Reviewed by Dr David Glass
In this short book, Sharon Dirckx provides a very helpful introduction to some extremely big topics. As she points out in the introduction, how we answer the question ‘Am I just my brain?’ has implications for free will, robotics, ethics and religion, so the stakes are high. A commonly held view is that the answer is ‘yes’, there is nothing more to us than our physical brains. Evaluating this belief is the central focus of the book and, with a scientific background in brain imaging, Dirckx is well-placed to address the issue. Drawing frequently on work in neuroscience, she nevertheless emphasizes the inability of science to give us a complete picture on its own since philosophical issues are never too far away.
Addressing the question of whether we are just machines, Dirckx introduces the well-known Turing test for intelligence. Although I am not convinced that `some robots are barely distinguishable from humans’ (p. 41), the test still raises an interesting question. Dirckx also discusses a famous thought experiment – the Chinese room argument – to suggest that even if a machine appeared to be intelligent it might have no understanding at all. However, her main focus is rightly on the subject of conscious experience and she argues convincingly that this fundamental aspect of our lives poses insurmountable problems for the view that we are just machines.
What about the soul? Is there any such thing? It might be a surprise to readers that many Christian thinkers – both theologians and scientists – believe the answer is ‘no’; there is no soul, at least not in the sense of a non-physical part of us. While Dirckx does not rule out such a view (known as non-reductive physicalism), she draws attention to the problem of generating conscious minds from non-conscious neurons in the brain. Some claim that this is just down to the complexity of the brain, but Dirckx is sceptical of this idea. Overall, she leans towards some version of the traditional view of the soul (substance dualism) and draws attention to the fact that recent, powerful defences of the soul have been provided by a number of leading Christian philosophers. Although belief in the soul is often rejected as unscientific, Dirckx argues that it is quite compatible with science and makes sense from a theistic perspective. After all, ‘if God exists, then it is possible to be conscious without a brain’ (p. 74), but more importantly, the idea that consciousness is fundamental rather than being physical, fits very neatly with the belief that the ultimate nature of reality is non-physical as theism maintains.
If we are just our brains, it is very difficult to see how free will fits into the picture, but this has huge repercussions for how we think about ourselves. Dirckx provides a good overview of different views on free will and helpfully shows why the famous Libet experiment does not show that free will is illusory. In later chapters, she argues against the idea that science can explain away religious belief as well as religious experience. In fact, this fits with earlier chapters, which essentially considered the view that science explains away the mind, the soul or free will. Dirckx is certainly not anti-science; she does not deny that science explains, but she does deny that it explains away. The idea that science explains away any of these things is really just a dubious philosophical claim.
In the last chapter, Dirckx raises the intriguing question, ‘what is consciousness for?’ Having argued that the existence of consciousness makes more sense in a universe created by God, she now explores how this relates to the Christian belief that humans are made in the image of God. We were made to know and be in relationship with God and ultimately that is the reason for consciousness: ‘We are conscious because [God] is conscious. (p. 123)’
By way of minor criticism, I felt at times that the book was too ambitious in the range of topics covered. Personally, I would also like to have seen a bit more coverage of some topics, such as more engagement with the arguments for a version of dualism advocated by David Chalmers, one of the world’s leading philosophers of mind. But these are minor points. Overall, this book raises important questions in an interesting and engaging way. Recognizing the controversial nature of these topics, readers are encouraged at the end of the book to keep asking questions. This book certainly stimulates questions and will help readers to investigate them in a thoughtful way.
Dr David Glass
is a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. He is the author of Atheism’s New Clothes (IVP/Apollos) and contributes to the apologetics website www.saintsandsceptics.org .
Am I just my brain? by Sharon Dirckx is available here.