The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Episode 026: In Search of the Soul, part 1


In this episode of the Say Hello to my Little Friend podcast I start a four part series on philosophy of mind. I know I recently said that it would be a three part series, but hey, even four parts isn’t really enough to give the subject the full treatment it deserves. In part one I start with the dualist end of the spectrum. Today it’s Cartesian/Platonic dualism, which I take to be the most popular variety.

After recording the episode I thought maybe I should have thrown this in, so I’ll add it here. It’s a rather witty wee argument offered by Kevin Corcoran in the book that this series gets its name from, In Search of the Soul: Four Views of the Mind-Body Problem. The argument appears in his reply to Cartesian dualist Stewart Goetz:

Stewart Goetz sometimes kisses his wife.

Stewart Goetz’s substantively simple soul never kisses anyone. (It has no lips!)

Therefore, Stewart Goetz is not a simple soul.

If you’re not yet familiar with what the term “simple” means in this context, listen to the episode, then come back and read Corcoran’s argument. Also in this episode I have my first ever “caller,” Joe Johnson from the “Watching Theology” podcast. You too can call into the show by emailing me an audio clip of your comments and questions. Send them to peoples dot glenn at gmail dot com.


Glenn Peoples

UPDATE: Here the whole series, now that it is complete:

Part 1 

Part 2 

Part 3 

Part 4 

Part 5 



Colbert vs Ehrman


Baggini: The New Atheism is cringe material


  1. Tuckster

    I’ll be listening.

    I’ve also got a question: my favourite podcasts so far have been the presuppositional/Plantinga series. In one of those, you outline this argument:

    1) Knowledge entails warrant
    2) Warrant entails proper function
    3) Proper function entails theism
    4) Therefore, knowledge entails theism

    I’m having a particularly hard time grasping 2) here – that warrant entails proper function. I’m not quite sure I follow the argument. What’s a good reference for learning more about it? Should I get Plantinga’s book(s)?

  2. Kenny

    Oh good! I’ve been looking forward to this series. I am a recent convert from Christian materialism about human persons to a more traditional Christian dualism (I now hold the Cartesian/Augustinian view that human persons are identical to human souls).

    I do think though, that the argument that you’ve quoted from Corcoran is the most persuasive sort of argument against the kind of dualism that I hold. After my conversion to dualism (or, back to dualism, really) one of my materialist friends suggested that I should tell my children that I’ve never seen them nor hugged them! I was a holdout on materialism about human persons for a while solely because of that sort of argument. But the force of that argument was finally, for me, overridden by the balance of other considerations.

    Anyway, I’ll listen to the podcast now. Let’s see if you can win me back to the dark side!

  3. Hey Kenny. My only fear is that someone who doesn’t share my conclusions will say “but that’s too simplified!” or “but what about this other argument…”. I think my overviews are fair, but they really are just overviews.

  4. Kenny

    I thought your overview was pretty good, even though I disagreed with some of your assesments of things.

  5. Hi there Glenn,

    I’m really interested in the mind-body problem and enjoyed hearing your thoughts in part 1. I look forward to parts two to four. Two questions though…

    (1) Does your refutation of the “brain-saw” argument for substance-dualism conflate the minds thoughts with mind itself?

    (2) Also, it seems you hang your refutation of that point on the idea that the mind must be simple – but must it?

    I know these are big questions, and I don’t really expect an answer, but its something to think about at least.

  6. James

    Are not “thoughts” proof of dualism? Say I picture a orange ball in my mind – you could open up my head are see the physical electro-chemical causes of that picture – but what you can not see is the ball itself. That is not public.

    Isn’t that pretty good evidence that the physical is not all there is?

  7. Kenny


    I think that the only plausible sorts of things that thoughts could be are either mental properties or mental events (Fyi, I take them to be mental properties; I don’t believe in events).

    If thoughts are taken to be mental properties, then your objection boils down to its just seeming like a material object is not the sort of thing that can have mental properties. If thoughts are taken to be mental events, then your objection boils down to the claim that it just seems like the sort of physical events that occur inside the brain aren’t the sorts of events that could be identical to mental events. In short, it seems to me that your objection reduces to the one that Glenn discussed about how it just seems impossible to us that material things are the sorts of things that could have mental properties or host mental events.

    Now, I do have sympathy for that objection, much more than Glenn does. Glenn made the objection out to be little more than an argument from ignorance. But I think that there is more to it than that. It’s not just that we can’t see how it is that a material thing could have mental properties – we (or at least many of us) have a positive modal intuition that the nature of material things is such that it is impossible for them to have mental properties. That’s different and stronger than just not being able to see how it is that a material thing could think. I grant that I also can’t see how it is that an immaterial thing could think, but I have no modal intuitions to the effect that it is impossible that an immaterial thing could think as I do in the case of material things.

  8. I think that this “modal intuition” actually is grounded in something like “wow, that’s so weird I have no hope of seeing how it works,” creating the impression that it just can’t work. And Kenny’s right, the orange example is an appeal to an objection that I did address in the episode.

    But as long as it remains at the intuitive level, it’s unlikely that the objection can be spelled out in any forceful way. It can only be persuasive to those who themselves feel this intuition and who also think that there are no reasons to doubt it.

  9. James

    Hey guys, I not sure if I made myself clear. And I’m not speaking about how it works. I speaking of an objective, testable reality. That orange ball exists as a picture in my mind. Yet that picture is not public. Open up my head, and it can not be found. There is “something” here that is non-physical, yet very real.

  10. James, you’re referring to the existence of perceptual states. The orange doesn’t exist in your mind (oranges are solid round things). Your thought or perception of an orange is what exists, and I think this is the same argument from qualia that I addressed.

    In the form that you’re presenting the argument I just don’t see much there. If I break open the chips in my graphics card in this PC, I won’t see the image of my screensaver either. That wouldnt suggest to me that there’s an immaterial graphics card associated with my PC.

  11. Screensavers are information, and like software is immaterial – so I’m not sure if that example rightly fits the mind-body relationship.

  12. Stuart, actually software is not immaterial. It is physically stored information, and unless it were physically stored it would not exist. That’s why a physicalist is justified in using it as a counter example.

  13. James

    Correct Glenn, but your Screensaver needs certain physical things (especially light) to be seen or realized. And your Screensaver is public.

    If I am picturing my dear mother, you can not open up my head and view the same picture. Even if you could reproduce that picture (figuring what neurons do what) you can not see the original.

    I believe that this is powerful, first person experience against physicalism. But I’m just a layman…

  14. James, it’s true that I cannot view that picture with my eyes unless I had some sort of device to interpret what your brain was doing, like, say, a computer monitor. I just do not see the shape of your argument. Do you think you could spell it out in a list of premises and a conclusion that follows from them?

  15. James

    Glenn, like I said I’m a layman on these issues, so I don’t know if I can lay out a deductive argument that would satisfy you. I am pretty sure though, by experience, that thoughts are not physical (though they are probably physically caused). And that they are clearly not physical.

    That is why I used the picture example – it is easy to understand and universal. Yes, you may be able to “reproduce” the picture of the orange ball on computer monitor (if you knew which part of the brain did what) but I’m asserting that you can not see the original.

    That it is completely private and non-material. Non-public. So if physicalism is true, how can “anything” be non-public?

  16. James, I think you misunderstand what a monitor would be doing in this scenario. It would not be “reproducing” something, it would just be showing you what’s there.

    If your objection really does just boil down to the existence of personal perception, then it’s not an argument. How is dualism a) an explanation of this phenomenon and b) the only possible explanation of this phenomenon? Without those two things, there’s no argument, whether it would satisfy me or not.

  17. Stuart, sorry I missed your post earlier. Here are my thoughts on your two comments:

    a) The brain saw argument says nothing about whether there is any distinction between the mind and its thoughts. It is a response to a well defined dualist claim, namely the claim that the mind is simple and therefore not physical. The dualist argument is we are not conscious of separate mental events in our experience, but rather we experience them all together as one unified perceptual state. It is possible that the dualist who makes this argument is conflating thoughts with mind, and perhaps you could critique dualists for that reason. I don’t think they are making that mistake, because I think they are talking about a centre of consciousness and not merely a bundle of unrelated thoughts. But what the brain saw argument shows is that how many centres of consciousness exist can actually be affected by physical changes to the brain.

    b) It is not I who insists that the mind is simple. In fact that is the dualist claim that I am responding to. If the mind is a single non physical entity, then it is simple, and likewise if it is simple, then it makes sense to think of it as non physical (since physical things are divisible). I voiced my agreement with Kant, saying that a unity of consciousness does not imply simplicity, and I also used the brain saw argument, which used empirical evidence to suggest that the mind is not so simple after all.

  18. James

    Again Glenn,I think the existence of “personal perception” shows that physicalism is mistaken.

    The picture on your computer needs certain physical properties to be seen – expecially light. And is very public. The picture in my mind has no light but is just as vivid, and non-public. These mental states are clearly non-physical.

    Or are you suggesting that the orange ball in my mind is a physical objective?

  19. James, I think you’re saying things that I replied to earlier, so it looks like there’s no progress for us to make.

  20. James

    Glenn, do you believe that thoughts are physical?

  21. James, I guess that’s really what the podcast series is about. 😉

    Unlike a dualist, I think thoughts are caused physically. They are physical events. The thing that I am thinking about is not in my head, so if you cracked my head open you would not see it. What you would see is my thought producing organ, which is physical.

    Asking if a thought is physical is a bit like asking if speech is physical. Thought is what my brain does.

  22. Kenny

    Re: The modal intuition stuff

    Again, I think there’s more to it than that. In general, I think that thought is pretty mysterious. I can’t see *how* it is that anything manages to think, including how it is that an immaterial thing manages to think. But that alone doesn’t create in me the impression that it isn’t possible for an immaterial thing to think.

    But when I contemplate the nature of physical things, I have a strong intuition to the effect that those just aren’t the sorts of things that could think. I have a conception of the nature of the activities that physical things can be engaged in (activities involving interactions among parts, exchanges of energy and the like). And I think I can see that those sorts of activities are not the sorts of activities that could be mental in character.

    Now you can say “Big deal, that’s just your intuition”. But it’s not just my intuition. Lots of people share it, including some materialists. And it’s an intuition that I think is available to many people; just look and see for yourself. Reflect on the nature of physical things, reflect on the kinds of activities that they can be engaged in. Try Leibniz’s thought experiment of mentally shrinking yourself down (or blowing a brain up) and walking around inside a brain, observing the kinds of activities that go on in there. I think that many people, when they try that, find themselves with the intuition that I am speaking of.

    You can also say, “Well, that’s just an intuition, so you shouldn’t trust it”, but in general, we do trust a great many of our modal intuitions. Why think that this is a case in which we shouldn’t? The best you can say, I think, is that it is an intuition that is subject to defeat and then you can attempt to offer defeaters. I agree that it’s an intuition that is subject to defeat, but until it is defeated, I think it provides one with prima facie warrant for the belief that physical things can’t think.

  23. I think, Kenny, that it’s an intuition that was once bolstered by ignorance. People had that inkling, plus they didn’t know a lot about the way the brain works, so the soul stepped in. It was intuitively satisfying, and it also provided an end to the road of trying to figure it out by inserting a mystery. Naturally, there’s no intuition that something mysterious could not do this or that, because it’s mysterious! Who knows what it could do or not do?

    I think the intuition about what the brain can and cannot do is fading, just because the brain does so much and we have become aware of the very close connection between the brain and thought. I welcome this fading, as I think it prompts us to get back into thinking about it.

  24. James

    Hey Glenn, first, speech is physical – from beginning to end. Just like your screen saver is physical from beginning end. And they are public.

    And I agree that thoughts are cause by the physical brain but I do not believe they can be reduced to mere physicalism – if they could the thoughts themselves (not just the electro-chemical process) would be public.

    And it is this non public nature that I believe supports my position. And is good “evidence” for said position.

    BTW – is that Kenny from TWeb? How are you doing bro – seer here…

  25. James, you asked if “thoughts” were physical. I replied by saying that this is like asking whether or not”speech” is physical. I said that because thoughts are events, like speech. Speech isn’t a physical object, it’s something that we do, just like thinking.

    Public vs non-public is not relevant, because that’s only a question of whether other people can observe something. This is clearly not a determining factor in whether or not something is physical, and it is most definitely not “evidence” for their non-physical status. If you’re prepared to grant that thoughts are caused by physical processes, then as far as I’m concerned you’ve accepted that they are physical, and the dualist argument from thought does not agree with you (since that argument assumes that matter cannot think).

  26. James

    Ok Glenn, I’m not sure about the matter not thinking part. But I am suggesting that just because something has a physical genesis does not mean it is physical all the way through. Or does not emerge as something else – more.

    And speech, like your screen saver, are decidely not like thinking. Both are physical and public. Speech BTW is clearly physical, vocal chords, vibrations of the air, sound waves etc. None of these things are present in thought.

    Thoughts are not public, if they were public you could open up my head a clearly see them (not just what causes them).

    You want to minimize this non-public aspect, but to me,it is key. Tell me how a physical thing could be non-public?

  27. James

    A side note Glenn. If it is turtles all the way down then I believe that position destroys human rationality. How, for instance, would the immaterial content of a proposition, effect the physical process?

  28. Tuckster

    James, what if we put it like this, using the speech analogy: speaking and thinking are both actions, but they both use physical parts of the body (the vocal cords and the brain, respectively) to produce physical results that can be measured. You say:

    Speech BTW is clearly physical, vocal chords, vibrations of the air, sound waves etc. None of these things are present in thought.

    But thought does produce similar physical results that can be measured with, e.g., an electroencephalogram or fMRI.

    Thoughts are not public, if they were public you could open up my head a clearly see them (not just what causes them).

    I propose that I can “see” your thoughts if I have the proper equipment (just like I require the proper equipment – ears – in order to hear your speech). After all, scientists are already in the beginning stages of being able to read minds. (Google that for yourself; here‘s just one article that I found a second ago.)

  29. Kenny

    Hey Glenn,

    I think that I’ll probably let you have the final word after this, since both of us will soon be doing little more than pounding the table. But I don’t think you can explain away the intuition I am speaking of by saying that it is just born of ignorance about how the brain works. In fact, I think that the more detail in which one imagines the physical processes occurring in the brain, the stronger the intuition is likely to become. I have heard one relatively prominent physicalist philosopher that I am acquainted with say that learning in great detail about how the brain works made the sort of intuition that I am speaking of stronger, rather than weaker, for him (of course, in his case, it is an intuition that he discards).

    Suppose you are right – that it is natural to think that we won’t have the corresponding intuition concerning the soul because the soul is mysterious. Fine. That doesn’t hurt the argument. Perhaps we don’t have many intuitions about immaterial things because we don’t understand them very well. But we do have an intuition that material things can’t think. And insofar as that intuition provides us with prima facie warrant for thinking believing that material things can’t think, it (via a relatively straight forward inference) affords us with prima facie warrant for the belief that thinking things are immaterial.

    I don’t think the charge of dodging attempts to explain thought is on target against this argument. The argument, in its strongest form, doesn’t turn on any claims about explanation or lack thereof; it turns on an intuition of impossibility. As a parallel, suppose I am a pretty staunch Pythagorean and I insist that in fact, at bottom, everything, including human thinkers, are composed of abstract numbers. You point out to me that you believe that this can’t possibly be true, because it seems clear to you that there are phenomena in the world that simply can’t be reduced to facts about abstract numbers. I charge that you are just making an argument from ignorance; you can’t see how it is that everything can be explained in terms of facts about numbers, so you conclude that we have to posit more than numbers to explain the world. Clearly, it seems that I have missed out on the force of your argument if I were to say that. But I don’t see how your response to the dualist’s argument that we are discussing is relevantly different than the Pythagorean response I just described.

    P.S. Yes James, that’s me; good to hear from you.

  30. Tuckster

    Kenny, I’ve just been reading what you’ve said. I really can’t agree with this at all:

    I agree that it’s an intuition that is subject to defeat, but until it is defeated, I think it provides one with prima facie warrant for the belief that physical things can’t think.

    I certainly don’t share this intuition that material things can’t “think”. Let me ask you this: do you believe that computers will ever become self-aware? That they will ever “think” in the same way we do?

  31. James


    “I propose that I can “see” your thoughts if I have the proper equipment (just like I require the proper equipment – ears – in order to hear your speech). After all, scientists are already in the beginning stages of being able to read minds. (Google that for yourself; here’s just one article that I found a second ago.)”

    That is completely untrue. All scientists can do is to correlate. As we map the brain we can tell which parts of the brain does what. In other words – you may know that when neurons A,B and C are firing that I am picturing a orange ball (of course I first have to tell you when I’m picturing an orange ball so that you can later correlate that activity). But what you can not do is see “my” orange ball. You may be able to reproduce an orange ball on a computer screen when those particular neurons fire – but again, that is not viewing, it is reproducing.

    So thinking is decidedly not like screen savers or speech. And until I’m proven wrong I have no rational reason to give up my position.

  32. Kenny

    Tuckster, if you don’t share the intuition that I am speaking of, try out the Leibnizian thought experiment that I spoke of for yourself and see what happens. Imagine (in as much detail as you can) the sorts of processes that go on in something like a brain and ask yourself if those processes could be identical to mental processes (like being appeared to redly). If you still lack the intuition that the can’t, then, well, you lack it – there isn’t much else to say. But a lot of people, including materialists, do have that intuition, or easily come to acquire it when they dwell on the matter. It’s to them that my argument is addressed.

    As for your question about computers – I think it is possible that computers might someday be ensouled (i.e. that computers might bear the same sort of relation to an immaterial soul that I take our bodies to bear to our souls). Perhaps, for all I know, there is a divinely ordained law of nature that whenever a physical system comes to have the right sorts of arrangements, it becomes ensouled. Or God, for some reason, might decide to endow a computer with a soul.

    So I think it is possible for computers to think in the same loose sense that I think it is possible for our brains to think. To say, loosely, that my brain thinks is just to say that it is the principle organ through which a thinking soul interacts with the physical world. But, strictly speaking, I deny that my brain can think. Likewise, I hold that a computer could become a physical system through which an immaterial soul interacts with the physical world, but, strictly speaking, a computer cannot think.

  33. James: Regarding your suggested argument from mental causation, I’ll come to that in part three of the series, so I’ll set that aside for now.

    As for how a thought could by physical yet non public, it may be as follows: Certain physical states of affairs might be public yet difficult to interpret. Examining the chips on a motherboard might not yield the video image that it is generating, just because it’s hard to see what that configuration points to. Ditto for the brain. Examining the physical processes going on can give us a rough idea about some things (e.g. “he is processing emotion”), but beyond that it is murky and difficult.

    As I’ve indicated, I think that so much of the force of dualist arguments in this area boil down to the fact that it’s murky and dificult, so people breathe an intellectual sigh of relief by giving up on investigation and appealing to something-I-know-not-what that somehow just has the ability to think without requiring an explanation. I wonder, for example, if you could explain how an immaterial soul generates a mental image.

  34. James

    Well Glenn, I am not speaking of what is difficult or murky. I maintain that no matter how much we understand the physical brain, or it processes, one will never be able to see “my” orange ball. Even if you know that I am picturing said ball that personal view will forever remain non-public.

    Now as far as your last question – I haven’t a clue. I just know that I have these experiences.

    And I will repeat: “If it is turtles all the way down then I believe that position destroys human rationality. How, for instance, would the immaterial content of a proposition, effect the physical process?”

    Anyway Glenn, I will be interested in your pod-cast on the biblical references – I believe the bible clearly presents man as a dual natured being. Do you agree?

  35. Kenny

    I don’t believe that there are such things as mental images (I think that we engage in various mental activities, including activities like imaging red applely, but I hold that, strictly speaking, there are no such things as mental images of red apples and the like). So I won’t find any argument for dualism that has a premise that there are such entities as mental images convincing.

    But, Glenn, I don’t see why you think that the dualist owes any explanation. I think that Plantinga was right when he said that asking how the soul manages to think is a bit like asking how an electron has charge – for all we know, it’s just a basic fact about souls that they think, and there simply is no further explanation to be had. A certain kind of materialist may well, in fact, want to say the same thing about how it is that certain material systems come to think (all though this move strikes me as far less plausible when made on the part of the materialist) – perhaps they will want to say that it’s just a brute metaphysical fact that physical systems with a certain functional arrangement come to have mental properties.

    I tend to think that all this focus on explanation is a bit of a red herring. It seems plausible to me that mental phenomena may well be, in interesting ways, sui generis – they certainly seem to be radically different from other kinds of phenomena that we know of. Furthermore, I think that taking mental phenomena to be sui generis is even more plausible give theism (I doubt that there is any deeper explanation of how it is that God manages to think; given theism, I think it is plausible that thought is a basic, fundamental feature reality).

  36. Tuckster

    Just want to say that I am enjoying this discussion, but I need to step back and think about what’s been said. (This is all very new to me.)

  37. James, if you’re entitled to not have “a clue” as you say, then I think my half clue, murky though it may be, isn’t looking so bad. And as for the question you repeated, as I said in my last post, that will be covered in part three of the series.

  38. Kenny, I agree that thoughts are events rather than things that reside in the brain, hence my speech comparison.

    You say that perhaps the dualist owes no explanation. Perhaps not, and the only times when I have demanded one is when dualists suggest that physicalism is at a disadvantage because it doesn’t offer an explanation.

  39. Kenny

    Okay Glenn, fair enough on the point about explanation.

    FYI, I don’t take thoughts to be events; I take them to be universals – mental properties. At least I do insofar as I am still a realist about properties. I’ve been finding myself, of late, becoming increasingly sympathetic to a kind of nominalistic fictionalism about properties. My nominalist-leaning-self would say that, strictly speaking, there are no such entities as thoughts (that apparent quantification over them is fictionalist quantification), though, of course, there are thinking things.

    All the above is just an aside, though; it doesn’t have anything directly to do with your podcast. Although, I do think that things get muddled in philosophy of mind at times because philosophers of mind talk as if it is clear that there are entities of a certain sort (thoughts, brain states, qualia, etc.) and that it is clear what they are, when in many cases I think that neither is, in fact, very clear.

    Anyway, I’ve enjoyed the discussion but I’m signing off for now. I’m looking forward to the next podcasts!

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