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What is the mind? I remember one theologian who played a word game in seeking to answer that question. He said, “What is the mind?” And he said, “No matter.” And then when someone said, “Well, what is matter?” he said, “Never mind.”

He was trying to communicate that what we call the mind, though we recognize it is inseparably related to the physical organ of the brain, cannot be absolutely equated with the brain. The brain may be the seat of the mind, it may be the organ that the body uses to think, but there is a difference between the physical organ that does the thinking and the thinking itself. So, we ask the question, “What is thought?” Is thought merely a biochemical, electrical impulse that can be measured in exclusively physical categories? Or is there something nonphysical or spiritual about thought that is basic to our existence as human beings?

We know that as people we think, we have ideas and concepts in our minds, and we have a tendency to locate the source of that thinking in our heads, not in our fingers or toes. We also know that physical injuries to the brain and chemical imbalances can alter patterns of thought. We recognize the existence of mental illness where people lose the capacity to think rationally, and yet people who are perfectly healthy mentally also at times think irrationally. So, we often wonder where the line is between mental illness and mental soundness—between sanity and insanity. It’s often been said that there’s a thin line between genius and insanity, between those who think at extraordinary depths and those who somehow cross the border into madness. That thin line between genius and insanity is one that some people skate back and forth over frequently.

Is there ever a time when we’re not thinking? At times, we may not be thinking in some deep, logical order or analysis. We may be daydreaming. But even while we’re daydreaming, we’re having thoughts. We’re having ideas that we’re aware of. But there is also the phenomenon wherein we’re asleep and sometimes our train of thought takes bizarre turns. We’ve all been awakened in the middle of the night by a nightmare, when the thinking in our sleep frightened us or alarmed us.

These issues further multiply the difficulty of sorting out exactly what it means to have a mind and to think. As Christians, we understand that the Scriptures teach plainly that being moral creatures is inherent to our humanity. Being a moral creature entails the ability to think and behave in a way that corresponds to or opposes some moral standard. The standard, of course, is the law of God, and God holds us accountable for our obedience to His law.

The mind is vital to the Christian life.

To be able to think is part of what it means for us to be moral creatures, but other things are also involved. Historic Christianity has recognized that another part of being a moral being is the possession of a will. Moral creatures must be volitional creatures. They must have the ability to make choices, to make decisions. As moral creatures, we possess a will.

But then we have to ask another question: What is the will? Jonathan Edwards, a key thinker on the nature and function of the human will, said, “The will is the mind choosing.” He meant that for a person to exercise their will, for a person to make a moral choice, that person has to be in a state of awareness. What we do when we’re unconscious is not normally considered to be of a moral nature. We also distinguish in our bodily functions between those that are voluntary and those that are involuntary. We don’t choose every second to have our hearts beat and push blood throughout the circulatory system. The heart beats as an involuntary organ. We don’t consciously decide to make it do what it does.

But to make a moral decision requires some kind of understanding of the moral issues or options involved, so that the mind is intimately engaged in our choices. So as human beings, we can’t assume that our ethical decisions are mindless acts; rather, our actions result from the choices that we make, which are informed by our thinking. That’s why Scripture exhorts us to renew our minds, so that we will begin to think in categories that please God, so that our thinking will influence our choices in conformity to the law of God. The mind, then, is vital to the Christian life.

Over against this biblical view is physical determinism. The famous twentieth-century psychologist B.F. Skinner concluded that all of our responses are determined by our environment and by our physical makeup. This idea that our physical makeup determines our behavior has spread to many disciplines. Of course, it can be valuable to consider how physical influences may affect our thinking, but there are significant problems with the notion that every decision is determined by our environment and physical makeup. First, we would be unable to hold anyone accountable for their behavior. If people’s environment and physical makeup absolutely determine their decisions, how can they be guilty or innocent of anything? They make no choices; they only respond to their “programming.”

Second, the great argument against the notion of physical and environmental determinism is that it falls under its own weight. We’d have to say that anything Skinner said about the nature of the mind and of volition would itself be conditioned by his biochemical composition and his background, and that would give his ideas no more credence than anyone else’s ideas. I could just as well listen to the responses and the instincts of a gorilla or a hippopotamus as to anyone’s thinking, because physical and environmental determinism of the mind and will eliminate cogency from the very act of thinking.


The House of God

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From the December 2017 Issue
Dec 2017 Issue