Correspondence

The Machine in the Sacred Wood

Letter From the Neuroimaging Lab

The applicant for our research fellowship was a likeable physician who spoke with passion about the mind-brain problem.  My professional world is overrun by people who believe that, if we just do enough imaging studies, in which a subject works on some cognitive test while complex machinery detects which parts of the brain are activated, we will understand how the mind results from the brain.  The applicant’s career plan was common enough in our setting, but something about our conversation bothered me for days.

His name suggested a family history of Catholicism, although he, like many scientists, had abandoned Christianity long ago.  It would take him years to acquire the technical background he needed to do independent work; during that time, his salary would be a third of what he could make as a clinician or a member of a medical school’s faculty.  Despite his apostasy, he proposed to undertake a long, scientific novitiate, complete with a vow of poverty.  Perhaps some vestigial ecclesiastic impulse remained.

It gradually dawned on me that his itch was religious, not scientific.  He was filled with wonder that we have minds, but he had turned to science to deal with the mystery.  The wonders of God’s hand so surround us that they can be found even in the neuroimaging lab, and a scientist might reasonably understand his work to be part of his worship.  I have felt...

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