Do Brains Know Right from Wrong?

are we just our brains
Feeding your Mind? Or just “your” Brain?

Currently I am reading a fairly good book about child-rearing, The Whole-Brained Child. It is not a bad book. It has some interesting points to make about how our brains work, especially our childhood brains, and it is giving me some real insight into how to work with my kids as they go through certain kinds of emotional experiences, or demonstrate certain types of behavior. I guess it’s recommendable, in that pragmatic sense. The illustrations are useful, and the science, written at a popular level, I assume is legit. 

At the same time, though, it is hard to take some of the content seriously, as the authors appear to presuppose a naturalistic (or physicalistic) worldview in their approach to the human person. Thus, it is not just about understanding the “whole brain” of a child, but it hints at children (well, all of us) being “wholly brains,” and nothing more. Now that’s enough to make me question why the book is even attempting to teach on methods of child rearing at all. I mean, rearing towards what? 

But, before I digress, let me illustrate how difficult it can be to write a book, meant to aid in a goal-oriented process, from a physicalist worldview.

In one section of the book, for example, the author talks about a conversation she had with her son, who became emotionally distressed and moody when she told him was going to go for swimming lessons in the summer. Her child was associating memories of some painful experiences of previous swim lessons with the prospect of having to go back for new swim lessons. There were memories of some former swim instructors, who had forced him to dive off the diving-board, and dunked him underwater to force him to hold his breath, that he was associating with a hobby he normally loved doing. This caused him to become anxious about the future prospect of more lessons. All fine and good…and true, I’m sure.

But then the loving mother, and co-author of the book, talks through this with her son, explaining to him how his brain is “checking things out” (in this case memories) to see if they are “good or bad.” In fact, she says, it is the brain “telling him” (odd association there), “This is good” and “This is bad” (again, as if the brain is talking to him).1I understand that the authors are just using this kind of language in an instrumental way, but still, it is indicative of the confusion that can occur when you have to try and write a popular book while presupposing physicalism.

So, for example, when the mother mentions “Dodgers Stadium” her son’s brain lights up with joy, because there are good memories associated with “Dodgers Stadium.” But when she mentions “swim lessons” the opposite occurs, the son, I mean the son’s brain, “checks [that] out” and associates that memory with a “bad thing” (i.e. the strict swim instructors).

So, on the mother’s account (and again, she is also the co-author), the brain is discerning between good things (Dodgers Stadium) and bad things (swim lessons). But this process itself seems hard to explain. After all, what is a brain, and how can it do that? In one sense, the literal sense, a brain just is a bundle of electro-chemical interactions. As the author states “neurons firing together and wiring together.” But how do neurons know what is “bad” or “good?” Aren’t these normative terms? Do neurons evaluate according to some standard?

Further, what are neurons? Aren’t neurons, at some level, just sub-atomic particles, held together by nuclear forces? In between these particles is basically empty space. Can particles and empty space discern “good” or “bad?” Is there a sub-atomic legal code that I am unaware of, agreed upon and adhered to by the majority of particles in a sort of UN for quarks and leptons? 

It seems, at most, what could be claimed is that particles react one way, when a certain kind of environmental interaction is had, and another way, when a different kind of environmental interaction is had. Thus, if I am raped, the particles that compose the neurons that make up the neural networks in my brain, respond in manner x. When I experience consensual sex, or maybe even more novelly, sex within a loving, marital relationship, those particles that compose the neurons that make up the neural networks in my brain “fire” a different way, in manner y. 

But why should they fire in x or y at all? Why should particles react towards being raped differently from when they are made love to by a loving spouse? What determines those differences?

Moreover, isn’t it possible that the neurons could misfire (but even here, why say “mis” fire), but couldn’t they “mis”-fire and make it appear to me as if an act of rape was the same as an act of consensual, loving intercourse? If someone’s brain did respond to rape in manner y rather than x, i.e. in a way that made it appear desirable for that particular brain, would we then say that rape, at least rape for that person, is not only something good, but something they should pursue?2Of course, in a culture that embraces literature like 50 Shades of Gray, haven’t we already done this? 

If the brain doesn’t really discern “good” or “bad” but only different, then shouldn’t we construct our laws around whatever different kinds of experiences people want to have, where “want” just means the kinds of things that peoples brains are leading them to engage in? Why use these normative terms at all? It seems that the mother could just as well have told her son that the memorial content he was associating with Dodgers Stadium was qualitatively the same as that content he was associating with those nasty swim teachers, even if the experiences themselves were not identical.

But I don’t think this is correct, and I think the author (also clearly a loving mother), also knows it is not correct. Because, while I don’t think that brains are the kinds of things that can discern good or bad, I do think that we are. Of course, I don’t think that we are “wholly brains.” I believe, rather, that brains react to what is objectively “good” or “bad,” and I think what informs the brain on how to discern good or bad is an immaterial and rational soul that itself is informed by both the Natural Law and the Word of God. 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Deuteronomy 6:5

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