There is a clear relationship between brain function and certain kinds of behavior. For several years I conducted brain mapping research on rats as a researcher in the Psychology Department of a Canadian university. It was extremely interesting work that eventually resulted in discovering unique linkages between specific areas of the brain and behaviors. The research was on the leading edge of neurophysiology, and following the publication of my first scientific paper, I was ecstatic about the possibility of making a difference in the world through discoveries that would help to unlock the mysteries of human behavior and motivation.
Admittedly, my leap from the rat brain to unlocking the secrets of human behavior was a gigantic aspiration. In time I felt that my work, as interesting as it was, did not touch on the deeper issues of life and meaning. So I left the university to work with delinquent and disadvantaged urban youth. My colleagues absolutely could not understand why I would jump from the rationality of science and discovery to a work based on the “irrationality” of faith and religion. As certain as I was about the value of scientific discoveries in unlocking some of the mysteries of human behavior, I was equally convinced that being human involved more than neurochemical and neurophysiological phenomenon.
I was concerned about social issues and the ultimate meaning or purpose of human life. As I began working with delinquent youth whose behavior often seemed out of control, I became even more convinced that science offered no real explanations or solutions to their problems apart from mood altering drugs and drugs designed to suppress hyperactivity. Similarly, although social sciences provided various therapeutic techniques to modify behavior, nothing was predictably effective in changing the dysfunctional thought-patterns and delinquent behaviors of the kids I was working with.
During this time I began to see the reality of faith at work in the minds and lives of the people more clearly than ever. Moral reasoning and behaviors that were beyond the reach of science and therapy were not beyond the reach of God. Again and again I saw delinquent kids transformed from delinquency, despair, and depression as they “found” God through an encounter with Jesus Christ. Only by God’s transforming love and grace did “bad” kids become “good.”
Science does not have the ultimate answer to the moral issues underlying abuse, addiction, crime, violence, deviance, and self-destructive behavior. For more than thirty years I have worked in the arena of intractable human criminality and it is clear to me that despite the best that science has to offer, it is not the basis for morality and holds no keys to fixing what is morally wrong in the way people think and act. While we have a growing understanding of human physiology, sociology, psychology, and the effect of environmental factors; and while we can describe human problems much more effectively than ever, we do not have a scientific solution to the problem of evil. I am convinced that morality lies beyond the bounds of the scientific method, beyond brain research and psychology.
Some time ago I listened to a group of scientists and philosophers discussing the relationship between science and morality (Science Friday on NPR). “Morality is an evolutionary story,” said one of the men as he tried to explain that morality is about understanding brain function and its effect on moral reasoning. “A maturing science of the human mind will undermine reliance on faith,” commented another. “Religion has nothing to say to science,” declared yet another, and “faith is the permission people give to one another to believe things for bad reasons.”
All of the panelists seemed to agree that an increase in scientific knowledge alone will lead to increased human rationality and good moral behavior. However, what they could not define was what is “good” and how “good” is determined. Is morality defined by science or is it described by science? On what basis do scientists determine whether something is morally right or morally wrong?
Near the end of the program, one panelist made an astounding proclamation – “we will find as science matures that it [morality] is all a matter of brain tumors – everyone on death row is a victim of bad genes, bad parents, and bad ideas.”
This is not science at all – it is nothing less than evil masquerading as scientific reason to suggest that morality all comes down to brain matter over which the individual has no control. Immorality is a tumor – bad genes. This isn’t science at all!
It was just perhaps ideas I did not understand were surging up in me
that I used to drink and fight and rage.
It was to stifle them in myself, to still them, to smother them
… It’s God that’s worrying me.
That’s the only thing that’s worrying me.
What if He doesn’t exist? …that it’s an idea made up by men?
Then if He doesn’t exist, man is the chief on earth, of the universe.
Magnificent! Only how is he going to be good without God?
I always come back to that.
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Ron W. Nikkel is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship International (PFI). For more information, visit the PFI website.