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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Your Mind is Not Your Brain

Historically, Christianity has taught that human beings are creatures made up of two fundamental kinds of "stuff"—body and soul. We are physical creatures, interacting with the world around us, and we are spiritual creatures who can interact meaningfully with God and with one another. However, there is a trend today that dismisses the spiritual side of humanity and seeks to only affirm the physical aspects of our existence. Atheists, scientists, and others claim that we are only our bodies. There is no such thing as a soul. All of who we are may be explained in terms of scientific understanding. There is a big problem with this view, though. There are certain aspects of the human condition that simply cannot be explained in physicalist term, such as the attributes of the mind.

In order to better understand the problem, I'd like to look at the attributes of the mind. Whenever on seeks to classify a certain thing, it is the attributes of that thing that help us in so doing. For example, when British naturalist began to explore Australia, the discovery of the platypus gave them fits! Here was an animal, kind of shaped like a beaver with a bill and webbed feet of a duck. Further, the creature laid leathery eggs and produced venom like a reptile. How would one classify such an animal? It is because the platypus was warm blooded, covered in hair (not feathers or scales), and nursed its young that naturalists listed the animal as a mammal. The attributes of the animal help us categorize it.

Similarly, there are specific attributes of the mind which clearly demonstrate that the mind cannot be reduced to brain activity. Brain activity is electro-chemical and can be described using physical nomenclature. For example, if their instruments are sensitive enough, one could measure the amount of dopamine present in the brain or tell if certain neurons were firing at x point in time. But as Daniel N. Robinson has succinctly noted, "One who spoke of pounds of thought or volts of memory would be considered not a native speaker! Equally bizarre, at least in the area of common sense and ordinary judgments are the claims to the effect that brain tissue makes moral judgments and wishes nothing but happiness for the bride and groom."1

Here are at least five attributes of the mind that can in no way be explained in physical terms:

  1. Thoughts - Thoughts are one of the most basic elements of the mind. A thought is any idea that can be expressed in the form of a sentence. I can ask you to think about pink elephants right now and you can picture a pink elephant in your head.
  2. Beliefs – Beliefs are different from thoughts. Beliefs carry a truth value to them. If I believe that the Los Angeles kings will win a third Stanley Cup championship, then I hold the statement to be true. I currently believe that I am sitting in front of my computer right now typing this blog post. Such a belief is not hard to hold. However, I also believe that the memories I have of yesterday are true. That belief is harder to prove.
  3. Intentions – Intentions are mental events that are usually tied to some action or event. I can intend to raise my hand and my hand will rise. My intention caused m hand to go up. However, intentions are not the same thing as the action. People who suffer from Tourette's syndrome move parts of their body without intending to do so. Also, I may have intentions without being able to execute them. If my hand is tied down, I will not be able to move it, even though I'm intending to do so.
  4. Desires – Desire are primarily natural inclinations that one experiences. Hunger is the desire to eat food. Desires can produce thoughts or intentions, but they are different. They sometimes have a biological basis, but not always. One can have the desire to solve a particularly pressing math problem for example.
  5. Sensations – Sensations are how our minds comprehend sensory input from our bodies. While our ears can translate sound waves into electrical signals and send them to our brains, only our mind can have the experience that the sound is pleasing or annoying. Feeling pain or heat happen at the mental level. Even seeing the color red, one has an experience of "redness." Red has a certain quality to it that green doesn't and one cannot explain such qualities by talking about wavelengths of light any more than one cannot warn a two-year-old about burning her hand on a hot oven with talk of high energy molecules.
All of these attributes above are real and each of us has experienced them. You have had thoughts, beliefs, intentions, desires, and sensations. These things are real and, as J.P. Moreland states, they are "puzzling entities that cry out for an explanation."2 Even atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel states that mental events need to be explained Nagel holds that "certain things are so remarkable that they have to be explained as non-accidental if we are to pretend to a real understanding of the world"3 and the mind is one of those. He later writes that "the physical sciences will enable us to understand the irreducibly subjective centers of consciousness that are such a conspicuous part of the world."4

Tomorrow, we will look more closely at why physicalist explanations of the mind fail. But for now, it is important to realize that your mind is not your brain. It is something with different attributes, which means it falls into a separate category: the category of the soul.


1. Robinson, Daniel N. "Neuroscience and the Soul." Philosophia Christi Issue 15:1, Winter 2013.
(La Mirada, CA: The Evangelical Philosophical Society, 2013.) 13.
2. Moreland, J.P. The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism.
(London: SCM Press, 2009). 24.
3. Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Neo-Darwinian Conception of the World is Almost Certainly False.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.) 7.
4. Ibid. 42.

1 comment:

  1. Talking about "volts of memory" is indeed silly - everyone knows it should be bytes of memory. Or wait - computers use tiny voltages to store information in their tiny circuitry switches. Come to think of it, human brains are also made up of tiny circuits and switches with neuro-electrical currents. Both computers and human brains have electrical inputs and outputs. So there are actually quite a few similarities.


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