The Advent Corrective to Locke's Lonely Liberalism

The Nativity is astonishing. Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, was born of a woman. The King of the Universe entered the world as a fragile infant, a bundle of needs who was utterly dependent on his mother. What a terrifying fact. The vulnerability of Our Savior’s gestation and early life is enough to take your breath away.

The Advent and Christmas seasons are an invitation for us to examine our own dependence on relationships of love, a dependence that is constitutive of our lives. In reflecting on the method through which Christ came into the world, we can enter more deeply into this aspect of our creation in his image and likeness.

1. John Locke and Charles Taylor on the Human Person

The logic of Advent and Christmas runs counter to our modern notion of the individual, the main foundation upon which the liberal order rests. This notion can largely be traced back to the thought of John Locke, whose theory of personhood advances a robust autonomy and individualism.

Locke grounds this theory in his concept of self-ownership. In his Second Treatise, Locke writes that “every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself.”[1] Locke believes that the individual is the sole proprietor of her self-consciousness and personhood that distinguishes herself from others. Note that, although Locke acknowledged that human beings receive their existence and natural powers from God, he defined divine authority negatively. Locke understood it to be merely that which is left over at the end of self-ownership. In this way, Locke endorses an individual’s radical sovereignty over herself, her right to determine her own personhood.

But in what does this personhood consist? Crucially, Locke’s personhood depends on the individual’s cognitive and rational capacities, specifically the ability to engage in self-reflection. This comes out of Locke’s definitions of substance, man, person, and self, which are found in his Second Treatise. Substance, for Locke, is the substratum or support that establishes the individual’s very being. Man, then, is an animal among others, distinguished merely by his form. A person, for Locke, is a thinking intelligent being that is conscious. Finally, that person becomes a self when he or she gains awareness of herself as a conscious and reflective person.

For Locke, then, human beings become unique and actualized persons entirely on their own. The person and the self are merely the product of the activity of an individual human being, and belong exclusively to the ownership of that individual. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke summarizes it thus: the person is:

That with which the consciousness of this present thinking thing can join itself, makes the same person, and is one self with it, and with nothing else; and so attributes to itself, and owns all the actions of that thing, as its own, as far as that consciousness reaches, and no farther; as every one who reflects will perceive.[2]

Thus, Locke’s theory of the person celebrates individualism and autonomous development. In doing so, it strikes a stark contrast with the logic of Advent and Christmas, which invite us to embrace vulnerability and depend on others for our development and flourishing.

In line with this insight, Charles Taylor presents a particularly valuable alternative to Locke in his Sources of the Self. In this work, Taylor attacks the “neutral” self, the idea that the self arises independently through mere self-reflection on one’s state of consciousness. Instead, Taylor argues that the self is one’s core being, that aspect with the requisite depth and complexity to have an identity. Such a being is necessarily embedded in an existing moral framework or space, for she must have an orientation toward questions about the good according to which she can interpret herself. Perhaps most importantly, she grows in this self-awareness through relationships and interactions with others. In Taylor’s view, one cannot abstract away from this web of relationships and interactions.

Taylor has been criticized for putting the development of the individual’s self-interpretation, which takes place through relationships with others, before the individual’s self-consciousness. According to Locke’s theory of personhood, the self-reflective “I” is a prerequisite for engaging in any interactions with others.

But here, developmental neuroscience can provide a defense of Taylor’s conception of the self. Individual capacities and operations are not presupposed by interactions with others; rather, they come into being, neurobiologically speaking, through those very interactions. As such, neuroscience characterizes the “I” as necessarily embedded in a web of relationships. Although this scientific account is merely descriptive, it can illuminate Taylor’s insight into the development of the person, a theory that echoes the logic of Advent and Christmas.

2. The Human Person According to Developmental Neuroscience

The brain is a fundamentally dialectical organ from the very beginning. Whether he is the Savior of the World or an ordinary child, the human being develops through affiliative bonds with others. In the scientific literature, there are four forms of such bonds in humans.[3] First, there are parental—or, more often than not, maternal—bonds. As I will touch on later, these are by far the most important for the development of the person. Next, there are romantic or pair bonds. In humans, in comparison to other mammals, these relationships are unique for their exclusivity and their duration. Third, there are bonds of friendship with peers or within a clan. Finally, there are affiliative bonds with fellow homo sapiens, called “conspecific bonds.”

Two ancient hormonal systems, the dopamine and oxytocin systems, form the neurobiological underpinnings of affiliation. These two systems work together to foster the formation of bonds through crosstalk in the limbic system, which is a set of structures involved in our behavioral and emotional responses. Dopamine and oxytocin coordinate the activation and connection of neural circuits that underlie attachment, reward, and stress. In this way, dopamine and oxytocin powerfully orient the developing brain toward affiliative bonds, from the very beginning.

Why is the brain so deeply oriented toward the formation of attachments? Because early relationships are the key to proper neurodevelopment. During the first years of life, the brain more than triples in size. This explosive development can be broken up into six developmental processes, that happen in a consecutive but overlapping fashion, beginning just two weeks after conception. First, neurogenesis is the birth of new neurons. Then, migration, or the movement of the neural cells to their proper domains within the brain and spinal cord. The cells then differentiate when the progenitors express the genes necessary for their unique structure and function. Fourth is synaptogenesis, the birth of connections between neurons. These connections are overproduced, which leads to pruning, the elimination of unused connections to foster efficient and accurate communication. Finally, apoptosis is the programmed cell death of unnecessary neurons.

The coordination of these processes is imperative for healthy brain development, to get the right neurons in the right regions, connected to the right targets and communicating in the right patterns. Importantly, early neurodevelopment is experience-dependent. In other words, the formation of a child’s brain depends on the stimuli she does or does not receive from her environment. Experience-dependency is an essential feature of the child’s nervous system, which allows her to adapt to her environment and to respond in favorable ways to any challenges she faces.

From the moment of conception, the mother’s body provides the first environment of the developing child. As a result, the mother-child bond is a developmentally normative expectation of the child’s nervous system. Maternal heart rate, touch, sound, smell, temperature, patterns of movement, and responses to stress are the very first environmental signals that the nervous system receives. The developing child depends on these signals for the proper formation of her brain architecture. Evidently, the human person is fundamentally programmed to live in relationship with others.

This is even more dramatically evident after birth, when early relationships determine the quality of a child’s brain development. Specifically, the architecture of the developing brain expects a stable and reciprocal relationship with a supportive primary caregiver.[4] This is perhaps most obvious in the phenomenon of bio-behavioral synchrony.[5]

Bio-behavioral synchrony is the coupling of the mother’s physiological and behavioral processes to her child’s during moments of contact. This coupling is observed in four domains. First, there is synchronized behavior through shared gaze, vocalizations, and touch. This is when mom and baby look at the same thing, talk or babble back and forth, or engage with the same physical object. These shared interactions are essential for the formation of baby’s language centers, the development of her abstract thought, and her later social behavior. Second, there is coupling of the heart rate between the dyad. Just through the sharing of a smile or a gaze, baby’s heart beat will regulate itself by matching mom’s heart beat. This is thought to be important for the development of baby’s physiological and emotional regulation. Third, there are coordinated endocrine responses. One example is the simultaneous release of cortisol in response to aversive stimuli. Baby’s imitation of mom’s stress response system is imperative for baby’s brain to learn to regulate her own responses to stress. Finally, there is brain-to-brain synchrony, through the coordination of brain oscillations in alpha and gamma rhythms. This means that baby’s neurons imitate the waves of activity of the mother’s neurons. This is key for the formation of baby’s attention, memory, and ultimate development of higher-order thinking skills.

Importantly, these synchronous interactions precede a child’s development of self-awareness; neural circuits that underlie self-reflection are adapted from complex networks that receive, interpret, and respond to social information.[6]

In this way, we see how continual dyadic interactions with a nurturing caregiver are necessary for the child’s development of language, abstract thinking, social skills, memory, attention, stress response, and self-awareness. Evidently, the human being cannot reach the fullness of her personal capacities in isolation; her development demands relationship.

As you might expect, when this biological expectation is not met, there are severe consequences for the developing child. Absent early relationships, studied through the phenomena of child neglect and institutionalization, are associated with enormously detrimental consequences throughout the lifetime. One of the earliest and perhaps most powerful studies of neglect was conducted in in Romanian orphanages.[7]

After the overthrow of Romania’s communist government in 1989, almost 200,000 children were held in government institutions. Due to a shortage of staff and resources many of the children went days and weeks without human touch, eye contact, or other experiences of biobehavioral synchrony. The effects were devastating; most had stunted growth and severe cognitive and behavioral difficulties. In order to determine the origin of these problems, neurologist Charles Nelson studied the children’s brain using EEG, which measures electrical activity in individual brain regions. He found that many of the children had abnormally low levels of activity throughout the cortex. Nelson and other researchers followed the children longitudinally, and used MRI to study the structure of their brains. They found a dramatic reduction in gray and white matter, a literal shrinking of the brain. The cognitive, emotional, and behavioral deficits continue to be observed in these individuals as they enter adulthood.

Broken early relationships, studied through the phenomenon of child abuse, have similarly devastating effects on emotion, sociality, and cognition. The foundational Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study[8] identified a number of additional consequences, including problems with physical health, from diabetes and heart attacks to poor dental health. Early abuse also dramatically increases the chances of later mental illnesses, such as depression and suicidality. Importantly, there are also effects on the individual’s risk-taking behavior: sexually risky behavior and drug use skyrocket with more ACEs. Clearly, the absence or disorder of normative social interactions early in life results in an alteration of brain architecture, and has pervasive and damaging effects throughout the lifetime.

Neuroscience challenges the Lockean notion of autonomous development, and provides indirect support for Charles Taylor’s understanding of the self, because the brain is a fundamentally dialectic organ. The human person develops through relationships with others, just as Christ did through the love of his mother Mary. The Virgin’s touch and voice helped Christ learn, think and speak; the coordination of their heartbeats helped him develop emotional and physiological regulation; her stress response supported his own; the synchrony of her brain waves with his shaped his attention and memory. Through the love of his young mother, this child grew into the man who died on the Cross for our salvation.

3. A Corrective to Locke

Neuroscience alone shows us that our development and flourishing takes place through relationships of love. But in providing a corrective to Locke, developmental neuroscience is well supplemented by a Thomistic account of the human person. Such an account is particularly helpful when the development of the virtues is understood through the interpretive key of “second-person relatedness.”[9] This Thomistic concept, as argued by Andrew Pinset, is the idea that the “I” is formed in dialogue with the “you,” in an irreducible dialectical relationship. Second-person relatedness begins between the child and her parents, a relationship in which she starts to develop the human virtues and gain agency as a moral individual. However, Pinset argues that second-person relatedness is a continuum of relationship that extends even to the child’s connection with God. Through this divine I-Thou relationship, she experiences friendship with God and is thus bestowed the theological virtues.

This account of the human person accords well with neuroscience research. To understand how this is the case, let us focus on a single instantiation of biobehavioral synchrony: the phenomenon of joint attention.[10] Joint attention is when a parent and child coordinate their gazes to focus on the same thing. This phenomenon, which emerges about 8 months after birth, is sometimes accompanied by vocalizations but may simply be a unity of gaze on an object or event. Crucially, joint attention requires the child’s awareness not merely of the object but of the directedness of the parent’s gaze, so that she can unite her gaze to it. Thus, joint attention is marked by a certain mutuality, and is dependent on the child’s relationship with her caretaker. This form of biobehavioral synchrony predicts the child’s later development of language, social skills, and theory of mind; evidently, joint attention is crucial for human development. But joint attention is also a beautiful metaphor for the mode of relatedness that must exist between a child and her parents, and ultimately a child and God, for her to develop as a person and reach the fulfillment of her nature.

In this way, the interpretive key of second-person relatedness accounts for human person’s fundamental embeddedness in relationship, which neuroscience research shows to be imperative for one’s cognitive, socio-emotional, and behavioral capacities.

We, like the infant Christ, are deeply formed by the relationships of love that constitute our lives. This Advent season, we are invited to reflect on our vulnerability and embrace our dependence, for our fragile existence is a gift. Perhaps, in these days, neuroscience can be a fruitful starting point for rejecting the myth of autonomy and welcoming our dependence on relationships of love.

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise, Chapter V, 27.

[2] Ibid., II.xxxvii.17.

[3] See: Ruth Feldman’s “The Neurobiology of Human Attachments,” for a review of the literature in this area.

[4] 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.

[5] See: Ruth Feldman’s “Parent-infant synchrony: A biobehavioral model of mutual influences in the formation of affiliative bonds” for a comprehensive overview of the literature on bio-behavioral synchrony.

[6] For more on this, see Louis Cozolino’s The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain (Second Edition).

[7] Charles Nelson, Nathan Fox, and Charles Zeanah, “Romania's Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery.”

[8] See the CDC page on the Adverse Childhood Experiences study here.

[9] See: Andrew Pinset, “The Second-Person Perspective in Aquinas's Ethics: Virtues and Gifts”

[10] Carpenter, M., & Liebal, K., “Joint attention, communication, and knowing together in infancy,” in A. Seemann (Ed.), Joint Attention: New Developments in Psychology, Philosophy of Mind, and Social Neuroscience (Cambridge: MIT, 2012), 159-181.

Featured Image: Raphael, Madonna and Child with Book, 1504; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Sofia Carozza

Sofia Carozza is a developmental neuroscientist currently working in research. She co-hosts The Pilgrim Soul podcast.

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