What does it mean to be human?


I remember sitting, staring out of the window one day as a young child and suddenly a series of questions popped into my head. Why do I exist? Why can I think? Why am I a living breathing conscious being? It was a moment of becoming aware of myself.

One philosopher has said, there is something ‘that it is like to be you’.

But what is it that makes you, you? Questions of core human identity are central to many of our conversations today.

Is the most important thing about us determined by our relationships or by our family background? Is it driven by our experiences? Or by our biology? Is the most important thing about us determined by our career? Or by our own ideas about ourselves?

There are lots of views on identity today. One view that we sometimes hear from scientists and philosophers is that ‘you are your brain’. In other words, the most important thing about you is driven by the brain cells in your head. The chemicals, hormones and electricity happening inside your skull determine who you are.

But surely chalking humans down to cell voltages and chemical reactions can’t be the whole story.

Why not? Because we don’t just have a brain, we also have a mind. We think thoughts. We experience emotions. We store memories. We are conscious beings.

But how do we get from brain cells to thoughts? How do we get from chemical reactions to what it’s like to be you? Is it even possible?

Well, this is the key question that lies at the centre of this conversation, known as the mind-brain problem.

Many agnostics and atheists are agreed that brain activity alone is not enough to explain what it’s like to be you. Imagine we wanted to find out what it’s like for you to study for your next exams. You can collect all the brain data you like, but it won’t tell us what it’s like for YOU to study. It might tell us the brain areas lighting up while you are studying but to find out what it is actually like to be you and cope with pressure, stress and thoughts of the future, we need to ask you. Your brain can’t tell us this. Only you can do that. Mind and brain are two fundamentally different things.

We also learn from the world of medicine that human beings are complex. They can have huge chunks of brain missing yet still possess a sound mind. And thousands report having had near death experiences on the operating table even after their brain had shut down. Data from the clinic suggests we are more than just our brains.

But even if all of our questions about the mind, and its relation to the brain, are answered, this will still leave some questions unanswered. Questions like – why do we have a mind in the first place? Why are we able to think at all?

If God exists, does this help us make sense of the human mind? Many Christians and thinkers argue yes. If God exists, then consciousness is fundamental to everything. The very first sentence of the Bible says that, In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In other words, before there were brain cells and chemical reactions, there was God. And God is a conscious being who has always existed. This same God also made human beings in his image – with some of his qualities.

So, why do we have a mind? Because we are made by God who is Mind. Why do we think? Because God thinks. And if humans are made in the image of God, then this is also great news for human dignity, because it means that each person on earth has been made with intrinsic worth and is deeply loved by God whatever their race, gender, achievements, and brain state. There is a core identity to each of us that runs far deeper than simply our bodies and brains, and can anchor us in the storms of life.

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