It seems every few months a colorful image of a human brain appears in the news, accompanied by excited headlines of a new breakthrough in neuroscience. The headlines suggest to readers that neuroscience can now do amazing things, such as explain spiritual experiences, or detect lying, or even help cure religious fundamentalism. The frequency and enthusiasm of these reports understandably causes many people to think brain scans can see our innermost thoughts, and that science will eventually be able to explain everything about human consciousness. But what media consumers don’t see is the heated debate that often follows these headlines. Each new advance in neuroscience raises the centuries-old mind-body problem—is the mind just an illusory effect of the brain, or is there something more to humans than just their physical bodies? Is there such a thing as the soul?

The most recent breakthrough of a high resolution, 3-D brain map is a perfect example of this routine. Surrounding the announcement has been heated discussions in both The Guardian and The New York Times. On the one hand, you have news reports suggesting neuroscience will eventually “unlock the secrets of the mind.” On the other hand, you have critics who claim that neuroscience is incapable, even in principle, of fully explaining consciousness, and they accuse those who believe it will of falling into “neuromania.” These are often followed by an apologetic rejoinder from a neuroscientist, who defends his or her discipline from the accusations of critics, and affirms the claims of the original news report, albeit in a more subtle and nuanced way.

To many, this dispute over neuromania and the mind-body problem may seem like an irrelevant, academic quarrel. But as people who traditionally believe in the existence of the soul, Christians naturally have an interest in this debate. As a Christian myself, I do believe that the soul exists, but not for purely faith-based reasons. As I will explain in a moment, there are excellent philosophical reasons to doubt the assumption that we are purely material creatures.

Our conscious experience of the world has an undeniably qualitative aspect to it.  For example, our experiences include things like the color of grass, the sound of a cello, or the feel of pain. Philosophers call these experiences qualia. The existence of qualia poses a problem for materialism (the view that everything is ultimately composed of physical matter). If materialism is true, if we are nothing more than physical brain-bodies, then the “neuromaniacs” are right; science will eventually be able to explain all of conscious experience in purely physical, scientific terms. The rather obvious difficulty with qualia, however, is they show that physical facts do not tell us everything.

A famous thought experiment helps to illustrate this problem. Imagine a scientist who has lived and studied her whole life in a black-and-white environment. She’s never personally seen other colors, but she knows every physical fact there is to know about them and the human brain—facts about pigmentation, wavelengths of light absorption and reflection, and how the various parts of the brain are stimulated by and interpret such wavelengths. According to materialism, she should know everything there is to know about our conscious experience of colors. But then imagine our scientist is allowed to leave her black-and-white environment and, for the first time, she steps outside and sees the world in all its variegated glory. “Oh, that’s what the color green looks like!” we can imagine her saying. Clearly, our scientist has now gained new knowledge that she did not have before, even though she knew all the physical facts prior to going outside. Thus, it seems the qualia of conscious experience gives us knowledge that is non-physical, and therefore outside the purview of science. It follows that materialistic “neuromania” is misguided, and we really are more than just physical brains.

It’s important to realize two things here: First, it is not just religious believers that think materialism is untenable. A number of non-religious philosophers, and even atheists, openly admit as much. For example, respected atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has recently argued that the qualities of mind show materialism is false. Even ‘new atheist’ Sam Harris seems to agree that science cannot explain consciousness. Secondly, the non-physical nature of consciousness does not demonstrate that the soul exists, or that Christianity is true. It does show, however, that there is more to reality than just the physical, and that there is knowledge outside of science. That leaves the possibility of the supernatural wide open.

So, next time you see an image of a colorful brain scan in the news, followed by overly confident headlines, remember there is probably more to the story. Don’t fall into the trap of neuromania. Remember there is a heated debate behind the scenes; a debate that shows science is really no closer to solving the age-old question of the soul than it was hundreds of years ago. And no matter how detailed a map of the human brain we may create, it will likely never be able to locate your mind, or anyone else’s for that matter.


11 Comments

  1. Evangelicals might be interested in Christian scholars who have interacted with the neurosciences and have brought that discipline into dialogue with theology. The result is a monistic rather than dualistic view of human nature, that these scholars believe does justice to both the biblical text and the neurosciences. One such scholar is Nancey Murphy, who calls her view non-reductive physicalism, to separate it from naturalistic monistic theories of human nature. Those interested in considering this possibility are encouraged to seek out her books of she and her colleagues on the topic. For an introduction see her video lecture:

    1. Hi John, thanks for sharing this. I hope readers don’t go away from my
      article thinking they must be a Cartesian dualist. I’m not. There are
      other options that are compatible with Christianity. Non-reductive
      physicalism is one, as you mentioned, and so is Aristotelian
      hylomorphism, which is where I land. Philosopher Eleonore
      Stump gives a brief intro of that view here:

  2. The scientist in the thought experiment didn’t have all of the physical facts if she hadn’t seen the colour. No doubt I’m missing something here…

    1. Hi Noah, thanks for your comment. Knowing what a color looks like might seem like merely knowing physical facts, but it’s actually more than that. Seeing color involves a private qualitative experience that you, as a conscious self, have. It’s possible that someone could know everything about your brain at the moment you are looking at the color green (i.e. they’d know all the physical facts of brain science and be able to conclude from the data that you are seeing the color green at that moment) and yet still not know what the color green looks like themselves if they’ve never personally experienced it. That’s the point. Conscious experience gives us qualitative knowledge that can’t be measured or inferred from empirical data. And that means consciousness entails something more than just physical interactions. I hope that helps!

    2. Thanks for the reply. I understand where the thought experiment is coming from but I don’t buy its premise that colour perception is non-physical information. Physical organs encounter physical objects which reflect the wavelength of visible light which we call “colour” but this is supposed to be non-physical? But thanks for the article, it really made me think today!

    3. Keep in mind no one is saying that color perception is purely non-physical, just that it involves non-physical aspects *in addition to* the physical parts you mentioned. That’s all. Glad the article provoked some thought! Take care.

  3. I think it would be difficult to harmonize any view that didn’t involve the existence of a soul with Christianity.

    1. Hi Esther, I agree with you. That’s why I don’t subscribe to the view of non-reductive physicalism, mentioned in previous comments. While I said it was an option, I don’t think it is the best option.

    2. Agreed. BTW, if you want to see a hilarious debate with a reductive physicalist, check out William Lane Craig vs. Alex Rosenberg. I actually know someone who was a consultant for Craig on that debate, and we found it very entertaining.

    3. Nice. Craig was one of my profs in grad school at Biola. He’s definitely a stud when it comes to philosophy.

    4. Yeah, and a great guy in person too. Truly a gem. I wish he were a Boethian about God and time, but that’s a separate debate…

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