We are our brains
This is the title of a book recently published by the neurobiologist Swaab.7 The wording sounds terse but misses the point. It holds water in that without the brain we wouldn’t be. This logic falters because our spiritual luggage is left unattended. We are more than a machine. Immaterial components are part of our being—our essential parts. They are lost in the phrase “we are our brains.” Brain knowledge yields pitifully little mind knowledge.
Suppose we had detailed knowledge of the neuronal substrate of aesthetic experiences, would that explain their origin, character, and salience in a given individual, and his or her personal preferences? Suppose the neuronal underpinnings of religiosity became an open book, would that make us wiser about the origin of the spiritual needs, about the significance the “vertical dimension” has in someone’s life? Suppose the neuronal substrate of what is called intelligence had been fully clarified, would that knowledge reveal the ways those abilities were actually used? for what purpose? on which grounds? whether intellectual faculties have been used to the fullest, whether intellectual development has been detrimental to one’s emotional life. Does brain knowledge bring us any closer to understanding a person’s hopes, expectations, disappointments, sorrow, bliss, or shame? his love life and the way he loves? Does it provide information about his ability to make moral judgments?
The answer to these questions can hardly be in the affirmative. It is true, the mind’s existence depends on the existence of a brain. But it is also true that the mind has a life of its own, impenetrable to brain researchers, at least for the foreseeable future. The mind is in many respects an independently operating “product” of the brain. It is a domain with its own rules, its own provisions, to be studied with specific methods—methods that have nothing to do with biology. If the mind becomes a vassal territory of the brain sciences, science would suffer irreparably.
Oscar Wilde characterized a cynic as someone who knows the price of every thing but nothing of its value. If “knows” is replaced by “wants to know,” this definition fits the neural determinist perfectly.
Psychiatry is particularly endangered by this extreme variant of biological monism. The brain is dear to the psychiatrist; the mind no less. He has to deal with both—every day and with every patient. What is wrong in the brain? What is the matter with the mind? He ascertains that mental disturbances, more often than not, are preceded by perturbations of the mind. He knows that mind perturbations may cause brain perturbations. The study of the mind is therefore essential to diagnose and treat mental disorders properly. By definition, the psychiatrist is an examiner and healer of the brain as well as of the mind. If a car engine is malfunctioning because of long-term exposure to bad roads, both the engine and road need to be repaired. If they are not, engine problems will return.