Mind = Brain?

A review of I Am Not a Brain, by Markus Gabriel


I begin this review where Gabriel ends his book: on the subject of freedom. Quoting Friedrich Schelling, Gabriel observes that “the alpha and omega of all philosophy is freedom.” By “freedom,” Gabriel does not refer merely to unbridled subjective autonomy, nor political freedom in the form of having a say in the direction of the collective. He means free will. He means that we as human beings have agency. Having agency means, among other things, that we can choose to do good, or to do evil.

A necessary consequence to the fact of human agency is that the naturalist view of reality is false, because naturalism is ultimately determinist. Human beings are automatons, really, with only the illusion of free will. We don’t choose good or evil, it chooses us. Or more accurately, the concepts of “good” and “evil” are themselves delusions. There’s no such thing. As Gabriel points out, naturalism – the belief that material reality is all there is – means one’s subjective consciousness of freedom is illusory. “I Am Not a Brain,” Gabriel says, because he (and we) have free will.

Gabriel’s book is excellent and highly recommended. He takes on the mind-body philosophy problem and convincingly trounces the view that self=brain, as required by those who promote naturalism. He makes a compelling argument against that proposition even before getting to his fuller-scoped discussion of human freedom. It’s a great summary of the state of the (philosophical) art on the mind-body question.


Despite that, I confess that I’d have preferred that his last chapter (“Freedom”) be his first. Until that chapter, I found myself wondering how Gabriel was going to reconcile his view that the mind is more than a mere brain, with a metaphysical position somewhere short of theism. In his introduction, he tells us that he is convinced that we “live only once,” by which he means there is no soul with an immortal nature. This conviction doesn’t necessarily rule out some non-Christian version of theism, I suppose, but neither does it provide a metaphysical stance which could explain how there is more to human consciousness than the brain.

Even reflecting back on the book as a whole, including his last chapter on Freedom, I find myself wondering about Gabriel’s metaphysics. He doesn’t prove the theistic understanding of consciousness, but he disproves the naturalist view of it. He completely dismantles the brain=self proposition, using free will as a lever. He doesn’t, however, provide a unified alternative theory.

But perhaps that would be asking too much. Even the philosophies of careful Christian thinkers (like David Bentley Hart, for example) trail off at some point to mystery: consciousness as a phenomenon held in some vague way in common with the consciousness of God.


Gabriel correctly identifies ideology as the source for much of the currently-accepted philosophy of mind. “[T]he contemporary ideology of neurocentrism has particularly tried to dismiss the concept of human freedom.”   “Neurocentrism” is Gabriel’s word for the brain=self proposition, the view that “to be a minded animal consists in nothing more than the presence of a suitable brain.” Gabriel calls the prevalent neurocentrist ideology “neuromania,” a wrong-headed view exacerbated by “Darwinitis,” the complementary view that our deep biological past is emphasized in order to lead us to believe that typical present-day behavior is only explainable if reconstructed as the result of adaptive advantage in the struggle for survival.

Among the more obviously (and fallaciously) ideological results of neurocentrism are the specious and illogical rantings of empiricist New Atheists, like Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins. They hold, as good empiricists, that all legitimate knowledge claims are the result of the scientific method. But if that is so, whence comes the knowledge claim that there is no God?

[I]t is simply an unfounded and arbitrary belief that religion generally is what Dawkins imagines it to be. His account of religion . . . is not based on actual empirical and conceptual engagement with the phenomena grouped under the heading of ‘religion.’ What he says about religion is, thus, unscientific by any respectable standard.

Empiricism is the perspective that all knowledge is the result of experience, so science is to be our only god.  Gabriel’s quite reasonable question is:

How could we know on the basis of experience that we know everything only on the basis of experience?

His quite reasonable conclusion is this:

The claim that everything which happens does so because there are laws of nature does not follow from the fact that there are laws of nature.

Though Gabriel does not construct a God-filled existence explicitly, he demonstrates that the God’s-eye view, so to speak, is necessary to an understanding of human consciousness:

In modernity, one finds, on the one hand, the representation of a universe without mind, which one then, on the other hand, complements with mind. The mind, as it were, illuminates blind nature without anyone knowing how this works. As a result, the universe, or nature, feels like a ‘cold place to call home,’ as Wolfram Hogrebe puts it.

The materialist, neurocentrist, self=mind view is not at all tenable because it is not supported by the evidence, in particular the evidence of mind.



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