Review of God on the Brain

Book cover for God on the Brain

For the past ten years, I have had a particular interest in the brain sciences. As someone who studies both theology and philosophy, I am keenly aware of the theological, philosophical, and so ethical/practical implications of contemporary cognitive sciences—I also happen to be missing an amygdala and hippocampus, along with other grey matter, so I have a somewhat personal investment in the matter. Some of the strongest attacks on Christianity in the 21st century have emerged from cognitive sciences, so having a Christian perspective is particularly valuable for helping Christians confronted with these challenges to think more Biblically about them. For these reasons, I was delighted to receive a copy of Bradley Sickler’s God on the Brain as part of the Crossway blog review program. Sickler has delivered a clear and helpful discussion of the cognitive sciences within a Christian worldview, looking “at recent scholarship on brains to see how it provides orthodox Christian anthropology with some serious food for thought and, hopefully, develop a framework to think through what it all means” (14). Sickler is a clear writer, but the matters addressed and the philosophical issues involved put the register a bit higher than is accessible for the average Christian. It is well written and suitable for the student or pastor.

Overview

Across the book’s ten chapters, Sickler unpacks the broader debate over science and faith and then zooms in on the questions raised by the cognitive sciences. After outlining a bit of the biblical anthropology in chapter 1—adopting a dualist approach to body and soul—chapters 2 and 3 consider the relationship between science and Christianity. Sickler rejects the view that they are in conflict and the idea that they address entirely different spheres. He adopts a general picture of science as a reflection on the data of experience and analysis within a Christian worldview, seeing God as the one who orchestrates and governs the world observed by the sciences (63): “It is by and through a biblical lens that we will look at the enthralling world of the brain” (63).

In Chapter 4, he considers two ways evolution explains the development of religiosity, arguing that the Biblical account is a far more compelling explanation of the data. Chapter 5 discusses the phenomenon of consciousness and how it is not reducible to brain states. Chapter 6 addresses challenges to the belief in the soul, addressing the underlying assumption that a naturalistic interpretation is always to be preferred.

Moving in a more philosophical direction, Chapter 7 considers the mind-body problem, Chapter 8 the nature of free will, Chapter 9 the relationship between evolutionary naturalism and science itself. In these chapters, Sickler argues that none of the data of the cognitive sciences presents a challenge to Christianity; indeed, in many cases, the Christian worldview does more justice to the data. Finally, in Chapter 10, he unpacks the contemporary philosophical view known as “Reformed Epistemology,” arguing that this is a strongly supported epistemological model that upholds the rationality of belief in God.

Evaluation

As a whole, I think Sickler offers a compelling demonstration that given its own assumptions, the naturalistic interpretation of cognitive sciences pales in comparison to Christianity. There are several areas where I think the argument could be improved, but they do not detract from the overall value of the book for dealing with the challenges of cognitive sciences. For one, I think that as Christians we should move beyond the fact that Christianity explains the data well (the inductive argument) to show how we have a sure reason to believe in the validity of belief in Christ, the existence of more than matter, etc. because of God’s authoritative revelation.

Additionally, I think that it is unhelpful to identify naturalistic determinism and theological compatibilism as the same position. In the former case, naturalistic determinism believes that all human decisions are explainable by purely physical causes; on this position, any claim to freedom or moral responsibility is illusory. It has no ground. On the other hand, compatibilism believes there is a subjective cause but no physical cause for every human decision; freedom is grounded not in the absence of causation but the grounding of causation in the self. The resulting metaphysic is quite complicated and is certainly deterministic. However, it corresponds to our experience, and we can affirm responsibility because it is within such a model that the Bible affirms human responsibility. For this reason, when it comes to ethics, I think theological determinism provides more of an advantage over against naturalistic determinism than libertarianism.1

I also think that Reformed Epistemology is insufficient for a Christian account of knowledge; it serves its purpose of warranting the rationality of Christian faith within a secular philosophical framework, but I have never understood why we ought to seek such warrant. I find Van Til’s account of presuppositionalism, where right knowledge is grounded in the authority of God over against the independent authority of man, far more cogent and persuasive (see this review and my book, The Gift of Knowing). However, despite these minor quibbles, I recommend the book as a helpful book for strengthening one’s own faith and being equipped to answer the challenges encountered by those to whom we minister.

  1. See my book, Prevenient Grace 2nd Ed (2020, Teleioteti). []

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