Rebel with a Cause

Headlines around the world recently announced the death of a great scientist: Australian neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles. Most of the obituaries focused on Sir John’s Nobel Prize-winning investigations into brain function—into the way nerve impulses are produced and transmitted. But what most of the press overlooked was Eccles’s religious convictions—convictions that put him at loggerheads with much of the scientific community. Eccles was perhaps the world’s preeminent researcher on how the brain functions. Even as an Oxford undergraduate, Eccles was intrigued by the nature of mind and consciousness. He believed that the human mind is distinct from the brain, and that thoughts cannot be explained as the result of mere nerve impulses. "I can explain my body and my brain," he once said, "but there’s something more. I can’t explain my own existence—what makes me a unique human being." In other words, science can explain brain function, but it can not account for consciousness and thought. Science can not explain the fundamental questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What happens after death? "These are all mysteries," Eccles said, "that are beyond science." Needless to say, these views were unorthodox within the scientific community, and they put Eccles at odds with many of his colleagues. In fact, when Sir John explained his views to a Harvard audience many years ago, students openly jeered. Eccles, who described himself as "a practicing Christian," relished attacking the materialist viewpoint at its core. As he once told an interviewer, "The materialist thinks that mental events are simply derivative aspects of the nerve endings. But, he went on, "there is no evidence for this whatsoever. It’s [merely] part of a hypothesis"—one that tries to reduce human nature to fit materialist theories. Besides, if all beliefs are reduced to the result of "nerve endings," that includes the belief in materialism—and so materialism debunks itself. Materialism, Eccles concludes, is a collection of "dogmatic assertions" that can only lead to "despair and nihilism." As a result, Eccles said, "We need to discredit the belief held by many scientists that science will ultimately deliver the final truth about everything." What science provides are merely "hypotheses in an attempt to get nearer to truth." Christians may sometimes feel intimidated by scientists who sneer at us for rejecting materialistic claims in favor of belief in God. But as Sir John Eccles showed, religious faith is not inherently hostile to science. Neuroscience is entirely compatible with the existence of an immaterial soul-the imago dei planted in us. Science writer John Cornwell once wrote, "Science abhors a mystery." But science will never be able to answer the quintessentially human questions: Who am I? Why am I here? These questions remain, as Eccles put it, "mysteries that are beyond [the reach of] science."


Chuck Colson


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