Excerpt from Oliver Davies’ chapter ‘Neuroscience, Self and Jesus Christ’, published in Questioning the Human. Towards a Theological Anthropology for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Lieven Boeve, Yves de Maeseneer and Ellen van Stichel, Fordham University Press, 2014, pp.89-90.
“Second-person neuroscience” invites us to see our hardwired exposure to biological complexity as the price of being able to make an effective judgment about the other through open interaction. This judgment, in the face-to-face, is always open and process; and it is always personal in the sense that we ourselves are to some degree put at stake in this social cognitive process. … in the ethical act, we are seeing a similar or comparable process in the way that we accept the obligation to take seriously the perspective of the other… both states entail vulnerability, empathy, discernment, and decision, and both find a common praxis in the way we reason in complexity.
That leaves open the possibility of a further conclusion. Who we are as body and who we are as mind are the same. This is the fundamental principle of the new science. To assert sameness here does not exclude difference, however. In our self-awareness we are free, while in our biological embodiment we are not. What comes into view here is the paradox of the human as “emergent” embodied consciousness, and this paradox is not without consequences: The first of these is that we have to be concerned with how this paradox is lived and resolved: How do we come into unity as both body and mind at the same time? This cannot be the same as our subjective instrumentalization of the body for purposes of pleasure, or even of well-being. This is a kind of unity of course, when the body suits or fits our intentionality seamlessly, and we are able to access the world around us without constraint and as we wish. But it is in fact only the semblance of a real unity in that it will fracture the moment the body fails us through weakening, ailing, and finally, dying. Moreover, instrumentalization is a “unity” that can work only for as long as we can banish from our thoughts the certainty of death, and indeed of our own vulnerability and contingency. …
The contrast with the unity that accompanies our ethical acting is clear. This is not predicated on the successful realization of our self-centered intentionalities (however benign) but is specifically grounded in the personal acceptance of the complex reality of the other, whose own needs, or “point of view,” will now disrupt our personal mechanisms for reducing complexity in life and making it manageable. Ethics understood in this sense requires a deep trust in life, sometimes seemingly against the evidence or at least in a condition of what mediators call “safe uncertainty.” Entering as free subject into the structure of our own hardwired neurobiology is in effect a difficult human journey into our own interdependence, vulnerability, and contingency. First and foremost, it is the embrace of our own creaturely personhood. It is not just that we have to let in complexity – the complexity of the undiluted real – but that we have to do this at the point where we also assume responsibility for coming to judgment about what to do in a complex situation. We express our creaturely personhood when we resolve to reason openly in ways that resist simple closure and reduction through self-interest (or any secondhand or textbook answer), for the sake of the other with her distinctive perspective and needs. This is to come to judgement in a way that explicitly accepts the risks of causing unwanted effects (or of finding that we have made things worse rather than better), the risks of being fallible and limited, and the risks of acting rather than not acting. In sum, the risks associated with being human.