To someone whose scientific knowledge extends no further than a Certificate of Secondary Education examination in general science, the terms are baffling, “Glockner’s Isthmus” and the “Rossi-Duranti Loop,” it seems, are areas deep within the human brain. They are areas significant because it seems that human consciousness has a physical locus.
The idea that a neuro-surgeon might one day be able to identify where a person is to be found is a thought that challenges understandings of ourselves that are rooted in theology and metaphysical thinking because it suggests that we ourselves are not personalities inhabiting physical bodies, but that our personality itself is composed of grey matter. If the self that I sense myself to be is amalgam of cells and chemicals and nothing more, then concepts such as that of the soul become redundant.
The church’s response to almost every scientific development has been to reject it; from the times of Copernicus and Galileo, through the controversies surrounding the work of Charles Darwin, ecclesiastical authorities have sought to rebut anything that threatens to undermine their view of the world. Each advance has brought with it a retreat on the part of the church, only fundamentalist groups clinging on to beliefs long abandoned by everyone else. If neuroscience reveals consciousness and a sense of self may be traced to a specific location within the human body, then it will be a blow to church authority far greater than the acceptance that the Earth goes around the Sun, or that human beings are a stage in the ongoing process of evolution. It will suggest a sense of self is not a matter of moral choice, but a question of neurological chemical interaction; it will suggest we are determined by uncontrollable processes rather than by the exercise of free will.
Theologians would be troubled by the thought that we are not free to choose, that the church’s preaching and its sacraments may be of no avail in a world filled with people shaped by chemical processes.
If the Rossi-Duranti Loop proves to be the explanation of selfhood, it will demand a thoroughgoing review of how we understand ourselves. It will not be credible simply to reassert past understanding if people do not believe that our “self” is an independent reality.
Much simpler than the complexities of neuroscience is traditional theology with its notions of Good and Evil, it will be hard to explain to people, rooted in centuries of traditions of good and evil, that their decisions are more chemical than moral. One wonders whether there is a moment of prescience in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, where in Chapter 8 he writes if his belief in the redemption of the whole of creation, for if we are located in matter, then redemption would demand that matter itself is redeemed from decay.