Skip to content

Reason, faith, and why your brain is not a computer

Dr. Ulrich Lehner is the William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and the bestselling author of “God Is Not Nice.”

Credit: Johan Swanepoel / Alamy Stock Photo.

His most recent book, “Think Better,” aims to be a user’s guide to our thought process —  engaging with concepts like reason and faith, and truth and relativism. In it, he also argues for how a more rational, less emotional way of thinking can help our concept of human dignity, and improve our public discourse.

He sat down with theologian Charlie Camosy to discuss the book, and his reasons for writing it, for The Pillar. Here’s their conversation:

Can you say something about how your own personal experiences led you to see the need for a book like this?

Three experiences led me to write this book. The first is rather personal. After two of my kids were diagnosed with ADHD I decided to undergo the tests myself. I jokingly said to the doctor, when he handed me the results, that now I can tell my wife she married a man who listens worse than 95% of his age-group peers.

I was surprised what a bad case of ADHD I had, and I wanted to find out how I could even function as an academic, as an administrator and as a family man. This started me on a journey of self-discovery: I realized that I had early on developed coping mechanisms that helped me to flourish despite my attention deficits. It was especially philosophy that helped me to order my thoughts, to be productive and creative, and to find orientation in the world. Philosophy has saved my life.

The second experience was that I increasingly realized that the biggest problem for the Church today is a crisis of truth.

We lose our children in middle school when the ideas of relativism are planted in their heads. By the time they reach high school and college, these ideas have undermined their values and beliefs. They cannot reconcile what they learn in school with their faith – and therefore let their faith go. We need to instill good thinking methods into our children. This way they learn how to search for the truth, find it, articulate it, and discern true from false.

After all, if I do not believe that there is “truth” I cannot accept the “truth incarnate” of Jesus Christ! If I am not able to understand that there is no contradiction in God revealing himself to humanity, I will not be able to accept Holy Scripture. If I cannot see that science and faith are not at odds, I might lose my belief in God’s creation after learning about Charles Darwin.

Children who learn what a great adventure it is to reason will have a lifelong desire for truth. They will not be content with cheap answers. Instead, their faith will grow deep roots that withstand a spiritual drought.

Third - I think society needs more and better thinking. Instead of deliberating arguments in the search for goodness and beauty, many only appeal to their emotions. It happens quite often that students tell me during a class discussion “I feel this is right…” I politely stop them and say, “OK, this is what you feel, now show me what you think! Give me reasons!” That is why so many people yell at each other on social media, feel hatred and anger — they are not engaging in rational discussion.

Your more academic books are some of the most respected in your field, but books like this are more accessible to a much broader range of readers. Who would you say are the primary audiences for whom you are writing here?

I dare say that it takes infinitely more time to write a more “accessible” book because you must avoid jargon, yet be clear and precise, but also try to be witty and entertaining. Of all the books I have written, this is probably the one I have rewritten the most. “Think Better” tries to guide the readers to make their own discoveries; the chapters are often a bit like meditations. For example: how do we arrive at certain principles or laws of thinking?

Sam Fornecker, who recently interviewed me for his podcast, told me that he was able to find this “awe” and “wonder” through the book—that was the greatest compliment for me. I intended the book to engage any reader, from high school senior to homeschooling parent. I am trying to let them experience how philosophical thinking works. Moreover I want to show that pursuing wisdom is not only fun but also helps you to be a more successful student, teacher, parent and so forth.

The more and better we reason we can also find our way out of self-inflicted miseries: I think philosophy is a marvelous aid in behavior therapy and can assist in overcoming problems with self-confidence, depression and anxiety.

One of your more provocative claims is that “thinking is not identical with brain events.” Could you say more about what you mean by this?

Let me start the answer from a different angle: Children are often taught that their brains are like computers. Most parents find nothing wrong with that – but it is not just unscientific, it’s also philosophically false.

Captain Picard with cybernetic devices on his face
Your brain is not a computer. Credit: Paramount/fair use.

First of all, our brain does not work like “hardware” because there is no “software.” Second, there are no binary codes in our brain. Third, our thinking grasps reality, but a computer does not experience the world; it merely recognizes pieces it puts together. For example, when you look at a wall of your family pictures, you know that all the picture frames have a backside, although you don’t see it. You grasp the concept of a living room wall, and not inputs you put together to make “wall with picture frames”.

Or when you listen to your favorite piece of music and can remember it years later: Your memory is different from a computer retrieving the melody from a hard drive – because it is a holistic experience that we have. You could open up my skull and cut open the brain tissue that is active when I remember music, but you will not find any codes or notes or images of my beloved Mozart there!

All this is important to understand, because whenever somebody tries to impose on us that we are like “computers,” this has implications — computers are interchangeable and replaceable. This implies our bodies are unimportant, only our mind as alleged “software” is worth protecting. Consequently, more and more people believe that it does not matter what they do to their bodies and to the bodies of others. We see the consequences of this throughout the world. Ultimately, however, the reduction of a human being to a computer-like being evaporates human dignity. After all, in this worldview there is no immortal soul, no ultimate responsibility.

Now back to your initial question: It is undeniable that our brain and our mind are somehow linked. If I experience joy over a sunny winter day in Northern Indiana, then certain events take place in my brain. These events, however, are not identical with me experiencing joy. You might see on a computer that is hooked up to my head that neurons in a certain brain region are ‘firing’, but my sublime feeling will be inaccessible to you. My first-person-perspective can never be reduced to your outsider-third-person-perspective.

I particularly appreciated your chapter showing how thinking helps us find unity in a divided world. I urge Pillar readers to read the chapter (and book!) in full, but could you give us the short version here?

Many people have lost trust in this nation because they do not feel at “home.” They experience exclusion because they do not have the ability to find orientation in it. After all, our world becomes increasingly complex. Often this disenchantment begins already in elementary school: Future criminals have most often poor reading comprehension and lack the ability to understand complex symbols. Imagine how much you could change the streets of this country just with more and better thinking.

Good thinking means that you can understand what others are saying, can articulate it in your own words, but also that you are able to describe your own experience of the world to others. If I am not able to put my suffering and pain in words others understand, I become frustrated and withdraw.

The more we learn to think better, we recognize our own limitations, and see in others members of the same species, endowed with the same dignity and reason. We can build a “home” together, a society that is just and empathetic. That does not mean one has to “feel” what the other feels, but the ability to take somebody’s else’s standpoint. By doing so, we learn to see the world from the viewpoint of our opponents, our critics, of the underprivileged and poor, the marginalized and so on. We become better human beings by doing it, but we also develop the ability to disagree with each other more respectfully.

Friendships like those of Robert George, a conservative, and Cornel West, a progressive, are rare nowadays, but that’s why they are such a precious witness. The two show us what “brotherhood” is. I admire them immensely.

I can't help but ask a question in light of the contemporary academy. More and more, I see academics — both younger and older — moving away from the kinds of skills and goals you outline in ”Think Better” and towards power and activist-based approaches.

What can we do as an academy to conserve the wonderful methodology you give us in this book?

Academics who lust for power have lost their vocation. They remind me of the professor in C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce”— he returns to Hell, because he is not “needed” in Heaven. After all, he does not want to “see truth,” but rather debate it. I find such people immensely tiring. Probably because sin is so boring, because it is so stupid. It is the rebellion against reason.

We become good human beings by doing good acts, and we become prudent by making prudent decisions. Yet actions that are not guided by true beliefs, values and so forth are unreasonable. They are ultimately non-human and on the moral level of the animal. Such actions do not shape us into virtuous humans but gnaw away at our humanity.

Let me put it in a different way: Only a fool would build a house without a plan—but there are plenty of people who wander through life without any such plan! We need to think and form ideas about who we are, whom we owe and love, what we hope in and how we should act, if we want to live a good life!

If we do not use the enormous power of reason, then we waste the one chance we have to get things right.