I decided to click my computer mouse this morning. Or did I? There is good evidence that my brain anticipated my conscious decision by a fraction of a second or even, as the latest research shows, by up to seven seconds. And here we are at the heart of neuroscience: one of the fastest-growing disciplines of our time.
Already we can spot metaphysical questions. How can I speak of free choice for a decision made first by the unconscious brain? Could I have vetoed my brain at the last moment? Is my conscious decision merely a process of noting what has already been decided?
Neuroscience, or the study of the brain, involves many disciplines from basic biology to the meaning of consciousness, and takes us into the tricky area of the distinction between mind and brain, to say nothing of the theological question of the soul. We can date it back at least to Galen in the second century AD, who first recorded damage in the brains of the corpses whose owners formerly had mental defects. But the modern trigger has been the availability of measuring instruments, culminating in magnetic resonance imaging which can immediately locate and measure brain activity stimulated by external cues.
Already scientists can map the functions of many locations in the brain, which are better described as interacting webs of connections under continual revision, decay and addition. Although as yet we know only a fraction, we are able to identify basic aspects of memory, the senses, even the webs which process morality and religion, and many more. No wonder that some neuroscientists hold the view that we have just a biological brain, with a corresponding body, and nothing more. All is potentially explicable in materialistic terms, and hence presumed to have emerged through evolution. (Of course, other neuroscientists argue that there are elements, such as consciousness, which cannot be explained through conventional scientific methods. They are not always popular with their colleagues.)
But the sceptical conclusion is not surprising. If every function of which we know can be accounted for within the biological brain (even if they are not all discovered yet) what function could be attributed to any agent which is somehow superior to the brain but differentiated from it – and of course would not be a biological entity detectable by any conceivable scanning method?
Some believers may be concerned about this too. What, for instance, is my religious belief worth if it is simply the product of a gene expressed in my brain structure? What credibility can be given to my choices and aspirations if these can all be traced to biological brain function?
Of course neuroscientists acknowledge consciousness (they had better, hadn’t they?) They see it primarily as active in the higher operations such as cognition, long-term planning, memory and language. Such functions are centred in the neo-cortex, lying above the reptilian and mammalian brains whose operations, though essential, are more basic – and are thought to be earlier developments in our evolutionary progress.
But if you ask them to distinguish between brain and mind, you may get some strange answers. I don’t want to put words into their mouths, but I can fairly summarise the explanations which some of them have given.
They acknowledge that we are all Cartesian at heart. That is, we instinctively think in terms of a difference which distinguishes mind from brain. We experience a consciousness of self which overviews the biological. We are able to think about our thoughts with an introspection unique to human beings. We have a sense of self which is distinguishable from our brain although it may work through it – as the violinist makes music through the violin. Even sceptical neuroscientists find themselves speaking in Cartesian language because that reflects their inner experience.
Pushed back against the wall, a neuroscientist may claim that mind is simply another word for brain. Cartesian language may be convenient, they say, but in fact all the functions that we attribute to the mind are to be found in the brain including, perhaps, a higher level of consciousness through which our introspection takes place.
But few neuroscientists are philosophers. If they were, they would quickly see that the difficulty is not answered. We can think about our thinking, and we can think about our thinking about our thinking, and so on ad infinitum. Introspection must ultimately come from outside the biological for the merely material cannot introspect itself. And if it is outside the biological it cannot be caught in a scan.
Consider a couple of instances. First, think about the claim that the moral process is fully comprehended by a network of biological connections localised in the brain. In what way could moral approval or disapproval emerge from this? There would be no point in blame or approval if our behaviour were only the outcome of biological connections.
And that brings us to free will. How does the biological make choices? Without free will the sceptical neuroscientist is obliged to accept the conclusions of his neural circuits. And if those circuits came about through the random mutations of evolution, on what basis can he hold them to be true?
Of course many of our choices (far more than we imagine) are in practice not free. But there only has to be one occasion in the history of mankind when a truly moral decision was made, or one truly free exercise of the will – and the materialist case is blown.
So we can marvel at the wonder of God’s creation in the workings of the brain, without supposing for a moment that the brain has taken the place of the mind – or, if you prefer the terminology, the soul.
(Many will remember the conditions which had to be fulfilled for mortal sin: grave matter, full knowledge, full consent. Without for a moment denying free will, it does seem hard to judge subjectively whether full consent is easily present. Conversely, when we perform a virtuous act, how do we separate our free choice from other, secular, factors which influence us? You may have a comment about this, or other aspects of the column. Keep them coming!)