“Religion, God, transcendence, spirituality: do these things exist independently of the human mind or are they products of neurochemical firings of the brain?”
Emily Esfahani Smith poses this question on her Freshly Pressed blog Acculturated, and can be read here.
We can loosely generalize these terms and ask the same question of "consciousness" (emotions, desires, self-awareness, thoughts, etc.). How did consciousness come into existence, is it purely the result of electrochemical activity in the brain or does it exist, not as derivative of the brain, but as something which is separate from the physical world?
The many implications of this question reach far beyond a simple yes or no answer, and ultimately encompass two fundamental questions of humanity; Where did we come from? Where are we going? How we answer depends on how we believe we came into existence and determines what/where we believe our eternal destination lies. I’ll briefly outline two varying world views, those who only believe in the physical world (Materialists) and those who believe everything, the physical and spiritual world, was created by God.
Materialists believe that the universe began with matter and energy. They believe that the only thing that exists is matter and that our reality is just the result of different material interactions. Through the big bang theory the universe came into existence, the earth was formed with the exact conditions necessary to become the breeding grounds for life, life was somehow set into motion from non-life and developed into man.
As humans evolved through un-guided natural processes our brains became increasingly more complex until at some point we attained consciousness. Simply put, the universe (ultimate reality) invented us and we invented consciousness/God. From this viewpoint, since our existence is reduced to electrochemical activity of cells within the human brain/body once a person dies they cease to exist. This bleak and hopeless future has led many searching for ways to extend the human life, to eventually achieving immortality. Which leads us to the transhumanist movement, believers assert that the next step in human evolution will allow us to achieve the goal of immortality through the merging of biology & technology. They believe the human brain could be copied or uploaded into/onto a non-living substrate, i.e. a computer, thereby allowing us to exist apart from our aging bodies.
They also believe the reverse of this situation, that a computer at some point can attain consciousness. If this is possible, then what makes someone/something human? They believe this is the future of humanity.
At the other end of the spectrum, as a Christian I believe that God created everything. He numbered the stars in sky, created the earth, and in His image breathed life into mankind (both the physical and spiritual/consciousness). According to John 1:1, in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God. All things came to be through Him. The universe, world, humans, and our consciousness/spirit are derivatives of the Word/God which is primary. From this perspective God and man’s consciousness/spirit exist independent of the physical workings of the human brain. In other words man’s spirit uses the human body as a vessel during his time on earth and continues to exist after his body deteriorates and eventually ceases to exist. God tells us that we all have an eternal destination.
Both perspectives require faith, either faith in man or faith in God. I find the concept that one’s passions, dreams, thoughts, feelings of love, joy and peace, and actions motivated by kindness and compassion be reduced to mere by-products of electrochemical activity in the brain renders man-kind utterly hopeless. All we have to do is look at our history and current world events to see no matter how advanced man becomes he is wicked and no matter how many “good” things we do any sort of future solely based on man’s “knowledge” is no kind of future at all. There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9), the idea that men could become God/attain immortality happened thousands of years ago when humans built the tower of Babel trying to reach heaven. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I put my faith in the fact that God created man in His image; yet we chose to disobey Him allowing sin into the world, thereby separating us from Him; But He loved us so much that He sent His son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for our sins and raised Him from the dead so that whoever repents and believes in Him would have everlasting life. No matter how much worldly knowledge we attain in respect to our understanding of the human brain the world that we see exists as a small blip relative to eternity. The most important decision anyone can make is to ask Jesus Christ into their heart as Lord and Savior, thereby altering their ultimate destination from eternal separation from God to eternal communion with God.
Rest in Him,