Why Am “I” Not My Brain?

I am not my brain.

In our world, psychology, neuroscience, and secular philosophy say that I am my brain. To modern science, everything I think, all my memories, pleasure, pain, and everything about me that I understand as “me” is somehow made up of my brain and nervous system.

Therefore, “I am my brain.”

Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker asks “whether a perfectly lifelike robot would be conscious, whether I could achieve immortality by uploading my brain’s connectome to the Cloud, and whether the Star Trek transporter really transports Captain Kirk to the planetary surface or murders him and reconstitutes a twin.”[1]

Many, like Pinker, think that because “I am my brain,” (that is, because “I” am only a physical being), someday things like “uploading my brain’s connectome to the cloud,” will be possible.

But until my consciousness can be uploaded to the cloud, then what happens when I die? My brain decomposes along with the rest of my body, and that’s it. Can you think of any reason this is a problem?

Certainly, there are problems with the idea that “I am my brain”. Properly understood, the Christian view of consciousness is quite different. Remember this acronym – it will help us identify the many significant challenges a naturalistic account of consciousness has in explaining what we all know intuitively – that consciousness is essentially non-physical.

F – U – N – W – I – S – P

F – Free Will

Free Will: Every day you make decisions by exercising your free will. In making most of these decisions you could have chosen to do something different. Why? If your mind is only your brain, how is it possible for matter—(molecules in motion)—to make choices?

U – Unified

Unified: Consciousness is unified. For example, when you look at something, you don’t have to think about combining the inputs and outputs of millions of neurons. You don’t even have to think about what your left eye is seeing compared to your right eye. It’s done for you. In your brain, there is no single terminus for your visual field. You have tons of parts (down to individual molecules!) that make up your visual apparatus. Same when you are thinking about, say, eating ice cream or finishing your homework. If the mind is the brain and the brain is only matter, how do you explain this?

N – Non-Physical

Non-Physical: Things like sensations, beliefs, memories, thoughts, desires, intentions, acts of the will, and others are non-physical. These are conscious states, but they are not physical. Many conscious states have the property of being true or false, and no conscious state is located in space. For example, if I write, “I want a barbeque sandwich” on a whiteboard, is that a true or false statement? Ok, yes, it is. Is “I want a barbeque sandwich” taking up space? You say, “Well, yes – because it’s taking up space on the whiteboard.” Not so! That is only a second-order representation of something that is true or false. The thought itself is not taking up space.

W – What-It’s-Like

What It’s Like: There is a “what-it’s like” quality to consciousness. What’s it like to be you? You can describe it in words, but you can’t get inside somebody’s thoughts and really know “what it’s like” to be that person. Even if you have all the possible information about every molecule in that person’s body, you won’t know what it’s like to be that person.

I – Internal

Internal: We can’t look at an MRI of your brain and figure out what you are thinking. It’s an internal, private, subjective realm. You can’t find out what I am thinking and I can’t find out what you are thinking. It’s totally internal: personal, private, and subjective. (You are the subject of your own thoughts. If your thoughts weren’t your thoughts, we could not talk about the thoughts that you have.)

S – Subjective

Subjective: Try to think of a thought that is not about something. Even when you have just a feeling, the feeling (an itch, a pain, a taste, etc.) is a thought about something. Consciousness is subjective. That means there is always a subject (something that the thought is about).

P – Persistent

Persistent: You are the same person over time. Do you remember what you were doing two weeks ago? Ok, what about the earliest thing you can remember? Do you remember anything from when you were four years old? You are still the same person. Yes, you have experienced change, but if the mind is the brain and the brain is only matter, how can you explain this?

[1] Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Random House, 2018), 427.

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