Mind and Brain

My wife has been taking classes from a counseling training center called CCEF (which we highly recommend), and one of the issues in a recent class was the question of how many “levels” make up a person. The standard secular view is “monist”– the physical is all there is; the brain is physical, and thought is physical. The second, favored view of CCEF is the “dualist” or “dichotomy” view– the body and brain are physical, but thought and personality are spiritual, not physical. A third view they mentioned is the “trichotomy” view, that there are three levels: the physical (including the brain), the mind, and the eternal soul. One of the problems with this last view, from a biblical standpoint, is that the words for “spirit” and “soul” and not sharply distinguished in Scripture.

I would propose a different view from any of the above, which could be called a “modified dualist” view. In this view, the mind (conscious thought) and body are of the same nature, but there is an additional spiritual side of people which is unseen. Some arguments for this view: 1) many animals clearly think, yet do not have eternal souls (though some might want to debate this– do all dogs go to heaven?) 2) the effect of physical inputs and drugs on thought is well known. 3) Much of what Paul calls the struggle of the “flesh” is against what we would call desires, which are things that we value and think about. The Bible does talk of having our minds lead our bodies, but our minds are still of the “flesh” which can enslave us– Paul talks of people being slaves of “sensual minds” (e.g. Col 2:18) and equates the desires of the body and the desires of the mind in at least one place (Eph 2:3). 4) The spirit is essentially defined as unseen in Scripture, while our thinking is very measurable and detectable. 5) Also, Jesus as the incarnate God was eternal in his Spirit, but his mind as well as his body was limited; his thoughts were one at a time, and he didn’t know some things in his mind (Mat 24:36).

The classic dualist view equates thinking with spirituality, which is a view associated with Greeks like Plato. It has the unintended consequence of making intelligent people be seen as more spiritual, almost by definition. This is certainly the way it played out for the Greeks, Gnostics, and also in the European revival of Greek thinking in the Enlightenment– the thought life is spiritual while the physical life is unspiritual. Scholars are valued and plumbers are not. In German, the word for intelligent is “geistlich” which literally means “spirit-like”, or spiritual. Another consequence of this view is in worship– people who believe thought is to be equated with the spiritual will not want to sway or show a lot of emotion in worship, and will focus on the lyrics of songs as the only spiritual part.

In my alternate view, both body and thinking are good creations which are “of this earth”, and will be radically changed in heaven, while the spirit is that part of us which is eternal. Thus an unintelligent day-laborer can be more spiritual than a professor. Worship is at its fullest when it involves both body and mind (with mind leading).

How then does the spirit interact with the mind? Of course, since we are whole persons, it is not so easy to split up the actions of different levels. However, we can say generally that our ability to do good and evil lies in the realm of the spirit; animals think but just do what they do, and we do not attribute evil to animals. It seems to me in many ways that Scripture uses the term spirit and/or soul to refer to the “essence” of what a person is, what he or she is in the “heart”. It is hard to pin down exactly what that means, but I think we know what that is referring to, in some deep way.

This post is open to comments. I’d like to hear what people think about this topic. Is it just a matter of opinion, or does science enter in?

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4 comments


  1. Have you read John W. Cooper’s book, “Body, Soul & Life Everlasting” (Eerdmans, 1989)? This is an excellent work subtitled “Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate.” Cooper is a prof of philosophical theology at Calvin Seminary. The book gives a careful treatment of the biblical data. Chapter titles: “Traditional Christian Anthropolgy and its Modern Critics”; “OT Anthropology: the Holistic Emphasis”; OT Anthropology: the Dualistic Implication”; “The Anthropology of Intertestament Eschatology”; “The Monism-Dualism Debat about NT Anthropology”; “Anthropology and Personal Eschatology in the NT: the non-Pauline Writings”; ditto: the Pauline Epistles; “NT Eschatology and Philosophical Anthropology”; “Practical & Theological Objections against Dualism”;”Holostic Dualism, Science & Philosophy”

  2. Marty says:

    This is an important topic but any “view” needs to be informed by the neuroscience data. I recently reviewed it myself. There is a short concise book by Susan Blackmore “Conciousness A very short introduction”. Very few neuroscientists are dualists. I would say that it is getting harder and harder as the experimental data weighs in. Having said that, there is still things that are unexplainable, if not inconceivable when it comes to talking about consciousness and the mind body problem. It is an important issue and there is a great book by Thomas Nagal that is causing quite a stir – “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”. I like the book, it is very stimulating. However, it hinges on the materialist monist view that neuroscientists hold as being wrong in some sense.

    • David Snoke David Snoke says:

      So many good books I haven’t read. This reminds me of a fun and deep book I did read, “Lost in the Cosmos” by Walker Percy. He argues that human thinking in terms of symbols is deeply different from any other process in the universe.

      There is also the classic by Don Mackay, “Brains, Machines, and Persons.” He argues that even if a person’s brain is entirely deterministic, it doesn’t take away human freedom and responsibility. As a Calvinist this made sense to me. A spiritual level to people doesn’t change the fact of God’s sovereignty, at one level or another.

      My “modified dualist” view might be compatible with most neuroscience. I don’t equate spirit with conscious thought, for the reasons I give. Spirit is something deeper. But it does affect the body and mind.

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