A Matter of the Mind

Keren Zhou

Keren Zhou is a junior at Princeton University studying in the molecular biology department with a concentration in neuroscience. She firmly believes that science is an amazing tool that is completely compatible with faith.

How could the brain use the five senses to recognize or interact with something that has no tangible qualities? This question points to the frontier of modern neuroscience, for we have very strong evidence that immaterial phenomena do in fact exist. (See the article in this feature titled Infinity as an example of belief in the immaterial.) If there are in fact immaterial phenomena in the universe—things that contain no matter or energy or any components of the same—then we would have to conclude that something other than the brain perceives them. We would have to conclude that the mind itself is immaterial.

How is that possible?

One of the very first theories in the field of neuroscience can be dated back all the way to the beginning of the 19th century with the advent of a group of scientists who labeled themselves phrenologists. These phrenologists believed that the brain could be split into several different functions and that if any function was used more frequently, that corresponding portion of brain would be enlarged. From these humble beginnings (the ideas of phrenology have since been more or less disproved) neuroscientists have made vast steps forward in better understanding the human mind. We now understand that different areas of the brain have specific tasks; for example, located in the back of the brain is an area called the occipital lobe and it is responsible for the most basic cerebral functions involved in what we consider sight. Yet despite the achievements that have been made in the field (and they are certainly not to be belittled), no one will deny that neuroscientists have a very long way to go before being able to provide complete, plausible explanations for many of our day to day mental experiences.

Many neuroscientists are in agreement on this subject, that the brain is a purely material thing in much the same way that a computer is, although this is not to say that the brain is equivalent to the computer. There are several convincing arguments to suggest that it would be impossible for a material entity such as the brain to interact with the immaterial. One of the strongest is the argument of causal closure. Let’s break the logic of this argument down. When a person’s foot hits a soccer ball, sending it flying into the goal, we have a set of physical laws that tells us that the foot exerts a force on the soccer ball and that in this process there is a transfer of momentum. This can occur because both the foot and the soccer ball can be defined in terms of physical properties, such as mass and velocity. However, it is entirely unclear how something which by definition has no physical properties could cause neurons to fire. If this were possible, it would seem that to violate laws of conservation of energy. How could something entirely without the physical property of energy produce energy in the form of action potentials? This position, that the brain is purely material and can only interact with other material phenomena, has garnered many different labels as each researcher finds his or her special niche within the larger framework, but it is most commonly (or generally) known as naturalist or physicalist.

Although these arguments seem sound, there remains one crucial problem which has been the topic of intense debate, and that is the problem of the mind/brain connection. The mind is the composite of what we commonly know as consciousness and intellect. While I am typing this article, I am not only hitting keys as a result of motor patterns generated in the brain but I am aware of the words that I am producing and that I am creating specific sequences of words to achieve my point. The mind/brain problem poses the question that how could this conscious experience that I am having rise out of electrochemical signaling in the ball of cells that is my brain?
There is ample evidence to show that the mind and brain are somehow connected (pick up a cognitive neuroscience textbook and browse to your heart’s content), yet there is disagreement as to what precisely is the connection. Many neuroscientists, in light of their belief that the brain cannot interact with immaterial things, will argue that the “mind” is material and a derivative of the brain, although the specifics of this interaction have not been discovered yet. While this is not necessarily untrue (at least no one has produced definitive evidence to invalidate this theory), there are several obstacles which must first be overcome.

One of the most prominent is the existence of qualia. Qualia is the subjective experience of a mental state, meaning that your idea of happiness or pain might not be the same as mine. We know that when you experience happiness it is accompanied by activation of certain areas of the brain and is characterized by a certain bodily state, but no one can authoritatively say why these physical events are accompanied by the experience of happiness. Essentially, how does one get from a network of neurons firing to the conscious experience of happiness? Or put another way, how does one get from the transmission of an electrochemical signal (even if it is in a synchronized pattern) to Beethoven’s fifth? Logically and intuitively, there seems to be some sort of a gap there.

While scientists may as yet provide us with the answer to the mind/brain problem (and they are certainly trying), we still recognize the existence of immaterial phenomena and ideas in this world. And if our brain (and maybe even mind) can’t interact with these phenomena in any meaningful and regular way, yet somehow we are still able to understand them, this strongly suggests that there is some other factor at work. We believe that it is the spirit within which allows us to comprehend to wonders of this world. The brain is a mechanism which the spirit can use to direct us to a greater understanding of God’s creation.

Some might question the asymmetry of the argument; it seems odd that while the brain cannot influence the immaterial, the seemingly immaterial spirit can still direct the brain. The reasoning here would be that the brain, as purely material, lacks the ability to compel the spirit to anything; the spirit, however, as a force that is uniquely creative, has an influence on the brain. It would be the same as asking why a computer (to use a previous analogy) can’t force us to perform certain tasks. Granted, when the machine breaks, it has an impact on my ability to function (without a Blackberry, my e-mail use will be significantly cut) and thus it may seem like it is influencing me, but it is doing so in a non-goal oriented way. Thus the asymmetry in the computer/user connection very possibly reflects a similar sort of asymmetry in the brain/spirit relationship. In conclusion, rather than shying away from or disregarding the academic disciplines, let us use them to further reinforce the sheer magnitude of God’s creative power.


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Copyright 2008 Keren Zhou