Brain Trust

You may remember the slightly creepy music video by the band Kansas for their song “Dust in the Wind.” It embodies all of the worst attributes of the hair band era. But it promotes one of the most popular notions among the contemporary brand of atheism that fills our headlines today, that we are nothing more than matter. And the discipline of neuroscience could rightly be dubbed the spokesperson for this proposition.

With the able bodied Sam Harris at the forefront of the movement, we received a scientific basis for morality in his work The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values . The only problem with the book is that it is more of a philosophical treatment of the topic punctuated by science than a purely empirical exercise. And Harris’s philosophical pontification led him to later publish the booklet Free Will in which he dismisses the notion that humans are capable of making meaningful decisions; Choice is an illusion, Harris says. It is interesting that he sought to offer a scientific basis for morality in one book and in the next discarded the notion that humans can make decisions altogether.

It is curious, at least for me, that Harris would write a book to change the general thinking about morality given his philosophical commitments. If we don’t possess free will, then how might we, as an act of the will, change our minds about morality? But I digress. 

It seems the general populace isn’t ready to accept Harris’s conclusions, which might be a part of a growing attitude of skepticism towards a reductionist approach of understanding the human narrative that boils all of human emotion and longing down to chemical responses in the cranium.

This cultural counter movement is described in the new book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by authors Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld, in which they outline the backlash against some of the over-reaching claims of pop neuroscientists. Gary Marcus, however, in his recent article in the New Yorker, laments and even warns against this negative overreaction to the hubris of outspoken brain scientists. While calling for caution in responding to overstated claims, Marcus remains optimistic about neuroscience’s potential:

If critics are too pessimistic about what the future holds, they are right about one thing: over the past decade, neuroscience has become overprivileged as a method of examining the mind. Journalists, courts, and sometimes even scientists seem to believe that a brain scan can be more telling than a profile of an individual’s behavior. Perhaps as neuroscience progresses, it is possible for objective, physiological assessment of the brain to win out as the ultimate arbiter of truth when it comes to the mind. But that’s a long way off, if it ever will be possible at all.

On the other hand, David Brooks, in his New York Times review of Brainwashed is markedly less hopeful of neuroscience’s ability to become the “arbiter of truth” for understanding the mind. “An important task these days,” Brooks writes, “is to harvest the exciting gains made by science and data while understanding the limits of science and data. The next time somebody tells you what a brain scan says, be a little skeptical. The brain is not the mind.”

This debate certainly isn’t new. For those of us who believe we are able to make real decisions in life and that love and religious longing are more than evolutionary instincts and chemical responses, we might find ourselves humming along to Kansas’s song for nostalgic reasons, but we still know, deep down, that we really are more than physical matter, that we are more than mere dust blowing in the wind.

There is something about us that transcends our physical makeup, and while neuroscientists can now identify certain effects in the brain, they cannot pinpoint their ultimate cause. This “cause” is what philosophers call the mind and what theologians call the soul. Like David Brooks, I feel confident that neuroscience will forever be marked by this limitation because, as Brooks says, “The brain is not the mind.” Though our understanding of the brain will increase there will always be an immaterial, subjective, and volitional essence of personhood that cannot be reduced to neuro matter.

But if we are more than the sum of our physical parts, the logical question should be “What exactly are we?” And if there is indeed an immaterial part of human beings that survives the grave, we should give serious consideration to what happens after death. And the answer to these questions will not be found through mapping the human brain but in retracing the history of a resurrected Galilean carpenter.