Are we a body with a mind, or a mind with a body?
This may sound like a chicken-and-egg type of conundrum, but it’s a deep philosophical question. The concept of the separation of the mind from the body is known as dualism, and has been debated for centuries because the answer to that question then guides a lot of other philosophies and theories.
Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She believes that the body and brain are separate from the mind, which significantly influences her teaching. Take, for example, her social media meme-of-the-day today. She posted that, “The brain does not change itself… our MIND changes the brain”. If one assumes that the mind is separate from our brain, then its plausible that the mind influences the brain.
Except that it doesn’t. Our mind is a product of our brain, not a separate entity. Neurological damage from injuries or tumours, electrical stimulation of the brain in the lab, the effect of illicit drugs on the brain like LSD or marijuana, and everyday examples like the changes to our thinking under the influence of caffeine or alcohol, all prove that changes to the structure and function of the brain change thought patterns. It isn’t the other way around. Every brain changes itself too – the brain of an embryo or foetus undergoes massive changes but foetuses don’t have streams of conscious thought. Dr Leaf’s meme is scientifically misguided.
Perhaps what is more worrying is Dr Leaf’s use of scripture to try and justify her view that the mind and the brain are separate. To introduce her meme, Dr Leaf wrote, “Read Luke 16:19-31 to see that the mind is separate from the brain – this is God’s divine design.”
There are a number of scriptures that theologians use to discuss the biblical basis for the separation of the body and soul, but Luke 16:19-31 isn’t one of them. That passage is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.
‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
‘The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”
‘But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”
‘He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”
‘Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
‘“No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
‘He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’ (Luke 16:19-31, NIV)
I’m not sure exactly where the convincing proof of the separation of our mind and our body is found in this passage. This is a description of the afterlife, and in this parable, the rich man was very specific about memories (“I have five brothers …”) as well as physical sensations (“I am in agony in this fire”) and even parts of the body (Lazarus’s finger, his tongue). Jesus isn’t telling a story of how the mind is separate to the body, but of a different dimension in which the body and the mind are still together. This passage isn’t proof for the concept of dualism, but against it.
Dualism also has a number of fatal scientific and philosophical flaws, in particular that dualism is conceptually fuzzy, experimentally irrefutable, considers only the adult mind, and violates physics, in particular the law of conservation of energy.
So Dr Leaf bases her teaching on a scientifically and philosophically untenable concept and then attempts to use a scripture which refutes dualism in her attempt to support it. That’s audacious, but then to claim that it’s God’s divine design is, at best, a little brazen.
Dualism may be one of her fundamental philosophies, but I think Dr Leaf should review the basis for it, and possibly reconsider her reliance on it.
For a more in-depth discussion on Dr Leaf and dualism, please see my essay: Dr Caroline Leaf, Dualism, and the Triune Being Hypothesis
Very informative blog. I agree that the evidence is overwhelming for the mind (or consciousness) being an emergent property (or feature) of the brain. From personal experience (I realise this is anecdotal evidence), babies appear to have no mind, as an adult would define it, until they are 10-15 months old. The mind appears to take a long time to get programmed and then emerge like software running on a computer. However, I still wonder why we experience anything at all – why is there conscious experience? It seems bizarre and unnecessary. Why aren’t we simply robots/computers that, while acting in a sophisticated way, are mindless? For me, the subjectivity of human consciousness is the problem. Most of what humans do is not consciously decided upon, e.g. breathing, heart beating, digesting food, etc. But a small bit of what humans do is consciously decided upon and most of what we see, hear, feel, etc. is consciously experienced. Explaining consciousness seems to be the one unanswered mystery of human experience, which does leave the door open (ever so slightly) for supernatural explanations (although I am highly skeptical – extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof).
Hi Nick, thanks for your insightful comments. If you believe psychology.about.com, babies develop self-awareness (which I think is the key component to consciousness) around 18 months (http://psychology.about.com/od/cognitivepsychology/fl/What-Is-Self-Awareness.htm). I would agree with you – I think that science overwhelmingly shows that most of our actions are subconsciousness. Consciousness is probably a tool that our brains use to process information to a greater depth although the million dollar question of WHY we need awareness for that the happen is certainly a question to ponder. If you are interested in reading more about consciousness, there is a good two part article by De Sousa that you may wish to chew on (De Sousa, A. (2013). Towards an integrative theory of consciousness: part 1 (neurobiological and cognitive models). Mens Sana Monogr, 11(1), 100-150. doi: 10.4103/0973-1229.109335 and De Sousa, A. (2013). Towards an integrative theory of consciousness: part 2 (an anthology of various other models). Mens Sana Monogr, 11(1), 151-209. doi: 10.4103/0973-1229.109341)