Am I just my brain?

Bethany Squires 20 Feb 20

Bethany Squires reports back from an event held at Southampton University with neuroscientist and Christian author Sharon Dirckx. Could you put on a similar event at your university to help your friends hear the gospel?

What is the relationship between our brains and our minds, and ultimately our sense of identity as a person? Are we more than machines? Is free will an illusion? Do we have a soul?
These are just a few of the questions and topics that were tackled at the evening talk and Q&A at Southampton University in the run-up to a week of outreach events called More To Life. We were joined by Sharon Dirckx from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics who spoke on the topic of her recent book, ‘Am I just my brain?’.

Southampton University has many students studying science and engineering subjects, and often the assumption amongst the scientific community is that God does not exist. The topic can be framed in such a way that it feels like science points us away from God, and people often seem unwilling to have a serious conversation about science and faith.
After the success of last year’s discussion event ‘Can science explain everything?’ with John Lennox and Peter Atkins, we wanted to put on another similar event. A lot of CU events we run are often aimed at people who have question or objections about God and Christianity. With this event we wanted to do something different, we wanted to use the topic of our brains, minds and free will to show people that God helps us to make sense of the world. We wanted to show people that science shouldn’t drive us away from God and asking big questions, but the opposite.  With a diverse student population, we wanted to put on an event that would appeal to all ages and stages and would bring them along.

Initially we had set out to have a discussion event working with the humanist society on this topic. We found that a question people would often ask about CU events and afterwards was ‘what does the other side have to say?’ By presenting different opinions side by side on an open and fair platform, people can see that the claims of Christianity can’t just be brushed aside. Having attempted to work with the humanist society to try and find a suitable speaker to discuss with Sharon, we were unable to find someone who was the right fit and available. At this point we decided that it was best to run an event just with Sharon than to do a joint event with the wrong speakers, or on a different topic. We booked the venue and confirmed dates with Sharon by July given us a solid date to work towards. All seemed to come together smoothly, apart from an brief issue with the Student Union room bookings (these seem inevitable no matter how hard you try to avoid them), that was quickly resolved.

For the event itself we wanted it to have the feel of an event rather than a lecture - students have enough of those already! Our venue was the Student Union cinema and we had brain sweets we gave out on entry. Before the event started there was a buzz of people outside, chatting with the CU members and the Southampton Christians in Science group.

Sharon did a great job at laying out the thinking and assumptions behind the question ‘am I just my brain?’. She explored the idea that our brain and mind are connected, but that does not mean that our brain is our mind. Neuroscience has done a lot to help us understand our minds more, but it is unable to answer what make us, us. This was just an opinion that she holds but also what many who have studied the field think. Baroness Susan Greenfield, a professor of physiology at the University of Oxford, was quoted saying “How does the ‘water’ of boring old brain cells and sludgy stuff translate to the ‘wine’ of phenomenological subjective experience?”.  She talked about how the fact that God is the creator of all things, that he is more than matter, and the fact that we are more than matter is because we are created in his image.

When we opened up to Q&A we had various interesting questions, such as ‘isn’t it just a god of the gaps?’ and ‘don’t people just believe in God so they can feel their life has purpose?’ Sharon answered this skilfully, turning the question around with “Atheism is a psychological crutch or projection to avoid answering to a higher being for your life”. We had great engagement with the Q&A, with over 30 questions sent in from our audience.

It was encouraging to see such a range of people at the event from CU members and their friends, to postgraduate students and academics at the university. It was encouraging to have people come along who had just seen a poster or the event on Facebook and didn’t know any Christians. It was helpful for the Christians at the event to see how research around the brain points us to the bigger questions. We had guests who came along to events in the following week excited to see what Christians have to say about mental health having heard Sharon’s answer to a question on the topic.

You can check the talk out here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQtm9Qe70Ck&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2Y5DuL81nmK-cv05oxw6GqdSXVDExFvt_pTZNPcEb8bLkDistXn3UkVl0

Could you put on a similar event at your university to help your friends hear the gospel? Email the Science Network Coordinator at science@uccf.org.uk for more help and advice on hosting science-themed CU events.

Further links:

Read a review of Dr Dirckx's book.

Buy 'Am I just my brain?' on Amazon.

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