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Non-overlapping Magisteria

Ray D. Scanlon rscanlon at wsg.net
Fri Aug 6 18:00:25 EST 1999

When we speak of intelligence, artificial or living, there are things that
people say are pertinent and other things that are not. The trouble is that
few agree on how to divide the territory. Stephen Jay Gould pushes for a
general division between the magisteria of religion and that of science. He
calls his approach NOMA, non-overlapping magisteria. He says that some
things belong to religion and some things to science and asks for no
overlap. We can swing an axe and say that soul (mind) belongs to religion
and the brain belongs to science. If you talk about the soul (mind), you are
talking religion. If you talk about the neurons of the nervous system, you
are talking science. The theologian speaks of free will; the neuroscientist
talks of molecular activity. There is no middle ground.

There is an unknown and unknowable interface between the magisteria. The
theologian contemplates the universe of existence and makes it consistent
with his theology; the extreme case is idealism. The neuroscientist notes
his thoughts and considers the neural constellations that could support the
experiences of the soul (mind). Both press against the interface.

A prosaic explanation of how the brain maneuvers the body through the world
is not enough; all want more. They want an explanation of the beautiful
workings of the soul (mind) and they are not to have it. There is to be no
scientific explanation of our inner mental life. The magisterium of science
is limited to the external universe (the other). The best we can do is to
search out combinations of neurons that could support a mental life. We may
demonstrate a neuron such that, if active, we will experience as a patch of
blue. We may demonstrate a constellation of neurons such that, if activated
(inactivated?) means that the brain has decided; we shall experience a

The neuroscientist has no need of soul (mind) except as a curiosity. On the
one hand, he may say that certain neurons form a constellation that, when
active, gives rise to an experience in the soul (mind). On the other hand,
he may say, "Why should I pick out these neurons for special attention? They
are just neurons." The theologian views the body as a curiosity; he has no
real need of it. For him the soul (mind) directs the brain.

When we set out to study the brain seriously, we find ourselves up against
the unknowable interface between the universe of experience and the soul
(mind). I think it best to recognize this interface and the structures on
both sides. When we have approached the interface from both sides we can
say, "I will study the brain; I will put the soul (mind) to one side." Or,
"I will study the soul (mind) and leave the brain to science."

Those whose principle interest is in the magisterium of religion have a
differing agenda. The soul (mind) interests them. Consider this snippet:
"...the actual capabilities involved in being conscious, noticing,
attending, perceiving, deciding..." Each of these has a neural aspect and a
soul (mind) aspect. The neural aspect is called alertness; the soul (mind)
aspect is called awareness. The physician rates the subject as being
hyperactive, normal, confused, stuporous, or comatose. He makes no reference
to the soul (mind); the religious speak of nothing else. Noticing,
attending, perceiving are simple neural activities. The last is of special
interest. Decision and free will mean everything to the religious. The
neuroscientist sees neurons in the reticular nucleus of the thalamus that,
being active, halt motor programs enroute to the motor cortex. When these
neurons are inhibited, the motor programs proceed; the brain has decided. No
soul (mind) is required.

Let us be clear: the brain belongs to science, the soul (mind) to religion.
The brain receives signal energy by way of transduction by sensory units.
This signal energy filters through the interneurons of the brain and emerges
as motor programs that activate the muscles. There is no need of soul
(mind). There is no need of free will. There is no need of subjective
consciousness, awareness. The neurons of the brain weigh alternatives. The
neurons of the brain decide.

One source of confusion is the word "mind". The present usage appeared in
the first half of the nineteenth century. Freethinkers wished to speak of
the soul but were reluctant to say "soul" so they turned to "mind". Mind is
a synonym (even a euphemism) for soul but so many people today would deny
it. The soul and the mind are two entirely different things, they say. We
can counter this nonsense by always using the two words together as soul

As a practical matter, we can initiate a few activities that may reduce the
nonsense. We can resolve to never use the word "mind" without also using "
soul" and never use a possessive with "soul". Never say his soul for he is a
soul. Say, "They talk of soul (mind)."

Also we can speak of Cognitive Theology rather than Cognitive Science.


Those interested in how the brain works might look at

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