Phineas Gage the Unlikely Theologian

Phineas Gage with the tamping iron

Phineas Gage after his injury (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Phineas Gage was an unlikely person to provide any sort of theological insight. He was only an unremarkable foreman working on the mid-19th century railways of the US, but he was responsible (albeit indirectly) for discoveries and breakthroughs which I think are very relevant to present-day theological discussions. However, I would advise you not to attempt to replicate his “research”.

Gage’s moment of fame came on the 13th September, 1848. He was leading a gang preparing the ground for a track to be laid in Vermont, when there was a terrible accident. An explosion propelled a tamping iron (a long iron bar just over an inch in diameter) out of the hole he was preparing, and straight through his head. Incredibly, he survived, and his experience would prove to be the inspiration for whole areas of research into neuroscience.

Despite having a substantial part of his brain scattered over the Vermont countryside, Gage appears to have remained conscious throughout and was coherent enough to tell a doctor arriving on the scene “here is work enough for you.” After treatment, he was physically able to continue his life much as before, but he was very different mentally, his personality having changed profoundly after the accident. Where he had previously been a reliable and trustworthy employee, he seemed to have taken on a completely different, more impulsive personality. Dr John Harlow, who treated Gage following the accident, described the changes:

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”

There is a lot of unsubstantiated and inaccurate myth surrounding Gage, and there have been recent suggestions that by the time of his death in 1860, he may have developed coping strategies to deal with the loss of whole areas of his brain. What we can be sure of, though, is that the loss of a substantial part of his brain profoundly affected his personality, and his unorthodox and unintentional experiment opened up a whole world of neuroscience.

Gage’s extraordinary experience led to the discovery of areas of the brain which served particular functions. Since then, we’ve been able to identify where our impulsive, controlling and instinctive brain functions are located, and much more besides. Most interestingly from my point of view, we now know that there are parts of the brain which are strongly linked to religious belief and ecstatic experiences.

That’s not to say that we fully understand the way our brains work, but we know enough to pose some very difficult questions for naive theological views on salvation. Whether you believe in salvation by works, faith or a mixture of the two, modern neuroscience represents an awkward challenge. If someone’s beliefs and behaviour can be completely changed by damage to a particular part of their brain, it seems strange to hold them responsible for those actions or beliefs, and to determine their eternal fate on that basis.

In fact, if our brains can be shown to effectively govern our character, beliefs and behaviour, there’s no need for any sort of damage or accident – we’re a product of our physical neurological makeup from birth. So are people with highly developed “religious” areas of their brains favoured by God even as they’re growing in the womb? Hardline Calvinists may find it easy enough to accept this idea, but it doesn’t sit comfortably with most other theologies.

More than that, it calls the very existence of a soul into question. If who we are is dependent on the state of a single organ, then what we think of as “us” – what we’d imagine to be reflected in a soul – is no more resilient than the biological wetware it runs on. If the brain dies, we die. There may be ways of dancing around this, but I think our understanding of the brain raises very difficult issues for religious belief, and those issues are likely to become starker as the science develops.

And the catalyst for so much of this knowledge was the unlikely and unwitting figure of Phineas Gage. If you want to make your own contribution to neurology or theology, though, I’d suggest academia as a safer route.


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

7 responses to “Phineas Gage the Unlikely Theologian”

  1. Karl says :

    I’ve thought much the same myself for a very long while. It also relates to my observation that, bizarrely, those most inclined to insist on a literal, physical, bodily resurrection of Christ are also those most likely to see the Christian hope in the shape (as it were) of disembodied souls in the presence of a purely spiritual Christ – a model that requires no resurrection. On the other hand, if our “souls” are nothing other than an emergent property of our physical brains, then any future after the Grim Reaper swings his scythe is actually *more* tied to requiring some kind of *bodily* resurrection. Which unfortunately is also not an easy thing to conceive or believe in. Be that as it may, mind, it’s interesting that this observation about the close identity of our brains and anything we can reasonably call a “soul” is actually *more* in harmony with the Christian story of a physical resurrection than the supposedly “traditional” picture of disembodied souls floating around in some poorly defined “heaven”.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      You make a good point about physical resurrection, although given the obvious decomposure I suspect re-creation might be a better word for it, as the brain you’re relying on is long gone. It still poses some awkward questions, though, if you accept that “we” are essentially our brains. If a whole army of Christians are to be re-created at the last trump, how will that be handled? Once you accept brain function as the basis of who “we” are, there’s no essential “us” apart from our brain state, so in what state does the brain get recreated? If a child suffered terrible brain damage, does he then get resurrected with brain damage, with a child’s brain, or as a fully-functioning adult, someone who effectively never existed?

      • Karl says :

        Good questions, but, I think, ones that have always existed and debated whenever bored with counting angels dancing on pinheads. What of the child who dies in infancy? The person who goes through their life brain-damaged? What is the essential “us” anyway? Me now, or, heavens forefend, a possible me in forty years time with marbles long gone, dribbling into cooling soup at Twilight Meadows Nursing Home for the Terminally Bewildered? If there’s a general resurrection, or recreation if you will, I’d prefer to come back as a properly functioning version.

        Or are *any* of the conditions we find ourselves in in this life (if it be not the only one) representative of a future recreated existence? Are we actually questioning whether we will be recreated as an ancient bashed up Austin Allegro or a newish Focus when actually we should be looking towards the time-travelling flight enabled DeLorean from Back to the Future? In which case we are all recreated as someone who effectively never existed.

        Buggered if I know. Half the time I tend towards the fear that it’s all likely codswallop. But it’s interesting to question, *if Christianity is basically in some way true*, what that truth would mean.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        I totally want to be a DeLorean!

        I suppose what I’m getting at is that once you start to move away from the idea of a soul which has an existence independent of our mortal bodies, it opens up a whole load of difficult questions. As you say, there are ways of looking at it which at least could make sense with a bit of imagination or a few contortions, but I think that these problems disappear once you drop the Christian assumptions.

  2. Karl says :

    I don’t know; I think you need to do the same sort of creative imagination or even contortions even with the idea that there is a separate soul. Interestingly, the lectionary yesterday contained the verse (1 John 3:2) “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” which is somewhat relevant and perhaps suggests that this sort of mulling was already underway rather early on.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Yes, I think that’s fair. It’s easy to get caught in a mindset that idea X makes more sense, purely because it happens to have stuck in your own mind in some way, and what I’m finding odd is that thanks to my shifting beliefs over the last 15 years, those things which “make more sense” in my mind don’t seem to follow an obvious pattern. I need to get around to writing about this properly.

  3. Abocreature says :

    Don’t mean to rip open an old post, but I figured I’d leave my thoughts.

    An idea I’ve been kicking around is that our physical bodies are the hardware and who we are is the software. The hardware can fail and cause strange ways of interacting with the software, but the software is still essentially the same.

    I find it interesting that Gage gradually adapted to how he used to be. He died before his brain fully recovered using what parts remained, but it did seem there was a “default” Gage, and his body was trying to go back to it.

    So perhaps when the Bible says God looks at your heart, it means He looks at the “default you” – the software, essentially.

    Just a thought.

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