What Makes Me?

You are your brain. That’s the message of the second episode on the Public Broadcast Station’s new series The Brain: The Story of You. “I am the relationship between my neurons,” says David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and host of the show, “. . . . although this marvel of mystery seems so alien to us, somehow it is us.”

In my first review, I mentioned that the show is built on an assumption that who we are is the same thing as our physical make up. Our biology is us. We are our biology.

This fits with the philosophy known as physicalism. Our mind is the same thing as our brain. There is no immaterial part of the human personality.

Eagleman makes this clear in the following statement:

“What makes you, you? For a long time the answer was an immortal soul or spirit something that goes beyond mere matter and gives you life and your identity but the modern study of the brain tells a different story. Who we are can only be understood in terms of the three pound organ in our heads.”

Eagleman gives some interesting examples to show the limitations of our brain, and how when it is affected by age or disease, it can redirect our behavior. He tells the story of Charles Whitman to illustrate how changes in the brain can explain changes in personality.

Charles Whitman was an engineering student at the University of Texas Austin. On August 1, 1966, he climbed a tower in a building on his college campus and for an hour and a half played the role of sniper taking the lives of 14 people and wounding 32 others. Whitman left a note behind requesting that an autopsy be done after his death to see if there was some physical evidence of a change in his thinking that had led him to increased violence. His wish was granted, and as he seemed to expect, doctors found a tumor attached to a part of the brain associated with aggression.

Examples like this are informative and should lead us to understand that there is a complex relationship between what Christians call the soul and the three pound organ called the brain. With advances in neuroscience we will likely be able to explain a great number of the physiological influences on our behavior. But there are parts of the human experience that cannot be reduced to mere physiology.

Christians need not believe that changes in the brain do not affect our behavior. They do. Just talk to someone with a family member suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. But believers should also recognize that changes in personality do not somehow negate the reality of the soul.

Let me try to illustrate this with an experience I had as a teenager. When I was fifteen I got a work permit and began washing dishes at a local restaurant to save up money to buy a car. I also had a paper route and mowed several yards in my neighborhood. You could say I was a little determined. I bought my first car shortly after turning sixteen and I was liberated to explore the world. The only problem was that the car had a stick shift, which I didn’t know how to use.

My brother Chris graciously taught me, I’m assuming because he hoped I would feel a sense of obligation to let him borrow it on occasion. On one of my first outings I was driving on a highway near our home and a deer ran out right in front of me. I had ample room to stop, but since I wasn’t accustomed to the new pedal, called the clutch, I mistook it for the break. If you don’t know how manual transmissions work, let me just say that the clutch doesn’t make you stop. I plowed through the deer. It never knew what hit it. It was my 1985 Mercury Topaz.

Long story short, I had the smashed hood and fender repaired at a local body shop. However, the damages were more than aesthetic. The computer system that controlled the acceleration was messed up. After the incident and subsequent body repairs, I discovered that at completely random and unpredictable moments in driving through my hometown, my car would just take off. It would accelerate without me even pressing down on the accelerator.

I won’t bore you with details about how problematic this was or even how my car eventually caught on fire, which was partly my fault too. I shouldn’t have sprayed WD40 on my engine when it was hot. I digress. My point is this, just because the mechanics of my car were messed up didn’t change the notion of agency. It was still me behind the wheel even though the vehicle wasn’t operating correctly.

And the same is true for the mechanics of our brain. Just because something can impact your brain and affect your personality doesn’t mean you are somehow nothing more than your brain. If you saw my black Mercury sporadically speeding down Morton Avenue you might have assumed either that my car was unmanned or that I had gone mad.

But I was still in the car—even if the car wasn’t obeying what I wanted it to do.

Every example has its limitations, but I think it is important to remember, from a Christian perspective, that we are more than the mechanics of our brain. Even if our brain doesn’t do what it should, what we would like for it to do, this doesn’t nullify the notion of agency, that there is someone beyond the biological machinery in our head.

It seems the next episode of the program will deal more specifically with this notion from an atheistic perspective. Ultimately, if we are not substantively more than our brain then we have to remove the idea of agency. We aren’t the ones telling our brain what to do, it is the other way around.

And while science can tell us much about the brain—there is much more about us than science is able to tell us. Take for example the story that Eagleman closes this particular episode with. After graduate school he was able to learn from one of his scientific heroes, Francis Crick, Nobel Prize winner for his co-discovery of the structure of DNA.

Eagleman recounts one occasion when he walked into the professor’s office and Crick had written the word “meaning” in large letters across the chalkboard. Crick was exploring how science seemed incapable of explaining meaning. “We know a lot about the mechanics of neurons and networks and brain regions,” Eaglmean says, “but what we don’t know about those signals coursing around in the brain is why we care about any of them, why anything carries meaning. How can the physical cells in my brain cause me to care about anything.”

What makes you, you? If you think the answer to that question includes things like meaning and agency then you might find this series to be missing key ingredients of the human experience. It could be that if we accept physicalism, that we are not substantively more than our physical bodies, then in the end we will lose what it means to be human altogether.

Stay tuned.



Here’s some quick links to my summary and brief response to each episode: