainable stewardship (Acton 6)

The discussions surrounding ecology and economy at the Acton conference raised two sets of questions: (1) the relationship between creation and human flourishing; and (2) the relationship between free markets economics and the growing ecological crisis. I talked about the first of those questions yesterday, so today we’ll move on to the second question.

Unfortunately, the sessions that I attended did not really address this question directly. The best that I got from most seminars were various comments leading me to believe that most thought that market forces themselves would eventually address the ecological concerns. For example, one person argued that market forces would never allow us to exhaust completely a natural resource because it would eventually become too scarce, and consequently too expensive, to continue pursuing. Others seemed to think that the market would eventually come to see environmentalism as good business and develop adaptive technologies that would address ongoing environmental concerns. And, most seemed to think that the real solution was to develop more virtuous societies who would not pursue market economics in such abusive ways. Overall though, very few people offered a cohesive argument for how free market economics could be expanded globally, along with the corresponding rise in the consumption of natural resources, without have a correspondingly deleterious effect on creation.  (Did you like my use of “deleterious”? I thought it made this paragraph sound much more intellectual.)

One exception to that was a seminar I attended on the last day arguing that consumption was not the problem at all. This lecture specifically criticized any “stewardship” model for creation ethics because such models are unable to provide specific direction for concrete action (precisely the problem we discussed in yesterday’s post). According to this lecturer, stewardship models can give us the environmental “why” (it’s God’s creation), and the environmental “what” (take care of it), but they are fundamental incapable of providing any concrete “how” (how exactly do you do this?). In its place, he offered the principle of “environmental sustainability.” Throughout the lecture, he argued that the ecological problem does not result from over-consumption, but from faulty design. The production and consumption of products harmful to the environment, he argued, is necessarily wrong-headed. And, it doesn’t help for us to do less of it (reduce consumption and/or recycle), because that just succeeds in destroying the environment more slowly. As he commented frequently, “Being less bad is not good.” (His biggest target here was the idea that we can save the world through recycling. He pointed to recent research suggesting that the recycling process itself is harmful to the environment and, thus, can’t be part of the solution).

Instead, he argued that we need to look more closely at how we are designing the products that we use. Rather than creating cradle-to-grave products that are designed to end up in a landfill some day (he pointed out that very few things are 100% recyclable), we should design cradle-to-cradle products that are fully recyclable and, thus, fully sustainable. And, he argued that the best way to find ideas for such products is to look at creation itself. He claimed that the natural world is replete with products that could be used for industrial purposes, but are not harmful to the natural world itself (e.g. the protein-based adhesives produced by mussels). (Interestingly, he did not consider the harmful consequences that could result if we began replicating such “natural” products on a scale never seen before in nature.)

Unfortunately, this approach also remained almost entirely theoretical. Very little of this is actually being done today and it seem highly questionable that such products and processes could be done on the scale necessary to sustain modern markets and industry. (Since he suggested throughout that cutting consumption was not necessary, he presumably believed that his proposals could at least sustain current levels of consumption.) To believe that we should just sustain current levels of consumption in the hope that someday we will have a solution to the problem, given the widespread destruction we’ve already caused and the potential for future destruction caused by growing majority world economies, is simply inadequate.