Science in Christian Perspective



Some Thoughts on a Possible Physical Basis of the Human Mind Engaged in Exploratory Activity
W. Jim Neidhardt
Physics Department
New Jersey Institute of Technology

From: JASA 37 (March 1985): 49-50.

Elsewhere1 I have argued that all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is personal knowledge arising from the human mind's active exploration of external reality which one always encounters as a whole person. In this exploratory activity the human mind2 is much more than a lens that must be focused on the truth..For it has the ability to construct models of reality, to test theories, to see parts in relation to the whole, and, finally, to exercise disciplined creativity. Such a view of the human mind is embedded in the existence of genuine human freedom with respect to one's external environment; understanding, of course, that such human freedom is not a freedom from all external restraints but the freedom to respond to, to take a stand toward the constraints that impinge upon any finite person. How does such limited but genuine freedom, without which the concept of mind or human consciousness is meaningless, arise in the context of the complex physio-chemical activity of the human brain and nervous system? It is suggestive, at this point, to note that:

The Bible does not view the person as someone who has a body and a mind but rather as someone who is mind and body. Frederick Buecher reflects a biblical view of persons when he writes, 'the body and soul which make up a man are as inextricably part and parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up the bonfire.'

The 'immortal soul' concept is Greek. In contrast the Bible reflects the unity of the person and presents the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. God prizes our bodies so much that Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us. He will bring us back to live not as some disembodied echo of a human being but as a complete person. The body and soul will be united in resurrection splendor. In the biblical view we don't have minds, we are minds. Medical science, both ancient and modern, with its emphasis on psychosomatic medicine recognizes the essential unity of the person. A sick mind makes for a sick body. A lengthy illness can cause depression.3

Thus we see that not only current neurophysiological studies of cognitive processes but also the biblical perspective affirms the notion that human consciousness is rooted in man's biological being. Figure I is an over simplified but suggestive attempt to capture this key insight by schematically representing the essence of the awesome complexity of the information flows in the human nervous system that are associated with all mental thinking processes, conscious.

How is it possible to attribute to the brain, a physical system, the ability to hold beliefs, formulate theories, and create models of the world outside oneself (The Other)? The answer, I believe, lies in the closed feedback loops 1-7, 2-3, and 5-6. Recall that sensory information from the various receptors is relayed to the cortex, but the message also contains its own echoes, elaborated by the cortex. Thus the cortex is seen to be not so much a pinnacle as a hub of intersecting loops. Such a structure has enormous dynamic complexity; furthermore, the chains of influences of the loops that make it up are not open-ended but closed upon themselves making the dynamics all the more unpredictable. Consider a minute fluctuation of neural activity that corresponds to a belief, theory, model, or decision made to act upon in order to test our beliefs, theories and models. Once injected into one of these loops, the activity may be either amplified or squelched. "If the decision is an important one, it may involve the creation, feedback, sampling, and filtering of a multitude of images, and the schemata of simulated actions. The power of determining one's own behavior is not the power of one entity (the mind) over another (the body) but the influence the brain has on itself, the power of self-reference. The outcome may involve elements of chance, but, more important,. it will be a reflection of the unique configurations of my brain. In that sense my action is free."5 The complex feedback activities that the cerebral cortex serves as a hub for has created a dynamic structure of awesome complexity and unpredictability. From this physically based information structure arises man's ability to not only be conditioned by his environment but to take actions to probe and alter it and to formulate models, theories, and finally ultimate beliefs that will help him to further understand, explore, and modify his surroundings. Of such is, with high probability, the physical origin of the mind, i.e. human consciousness, with its sense of freedom as it encounters and responds to external reality. If this indeed is a valid physical explanation of mental activity we have another example of the remarkable "unity in variety" that seems characteristic of all truly creative exploratory activity.6 for feedback loops seem to play a major role in all biological systems from the complex interactions of the global ecosystem, the physiological control processes inherent to all animal behavior (conscious and unconscious), and, as we have documented, even the complex physical activity of the human brain that results in the deepest thoughts of the scientist, the artist, and the truly religious person responding to the complexity and richness of all human experience.

Let me end with a theologically speculative but hopefully not unbiblical thought. It is worth noting that this "unity in variety" manifested in the universality of feedback processes may be one very fitting way for the living God of Biblical revelation to implant his unique character upon His created Universe. For the concept of feedback is central to good communication processes at all levels of reality and good communication is, in turn, a necessary condition for meaningful personal relationships to take place. As the Biblical character of God is most fully revealed in the unity of the triune Godhead consisting of three distinct persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in intimate and loving personal relationship with one another is it not strikingly suggestive of His guiding creative activity that the Universe, truly a cosmos, at many different levels is best understood in terms of a concept central to maintaining personal relationships--communication through feedback of structured information. Indeed the "unity in variety" that feedback represents, as it manifests itself in created reality, affirms by analogy the central Biblical theme that God's Creative Word is the source of all meaning and our responses (feedback, if you like) are important to God:

"The word of Yahweh is integrity itself, all he does is done faithfully ... By the words of Yahweh the heavens were made, their whole array by the breath of his mouth ... Shout for joy to Yahweh, all virtuous men, praise comes well from upright hearts ... Let the whole world fear Yahweh, all who live on earth revere him! He spoke, and it was created; he commanded, and there it stood." (Psalm 33; versus 4, 6, 1, 8-9; New Jerusalem Bible.)


1aNeidhart, W. Jim, "The Participatory Nature of Modern Science and Theism, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 36, No. 2,pp. 98-104, June 1984.

1bNeidhardt, W. Jim, "Realistic Faith Seeking Understanding-A Structural Model of Human Knowing," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 42-45, March 1984.

1cNeidhardt, W. Jim, "A Communication Model of Human Exploration and Discovery," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 181-184, Sept. 1983.

1dNeidhardt, W. Jim, "The Human Explorer-A Tri-level Communications Model," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 183-185, Sept. 1981.

1eNeidhardt, W. Jim, "Schematic Portrayals of the Personal Component in Scientific Discovery," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 61-63, March 1980.

1fNeidhardt, W. Jim, "Personal Knowledge: An Epistemology of Discovery," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 118-123, Sept. 1977.

1gNeidhardt, W. Jim, "Faith, the Unrecognized Partner of Science and Religion," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 26, No. 3, pp. 89-96, Sept. 1974.

1hNeidhardt, W. Jim, "Faith and Human Understanding," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 9-15, March 1969.

2For an excellent overview of the whole field of cognitive psychology see The Universe Within by Morton Hunt, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982, 415 pp.

3Johnson, Cedric B., The Psychology of Biblical Interpretation, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1983, pp. 22-23.

4Figure I and the ensuing discussion are substantially based upon the very excellent discussion of the physical basis of consciousness contained in Windows of the Mind by Erich Harth, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1982, Z&5 pp. Figure 1, in particular, a modification of his figure 5,11 (p. 171). Let me stress that Figure 1 does not represent an exhaustive description of all possible feedback loops present in the central nervous system.

5Hartb, ibid., pp. 184-185.

6Bronowski, J., Science and Human Values, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1965, pp. 9-24.