Recently on BreakPoint, John Stonestreet said, “you are your body.” Meaning that we Christians understand that the human person is an embodied being; our bodies aren’t prisons we escape at death. He was right, of course. I say this because I don’t want you to misunderstand what I’m about to say: You are NOT your brain.
Let me explain. Much of modern science uses sloppy language that seems to attribute personhood to the central nervous system, conflating matter with mind, electrical signals with thoughts, and tacitly denying free will and even consciousness. You hear it every time a speaker at a TED conference or a host on the Discovery Channel talks of our brains “wanting,” “thinking,” or “deciding” things.
As Michael Egnor writes at Evolution News and Views, this is a “mereological fallacy,” the error of ascribing to the parts what only the whole can do. For example, stomachs do not eat lunch. Neither do fingers perform sonatas. People do these things. “The brain is an organ,” writes Egnor. “[it] floats around in spinal fluid inside the skull.” It is not a person. And therefore, it is not you.
But try explaining that to the New York Times. Citing a talk by Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano, the Times takes up the tired refrain that consciousness is just an illusion produced by the brain, “a con game the brain plays with itself.”
Our very sense of self, the Times rhapsodizes, that “ghostly presence” inside our heads, is just so much “data processing.”
“The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it,” Princeton’s Graziano is quoted as saying.
I rolled my eyes so hard at that, I think perhaps I may have seen my brain. And speaking of seeing brains, it turns out that our primary method of peering inside the skull is far less reliable than we thought.
Take Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or fMRI. It’s often described in the news as a way of reading people’s minds. Well, it’s not. It’s actually just a crude method of guessing brain activity based on blood flow. But as The Economist reports, a team of Swedish researchers has just turned even that assumption on its head.
The Swedish team performed three million re-analyses of control subjects who’d had their brains scanned while deliberately thinking of nothing. The computers, these researchers report, “spat out false positives up to 70% of the time.” In other words, fMRI may be incapable of distinguishing blank thought from fear, pain, sadness, reflection, or any number of other mental states!
The Swedes modestly write that their results “cast doubt on something like 40,000 published studies” in the field of neuroscience. So why hasn’t anyone discovered this problem before? “It is very hard to get funding to check this kind of thing,” says team leader Dr. Anders Eklund. Turns out those “who control the purse strings are more interested in headline-grabbing discoveries,” leaving the job of double-checking results undone.
And no wonder! The pressure for sensational results and the controlling assumptions of materialism mean that scientists in some fields do more explaining away than explaining. And no one, it seems, is checking their work.
No matter what writers like Johnson say, we are not our brains, and science is a long way from understanding what goes on between our ears, much less where or what consciousness or the soul are.
These concepts, at least for now, are just too big to fit inside our tiny heads.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: August 2, 2016