The mind vs. brain debate fascinates me. It raises quite a few intriguing questions. Are the mind and the brain the same thing? If not, what’s the difference? Can the mind and brain exist independently of each other? Can we experience consciousness without a brain? Are out-of-body experiences possible?
3 Mind vs. Brain Theories
I’m aware of three different theories in the mind vs. brain debate. Here’s a synopsis of each.
Matter is all there is. We have a material brain but not an immaterial mind. Things such as thoughts, memories, hopes, and personality are simply brain chemicals and electrical signals.
We have a material brain and an immaterial mind. The mind accounts for things such as thoughts, memories, hopes, and personality. The mind and the brain are independent of each other.
We have a material brain and an immaterial mind. The mind accounts for things such as thoughts, memories, hopes, and personality. The mind is dependent on the brain to function.
Comparing Theories #2 & #3
The mind vs. brain question is an intriguing one. But, I find the difference between Theories #2 and #3 most interesting. While each one states that we have both a material brain and an immaterial mind, they diverge at a critical point.
Theory 2 states that the mind and the brain are independent of each other. So, if this theory were true, we could have consciousness without a brain or a body. This would make out-of-body experiences and disembodied souls possible. When the body dies, the mind (consciousness) could go on living without it.
Theory 3 states that the mind is dependent on the brain to function. So, if this theory were true, we couldn’t have consciousness without a body. When the body dies, the mind (consciousness) dies with it.
Which Theory Is Likely to Be True?
How do we figure out which mind vs. brain theory is true? Some people claim to have experienced consciousness without a body (out-of-body experiences and many “near death” experiences), suggesting that Theory #2 is valid. But, at least so far, science doesn’t seem to back this up. Reason tells us that there’s reasonable doubt; several other possible explanations exist. Sometimes people make the stories up. Sometimes they’ve simply experienced natural phenomena such as dreams, memories, vivid brain activity, or misperceptions of sensory input.
That leaves us with the possibilities of Theory 1 and Theory 3. Science has yet to provide a definitive answer. It’s worth considering what the Bible has to say. It says quite a bit, and good evidence points to its validity as a source. So, let’s look at a few passages that provide insight into the mind vs. brain debate.
- “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [Hebrew nᵊšāmâ = spirit], and man became a living being [Hebrew nep̄eš = soul].” (Genesis 2:7)
- “The dust returns to the earth where it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)
- “He, who is the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, will reveal at the proper time. He alone has immortality.” (1 Timothy 6:15-16)
- “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5)
These passages are quick representations of what the Bible, as a whole, teaches about life and death, our material and immaterial components, and how those components relate to each other. (If you’d like to see more passages to be sure these are representative, hang around my blog, my Facebook page, my Twitter profile, and my YouTube channel, because I talk about this stuff a lot. I also encourage you to study for yourself with the help of Bible Gateway and Blue Letter Bible or whatever tools you find helpful.)
Let’s bring together what these four passages tell us. A living person (a soul) is a combination of a material body made from dust and an immaterial spirit that is the breath of life from God. In other words, Body + Spirit = Soul. At death, the material separates from the immaterial (the dust and the spirit/breath return). It is indeed the spirit (God’s breath) and not the soul (a living person) that returns to God and continues to exist because God alone has immortality. (People will not “put on immortality” until the resurrection that happens when Jesus returns. See 1 Corinthians 15:53-54.) When a person dies, their consciousness also ceases (“the dead know nothing”).
God loves to create interdependent systems. A human being is a remarkable system of matter and spirit dependent on each other in order for the human being to exist, to be alive. Beautifully, earth and heaven come together to form a soul, a living person. God wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mind vs. brain Theory #3 is the only one of these three theories that’s consistent with what the Bible teaches. The notions of out-of-body experiences and disembodied souls aren’t biblical. Any such experiences that people believe they have are better explained otherwise.
There’s much more to say on these matters, so stick around. This simply serves as an introduction to stimulate our minds—those marvelous combinations of matter and spirit.
Well said. Thanks for clarifying the biblical distinction between the brain/body and the mind/thoughts. It’s very helpful to have information that can help clarify whether various concepts of brain and mind are biblical or not.