Is your mind—every sensation, feeling, and memory you’ve ever had—completely tractable to your brain? If so, does it mean that you are a mere machine, and that all meaning and purpose is illusory?

About a year ago, I joined author of Aping Mankind  Raymond Tallis, and German philosopher and author of I am Not a Brain Markus Gabriel to discuss these issues at the How the Light Gets In Festival, hosted by the Institute of Art and Ideas. The video of the debate, which you can watch below, just came live last month.

My co-panelists and I were tasked to start the debate with short pitches stating our positions on whether our minds and consciousness are no more than matter and mechanism. Specifically, we were charged with answering three questions at the outset, in 4 minutes or less:

Are our minds just our brains?

Has neuroscience led philosophy astray?

Do we need to create new concepts, or abandon old ones, to understand why we feel a sense of meaning?

The script that I prepared to address them follows below—but make sure to check out the full video for alternative views, and the discussion that ensued!

A lot of the research we do in my lab focuses on understanding the neural bases of illusory perception. About 10 years ago, this led to my becoming interested in the neuroscience of stage magic, and beginning a research program about why magic works in the brain. Along the way, I decided to take magic lessons myself, to get a better understanding of magic: not only as a scientist looking in from the outside, but from the perspective of the magician. This was not only a good research investment, but also a whole lot of fun.
But when I tell people about it, a question I get often is, do I still enjoy magic shows, or do they now feel mundane and unmagical? I always answer that I now enjoy magic a lot more than before I started studying it.

The reason I’m telling you this story is that, when I read about one of the main themes of this debate: “Are we just our brains?” it reminded me of how some people worry that if they understand how magic works, it will be ruined it for them.

So what I’m curious about is, why the word “just”? Why should it feel that being “just” our brain lessens us in any way? My position in this debate will be that even though our thoughts and feelings are our brain’s products, that doesn’t make them any less wonderful or fascinating. 

Our art, our science, our humanity, are not less because they arise from our brains. We are a piece of the universe trying to make sense of itself, and that’s enormous. Even if that’s all there is.

As for the question of how can life be meaningful if we are our brains? My answer is, how couldn’t it be? Our brains are meaning-seeking machines. We have evolved to find meaning, to connect cause and effect, to extract order, structure and purpose from the world around us, even when surrounded by chaos. So we can all rest assured that our brains will not fail to find meaning, even if the universe has no purpose.

The feeling that life is meaningful is hardwired into us—we wouldn’t be here if we (and our ancestors for eons) did not feel that life was worth living. So we create our own meanings, which may or may not be illusory, but feel very real to us nevertheless. Indeed, one of the ways in which a brain finds meaning is by convincing itself that it is something more than a brain.