Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain

This is the 6th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  The previous blog is The Genetic Side of Being Human (II).  We are now considering  some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.

Le Fanu accepts many parts of the theory of evolution but remains unconvinced that the theory of evolution alone can adequately explain many of the developments that are said to be part of human evolution or which can be seen in the historical record (for example, the historical record shows a sudden extinction of many species and the unexpected explosion of new species rather than the theory expected gradual appearance of new species over time).

Any one thing which happens in the evolution of a species requires many other evolutionary changes as well.  For example in humans, the large brain requires that a mother’s pelvis and birthing canal must be capable of giving birth to a baby with such a  shaped head AND it requires that much of the brain’s development occurs after birth so that human babies are born almost totally helpless as compared to other primate babies.  Thus the evolution of a larger brain requires the evolution of the pelvic region of human women, the evolution of a bone structure to support the top heavy head over a bipedal body, and the delay of the brain’s development until after birth.   Many “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” type dilemmas for evolution theorists to explain.

“Similarly, the elusive workings of the human brain would seem to defy any simple evolutionary explanation.”  (Kindle Loc. 770-71)

It is the brain itself which captured much attention from Le Fanu as he considered the mystery of what it is to be human.  The relationship between the brain cells and conscious thought for example are not yet resolved.   Here again he thinks despite huge advances in scientific knowledge about the brain, there are huge gaps in our understanding which speak to the limits of science and the profound mystery of being human.

“‘We seem as far from understanding [the brain] as we were a century ago. Nobody understands how decisions are made or how imagination is set free.’”  (Kindle Loc. 458-59)

Though new methods of doing brain scans have made visible to us areas of the brain involved in various mental activities, how these processes actually work is not totally known.   Brain functions can be spread through large portions of the brain and how the various areas of the brain work together and the fact that even “silent” portions of the brain are essential for these functions is little understood today.   In addition how DNA works to make the brain what it is remains a mystery.

“…  the dominant features of the brain remain its ‘silent’ areas, with their capacity to integrate and unify thoughts, sensations and emotions into a continuous stream of conscious awareness.”  (Kindle  Loc. 3732-34)

Le Fanu says it is the existence of continuous conscious awareness – a real fact of being human which though related to the material brain is not coterminous with the brain –  which speaks to us of a non-materials aspect of our being (see also my blog Is This Your Brain on God?).

“… unprepossessing three pounds of brain tissue confined within our skulls, like a vast intellectual black hole absorbs the most searching forms of scientific investigation.”  (Kindle  Loc. 3747-48)

The brain is able to deal with information and abstract concepts – non-material reality.  The human is capable of successfully relating to this non-material reality of information, knowledge and emotions, which for Le Fanu is evidence of why evolutionary theory based solely in materialism is inadequate for understanding what it is to be human.  One needs to look beyond materialism to begin to grasp the truth about life and humanity

“… first, how just a few thousand genes might instruct the arrangement of those billions of neurons with their ‘hardwired’ faculties of language and mathematics; and second, the physical basis of that all-encompassing property of neuroplasticity by which the brain incorporates into itself the experiences of a lifetime.”  (Kindle Loc. 3738-40)

The mystery of being human will not, according to Le Fanu be resolved by scientific materialism, because part of being human involves non-material characteristics – consciousness and conscience, processing information and knowledge, experiencing the world through emotions.

“… the central enigma is clear enough: how to reconcile what the brain is with what it does?”   (Kindle  Loc. 2984-85)

The relationship between mind and brain is a mystery that Le Fanu thinks materialistic science cannot resolve because it introduces the non-material reality into scientific study  and science says it is limited to physical realities.

Of course the secular scientist will object that this is nothing but another “god of the gaps” objection which will be over come in time.    Or perhaps it really does point to a truth about being human – the non-material aspects of human existence are every bit as real as the material.

Next: Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain (II)