Phineas Gage the Unlikely Theologian
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.