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

What decent physicalism is not


My current lunch time reading project is the 2007 book by Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will (Oxford University Press). Although I’ve only just broached the first chapter, I can already tell that I’m really going to enjoy it immensely, and from time to time I might share some of the really good bits as I work my way through it.

The book is basically a defence of the view that there is a plausible physicalist conception of the mind that is compatible with moral responsibility and free will, but along the way you end up getting a great introduction to the position in philosophy of mind called nonreductive physicalism.

Like the authors, I’m a physicalist. I’m not a mind-body dualist like a large number of my Christian peers who believe that we are a combination of two very different and (potentially) independent substances: intelligent, conscious souls, and mundane matter. An observation really leapt off the pages at me today. I can so easily relate to this observation, because I sometimes observe my Christian peers who are mind-body dualists struggle with the idea of physicalism for just this reason.

Mary Midgley characterised physicalism like this:

If certain confusions result from Descartes’ having sliced human beings down the middle, many feel that the best cure is just to drop the immaterial half altogether … The philosophers who favour this programme are known as Physicalists.1

I suppose technically someone who does this is a physicalist, since he will have to say that people are made only of physical stuff, but I would hate to think that anyone would assume that because I am a physicalist I am committed to this view. In a Cartesian view (i.e the view of Descartes) The mind is the true self, the seat of all consciousness, the marker of personal identity, the active ingredient in the person whereas the body is passive, unnecessary and more of a machine than anything else. Any decent variety of physicalism (and certainly nonreductive physicalism) is not just dualism with the soul removed. Radical dualism and physicalism have very basically different views not just on the nature of the mind, but also on the capacity of the body. If we were to just accept the Cartesian view of the body with the soul stripped away, we would be left with nothing but a machine, something like a zombie – which (although incredibly cool in it’s own way) is nothing like what your average physicalist is likely to believe in.

To use another analogy, I’m reminded of the words of Nursie on Blackadder II when she recounted the birth of Queen Elizabeth I:

Out you popped, out of your mummie’s tumkin and everybody shouting, ‘It’s a boy, it’s a boy!’ And somebody said, ‘But it hasn’t got a winkle!’ And then I said, ‘A boy without a winkle? God be praised, it’s a miracle. A boy without a winkle!’ And then Sir Thomas More pointed out that a boy without a winkle is a girl, and everyone was really disappointed.

It’s obvious what’s wrong here. A girl isn’t just a boy with a missing penis. Every DNA molecule [EDIT: this should read “every cell“] of a girl’s body is different from that of a boy. Remember, physicalists don’t just reject the dualistic view of the mind. They also reject the dualistic view of the body, and physicalism is not just dualism minus the soul.

1Mary Midgely, “The Soul’s Successors: Philosophy and the ‘Body’,” in Sarah Coakley (ed.), Religion and the Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 53.


Study links homosexuality and childhood abuse


Where I stand on legal same sex marriage


  1. I don’t have a comment about the philosophy, but your biology is a bit off.

    No DNA molecules in a female are different than those in a male (at least not by virtue of their female-ness). After all, sex is determined by presence or lack of the Y-chromosome and all males have one X-chromosome (in fact, there are even XY females, who have mutation in the most important sex determining gene).

  2. So basically, DNA won’t tell you whether it came from a male or female individual? I didn’t realise that – and some stories I’ve read (like this one) led me to believe otherwise. But it’s true, I don’t know a lot about DNA.

  3. If you see a Y-chromosome, or Y-chromosome sequence you can be almost certain it’s from a male. But there are 44 other DNA molecules in each cell that don’t differ with sex and the actual sex determining gene is about one 2 billionth of the genome

  4. OK, let’s scratch my reference to DNA, and make it a reference to cells.

  5. Right, I only brought it up because it’s interesting. Once you realise that all the differences between a male body (and brain) and a female one is down to the action of one gene the idea of DNA as a “blueprint” (as in almost every news article on genetics) sort of goes out the window.

  6. Kenny

    “The mind is the true self, the seat of all consciousness, the marker of personal identity, the active ingredient in the person whereas the body is passive, unnecessary and more of a machine than anything else.”

    I thought this was a bit of a caricature of the Cartesian view. As you well know, Cartesian dualism is interactive dualism. The body is not wholly passive on the Cartesian picture. There is, rather, both soul to body causation and body to soul causation.

    And, in any case, Descartes’ own views aside, one certainly doesn’t need to hold anything like the above picture in order to be a dualist who believes that, strictly speaking, human persons are identical to immaterial souls and not bodies. In fact, it is open to a dualist to believe that most of the important characteristics that we associate with an individual person – her memories, her personality, etc. – are characteristics that she has in virtue of being related to her particular body (with its own unique biochemistry, causal history, neuro-configurations, etc.) in the manner she is.

  7. Interesting post Glenn.
    Which arguments do you find most persuasive for compatibilism?
    I don’t find Hume or Hobbes that persuasive to be honest…whereas Frankfurt, imo, is pretty good.

  8. Kenny, Descartes certainly thought the mind was the true self and the seat of consciousness, and he certainly believed that the body wasn’t necessary in order for me to exist. He also did say that the body is like a machine.

    And it’s true, a dualist might conceivably think that a person only has the personality traits that she does and the memories she does because she is related to a certain body. I do wonder, however, if that dualist expects to have any memory when she goes to heaven, or if she expects to retain her personality there. But even if a dualist rejected the passivity of the body, I did call the above view a “radical dualism.” Not all dualisms will be that radical.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén