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

Episode 031: In Search of the Soul, Part 3


Here’s part three of the series on philosophy of mind. We’ve moved from dualism in part one through to physicalism in this episode. I look at epiphenomenialism, reductionism, nonreductive physicalism and a constitution view.

As promised, here’s some suggested reading for those who want to look into the subject futher:

Nancey Murphy, “Nonreductive Physicalism and Free Will”

Nancey Murphy, “Is “Nonreductive Physicalism” an Oxymoron?”

Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Reflections on Moral Responsibility and Free Will (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Joel B. Green and Stuart L. Palmer (eds), In Search of the Soul: Four Views of the Mind-Body Problem (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005). This volume includes contributions from Stewart Goetz (Substance Dualism), William Hasker (Emergent Dualism), Nancey Murphy (Nonreductive Physicalism) and Kevin Corcoran (Constitution View).

Joel B. Green (ed.), What About the Soul?: Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology (Abingdon Press, 2001). This volume includes contributions from Bill T. Arnold, D. Gareth  Jones, Joel B. Green, Patrick D. Miller, Charles E. Gutenson, Stuart L. Palmer, William Hasker, Michael Rynkiewich, Virginia T. Holeman, Lawson G. Stone and Malcolm Jeeves.

Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy and H. Newton Maloney (eds), Whatever Happened to the Soul: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Augsburg Fortress, 1998). This volume includes contributions from Nancey Murphy, H. Newton Malony, Ray S. Anderson, V. Elving Anderson, Francisco J. Ayala, Warren S. Brown Jr., Joel B. Green, Malcolm Jeeves, H. Newton Malony and Stephen G. Post.

Kevin Corcoran, Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul (Baker Academic, 2006).

The website of Timothy O’Connor, featuring a number of articles.

Happy reading, and I hope you find this episode interesting! 🙂

Glenn Peoples

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

Part 1 

Part 2 

Part 3 

Part 4 

Part 5 



Nuts and Bolts 004: Logical Positivism


Lord Winston: New Zealand doesn't value its intellectuals


  1. Jared

    Yaaaay! Long live the podcast!

  2. Haecceitas

    Did you refer to Dennett as a biologist? He’s actually a philosopher.

  3. Yes, he is a philosopher. That was a slip on my part as I always associate him with defences of Darwinism and critiques of religion as being unscientific, so I always think of him as someone in the sciences.

  4. Kenny

    Good podcast. I thought you did a good job explaining the different views. Here’s some brief commentary on those views on my part, for what it’s worth:

    I find non-reductive physicalism to be obscure and unmotivated. Even if there is such a thing as top down causation, as long as the higher level processes supervene on the lower level processes, all of our actions are still determined by the lower level processes (at best, all there is is systematic causal overdetermination). Furthermore, from a physicalist POV, it seems to me that reductive physicalism offers a much more straightforward and eloquent solution to the problem of mental causation – mental events just are physical events that cause other physical events. I reject physicalism, but it seems to me that if one is a physicalist, reductionism is the best way to go.

    The constitution view of human persons is just wacky. Are there two material objects sitting in my chair right now, occupying the same space, composed of all the same subatomic parts etc.? Answering “Yes”, as (I believe) David Lewis put it, “wreaks of double counting”. Also, if there are two objects sitting in my chair occupying the same space, etc., do both of those objects think? If so, there are two beings sitting in my chair having all the same thoughts – how do I know which one is me? If not, then mental properties fail to supervene on physical properties, but that seems to be something a physicalist would want to deny. The best way to go, if you want to think that human beings are material objects, imho, is to adopt something in the neighborhood of what Peter van Inwagen presents in his book Material Beings.

  5. “mental events just are physical events that cause other physical events.” – Well that’s not absent in nonreductive physicalism, of course.

  6. Kenny

    Right you are Glenn. I guess that’s another reason why I have a hard time seeing what the motivation for nonreductive physicalism is supposed to be.

  7. Hi Glenn,
    With regard to top-down causation and its role in non-reductive physicalism, if I had a molecule that, on its own, jiggled in a circular pattern which, when clustered with a whole bunch of identical molecules, all began to jiggle in figure-eight patterns would this be an example of (extremely simplified) top-down causation?

  8. (Just putting myself on the notifications list for this post)

  9. Sorry Damian – your question slipped through the cracks.

    No I don’t think that would be a case of top-down causation. TD causation is about the effect of the whole upon the parts. What you’re describing sounds like “sideways” causation – one part affecting other parts, or maybe independent wholes affecting each other. Downward causation would have more to do with the influence of a large organised body of molecules as a large body have causal effects on the way those molecules behave.

    If I had (a lot) more time I’d have more expertise in the area because I find it so fascinating, but as things stand I have very little. It’s one of those things I’ll have to be happy for now simply to be an observer and commentator on the expertise of others, but this short piece by Nancy Murphy might help:

  10. Thanks for that link Glenn.
    It seems to me that top-down causation starts with an acknowledgement of the power of atoms (when combined into molecules, when combined into organisms) but then ignores this acknowledgement when investigating the thing they claim is acting on these organisms.

    In your link an example is given of the ant’s jaw and how well suited it is to its task. The author gives credit to the power of purely physical interactions for the process of replication and the transfer of genes by way of DNA but then posits ‘natural selection’ as if it were an entity not made of atoms. Strange as it sounds, I think all the actors involved in natural selection are made of atoms too and obeys the same rules.

    Have you ever seen that Conway’s Game of Life computer program? It starts with some very simple rules but our brains can’t avoid seeing ‘gliders’ and ‘guns’.

    To me it seems that proponents of top-down causation are saying that “yes, Conway’s Game of Life is based on some very simple rules but those simple rules aren’t enough to explain why a Glider Gun will produce an endless stream of gliders”.

  11. Damian

    The impression I get is not that the power of atoms is “ignored.” I think there’s a slight equivocation here. The author I linked to spoke about natural selection as not being made of atoms, but your objection is that this is wrong because the actors involved in natural selection are made of atoms. But this is not in conflict with the author’s claim.

    I’m not familiar with Conway’s game of life, no.

  12. I would claim that ‘natural selection’ is a mental construct contained in physical brains (i.e. an arrangement of atoms) to describe the actions of other atoms writ large. This is what I mean by all the actors involved in natural selection.

    I suspect that this is in conflict with the author’s claim.

    (when I say ‘atoms’ here it’s short hand for atoms, energy, dark energy, dark matter, anything physical whether known or unknown.)

    I encourage you to follow those links to get an understanding of how Conway’s Game of Life works and how we so easily abandon the concept of individual blocks bound by simple rules in favour of larger, spatial-temporal entities such as ‘gliders’ and ‘guns’. I believe that the same kind of economy of reasoning is being used when people posit top-down causation.

  13. Well wait, the author isn’t suggesting that the idea of natural selection isn’t contained in brains that are made of atoms.

    But you seem to be saying that the idea or description of that thing we call natural selection just is all there is to natural selection.

    Isn’t that like saying the Chrysler building is composed of atoms in my brain just because right now I’m thinking about the Chrysler building?

  14. (Sorry for the delay: work intrudes)

    No, you’ve misunderstood my position. I believe that there is an arbitrary collection of atoms that exists external to us that our brains store a representation of that we call ‘The Chrysler Building’.

    The same with ‘natural selection’. It’s a mental representation of the actions of other atoms writ large. i.e. Atoms out there are doing what they do and this we build a mental representation of we call ‘natural selection’. What I don’t understand is how a proponent of top-down causation can go from acknowledging the power of clusters of atoms and yet think that a phenomenon such as natural selection is somehow independent of or more than the actions of clusters of atoms.

    As I keep coming back to, this seems very much to me like an exaggerated version of someone understanding the simple rules of Conway’s Game of Life and yet going on to claim that the actions of these pixels can’t be accounted for by these simple rules alone because “how else could I account for that stream of gliders if not for the presence of that Glider Gun over there”. Have you taken the opportunity to look at and understand this Conway’s Game of Life analogy I’m referring to yet? If so, can you see what I’m talking about?

  15. The same with ‘natural selection’. It’s a mental representation of the actions of other atoms writ large. i.e. Atoms out there are doing what they do and this we build a mental representation of we call ‘natural selection’.

    OK, at this level there’s a problem, depending on what this sentence was meant to say. It looks like there’s a missing word after “of.” But if that missing word is “what,” then yes, we form a mental representation of a process external to ourselves, a process that we call natural selection. But of course, this doesn’t mean that natural selection is a mental construct. It just means that we have a mental thing that refers to and describes the process of natural selection.

    I think you misunderstand top-down causation when you suggest that people construe it as independent of the actions of atoms. Of course it’s not independent, since it would be impossible without those atoms. What it seems to don’t get is how the thing that is composed of atoms can have an effect on a given one of those atom that is not just the power of individual atoms added together by addition, right?

    But if that’s so, then you just don’t see how a single thing Nancy Murphy said in that article could be correct. And if that’s the case, she might be willing to answer an email from you. 🙂

  16. Yes, the missing word was ‘which’ but ‘what’ will do.

    And yes, I think you’ve got the gist of what I was getting at: atoms, when combined, do things that are seemingly more complex their initial properties alone would suggest. In the same way, the pixels in Conway’s Game of Life when they interact do things that are also seemingly more complex than the four basic rules they obey. I think that the proponent of top-down causation is making the same jump in endowing a concept such as ‘natural selection’ with extra-physical properties as one would if they felt that the concept of ‘glider guns’ was endowed with properties above and beyond the four simple rules that govern the behaviour of the pixels.

    Anyway, thanks for this series of podcasts. You did an excellent job of explaining the various positions and I find the topic fascinating.

  17. Aislan

    Adorei encontrar este blog! Perfeito para a minha pesquisa em filosofia da mente cristã. Eu moro aqui em João Pessoa – PB, Brasil.

    I loved found this blog! Perfect to my research on “christian mind philosophy”. I ‘m from João Pessoa – PB, Brazil.


Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén