Especially after a secular Enlightenment focused on the human capacity for rationality and individual self-determination, the developed West has had what might be described as a ‘turn to the head.’ This general orientation operates with the assumption that what ultimately matters about human person can be found in a single organ — the brain — with some thinkers going so far as to claim that human persons are brains. All other aspects of the body, on this view, are to be understood as so much baggage, which can be discarded as accidental to who we really are.

But this view has run into puzzles and problems in recent years, particularly from challenges brought by philosophy of mind. For starters, if human persons are identical with our brains, then the classic thought experiments about brain transplants and downloads force us into radically counter-intuitive positions about personal identity. Furthermore, thinkers like Thomas Nagel and Alva Noe have argued that a fully-functioning, healthy brain is simply an inadequate explanation for many fundamental aspects of human existence, including consciousness. Nagel concludes that the materialist account of consciousness fails, and Noe claims that human consciousness must be understood as an “embodied” function of the human organism, holistically considered.

The broadly-understood traditions of Catholicism and Islam are well placed to build on these insights and resist the secular ‘turn to the head.’ In some ways, Islam is better positioned than Catholicism, having explicitly resisted the secular Enlightenment on many fronts, and developed an understanding of the human person which rejects its reduction to the brain. Both traditions are largely indebted to the moral anthropology of Aristotle, who argued that human persons are substances of a rational and relational nature — constituted by our being a certain kind of animal or organism.

This view not only obviously resists the reduction of the human person to the brain, but implies that one may be a human person even without a (functioning) brain. The United States has seen several recent high profile cases of human animals, functioning with homeostasis, who were described as “brain dead.” Though our Western secular law pushes towards describing brain death as “actual death”, two of these supposedly dead individuals were able to gestate prenatal children—and one actually brought a healthy baby boy to birth. Human persons — both before they have brains and (sometimes) when their brains are damaged or destroyed — maintain homeostasis as holistically-considered organisms, not through a single organ.

This moral anthropology has serious and far-reaching and critical implications for contemporary neuroscience’s reduction of the human person to the human brain. Indeed, this moment of uncertainly for those who have until now accepted the ‘turn to the head’ provide both Catholicism and Islam the opportunity to rejoin contemporary bioethical debates in a constructively critical way. These traditions offer an understanding of the human person which avoids the puzzles and problems of the contemporary secular discourse.


Article metrics loading...

Loading full text...

Full text loading...

  • Received: 01 March 2014
  • Accepted: 01 March 2014
This is a required field
Please enter a valid email address
Approval was a Success
Invalid data
An Error Occurred
Approval was partially successful, following selected items could not be processed due to error