The Determinist and Reductionist Challenge of Neuroscience to Christian Theology

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Our theological and contemporary world views course has introduced us to the brilliant mind of Professor John De Gruchy, Emeritus Professor at the University of Cape Town and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch. De Gruchy is not only an individual with a great intellect but also someone with a heart of compassion which cries out at injustice. He is known for his criticisms of apartheid under which non-white South Africans were oppressed, a reputation no doubt aided by the fact that De Gruchy is a white South African individual himself.

In his work Led Into Mystery: Faith Seeking Answers in Life and Death, a book significantly motivated by the tragic 2010 death of his son, Steve De Gruchy, in an automobile accident, De Gruchy elucidates numerous theological points, some of which engage poignant questions of death and suffering. Value is found in these engagements although I found most thought provoking his engagement with neuropsychology and neuroscience in his chapter The Human Enigma.

De Gruchy’s major concern is that the advancements in neuroscience and neuropsychology have been said to reinforce the truth of reductionism, determinism, and physicalism (p. 136). Some intellectuals have argued that advancements in these disciplines have left no place for freewill, personal freedom, the reality of a soul, and the human being’s uniqueness in relation to other animals as being made in the image of God.

However, despite criticizing these alleged philosophical deductions from the science, throughout De Gruchy holds scientific evidence in high regard. He highlights how science has revealed an incredible amount of what it is to be a human being through the breaking of the genetic code, understanding the operations of the brain, and the many developments in medicine and cures (p. 139). However, despite these great results, he argues that science is not the only way for understanding who we are because it leaves unexamined human experience, namely our conscious subjective experiences that give our lives meaning (p. 140). De Gruchy is in good company here. Materialist philosopher Thomas Nagel has been quite influential in his elucidation of science and consciousness in his essay What Is It Like To Be A Bat? Nagel argues that scientific theories cannot explain the subjective element of an organism, namely, what it is like to be the organism or what it is like to be the organism from its “first person perspective.” This is a view shared by Professor David Chalmers, arguably one of the leading researchers on consciousness.

De Gruchy also strongly believes that both neuroscience/psychology and theology are critical domains for learning about human beings, how human beings should live, and what happens to the human being in death (p. 137). Accumulating scientific knowledge is crucial as without it humanity would fail to ensure the survival of the species or make the world a better place for human beings within it. De Gruchy argues that the questions many ask on the basis of scientific findings relating to the human mind inform meaning, the value of human life, and the future existence of humanity on Earth. Our humanness, explains De Gurchy, “is deeply imbedded in our skulls, as informed by neuroscience,” and that learning abut the brain teaches out what it mans to be human (p. 139). Despite this, De Gruchy believes that the ultimate meaning of what it is to be a human being is disclosed in Jesus Christ.

De Gruchy is critical of reductionism, or better put: ontological reductionism (p. 145). Ontological reductionism reduces all objects within the universe to their atoms and molecules, and suggests that these fully explain what they are. If so, then no room exists for the soul, human value, uniqueness, or morality. Some pubic intellectuals have alleged that human beings are nothing little more than their DNA and genes: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons,” so to speak. De Gruchy criticizes these absolutist philosophical views and suggests that many mysteries remain despite the claims made by reductionists and materialists. However, if physicalism and reductionism are true then all human experiences and behaviours can be explained by function of the brain “rather than a transcendent source.” Human beings cannot be said to be unique in any way because our “thoughts and emotions are results of biological processes,” and nothing more. Consequently, we lose “altruism, moral responsibility, immortality, [and] life after death ascribed to soul.”

These philosophies provide a particularly depressing and hopeless view of the human person as “realities” initially invested with great significance (like hope and love) have been hardwired into the human brain. De Gruchy highlights that despite this narrative not all neuroscientists/psychologists are hostile to religion or religious faith (p. 148). Not only are there practicing scientists who are devoutly religious but many scientists, even those who are not necessarily religious, believe religion provides benefits for human beings (p. 148).

De Gruchy subsequently engages hermeneutics to provide a biblical basis for conceptualizing the soul (p. 152-159). He argues that the biblical view of soul is holistic and thus opposes the common view of radical dualism (p. 156). Radical dualism holds that the soul is a distinct, supernatural, immortal entity existing within individuals, also referred to as “the ghost in the machine” (p. 156). Modern neuroscientific developments have undermined nearly “everything that was previously attributed to the soul” in the dualistic sense, and proved that phenomena initially attributed to the soul are an outcome of complex organizations within the brain (p. 161). Thus, the more we learn about the complex operations of the mind through the sciences the less room there is for a ghost within it (p. 161). De Gruchy argues that the two main creation accounts of Genesis suggest that the human being does not possess a soul but that he or she is living soul (p. 152). Importantly, Genesis also affirms that human beings are created in God’s image which is the point of differentiation from the other animals God created (p. 152). De Gruchy suggests that this is best understood as “embodied human uniqueness” in which human beings are unique in terms of their relationship with God, and their advanced ability to reason and engage in imagination, to exercise freedom, and develop personal identity (p. 152). However, this theological truth cannot be held in isolation from the “myth of the fall” in which ancient Semitic thinking attempted to explain “the origin of evil and suffering in the world, the cause of war and violence, murder, rape, and dehumanization from the perspective of faith in God” (p. 153)

De Gruchy turns to a final Genesis text that takes place in the context of the fall, Genesis 3:22 which provides arguably the “clearest clue” of what it means to be created in the image of God (p. 153). According to 3:22, through rebellion, human beings had “now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” Having rebelled, Adam and Eve had become cognitively aware of good and evil and the moral responsibility that accompanied it. Unique then is the human in his or her ability to distinguish between good and evil, and be free to be able to choose either. De Gruchy thus settles with the following definition of the biblical view of what it means to be created in the image of God, namely “psychosomatic wholeness and relationship to the totality of their existence under God, to their uniqueness in the animal kingdom, and to their God given dignity” (p. 156).

De Gruchy thus counters two opposing philosophical views, namely the radical dualistic view of the soul and the reductionist materialism that denies the mystery of human uniqueness in relation to God and others (p. 156).

My Reflections on De Gruchy

I find much value in De Gruchy’s views, hence why I have gone beyond course and class expectations to summarize it in some more detail here. I think most helpful is his engagement on the relationships between theology, the Bible, and modern science. This includes observing the difficulties these domains face in the marketplace of clashing ideologies. I also find that De Gruchy approaches the issues in a particularly open manner as opposed to defaulting to a common dogmatically closed minded mindset. Unfortunately, I have found the latter quite prevalent in the apologetics enterprise and in my engagements with Christians on the ground. Some apologists and theologians would simply dismiss modern scientific knowledge and favour their own interpretations of biblical scripture. This approach merely preaches to choir and helps no-one looking for a careful engagement with world views. I must credit De Gruchy for this.

However, I do find myself wanting more from De Gruchy in certain departments. For example, although he does well to engage the biblical texts he does not actually provide and offensive apologetic or argument against physicalism or determinism. Personally, I think these philosophies are problematic given that I do not see how they can be rationally justified, but De Gruchy does not really engage these. De Gruchy further elucidates on the relationship between freedom and moral responsibility (p. 165-). He concedes that our sense of moral responsibility can be partially explained by our brain and genetics but that brain and genetics do not fully explain them. In other words, freedom and moral responsibility are not fully determined or conditioned. But De Gruchy does not actually show why this is the case. What evidence? What reasons does he provide in order to establish his view? I could not find any. I think that these omissions really stand out in an essay that is really engaging and thought provoking throughout.

As a total reading, however, I must recommend De Gruchy for thoughtful Christians seeking to understand contemporary philosophical and scientific challenges to faith.


De Gruchy, J. 2013. Led Into Mystery: Faith Seeking Answers in Life and Death. Norwich: Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd,

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