One of the oldest debates in philosophy is monism versus dualism. Said another way, it is a debate over whether our bodies are all that we are or if we are something else as well, something that cannot be seen or touched. Monists, also called materialists, believe we are nothing more than bodies. Their view is that everything we say, do, think, etc. is a function of physical processes. With regard to our minds, the materialist says our mind and our brain are the same thing. Thinking is simply a function of the physical activity in the brain.
Neuroscientist Wilder Penfield began his career as a materialist. However, as a recent article at Evolution News and Views points out, after years of working with patients suffering from epilepsy Penfield became a committed dualist. He concluded that:
…intellectual function — abstract thought — could only be switched off by brain stimulation or a seizure, but it could never be switched on in like manner. The brain was necessary for abstract thought, normally, but it was not sufficient for it. Abstract thought was something other than merely a process of the brain.
This is not surprising to believers since we understand human beings to be both body and spirit or body and soul (Psalm 31:9, Matthew 10:28). We also believe the soul is eternal and will outlast our earthly bodies. Penfield believed, while our brains are necessary for things like abstract thought, they are not sufficient to explain it. I would go a step further and say our brains are not necessary for abstract thought. The biblical view is that consciousness, and therefore thought, carries on after the death of the body. My mind will not cease to function when my brain does (Matthew 17:3, 22:31-33, Luke 16:19-31).
This has wide-ranging implications. For example, I believe transsexuality requires a monist or materialist belief system. The argument is that a transgender person identifies as the opposite gender because they have the brain of one gender “trapped” in the body of another (at least that’s the approach of those who try to put a scientific spin on it). But if our thoughts, whether about ourselves or others, are not simply the product of the activity of our brain that argument doesn’t hold water. If duality is true, a person with a male body who thinks he is a woman does so for reasons other than what’s going on physically in his brain.
A better way to look at this is that his thinking is corrupted – which is the case to one degree or another for all humanity apart from Christ. And in a dualist (and I believe biblical) view, what we think is a spiritual issue. The solution to corrupted thinking is to renew our minds with the Word of God not have hormone injections and surgery. Spiritual issues are not solved by physical remedies.
In the Epistle to the Romans Paul tells us:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Romans 12:1-2
Paul is clear here, we must sacrifice our bodies on the altar of God’s word. This means I cannot use my body in any way I choose but only in those ways acceptable to its Creator. We are called to conform our thinking to reality as revealed in God’s word, not to conform our bodies or behavior to our thinking.