The Soul, the Brain, and Free Will

By L. Alfred James

The Soul, the Brain, and Free WillWhat are human beings? Are they simply a kind of animal? Are they made only (and entirely) of matter? Or is there something more to human nature?

Let me make this question more personal? What are you? Are you merely a mobile computer that is made of meat? If so, what makes human beings any more valuable than other living thing on this planet? In fact, what makes us human beings more valuable than even the bacteria that we kill with our anti-microbial hand soaps? Indeed, if it isn’t wrong to kill annoying bacteria, why is it wrong to kill annoying human beings?

For millennia that question has been answered in a very simple way: human beings are not merely physical. They are dualistic in nature, having a soul and body. Moreover, they are made in the image of God and this confers great moral value upon them. This answer implies that two non-physical things exist: objective moral values and human souls.

However, hardcore atheism insists that there is no such thing as a soul or a moral value. It insists that nothing apart from physical matter and energy exists. This week we will discuss a couple of good reasons for believing that human beings have souls, and next week we will discuss moral values.

Brain Surgery and the Will

Wilder Penfield was probably the most famous neurosurgeon ever to come out of Canada. He often performed brain surgeries in which—at different points during the procedure—the patient would actually be fully conscious (despite having part of their head open). When Penfield would stimulate certain parts of the brain with electricity he would ask the patient to describe what they were experiencing. Over time, Penfield noticed that the got very consistent reactions. Stimulating some parts of the brain consistently made the patient consciously remember things, indicating that that part of the brain stores memories. Other parts would consistently make patients move an arm or a leg. Stimulating other parts would consistently make a patient vocalize. Penfield worked through this process with thousands of patients, slowly mapping the functions of many different parts of the human brain. Nonetheless, toward the end of his career, he said that his experience as a brain surgeon only confirmed his belief in the soul:

When I have caused a conscious patient to move his hand by applying an electrode to the motor cortex of one hemisphere, I have often asked him about it. Invariably his response was: “I didn’t do that. You did.” When I caused him to vocalize, he said: “I didn’t make that sound. You pulled it out of me.” When I caused the record of the stream of consciousness to run again and so presented to him the record of his past experience, he marveled that he should be conscious of the past as well as the present…he assumed at once that, somehow, the surgeon was responsible for the phenomenon.1

Penfield went on to say, “There is no place in the cerebral cortex where electrode stimulation will cause a patient . . . to decide, to choose.” That is, you cannot stimulate a patient to do something and then also get them to say, “I did that. I decided to move my hand. I decided to vocalize. I decided to recall those memories.” Hence, Penfield never found the human will anywhere in the brain.

This suggests that there is some part of human consciousness that is not physical. To say another way, it suggests that consciousness is not entirely a product of physical processes (though, in this life, consciousness may depend on physical processes). There is therefore some immaterial component in human nature.

This is further confirmed by our experience of free will. If our consciousness is seated in our souls, then free will makes perfect sense. But if we are only bodies, without souls, free will is impossible. Why? It’s not too hard to understand if you think about it: If we are purely material, then that means that all of our thoughts, feelings, and choices are determined by chemical reactions happening in our brains. Our choices are not, therefore, free. Our choices are simply the product of the laws of chemistry. Indeed, all of our thoughts, feelings, and choices—without exception—are completely determined by the electrochemical processes happening inside of our heads. To be sure, we may feel like we have free will, but that is completely an illusion.

Thus, if there is no soul, there is no real freedom of the will. And if we don’t have genuine freedom, it is hard to see how this life can be meaningful. We are just puppets—with the forces of nature pulling the strings—living a very sad and delusory life.
If you are like most people, you have an intuitive sense that you are not merely your body, and that you have genuine freedom in the choices that you make. If you are correct, then that means that some things (human souls) in our experience are not merely physical objects. And this, in turn, means that there is a supernatural realm that transcends this physical universe.

1. Wilder Penfield, quoted in The Soul Hypothesis by Mark Baker and Stewart Goetz (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), 115.

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