Science in Christian Perspective



Only a Machine, or Also a Living Soul?
132 Pine Street Hanover, Massachusetts 02339


From: JASA 22 (December 1970): 137-141.

Is a man only a complex machine or is he also a living soul created in the image of God? Upon the answer to this question depends our estimate of the value of each individual personality, our attitude to ethics, morality and religion, and our views regarding the possibility of life after death. Can the uniqueness of the human personality be explained wholly by the laws of physics and chemistry or is there also a spiritual dimension? The human body in a sense is a complex machine and examples of feed-back mechanisms in human physiology, the concept of the brain as a bio-computer and modern views on the biological basis of memory are cited in support of this idea. The effects of disease of or trauma to the brain and the effects of electrical stimulation to areas of the brain upon the personality are also considered. Finally, the philosophy of materialistic monism and the dualistic concepts of psycho-physical parallelism and interaction, are discussed as possible explanations for the nature of man, the last view being accepted by the author who attempts to demonstrate that it is compatible with the Biblical concepts of the nature of man and life after death.

Is man only a complex machine as many would have us believe or is he something more? Is he also a living soul created in the image of God? This is one of the most important questions which face humanity today; upon its answer depends our estimate of the worth and value of each individual human personality, our attitude to ethics, morality and religion, and our views about the destiny of man: annihilation of the person ality at death or the hope of a life beyond the grave.

Can the whole of human life and personality be reduced to the laws of physics and chemistry or are these laws alone inadequate to explain the uniqueness of man?

The Human Body is a Complex Machine 

Certainly the human body is a complex machine, but more wonderful and intricate than any man-made machine. Self-regulating or feed-hack mechanisms, exemplified in the field of mechanical engineering by such devices as governors for regulation of the speed of engines, and thermostats for control of temperature, are important components of the different physiological systems of the human body.

A relatively simple illustration in the human organism is the method by which the hypothalamus controls the secretion of the thyroid hormone (thyroxine) and hence the level of metabolism in the body via the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus is believed to secrete a thyrotropin-releasing factor into the vascular system of the pituitary gland which stimulates that organ to increase the output of its thyrotropic hormone. The latter in turn stimulates the thyroid gland to increase its output of thyroxine. The resulting increased level of thyroxine in the bloodstream, including the blood flowing to the hypothalamus, increases the metabolism of that structure; as a result, the hypothalamic stimulation of the pituitary gland is decreased, causing a fall in the production of thyrotropic hormone and consequently a decrease in the secretion of thyroxine. Conversely, decreased thyroxine levels in the bloodstream lead to the opposite effects.

The heat-regulating system of the body, whose thermostat is the hypothalamus, also operates by means of a feed-back system, which causes the body temperature to remain relatively constant despite fluctuations in the temperature of the environment. An increase in the temperature of the blood passing through the hypothalamus will cause that part of the brain to initiate those physiological mechanisms designed to cause a fall in body temperature and vice-versa. The brain itself with its billions of nerve cells or neurones has been likened to a very elaborate and complicated electronic computer mechanism with the individual neurones analogous to vacuum tubes or transistors such as have been used in electronic computers.

As an electronic computer requires a unit for the storage of information to function properly, so in the human central nervous system there is a biological memory storage unit, Dr. Wilder Penfield of Montreal, the world-famous neuro-surgeon has written widely in the fields of neurology, neurophysiology, and neurosurgery and has performed much work on temporal lobe epilepsy, including operative removal of diseased areas of the temporal lobes of the brain. In some of these cases Dr. Penfield has found that stimulation of certain areas of this part of the brain with electrodes has caused the patient to recall vivid memories of childhood days, almost as though the electrical stimulation was like the switching on of a tape recorder. When the electricity was turned off, the memories abruptly disappeared.

As far as the physical basis of memory is concerned it is widely believed that when learning takes place, temporary memory is consolidated into permanent memory which is available for subsequent recall. This "engram" or physical trace of memory is encoded in a macromolecule such as ribonucleic acid (RNA) or protein. In other words memory appears to be stored in a chemical filing system, RNA being an important component of this system. An alternative theory suggests that memories are diffused throughout the brain and depend on the setting of innumerable switches. Certain proteins manufactured by the nerve cells act
as switches at the synaptic junctions between nerve cells, thus determining along which particular neuronal pathways impulses flow in processing a particular piece of learned information.

Any kind of damage to the central nervous system, whether due to trauma, infections, tumors, degenerative diseases, or intoxication with various chemical poisons, can produce marked alterations in the personality.

Central Nervous System

Furthermore, we know that any kind of damage to the machinery of the central nervous system whether it be due to trauma, infections, tumors, degenerative diseases or intoxication with various chemical poisons, can produce marked alterations in the personality of the individual concerned. For instance, a normal child who sustains a head-injury, develops encephalitis following one of the infectious fevers such as measles, or contracts a severe form of meningitis, may be left with permanent brain damage manifested by hyperexcitability, restlessness, anxiety, distractibility, impulsive hostile and aggressive behaviour and even delinquency.

Many psychiatrists are now of the opinion that biochemical abnormalities in the central nervous system are important causative factors in the production of certain forms of emotional illness, particularly the major psychoses such as manic depressive illness and schizophrenia. For instance, the depressive phase of manic-depressive illness in which the patient is depressed and miserable, slowed down and retarded mentally and physically, often experiencing feelings of worthlessness, self-reproach and guilt (sometimes to such an extent that the sufferer feels that he or she has committed the unpardonable sin), and sometimes exhibiting suicidal tendencies, is believed to be associated with a diminished concentration of catecholamines, such as norepinephrine, in the region of synapses in certain parts of the central nervous system. On the other hand the manic phase of this illness in which the patient is overactive, elated, and showing pressure of speech and flights of ideas, is believed to be associated with excessive concentrations of these substances in the brain.

Conversely emotional factors such as anxiety, repressed hostility, and unresolved guilt can be important factors in the production of physical symptoms and even of definite diseases such as bronchial asthma, gastric and duodenal ulcers, oeurodermatitis and a wide range of other conditions which make up the field of psychosomatic medicine.

It is also an established fact that interference with the machinery of the brain, either by drugs, electricity or psychosurgery can cause alterations in behavior and personality. For instance, anti-depressant drugs can relieve the symptoms of depression and produce an elevation in a patient's mood by influencing the level of catecholamines in the brain. Hallucinogenic drugs such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD 25) and mescaline produce striking changes in personality, such as an alteration in the individual's appreciation of time, feelings of depersonalization, and the experiencing of hallucinations.
Perhaps even more dramatic is the work of Dr. José Delgado, professor of physiology in the department of psychiatry at Yale University whose research with animals and recent studies with psychiatric patients may have significant and far reaching implications for psychiatry in the future, By means of radio signals sent out from a transmitter, he has influenced the behavior of animals, whose brains he has implanted with fine electrodes at specific sites; the radio signals from the transmitter are received by small solid state radio receivers carried by the subjects. The receivers change the radio signals into the desired electrical stimuli which they send down the implanted electrodes. For instance, an angry charging hull has been stopped by stimulating a point in the basal ganglia of the animal, and stimulation of the red nucleus in the midbrains of monkeys have caused them to rise from a sitting position and walk around. Stimulation of another part of the mid-brain of a monkey has evoked aggressive behavior directed towards the self.

This method of Dr. Delgado was applied for the first time clinically in the early part of 1968 to four patients suffering from severe psychomotor epilepsy associated with such symptoms as severe episodes of rage, automatisms, and assaultive behavior, with a view to the accurate identification of sites of abnormal intracerebral electrical activity as a guide to the planning of subsequent surgical treatment. Electrodes were introduced into the hippocampus and anterior medial amygdala of each patient and a small radio receiver weighing only 70 g. was strapped to each patient's head bandage. In one patient a single stimulus applied to the left amygdala relieved his emotional tension and assaultive behavior for two days but stimulations of the right amygdala in another patient elicited paroxysms of rage. Radio stimulation of other areas of the hippocampus and amygdala in these subjects produced other effects such as elation, pleasant sensations, and thoughtful concentration.

According to materialistic monism, mind is just a product of biochemical and electrical changes in the central nervous system, and the personality is nothing more than the interplay of these biological forces with environmental forces.

Materialistic Monism

In the light of these scientific discoveries is man nothing more than a complicated biological machine? Many philosophers and scientists, holding the theory of materialistic monism would answer in the affirmative. The monistic philosophy postulates that mind and spirit are merely functions of the central nervous system, just like the secretion of bile is a function of the liver and the circulation of the blood is a function of the heart and blood vessels. In other words, according to the teaching of materialistic monism, mind is just a product of biochemical and electrical changes in the central nervous system, and the personality of an individual is nothing more than the interplay of these biological forces on the one hand with environmental forces on the other. If one carries this philosophy to its logical extreme it leaves no room for the concepts of free will, moral values, and survival of the personality after death. To the monist, therefore, disintegration and death of the nervous system inevitably means the fading and extinction of the mind and personality. Nevertheless this theory fails to answer several important questions. It cannot explain how electrical and chemical activity in the brain can be translated into consciousness, self awareness, and the experience of different emotions. It seems that here is an impossible gulf which science cannot bridge. The phenomena of conscience and the moral and religious nature of man cannot be explained by this theory, nor can the changed lives of countless individuals who have been brought into a radical transforming relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, not all philosophers and scientists working in this field subscribe to the monistic philosophy of the nature of man. "The real trouble comes", states Lord Adrian, "from the feeling that there may be an important part of the picture which can never be fitted in however long we work at it." Professor W. E. LeGros-Clark concludes that neither the anatomist nor the physiologist is "able to even suggest how the physico-chemical phenomena associated with the passage of nevous impulses from one part of the brain to another can be translated into mental experience". Dr. Wilder Penfield says "something else finds its dwelling place between the sensory complex and the motor mechanism, that there is a switchboard operator as well as a switchboard." He further states, "The dualist believes that there is in each individual something additional to the body and its living energy. He may call it a conscious spirit which is the active accompaniment of
brain activity . He may also believe that this spirit continues its existence after the death of the body. . These concepts of the spirit, and of God, are the things a scientist may believe." In his 1963 Eddington lecture, Sir John Eccles, well-known neurophysiologist, is quoted as having said that the possibility of a future existence cannot be denied on scientific grounds.

Philosophically the theory of materialistic monism makes utter nonsense, because if all our thinking and our philosophical theories are merely the result of biochemical and electrical changes in the cells of our brains, then materialistic monism is a mere whim of brain physiology. Its claim to be considered seriously as objective is invalid. In this way this philosophy undermines all objective measurements and standards of truth, including the truth or error of the monistic philosophy itself.

Psychophysical Parallelism and Interaction

The alternative theories of the nature of man which are dualistic in emphasis and which postulate a nonmaterial component to the personality of man, in the form of mind or spirit, are the theories of psychophysical parallelism and interaction. The theory of psychophysical parallelism postulates that body and mind are two separate entities operating in harmony with each other but not affecting each other intimately, much like two railroad trains running at the same speed along

The theory of interaction teaches that body on one hand, and mind or spirit on the other, are separate and distinct phenomena, but yet are intimately and intricately interrelated, affecting each other closely.

parallel railroad tracks and passing along the same points along the route at exactly the same time. This theory does not appeal to the author either from a philosophical or a scientific point of view, because if body and mind cannot affect each other intimately, one would have to postulate a whole series of supernatural events when these two entities appear to act together.

The theory of interaction teaches that body on one hand, mind or spirit on the other, are separate and distinct phenomena, but yet are intimately and intricately inter-related, thus affecting each other very closely. The body, and particularly the central nervous system, is the vehicle through which the spirit of man expresses itself, the latter being the ultimate psychic reality. This theory in the author's opinion is wholly compatible with the established facts and findings of science on the one hand and with the doctrines of Scripture on the other. To facilitate our understanding of this theory, the relationship between the spirit and the body of man can he compared to the relationship between a pianist and his instrument, the interaction of the two producing the melody, which in our analogy represents all the attributes of personality and mind. If we pursue this analogy further it becomes obvious that a discordant and jarring melody may he produced by a defect in the piano or by a faulty technique on the part of the pianist. Similarly, flaws and defects in the personality and disorders of the mind my be due to physical disease, especially disease of the central nervous system, or to spiritual causes, particularly to a wrong relationship with Cod or to a combination of both. Just as the player striking the keys of his instrument produces the melody, similarly the interaction of body and spirit produces a third and different entity: mind. Thus this theory of dualistic interaction does not necessarily conflict with the widely accepted theological model of man as a tripartite being consisting of body, mind, and spirit.

As far as the problem of free will is concerned, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that the human brain contains billions of electronic circuits, remotely comparable in both structure and function to the electronic circuits of calculating machines and computers, though infinitely more complex, vastly more intricate, and yet wonderfully condensed in space. The average human brain weighs only about 1400 g. but a man-made electronic brain of something approaching comparable complexity would be so large as to require a budding the size of a large house to contain it. Such a structure as the human brain with its countless billions of electronic circuits is an ideal physical instrument upon which an entity of the nature of the human spirit could operate and upon which the function of the free will could be imposed.

Biblical Teaching

According to the Bible there is a dualism of the body and spirit: "I pray Cod your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ". (I Thessalonians 5:23; see also II Corinthians 5:1-10). Indeed the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught such a dichotomy (Matthew 10:28).
Furthermore we are taught in the Bible that Cod created man in His own image, formed man of the dust of the ground, breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul. (Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:27) Thus the Word of Cod conveys to us the conception that man is a body animated by spirit, the combination of these two entities being necessary for the formation of a complete living personality. In other words the Bible stresses the idea that man forms a psychophysical unity in contrast to the views of Creek philosophy according to which man was regarded as an incarcerated soul, his body merely being a hindrance and encumbrance to the free life of the spirit. In the new testament the Creek word psuche expresses the idea of the total living personality, whereas the word pneuma denotes the spirit of man. Indeed the body is regarded as a necessary vehicle through which the spirit of mail can express itself.

The Bible also teaches the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, rather than the mere survival after death of a disembodied spirit. In the resurrection, the spirit of the believer will be clothed in a spiritual body which will be incorruptible and eternal, and through which this immortal spirit will be able to express itself throughout the endless ages of eternity: a body like the glorious resurrection body of our Lord Jesus Christ, free from mortal frailty and unimpeded by the limitations of space and time (I Corinthians 15, Philippians 3:10, II Corinthians 5:1-10). 'The dead shall be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed, for this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality" (I Corinthians 18:51-52). "But we know that when I-Ic shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." (I John 3:2).

We can be confident that there are no facts of modern science, nothing in psychology or psychiatry, that can deny or refute the fact of the personal resurrection of the individual Christian believer, and therefore we who have put our trust in the crucified and risen Saviour can rejoice in the confidence that one day we shall see Him face to face and dwell with Him forever.


Man Memory and Machines, An Introduction to Cybernetics by Corinne Jacker, Macmillan Company, New York (1964), Chapters 1 and 2
Textbook of Medical Physiology by Arthur C. Cuyton, M.D. W. B. Saunders Company (1961) Chapter 75, pp. 10201021
Textbook of Medical Physiology by Arthur C. Guytnn, M.D. W. 8. Saunders Company (1961) Chapter 71, pp. 958-960
Roche Report-Frontiers of Clinical Psychiatry, May 1, 1967 "Mind as a Tissue" Conference explores physical bases of behavior.
The Psychiatric Disorders of Childhood by Charles R. Shaw M.D. Appleton Century-Crofts New York (1966) Chapter 8
Depression; Clinical, Experimental and Theoretical Aspects by Aaron T. Beck, M.D. Hoeber Medical Division Harper and Row Publishers New York (1967) Chapter 16, pp. 244-245
Roche Report-Frontiers of Hospital Psychiatry April 1, 1969 Electronic pacing of behavior: brain research, treatment tool.
Christianity Today Volume XIII, Number 15, April 25, 1969 p. 12 "Biology and the Christian Faith" by B. L. Smith
Speech and Brain Mechanisms by Wilder Penfield and Lamar Roberts, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. (1959) Chapter 1, p. 9
Christian Medical Society Journal, Winter 1962. "Theories of Body-Mind Relationship" by Walter C. Johnson, M.D.