July 26, 2009
God and Mind/Body Dualism
Hi Dr. Craig, I have a question for you about the mind of God. I understand that we often find ourselves talking in religious contexts about a supreme, transcendant, omniscient "mind" overseeing the affairs of the universe (or generating them for that matter), but I can't help but feel that advances in neurology, cognitive psychology, biology, etc. are basically making this intuition incoherent. As we discover more and more about the workings of the brain (e.g. we can now manipulate some feelings and emotions by stimulating parts of the brain itself), it seems like an inevitable progression that we will be able to boil consciousness and all that it entails down into its material components. Using this knowledge, I don't see how one can believe that a "mind" could exist disembodied, and therefore it seems nonsensical to think of God as being a spiritual entity who still thinks like we do if he doesn't have a physical brain. I can't help but feel that all the neurological disorders that abound in the world (e.g. those with brain damage or nerve disorders, which often are the manifestation of a physical impairment of the brain tissue itself) inescapably point to a materialistic understanding of the brain and consciousness. This makes it very difficult for me to believe that it is coherent to believe that a divine mind could exist...I just don't see how one could think that there is some mind out there when all the evidence I know of suggests that minds are identical to brains. I am aware that some religious people would cite certain out-of-body or near-death experiences where people record their "soul's" witness of a post-death experience, but I inevitably find skeptical explanations for these phenomena more compelling. Your thoughts and clarification would be much appreciated,
Your sort of question is one that I encounter with increasing frequency when I speak on university campuses about the existence of God. I recently had the pleasure of reading Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro’s excellent book Naturalism (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), which deals precisely with your question. So I’ve invited Dr. Goetz, who is Professor of Philosophy at Ursinus College and a specialist in philosophy of mind to address your question as a guest columnist this week. His reply follows:
Dr. Craig has invited me to respond to your interesting question concerning the mind of God. The logic of your concern seems to be as follows: Our concept of God is rooted in our concept of ourselves. Thus, if we think that God is an immaterial mind (soul) that exists disembodied, then this is because we think of ourselves as immaterial minds (souls) that might exist disembodied. Advances in contemporary neuroscience and cognitive psychology provide evidence that undermines the coherence of the view that we are immaterial minds that might exist disembodied. Therefore, the coherence of our idea of God as a disembodied mind is called into question.
What evidence does contemporary neuroscience provide in support of the view that our minds are not immaterial? You believe that the evidence is causal in nature: the fact that we can stimulate different parts of the brain and causally produce feelings, thoughts, emotions, etc., supports the view that these psychological events/states are themselves material. Moreover, the fact that brain damage causes psychological impairments also supports a materialistic view of ourselves. In short, what we know from neuroscience justifies the claim that our minds are identical with our brains.
While I agree with the idea that our concept of God is rooted in our concept of ourselves, I am not convinced that evidence from neuroscience supports the view that our minds are identical with our brains. The reasons for my not being convinced are several.
First, neuroscience contributes nothing substantively new to our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to our bodies. We have known all along that our mental lives could be and are causally related to what happens to our bodies. After all, we did not need neuroscience to know that a good knock on the head could produce a change in our psychological lives. Who could fail to be aware that dropping a brick on one’s foot would produce pain? What neuroscience has done is provide us with a more detailed picture of how the human mind is influenced by certain events in the brain. It has not changed the general nature of that picture. The fact that much of what happens in our minds is influenced by what happens in our bodies was something known by the first self-conscious human beings.
Second, though you do not comment on the following point, it is an important one: not everything that goes on in our minds is causally determined by what goes on in our bodies. Sometimes what goes on in our bodies is a result of what goes on in our minds. For example, the movements of my fingers as I type this response to your question are ultimately produced my mental events. I chose to accept Dr. Craig’s invitation to respond to your question and this choice led to an intention to type up this response. Here we have mental-to-physical causation. What explains both this choice of mine and the physical events in my body that are ultimately produced by this choice? The explanation is the purpose that I provide an answer to your question. A purposeful explanation is a teleological explanation. It is well known that those who identify the mind with the brain typically deny that any of us freely (indeterministically) make choices for purposes. Materialists are typically determinists who insist that the only legitimate kind of explanation is a non-teleological explanation. Causal explanations are the most well-known and frequently used kind of non-teleological explanations. Those who exclude the possibility of teleological explanations are often called ‘naturalists.’ My colleague, Charles Taliaferro, and I have written a book entitled Naturalism (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008) in which we explain what naturalism is and offer a critique of it. You might find it helpful.
Third, I believe it is important to note that some of the world’s foremost neuroscientists have believed that the mind is immaterial. These neuroscientists have been well aware that stimulating the brain can produce some intriguing psychological results. One of the pioneers in the field of neuroscience was Wilder Penfield. In his fascinating book The Mystery of the Mind, he writes the following:
When I have caused a conscious patient to move his hand by applying an electrode to the motor cortex of one hemisphere, I have often asked him about it. Invariably his response was: ‘I didn’t do that. You did.’ When I caused him to vocalize, he said: ‘I didn’t make that sound. You pulled it out of me.’ When I caused the record of the stream of consciousness to run again and so presented to him the record of his past experience, he marveled that he should be conscious of the past as well as of the present. He was astonished that it should come back to him so completely, with more detail than he could possibly recall voluntarily. He assumed at once that, somehow, the surgeon was responsible for the phenomenon, but he recognized the details as those of his own past experience. (76)
Penfield goes on to note that “There is no place in the cerebral cortex where electrical stimulation will cause a patient . . . to decide” (77). This is consistent with my point that choices are undetermined events with a teleological explanation. In light of his work as a neuroscientist, Penfield concludes the following: “For my own part, after years of striving to explain the mind on the basis of brain-action alone, I have come to the conclusion that it is simpler (and far easier and logical) if one adopts the hypothesis that our being does consist of two fundamental elements” (80).
Another famous neuroscientist who believed that the mind is immaterial was Sir John C. Eccles. He and the widely respected philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper wrote a book entitled The Self and Its Brain in which they argued that the human mind is best understood along interactionist dualist lines (the mind and brain are separate entities that causally interact). After reading The Mystery of the Mind and The Self and Its Brain and many similar books and puzzling over questions about the mind-brain relationship, I have come to the conclusion that neuroscience provides no evidence whatsoever that the mind is identical with its brain. I am convinced that those who believe that it does provide such evidence bring their naturalist convictions to the evidence. In other words, they are already naturalists (materialists) before they do their neuroscience.
Fourth, we might ask why neuroscientists like Penfield and Eccles believed in the immateriality of the mind, even though they were well aware of the causal dependency of many psychological events on brain events. I believe that part of the answer is that they did not confuse the concept of the correlation of two events with the concept of the identity of two events. It simply does not follow from the fact that two events are correlated that they are identical. For example, when one learns that a high score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is correlated with entrance to a good college one does not identify scoring well on the exam with entrance to college. Similarly, when one discovers that eating a certain food is correlated with an upset stomach one does not identify eating that food with having an upset stomach. Then there is the fact that movements of bodily limbs like arms and legs are correlated with events in the motor cortex of the brain. No one believes, however, that movements of arms and legs are identical with their causal antecedents in the brain. Upon reflection, it is just as obvious that there is no good reason to believe that psychological events are identical with brain events simply because the two are correlated.
Finally, you state that some religious people cite out-of-the-body or near-death experiences as evidence for the immateriality of the mind and the possibility of its surviving disembodied. With all due respect, I seriously doubt that this is what really convinces people that the mind is immaterial. Most people start out believing that the mind is immaterial and in light of this initial conviction find nothing conceptually problematic with near-death and out-of-the-body experiences. They do not come to believe that the mind is immaterial on the basis of having or hearing about such experiences. Moreover, I believe that most people are religious because they believe that the mind is immaterial. They do not come to believe that the mind is immaterial because they are religious.
With all good wishes,
Stewart Goetz, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Collegeville, PA 19426