Tuesday, April 17, 2012

You Are Your Brain

I took more psychology in college than I wish I had, in retrospect. Modern psychology is boring as hell, with the exception of one unit on abnormal psychology and a few discussions on the Milgram and Harvard Prison experiments (which were not for the benefit of focusing in any meaningful way on the findings, but rather for their implications regarding ethical practices).

Really, the only thing I took away from studying psychology was this: I am my brain. It seems like, when I look back on taking psychology (which was an elective for me), I did a lot of cramming, in the same fashion (and for the same reasons) that I did when I took anatomy and physiology.

The psychology classes I took focused primarily on the brain, it’s make-up, the properties of various patches of cells, and a smattering of history regarding how these findings were derived.

One of the most common ways we learn about the brain is through brain injuries. If a railroad spike is accidentally fired into someone’s head and their behavior changes, we can deduce that the area damaged is linked to that behavior. If a clot develops in a particular lobe, cutting off blood to a certain area, and the person no longer recognizes faces, we can reason that the region of the brain affected is linked to facial recognition.

To be sure, it’s quite disconcerting how many things can be affected by injuries to the brain. There is even evidence that certain brain injuries (like concussions) can result in increases in violent behavior.

If the brain is who we are, there is probably also a genetic component to who we are, as well. In fact, we already know that certain genetic disorders can affect the brain, thereby altering the individual in a significant way. Intelligence, temperament, memory, happiness, and even religiosity are affected by genetics to some degree.

This begs the question: how culpable are we for our own actions? From a legal standpoint, I’m comfortable saying we should still hold people accountable for their crimes, but from a theological standpoint, these are damning facts.

I’m comfortable with holding people legally accountable because a person naturally inclined to commit crimes (particularly violent or destructive ones) should be behind bars, more for the sake of society than as a deterrent for others or as a lesson to the offender. However, human punishment is finite, whereas divine justice is eternal.

If we are being judged in this life, it seems patently unfair to create some people who are inclined to do wrong. Suppose I am not religious because I lack the brain capacity to experience the sensation people equate with “God.” This idea is not unheard of. It seems rather unjust to give other people “evidence” for God within their own minds, while I am expected to take the whole thing purely on faith.

Now, I’m of the opinion I just lack a delusion, not evidence, but I’m just trying to play God’s advocate here…

I suppose this injustice is not without precedent. After all, it’s hard to say we all have similar life circumstances, though the irony is that those who have the most “blessings” are statistically the least religious. But even then, one could say being blessed with poverty makes one more inclined to religiosity, and the Bible’s attitude regarding money (particularly the New Testament) also seems to corroborate this.

Still, how can God be just if being beaten as a child can directly lead to brain damage that makes you a more violent person? When you compound this with exposure to poor behavioral role models, a lot of people never have a chance.

From a purely secular standpoint, this is disconcerting. To think that our actions are internally affected or even dictated by factors outside of our own conscious control is not something I want to believe. I think it muddies the ethical waters. It calls into question the very concept of free will in a manner independent of another outlook I am comfortable dismissing: fatalism.

I want free will, and the idea of there not being free will goes against everything I feel on the matter. This near genetic determinism shakes the very foundation of my view of personhood, because it presents compelling evidence that we are partially the victims of our mind’s physical deficiencies.

I’m inclined to insist there is still a large degree of choice regarding one’s decisions, if only because I think human beings are obviously capable of overcoming their urges if they feel compelled to put effort into it. However, the fact remains: any of us could be in an accident tomorrow that fundamentally changes who we are.

This is frightening to me. It’s one thing to die, but it’s another conundrum completely for our very personality to disappear, and for a nearly unrecognizable person to begin inhabiting our bodies. This very phenomenon, which seems almost like the plot of a horror movie, happens from time to time. Relatives of people who suffer this kind of transformation have described the victims of such head injuries as being completely different people, even to the point where friendships and marriages have ended over this.

Perhaps the most common example of this happening is a degenerative condition, Alzheimer’s disease. We don’t know precisely what causes this form of brain damage, but the outcome is now well understood. It can lead to confusion, mood swings, irritability, delusions, aggression, language problems, and most notably, memory loss. Eventually, the mind deteriorates to such an extent that the body ceases to function properly, and the patient just begins to waste away.

If you ever needed evidence that God does not exist, Alzheimer’s is it. It is a disease that bucks all theological expectations. Namely, from the point of view of Christianity, Alzheimer’s makes it impossible to be saved. How can you keep Jesus in your heart if you cannot remember your own name? How can you ask for forgiveness for things you do not even realize you have done?

Most religious people would have you believe we are spiritual beings, but what sort of spirit is built on the neurons of a physical brain? Considering how dependent we are upon our brains, isn’t it obvious that once our brain ceases to function, the same goes for us?

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