Has Neurology Debunked the Ancient Religious and Philosophical Belief in an Immaterial Mind?

The Mind-Brain Problem

Human Matters That are Not Provable by Science

In my medical ethics course, one of my students said that neurology has debunked the ancient religious and philosophical belief in an immaterial mind? The ancient Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, believed that the human mind is an immaterial entity. Similarly, the great religion of the world, in general, such as Islam, Judaism and Christianity, have taught that in addition to having a brain, humans also have a mind, spirit or soul.

Are human beings merely thinking computers? Has neurology conclusively demonstrated that a person is only a highly complex brain and bundle of nerve connections, firing throughout his or her body? After all, a neurologist can, through neuroimaging techniques, observe the brain thinking about, say, “justice.” But a neurologist cannot see justice in the brain; nor can he or she take justice into a laboratory and prove it scientifically or empirically. The reason is that justice is an abstract human value, which is just as real, but in a different sense, as matter itself. Without scientific proof, then, many people believe that justice and injustice are real, even affecting their lives personally.

In the same way, a neurologist can, through neuroimaging, observe the brain thinking about “love.” But a neurologist cannot see love in the brain; nor can he or she put love in a laboratory and prove it empirically, using one or more of the five human senses. That, however, does not mean love is not real. In fact, most people believe that love exists. It is what makes their lives worth living.

Similarly, a neurologist can, through scientific imaging, see the effects on the brain in thinking about “beauty.” But he or she cannot see beauty in the brain: nor can he or she take beauty into a laboratory and prove it scientifically. Now, while many people may disagree about what beauty is, they would agree that there really is such a thing as beauty. In fact, it enriches their lives, giving them meaningful experiences of the world.

A Spiritual Mind is Not Provable by Science

In bringing up the examples of “justice,” “love” and “beauty,” my issue is not with neurology but philosophy. That is to say, does a human being have a mind, which is separate from, and yet related to, the brain? That question cannot be answered by neurology alone, because while the same physical or material data of the human brain is available to both those who believe and do not believe in a mind, the interpretation of the data may differ, depending on a neurologist’s world view. In other words, the issue is not only physical but also metaphysical, going beyond the material data itself.

What I am saying, then, is this: The things that really affect the lives of human beings, mattering to them personally – such as “justice,” “injustice,” “love” and “beauty” — are real. Humans believe that such values exist, although they cannot be demonstrated scientifically. In making that point, I am not attacking science. Rather, I am suggesting that science, as beneficial as it is for humankind, cannot prove those values, because they are, in my opinion, non-tangible, spiritual realities.

I know that, neurologically, I cannot support my opinion about the spiritual dimension of the human mind. Nor can neurology disprove my opinion, because it is outside the scope of empirical science, which does not directly address the existence or reality of non-empirical, spiritual matters, such as minds, spirits, angels, God or gods. Thus, neurology can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a real, spiritual, immaterial mind. Perhaps my opinion might better be called a “belief,” which takes me from the physical or scientific realm into the metaphysical realm.

The Human Person is More Than Matter

Since “justice,” “injustice,” “love” and “beauty” are not in the brain itself, then where are they? They are in the mind. That view is called “substance dualism” or “interactionist dualism.” It seems to me, then, that there is much more to a human being than his or her brain. That “much more” is what constitutes a human person. After all, dogs, cats, whales and dolphins have brains. But, typically, they are not called “human persons.”

Thus, a human being is not merely a brain enclosed by flesh; nor a nervous system covered with matter; nor a walking electro-chemical computer; nor a bio-chemical machine. The mysterious material and spiritual worlds come together to form one human person, consisting of both a brain and mind, a body and spirit.