What does it mean to be “me?” Many people have asked this question through time, which can be seen in philosophical ponderings such as Theseus’ ship and the Matrix movie series. As humans, we have an intrinsic desire to understand “what makes me, me?” In the short book Am I Just My Brain?, Sharon Dirckx helps us think through this question from a biblical perspective.
Relying on both her own knowledge of the brain and the knowledge of those who work with them, Dirckx examines the relationship between the mind and the brain. Throughout the book, she sets her sights on a single goal, which is to dismantle a materialistic, naturalistic worldview. Using the concepts of the mind, soul, and consciousness, Dirckx, through the use of examples, thought experiments, and scientific and philosophical studies, seeks to demonstrate both that humans are more than simply physical beings and that the best explanation for this reality is that we were created by God.
The brain is a marvelous part of the human body. One of my first impressions from reading this book is that Dirckx has studied human brains to great length. She does not shy away from some technical terms in her work, but she helps readers to understand these terms by including a brief glossary at the beginning of the book. Dirckx is also careful to define these terms in the chapters when they first appear, which allows her book to remain an accessible read.
Dirckx begins by surveying our ever-increasing understanding of brain science, which has led some to the conclusion that we are our brains. Medical science, based primarily on a naturalistic worldview, is eager to explain our minds in terms of mere brain activity. However, the nature of the mind is a subject that involves both philosophical and scientific questions. The answers to these questions have implications for science, artificial intelligence, ethics, and religion. Approaching these issues from many angles, Dirckx successfully addresses historical, philosophical, and medical information.
Am I Just My Brain? is structured by eight questions, one of which is addressed in each chapter. Throughout the book, Dirckx looks at science, history, medical data, and human experience to evaluate the differing views on the mind/brain relationship. She evaluates three basic views that explain the existence of the mind: 1) the brain and the mind are the same (in other words, humans are highly evolved animals and nothing more than our natural bodies); 2) the brain generates the mind (the two are distinct, but inseparably linked); and 3) the mind is something else that goes beyond the brain (the mind and the brain are separate, allowing for the mind to function when the brain is functionally dead or severely damaged).
In evaluating the various perspectives, Dirckx, relying on the insights of ancient philosophy, modern science, theology, and human experience, asks three questions of each view: 1) Is the view internally coherent? 2) Does the view have explanatory power? 3) Is the view livable? Though these views can be addressed philosophically, oftentimes the best arguments are those from our understandings of life and how we interact with ourselves and others. Dirckx provides helpful illustrations of these instances, such as trying to understand the wonder of a live concert by hearing about it as opposed to having been there. Her work in these chapters shows that she grasps not only the scientific and philosophical data, but also that she has a keen insight into what it means to be human.
This book takes the form of what we would call a “negative apologetic,” meaning that the intended purpose of this work is not to answer every question conclusively, but rather seeks to defeat the principal argument of the opposing worldview. The question of how our brains and minds relate is not answered in full, as our understanding remains limited. However, what the book does accomplish is a demonstration that the question is far from answered by any view that seeks to equate the brain and the mind in hopes of eliminating any type of immaterial (non-physical) part of humanity. Dirckx’s experience and expertise are evident in her concise book that could have spent much more time investigating and exploring these same ideas. Thankfully, the author is able to distill what could undoubtedly fill quite a few books and articles (she includes 148 footnotes in her 130-page book!) into a brief handling of a fascinating topic. Dirckx is unapologetically Christian in her approach, which she expresses tactfully and skillfully. Rather than shying away from the sciences, we need intelligent Christians to engage the issues in this field. Am I Just My Brain? is a fine example of why.
Nathan Hunter (BA, Maranatha Baptist Bible College) serves as a Lay Elder of Oak Park Baptist Church.