According to popular wisdom, if you want to avoid conflicts with people, don’t bring up politics or religion. This saying seems even truer today as the polarization of thought continues to increase. We like to think our political views flow out of rational thinking, so when someone disagrees with us it’s natural to show them the superior reasoning and argument behind our position. But what if you discovered that I could predict your political views just by analyzing some brain scans performed during a few routine, nonpolitical activities? Wouldn’t that indicate that biology determines your political views? Or is the picture more complicated?
MRIs, AIs, and Politics
A person’s political ideology derives from a set of beliefs about the proper societal order and the best means to achieve that order. While many nuances exist in a political ideology, we often project these ideologies on a one-dimensional axis: with liberal on the left and conservative on the right. Historically, the best predictor of political ideology has been the political ideology of one’s parents. It comes as no surprise that parents influence the beliefs of their children. This reality suggests that the nurture side of the nature/nurture debate plays the dominant role. However, a recent study utilizing AIs to determine connections in brain scans from 174 people (ages 18-40) found that activity correlations in various regions of the brain during nonpolitical tasks make equally good predictions of political ideology.1 This result indicates that nature may play a dominant role.
Specifically, the scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain activity of each subject while inactive and as they completed eight tasks: emotional picture viewing, emotional face viewing, episodic memory encoding, episodic memory retrieval, go/no-go, monetary incentives, working memory, and theory of mind tasks. Note that none of these tasks involves any explicit political thinking. When analyzing the images, the team was not concerned with how any specific region engaged the task but rather with the region-to-region activity relationships during the tasks. A multistage analysis employing a state-of-the art AI named BrainNetCNN found strong correlations between the functional connectivity of the brain during the tasks and political ideology.
How Does This Relate to Christianity?
The ability to predict someone’s political ideology is a highlight, but more important is what the research will tell us about who we are as humans. Some might take a naturalistic view. Since naturalism says that the physical world is all that is, was, or ever will be, the physical structure of the brain and its internal connections define us and determine how we will live.
Christianity says something far different. According to Christianity, every human being is a union of spiritual and physical natures. In Genesis 1:26–27, the Bible declares that God made humanity in his image. Because God is Spirit, being made in his image means we also have a spirit. This idea permeates Scripture. In I Corinthians 2:10–16 Paul states:
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
Like naturalism, the Christian worldview holds that the physical part of humanity means that the structure and internal connections of our brain play an important role in how we live. However, since we are also spiritual, how we think and live affects the structure and connections of our brain. Rather than nature or nurture, it’s nature and nurture. I’m not claiming that discovering a strong predictive correlation between fMRI scans and political ideology invalidates naturalism but validates Christianity. Instead, this strong connection between our brains and our thoughts raises an interesting question.
Which Worldview Makes the Most Sense?
We intuitively know that the physical part of our brain influences how we think and live. Research also shows that the decisions we make influence the physical structure of our brain. The question arises: which worldview best accounts for this knowledge? It may seem that both naturalism and Christianity accommodate this reality well. However, I’m not so sure that naturalism does. If the physical world is all that is, was, and ever will be, then any thoughts we have must arise from the physical configuration of the atoms in our brain. This is not a question of whether naturalism dictates determinism to the exclusion of free will—an issue that many philosophers have thought about extensively. I am asking a more fundamental question: Does brain structure alone account for how we think? If naturalism is true, then whatever thoughts we have (whether determined or of free will) ultimately must flow out of the structure of the brain. But, if our thoughts affect the structure of our brain, then the structure of our brain must influence the structure of the brain (actually, that sounds like an incredibly well-designed system, if true).
In contrast, Christianity says that the thoughts we think also reside in our spiritual (and thus nonphysical) minds rather than exclusively in our physical brains. Consequently, the idea that our brains affect our thoughts and that our thoughts affect our brains fits comfortably within the Christian worldview.
1. Seo Eun Yang et al., “Functional Connectivity Signatures of Political Ideology,” PNAS Nexus (May 23, 2022): pgac066, https://doi.org/10.1093/pnasnexus/pgac066.