God and neuroscience: we are more than just our brains

Article by Sharon Dirckx

Read Sharon’s full biography

In her latest book, ‘Am I Just My Brain?, neuroscientist and OCCA Fellow Sharon Dirckx lays out the current understanding of who we are from biologists, philosophers, theologians and psychologists, and points towards a bigger picture, that suggests answers to the fundamental questions of our existence. Not just “What am I?”, but “Who am I?”—and “Why am I?”

At the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics we respond to the spiritual questions of culture and the objections raised to the Christian faith. One of those objections that we come across concerns human identity: what is it that makes you, you?

If you were to ask people in the fashion industry, they would say, ‘you are your body’. If you were to ask those in the financial world they would say, ‘you are your income’. If you were to ask politicians they would say, ‘you are your influence’.

More recently, neuroscientists have begun to say that you are your brain. Neuroscience not only allows us to look inside the human brain, but it also defines the person and to understand a person is to understand the workings of their brain. Is this true? Is it really the case that you are your brain?

You have a whole inner world of thoughts, memories, emotions. Simply chalking it all down to neurons in the brain is not enough

If it is true, then there are huge implications, not just for scientists and philosophers but also for human ethics, human freedom, robotics and even religion.

I wanted to write Am I Just My Brain to respond to this question. I wanted to show that there is so much more to a person than simply their neurons. If you dig beneath the surface of this view, even a little bit, you see that it doesn’t really stack up, it doesn’t help you make sense of the human person.

So, I build a case drawing from philosophy, clinical medicine and also neuroscience to show that there is so much more to you than just your brain. You have a whole inner world of thoughts, memories, emotions, feelings. Simply chalking it all down to neurons in the brain is not enough.

I also draw from a background in brain imagining. I have over a decade of first-hand experience of working in the neuroscientific field and with that I have an awareness of what neuroscience can and cannot tell us and I very much draw from that background for Am I Just My Brain?

A great deal of time has been taken up in trying to answer the question of where our thoughts come from. Perhaps a question to break the stalemate is to ask, what they are for? In other words, why exactly can I think?

We have a mind because God has a mind. We think because he thinks. We are conscious because he is conscious

Scientists ask, can we trace consciousness back to its origins? The question is a good one. Of course, beliefs determine how far back we look. If we believe the natural world is all there is, then our search for the origins of consciousness will remain within nature. But what if there is more to this world than simply animals, vegetables and minerals? What if the origins of consciousness are more ancient than this? If so, then we must expand the scope of our search beyond the natural world.

Christians believe that the origins of consciousness and human thought can be traced to a conscious being known as God who has always existed. “Why can I think?” We have a mind because God has a mind. We think because he thinks. We are conscious because he is conscious. And our minds, our thoughts, our conscious awareness of self and world—though real enough—are only the beginning.

So, prepare to be taken on a journey looking at the fundamental questions of human existence, not simply ‘what am I?’, but ‘who am I?’ and ‘why am I?’

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