Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Interlude: Want to be more like Jesus? Drink a Coke.

I've been writing about how to do theology in the post-Cartesian situation. But what does this mean? A post to illustrate.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is the influential French philosopher who is the often credited as the modern exponent of what is known as Cartesian Dualism. Cartesian Dualism is the idea that mind/soul and matter/body are two distinct "substances" that interact with each other. However, mind/soul cannot be reduced to matter/body. This is the vision behind most theological systems, that we are dual creatures, a mixture of physical and spiritual attributes. We have a soul that interacts with our body but is distinct from our body. We are more than simply a body.

Cartesian Dualism, the view held by most church going folk, supports notions of immortality and free will. That is, it is assumed that our soul is immortal and that it is this attribute of the soul that guarantees that we will live forever (in either Heaven or Hell). Regarding free will, given that the soul is independent of our body, our choices (as products of the soul) cannot be reduced to cause & effect. Thus, we escape determinism and create notions of moral accountability.

So, what is the post-Cartesian situation? The post-Cartesian situation is the world of neuroscience and genetics. In our world it is difficult to believe in the existence of the soul when all known mental processes are directly correlated with brain function. Brain damage, intoxication, sleep deprivation, hunger, Alzheimer's disease and many other factors clearly demonstrate that as our brain goes so we go. And, if this is so, how should theology respond?

I've been arguing that theology needs to work with what I've called weak-volitional models. That is, we need to see our choices (products of will/volititon) as contingent. I don't know if our choices are determined. But I do think they are highly contingent. That is, the circumstances of our lives affect the outcomes of our choices. More specifically, for today's post, the status of our brain can affect the outcomes of our choices.

In a recent study published in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the psychologists Matthew Gailliot, Roy Baumeister, Nathan DeWall, Jon Maner, Ashby Plant, Dianne Tice, Lauren Brewer, and Brandon Schmeichel examined the role of glucose levels in the exercise of self-control. The study was entitled Self-Control Relies on Glucose as a Limited Energy Source: Willpower is More than a Metaphor.

Baumeister has done lots of work on the idea that self-control (ego-strength) is a finite and limited resource. Across many laboratory studies Baumeister has demonstrated ego-depletion. That is, if you are asked to expend mental energy (e.g., acts of self-control, concentration, or attention) you show a reduced capacity for self-control, attention or concentration on subsequent tasks. That is, mental "energy" seems finite. Thus, if you "use up" your mental energy on one task you have less energy available for later tasks.

We all know this don't we? Ask yourself, when are you most susceptible to outbursts of bad tempter (a failure of self-control)? Well, if you are like me it is when you are tired, stressed, or hungry. When my mental energy is low I just don't have much left over to regulate my irritability.

But in the Gailliot et al. study ego-depletion is given a biological mechanism. Glucose.

Restating, you don't have an unlimited supply of willpower. Willpower is not a product of the soul which can tap into an infinite supply of supernatural fuel. No, in the post-Cartesian situation we know that willpower is the product of the brain and that the brain, as an energy consuming organ, has a limited capacity. As the title of the study highlights, willpower is more than just a metaphor. Willpower is, actually, power which can be consumed and used up.

For example, we know these things. The brain consumes 20% of the body's fuel while comprising only 2% of the body's mass. We also know that glucose is a vital fuel for the brain. And we also know that low glucose levels have been implicated in impulse-control problems. Could there be a link between willpower and glucose levels in the brain?

In a series of eight studies, Gailliot et al. demonstrate that low glucose levels are related to impairments in self-control. Further, elevating glucose levels (via a sugary drink) aided participants in self-control compared to control subjects.

Importantly for theologians, two of the self-control tasks directly involved social virtue: Controlling prejudice in an interracial interaction and helping someone in need.

Now think about that. When your glucose levels are low you are more susceptible to acting on prejudice and less helpful to strangers. When your glucose levels are normal you are more able to suppress prejudice and more likely to help strangers. In short, your virtue is directly affected by sugar levels in your brain. Quoting from the final paragraph of the study:

"The present findings suggest that relatively small acts of self-control are sufficient to deplete the available supply of glucose, thereby impairing the control of thought and behavior, at least until the body can retrieve more glucose from its stores or ingest more calories. More generally, the body's variable ability to mobilize glucose may be an important determinant of people's capacity to live up to their ideals, pursue their goals, and realize their virtues."

So, this week in my Sunday School class at church I'm going to make the following recommendation: If you want to be more like Jesus drink a Coke.

But make sure it's not diet. You want the sugar in there.

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13 thoughts on “Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Interlude: Want to be more like Jesus? Drink a Coke.”

  1. Thank you; I always knew it that my drinking habits are more Christian than I thought.
    But one question: do you think that human consciousness consists at the end of the day of nothing BUT biochemical impulses and that we can reduce a men to that kind of impulses?
    On the one hand I think there's much truth to this neurobiological perspective. I think it simply takes serious the biblical claim that "adam" consists of "adama". That man is in fact a chemical, biological and socially embeded being and not a free floating detached soul that can make decission autonomously.
    On the other hand I always think men and nature for that matter is more than the sum of its parts. I think it would be wrong to take one or two features (like men as biological and chemical beings) and put them over against another feature (like men as responsible beings). That would be ideology.

  2. Duh. And so we get grumpy and demanding and reptillian when we haven't eaten or when we're thirsty. Simply another reason to remember that we belong to each other as a body, that Peter was told to feed sheep and we are told to feed our enemies. It's a start.

    Now about weak volition. I deal daily with about seventy more or less hard core diabetics. No insulin or insulin substitute and, well, these folk have little or no choice. The free will/determinist debate is a Cartesian take on the older Augustinian/Pelagian controversy which in turn stretches back to 4th and 5th century Greece BCE. Richard, as a cautionary tale for a psychologist, you really should re-read Augustine's Confessions. He got hopped up on pears and pudenda and Christendom hasn't been the same since. Pelagius has gotten a lot of bad press but generally little is known about him. As a thinker, he would fall into the weak volitional category--which is to say, right where I am when I need a burger and beer after a long day dealing with diabetics. As Feuerbach would say: der Mensch ist was er isst. Or is he/she?

    Finding that existential suspension point between the two poles of free will/determinism where we can live in a realm of creative tension--in the world but not of it--is the challenge and the process of daily living. We must first come to the awareness that we choose to choose.


  3. So, is a sugary drink the only way to restore my kindness to my fellow man? Does chocolate work too? (No wonder Glenn - my boss - and Dr. Money both keep M&Ms in their offices.)

  4. "Cartesian Dualism is the idea that mind/soul and matter/body are two distinct "substances" that interact with each other. ... Cartesian Dualism, the view held by most church going folk, supports notions of immortality and free will."

    I think it's important to note the distinction between "the view held by most church-going folk" and "the prevailing Biblical view". While most church-going folk might think otherwise, the Bible does not clearly endorse Cartesian Dualism. (Or even Platonic dualism ... although the New Testament gives this philosophy a lot more play than it probably deserves.)

    I think I agree with George Cooper about Augustine ... ick ... but I wonder what he means by "we choose to choose".

  5. Katie: chocolate is good.

    Matthew: when we recognize that we choose to choose we understand that we are predetermined as adam/a to act in ways that involve choice. The best illustration I know is that of AA, Step 1: "I acknowledge that I am powerless over alcohol (and/or other substances or addictive behavior)—that my life is unmanageable." That is a choice, as I remind some of the people I deal with. In reality, none of us is "powerless." We have the power to choose. The preliminary step to Step 1 is to choose choice if we wish to . Biblically, I think Paul deals with this kind of epistemological and ontological "trappedness" and liberation in Romans 7:22--which passage is counter-Cartesian. Fritz Perals wonderful "pearl" is helpful here for me: "Lose your mind and come to your senses."


  6. Interesting study. If self control requires more energy than impulsive or unreflective reactions to regulate behavior. But why does attempting to become an ideal require more energy than reverting to some lower form of action?

  7. Rather,

    Interesting study. I will grant (based on your notes of the study) self control requires more energy than impulsive or unreflective reactions to regulate behavior. But why does attempting to become an ideal require more energy than reverting to some lower form of action? How does this finding interact with Scripture, namely the account of Jesus' temptation following his 40 days of fasting.

  8. arnachie,
    At the end of the day I don't claim to know or specify the ontological makeup of humans. However, I do think we can speak of the "soul" and "spiritual" facets of humanity if we use those terms religiously or existentially. That is, I think all would agree (materialist and dualist alike) that our deepest investments transcend the physical. Insofar as our investments transcend the physical, we can speak of the locus of those investments as the "soul of man," regardless of our ontological composition.

    Sweetened chocolate, which is what we mostly eat, would work:-)

    I agree. It is ironic that the biblical view of man fits well with the modern view of man but that most Western Christians hold to a non-biblical view of man. Plato and Descartes really screwed up Western Christianity.

    George Cooper,
    I also resonate with William James' approach to your "choose to choose": There are a "certain class of truths that cannot become true till our faith has made them so."

    George (not Cooper),
    My guess of what is going on the temptation story is that Jesus IS ego-depleted. That is, he's fighting Satan with a handicap. This makes his victory that much greater of a moral/spiritual victory.

  9. I don't know that Plato and Descartes screwed up Western Christianity. Perhaps they are necessary steps on the path of human development. This could be said for other things as well. As it says in the Gospel of Philip, verse 9: The light with the darkness, life with death, the right with the left are brothers one to another.

  10. Richard,

    I came across this article among the ones I sent you the link to a while back. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on it:

  11. Steve,
    You're right. That assessment of Descartes and Plato is overly harsh. The hubris of the modern writer looking down on the past. My bad.

    Thanks for the link. I read that paper and my preliminary take is this.

    Hasker frames the issue so that if you adopt causal closure you must "give up" on the questions of rationality and phenomenal consciousness, declaring them "mysteries." He sees this as an unwarranted failure of imagination.

    So, he says, let's deny causal closure. This allows us to posit sources of mental causation that might even allow for conservation laws to be broken. This, he readily admits, is a shocking claim.

    My take is that he's replacing one mystery with another mystery. The problem is that the mystery he's opting for is fairly bizarre (i.e., positing "mental forces" that violate mass/energy conservation laws) if not circular (i.e., it assumes dualism). Further, in his own way, Hasker is also "giving up" (i.e., he can't specify a research project). I'm not saying his argument is wrong. It's just not parsimonious. Thus I apply Occam's Razor. For the moment at least. One must always keep an open mind.

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