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

John Haldane and Glenn Peoples on physicalism


As you may know, while I was in the UK recently I visited Justin at Premiere Radio who hosts the Unbelievable? Radio show. We recorded two episodes, and the first one aired on the 4th of September (my birthday – how appropriate!) and is now available in the show’s podcast. You can subscribe to the show over at the iTunes store, or you can head on over to the Unbelievable website and find the episode there.

The first show was a discussion with John Haldane of St Andrews University on the mind-body problem from a Christian point of view. It was a real pleasure to chat with John, he’s a scholar and a gentleman, and the conversation was most cordial and enjoyable. Enjoy!

We recorded two episodes on that day. The second was a discussion between me and Arif Ahmed, an atheist from the University of Cambridge on morality and God. That episode will air three weeks after this one. Apparently the Pope is visiting the UK and that’s more important in terms of radio coverage. Sheesh, priorities!


The New Atheism, Science and Morality – University of Auckland


Nuts and Bolts 009: Validity and Soundness


  1. Joey

    I thought you did quite well. I think a lot of readers will hear what you said and be, like host Justin Brierly, learn a thing or two about something they clearly aren’t familiar with.

    I kinda wish though you all could have delved a bit more into the scripture, although I got the impression from John Haldane that maybe that might not have been the most persuasive way to go about it in that…

  2. Nathan

    To me it seemed like John Haldane wanted to avoid discussing 1 Corinthians 15. There’s far more certainty in that passage on the nature of the resurrection than there is in the OT about praying to/for the dead, which he seemed to want to invest more time in.

    In fact it was almost as if John didn’t want to argue anything, instead it seemed like he just wanted to say “well these are some of the things we should consider”. At one time, if I heard him correctly, he said something like “I don’t think this is the place to get into that kind of detail” but presumably that was why he was there?

    I also thought they spent a lot of time coming back to a complete physicalist/materialist position that doesn’t recognise spirituality at all, a position that Glenn doesn’t hold, and clearly stated that. The discussion would have been more rewarding if they’d stuck to the positions that each person held.

    I also thought the part where Haldane called out Glenn for using the words ‘more physicalist’ as if Glenn were conceding some ground was a bit odd. Why didn’t he just engage with what Glenn was actually saying, rather than jumping on something that wasn’t really there?

    I really liked the bit about having a duty to uphold the truth when Justin asked why it mattered. So true. As was pointing out that dualism is no better default position than Christian physicalism – and that’s why finding out the truth really matters too. The default position has to come from Scripture. It’s such a shame that John didn’t seem to want to talk about it. Maybe he’s standing on his tradition, assuming that since Catholic tradition upholds dualism (in the form that it does) then so does Scripture. Interesting too that quite early on he seemed to concede that dualism was/is syncretistic.

    Altogether I wish it could have been more involved. Overall the discussion seemed quite short compared to other Unbelieveable episodes.

    Hopefully at the very least, the episode will prompt some discussion on what I feel is a quite obvious disconnect between traditional dualism and the fundamental Christian doctrine of the resurrection.

    Glenn have you had a chance to listen to it? Are there things you wish the discussion could have focussed on a little more? Anything you wish you had said differently?

  3. Kenny

    I too thought you did a good job Glenn. Even though I’m a dualist myself, I find the sort of Thomistic dualism Haldane defends to be philosophically indefensible at best and unintelligible at worst. Furthermore, Haldane seemed to waffle quite a bit without saying much that was very definite. You, on the other hand, were clear and precise.

  4. Thanks guys. The impression I got is that the show came over as a very (VERY) summary treatment of the fact that there exists a view other than dualism that is available to Christians. True, we didn’t really get into the cut and thrust of reasons for and against, but still, the balance of reasons for considering points of view to be plausible fell in favour of physicalism (in my humble estimate).

    There are pros and cons to the more conversational style of presentation (like this one) as opposed to a more back and forth argument, which is how my show with Arif Ahmed went. What I found there is that there just wasn’t the opportunity to address every argument in the kind of depth that I wanted to because it’s a radio show with a set shedule, and the host guides the discussion so that it covers a range of areas. For the type of presentation that it is, I think it went well, and I’mc ertainly happy with the overall impression in terms of exposure to plausible points of view that people probably haven’t really thought about before.

  5. Basil Wellington


    I am curious how you harmonize physicalism with scripture? Have you written or podded regarding the typical verses that would be cited by a dualist to support their position? Recently, I read John Cooper’s essay “Exaggerated Rumors of Dualism’s Demise” (Philosophia Christi Vol 11 #2), and found it to be very forceful in arguing that most of the characters in scripture thought humans to be dualistic (save the Sadducee). I look forward to your response.


  6. Basil, I think that for Cooper to say (if this is what he says) that “most of the characters” in Scripture were dualists is a very exaggerated view of what the Scriptures say. For nearly all characters in Scripture we have virtually no indication at all on what they thought about the mind/body issue, so to say that most of them were dualists certainly steps beyond the evidence.

    What’s more, I’m quite content with the thought that a lot of the characters in Scripture did personally hold some sort of dualism. I don’t see that as terribly important, because a number of people in Scripture probably held to all sorts of false beliefs (just imagine what a lot of them probably believed about cosmology!). What they personally believed is one thing. What they taught that became part of Scripture, that’s another thing.

    I’m curious how people harmonise dualism with Scripture actually, when it comes to the problem texts for dualism. I just don’t find the attempts at rationalisation to be all that persuasive. Probably the best way to see what I think about that is to have a look at the material that I have presented here at the blog and in the podcast.

    In particular, check out the “philosophy of mind” category:

    And the “philosophy of mind” tag (which will cover much of the same territory in terms of posts):

    You could also check other tags that might be relevant like “physicalism” or “dualism.”

  7. Hi Glenn, just listened to this discussion and thought it was fascinating!
    I do have to admit that when I heard of Christian philosophers being physicalists on the human person, such as Peter Van Inwagen, I did immediately think, “Oooh dodgy liberal, I’ll have to be careful not to read him!”
    But listening to this debate has really opened my mind up to the other possibilities. I definitely would not say I am now physicalist because I’ve read so much from the Moreland/Copan/Craig perspective, about the freedom of the will, rationality, human dignity etc, but I would say I am now agnostic. I have been a fan of the argumetn about consciousness, but I just thought about it today and the thought came into my ‘mind’ that lowers animals are also conscious beings with regards to the way that they have a mental awareness of themselves and their surroundings, yet I bet many Christians would be more than reluctant to say that these animals must therefore have souls.
    I do have some misgivings about physicalism, though. One would be when Jesus says to the thief that, “today you will see me in paradise”. This also links into another question I would have which is that did Jesus descend to hell when he died? What happened to him? I know that is a contentious issue anyway but would be interesting to hear a physicalist perspective.

    Another question I would have would be about the transfiguration, do you think Elijah then was physically resurrected when he appeared to Jesus and the disciples? And how did Jesus manage to get into the locked room when he was resurrected?

    Finally, as a physicalist do you think the there is an interaction problem for the dualist with the mind/body issue? Because when I read about demon possession in the Gospels, I see that (on physicalism), material human beings are being possessed and controlled by immaterial spiritual beings, namely demons. This would indicate that even on physicalism, the interaction objection is moot if the Gospels are accepted as truthful.

    Would be interested to hear your thoughts!


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