All Brain, No Mind

31 Jan 2013

forgiveness7Gregory Koukl

Are we just our brain? Greg responds to a Time article that supports this view.

I read an article in Time magazine from July 17 on the mind and the brain. It’s entitled “Glimpses of the Mind.” Now that title is somewhat tongue in cheek, of course, because the point of the article really is to campaign for the idea that the mind is merely the brain.

What you have going on inside of your head is just chemical reactions that are governed by very physicalistic processes. That which we mistakenly understood to be the mind or the soul is simply the brain, and if it is anything more than the brain, consciousness is a mere property of the brain that kind of rides on top of the physical substance of the brain, much like wetness rides on top of water. It supervenes upon the brain. It is temporarily produced by the brain and dependent upon the brain, but there is nothing akin to what we would call a soul.

Indeed, there is nobody in there. I’ll get to that particular point in a minute because the article makes a radical jump into metaphysics when it concludes that one thing we know for sure is that there is no one in there. There is no soul, essentially.

A couple of weeks after this article appeared, I grabbed the page of the letters to the editor and there was quite a response. Just to show you why this is such a significant conversation, I would like to read a short piece by one of the respondents. Some of you might think that this is just one of those philosophical discussions that Koukl likes to get into, like talking about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. I warn you that this is not an inconsequential discussion. The article in Time magazine is not at all without metaphysical and theological significance.

That is witnessed to by the fact that casual readers understood the implications of the article. One reader writes this in the August 7 issue of Time : “You do not mention the profound religious consequences of the scientific investigation of consciousness. If it turns out to be true that consciousness, the soul, is not a separate reality, but a consequential phenomenon of the material world, then a fundamental truth of Christianity is shown not to be true because the concepts of heaven, and hell, and eternal life are based on the immateriality and indestructibility of the soul. The scientific demonstration of the material basis of consciousness would seem to mean the end of Christianity.”

Ladies and gentlemen, it does just that. Think about it for a minute. If there is no soul, if you are your only your body, then when your body dies, you die. When your body decays, you decay. When your body disappears, you are gone. There is no sense to any discussion about the reality of life after death if you die with your body. Though this would not solve the question of whether God existed, because certainly there could be a God existing even if there were no eternally existing souls in human beings, it certainly does end the discussion about the relevance of Christianity.

Christianity is false, period, end of issue, end of story, if we have no soul. If there is not a substantial human rational soul, a “you” that is not your body, but interacts with your body, controls your body, has a deep unity with your brain, but is not the same thing as your brain, it is not identical to your brain. If those things aren’t true, then it is all over for Christianity because all of Christianity is dependent on the notion that you survive the death of your body and that you, as a substantial soul, have to answer for the deeds done, as the Scriptures say, in the flesh. What it means by in the flesh is in the physical body. That is the point.

C.S. Lewis has made a comment, and I think it applies well to this particular issue. He says in the book God in the Dock, “In the old days it was supposed that when a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact.” Not so anymore, ladies and gentlemen. The things that seem so obvious to us, one being that we have a soul, are so obvious that we don’t even reflect on them because it’s so self- evident to us for a variety of different reasons.

I am not going to go into all the reasons right now why that is self- evident, but I am going to count on the fact that you have a self-conscious awareness of your own consciousness as something different from your physical body. I am going to give you some evidence why I think that that is true. But I guess I just want to say that that is just the most common sense approach to reality with regards to human beings. We just seem to know that to be the case.

Indeed, for those who believe differently, they have to be talked out of the obvious witness of their own self-reflection and their own experience. That is why I think that, as one philosopher put it, “the prevailing opinions in the science of mind are obviously false.” You don’t need to be a philosopher to figure this out. A few moments of reflection will do that. You don’t need to be a scientist because you know something that a scientist couldn’t possibly know.

Before I go any further, I want to make a recommendation to you. You really need to take about three hours of your time and read a book. It is not out of your reach, but you are going to have to go slowly and pay attention to what is being said. But once you do, you will never be up-ended about these kinds of articles again with regards to your faith and the nature of the soul and the brain. The book is entitled Immortality, The Other Side of Death , published by Thomas Nelson. The authors are J.P. Moreland and Gary Habermas. J.P. Moreland gives his defense of what is known in philosophy as substance dualism. It is the idea that not only do you have a substantial body, but you have a substantial soul. The two work together, but they are separate. You cannot reduce the soul and all mental activity to mere activity of the brain.

The rest of the book is excellent, as well.

If you feel intimidated in dealing with this issue because you are not a neurologist, I want to put your fears to rest because you know something that the scientists do not know. What the scientists know has to do with the brain. But my discussion now is not principally about the brain, it is about the mind. There is only one person who has access to your mind. You. No one else knows your thoughts. No one else knows your feelings. No one else knows what it is like to be you. Technically, it is called de se knowledge. In other words, you have entirely private, first-person access to your own consciousness.

If I develop that a little further, that in itself would be a good defense for the idea that the soul is not the body, that the mind is not the brain because the brain and all other physical objects have no first-person priority or privileged access. They all have third-person access. Anybody can look at any physical thing and have the same kind of access to it as anyone else. It’s a different argument. I’m not going to go into it now.

The main point that I want to make is that you know some things about your own consciousness because you have first-person access. Just what you know, the limited amount that you happen to know, is enough to let you know that you are not the same as your brain.

I think Paul is even on to this in 1 Corinthians 2:11. He mentions essentially the same thing: “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man e is talking about spirit in the context of the soul. He is using it synonymously with the inner man.

An important distinction to understand is between identity and constant correlation. I mentioned earlier that I think the article makes a very powerful point. Certain physical states of the brain certainly influence the soul.

But in identifying this fact, the neurologists have drawn the mistaken conclusion that since certain states are correlated, certain brain states are correlated with your soulish functions–memory, thinking, choices, feelings– and that means there is no self, there is no soul, there is just a brain state. That is a big mistake. I know that they are not the same thing.

You can know for sure just with a moment’s reflection that your brain is not your soul.

The headline in the article says, “A memory is nothing more than a few thousand brain cells firing in a particular pattern.” In other words, they are saying that a memory is identical with brain cells firing in a pattern. It is not correlated with a mind state such that the brain cells firing causes your mind or soul to have a memory. It is saying that that’s all it is.

That’s like saying that a movie is nothing more than light shining through a piece of celluloid. A movie requires light shining through a piece of celluloid and then you can see it projected on the screen. But to say that it is nothing more than that misses something very obvious. Did you ever go upstairs in a movie theater and look through the window of the projection room? There is a big giant disc spinning, the celluloid goes through an apparatus, and there is hot light.

Now, what if I were to tell you that that is the movie right there. The movie is the physical action that I can see happening. You’d think that was ridiculous. A movie is much more than the physical mechanism, the machinery with the celluloid passing through it with a sharp, bright light behind it. Rather, the movie is the image that is being projected on the screen, and it’s even more than just an image. There is a story, dialogue, characterization. There are all these other things that go beyond just the physical representation.

When one tries to limit mental activity to the physical processes that I believe produce the mental activity, but isn’t the mental activity itself, it is the same as trying to say that a movie is merely the shining of a light through a celluloid strip. You can’t capture the movie at all by looking at light shining through celluloid, which shows that a physicalistic explanation of what a movie amounts to falls far short of what the movie really is. What’s more, if you look at the light on the celluloid, you will never, ever even see the movie.

This is a very apt metaphor because of a statement made in the article. “Using sensitive electrodes inserted deep into the gray matter of test animals, researchers have watched vision as it percolates inward from the eye’s retina to the inner brain.” See what it says there? It says that the researchers have watched vision. It goes on to say, “Scientists watch a thought taking place. They can see the red glow of fear erupting from the structure known as the amygdala or note the tell-tale firing of neurons as a long-buried memory is reconstructed.”

They say they can watch the thought, they can watch vision, but what are they actually seeing when they are watching that physical activity? They are watching the retina and the inner brain respond, but they are not seeing what the test animal sees? They are not watching vision. In other words, they are not watching the movie, they are watching the celluloid go past the light.

When they say they watch a thought taking place because they can see the red glow of fear erupting from a structure known as the amygdala, are they seeing a thought? No, they are seeing a part of the brain. When the doctors look at the brain, they can’t see the thoughts, just like looking at the film in the celluloid, you can’t see the movie. The scientists apparently can turn the projector on, but they can’t see your movie no matter how many electrodes they have in your brain. Even in these scientific tests, you must have a viewer to know what the memory is. Can they put electrodes in my brain, stimulate a memory, and tell me what the memory is? No. Why? They cannot see the projection on the screen. Only I can see that on the inside.

If it was all physical, they should be able to see all the physical stuff, including the memory. But they can’t see the memory. They can’t see the projection. They can’t see the movie. Why? The movie is not physical. It’s these physical things that they watch that produces an image that occurs in my mind–an image that no one else can see. Why? All they can see are physical things and your mind is not physical.

There is a caption under a picture that says, “Mind probe. The pet scan. A key tool of brain research lets scientists watch mental processes as they happen.” But what does it watch? It watches physical changes. It can’t see your thoughts. It can’t see your images, nor can it feel your feelings.

Think about your feelings for just a moment. A feeling is not just a chemical reaction. How do I know? Chemical reactions don’t hurt, but feelings do. Feelings have a quality about them. What could be more obvious? As a matter of fact, it is so obvious that I feel silly even talking about it because you know this as well as I know this. Feelings have a particular texture to them that can’t be captured in a chemical description. But someone in a white coat wants to tell you that you are not having a feeling, you’re having a chemical reaction. And this one person told me, if it is just a chemical reaction, then why does it hurt so much?

C.S. Lewis wrote in God in the Dock , “It is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose, we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because if you are not careful, the color of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and its scent to our noses and in the end, there is no rose left.” Lewis is on to something here because if you follow this article to its logical conclusion, in the end there is no feeling left. There is no love, no pain, no compassion, no comfort, no beauty. There are no roses, no Mona Lisas, no Beethoven sonatas, no teenage puppy love. All that’s left is chemical reactions, light waves and vibrating molecules. You know better, ladies and gentlemen, you know better.

The article is basically an assessment of the physical capabilities of the brain, which is fine. I think it is great to map out the brain. I think it is great to look at what the brain can do, and I think it is very helpful in many cases to see the correlation between brain activity and mental activity. My deep concern, though, is that this work on the brain by scientists and by science has an additional agenda behind it, much like the agenda that evolutionary science in its birth and subsequent development has had also. It wasn’t just science that it was interested in. There were theological, philosophical, metaphysical aspects to it.

Darwin’s attempt was to get God out of the picture with regards to the issues of origins, and I suspect that much of what is going on in neurology is an attempt to get rid of the mind so that all you have left is the brain. That’s why even though all of this assessment is interesting and I think contributes greatly to our understanding of the relationship of the brain to the mind, there is certainly a tenor in this magazine article that is trying to give you the scientific explanation in order to argue that our belief that we exist as a center of consciousness, as a rational soul, is just simply mistaken.

Here’s my final point on this issue. If the mind is reduced to the brain, pretty soon everything is lost. Feelings become chemical reactions, beautiful objects become light waves, beautiful music is reduced to vibrating molecules. Where did the music go? Where did the beauty go? Where did the feeling go? It’s all gone. It ought to be obvious to us that this reduction is insane. It can’t be made. It isn’t valid. It’s misleading.

Of course I think you know better than to accept this, but you may be intimidated by scientists in white coats telling you that you aren’t really feeling love, you’re just having a chemical reaction. You’re not really seeing something beautiful, this is just light of various wave lengths. You’re not really hearing something wonderful, it is just vibrating molecules.

But there is a deeper problem. If consciousness is just a property created by the brain, then when you make a decision who or what does the deciding? If consciousness is a mere effect of chemical reactions in the brain, then your conscious act of deciding is not a free will act of your own, it is a result of some physical process that came before it. Your choices are controlled by physical events outside of your will. To put it more bluntly, you have no will at all. Not really. Why not? According to this view, physical states produce particular mental states, which produce particular physical states all following one after another in a determined pattern just like railroad cars following an engine. guess what? You have not only lost the rose and Beethoven and your teenage puppy love, you’ve lost you, too. And by the way, that is exactly what this article says.

Let me read it to you: “Despite our every instinct to the contrary, [which is a tacit admission we already know what is right here and we have to deny] there is one thing that consciousness is not. Some entity deep inside the brain that corresponds to the self. Some kernel of awareness that runs the show as the man behind the curtain manipulating the illusion of a powerful magician in the Wizard of Oz. After more than a century of looking for it, brain researchers have long since concluded that there is no conceivable place for such a self to be located in the physical brain and that it simply doesn’t exist.”

That is the most bizarre statement I have heard in a long time. It’s like the man looking for the invisible rabbit. He said, I have looked high and low and I can’t find it, therefore it doesn’t exist. If there are invisible rabbits, you are not going to find them anywhere. Why not? They are invisible. That doesn’t prove they do exist, it just simply points out that you can’t disqualify the existence of something by looking for it in a way that won’t turn it up. You don’t look for the mind in the brain and try to find a location for it because the mind is not something physical by definition . You can’t conclude that it doesn’t exist because you haven’t found it after a century of looking. You don’t find it that way. You infer it from other things, and we have inferred it very directly and very successfully with a couple of very simple arguments. There are more in Moreland’s book on immortality.

Lewis put it this way and he really captured it: “I see no reason for believing that one accident should be able to give me a correct account of all other accidents. It’s like expecting that the accidental shape taken by the splash when you upset a milk jug should give you a correct account of how the jug was made and why it was upset.”

Do you see the price that you have to pay to buy this point of view? Everything gets lost. Even you. Even the scientists that think they’re thinking these conclusions. They’re gone, too. So, why trust the conclusions?

This is a transcript of a commentary from the radio show “Stand to Reason,” with Gregory Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge through the faithful giving of those who support Stand to Reason. Reproduction permitted for non-commercial use only. ©1995 Gregory Koukl

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31 Jan 2013, and is filled under Forgiveness.



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