Memory, the brain, and the soul
Published: 17 April 2021 (GMT+10)
Gary C. from the U.S. asks:
Will memories be lost when one dies (because memories are stored in brain cells)? If so, does this mean that materialism is right? I am a Christian and have been tormented by these questions for a long time. Could you please help me get them answered?
Keaton Halley of CMI–US responds:
I hope this reply will encourage you not to be so distressed, because if you keep this question in perspective you’ll see that this worry isn’t actually a big threat, and the available evidence strongly supports the biblical view. We have many reasons to affirm that the mind and the brain are not the same thing, and that human beings have an immaterial aspect to their being (a soul). We also have many additional reasons to reject materialism besides the specific evidence for the soul, so it certainly doesn’t all hang on this question about memories.
One important principle to keep in mind when contemplating the evidence for the existence of the soul is that mere correlations between mind and brain don’t prove they are actually the same thing. The soul and the brain can each affect how the other functions, just like a driver and a car can both affect one another. But if a car breaks and doesn’t allow the driver to go anywhere, this doesn’t prove that there is no driver.
We know that memories can sometimes be induced by electrical stimulation of certain regions of the brain, and we also know that damage to certain brain areas can prevent the formation of certain types of new memories. But if the soul uses the brain like a person drives a vehicle, then this is no surprise. While associated with the body, the soul needs the brain to think properly. If the brain is damaged, the soul may be inhibited. But to speculate and press the analogy further, once the driver exits the vehicle, he may have more freedom of movement. Similarly, once the soul leaves the body (at death), it may no longer need to rely on the brain to think. But, in any case, Christians believe that there will be a resurrection in which the souls of the dead will return to their bodies. So even if we were to lose our memories at death, the resurrection could provide a way for them to be restored.
Your question also presumes that memories are stored in the brain, but you don’t say what exactly you mean by that or why you believe it. I know of very informed philosophers and neuroscientists who would deny that memories are stored in brains, and believe instead that they reside in souls. I have no expertise in this area but, in my view, the claim is ambiguous, so let me try to clarify. A memory could refer to an experience of recalling some fact or event, or it could refer to the raw data that captures that fact or event. To illustrate, think of the way in which a vinyl record ‘stores’ music. You won’t find any actual music contained in the record itself, and the record doesn’t hear or appreciate any music. It only ‘stores’ the music in the sense that it contains a pattern of grooves that can reproduce the music when properly connected to a record player. Similarly, let’s assume that our brain does store the raw data of memories. To actually experience a memory would still require something beyond this storage medium—a soul that actually has the recollection experience.
Of course, memories are just one type of mental state, and there are many others that also require our minds to be distinct from our brains. We can have thoughts, beliefs, desires, sensations (experiences of color, sound, smell, taste, touch, pains, itches), emotions, and acts of will.
These mental states have a variety of features that physical states do not have. Briefly, these include the following, among others.
- Mental states are private and self-presenting. They are directly in the awareness of the person who has them, and not directly accessible by another party. For example, we might discern that someone is in pain because they wince, but we do not actually experience the other person’s feeling of pain. We alone feel our own pain. By contrast, physical states like brain states are not private or self-presenting. A scientist can probe another person’s brain and may have more knowledge about it than that person does.
- Mental states include an experience of ‘what it is like’. Physical states don’t have felt experiences, but subjects do. For example, even if, physically, the concept of ‘heat’ can be reduced to the fast motion of molecules, this does not fully capture the feeling of warmth that can be experienced. There is a feeling of what it is like to be warm, or to have a thought, or to purpose to do something. Artificially-intelligent computers can react to inputs based on their programming and become more proficient at certain tasks, but they themselves do not understand or have desires or feel accomplished.
- Many mental states have a feature philosophers call ‘intentionality’. This refers to the ‘of-ness’ or ‘about-ness’ of something. So, I can have a fear of spiders or a sensation of redness or a thought about something that doesn’t even exist, like a leprechaun. But physical states aren’t about anything else (at least, not in the sense meant here). A rainbow isn’t about anything unless an agent assigns it a meaning.
Now, some philosophers will concede, based on such arguments, that mental states go beyond the physical, but they still think they can avoid grounding the mind in a soul. This approach is called ‘property dualism’. It says that these mental states just emerge somehow from physical brain states, and that mental states are either epiphenomenal—they come along for the ride but have no causal power of their own—or they are a passive chain of events over which the person has no real control.
But there are further arguments which show that non-physical mental states must be grounded in a mental substance (the soul). This view is called ‘substance dualism’. Arguments include:
The mind does have causal power to initiate. Psychologists encourage patients to deliberately change their thought patterns, which can restructure the brain. We also know the difference between voluntary and involuntary action. If stimulation from an electrical probe causes my arm to move, I know that this is not the same as me endeavoring to move my arm by an act of my own will. I can also reason and make decisions that are free. They are not mere passive happenings caused by the outworking of deterministic events in my brain. To say otherwise brings my moral responsibility into doubt.
- The soul grounds the unity of the self at any given time. As I pointed out in the article Monkey minds, those who deny the soul have a hard time explaining how the diverse array of processes going on in our brain are unified so that they belong to a single person. In fact, people like Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore, and Stephen Pinker deny that we really have this unity. But this is disastrous for the moral status of human persons. I am not just a bundle of experiences but the owner of my experiences, because my soul is the experiencer.
- The soul grounds the unity of the self over time. We commonly speak of physical objects as though they endure through time, but there are philosophical difficulties with this, as physical things change by losing parts or gaining new ones. Why am I still the same person as I was when I was 5 years old, despite all the changes I’ve undergone? The best answer seems to be that I am not reducible to my physical body. My essence includes an immaterial soul.
So that’s a brief introduction. If you want more along these lines, check out books by people like J.P. Moreland, Sharon Dirckx, and Angus Menuge, online articles by Michael Egnor, and the links below.
I hope this alleviates some of your concern and encourages you to put greater confidence in the Bible’s claims about reality, including the reality of the soul.