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

Moreland on Neuroscience and Souls


phineas gageDo brain-probing experiments show that substance dualism is true?

According to philosopher J P Moreland, the findings of neuroscience show – tentatively at least – that substance dualism is true and all forms of physicalism are false. Specifically, he says that the science of the brain shows that consciousness is not and cannot be the function of physical beings. It shows, on the contrary, that our conscious self is an entity in addition to our physical body. I think it’s fair to say that this oversteps the evidence, and some may even say that it flies in the face of it.

In chapter ten of the popular level apologetics book by Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator, Lee Strobel asks Moreland what evidence there exists that the conscious self is not the physical self. Strobel recalls Moreland’s reply as follows:

“We have experimental data, for one thing,” he replied. “For example, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield electrically stimulated the brains of epilepsy patients and found he could cause them to move their arms or legs, turn their heads or eyes, talk, or swallow. Invariably the patient would respond by saying, ‘I didn’t do that. You did.’ According to Penfield, ‘the patient thinks of himself as having an existence separate from his body.’

“No matter how much Penfield probed the cerebral cortex, he said, ‘There is no place … where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or to decide.’ That’s because those functions originate in the conscious self, not the brain.

Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator, 258.

The first comment is this: Penfield’s description of what patients think does not seem terribly relevant. Maybe they simply performed awful self diagnosis. Or maybe their belief that they had a conscious self separate from the body is merely Penfield’s (or Moreland’s) re-description of what they said. Certainly the reaction of “I didn’t do that. You did,” does not support that explanation. Me grabbing your arm and using it to slap you in the face is comparable to what Penfield did: Exerting a physical cause that has an involuntary effect on your body. Yet this arm-grabbing, face slapping prank hardly warrants the belief that you have an existence separate from your body. At best, it shows that whatever was stimulated, the conscious thing (whatever it is, brain or immaterial soul) might not have been part of the causal chain. But this shows very little.

Maybe the most important thing to note, however, is that any confident appeal to neuroscientific experiments conducted in the early 1950s to settle complex questions of the relationship between brain and consciousness is surprising. Penfield’s work was impressive primarily because it was a breakthrough. It was pioneering work that demonstrated the possibility of neural stimulation to achieve a variety of effects. It is hardly realistic to expect that in its first foray into such practices, neuroscience would immediately plumb the depths of everything that is possible in regard to demonstrating the capacity of brain states to influence mind states (indeed even today neuroscience has done no such thing). This is a bit like pointing out that the first user of a microscope in the 17th century did not discover DNA, hence we have a good reason to doubt that it does exist, based on “experimental data.”

The fact is that we’ve learned much about the brain since Penfield’s early experiments in neural stimulation, and also quite apart from clinical experiments, we know that a whole range of brain conditions have a fairly direct effect on decision making and belief. Well before Penfield’s experiments was the nineteenth century case of Phineas Gage. Gage was a construction foreman who, incredibly, survived an horrific accident in which an iron bar, an inch and a quarter in diameter, was blasted through his head in an explosion, destroying much of the left frontal lobe of his brain (see some neat visuals here). He went on to live, in surprisingly good health, for another twelve years before beginning to have a series of convulsions, which culminated in his death. Although Gage’s story has been subject to a variety of exaggerations, Dr John Harlow who observed Gage’s case noted significant and persistent personality changes: Changes in the way that Gage thought, believed, decided and acted. His friends took to calling him “no longer Gage.” Needless to say, this is a case of significantly more than merely stimulating the brain, but it remains a case where a person’s tendency to believe and decide in certain ways is affected by a brain state.

Since that time we have become aware of a range of physiological conditions in the brain that do indeed cause people to think, believe or decide in different ways. These conditions are well known in the literature, and would include examples such as Capgras’ Syndrome, Frontotemporal Dementia and others. Additionally, much more recently and in ways more relevantly similar to the work of Penfield that Moreland cites, a report published in Science 2009 called “Movement Intention After Parietal Cortex Stimulation in Humans” is of great interest. Firstly, notice the way that some of the cause and effect observations in this report match those of Penfield:

… during stimulation patient PM1 exhibited a large multijoint movement involving flexion of the left wrist, fingers, and elbow … He did not spontaneously comment on this, and when asked whether he had felt a movement he responded negatively.

So far this does not advance on Penfield’s experiments. But then observe:

Stimulation of all these sites produced a pure intention, that is, a felt desire to move without any overt movement being produced… Without prompting by the examiner, all three patients spontaneously used terms such as “will,” “desire,” and “wanting to,” which convey the voluntary character of the movement intention and its attribution to an internal source, that is, located within the self.

Here the conscious self was affected by a physical stimulation of the brain and affected a person’s will. Why didn’t Penfield’s experiments show this happening? Who knows? But the fact that they did not cannot be taken to mean that this cannot happen. Each experiment is an incomplete part of the picture. The findings of each experiment are provisional, taken to be the best we can do for now, but we may always learn more in the future. For this reason alone it is wise not to claim that the effects that researchers have been able to produce in the past are the only effects that anybody will ever be able to produce.

Beyond this, it looks like this attempt to stitch together an evidence-based argument for dualism is somewhat misleading. The impression is given that if Dr Penfield (or anyone else) had been able to stimulate the brain in a way that caused a patient to decide to move his own arm, or been able to show physical conditions in the brain that give rise to beliefs and decisions, then this would count, for Moreland, as evidence that consciousness was somehow brain based. Not so! Elsewhere Dr Moreland addresses the fact that altered brain states do in fact cause people to act (and more importantly, to think) differently. On page 251 of The Case for a Creator, Moreland in his interview with Strobel cites an article by Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick, melbourne neurosurgeon or doctors who note cases where people have become unconscious, then become clinically dead, then brought “back to life,” as it were, and and then when they later regained consciousness they recall having “well-structured, lucid thought processes, with memory formation and reasoning, during the time that their brains were not functioning.” Of course, it’s not possible to know whether or not those processes occurred while the patients were clinically dead, so it is hard to see how this conclusion was drawn, but the important part is what follows. Moreland takes this to support the view that the consciousness is separate from the brain, although he doesn’t offer any specific insights as to how anyone knew that those processes occurred while the patients were brain dead. But notice the way Strobel describes what Moreland proposes:

He speculated that the brain might serve as a mechanism to manifest the mind, much in the same way a television set manifests pictures and sounds from waves in the air. If an injury to the brain causes a person to lose some aspects of his mind or personality, this doesn’t necessarily prove that the brain was the source of the mind. “All it shows is that the apparatus is damaged,” he said.

I’m not going to offer an assessment of the comparison made here (other than to note that interfering with a TV signal subtracts from the signal, it doesn’t create a new signal with a different programme as in the case of some brain injuries and conditions). What I want to draw attention to is the ambivalent role that evidence appears to play in the same chapter. When physical intervention fails to succeed in influencing certain functions (namely of belief and decision), this is treated as significant, giving the impression that we are being open to evidence, being willing to alter our theory if we do see that interference with the brain influences the mind. However, earlier we have been told that even if physical interference with the brain appears to have an effect on the mind, we need not be moved by this evidence since we can find refuge in the view that the brain only picks up signals from the mind, and the mind is not affected by the brain after all.

In any event, we know that intervening in brain activity (whether intentionally or through disease) can indeed have an effect in the mind, bringing about new ways of thinking and acting. Just as Penfield (and perhaps Moreland) ought to have remained open to the fact that new information may always come to light, so too more recent work in neuroscience may need to be revisited as we learn more. It was a mistake, however, to shut the door to the possibility that influences on the brain may affect beliefs and decisions of the mind. Such hastiness, I daresay, is symptomatic of a distinct lack of creativity when one does not want certain possibilities to exist out of fear that they may challenge a theory that one is attached to.

What I think bothers me more than anything else about this is the “package deal” nature of evangelicalism that seems to be manifested in this and other books, articles, sermons, organisations and so on. Non-believing and scientifically well-informed people are going to see the book as standing or falling as a whole (and unfortunately, the case for Christian theism standing or falling with the book), they will see the way this sort of argument for dualism simply fails, and they will conclude – albeit fallaciously – that the case for theism is itself as weak as these arguments. It most certainly is not.

Glenn Peoples


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  1. Deane

    This is the same J.P. Moreland who said he had an “encounter” with three angels, huh?

    Do ya reckon that a decision between dualism or monism might be necessarily basic?

  2. I trust his claims about his own direct experiences more than I trust his dubious arguments about dualism.

    I’m not sure that a belief about this can be properly basic, because I can’t imagine how it could be formed in way that would make it basic.

  3. Deane

    Actually, it’s not a claim about “his own direct experiences” as such. One of his students “saw” the angels, and later told him about it.

    I don’t think much of any of the normal a priori arguments trotted out against dualism. Many of them suffer from circularity, and some are just odd. It seems that you can hold to dualism as an internally consistent system.

  4. Mike Bianchi

    I’ve always believe in dualism just because it seems like the most natural way to interpret the biblical position and most likely what ancient near eastern people and greco-roman people would have understood it to mean. That being said, from a scientific/philosophical standpoint, I’m not even sure how you would prove or disprove dualism. What criteria would a dualist need to meet in order to prove dualism? I’ve never heard anyone offer any. If there’s no way that we can prove dualism to be true, than physicalism becomes unfalsifiable and a useless hypothesis.

  5. Kenny

    I agree with you Glenn about Moreland’s selective use of the evidence. In fact, I’d go further and say that even as a dualist, I concede that the neurological evidence confirms (in a Bayesian sense) materialism about human persons more than it confirms dualism about human persons. The probability that there would be the sorts of tight correlations between mental states and brain states that we see is greater on materialism about human persons than it is on dualism about human persons. I acknowledge this, as a dualist, in the same way that, as a theist, I acknowledge that the facts about the distribution of evil in the world confirm naturalism more than they confirm theism. Indeed, I concede that the neurological evidence tends to disconfirm dualism even as the evidence from evil tends to disconfirm (in a Bayesian sense – i.e. tends to lower the probability of) theism.

    Still, the sort of evidential confirmation we get for the negation of dualism via the neurological evidence is fairly weak (even as I would say, though more controversially, that the sort of disconfirmation that we get for atheism from the facts concerning the distribution of evil is fairly weak). Typical substance dualists are interactionist dualists. They (including me) believe that there is a two way causal interaction between the soul and the body (and in particular between the soul and the brain). Many of them (including me) would go on to concede that the soul depends on the activities of the brain for its own proper functioning (I’d also say that the same is true the other way around). It’s not *that* surprising, given this sort of dualism, that we would observe the sorts of tight correlations between brain states and mental states that we do. And I would say that the initial probability of interactionist dualism is not *that* much lower than substance dualism simpliciter.

    So, yes, the bottom line is that the neurological data scores the materialist some points. But not that many (not nearly enough, imo, to score a win).

  6. David A.

    I’d like to explore philosophy of mind from a Christian perspective. Can you please provide a short (or long!) reading list of books by Christian or theistic philosophers who have addressed this subject?

  7. Let me stress that this blog post is certainly not meant as an argument against dualism. It is no more than a rebuttal of J P Moreland’s argument for dualism.

    David – I’ll get back to you soon with some suggestions.

  8. Great commentary Glenn.

    It strikes me that Moreland’s acceptance of Dualism has actually created these conflicts that he seeks to address here with appeals to unsound conclusions.

    Without doing further reading on the matter – and without wanting to be unfair to Moreland – it suggests to me that Moreland wouldn’t even need to be making such arguments if he could just see his way out of the false dichotomy which leads one to believe that the only two options on the ontological table are either Materialism OR Dualism.

    Dualism is just as unsatisfying an explanation for the nature of man as Materialism is.

    Unless of course, to be fair to Moreland, he isn’t actually a Dualist, but has merely confused things a bit here in his efforts to try to point to the reality of a non-physical aspect of our existence that is beyond the material one.

  9. Leonhard

    Just a curious question but is it possible that you might explore thomistic conceptions of dualism? I would very much like such a tour because I have a very hard time even comprehending what thomists are claiming and how it differs from physicalism.

  10. Kenny

    You’re not the only one Leonard. I find Thomistic dualism to be unintelligible. By that, I don’t mean that there is no sense in which I can “describe” the view. I know about it well enough that I would be comfortable giving a lecture about it to an intro philosophy class.

    But all I really know how to do is to say the words that proponents of Thomistic dualism say, how to give the sort of purported explanations of their view that they themselves might give. What I don’t know how to do is figure out how to actually understand what it is that is being said (and I *suspect* that, in fact, nothing is actually being said, that the “view” being put forward is, as they say, “not even false”). I should qualify what I am saying, however, by noting that I haven’t researched this particular matter (Thomistic dualism) in any great depth. So maybe there are explanations of the view out there that I would find intelligible. It is also the case, however, that insofar as I can make any sense out of the view, it comes out as a weird sort of materialist view.

    In any case, it does seem to me that materialism about human persons and substance dualism are (at most) the only philosophical positions on the table that are worth taking seriously. Of course, within the dualist camp there are debates between e.g. Cartesian dualists (roughly, those who think that human persons are identical to human souls) and union dualists (those who think that human persons are body-soul composites). Within the materialist camp there are debates between e.g. reductive physicalists, non-reductive physicalists, property dualists (a misnomer in my opinion, since I regard property dualism as a species of materialism), etc. But I get suspicious when someone claims to have an intelligible alternative that is neither a species of dualism nor materialism.

  11. Kenny,

    Can I humbly suggest that the confusion you are experiencing might arise from the fact that Thomas Aquinas didn’t actually subscribe to Dualism.

    Aquinas proposes that a human person is a unified whole encompassing both a body and soul (as opposed to merely a body, or to a soul that inhabits, controls or supervenes on a body in some way), and that our personhood isn’t just a soul or a consciousness and at the same time it isn’t just physical/material.

    For Aquinas the soul is the form of the body – it is the integrating principal that gives the human being their form.

    And for Aquinas while our physical death is a good in one sense (without it there would be no natural motivation/inclination to live each moment, each day, each life to the fullest), in another sense it is not, because death results in the rupturing of the body and the soul – a state which yearns for completion in the final bodily resurrection and reunification of body and soul.

  12. David A.,

    I’m not a professional philosopher, but I would recommend Edward Feser’s book, Philosophy of Mind. It’s part of the “Beginner’s Guides” series which have been useful towards my own studies in philosophy. Feser is a classical theist (maybe a Roman Catholic?), but he gives plenty of time to all sides.

  13. Basil

    Have you thought about addressing some of Professor Moreland’s work in Body and Soul or his latest essay in The Blackwell companion to Natural Philosophy? Instead of his popular work in Stroble’s book?

  14. Leonhard, it’s a coincidence that you should ask, because I’m planning to do a podcast episode on Aristotelian/Thomistic dualism. I’ve got a few episodes planned now. I just need time to do them.

    Brendan, who said Kenny was confused? He stated quite plainly that Thomism does not present itself as dualism (That being said, in the literature on philosophy of mind, especially Christian literature, Thomism is widely regarded as a form of dualism. It’s just not platonic dualism.)

    What’s most incoherent about it is the way it falls apart when describing death. The idea that the form of the body can somehow be conscious without the body is literally nonsense. You can use words to state that this is what happens, just as I can use words to say that water makes things dry, rather than wet. But can you articulate what it means and how it works? Certainly not, for it is gobbledegook. Not just strange or hard to fathom: I see the words, I know what they mean, I understand what they mean to refer to. But when applied to most mortem survival, they are not capable of being true. They become just silly uses of words.

    May I humbly suggest that if you are confused about why this the case, you ask more questions of those who don’t hold to Thomism. 🙂

  15. Basil, I actually hold the view that sometimes people “get away” with using terrible arguments in popular works like Strobel’s and have the potential to do more damage in that forum. This is because those books are far more likely to influence the thinking of everyday Christians than a more academic work.

    And yes, I think about addressing a lot of things. Finding the time to do so is another matter, so I have to prioritise in a way that I’d rather not.

  16. Glenn,

    Can you explain more about what exactly you mean by this…

    “The idea that the form of the body can somehow be conscious without the body is literally nonsense.”

  17. I don’t know what’s unclear about it. Brendan, can you make the question more specific? Which part is not clear? You earlier referred to death as separation of body and soul. And yet the soul, in an Aristotelian outlook, is the form of the body. How, pray tell, can the form of the body be conscious in a disembodied state?

    I’m keen to hear your thoughts!

  18. I’m just trying to ascertain whether you are saying that you believe the soul needs a material brain to be aware.

    And I’m also wondering if this means that you believe that after death we will be in a state of unconsciousness.

    These are genuine questions, I’m not trying to bait a discussion or anything.

  19. Brendan, if Aristotelianism is true, the soul needs a body to exist, because forms exist in substances in order to make them substances. The form cannot be extracted from the substance. It can cease to be there, but it cannot go elsewhere.

    I do not believe that we are conscious when we are dead.

  20. Do you believe that we will regain consciousness at some point after death though (i.e. when those of us headed for Heaven actually make it there?)

  21. Yes Brendan, as a catholic (small c) I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Like the Apostle’s creed, I also affirm that these things will come to us in that very order.

  22. Jared

    For an exposition of Thomistic dualism see:!/v/716

    Eleanor Stump: “Non-Cartesian Substance Dualism”

  23. Thanks Jared! Eleanor Stump is really good on Aquinas.

  24. David

    This is a poor example of Moreland’s work. I think he does a better job of arguing for dualism in his book ‘argument from consciousness’, though he does borrow extensively from the work of Jaegwon Kim. In saying that, I think it is pretty hard to see how we can makes sense of belief and mental causation if they ultimately supervene on a physical substrate.

  25. David, yes it is very hard, which is exactly what we should expect. Anyone who thinks it should be simple surely hasn’t thought much about it. When people express the worry that it’s hard to figure out as though this is a problem for physicalism, I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s despairing complaint: “Who would have thought that a nuclear power plant could be so complicated?”

    I have to say, I think it’s hard to see “how we can make sense of belief and mental causation” if substance dualism is true. How does it work? Even dualists don’t claim to know, but this doesn’t show that it’s false.

  26. David

    I was trying to say in soft and round about way that I think physicalist theories are incoherent, not just that they are hard to understand. But of course I am open to the slim possibility that they are not incoherent.

    What is my reasoning? I believe in the efficacy of mental causation. Reductionism does away with mental causation, epiphenomenalism renders the mental as inefficacious, and non-reductive physicalism suffers from the fact that mental phenomena cannot enter the causal chain because of the causal closure principle.

  27. David, has anyone told non-reductive physicalists about this? Maybe they missed the memo. 😉

    On a more serious note, the nonreductive physicalist would simply accuse you of begging the question by assuming that mental phenomena do not supervene on physical phenomena. If they can do so, then the principle of causal closure isn’t a problem, since that principle only claims that no physical event has a cause outside of the physical domain. The principle of causal closure, if accepted, would only pose a problem for a dualist.

    (In saying the above I am only replying to your post on its own terms, and am not endorsing or rejecting the principle of causal closure.)

  28. David

    I assume all good physicalists have read Jaegwon Kim’s work.

  29. Oops, sorry David. I added more to my comment while you were adding yours.

  30. David

    But how does supervience free up the efficacy of the mental. All it says is that for any mental property M, M is instantiated along with a physical property P, so that anything that has P necessarily has M. But then the causal principle still applies because M is caused by P.

    Epiphenomenalism does not posit mental to physical causation so mental properties cannot cause anything. But neither can non-reductive physicalism because despite the mental supervening on the physical it is the physical base, not the mental, that has causal power.

    That’s my initial take at least.

  31. David

    I should clarify. The causal closure is not the issue here. It’s that supervenence entail that it is always the physical base that has causal efficacy.

  32. David: You said that nonreductive physicalism fails because of the principle of causal closure. In other words, it fails because no physical event has a non-physical cause.

    My point was not to explain how the supervenience of the mental on the physical works. My point was just that this is going to sound like a pretty weak objection to the reductive phsyicalist, since they likely already accept the principle of causal closure. That principle only tells them that they can’t appeal to something non-physical. But they don’t do that anyway.

    In your earlier comment you said “non-reductive physicalism suffers from the fact that mental phenomena cannot enter the causal chain because of the causal closure principle.” So it really did seem that you were talking about the principle of causal closure. Your current point (that a physical brain just can’t produce mental events that are causally efficacious) really isn’t about incoherence. It’s just about difficulty.

  33. David

    What I’m saying is supervienance doesn’t help the non-reductive physicalist (that is assuming the non-reductive physicalist that wants to hold mental to physical causation).

    Of course it is going to sound weak to the reductionist. If finding a place for mental events in causation is about difficulty then almost every philosophical conundrum is about difficulty. Some Physicalist philosophers themselves are sceptical of reductionism (hence the non-reductionist models like anomalous monism and property dualisms). Also, is not reductionism the view that all mental events are physical events? So, perhaps in one sense reductionism does solve the problem because there are no mental events to explain.

  34. My bad, I meant to say that it will sound weak to the nonreductive physicalist, since they likely already accept the principle of causal closure. Therefore telling them that their position is false because of the principle of causal closure will just confuse them, rather than persuade them. if anything the principle of causal closure may be the basis for a critique of dualism because of the problem of interaction.

    But I think it’s nowhere near compelling enough to just dismiss the possibility of efficacious mental events given non-reductive physicalism. You’d have to explain to them why their proposals regarding downward causation all fail.

  35. David

    Yes, and its by virtue of their acceptance of the causal principle that non-reductionists get into trouble. A huge reason why people adopted non-reductionism was because it appeared that that way mental causation could be salvaged; i.e mental properties that are not reduced to physical properties, and mental properties that are not mere epiphenomena. At least thats how I understand property dualism and anomalous monism.

    I’m arguing supervenence does not solve the problem because the causation is still one way from the physical base to the mental property.

  36. So where does Keith Ward fit into all of this? He is an idealist and somewhat of an apologist for Cartesian dualism – at least he likes to correct common misconceptions about Descartes. Yet he is a theistic evolutionist and believes in the emergence of mind from brain.

  37. “Yes, and its by virtue of their acceptance of the causal principle that non-reductionists get into trouble.” Well I guess I just don’t see how this is so. To say that mental properties can’t be reduced to physical properties is pretty clearly not the same thing as saying that they reduce to something that lies outside the physical world.

  38. Roger, there are a few people in that boat. Richard Swinburne too is a dualist who accepts evolution. He devoted a pretty dense scholarly book to the subject, The Evolution of the Soul.

  39. Solomons

    Hi everyone,

    On the face of it, it seems like some people in the combox haven’t quite fully understood Aristotlean-Thomistic theories of mind. I’m not in anyway an expert on this kind of thing but I think if peopel are interested they could read Edward Feser’s (Philosophy of Mind) as suggested earlier by David Parker. Or look up David Oderberg: who has some good articles in the area.

    From what little I do know, hylomorphic (“Thomist”) dualism would hold that the human person is a compound of matter and form, that the substantial form of a human person is the rational nature of the person. However, exercise of reason is essentially immaterial, and hence human nature is essentially immaterial. As the form individual person, each soul depends on being united to a body at SOME TIME during its existence, but it does not depend on being united to matter for it’s continued existence beyond being united to the body (i.e. beyond death). Seems to me that it doesn’t disagree with Aristotlean-Thomist metaphysics to believe in consciousness after death.

    You might disagree with bits of that, but I don’t think Glenn can go as far as to say hylomorphist thinkers are being inconsistent. Probably the key premise you are missing is the lack of dependence of a rational soul on the material? In any case I think you might need to do more reading of what Thomists actually say rather than what you are saying that they say.

    Again, I’m recommending Philosophy of Mind by Ed Feser to anyone (Substance dualists, physicalists and the various related philosophies, and those that are interested in the Thomist approach) as it is pretty thorough and has a pretty easy to understand process about it.

  40. Solomons

    btw, won’t have the internet to argue the point, so you will just have to suck it up and do the reading ;p

  41. “but it does not depend on being united to matter for it’s continued existence beyond being united to the body (i.e. beyond death)”

    Solomons, well there is the rub. There’s a very good reason why Aristotle denied that the soul lives on after death. If the soul is the form of the body and therefore, contra Plato, forms only exist in substances (this is precisely the Aristotelian view), then it is nonsensical to talk about a soul leaving the body and living on. It is also a mistake to think of the soul as the conscious part, given an Aristotelian outlook.

    The problem is that Aquinas combined Aristotle’s view of human nature with his own view of life after death, and the result is a garbled mess.

  42. David

    “To say that mental properties can’t be reduced to physical properties is pretty clearly not the same thing as saying that they reduce to something that lies outside the physical world.”

    That is indeed correct. Here is my concern:

    A non-reductionist is going to hold that no mental property can be instantiated without a physical base. Or, “A set of properties A supervenes upon another set B just in case no two things can differ with respect to A-properties without also differing with respect to their B-properties” (stanford encyclopedia of philosophy).

    Let’s take an example of mental to mental causation: Some mental property M causes the instantiation of another mental property M*. According to the supervenance thesis, M* will have a physical base P*. The occurrence of M* would then be because of P* occurring. What role then does M play? You might say M caused M* by causing P*. So we have mental to physical causation. Yet it follows that M is going to have its own physical base P. And it’s easy to see that P is causally responsible to bring about P*, as opposed to M. So what we really end up with is, P being the cause of P* and M and M* supervening on P and P*.

    My question is, given supervenence, what role do mental properties play in causation when it is the physical base that determines the instantiation of a mental property? Doesn’t this render mental properties causally impotent?

  43. Caleb

    follow the link, then lookfor the title “Thomistic ‘Hylemorphic’ Dualism”.

  44. matt

    I hope I am not too late to ask this question and I hope it is not a bad one. While reading the responses here I began to wonder if the efficacy of mental states need only be denied by a physicist who is also a naturalist. I’be had a number of conversations with friends and professors lately (along with a few viewings of blade runner) that have led me to believe that if it is possible that the “human machine” were designed or their existence was fine tuned for, then any gripe over physicalism precluding free will doesn’t follow through. So, does a good teleological argument go any distance toward rendering free will defenses for dualism irrelevant? It seems God could make free bodies. I can see how naturalists formulations of physicalism become self refuting (ie the naturalists body just made him/her come up with physicalism and write a whole paper on it! But this means then that the truth value of that paper’s contents is zero.) But if we believe in God, this changes the face of physicalism a bit, no?

  45. “It seems God could make free bodies.”

    Actually Matt, while I think this is true, dualists deny it. It’s called the parity thesis, and J P Moreland has written specifically against it.

    I think that if God can make a free body, then it must be the case that in principle a physical being can be free, and a naturalist can simply appeal to this (regardless of whether or not they know the process whereby free physical beings came to be).

  46. matt

    Thanks for the reply!

    It does seem disingenuous for the theist dualist to argue against physicalism on the basis of the agency problem. I’ll have to read up on that there parity thesis.

    It still sounds like a bit of a stretch to avoid complete determinism for the naturalist tho. The possibility that God could create free bodies might be an useful thought experiment, but it wouldn’t make sense as an actual possibility. Or the entailment of the possibility going through might be unbearable for naturalism (if in a possible world God makes free bodies, and this means that in principle they can be free in the actual world, then in principle God exists – or something along these lines. I’m probably abusing some words as well) Determinism could just be true I guess, but it still seems like a stretch for the naturalist to bring in a fiction about God to affirm free will in principle. If I were a naturalist I’d rather go with affirming free will on an intuitive level and saying that the jury is still out on where it originates.

  47. Ronald Dean

    Hello, I don’t know if this is too late or not, but I tell you to me, this is a major problem for Christian Theism. I’m afraid that since mind/brain physicalism is pretty much proven, this could very well show that God does not exist. How do you feel Glenn, are you doubting God’s existence due to this? Also it appears that you believe in the Seventh Day Adventist doctrine of soul sleep is that true? If you are not having major doubts of God’s existence what arguments do you use to support your beliefs currently if any? Thanks for your time, God bless, I guess.

  48. Ronald Dean

    I also just noticed that you also hold to theistic evolution, man Glenn, you might as well take the small skip and embrace atheism, because to me it looks like you pretty much embrace naturalism and put a little cheap tacky “Jesus sticker” on it. Are you only holding onto Christianity because it makes you feel good? I mean if evolution and mind/brain physicalism are proven and it’s only a matter of time until scientists show how life comes from nonlife,show that the universe either came from nothing or has always been here and heck they may even find Jesus’s skeleton somewhere at the rate they are going! I guess after we are done with this conversation I”ll check back with you in a few months and see if you can you and your blog followers any ways to cope with the existential implications of naturalism because it looks to me like you are pretty much there already. Trust me, you would make a GREAT atheist.

  49. “I also just noticed that you also hold to theistic evolution”

    Where did you “notice” this, Ronald?

    Ronald, why in the world did you refer to “the Seventh Day Adventist doctrine of soul sleep”? Do you think that putting it this way somehow calls the idea into question? Luther believed it before them. Did he too believe a Seventh Day Adventist Doctrine? I believe in what some people call soul sleep, and I have little sympathy with the distinctive doctrines of the Seventh Day Adventists. The reasons I believe this are biblical reasons.

    But what really caught my eye is the fact that you have decided to bear a significant burden of proof, Ronald. If you think that the fact that humans beings are physical “could very well show that God does not exist,” then I shall simply wait. Whatever your argument is for this strong claim, I am sure that it will be interesting. Time will tell.

    On the whole you have a fairly typical brand of fundamentalism, Ronald. Any natural process, in your mind, supports atheism. I don’t entertain any hopes of being able to help you with that. Reason didn’t get you into that mess, and it’s unlikely to get you out!

  50. Ronald Dean

    *sigh* Sorry I got carried away. Since I’ve been seeing and meeting more Christians and Christian apologists who hold to mind/brain physicalism and to theistic evolution I’ve got the impression that most other apologists like young earth/old earth/ID/substance dualist (I previously have held to either old earth or ID and substance dualism) are fading out and all we will have left with is a hallow form of Christianity that denies all supernatural, objective morality and the afterlife who basically surrenders to atheism and to naturalism. As a side note, I got the impression that you were a theistic evolutionist since you linked to Francis Collin’s Biologos organization but didn’t have any links to any old earth or intelligent design site.

    But anyway I’m starting to really doubt my faith currently. I used to be under the impression after reading books by Lee Strobel, Hugh Ross, Gary Habermas, JP Moreland, the ID folks, William Lane Craig that I had rational grounds for my belief. But as I’m uncovering more evidence for Darwinian evolution and for mind/brain physicalism it looks as though to me, we live in a naturalistic universe where God is not needed. Now I just hope that the people I just listed are not intentionally lying to the public or just so deluded that they can’t help but to spread such blatant falsehoods.

    As far as burden of proof goes, since I’m not a professional philosophical debater, I can only offer what I see from a layperson’s perspective. And to me, why would God, specifically the God of Christianity (if He exists) would design the universe in such a way that it looks as though He had no part in it? Why would He make things as though people who truly want to follow the evidence wherever it leads (people who are truly 50/50 on whether or not the Christian God is real) and come up short with little to no evidence? Why would a God who in the Bible claims to want to have a relationship with people but yet make things difficult to impossible for intellectual people to discover a true trace of Him?

    I thought previously that God did just that as far as giving intellectual people who are honest, small but reasonable “glances” of Him but if the brand of apologetics that you and others like you hold is the best Christian apologetics can really do when confronted with the full evidence for atheism and naturalism, we might as well give up and become one of them. I’m seriously just thinking about giving up the faith. But anyway, thanks for your time.

  51. Ronald, I think part of the (serious) problem is this: Some Christian apologists either say or suggest – or even just give the impression – that either their take on dualism or creationism must be accepted, OR ELSE we’re caving in to naturalism. The disastrous message is sent that if, say, physicalism or evolution (just examples) were true, then that looks like less of God’s involvement. This is intellectual nonsense but it also sets a trap for people who end up expressing just the kind of concerns that you are.

    This is wildly false. There is nothing in the least about mind-body physicalism that makes it look less likely that God exists. The same goes for evolution. The nature of your comments suggests incredibly strongly to me that you’re not sincere in saying that you’re a Christian following the evidence and who is likely to give up their faith. Experience strongly suggests that these comments are being made by an atheist trolling the blog and trying to give readers the impression that the evidence is swaying an intellectually honest Christian (who else would say “trust me, you’d make a GREAT atheist”?).

    If that’s not the case however (or even if it is), I’d recommend John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?

  52. Ronald Dean

    Thanks for the reference, I’ll check it out soon. But I was also wondering, is your view of Christianity unfalsifiable? Would you still believe even if Christ’s corpse was found or if cosmologists prove the universe to either be eternal or spring into existence from nothing by nothing as Hawking describes it? Also you mention that the idea of God’s existence either being falsified or made less probable due to things like evolution and mind/brain physicalism as wildly false and intellectual nonsense. That’s well and good, but why is it wildly false and intellectual nonsense? Thanks again.

  53. Ronald, if in fact Christ’s corpse was found (and let’s say we knew that it was his), then Christianity could not possibly be correct. It would be absolutely falsified.

    As for your other comments, you will need to build the entire case yourself that physicalism (or evolution) makes God’s existence unlikely. Until then I see absolutely no such argument.


  54. Grayson

    Dr. Glenn Peoples,

    What would you make of the argument against physicalism that since our way of understanding God as an unembodied mind relies on mind/body dualism, physicalism must be false?

    I caught this line of reasoning in a Q&A response from Stewart Goetz at William Lane Craig’s website, Reasonable Faith (I’ll post the link down below).

    I apologize if you’ve already addressed this elsewhere on your blog.

  55. “What would you make of the argument against physicalism that since our way of understanding God as an unembodied mind relies on mind/body dualism, physicalism must be false?”

    Hi Grayson. Basically what I would say to this is that “physicalism” as a philosophy of mind is quite compatible with the fact that there exist non physical beings – God in particular. It’s important to stress that this is only a philosophy of mind, not a complete metaphysical scheme. It’s a view on human nature.

    Now it’s true, some people are thoroughgoing materialists or physicalists in this much more ambitious sense, believing that only physical things exist, and of course, such people cannot believe in a non-physical God. But I’m not one of them.

  56. Grayson

    I see.
    I’ll admit I haven’t listened to your podcast episodes yet on the subject, but basically (if I’m understanding you correctly), part of philosophy of mind’s goals is to determine whether or not HUMANS have any such thing as a “mind”, but it would be stepping into other territory if the goal was changed into determining whether or not a “mind” can even exist?

  57. That’s right Grayson. That would be the category of metaphysics or ontology, where we ask what reality is like, what kind of things exist.

  58. Grayson

    Okay. Glad I’ve got that cleared up.
    I guess I have gotten the impression (and it seems, many others have too) that a Christian absolutely has to hold onto dualism and if dualism is false, Christianity is false. I’m glad to see that this isn’t the case. I just wish apologists and the like would be a little more upfront about that.

  59. Grayson, something that really bothers me is that sometimes Christians who defend mind-body dualism muddy the waters by frequently alluding to materialism more generally, as though that is the alternative to their view. It misleads people and is not honest.

  60. Grayson

    Yes, absolutely.
    Well, thanks for clarifying those things, Glenn. I’ve been following your blog for about a month now and decided it was about time for me to start contributing and asking questions. Never had a chance to interact with you before, so just want to say that I am thoroughly enjoying all of the material you post and insight you give. I really appreciate it.

  61. Charles E Miller, Jr.

    I have found this blog and found it interesting. I probably will not write much on it; however, I just wanted to discuss one thing: soul-sleep. You are correct, Dr. Peeples. Martin Luther did believe in soul-sleep; however, the modern Lutheran Church does not. Martin Luther 0nce stated: When the Lord Jesus comes, he will come to my grave and knock on the led of my vault and say: Wake up, Dr. Luther. I am a Southern Baptist who has been also been a United Methodist, Lutheran-Missouri Synod, and an American Baptist Church member. The American Baptists were once known as Northern Baptists. I would like to say that I studied under J.P. Moreland. I have his book ” Beyond Death Exploring the Evidence for Immortality. He mentions the Perspectival View on page 226 in his book. How do you feel about this view in relation to soul-sleep? I would say that I could except the Perspectival View or the soul and body view. Oh, I do not mean to be rude, but would you mind telling me what church you follow? If you do not wish to, I will understand. God bless

  62. Charles E. Miller, Jr.

    It is too bad that I have received no response. I would like to propose a view that I call Partial Conditional Immortality. I believe this can be seen in Matthew 10:28. Here is a possible view: The soul of the Christian is given immortality when he accepts Christ. The soul goes to heaven at death and remains there until the Second Advent when the reunion of the body and soul occurs, and the resurrection takes place. The souls of the lost are dead. To use a term from Horror Films, they are truly the living dead since their bodies live but their souls do not. At the Second Advent when the unsaved are physically resurrected, both body and soul are cast into hell and destroyed. Souls are not inherently immortal as Plato said. They would receive eternal life from Jesus Christ when the person is “born again” as it says in John 3.. Please let me know if you can at least consider this view. God bless.

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