Am I Just My Brain?

Oct 16, 2019

Are we just advanced primates? Are we machines? Are we souls confined to a body, longing to escape? This week, Vince and Jo are joined by RZIM Itinerant Speaker Sharon Dirckx, whose doctoral research in the area of brain imaging informs her new book, Am I Just My Brain? The crew walks through the intricacies of one of the most important issues we face today, discussing some of the far-reaching (and often unacknowledged) implications of the claim that human beings are nothing more than the sum total of our brain waves.

Question Asked in This Episode:
“If we are just our brains and nothing more, what are the implications?”

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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of ask away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. As our secularizing culture casts off the vestiges of the Christian worldview or even a theistic one, explanations for the consciousness or the self become more and more difficult. Rather than seeing every man, woman, and child as image bearers of God, many now see our minds as nothing more than the output of a biological computer. The problems and negative implications of this view are many, but how is a thoughtful Christian to respond to this position? How can we explain our self-awareness? Am I just my brain?

But before we get started, we're excited to say that we have Sharon Dirckx in the studio today, RZIM Itinerant. We're excited to say that you have a new book out, "Am I Just My Brain?" It's a part of an RZIM series. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about that book?

Sharon Dirckx: Absolutely. It's a pleasure to be here. "Am I Just My Brain?" is asking about a question of identity. What exactly are we as human beings? Are we advanced primates? Are we machines? Are we souls confined to a body longing to escape, or is there more to it than that?

And there are lots of answers being offered by our culture on the subject of identity. The academy might say you are what you write or what you publish. The finance world would say you are your income. The fashion world would say you are your appearance, your physical appearance. And neuroscientists have weighed in on this question, and they say, "You are your brain. Your brain defines you. Everything that you do, say, and think, your behavior, your personality, ultimately can be chalked down to the chemical reactions in the organ sitting between your ears."

And so this seemed like a really important question to look at, particularly as I come from a background in neuroscience, so I wanted to draw on that experience and also look at what philosophers are saying, what neuroscientists are saying, what theologians are saying, and build a case from there.

Jo Vitale: We are absolutely thrilled to have Sharon here with us this week, not least because she is quintessentially British, and I always enjoy having someone else like that in the studio. But we had the joy of working with Sharon for several years in Oxford. And one thing I love about Sharon is often you hear the narrative that faith and science are in conflict with one another, but actually, it was while you were working as a scientist that you came to faith. Can you tell us a little bit about that journey?

Sharon Dirckx: Yeah, so I grew up in a very loving but religiously neutral home in the northeast of England. I remember deciding as a teenager that I wanted to do a PhD, so I knew that I was a scientist from a very early age. I always did my math homework first. I left English and history to the last minute.

Vince Vitale: And now you're writing books.

Sharon Dirckx: Yeah. I know, there's some irony in that. And I remember being handed by my A level biology teacher, who I respected very much, a book called "The Selfish Gene" by someone known as Richard Dawkins, and this explained how we were essentially gene machines. And I absorbed this as a teenager and didn't really question it and arrived at university to study biochemistry, I guess as an agnostic. I wasn't particularly skeptical or kind of aggressive in my belief, but I was just on the fence, I guess.

But I was invited in my first week to something known as Guerrilla Christian, which is where you have three or four Christians there to take any questions that you have, and this was my very first week at university to study biochemistry. I went to this, and I put my hand up about halfway through, and I asked the question, "Surely, you can't believe in God and be a scientist." I don't even know why I had that assumption, but it's just out there, and I was given the answer that, "Yes, you can."

These are actually looking at very different questions of life that come together. They are coherent. It's a bit like asking someone to choose between these two reasons for Facebook, either because programming languages have been invented or because Mark Zuckerberg exists. Choose.

Vince Vitale: Yeah.

Sharon Dirckx: You think about that for one nanosecond and say, "We don't need to choose." Actually, both together give a more complete view of Facebook, and just trying to explain it in terms of the programming languages leaves you with a diminished view of Facebook. We need to know the underlying mechanisms and the one whose idea it was and who got it started.

So I was told in this Guerilla Christian that, of course, you can hold both of these things together, and this was actually a game-changer for me. I'd never heard anything like that before. And it set me on a journey of asking questions, of grilling more Christians, and actually I knew quite a few Christians, and I had the chance to do that.

And it was about halfway through this biochemistry degree that I decided that I didn't have all of the answers, but I had enough of my questions answered to know that it made more sense with God than without him. It did make sense. And so I gave my life to Jesus Christ in my late teens, early 20s, and then went back and continued studying biochemistry. It was extraordinary to not only be studying these mechanisms, but also to know the one who had set it all in motion and continues to uphold it today.

Michael Davis: And as you went through that journey, Sharon, did you ever feel that tension as you began to dig into it? Was it clear from the beginning, you heard this answer in the Guerilla Christian, and all of a sudden it sort of made sense and was sort of smooth sailing from then? Or were there ever kind of points of tension or lack of certainty about whether these things could be held together?

Sharon Dirckx: I feel that because I was literally coming from a blank slate, I feel like I had had no information about the Christian faith before that of any substance, but to be told that these two things are compatible, it opened up a vista for me. That was like opening up a horizon for me almost in an instant with that one answer. But, of course, there were, as I said, a lot of conversations that came after that. The question about evolutionary theory and Genesis 1 and how you reconcile those two things was something that I wrestled with along the way. There were questions around sexuality that even then, 20 years ago, were really important and poignant, so there was a lot of wrestling that went on.

Vince Vitale: I find that really encouraging though that you as someone who was studying science, someone as intelligent as you are, could go to an event like that, and I don't know if the person answering the question there was a professional scientist or not, but even in a short answer could give you enough to actually shift your worldview in a significant way that opened you up to the person of Jesus. It just encourages me in terms of what we do right now, that somebody could actually see that shift so quickly.

Sharon Dirckx: Yeah, absolutely.

Jo Vitale: You can tell Sharon's a real scientist because her thought processes occur in nanoseconds. It takes me at least a minute to come up with anything coherent at all.

Vince Vitale: Mine is more in weeks than in nanoseconds.

Jo Vitale: Right? Different lengths of time, for sure. But the first time I heard Sharon speak actually, I was 18 years old, and I had just gone to get involved in a prison ministry in Oxford. I remember it's my first time in the prison, and somebody got up to do the evangelistic talk, and it was Sharon, and she did this amazing talk, and I remember thinking, "My goodness, that's what I want to do when I graduate." So that was incredible.

And you'll actually have the opportunity to hear from Sharon if you go onto YouTube and check out our trending questions event, "Am I Just My Brain," which will unpack a lot more of the subject that we're going to be getting into on this podcast today.

Michael Davis: Excellent.

Sharon Dirckx: Interestingly enough, I also, the first time I met Vince was in prison. I don't know what it is about prison.

Vince Vitale: I don't know what that says about all of us. Yeah. I was wondering where that story was going. It's like, remember the first time I was doing...

No, we met in ministry in prison too, and to kind of move towards our topic, one of my first impressions of you, Sharon, was not as a scientist, but as someone who values prayer so deeply. And that's one of the things I love about you, that actually you value science and are committed to that and knowledgeable in that area. And people would think that that in particular is in some way in tension with science, this idea that we could pray and in some sort of invisible immaterial way, we can have an effect on the world rather than in that physical concrete sense that science speaks of.

So something I've always valued about you and your faith, and we'll get more into that with our topic today.

Michael Davis: Excellent. So I guess this is going to be a spoiler for your book. You do not believe that you are just your brain. So this actually leads us into the first question. If we were just our brains and nothing more, what are some of the implications of that?

Sharon Dirckx: Yes. I think the initial sense is that this is a niche question just for neuroscientists and philosophers, and it can stay in its own little box, but actually the implications are very wide-reaching. Firstly, if we are just our brains, then what are the implications for free will? Are we actually free to make meaningful decisions, or do we just do what our brains tell us? And there's a whole range of voices out there with very different answers on that question.

Secondly, if we are just our brains, then is personhood dependent on having a fully functioning healthy brain? And if so, what do we do with those whose brains are still developing, such as the unborn?

Michael Davis: Right.

Sharon Dirckx: Those whose brains are not fully functional, such as those with mental disability. And what do we do with those whose brains are in a state of degeneration, such as those with Alzheimer's and dementia? One of the biggest challenges facing the Western world is how we care for an aging population, but if we are simply our brains, are they less human as their brain kind of degenerates? So that's a really important consideration for personhood.

Thirdly, if we are just our brains, then those that are subscribed to religious belief, have they adopted that purely on the basis of what their brain is doing? Is religious experience just brain activity and no more? So there are implications for religious belief.

And then finally there are implications for artificial intelligence. If we are just our brains, if we are just machines, then is the human brain replicable in every sense, and will we one day be upgraded with a new, improved, inorganic version of ourselves? How you answer the question, am I just my brain, impacts what you believe will be possible in AI in the years to come.

And so this is a question that may not always be at the surface of everyone's consciousness, but its implications are far-reaching and significant.

Michael Davis: The first thing you spoke of, that idea of freedom and free will, you've also written on the topic of suffering. So maybe take that one step further. If we are just our brains, and if that does negate the existence of free will, what are the implications of that?

Sharon Dirckx: Yes, well, I think what I really learned in the book is to say, firstly, this view is an incoherent view because, if everything that we say is ultimately determined by something beyond us, by physical processes in our head, then how can we trust that very viewpoint or indeed anything that we say? Everything that we say is determined and is purely the result of physical processes and therefore is void of meaning.

And in a sense, this view shoots itself in the foot because it's meaningless, and everything we say, every view that we happen to hold, based on that philosophy, has no meaning. And what we actually see is that this view also doesn't seem to make sense of the world. We live as though we have autonomy, and we exert that autonomy. We fight and strive for it as though actually we are volitional beings.

And finally, yeah, we do seem to live as though our choices have meaning and were made by us. We reward good behavior, we punish bad precisely on the basis that the person wasn't merely determined. They made a choice and could have done otherwise. And so this view actually has many holes. It doesn't hold together logically. It doesn't make sense of the world that we live in, and we don't actually live as though that is the case.

Michael Davis: I guess, from a Christian perspective, you take away free will, you take away more responsibility, you take away the need for forgiveness, you really strip away the centrality of the gospel message quite quickly. It unravels once you answer this question by saying that we're just our brains.

Sharon Dirckx: Absolutely.

Jo Vitale: That's very interesting. When you look at the things people value, even in culture, because we talk about valuing science, but then if you look at everything we're living for, it's so often geared about relationships and love and things like that. Thinking through the implications of there being no free well or just the processes of your mind, what does that mean for romance?

Sharon Dirckx: Right.

Jo Vitale: Is there even such a meaningful thing as love? I love that. has a chief science officer called Dr. Helen Fisher who's written this book, "The Anatomy of Love," but she speaks a lot in her book about how the brain works and that basically love is really just the sort of processes going on in your mind, rather than an authentic and true feeling or experience or something that could be beyond a selfish motivation to procreate and things like that.

It's also interesting because you're saying our brains, one of her quotes is our brain architecture is basically designed towards infidelity because actually polygamy has benefits in terms of producing more people, survival of the fittest, all of those sort of things. So it doesn't set you up very well for romance either, does it, when you think about just being our brains?

Sharon Dirckx: Yes. I don't know that much on the subject of polygamy, but I understand that actually, in those situations, very often one member of that actually would like it to be monogamous and that actually it's not always as straightforward as you think.

And actually, your earlier point about it all just being in the mind is comes back to what I ended up talking about in the book as the hard problem of human consciousness that, in our physical world, we seem to have equated the mechanisms that are going on physically with the entire experience. But actually philosophers debate this and have debated this for centuries, that just because you have a physical mechanism does not mean you have explained what it is to be you. This is the hard problem of human consciousness. There's something that it is like to be you. You have an inner life, an inner world that can't be explained by neurons and neurotransmitters and chemical reactions. How do you get from brain activity to what it is like to be you I think is really the heart. It's the million dollar question that lies at the heart of this.

Jo Vitale: Along those lines, how would you speak to the difference? People talk about brains and people talk about minds. What is the difference between those two?

Sharon Dirckx: Yeah. So the brain is, well, the physical organ in your head with all of its neurons and axons and hormones and neurotransmitters and chemical reactions and electrical activity. That is your brain. Your mind is the seat of your emotions, your memories, your decisions, all of the kind of things that are going on in your head essentially.

And the question is what is the relationship between the brain and the mind? And the view that your brain is essentially saying there isn't really such a thing as the mind. There's only the brain. So brain events are mental events. Those two things are synonymous, which is a bit like saying there isn't really anything that it is like to be you.

Vince Vitale: Yes, right.

Sharon Dirckx: Which is quite an extraordinary view when you think about it because so much of our life is centering around our own take on things. And if you look at the younger generation, so much of it is about experience. Even our post-truth defines truth by your first-person experience of the world. So if you want to take away the first person, you take away a lot, and so this is quite an extraordinary position to hold.

Jo Vitale: What's interesting about that is you're saying it not only has strong implications for Christianity and the Christian worldview if we're just brains, but actually for every worldview, actually everything we care about, when it comes to meaning, value, identity. Everything is shaken up if you actually think you're really just your brain.

Sharon Dirckx: Yes. And we live as though that first-person vantage point is real. Everything from mindfulness being as popular as it is to autobiography being such an in thing, an in writing style of this age to humanitarian crises appealing precisely on the basis that that person's suffering is real. Their first-person experience is real. We just don't live as though that is the case.

And so it really needs to be exposed for what it is. I'm not saying that every non-theistic philosopher and neuroscientist holds this view. There is a spectrum of views, and I do bring that out in in the book and also in the trending questions event. But for those that do hold the view, it's out there, and it's quite vocal, and a lot of people have absorbed it, so it does need addressing.

Michael Davis: It's really amazing as you start to talk about it because initially you said someone could think this is quite a narrow topic. But actually, the question is what am I?

Sharon Dirckx: Right.

Michael Davis: It kind of blows my mind when you actually get into the conversation to realize, well, what could be a more central topic to life then what actually am I? But we walk along and do life every day, and we never stop to ask perhaps the most central question of all.

One example that gives me a bit of dizziness when I think about it, but the idea that I right now can move different regions of my brain or my mind. And you can speak to this a bit more.

Sharon Dirckx: Yeah.

Michael Davis: But I find it...when I actually sit down and think about it, I find it amazing that I can think about a mathematical equation right now, and that actually moves one part of my brain.

Sharon Dirckx: Yeah.

Michael Davis: And then I can think about an ocean scene and waves in the ocean, and a different part of my brain just moved. So what's the thing? What am I? What's the thing that's doing the moving if it's not in my brain? I just moved two different parts of my brain. It's a deep question, but it's so central.

Sharon Dirckx: Absolutely. And, as you say that, I get excited about functional MRI, which is my background, which is actually...Brain imaging techniques have been amazing at showing the connection between the brain and the mind. You put someone in an MRI scanner and ask them to think about oceans or whatever it is in a very well-designed study.

Michael Davis: Yes.

Sharon Dirckx: And you will see that the brain areas that are connected to that, and I guess the philosophical and scientific term is that these areas are causally connected, and nobody is doubting that. Clearly, clearly mind and brain are integrated. But does that give us an exhaustive explanation of them? Do we just stop there or is there more to it?

Michael Davis: And that helps me to understand God and this idea of God responding to prayer more too, because you might think, "Well, it's so odd for God to be an immaterial being, but to have a concrete effect in the world." But maybe it's not that odd if actually that's what I'm doing all the time. If I'm actually an immaterial soul in some sense, and I can move different physical regions of my brain, then all of a sudden it's not that odd to think that God could be an immaterial being who could move different physical regions of the world.

Sharon Dirckx: Absolutely. And yet how extraordinary that we see those two things come together in the incarnation as well, that Jesus is the immaterial and the material of God in one being.

Michael Davis: Oh, beautiful. Exciting.

Vince Vitale: So obviously, you went to school, you became a scientist, you understand the scientific method. So I'm assuming that you tackle this question from that perspective. So what has led you to believe that we are more than just our brain?

Sharon Dirckx: Well, I have not had to step outside of neuroscience to draw those conclusions. There are all kinds of studies that show that we are far more than our brains actually. Well, there are all kinds of studies. There are studies, for example, of patients that have epilepsy, and one of the treatments in the early 1950s, '60s, '70s was to do a colostomy, where you're actually severing the connection between the left and right hemispheres.

And in short what you have seen in these studies is that essentially cutting the brain in half to stop the spread of the epileptic seizures doesn't cut the mind in half. You still have one person even though there are some functional technicalities for the patient to get over when the colostomy has been completed, but there is still just one person, even though their brain is segmented into two.

There are also some very interesting studies from patients in a persistent vegetative state that were published in the prestigious journal Science in 2006 by scientists over in Cambridge where they saw that patients with deeply damaged brains were displaying levels of consciousness, 15 to 20% of patients. So what do you do when the brain is damaged but the mind is working? If you are just your brain, you wouldn't see that.

Vince Vitale: Yeah, my brother is actually a prime example. Had massive head injury, cognitively still there, can't talk, can't move, but is completely as far able to communicate with eye blinks and with head shakes. So no, completely.

Sharon Dirckx: Wow, that's extraordinary. And actually this data, it was shown for the first time using brain imaging, but obviously they had techniques prior to that using, as you say, eye blinks that can help. And that has revolutionized patient care of people in that state.

And then there are also reports of near-death experiences that theologians such as J.P. Moreland and Gary Habermas have collated. They've been so convinced of kind of the growing body of evidence that they have collated this kind of data where patients that are clinically dead and have had to be in a state of clinical death in order for surgery to happen, cardiac surgery, have reported, once resuscitated, that they were conscious. And, of course, all kinds of questions come up about fabrication, but some very interesting observations were made by these patients that suggested that actually they couldn't be necessarily making this up. And we're talking about thousands and thousands of data points, not just handfuls.

And so, if you are just your brain you would not expect that, even one genuine near death experience where there is consciousness beyond the death of the body and brain. And so there's lots of very interesting data from neuroscience out there. I guess we all believe that if something is true, then the natural world is going to kind of reflect that in some way. We don't need to kind of fight it. It's out there.

Vince Vitale: Sorry for monopolizing all the questions, but this is really interesting to me. So one of the thoughts a lot of people have regarding the brain and the soul and the mind is that we deal with mental illness. We deal with head injury, as you were talking about with like my brother and so many others. And that obviously affects the thinking. It obviously affects the mind. Where is the delineation there? Where's the separation there?

Sharon Dirckx: Yes. I think what I love about the Christian worldview and the Bible from which it comes is that it points to human beings as being holistic integrated beings, but that have these different facets. They have a physical body, and they have, well, a soul. There are obviously different ways of describing it, but there's a body, a soul, and a spiritual dimension to the person. And so seeing the human being in that way, rather than just viewing them through one of those lenses, means that we end up with a more holistic treatment of human beings when they are suffering and when they are struggling.

And so, in the case of mental illness, I think for a long time, I think our treatment has been very physicalist. You just medicate, and it was very less common to have counseling 50 years ago or so. But actually, to properly treat someone struggling with mental illness, we absolutely need to treat the physical. We need to prescribe antidepressants because there's a chemical imbalance. We also need to address the mind and have a space where there can be conversation and counseling and addressing of that aspect of humanity.

And then also the spiritual side of things. I think that to just address the body and the soul or mind without addressing the fact that we are ultimately spiritual beings is perhaps an incomplete treatment as well. And that's why opportunities to pray with people and to engage with the spiritual dimension again gives you a more holistic approach to people and hopefully in a way that ascribes dignity to them and helps them walk through their suffering.

Jo Vitale: Sharon, you were talking about what can show up in brain imaging when you think about different things. What shows up? Have the studies been done in regards to religious experience? What does that look like on a brain imaging?

Sharon Dirckx: Absolutely.

Jo Vitale: Scan.

Sharon Dirckx: Scan, yes. Yes, a lot of study has been done in this area. Someone like Andrew Newberg and Warren Brown would be some initial voices on this subject. The short answer is that things happen in your brain when you pray. They've looked at Buddhist meditation, they've looked at traditional Christian prayer, they've looked at people praying in tongues, the more charismatic form of prayer, and they have seen not only is the brain active, but potentially different networks are active in these different types of prayer. Although I think that that's probably an emerging set of data. And that's very interesting. Although I find it reassuring as a Christian, I'd be more concerned if there was nothing happening in my brain when I'm praying.

Jo Vitale: Switched off.

Sharon Dirckx: I'm actually relieved that there is something happening in my brain. We don't need to be afraid of this kind of data. Again, it comes back to what I was saying before. Just because you understand the networks and the brain regions involved in prayer does not mean you've explained the experience of prayer. You're back to the hard problem of human consciousness. Nor does it mean that the experience wasn't genuine or that God doesn't exist.

We happen to know the brain areas that light up when you're eating chocolate. When you're about to eat chocolate and when you start to eat it, all of these reward centers in your brain start firing, similar to the areas as when you're in love. Now, of course, we would not doubt that the experience of eating chocolate was also genuine, even though you have the corresponding brain regions to go with it.

Michael Davis: Wow.

Sharon Dirckx: Nor the experience of being in love, we wouldn't question that. We just say, "Look, you've got physical stuff that backs this up." And it's the same with the existence of God. In fact, the chocolate and the love are the reason why your brain is activating in the first place. The same with areas that light up in response to religious activity, they're not a threat to God. They're not a threat to the Christian. They simply show that you are an integrated physical and spiritual being with lots of different dimensions to who you are.

Vince Vitale: That's so helpful. And if you're in love with chocolate, then it really lights up.

Jo Vitale: Doubly good.

Sharon Dirckx: This is true.

Michael Davis: Especially your guys' chocolate, man. English chocolate.

Jo Vitale: Sharon might have brought us some from England, which...

Michael Davis: But, Sharon, I loved what you glanced towards earlier, which is relevant here as well, that our perfect model of what it is to be fully human is the material and the immaterial coming together in the incarnate person of Christ. And so that's just what we see here. Mental things are taking place, but we see a physical effect of that, and that's just the integration that's right at the center of our faith.

Sharon Dirckx: Absolutely. And I think that this notion that there's an immaterial and a material world, ultimately that isn't going to be answered by the science.

Michael Davis: Yes.

Sharon Dirckx: And this is where we need to recognize when a scientist has gone beyond the realms of science and has begun to make worldview statements. And the question is, is the material world all that there is, or is there more to it than that? And where I really learned things in the book is to ask, well, we can go around in circles about what the mind is and how it relates to the brain, but another question is why do we have one, and what is the origin of the human mind?

And if it is true that the natural world alone is not enough to explain the origins of the human mind, then maybe those origins lie beyond nature. And the first words of Genesis, the first words of the Bible say, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." In other words, before there was anything physical, there was God, and God is a being who thinks.

Michael Davis: Right.

Sharon Dirckx: He doesn't just think. He's not kind of some slightly nerdy being that that's all he does, but he is a thinking...

Vince Vitale: I'm going to scooch back a little bit.

Sharon Dirckx: God is a being who thinks. He is a rational, thinking, creative being who has preceded everything physical. And if God exists, then Mind with a capital M is fundamental to the universe, fundamental to the cosmos, and undergirds everything. And therefore, if God exists, then there is hope for solving the hard problem of human consciousness. And that is really where I take things.

Michael Davis: Excellent. Well, I guess I wish we could unpack the entire book, but unfortunately we're out of time, so I think instead of doing a sum-it-up, Sharon, if you could answer this last question, and then that way we can wrap up the episode. In the process of this research and writing the book, what has either surprised or particularly encouraged you?

Sharon Dirckx: I think that I was particularly encouraged to see that I don't just need to build a case from Christian apologetics, from philosophy alone, that actually the notion that we are so much more than just our brains can be seen in clinical medicine. It can be seen in neuroscience, as well as theological and philosophical views, and so I really enjoyed building, if you like, a cumulative case from all of those fears, drawing on my expertise to show, if something is true, then it is reflected in reality and in nature.

Michael Davis: Sharon, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you all for listening and we will catch you guys next week.

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