An Appraisal of the Neuroscientific Revolution's Promise of New Theological Horizons

Who are we as spirit and matter? Are we free? Is Christ present to us in time and space? Oliver Davies, in his work Theology of Transformation, traces the history of human self-understanding as embodied beings.

Since the Scientific Revolution, a certain set of basic premises have ruled our view of reality. The material world is understood to be a landscape of determinism. Its inhabitants, no matter how complex, are subject to the same laws. To the extent that the human subject is of the world, she too is determined.

To escape the reduction of the mental to the mechanical, a particular brand of dualism took root in our modern consciousness. The mind was conceived as a spectral machine that somehow interacts with the physical existence of the body.[1] In this model, human subjectivity was understood as the only possible locus of freedom, the only escape from determinism. Ultimately, this led to the modern turn to the subject—or our capacity for meaning-making—as the sole basis for rationalizing faith.

Advances in modern science have upended the fragile foundation of this paradigm and revolutionized our self-understanding as human beings. As Davies claims, the era of the first Scientific Revolution has ended: science is ushering in a second one.

What is the nature of the second Scientific Revolution? The common narrative is that of a materialism triumphant. With advances in neuroscience and genetics, our capacity for deterministic explanations has moved within the subject itself. There is no mind, only synaptic connections between neurons. The self is an illusion, God is dead, and neuroscience reigns.

But Davies has a different narrative of these changes:

Neuroscience, genetics, and evolutionary biology show that mind and matter in us form a thoroughgoing continuity, each presupposing the other and each having causal effects upon the other within a continuum of human life as “intelligent embodiment” in a material world. Quantum physics does so even more radically. Consequently, there is no point at which the mind can be “outside” matter. We are free within materiality and not beyond it. Science is teaching us that we are both pure subjectivity and complex materiality at the same time.[2]

How does science teach us of this unity? Due to quantum mechanics, we no longer assume that physically described occurrences are completely determined by prior physically described aspects of nature alone. This opens the door for conscious experience to enter into the picture, not merely as a disembodied and disconnected observer, but as an agent.[3] Neuroscience enriches this portrait of the self as embodied agent. Processes once conceived of as purely “mental” occur in and through dynamic synaptic networks shaped through our experiences and encounters. This system of functional and structural connectivity is inseparable from our bodily engagement with our environment.

In this way, we see that modern science demands a radical reformulation of our self-understanding. Mind and body are different—and irreducible to one another—but continuous and indivisible. There is no opposition between spirit and matter. Our human freedom is exercised in and through the very materiality of our embodied existence.

This paradigm shift truly is a “second Scientific Revolution.” As Davies notes, it provides seemingly limitless “possibilities of intervention in natural processes both within the human body and brain, and beyond these.”[4] Davies cites a few practical applications of this scientific development, but his primary concern is its usefulness to theology. In particular, Davies believes that an embrace of the non-reductive materialism of contemporary science can help shift our focus back to our own earthiness, the exercise of our freedom in the embodied act. Through the second Scientific Revolution, Davies believes theology will be re-oriented the reality of the human experience, where we recognize Christ as a historical presence.

More broadly, neuroscience has the potential to make theology truly reasonable. As Fr. Luigi Giussani reminds us, reason is "the ability to become aware of reality,” not a specific method or procedure:

Precisely because reason examines the object according to adequate motives or steps, it develops different paths, depending upon the object.  (The method is imposed by the object!)  Reason is not as arthritic or paralyzed as has been imagined by so much of modern philosophy, which has reduced to to a single operation—"logic"—or to a specific type of phenomenon, to a certain capacity for "empirical demonstration." Reason is much larger than this: it is life, a life faced with the complexity and multiplicity of reality, the richness of the real . . . Reason does not have a single method; it is polyvalent, rich, agile, and mobile. If this fundamental fact is not kept in mind, we risk falling into grave errors.[5]

Our very nature as unity of body and soul demands the unity of neuroscience and theology in pursuit of truth. Any other approach is unreasonable, because the method is imposed by the object. If we are to truly understand the human person, we must welcome what the study of the brain reveals about our lives, our Church and our faith.

For instance, neuroscience can expand our understanding of what the Church means when she says that we are created in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God. Pope Benedict XVI explains this in the following spiritual terms:

As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God.[6]

However, neuroscience makes clear that it is not only the development of our soul that relies on relationship. Rather, the development of our bodies and minds also takes place through complex interactions and relationships of dependence. Through the first years of a child’s life, the core processes of neurodevelopment depend on her stable, supportive relationship with a loving caregiver.[7] In particular, human behaviors such as joint attention, which take place in the context of such relationships, foster proper neurodevelopment of the child’s language abilities and theory of mind.[8] When these relationships break, neuroscience research tells us that brain architecture is adversely affected, in a way that affects a child’s social and physical health for life.[9] In this way, neuroscience can put flesh and bones on our nature as dependent rational animals.[10]

This dependence on relationality is not just essential to development, but to the continual dynamic way a human person is brought into being. Throughout the whole lifespan, the human person develops through dialogue between her genes and brain structure and her personal experiences, communities, and cultural context. This relational view of the human person is continually deepened by novel research in behavioral and cognitive science, enriching the picture of what it means to come to being through relationship and flourish through participation in the life of the Trinity.

Similarly, the cognitive sciences can enliven our understanding of personalism. One of its primary principles, as articulated by Saint John Paul II, is the “personalistic norm”:

The person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end.”[11]

Moving beyond Kant, he adds:

In its positive form the personalist norm says that the person is a good toward which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.[12]

The human person is a mystery to be welcomed in love. Such an I-Thou encounter respects the other, overcoming what Saint John Paul II called the “evil of our times,” the “pulverization” of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.[13] Personalism demands that we take the standpoint of the individual.

Neuroscience is essential to characterizing this standpoint, for the structural and functional development of the brain takes place through an individual’s engagement with reality. All of the major processes of neurodevelopment—the birth and death of new neurons, the formation of new connections and the strengthening of existing circuits—takes place in an experience-dependent fashion.[14] In other words, for each of us, a lifetime of joys, sorrows, and challenges have formed our neural architecture. In this way, neuroscience can shift our perspective and help us to welcome the other with openness to experience, with a “what has happened to you?,” rather than a reduction to “what’s wrong with you?”

Personalism also condemns any attempt to grasp or possess the other as a violation of her uniquely first-personal capacity for self-determination. But what is this capacity? We are dependent on God, not radical self-creating individuals.

Research into neuroplasticity makes space for self-determination in a way that acknowledges our fundamental dependence and relationality. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change over time, both in its structure and function. This is also referred to as Hebbian learning, from Donald Hebb’s theory that “neurons that fire together wire together.”[15] From a physiological perspective, this means the structure of the nervous system is continually adapting, both in response to the internal will and through external experiences. An individual’s neural structures are not set in stone or predetermined, but develop through time as the person asserts herself in time and space. As C.S. Lewis writes, “every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before . . . all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature.”[16] The human agent, through causal interactions with neuroplasticity, can thus participate in the continuing creation of her person. In the words of Charles Péguy, “the revolution is moral, or not at all.”[17]

But the unity between neuroscience and theology is not limited to high-level theory of the nature of the human person. Rather, a truly reasonable theology, one in dialogue with neuroscience, will bear fruit in every domain of the practical life. While an exhaustive exploration of their intersection lies beyond the scope of this essay, and my own understanding, a few salient examples come to mind.

We cannot disregard insights from neuroscientific research in our grappling with sin and vice, because free will is exerted in and through our materiality. When we choose evil, our brain structures will mediate this deprivation of good. Growth in virtue, then, demands the development of brain structures for habitual choice of the good. This perspective should guide our practices in pursuit of holiness, our compassion for those enslaved by habitual sin, and our appreciation for the grace communicated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The study of neural pathways underlying prayer and mystical experience can illuminate the ways in which God communicates with us. An exploration of the neural mechanisms of sensory overload, rumination, and distraction can help us create cognitive space for internal silence and stillness, a state that Cardinal Robert Sarah reminds us is the manifestation of the presence of the Lord.[18] A more scientific understanding of these transcendent experiences would help the Church foster vibrant and rich prayer lives for each of her members.

Neuroscientific insights can and should inform the way Catholics pursue the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching. An understanding of child neurodevelopment should guide our care for the vulnerable and the poor, as well as the victims of clerical sexual abuse. Tools from behavioral economics can help us follow the Pope Francis’s exhortations to care for the environment. Research into early nervous system development reveals the truth of the beginning of life, while research into neurodegeneration and cognitive diseases provides a compelling articulation of the dignity of the elderly. An understanding of the neural mechanisms of intellectual disability can inform compassionate accompaniment and authentic relationship with the disabled. Thus, neuroscience is essential to living out our beliefs about human dignity, solidarity, and the common good.

Research on the organizing effects of prenatal and adolescent gonadal hormones in the brain can deepen our understandings of sexuality and gender.[19] Together with a neurobiological understanding of socialization, these insights can provide a firmer foundation for sound pastoral approaches to LGBT persons and communities. They also might provide the language and knowledge the Church needs to engage these matters in the public sphere in a theologically coherent manner.

Our self-understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ should incorporate insights from neurophysiology. The Eucharist accomplishes our communion in Christ, and this reaches the level of our physical embodiment through changes in our nervous system. Exploration of the physiological mechanisms of relationship, pair bonding, social cohesion and compassion have the potential to revolutionize our gaze on others. For instance, research into the tenth cranial nerve, called the “vagus nerve,” suggests that the neuropeptides released through social bonding also coordinate the parasympathetic nervous system, including its digestive and immune system components.[20] Thus, there is an integration of social experiences with resilience in the face of disease and desolation. In this way, neuroscience research can orient us to those excluded from relationship at the margins of society, to welcome them into communion with the rest of the Church.

These examples bring to light some of the practical fruitfulness of a reasonable theology, one united to the science of the second Scientific Revolution. Such a relationship between theology and science is one of reciprocal enrichment. The encounter with Christ educates one’s heart to stay in front of reality with patience, to welcome it as gift, and to follow beauty in pursuit of truth. Research has confirmed that the experience of wonder as the awareness of the transcendent (the experience of awe) is uniquely associated with creativity and accuracy in scientific thinking.[21] And in return, the magnificence of scientific discovery can open us up to worship of the Creator; in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "we praise before we prove."[22] Just as neuroscience makes for better faith, so faith makes for better science.

However, the fruits of the second Scientific Revolution will not occur automatically. They will depend on our freedom, on our “yes.” We are asked to welcome the new science so that it can reach and inform the basic ways we live out our faith. For some, this may constitute a significant challenge. Current trends in scientific research, as well as among theorists in genetics and neuroscience, support a thoroughgoing postmodernism. In particular, the New Atheists—the self-proclaimed four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse—have weaponized neuroscience in their arguments against religious belief and practice. But if we overcome the fear indoctrinated by these theorists, the truth of neuroscience can potentially shine forth in support of human flourishing.

Ultimately, the promise of this revolution touches the core of the Christian faith, the Incarnation itself. Christianity is not a collection of doctrines or a set of moral norms. As Giussani explains in The Religious Sense, Christianity is the coming of Christ as a presence in history, an event that continually re-curs in reality. As such, it is a hypothesis that we can verify on its own terms. Through our own lived experience, we can verify the proclamation that God has become man, that “The Word was made flesh and dwells among us.” This event, present in the unity of the Church, is the opportunity for us to become always more human through fidelity to Christ’s presence. Thus, it is not merely a scientific revolution but a revolution of the human heart that demands a reasonable theology, a theology of embodied existence, an incarnational theology drawing upon relevant insights from neuroscience.

[1] See Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind for his description of Cartesian dualism, which he interprets as a category mistake.

[2] Oliver Davies, Theology of Transformation: Faith, Freedom, and the Christian Act (Oxford: OUP, 2014), 14.

[3] Henry P. Stapp, Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer (New York: Springer, 2011).

[4] Oliver Davies, op. cit., 44.

[5] Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense (Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s, 1997), 17.

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, Encyclical Letter, 29 June 2009, §53.

[7] See the Harvard Center for the Developing Child’s website at, in particular their overview of resilience, for a comprehensive summary of the scientific literature in this area.

[8] Charman et al. "Testing Joint Attention, Imitation, and Play as Infancy Precursors to Language and Theory of Mind." Cognitive Development 15, no. 4 (2000): 481-98.

[9] Harvard Center for the Developing Child.

[10] See Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals for an exposition of why we moral philosophy begin with the facts of our dependence on others.

[11] Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 41.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See Henri de Lubac, At the Service of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 171-72.

[14] Bryan Kolb and Robbin Gibb. “Brain Plasticity and Behaviour in the Developing Brain.” Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 20, no. 4 (2011): 265–276.

[15] Steven J. Cooper, "Donald O. Hebbs Synapse and Learning Rule: A History and Commentary." Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 28, no. 8 (2005): 851-74.

[16] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 86.

[17] Charles Peguy, Basic Verites: Prose and Poetry (New York: Pantheon Books, 1943).

[18] See Robert Cardinal Sarah’s book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2017).

[19] Cheryl L. Sisk and Julia L. Zehr. "Pubertal Hormones Organize the Adolescent Brain and Behavior." Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 26, no. 3-4 (2005): 163-74.

[20] For an overview of the neural correlates of social behavior and relationship see the Oxford Handbook of Social Neuroscience.

[21] Sara Gottlieb, Dacher Keltner, and Tania Lombrozo. "Awe as a Scientific Emotion." Cognitive Science 42, no. 6 (2018): 2081-094.

[22] Abraham Joshua Heschel. Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1976), 74.

Featured Image: Caspar David Friedrich, Woman Before the Setting Sun, 1818; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.


Sofia Carozza

Sofia Carozza is a Marshall Scholar at the University of Cambridge where she researches the neurobiological pathways through which early adversity affects the developing brain. She also blogs at Synapses of the Soul and co-hosts The Pilgrim Soul podcast.

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