April 12, 2018

Cliff's Edge-Neurons Thinking about Neurons

In the early 1980s I lived in the home of Bernell Baldwin, a PhD (Georgetown University) in neurophysiology. Day and night for almost two years, both in class (at Wildwood Sanitarium and Hospital) and out, I gorged myself on his knowledge, even to the point where he let me hold lectures for the patients about the brain (eventually).

I remember early on learning about brain physiology at the neural level, and about how billions of neurons, through the manifold billions more synaptic clefts between them, communicate with each other as quanta of chemicals (neurotransmitters) jump across those clefts.

“OK, Dr. Bernell,” I asked. “I can understand the neurotransmitters jumping from neuron to neuron. But how do quanta of chemicals going from one neuron to another, even billions of them, translate into thought and sensation?”

“I don’t know,” he answered, and decades later, no one does. They have no clue, actually. Well, they have clues, lots, but the clues shrivel up and die at the mystery of how biological and chemical tissue—having more in common with Chinese take-out than a hard drive—can create in us not just qualia (sensation), but transcendental logical thought that can ask questions about the very object, the brain, that poses those questions to begin with.

Even as scientists get closer to locating the place(s) in the brain where, for instance, the color red is manifested to us, whatever they will find in those places(s) certainly will not be that color red. Or even as they get closer to finding the exact part(s) of the brain where complicated algebra is computed, whatever they find will not be Zariski’s Theorem or Quadratic Number Fields. Yet, amid these billions of tiny chemical and biological interactions, in this finite mass of tissue, a universe of sensation and emotion and thought arises? It makes no more sense than if, from a complicated arrangement of brick and mortar, cello concertos could arise as well.

Years ago Harper’s ran an article by a journalist who drove across the United States in a Buick Skylark with Albert Einstein’s brain sloshing in a vat of fluid in the trunk. With him was the doctor who, having performed Einstein’s autopsy 40 years earlier, also pilfered the brain, ostensibly to do research. Now decades later, the doctor wanted to give the brain, or what was left of it, to one of Einstein’s remaining relatives, a granddaughter living in California, and the journalist (sensing a story) offered to drive them both, the doctor and the brain, across the continent to the granddaughter.

After their arrival, Einstein’s skeptical granddaughter came out and, with some reticence, got into the Buick. When they handed her a piece of the brain (it has been cut up and doled out over the years), she held this golf ball-sized bit of tissue, fondled it, made some comment about how it could be made into jewelry and muttered, “So this is what the fuss is all about?”

Aside from the weirdness of the scene, and the triteness of her question, how did cells and chemicals, entombed in darkness by tissue and skull—and thus never coming into contact with the external world except through the subjective filters of Einstein’s eyes, nose, mouth, ears, and skin—how did those cells and chemicals, nevertheless, produce such profound insights into the external world? Tissue never exposed directly to a single ray of light could still theorize fascinating things about that light.


Also, what about the pedophile in prison who, when his brain tumor was removed, lost his desire to molest kids and was released yet, when the tumor returned, so did his urge, which vanished only when the new tumor was excised? Though an extreme case, it leads to another vexing problem. If our brains are as material as are our bowels, are we at our brain’s mercy as we are at our bowels’? If so, what happens to free will, free choice, and moral responsibility?

Though as Seventh-day Adventists, our mythoclasm regarding the immortality of the soul spares us from some long-debated conundrums (How does something immaterial interact with something material, for one?), we have no answers on the physiology of free will, even if our theology demands it. If we don’t have free will, at least on moral issues, then our religion, our faith, our Bible, make no sense. What does one do (as just one example) with, “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15; see also Matt. 23:37) and the like?

Besides, what’s the purpose of the moral law, the Ten Commandments? Robots and automatons don’t need a moral law; free beings, such as angels in heaven and humans on earth, do. The existence of the Ten Commandments alone presupposes moral autonomy, even if how a mass of neurons and chemicals can manifest that moral autonomy remains a mystery that many other masses of neurons and chemicals, even highly trained in studying masses of neurons and chemicals, can’t yet fathom.

Finally, of all that I learned from Bernell Baldwin, one thing that fascinated me was the brain’s plasticity. What we see, what we think about, and what we do can, actually change neural patterns. Yes, physically change the structure of the brain, and that cannot but help, it would seem, change us. And who among us doesn’t need changing? Hence, the words, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5, KJV) might be more literal than imagined.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.