What is a human being? Depending on your philosophic lenses, there may be several answers. Judaism defines a human being as a being created in the image of G-d—a physical body with an eternal, non-physical soul. The medieval commentator, Rashi explains that “created in G-d’s image” means that the human being was formed out of a mold that is representative of G-d’s own being. This means that a human being formed in the image of G-d is an independent being that is conscious, thinks and chooses, just as G-d is an independent being who is conscious, thinks, and chooses. “And G-d breathed the breath of life into the person and he became a living being.”
The secular view is that there is no G-d and there is no soul. There is only matter and natural law. Human beings are purely physical entities. By chance, various physical elements came together to take on a humanoid form which we have come to call a human being. But since this humanoid entity is purely physical in every way, it would be more accurate to describe “it” as a human machine rather than a human being. Physical bodies with computer-like brains are essentially machines. Dr. Steven Pinker, a respected secular scientist and expert on how the brain works, in his best selling and award winning book (WW Norton and Co., 2009), How the Mind Works, agrees with this conclusion.
“The cloistering of scientific and moral reasoning in separate arenas also lies behind my recurring metaphor of the mind as a machine, of people as robots.” (p.56)
Philosopher, Gilbert Ryle in his famous essay “The Ghost In the Machine,” tries to demonstrate the logical and linguistic mistake of talking about the existence of a non-physical entity existing within the body. What I find interesting is his choice of metaphors. Once you remove the “ghost” from the “machine,” you are left with only the machine. If there is no soul then the human being is nothing more than a machine programmed by the brain.
Furthermore, since there is no soul, all subjective experience must be understood to be epiphenomena of brain activity including our experience of selfhood. At best, there may be a “virtual self”, but there can not be a specific entity called the “self” that exists separate from brain activity. There is no “me” who thinks and chooses. There is only the brain that thinks and makes decisions. For the materialist, the truth is that the experience of selfhood is an illusion generated by brain activity. Concepts about artificial intelligence and the computational model of the brain, no matter how sophisticated, don’t change this fact. If matter is the only stuff that human beings are made of, you can only end up with a being that functions according to the laws of matter. It’s impossible to derive sentience, consciousness, and free-will from electronic pulses and chemicals no matter how they are configured. Aryeh Carmell, scientist and philosopher, explains why this must be so.
” It is taken for granted among biologists that all manifestations of life can ultimately be explained by the laws which govern the manifestations of matter. This might be called the first axiom of modern biology. Yet, as Michael Polanyi has pointed out, it can be held to embody a serious fallacy,the most striking feature of our own existence is our own sentience. The laws of physics and chemistry include no conception of sentience, and any system wholly determined by these laws must be insentient.”
Again, Dr. Pinker seems to be open to this conclusion as well, when he says,
“Another imponderable is the self. What or where is the unified center of sentience that comes into and goes out of existence.” (p. 558)
I believe it is his discomfort with these conclusions that has driven the materialist to find another place other than the brain to locate the self. This other place is often called “the mind.” Although the concept of “mind” seems to be a step in the direction of assuming the existence of some non-physical dimension, it is not. The use of “mind language” doesn’t add any new insight into the nature of subjective experience, selfhood, or free-will. It merely shifts the focus from the brain to the mind. And from a materialistic perspective, the conclusion is still the same. The self is not a real entity. Whether a derivative of brain activity or of the mind makes no difference, the mind is a physical entity and is not a non-physical soul. Playing “mind games” may provide some kind of intellectual comfort but in the end mind-language does not change the fact that the brain and its emergent mind are both physical entities. The “I” is not a real entity separate from the brain no matter where one attempts to relocate it.
Furthermore, if our experience of selfhood is an illusion, then our experience of free-will must be an illusion as well. This means that although, I experience myself as a choosing agent and “feel” like I’m making my own decisions, this feeling is an illusion. Since the self does not exist as an entity, there can be no “me” that makes decisions. Brain activity is the sole decision maker. It only appears that I make them. Therefore, my experience of personal agency is an optical illusion, so to speak. The brain is the computer in my head that “thinks” and “chooses,” There is no person inside the body; no “ghost” inside the machine. There is only the machine. The “I” is at best virtual.
If free-will is an illusion then our sense of personal responsibility is also an illusion. If a human being is controlled by a computer-like brain there can be no talk about human responsibility. We don’t hold computers responsible for their decisions, so how can we hold people responsible who are nothing more than machines controlled by brains? The domain of responsibility and accountability only applies to real human beings. It does not apply to robots, machines, or computers.
And if there is no responsibility or accountability life has no meaning. The meaning of life is inextricably bound to our sense that what we do matters. And what we do matters only if we are real beings who are accountable for the choices we make. The materialist must face the truth that since his sense of responsibility is mere illusion, what he does ultimately doesn’t matter. Synapses, electricity, and chemicals are indifferent to responsibility and accountability. One of the great Jewish thinkers of our generation, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler describes the secular dilemma this way:
“There are still great philosophers who deny the reality of free-will and human responsibility. They assert that a person is but a plaything in the hands of natural causes, and any idea of claiming credit for one’s actions is purely illusory. But at the same time, the same person will, in the most assertive manner possible take pride in her intellectual achievements and claim credit for her professional success. And here the critic must raise his eyebrows. How can the thinker have forgotten so soon that she has just demonstrated that a person is nothing but a machine, a stimulus-response mechanism? Can a machine claim credit for its predetermined activities? If you deny the existence of free-will, you deny the existence of selfhood. If the experience of selfhood is false than the statements of “I am”, “I see”, “I act” are false as well.” (and logically meaningless).
I-statements imply that I am a real personal being who thinks and chooses. If there is no entity called the “I”, then I-statements should be replaced by more accurate statements, such as, “the brain sees,” the brain desires a cookie,” etc. “I” language is meaningless in a world of machines.
Dr. Pinker again seems to be in sync with Rabbi Dessler’s line of thinking.
“The scientific mode of explanation cannot accommodate the mysterious notion of uncaused causation that underlies free-will…either we dis-pense with all morality as an unscientific superstition or we can find a way to reconcile causation (genetic or otherwise) with responsibility and free-will… Does this fact not dehumanize and objectify people and lead us to treat them as inanimate objects? As one humanistic scholar lucidly put it on an Internet posting, does it not render human experience invalid reifying a model of relating based on an I-It relationship, and delegitimating all other forms of discourse with fundamentally destructive consequences to society?” (pp.55-56)
The Jewish position is the only one that can account for genuine free-will, responsibility, and accountability. Since there is a G-d in whose image we are made, a human being is a real entity who is conscious, thinks, and possesses free-will. This is why the first story in the Bible is a story about responsibility and accountability. Adam and Eve are held responsible for their choice because they are real independent beings like G-d. The story also teaches us the fundamental truth that being responsible for our choices is what gives life meaning. If our sense of responsibility and accountability is at best virtual and not real, then there is no meaning to human existence.
This is the dilemma the secularist is left to contemplate: He experiences himself as a real person and lives like a real person and makes decisions that he believes matter, yet deep in his heart he knows that his entire subjective experience including his experience of being responsible is ultimately an illusion. It’s hard to live with this conclusion. Dr. Pinker distinctly expresses the longing to have it both ways when he says,
“A human being is simultaneously a machine and a sentient free-agent depending on the purpose of the discussion…The mechanistic stance allows us to understand how to understand what makes us tick and how we fit into the universe. When those discussions wind down for the day we go back to talking about each other as free and dignified human beings.” (p. 56)
But you can’t have it both ways. A human being is either a machines or a person created in the image of G-d. There is no third option. If there is no soul, than a person is a computer-like machine. The only difference between a human robot and the pc on my desk is that one is made of silicon and one is made of flesh and blood.