Life is determined by the brain
The neuropsychologist Wolters8 called free will an illusion: “Neural determinism will take its place: What we experience, what we think and what we do, is fully determined by the actual state of the brain.” This, too, is a half-truth. The fact that we experience, think, and act is indeed completely determined by the brain. What we experience, think, and do—all of which are in large measure determined by us—is not our selfhood. That self is shaped by life experiences, the milieu in which one is raised, and regular introspection.
The brain provides no information on the way these factors shape the individual. Psychic individuation is not primarily determined by the brain, it is determined by selfhood—by the one I’m going to be and ultimately will be. Selfhood creates itself. It is the master builder of the mind. It is both product and producer. Such is the enigmatic character of who we are. Selfhood’s “fabric” is nebulous and elusive, yet it is experienced as concrete and real.
In the brain, selfhood is not recoverable. It is approachable only for soul researchers and soul healers, and that only to a limited extent. For neurobiologists, it is an entity like the Holy Grail: fascinating but untraceable, for the time being—and I presume, forever.
This is not a novel idea. In the first verses of the book of Genesis, God “formed man of the dust of the ground.” It was not before He breathed in man’s nostrils “the breath of life” that man became a person.9 Man’s mind was created by unique “mind-stuff.” Stuff that made man into more than a thing, it made him into an individual.
Man conceived as a machine is an obvious half-truth. A machine indeed, but a most peculiar one, a spirited machine. For some, a statement beyond belief. For others, like me, a truth. A mystery of the same magnitude as when, long ago, dead matter was converted into living matter, able to reproduce. In principle, mysteries are solvable. The ones I mentioned, however, are more mysterium magnum, ie, a mystery that will remain a mystery, for the time being and probably forever. It is more a romantic than a scientific idea. But, frankly, life without mysteries, in which everything is explicable and without wonders, would lose its luster. At least for me.
Man is the measure of all things
This ancient statement that “man is the measure of all things” was made by the Greek philosopher Protagoras. It is cited with applause by advocates of the “brain-only” idea. For me, this statement raises 3 objections.
1. Protagoras’s thesis has been unduly stretched. Protagoras probably meant to express that all human judgments are subjective, including those regarding abstractions such as righteousness, beauty, virtue, and values such as good and evil. Absolute truth does not exist. Every human being is entitled to make his own decisions.
Protagoras said: “As things occur to me, so they are for me; on the other hand, as things occur to you so they are for you.” In conformity with this reasoning he confessed to be an agnostic: “As far as the gods are concerned, I couldn’t say whether they exist or do not exist, or what their shape is, because many factors limit our knowledge as to that: the obscurity of the subject and the limitations of the human existence.” Protagoras was a relativist: man judges for himself and is his own chief justice. There exists no higher authority—man himself is the measure of all things.