What is reality? That’s the title of an interesting PBS documentary about the brain that aired last night. “Our perception of reality,” says the show’s writer and presenter David Eagleman, “has less to do with what’s happening out there, and more to do with what’s happening in here [our brain].” The program is inspired by Eagleman’s book The Brain: The Story of You.
This is the first episode of a series that is described as surveying “the wonders of the human brain” in order to reveal “the ultimate story of us, why we feel and think the things we do.” That’s a large order. How might they tell us the story of us? By explaining the wonder that is our brain in minute detail, because, after all, we are the sum of our parts. Are we not?
I’m going to try to keep up with the series and give a brief summary and response after each weekly broadcast. I make no pretension to have any expertise at all in neuroscience, the driving discipline beyond the documentary. But like all things in life: there is a worldview propelling the conclusions.
In other words, the show will not just be about science. It will reveal the philosophical commitments driving the production. And that is where we will give our attention. As the description of the production makes clear, this is an “international 6-hour television series that asks what it means to be human from a neuroscientist’s point of view.”
So, let’s consider his point of view. In this first installment David Eagleman uses the metaphor of a city to help explain the way the brain works.
“Think of the brain like a city. If you were to look out over a city and ask, ‘where is the economy located? You would see that there is no single answer to that, instead the economy emerges as an interaction of all the elements. And so it is with reality. . . Reality is the brain’s ultimate construction . . . We all have this internally generated reality. Incredible as it may sound, this world lives inside of your brain.”
Eagleman closes the program with the following statements:
“And because all that information is ultimately just electrochemical signals to be sorted, matched, rendered, and packaged: reality is something created inside our heads. Our brain sculpts our reality using the narrow trickle of data that it can gather through the senses and from that trickle it tells a story about our world. It’s possible that every brain tells a different narrative. And with 7 billion human brains wandering the planet, trillions of animal brains, no one is tapped into the full picture. Each brain carries its own unique model of the world around us. That is what we experience. We have no choice. So what is reality? Whatever your brain tells you it is.”
Eagleman’s approach assumes a philosophy known as physicalism, that we are nothing more than physical beings and our brain is just part of our body. Our mind is simply what our brain does. There is no immaterial part of us that allows us to change our mind for example. Nay, it is the other way around: our brain tells us what to do.
I’ve written a short review of Pixar’s popular moive Inside Out that assumes a similar view of the brain. This is an increasingly common understanding of the mind that is at bottom atheistic. The real worldview issue at play in both Inside Out and in the PBS documentary on the brain is that the biblical depiction of man is vastly different than can be reduced to pure biochemistry. We are more than the sum or our parts. At the core of our being is not a genetic code or a biochemical reactor, but a precious, immaterial, soul.
As you might imagine, this is a big pill for skeptics to swallow. Understandably so. But as we will see in the documentary, if we accept an atheistic view of man we will lose the ultimate foundations of what it means to be human. My hunch is that I’ll have ample examples from future broadcasts to illustrate this point.
Here’s some quick links to my summary and brief response to each episode: