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

Consciousness Cuts Both Ways


Sometimes the defenders of dualism are the pot, and their materialist targets are the kettle. Think about the following ways of arguing that we have immaterial souls and see if you can find anything wrong with them:

  • “The phenomenon of consciousness is powerful evidence for substance dualism.1 For materialism has a basic inability to explain this phenomenon. What actually causes a physical combination of molecules to experience anything at all?”
  • “I can’t personally see how a material entity could produce the phenomenon of consciousness. So it is up to materialists to explain this to me, or else I should accept dualism as a philosophy of mind.”
  • “No proponent of a materialist view of human beings has ever come up with an explanation of how a material brain or body could do X” (where X is the performance of some mental function). So it is a bankrupt view and should be rejected.”
  • “Even materialists admit that consciousness is a ‘hard problem.’ So much for materialism!”
  • “We should continue to embrace substance dualism and reject a materialist view of human beings by default and until its proponents can put together a convincing explanatory account of consciousness.”
  • “Qualia – mental phenomena of experience – pose a serious challenge to materialist philosophies of mind, because there is no way to explain why they exist, given a materialist stance.”

These are not hypothetical lines of argument. They are from real conversations (wording may have been inadvertently changed, but this is the general gist of the actual comments that I am recalling). I have seen them many, many times. If you spend much time in philosophy of mind, especially within the context of Christian theology (as I see these comments more from evangelical theologians and fairly vocal apologists more than from anyone else), then you will have seen them too.

I am going to take it for granted, out of respect for my readers, that you fairly easily see the double standard at work here. It is perfectly obvious that the inability of the proponents of a material philosophy of mind to give an account of X is not evidence that substance dualism is true. This inability may simply indicate that explaining how any system – regardless of the substances involved – can give rise to X is really, really hard. The standard is a double one just because the dualist is faulting materialists for failing to do something that dualists likewise cannot do. Consider the following argument:

“Substance dualists about human beings cannot explain how consciousness is produced. Therefore substance dualism is false and a materialist philosophy of mind is true.”

The sort of polemicist who makes one of the arguments listed at the start of this blog post might not initially know what to do with an argument like this, other than blink and go “wait, what?” But after a few moments the penny does tend to drop: Saying that the soul exists and is the reason for consciousness doesn’t explain how consciousness comes to be. It simply assures us that there is an explanation for consciousness if souls exist. But what reason is there to believe this? The dualist might be tempted to reason by analogy: “Well, God exists and God is conscious. God is not physical, so there you have it. A non-physical thing can be conscious.” Perhaps so.2 But this short-cut does not help the dualist’s cause one iota. This does not assure me (nor should it assure you) that an explanation exists for why God is conscious. Perhaps there is no explanation. Do you know of one? You might retreat to saying “OK so maybe we can’t explain why God is conscious, but we can at last agree that he is, and therefore a non-material thing can be conscious.” But if the dualist retreats to this much weaker claim, they have sold the farm.

[Dualists] must now agree that our inability to explain how a thing can be conscious is not a reason to deny that it can be conscious.

For they must now agree that our inability to explain how a thing can be conscious is not a reason to deny that it can be conscious. From this it follows that our inability to explain how material things can be conscious is no reason to deny that they can be. The argument from consciousness against materialism must be surrendered.

The longer I reflect on the argument from consciousness, the more bewildering I find it that so many people think that it is profound. What I have a hard time explaining is why so many Evangelical apologists for dualism find this sort of argument so persuasive – or at any rate, why they treat it as though they did. But of course, my inability to explain their confidence does not give me a reason to doubt it.

Glenn Peoples

  1. “Materialism” here just means the rejection of substance dualism as a philosophy of mind. It should be taken to imply nothing beyond this. []
  2. I’m overlooking entirely the enormously anthropomorphic approach that this argument takes to God, treating him as a conscious entity as we are conscious entities. []


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  1. Patrick S

    Do you think many dualists who make these sort of claims make them against materialists who are materialists in the wider sense of the word (reject all supernatural explanations)? I recall hearing you say (I think in one of your In Search of the Soul podcasts) that God could make a fully material being conscious. Agreed. But targeted at materialists who deny the existence of God wouldn’t these claims make more sense or at least have more weight than targeted at someone like you, who rejects substance dualism but nevertheless accepts the existence of God?

    PS love the new Star Wars theme 🙂

  2. Aaron W

    While I believe anthropological physicalism has the most support from scripture (and am thus most inclined towards this position), I’ve always found the “unity of consciousness” argument one of the most compelling arguments for substance dualism. Couldn’t it be argued that consciousness would be LESS mysterious if substance dualism were true given the apparent unity of consciousness, and that our being simple, non-composite entities (i.e., “souls”) rather than composite, physical entities would best explain this experience?

  3. Todd

    I think the best way to understand the argument for substance dualism is something like this: Mind has certain attributes, namely consciousness, libertarian free will, and Intentionality, that are extremely difficult to explain in terms of physical properties and structures (but for present purposes, I’ll just comment on consciousness). Indeed, none other than Daniel Dennett wrote, “This suggests that each of us knows exactly one mind from the inside, and no two of us know the same mind from the inside. No other kind of thing is known about in that way.” (Dennett, Kinds of Minds, 3) This “knowing from the inside” is a defining feature of consciousness. It’s not only utterly mysterious why any physical entity should have such a property, it appears to be in conflict with the very idea of physical properties.

    It seems reasonable to suggest that a purely physical thing is a thing that has purely physical properties. What kinds of properties are those? That’s not so easy. Descartes suggested spatial extension, and while that may seem naive today, he may not have been completely off the rails. Science has moved away from the “occupying space” concept of extension, but has not entirely let go of the idea. Instead, physical properties are construed in terms of forces and fields, with distinctive geometries, all of which are specifiable in an “objective” third-person way.

    Since consciousness and its “contents” are not specifiable in terms of objective 3rd-person geometries, it’s at least reasonable to suppose that conscious beings have some extra component other than physical components. It may be, and in fact is, very difficult to say much about what this component is, but that’s not an objection to it.

    If everything we know about physical things and their properties seems to leave consciousness out, it’s reasonable to infer that conscious beings are not simply physical things. That inference is certainly no “explanation of consciousness”, but it is a kind of explanation for why the Hard Problem is so hard.

  4. Todd, I can agree that everything we know about the physical leaves an explanation for consciousness out. Similarly, everything we know about immaterial souls leaves an explanation for consciousness out. Isn’t that true?

  5. Todd

    Glenn, my view is that everything we know about the physical tends to exclude consciousness, not just leave it unexplained. That’s an intentionally stronger claim. Galen Strawson says we don’t know anything about the physical that excludes consciousness; I think we do. I think we can say something about what makes properties, including yet undiscovered properties, physical: They involve forces and fields with associated geometries, describable in entirely third-person terms. States of consciousness are simply not describable in this way.

    If there are immaterial souls, they are either inherently conscious or their consciousness is due to some configuration of immaterial elements. If they are inherently conscious then of course no explanation is possible. Consciousness would be a basic property. If the consciousness of souls is due to come configuration of immaterial elements, then indeed we’ve reproduced the Hard Problem.

    The logic of the argument is somewhat parallel to the Cosmological Argument, according to which the existence of a contingent natural order points to the existence of a non-contingent being. But in this case, the existence of consciousness is evidence for the existence of something inherently conscious. That could either be matter or something immaterial. If it’s matter, we have panpsychism and the composition problem. If it’s something other than matter, that may be where the explanation terminates. The consciousness of souls ends up being a brute fact but, I would argue, that’s a more intelligible outcome than the consciousness of either all matter or certain configurations of matter being a brute fact.

  6. “the consciousness of souls ends up being a brute fact but, I would argue, that’s a more intelligible outcome than the consciousness of either all matter or certain configurations of matter being a brute fact.”

    Todd, whether there’s an advantage here will partly depend on this. How would you argue, as you say you would, that consciousness as a brute fact about immaterial souls be more intelligible than consciousness as a brute fact of properly configured bodies? That’s what is missing in all this.

  7. In case anyone is wondering where Frank’s recent comment went, he contacted me and asked me to remove it. It was intended for another conversation.

  8. Frank

    Sorry, fellas. My comments were more in response to a conversation I recently had with a dualist which was spurred by this blog post of Glenn’s, and as I reread the comments above it’s obvious that they don’t address those comments at all. As you were! 🙂

  9. Todd

    Glenn: “How would you argue, as you say you would, that consciousness as a brute fact about immaterial souls be more intelligible than consciousness as a brute fact of properly configured bodies? That’s what is missing in all this.”

    Maybe “less unintelligible” would be a better way to put it.

    We not only have no idea how properly configured bodies can give rise to consciousness, out very idea of the physical appears to exclude the intrinsic first-person reality of consciousness. Everything we understand about the physical is construed in terms of forces and fields and their associated geometries, all completely specifiable in third-person terms.

    Nevertheless, consciousness exists, and is associated with certain physical bodies. The very fact that it is not compatible with everything we understand about the physical is itself a good reason to suppose there is something else present that is responsible for consciousness.

    Consider the story of Mary the Inuit. She has been raised entirely on meat, fish, and fat, none of which taste sweet. She has never tasted a fruit, a berry, or anything else with sugar in it. I show up and squirt some clear liquid corn syrup onto a cone of snow and offer it to Mary to taste. She does so, and infers that something has been added to the snow. Mary doesn’t know what could have been added. She has no prior knowledge of sweet-tasting things at all, or even any suspicion that they exist. But she knows a lot about snow, and everything she knows about snow tells her it can’t taste like what I gave her.

    I claim Mary makes a reasonable inference in this case, to something — she knows not what — added to the snow. She could, of course, think she’s found a new intrinsic property of snow; and she might even conclude that she is cognitively closed to its explanation. But it’s certainly reasonable for her to think there’s more than just snow in that sample.

    It’s equally reasonable to think that where there is consciousness, there’s more than just physical bodies.

    I would add that if one already excepts the existence of God and angels, one has also accepted the existence of consciousness apart from configurations of matter. That isn’t evidence for a dualistic anthropology, of course, but it removes the objection that “all known instances of consciousness” are associated with bodies.

  10. Cody

    “For they must now agree that our inability to explain how a thing can be conscious is not a reason to deny that it can be conscious.”

    I suppose this might be the case for the dualists who put forth the type of arguments that your post is directed at, but this is only because (1) they aren’t taking advantage of good arguments for dualism and (2) they are using a poor definition of dualism.

    Someone like Swinburne, for example, wouldn’t hold dualism to be true for explanatory reasons. Hence he shouldn’t be troubled if dualism doesn’t offer an “explanation” of consciousness. Perhaps more relevantly: I think that the trouble, here, arises from definitions not being made explicit. It is so rare for a physicalist to properly define her position that it is borderline miraculous when it happens. Suppose we take Montero’s definition of P: everything which exists is fundamentally non-mental. Then the dualist, now with a clear idea of what she’s going up against, can affirm D: there are things which exist which are fundamentally non-mental and other things which exist which are fundamentally mental. But then the problem of “explaining” disappears as there is no question as to how something which is fundamentally mental is conscious. (Perhaps it brings up some questions about how he mind works, but to seek to explain such a thing is a waste of time)

    Also: could you tell me the source of the van Inwagen quote (about nonsense) and Wittgenstein quote (about Russell)?

  11. “It is so rare for a physicalist to properly define her position that it is borderline miraculous when it happens.”

    This doesn’t even sound serious. But OK, if you say so. 🙂

    As for the quotes: The Wittgenstein one is a remark he made to Drury, and is quoted in a number of books about Wittgenstein but it’s not from any of his books. E.g. Ray Monk’s book, reviewed here:

    The Van Inwagen quote is from his essay “Philosophers and the Words ‘Human Body’,” in Van Inwagen (ed.), Time and Cause: Essays Presented to Richard Taylor (Dordrecht: Reidel, not sure of the year), 285.

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