Who or what are we? The materialist viewpoint is that we are matter in motion governed by our brains, a wetware operating system of three pounds of grey and white matter. Our identity is packed into our brains and if they die, so do we. There is no soul, and consciousness is an illusion. Is that what we are?
From the materialist point of view our human brains are the product of evolution — an ape-like brain grown larger and more sophisticated. Physically a human brain is three times the size of a chimpanzee brain, and uses considerably more energy. Our brain represents 2 percent of our body weight but uses 20 percent of the oxygen we breathe. However, our brains are not merely enlarged ape brains — there are other differences. Our brains contain neural structures, enhanced wiring, and forms of connectivity among nerve cells not found in any animal.1 Our neurons continue dividing well into adulthood and have a 10-fold higher density than chimps. The human brain is something new, something different, as can be seen by the things we do that animals don’t.
In fact our differences are likely to be greater than our similarities. David Premack, the late psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania said:
In examining claims of similarity between animals and humans, one must ask: What are the dissimilarities? This approach prevents confusing similarity with equivalence. We follow this approach in examining eight cognitive cases — teaching, short-term memory, causal reasoning, planning, deception, transitive inference, theory of mind, and language — and find, in all cases, that similarities between animal and human abilities are small, dissimilarities large.2
Are the dissimilarities so large as to make Darwinian evolution of our brains and abilities impossible? Our brains have vastly more ability than is needed for survival, most notably the capacity for language and abstract thought. We are orders of magnitude beyond anything animals can do.
Let’s consider language. As a thought experiment, imagine what life required about 500,000 years ago (noting the irony of the experiment as you do so). The people alive then were hunters and gatherers. Their tools were Acheulean hand-axes and sharpened wooden spears. Fire was used for cooking. Listen to David Premack again:
I challenge the reader to reconstruct the scenario that would confer selective fitness on recursiveness. Language evolved, it is conjectured, at a time when humans or protohumans were hunting mastodons…Would it be a great advantage for one of our ancestors squatting alongside the embers, to be able to remark, “Beware of the short beast whose front hoof Bob cracked when, having forgotten his own spear back at camp, he got in a glancing blow with the dull spear he borrowed from Jack”?
Human language is an embarrassment for evolutionary theory because it is vastly more powerful than one can account for in terms of selective fitness. A semantic language with simple mapping rules of a kind one might suppose that the chimpanzee would have, appears to confer all the advantages one normally associates with discussions of mastodon hunting or the like. For discussions of that kind, syntactical classes, structure-dependent rules, recursion and the rest, are overly powerful devices, absurdly so.3
“Pass the Meat”
Life did not require complex sentences when “Look out!” or “Pass the meat,” would have done. In fact, at no time in our history have we ever needed language capable of prose like this:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is Hell.4
Do chimpanzees love? We do.
I cannot conceive of chimpanzees developing emotions, one for the other, comparable in any way to the tenderness, the protectiveness, tolerance, and spiritual exhilaration that are the hallmarks of human love in its truest and deepest sense.5
Jane Goodall said that.
I think it is safe to say that we are much more than our brains. Our brains enable us to interact with our bodies, and through them the physical world. In some sense they mediate between us and the world. When the brain is injured or disturbed, so is our perception and interaction with the world. But our brains are capable of rational thought. Otherwise we would never have sent anyone to the moon.
What It Means to Reason
Consider what it means to think, to reason. The materialist view says thought is an epiphenomenon and what we think is the product of material processes in the brain, processes that are biochemically and genetically determined. Free will and rationality are an illusion. But why believe in reasoned thought if your every thought is foreordained by chemical interactions and responses to stimuli? If an atheist tells you we are nothing but meat machines with no souls or free will, ask him on what basis he thinks he can say that. If his every thought is determined, not free, then there is no reason to think he has arrived at his viewpoint rationally. There is no reason to think he thinks.
Here are some more reasons to think we are more than our brains, that we exist both as individuals in some sense at one with our brains, but also in another sense independent of our brains. We can train our brains to rewire themselves. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder can be taught to think differently, and it makes an actual difference in the physical wiring of the brain. Also people can be missing a large part of their brains and still function normally!
With our brains we write music, dance the ballet, paint landscapes, play chess, and do theoretical physics. We send men to the moon and then bring them back. We contemplate our origin, what and who we are, and give thanks. Non-human primates don’t do these things. Furthermore, these abilities far exceed what is needed for survival, and at least in the case of theoretical physics and traveling to the moon, are not useful for finding true love. The verdict on chess is still out.
“Let Me Count the Ways”
But poetry may work. I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate our theme.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 – 1861)
Poetry like this is beauty, love, and language, all wrapped in a rhyme scheme, evocative imagery, and rhythm. It’s useless, evolutionarily speaking, but very much a product of a designing intelligence. I learned long ago that beauty and intelligence do not come from chaos. Randomness is no better than chaos, and natural selection is blind to beauty and has no need for poetry, ballet, music, or chess. But, ah, these things a designing mind loves.
- David Premack, “Human and animal cognition: Continuity and discontinuity,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2007, vol. 104 no. 35, pp 13861–13867.
- Premack, ibid.
- Premack, D. “‘Gavagai!’ or the future history of the animal language controversy.” Cognition 19: 207-296.
- C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1991, p 121.
- Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man (1971), p. 199.
Editor’s note: A version of this article appears in Salvo 46. It is published here with the permission of Ann Gauger.