We Are But Thinking Reeds

There seems to be a disturbing trend within our culture to take for granted that mind is just a byproduct of brain activity. More specifically, consciousness or thought is a manifestation of mere brain activity. To paraphrase Blasé Pascal, we are but reeds, the most-feeble things in Nature; but we are thinking reeds. And when the measurable evidence of thought is absent, “we” are dead and gone. Disembodied souls or minds are fairy tales.

In Texas, the family of a brain dead, pregnant woman wanted to remove life support, while the hospital sought to continue it for the sake of her unborn child. After a court order, the woman (and child) were removed from life support and died. In California, the family of a brain dead teenage girl fought to retain life support while the hospital sought to remove her from a ventilator because she was legally dead. The hospital eventually released her to the coroner, insisting this was necessary, because she was legally dead. The coroner then immediately turned her over to the parents, who now have her at an undisclosed location.

These two situations illustrate the dilemma that technological advancements have brought to the mind-body dualism of human nature. No more can we say with confidence, “What is mind? Never Matter! What is matter? Never Mind!” The husband and family of the Texas woman believed her mind was gone and would never return. The family of the teenage girl continues to hope that despite all the negative medical evidence, her mind is still present and may someday resume its manifestation in her bodily life.

We cannot quantify or measure the presence of mind, so medicine and law assumes the absence of a soul in these circumstances. More likely, the possibility of soul or mind independent of body is not considered at all. Do the machines register any brain activity? Does a medical expert interpret these readings as indicating life or death?

Biblically, the terms heart, soul, mind and spirit are all used to refer to nonmaterial human nature. As the theologian Anthony Hoekema puts it, we are material and nonmaterial; we have a physical side and a mental or spiritual side. A human being must be understood as an embodied soul; a unitary being. “He or she must be seen in his or her totality, not a composite of different parts.”

Hoekema suggests that human nature is a psychosomatic unity of body (soma) and soul (psyche). “The advantage of this expression is that it does full justice to the two sides of man, while stressing man’s unity.” There are material and nonmaterial aspects to humanity that constitute an indivisible whole. He quoted the “brain physicist” Donald M. MacKay to illustrate this relationship between mind and brain:

We are considering them [my conscious experience and the workings of my brain] as two equally real aspects of one and the same mysterious unity. The outside observer sees one aspect, as a physical pattern of brain activity. The agent himself knows another aspect as his conscious experience. . . . What we are saying is that these aspects are complementary.”

Understanding human nature as a psychosomatic unity of body and soul raises serious questions about how we should conceptualize mind-body problems like addiction and “mental illness.” Stephen Weatherhead, a British psychologist, voiced his fear that “We are in danger of trying to neurofy every human experience, every response, every behaviour. . . . We must be careful not to keep on digging away on this hypothesis that all mental health difficulties have a root cause in biology.” Weatherhead does not want to see neuropsychology self-destruct and “fall into the pit of over-simplifying complex human experience.”

Neuroscience will likely play an increasingly important role in our lives, but we would do well to keep in mind the word of Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, who said: “You will not find the limits of the soul, though you take every road; so deep is the tale of it.” Remember, you are but a thinking reed.


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