It is a well-worn question that continues to incite debate, whether at dinner parties or in theological and scientific journals: Is morality hard-wired into the human brain, or are its origins purely spiritual?
In 2006 neuroscientists at the National Institute of Health in Maryland, US, scanned the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about two scenarios involving a sum of money.
In one they were to keep the money for themselves and in the alternative they were to donate it to a charity.
The results indicated that when volunteers placed the interest of others before their own, the part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex was activated.
The researchers concluded that because altruism induced a pleasurable response when triggered, morality must be a biological function that is hard-wired into the brain – just another evolutionary tool that contributes to the survival of the human species.
Catholic teaching, on the other hand, proposes that each person has the law of God imprinted within their souls, that is – an innate spiritual understanding of what is right and wrong.
So are the scientific conclusions of a hard-wired morality incompatible with the teachings of the Church? I don’t believe they are.
God created each of us with the capacity to fulfil His will in our earthly lives, but this can only be accomplished when we choose to align our minds with the spiritual truths that He has imprinted within us.
In the context of the experiment mentioned above, it makes sense that if God commanded us to love one another, then a positive neurological response, such as those triggered by giving money to a charity, would occur when this command is obeyed.
The problem lies, however, in our gift of free will – we have the cognitive ability to be able to accept or reject the morality that God has imprinted on our souls. If we choose to reject it, or have not been provided with the opportunity to align it with our neurological development, then inevitably we will create or adopt an alternative moral framework.
However, even if we do construct a belief system that is contrary to the one God has placed within us, I believe that the chemical responses within our brains will remain the same when we trigger a thought that we believe to be morally right.
Let me give an example. A number of years ago I met a man who had converted to Christianity. He explained to me that from the age of four his drug-addicted mother would use him to break into houses by squeezing him through windows and getting him to open the door.
On occasion she would also accept money from paedophiles to let him stay with them overnight. Understandably his moral framework was catastrophically distorted and this was reflected in the choices he made as a young adult.
He said that he had no remorse about stealing or sexual promiscuity – these were activities that he considered to be normal. In other words they fitted comfortably into the moral framework that he had constructed as a child and which was, in fact, a source of chemically induced pleasure.
It was only when he became open to the love of Christ that he discovered the morality that God had imprinted within him and understood the lie that he had been living.
Although this may be an extreme example, it provides an insight into the distortion that can occur within our cognitive processes when we are divorced from God’s intended plan for us.
For many, the distortion is often partial, particularly when it comes to topics such as abortion, euthanasia, contraception and pre-marital sex.
Proponents of these are usually genuine in their belief that they can be morally legitimate and the chemical reactions within their brains may well confirm it.
As Christians, this is something that we must always keep in mind when we interact with those who do not agree with our own beliefs. We must always respond to them in love, praying that they, like the man I mentioned above, will one day discover their true spiritual identity.
We have been created as both free-thinking and spiritual beings and it is God’s desire that we align these two aspects of our humanity. It is only when our morality is moulded within the framework of His truth, that the fullness of His love will be manifested on earth.