It’s Monday morning. I am in a local coffee shop, queueing for a flat white. Music is playing in the background, and I can just about hear it over the hum of the conversations. A child is having a tantrum in the corner. But it’s okay, the smell of coffee reaches my nostrils. As I queue, I begin to think back over my weekend. The smells and sounds evoke memories of many kinds. I begin to think about the book I’m reading and the upcoming essay to write. I make a mental list of things to get done this week. The Monday morning trip to the coffee shop is more than an appointment with a flat white. It is an experience of sights, sounds, smells, sensations, memories and thoughts all rolled into one.
We are experiential beings continually enveloped in a world of qualitative experience. Philosophers refer to these as qualia. Life is full of qualia, such as seeing colours, hearing music or tasting food. But we also encounter those experiences from our unique first-person vantage point. We are conscious beings, or as philosophy Professor Thomas Nagel once put it, there is something “that it is like to be us”. We have a sense of self, an inner reality, a felt experience, that even someone who knows us well cannot access directly. There is a ‘me’ that continues from one day to the next. And there is a ‘you’.
But what is the nature of that felt experience?
Am I just my brain?
If you ask philosophers this question a range of very different answers will come back. One that receives a regular hearing is that activity in the brain alone can explain it all – a view sometimes referred to as “reductive physicalism”. In other words, our felt experience is reducible (hence “reductive”) to the physical workings of the brain (hence “physicalism”).
But an important fact to bear in mind is that we don’t just have a brain with all its neurons, chemicals and electrical activity. We also have a mind with all of its thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions and decisions. The ‘million-dollar’ question sitting of the heart of this conversation is how we get from brain to mind? From neurons to thoughts? From brain chemicals to what it is like to be you? Or, as Baronness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Physiology at the University of Oxford, once asked,
'How does the water of boring old brain cells and sludgy stuff translate into the wine of phenomenological subjective experience?' 
We are sometimes given the impression that this is a new question thrown into the spotlight by the acceleration in neuroscientific discovery over the last few decades. But the mind-brain or body-soul relationship has been debated since the ancient world, and there have always been a range of viewpoints. David Chalmers, Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University, describes the quest today to make sense of this as the “hard” problem of consciousness. This is not a question that has been conclusively resolved by any means.
So why might brain activity alone be an insufficient explanation?
Let’s return to the coffee shop again. There is nothing quite like the smell of a rich Guatemalan blend. But if someone asked you to describe the smell of coffee, using physical processes alone, how would you respond? The chemical structure of coffee would be interesting but doesn’t access the smell itself. The physiology of digestion again is fascinating but gets us no closer to encountering the aroma. If you want to know what coffee smells like, you need to smell it! Similarly, taking measurements and scans from a person’s brain bring us no closer to knowing what their day has been like. To find out what’s in someone’s mind we need to ask the person to share their inner world with us. For this reason, many atheists and agnostics as well as theists argue that the mind and brain are two very different things. Conscious processes cannot be synonymous with brain processes. They appear to work very closely together, but statisticians would remind us that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Brain chemistry is not enough to account for felt experience.
So what alternative explanations are there?
Does brain generate mind?
Some take the view that the mind is distinct from the brain and is an emergent property of the brain. In other words, the brain generates the mind. When a number of different brain parts come together over time, a new entity comes into being. This view can be broadly referred to as non-reductive physicalism. The mind is generated by the physical brain (hence “physicalism”) but is not reducible to physics and chemistry (hence “non-reductive”).
Consider the case of a university. A university as an institution is made up of several different departments, each with its own subject area and expertise, and yet a university is more than the sum of its departments. It also has an alumni network, an international reputation, a donor base, and develops ideas that shape how people think. The institution that began by means of a few foundational building blocks over time has grown into something far greater. In a similar way, some take the view that mental states emerged from brain states.
This view seeks to make sense of the close connection between mind and brain that is clearly demonstrated in neuroscience and clinical medicine, but it still doesn’t solve the hard problem. How exactly could mind emerge from a physical system? Especially if the physical system is closed. Max Tegmark, writing in the New Scientist book The Universe Next Door, is among a number of philosophers who explain the transition in terms of complexity. When groups of atoms are arranged in new ways, new properties emerge . Higher and higher levels of complexity lead to more and more sophisticated abilities. But others argue that physical systems alone, however complex they may be, are insufficient to get us across the chasm. Greater and greater levels of brain complexity still don’t give rise to mind and felt experience.
Some Christians are non-reductive physicalists but take the view that the brain has given rise to the conscious mind as the creative handiwork of a conscious being - God. If God exists, the system is not a closed one and therefore there is hope for crossing the chasm from brain to mind.
Beyond the brain?
A third view holds that two distinct, but interactive substances are at play: a physical brain and a non-physical mind. This view, known as substance dualism, argues that conscious states are independent of brain states. Some might say they are beyond the brain.
The question of how a non-physical mind could exert changes in a physical brain poses concerns for many. If mind and brain are distinct, how do we explain the clear interaction between them? Proponents argue for holistic dualisms in which conscious states exist beyond the brain but are also deeply causally connected to the brain. They welcome the discoveries of neuroscience but claim they are not the whole story.
When we look at the things that doctors have observed in their patients, we also see that the mind-brain relationship is complex. Granted there are many examples in which brain and mind correlate closely, such as the memory loss that parallels neurodegeneration in diseases like Dementia and Alzheimer’s. But there are also instances of profound discontinuity, such as in adults who recovered from childhood hydrancephaly (water on the brain) and are missing 90% of their brain tissue and yet function as normal adults.
There is also a growing body of data from patients who underwent cardiac arrest in the operating room and needed resuscitation. In a state of clinical death with their body and brain in the process of shutting down, 7-10% of patients across the world report a vividly conscious experience. Of course, many critiques are raised against near-death-experiences (NDEs), one of which being that these experiences are still likely to be caused by residual brain activity even if it is undetectable. But at very least, the sheer disproportionality of a brain in shut down coupled with the vivid encounters reported by patients gives us pause for thought. If conscious experience is driven entirely by the brain, this data set makes little sense. However, if conscious experience depends on more than just brain processes then there may be a place for NDEs. Harvard neurosurgeon Eben Alexander concluded after his own NDE that:
'My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave.’ 
We also see the same picture of human complexity in the Bible as we do in the clinic. Genesis 2:7 tells us that, ‘The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’ These verses are not necessarily at odds with scientific descriptions of the processes by which homo sapiens came to exist. But they imply that physical descriptions alone are not enough to describe the human person. The Hebrew word for “breath of life” is neshama or ruach, and means “God’s breath” or “God’s Spirit”. According to these verses, a person is far more than matter. Far more than a machine. They are an amalgamation of ‘dust’ and ‘breath’. Any attempt to explain human consciousness must account for this complexity rather than reduce or ignore it.
Thinking about thinking
Even if all of our questions about the mind-brain relationship were answered and an elegant neuroscience of consciousness was uncovered, would this answer all of our questions about our felt experience? It would not. As David Chalmers is recorded to have said, “…. there is a difference between finding a correlate and finding an explanation”. In other words, why are we conscious beings in the first place? Why can we think at all? This is not a scientific question. It reaches into the domains of philosophy and theology and we must venture there for answers.
If God does not exist, then conscious humans have arisen from within a non-conscious universe of time, matter and chance. The arrival of beings like us is not impossible but is somewhat surprising. However, if God does exist then conscious humans are, in a sense, what we might expect because it didn’t all start with matter, but with a conscious being known as God. Or rather, as a conscious community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The human mind makes more sense if God exists than if He doesn’t.
The first sentence of the Bible says, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1), and the opening of John’s gospel reminds us that, ‘through him [the Word] all things were made’ (John 1:3) including the human brain. If this is true, then there is hope for solving the hard problem of consciousness.
Why can we think? Because God thinks and we are made in his image. We have a mind because He does. God is a thinking, feeling, conscious being who is also relational and wants to extend consciousness beyond himself to people. Why? So that He can be not simply observed, but also known and experienced.
- Sharon Dirckx, Am I just my Brain? The Good Book Company, 2019
- Jonathan Loose, Angus JL Menuge and JP Moreland (editors), The Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2018)
- Malcolm Jeeves and Warren Brown, Neuroscience, Psychology and Religion: Illusions, Delusions and Realities about human nature (Templeton Press, 2009)
 Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, in The Philosophical Review, 1974, 83(4):440.
 S. Greenfield, “The Neuroscience of Consciousness”, University of Melbourne, 27th November 2012.
 F. Swain, The Universe Next Door: A Journey Through 55 Parallel Worlds and Possible Futures (John Murray, 2017), p 166.
 Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven, Piatkus 2012, p.9
Enjoyed this article? You might like these other resources on a similar topic: