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Question and Answer

Are emotions just physical and chemical processes?


Are there any biblical and/or doctrinal teachings which can explain or confirm that emotion is more than just a physical manifestation? Science teaches that emotions are simply physical and chemical processes in our brain and simply a manifestation of external or internal stimulus. This detracts so much from joy and seems to cheapen any emotional experiences to the point that the thought of it is a burden to me as a new Christian.


Thank you for your question. It is an interesting one, and also ironic.

Logically, the more you are convinced that "emotions are simply physical and chemical processes in our brain", the less it should bother you! After all, your being bothered would simply be another physical/chemical process. And your thoughts on it are simply another meaningless chemical process. The fact that such an idea is set forth as truth is your first clue that such an idea is wrong. If it were true, there would be no reason to say it, since the words would be additional meaningless chemical/physical processes.

What is wrong with it? It begins with the basic assumption that nothing intangible is real. "If it can't be weighed or repeated in a laboratory, it isn't real." In truth, no one can (or does) operate on that basis. To articulate the thought requires the presupposition that truth exists, even though it is intangible. It further means that truth is irrelevant, so your chemical process is irrelevant to mine! And, there can be no purpose if all is so mechanically defined. Therefore, you have no reason to ask the question.

Are we physical? Yes, but we have both body and spirit. To deny either aspect is impossible. We are made in the image of God, who is not a chemical process, and yet we are created beings. We live as beings with both body and spirit, and so we are concerned with truth, purpose, etc. There is continuous interaction between our body and our spirit. When we have the flu, we "feel bad" and are grouchy. When we do wrong things, our guilt can cause physical symptoms (e.g., nausea). The opposite is also true; good health provokes happiness, and happiness supports good physical health. The interaction is real because both parts are real. David compares his misery in sin to broken bones (Ps. 51:8), and asks God to restore the joy of salvation.

There is an "independent" aspect of emotions also. Though neither God nor his angels are subject to "physical and chemical processes", the Scripture records (Luke 15:7) that there is "more joy" in heaven over the repentance of a sinner than over many who "do not need repentance." Joy is present where the physical and chemical are not. And when our bodies are changed, we will have the fullness of joy in the presence of our Savior: a joy in the situation where "physical and chemical processes" are released from the curse on Creation because of sin. "You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Ps. 16:11).

So, there are physical and chemical processes related to our emotions. But there is much more than that. And that means that it is OK to be joyful in our Lord!

About Q&A

"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. The answers come from individual ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church expressing their own convictions and do not necessarily represent an "official" position of the Church, especially in areas where the Standards of the Church (the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) are silent.

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