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Michael T. H. Wong
Hermeneutics, Neuroscience and Theological Anthropology—A New Way of Talking about Human Experience


Confronted by the various advances in science and technology in the 21st century which shed new insights into the genetics, physiology, psychology and behaviour of man, one cannot but reflect on our understanding the nature of human experience in light of these new breakthroughs. Tracing the journey of the quest of the understanding of the nature of human experience over the centuries, our society has indeed traveled a long way from the pre-modern notion of soul, the early modern notion of mind, the late modern notion of brain and the postmodern notion of self. While these various attempts through theology, philosophy and science to elucidate the nature of human experience have provided profound insights into our very own existence and experience, they continue to represent contradictory and mutually exclusive discourses on the human experience.

The thesis attempts to argue for the usefulness of the notion of multi-layered personal narrative as a new way of talking about human experience. It originates from the reading of the Changeux-Ricoeur Dialogue, What makes us think? which explores where and how science and philosophy meets. It develops from an attempt to formulate a “third discourse” suggested in the Changeux-Ricoeur Dialogue which may bridge science and philosophy and clarify the contemporary role of religion. It involves dialoguing with the theological methodology outlined in Alister McGrath’s Scientific Theology in such formulation.

This notion of multi-layered personal narrative shares the optimism of Jean-Changeux that advances in neuroscience will help us understand and describe human experience and behaviour better. It also shares with Paul Ricoeur his caution that there are limits in the scientific method, and one should not confuse correlation with identity in our interpretation of the scientific data. It adopts McGrath’s notion that both science and theology are looking at the same nature and reality and operating a posteriori. It addresses the problem of dualism (the theological notion of soul and the philosophical notion of mind) but attempts to see that as semantic rather than ontological. It accepts the contribution of science and uses its materialist language but in a way that is methodological and non-reductionist rather than ontological and eliminative (the scientific notion of “nothing but the brain”).

This notion of multi-layered personal narrative also considers the issues of postmodernism and deconstruction but approaches that via Ricoeur’s dialectic between hermeneutics of renewal and hermeneutics of suspicion and sees human experience as not just constructed and relative but has a reality base. This dialectic between hermeneutics of renewal and suspicion promotes mediation of apparently mutually exclusive and conflicting discourses into constructive and ongoing dialogues and towards a deeper and better formulated discourse that does not impoverish human experience and does not restrict itself with premature and unwarranted synthesis. It concurs with McGrath’s idea that both science and theology involves provisional modeling (theory) subject to ongoing modifications informed by other advances in other academic disciplines, shifts of traditional paradigm, and changes of the focus of their own community. It is compatible with McGrath’s dialogue with critical realism and the notion of stratification to argue for a multilayered discourse as “ontology informs epistemology.”

Following the optimism of Changeux on sciences, the dialectic between hermeneutics of renewal, and suspicion of Ricoeur and McGrath’s theological method of stratification as informed by critical realism, this notion of multi-layered personal narrative provides a new way of talking about human experience that is informed by the never-ending advances in neuroscience, facilitated by the ongoing dialogue between various discourses through the mediation of the philosophical hermeneutics of renewal and the continuing engagement with a theological anthropology that observes facts and reason.

Michael T. H. Wong is currently Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Monash University and Clinical Director of Inpatient Psychiatric Services at Monash Medical Centre.  He is a medical graduate of University of Hong Kong.  He has been a university teacher, a medical researcher, and a psychiatrist for 20 years in Hong Kong, Toronto, London and Australia.  He is a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the United Kingdom, a Fellow of the Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, and a Fellow of the Hong Kong Academy of Medicine.  His clinical and research interests are in major mental disorders, brain imaging, clinical psychopharmacology, mental health service delivery and psychiatry in relation to philosophy, culture and religion.  He holds a research Doctor of Medicine degree in brain imaging of violent offending behavior in patients with schizophrenia and a Master of Divinity degree with a major in theology.  He is at present a confirmed PhD candidate at the Monash University Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology.  His thesis is on how hermeneutics promotes dialogues between neuroscience and theology.  He is a Fellow of the Institute of Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology (ISCAST) in Australia, elected in recognition of his contribution to the dialogue between science and faith.


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