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The Implications of Amnesia for Christian Anthropology

A famous Amnesiac died recently and was reported in the New York Times.  The article presses me to ask several questions all over again in my mind. 

Supposedly, when we die, according to the Christian worldview, our souls remain in tact, which means our memory and personality, etc. remain in tact.  However … if our soul’s are immaterial and retain memory, why is it that when our brain, a material part of the human body, malfunctions or is removed, we have the ability to loose our memory.  In other words, it would seem that if the human soul always remains in tact, human memory would always remain in tact–even if our material bodies completely decay or malfunction.  Yet … Amnesia (exhibit A).  

Could the Biblical language about the human soul refer to the totality of conscious experience mediated by the brain, which will be replaced in the resurrection?  Some Christian theologians are beginning to postulate a new paradigm for the human soul that teaches something like that.  

As Christians, we must reckon with reality.  Our brains apparently have exclusive power of human memory, thus of human consciousness.  This makes it hard to understand how we can expect a non-material soul to retain such consciousness between death and resurrection if it’s not retaining it now apart from the brain.  Has God made it necessary for our personhood to be mediated through a physical brain?   

Anybody have any thoughts?

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7 Comments

  1. Steven Dresen says:

    I think it’s clear if you begin you understanding of anthropology with Genesis that it is clear that God has made personhood to be mediated through not just a physical brain but a physical body. That is the primary means but the biblical record does give us reason to believe that after death the memories and personhood are retained even without a physical brain. Take for example the witch of Endor conjuring Samuel, Samuel who was a disembodied spirit remembered Saul. Then you have in the New Testament Rev 6:9 with the souls of the martyrs under the altar. There are other examples that could be given such as Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration. I would say yes it is very hard to understand, and might wager that in this life we’ll never understand fully the relationship between our soul and body. Besides the fact that while they are two different things, they are entwined together.

  2. theophilogue says:

    Steven,

    Great points. Your biblical examples are entirely relevant to my question. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion. These examples present quite a challenge for anyone attempting a new paradigm for understanding the human memory as exclusively mediated through the brain.

    I suppose the mystery, then, isn’t so much the nature of the brain, but the nature of the soul. How can it go from not retaining memory, although being essentially united with our brain (as in amnesia), to retaining this memory upon its departure from this union in death. Is it silly to suppose that it “downloads” our memory apart from our consciousness before our brain loses it in amnesia, and “uploads” it to our consciousness at the point of death? Such a theory is the best I can think of, yet it sounds to me a lot like a theory for invisible pink elephants that fly who have always lived on the dark side of the moon.

    Bradley

  3. Jonathan says:

    Silly Bradley, we all know that pink elephants live on the dark side of JUPITER not the moon. And c’mon, a flying elephant?! That’s absurd.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Here’s a thought: could it be that because of the fall, things can happen to us that will prohibit our brain from properly functioning to retrieve memories stored therein? Memories may exist but are not accessible in the amnesiac, similar to the way the cognitive processes of someone with Down’s Syndrome may not achieve the same capacity of someone without it.

    Also, what about memories of sin? Will we have those in the new creation? Why would we? Do you believe in soul and spirit being one? If not, do they stay connected after death? If so, does the SOUL bear the responsibility of carrying the personality and memories that the body experienced? Your questions present so many more questions. What about the girl with two heads (or perhaps I should word it “the girls with one body”) that they showcased on TLC?

    Finally, if you take a person’s brain out, does that mean you have removed the spirit from their body? Based on your postulation, it sounds as though you believe the spirit is necessarily connected with the Brain. It also seems that way considering that the conjoined twins with one body and two heads are two different people with two different souls & spirits. And if the soul is stored in the brain, then a successful brain transplant would necessarily be equivalent to a soul/spirit transplant.

    One last question: if someone in a vegetative state is declared “brain dead”, does that mean that they are officially dead spiritually and soulfully?

  5. Jonathan says:

    Also, there are movies where people are “cloned” and retain the memories of other versions of themselves, because there is a theory that all of the memories and experiences of a person are recorded into their very DNA and could possibly become accessible by the brain. I think this is a very reasonable theory that could possibly answer the question posed in your blog entry. If all of our memories and experience is recorded into our DNA, then all it would take would be one little DNA to reconstruct an entire person, life memories and all, which is probably what will happen when the dead rise from the ground. This was a great blog! I haven’t thought this much about a blog since I read Jake Brand’s post on model cars!

  6. David says:

    Also saw the story, have long been interested in such stories.

    The question is, does consciousness reside in the soul or in matter only (the brain) or in some combination/interaction. Memory is also only one part of consciousness. It is important though.

    The danger, of course, is succumbing to a purely materialistic worldview – which is very easy given our current intellectual environment. Modernistic inclinations are still very common and as far as I can tell, hold sway in the mass media.

    Cause and effect is bi-directional across the natural – supernatural. For example, God creates matter by speaking.

    God can sustain the continuity of my consciousness (as well as repair it) across death or brain damage so that we will be like angels, not able to die (Lk 20). How this happens, I cannot tell. Perhaps “soul” is just a word we use to convey the concept.

    Perhaps we should study the etymology and usage of the Hebrew and Greek words that are commonly translated “soul”. I suspect it’s meaning could range from “whole living being” to “self-consciousness” to the dichotomy of “spirit as opposed to body”.

  7. theophilogue says:

    Jonathan!

    My dear friend! The one who got me blogging in the first place! How did you find my blog? (just curious)

    First of all … I can’t find Jake Brand’s blog anymore. Is he still blogging? I hope so, because I miss debating with him. He was so … well … “amusing” to dialogue with.

    Second … You bring up solid points and raise many more questions. Whatever it is, it’s a result of the fall and should be seen as a glitch in creation (that is, amnesia and the loss of memory and the whole problem of death which forces us to ask these questions).

    Interesting DNA theory you got form watching those Tim-Lahaye movies. I just hope your not still replacing those with your daily Bible reading.

    David,

    Again, good point. Memory is just one aspect of consciousness. Cause and effect are bi-directional. I would add that God himself doesn’t have a body, yet he not only has perfect memory, but perfect foreknowledge.

    It’s not just dangerous to succumb to a purely materialist worldview: i t ‘ s _ a t h e i s m.
    However, the Christian theologians who are speculating with new philosophical paradigms to explain scientific data about the brain are not at all giving up their Christian worldview. Most of them are just trying to answer the questions we are asking, only after having studied scientific data on the nature of the human brain. I suppose one could make the slippery slope argument, but that’s a logical fallacy.

    I definitely think God will reunite our brains with our souls at the resurrection. And that’s what I care about most.

    Bradley

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