Doctrine of Man (Part 8)

November 04, 2013     Time: 00:20:26

In our lesson, we looked last time at the importance of the affirmation of the reality of the soul. And we left off with a quotation from the philosopher Angus Menuge in his paper “Why Not Physicalism?” on why a dualistic-interactionistic view of the mind – or the soul – is quite defensible.[1] I think this quotation would bear reading again. Menuge says,

Reductive and eliminative forms of physicalism fail to account for our mental lives. But . . . the varieties of non-reductive physicalism also fail to account for mental causation. If these theories are faithful to physicalism, then supervening or emergent mental properties cannot add anything new that was not going to happen anyway, as a result of their physical base properties. If we want to account for consciousness, mental causation and reasoning, we need some entity over and above the body. This entity must be simple, have thoughts as inseparable parts, persist as a unity over time, and have active power. That sounds like a soul . . .

Let’s break this down a bit. Menuge distinguishes between two types of physicalism. First was the reductive or eliminative type of physicalism. According to this view, there just is no such entity as the soul. Rather, all that exists would be the brain – a glob of tissue that sits in your skull. There simply is no such thing as a mind or the soul. Or, there are non-reductive varieties of physicalism which says that the brain has mental properties or states that are states of awareness that we would normally ascribe to the soul but in fact there isn’t any such thing as the soul; these are just epiphenomenal states or, as Menuge puts it, supervenient or emergent properties of the brain. All that really exists is the brain but in addition to that there are these epiphenomenal or supervenient properties that are mental in nature.

Reductive or eliminative forms of materialism are increasingly unpopular. They just don’t seem to account, as Menuge says, for our mental lives because the brain, as a physical substance, simply has physical properties: things like a certain volume, a certain mass, a certain density, a location, a shape. But the brain doesn’t have mental properties. The brain isn’t jubilant, the brain isn’t sad, the brain isn’t in pain. When your back hurts and you are in pain it is not the brain that is in pain even if the brain is involved in the circuitry that gives you the experience of pain. So the brain alone as a physical glob of tissue doesn’t have the mental properties that are characteristic of mental states so reductive materialism doesn’t work. This has led many thinkers to affirm some sort of non-reductive physicalism – that the brain gives rise to these epiphenomenal states of awareness like jubilance or sadness or pain. But there isn’t any thing – there isn’t any soul or mind – that has these. Rather, these are just states of the brain and the brain is the only thing that really exists.

Menuge identifies a number of problems with this view that makes it improbable.[2] First of all, he points out that this is incompatible with self identity over time. Think about it – if the brain endures from one moment to another, the brain endures through time and so has identity through time but these states of awareness don’t endure from one moment to the next. There is no enduring self – no “I” – that endures from one moment to the next. On this view, the self – the “I” – is rather like the Buddhist view of the self which says that the soul or the self is something like the flame of a candle. The candle and the wick endure from one moment to the next but the flame doesn’t endure. There is a different flame at each moment of the candle’s burning but you have a sort of continuity but there really isn’t any identity over time. I think you can see that in this case with these states of awareness. Every state of the brain at different times has a state of awareness associated with it but there isn’t any enduring self or “I” that endures from one moment to the next. This leads a naturalist philosopher like Alex Rosenberg to boldly affirm that there is no enduring self on atheism or on materialism. That it is an illusion. It is an illusion that you are the same person who walked into this class this morning. In fact, you are not because there is no identity over time. So if you do believe that you are the same person who walked in here this morning, you ought to reject this non-reductive physicalist view of the self.

Also, intentional states of consciousness don’t seem to make sense on this view. The property of intentionality is the property of being about something or being of something. For example, I can think about my summer vacation or I can think of my wife. Physical objects don’t have these sorts of properties. The brain is not about something any more than a chair or a table is about something or of something. It is only thoughts which are of something that have this kind of aboutness or intentionality to it. But on this view there is no self – there is no soul – which has the property of intentionality; instead you just have the brain and intentionality is in effect an illusion. So, again, Rosenberg bites the bullet and says that we never really think about anything. It is just an illusion that we have intentional states. Not only is that contrary to experience – I mean, after all I am thinking about Rosenberg’s argument right? – but it is actually self-refuting. What is an illusion? An illusion is an illusion of something. So it is itself an intentional state. An illusion of intentionality is an intentional state – you are having an illusion of something or about something. So the view that intentionality is merely an illusion is literally self-refuting and incoherent. If you think, again, that you ever have thoughts about something or of something you ought to believe in the reality of the soul and reject these physicalist views.

Thirdly, free will seems impossible to reconcile with either reductive or non-reductive physicalism because on these views there is no causal connection between the states of awareness. The only causality is on the purely physical level. So that is totally determined by the laws of nature and the initial material conditions. So there just isn’t any room for freedom of the will.[3] So on this view, again, free will is an illusion – you never really do anything freely. And that flies in the face of our experience of ourselves as free agents. I can freely do certain things or freely choose to think about certain things. I am not simply determined by my brain states. So freedom of the will – if you believe in that – gives you reason to believe in the reality of the soul and to reject these reductive and non-reductive physicalist views.

Finally, the last phenomenon that Menuge points to is mental causation. Notice that on these non-reductive physicalist views, the only arrow of causation is from the brain to these epiphenomenal states. The epiphenomenal states themselves don’t cause anything. They are utterly causally impotent. So there is no return causality from awareness to the brain. Why? Because there is nothing there – there is no soul, there is no mind, that can exert a causal influence on the brain. So on this view, the arrow of causality goes only one way – it is from the brain to these epiphenomenal states and that is incompatible with my, again, introspectively graspability to cause things. I can cause my arm to go up; I can raise my arm by thinking about it. I can do other things through thinking and thereby bring about causal effects.

So, in all of these ways, it seems to me that Menuge is right that we ought to reject these materialistic and physicalist views in favor of some sort of dualism-interactionism. That is to say, we are composites of soul and body and the soul and the body – in particularly the brain – work together to think. And in this way we have a kind of union of the soul and the body in this lifetime.


Question: I just wanted to cut off a common internet objection to this sort of thing. The people on the internet generally will say, “Well, if we have these mental states, what we really are talking about are physical states.” Suppose science can so that every time I have the sensation of seeing red, I can connect it with, let’s say, a release of potassium in a certain part of my brain. So when we are talking about these mental states, what we are really talking about is a physical thing happening in the brain. And so talking about intentionality, well, that is just all word play based on that. I know Richard Swinburne has addressed this before in his lectures and I think he would say something like there is a difference between correlation and reducibility. Correlation is not the same as reducibility. Reducibility would be something like when I say “here” all I mean by that is where I am right now. The meaning of both is identical. Whereas if two things are connected to each other, that is not the same thing.

Answer: You are exactly right. Take the phenomenon of fear. When you have fear, undoubtedly there is brain activity that is correlated with the experience of fear. That is what a dualist-interactionist would say – it is not as though the soul operates independently of the brain. There is an interaction with the brain in the experience of fear. But, the brain isn’t afraid. You can’t reduce fear to a physical brain state even if it is correlated with neural activity. So the person who says that is falling back into this old reductive physicalism that I think is just obviously untenable. Brains aren’t afraid of things.

Followup: A quick counter example to reducibility would be something called neuroplasticity – the idea that the brain can rewire itself. There is actually a kid I know who is missing maybe a quarter or so of his brain but the brain rewired itself in the womb. If we defined fear as maybe a release of a certain chemical in the upper left portion, well, what if he is missing the upper left portion? Then by definition it would be impossible for him to experience fear. But if you see his behavior, he is just as capable as anyone else, and therefore reductive physicalism has to be false.[4]

Answer: In the article that I quoted from Menuge, he has a section on this phenomenon on neuroplasticity as you put it where thinking can actually affect the brain. If you think in certain ways it produces brain effects and there is a kind of cognitive therapy that is more useful in some cases than drugs in order to change people’s behavior. You alter the way they think about something and this will affect them physiologically. I thought this was highly significant because in his book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Rosenberg says that if you find all of this depressing – that there is no self, no identity over time, no free will, no intentionality – he says there is always Prozac. What else would a materialist say? He says take drugs. Take brain altering drugs and you’ll feel better. How sinister that is, I think, is shown by Menuge’s point that we don’t need always to resort to drugs. Sometimes there are these cognitive therapies whereby by changing your thinking you can actually alter the brain and you don’t need to resort to drugs.

Question: I would just like you to comment on the fact that where the animal kingdom fits in this. Because, in a sense, they have mental causation – fear, intellect, emotion – which are qualities of a soul but yet we are saying it doesn’t have a soul per se or because if they don’t possess some of the other qualities we say a soul has.

Answer: Yes, now, this is a really good question and I don’t feel qualified to answer this. Philosophy of mind is not my area of specialization but I do know that those whom I respect who work in this area will often affirm that animals – certain animals – have souls – souls which are more primitive in their faculties than ours but that they nevertheless have souls. Sir John Eccles, who is a Nobel Prize winning neurologist and co-author with Karl Popper of a book called The Self and Its Brain, has said that he thinks that animals higher than frogs have selves – have souls – of a primitive sort. And my colleague J. P. Moreland thinks this as well. He also thinks that animals have souls and he says, and I think quite rightly, that this is the mainstream philosophical position from the ancient Greek philosophers until more recent times, modern times. So it is not out of the question that there could be souls that animals have that are more primitive in their endowments than ours.

Followup: Well, we know all dogs go to heaven so they don’t have to make that decision about Christ then. [laughter]

Question: While I was doing research for a speech that I was going to do for my intelligence system class – I am a computer scientist – I started looking into arguments and it started dipping a lot into philosophy, especially when it comes to that intentionality thing. So my question is – do you know what time people started shifting mainly from a substance dualist to a physicalist way of thinking because I know that there was a shift in that. Was that because of the rise of computers?

Answer: I think it is much earlier than that. Already in the 19th century you had the advent of modern materialism and the denial of the self and reductive views. So I think already you could find in 19th century philosophy at least expressions of materialism and denial of the soul. The issue of artificial intelligence also becomes relevant here as you indicated. Menuge said in his quotation that if we want to provide an account of reasoning, we need a soul. If there is no self who reasons from premises to conclusions say, then in a sense we are just like a pocket calculator that when you press the buttons 2 plus 2 and then you hit the equals sign it has 4. But the calculator doesn’t reason to arrive at that conclusion. There is no reasoning going on there at all. So, again, if you think that we ever reason to arrive at conclusions you ought to think that you are more than just a moist robot as, I think, Daniel Dennett puts it[5]; that in fact you have a self who does this reasoning.[6]

Followup: While I was doing research mainly on the intentionality thing, when people use the calculator example, people assume that it is even able to understand mathematics and really it is nothing more than a bunch of switches and to say it understands it is like saying that a light switch knows that it is on.

Answer: Good. OK.

Question: Why does Rosenberg think his comments and his point of view are worth trying to convince people of?

Answer: This is really hard to answer. He acknowledges that without intentionality sentences aren’t about anything because a sentence is just a bunch of ink marks on paper and therefore it is not about anything – it is meaningless. And he says this is true of every sentence in my book that you are reading – he is saying this. He says, well then what good does this book do? He says, well, if looking at these ink marks causes certain firings to take place in your brain such that your activity is altered then it will have achieved something.[7] But, of course, it can’t be his purpose because you don’t have any purposes on his view. Maybe the best he could say is he was determined to do it and you are determined to react to it the way that you do. But it is difficult to see any sort of overarching purpose or significance to it.

Followup: So there is no such thing as education or anything of that directed nature at all?

Answer: Well, not in the sense in which I think you mean the term education. In fact, he really blasts the humanities as being disciplines that are empty and worthless. He thinks that all the truth is to be found in physics. Physics just describes the way the world really is and all of the rest of this stuff like literature and the arts and the rest of the humanities are all really just meaningless exercises.

Followup: But he thinks physics matters – that is the thing that is so bizarre.

Answer: Yes, and he is in the humanities himself being a philosopher. Yeah, what can I say?

Question: For a long time, I thought that animals did not have souls and that is why they can’t be saved. But I have come to think that maybe they do have souls but they are lacking something and what that something is is a spirit. Now if you look at 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul speaks of a spirit, a soul, and a body. And pneuma of course is the spirit, and according to my Greek lexicon, pneuma is of the same substance as the soul but it is a different operation, i.e., it is the way by which we communicate with God. Biblical support for that would be 1 Corinthians 2:14 which says that the natural man cannot perceive spiritual things and if you go a little further you say the reason people are unsaved at the fall, their spirits were all damaged and that when we come to Christ, the Holy Spirit regenerates us by reestablishing this spirit and we now can communicate with God. So it doesn’t really go against dualism; you can think of it kind of as a smaller portion of the soul perhaps although it is enough different in its operation that it deserves a separate term which Paul uses in several places in his letters.

Answer: I think that what you’ve expressed is really the classical view of the soul. For someone like Aristotle, for example, animals have souls but they don’t have rational souls; that is to say, they lack a certain faculty or operation as you put it that we human beings have that make us rational souls whereas animals are non-rational souls. The part, or the operation, or the faculty – you refer to it as spirit, that is a biblical term – the Greeks would have called it nous which is the word for “mind.”[8] So the mind or the nous could be that faculty of the soul that is capable of rational thinking and reflection and would be something that would be found in humans but not in dogs or horses or other animals. As you say, this is a dualistic view but it just says that some souls are more richly endowed with faculties than others.

Followup: You can a little more simplistically look at it as saying the soul interacts with its surroundings in the physical world by way of the body and it interacts with God – the spiritual world – by way of the spirit.

Answer: Yes, I will say something more about this when we get to views of trichotomy and dichotomy but I think you are right in that when the biblical authors use the word “spirit” they are thinking there particularly of our ability to relate to God, not just our rational faculty but our ability to relate to God who is spirit.

Let me say something in conclusion about challenges to this view emanating from the experiments performed by a brain scientist named Benjamin Libet. He conducted experiments in which people were instructed to press a button with one of their fingers while he monitored their brain activity. What Libet discovered was that prior to a person’s awareness of his decision to press the button, a brain signal had already occurred which later resulted in his fingers moving. So, the sequence goes like this:

1. There is a brain signal about 550 milliseconds prior to the fingers moving.

2. There is an awareness of the decision in consciousness which occurs about 200 milliseconds prior to the fingers moving.

3. The finger moves and presses the button.

There is no consensus concerning the interpretation or the significance of Libet’s experiments. As you can imagine, some people have taken this to be proof of determinism or even materialism because before the awareness to press the button occurs, a brain signal has already taken placed to make the finger move. But this inference would be overdrawn. In a second run of experiments, Libet discovered that even after the awareness of the decision to press the button had occurred, people still retained the ability to veto the decision and not to press the button. So they still retained the ability to cancel the earlier decision. Some interpreters therefore take this brain signal to indicate merely a readiness potential which the patient may either than go along with or may veto over which he still has control. Libet himself considered his experimental results to be fully compatible with the existence of free will.

The more fundamental point, though, to be made about these experiments is that it struck me very forcefully as I contemplated these experiments that this is exactly what the dualist-interactionist would expect to happen. You see, the soul or the mind doesn’t work independently of the brain. Rather, as Sir John Eccles, whom I mentioned earlier, has pointed out, on a dualist-interactionist view the soul uses the brain as an instrument for thought just as a pianist uses a piano as an instrument to produce music. So of course the soul’s decisions are not simultaneous with the soul’s awareness of those decisions – how could they be? Given the brain’s reliance upon finite velocity neurosignals in order to think, the soul could not have a simultaneous awareness with its decisions.[9] Rather, given the soul’s reliance upon the brain and the finite velocity of neurosignals, there would have to be a time lag between the soul’s decision and the soul’s conscious awareness of that decision. In Libet’s experiments, since the neurosignals travel at finite velocities, of course it takes a little time for the soul’s decision to come to conscious awareness. This is exactly what we should expect on a dualist-interactionist view. The German philosopher Uwe Meixner, who is a dualist-interactionist, has this to say about Libet’s experiments,

For making an informed decision, the self needs to be conscious of the facts relevant to the decision prior to making the decision; but . . . the self certainly does not need to be conscious of making the decision at the very same time it makes it. . . . the consciousness of a state of affairs P being (presently) the case is always somewhat later than the actual fact of P’s being the case . . . [10]

For example, when you are talking to another person, because of the finite velocity of light signals and the finite velocity of sound and the finite velocity of your nerve signals, what you are experiencing as that present person talking is always a little bit in the past. You never have an actual present awareness of what is happening around you. There is a tiny time lag that is imperceptible to us because of the finite velocity of these signals. So Uwe Meixner goes on to say, “it is hardly surprising that the consciousness of making a decision is no exception to this general rule, which is due to the dependence of consciousness on neurophysiology.”[11]

So I want to emphasize on this view the soul’s decision is not unconscious – it is conscious – but it just takes a little while for that decision to become conscious because of the finite velocity of neurosignals. Just as we never see anything that is actually presently there because of the finite velocity of light but we only see events that are just slightly past, in the same way we don’t have a consciousness of our own decisions simultaneously with our making them but we have them unnoticeably afterwards. If the soul has the ability to think without being causally determined then, as Meixner says, all it needs in order to make responsible informed decisions is consciousness of the relevant facts prior to its making a decision. But it doesn’t need to be aware or conscious of the decision simultaneous with making that decision in order for them to be responsible and informed decisions.

So it seems to me that in response to Libet’s experiments, they are exactly what we ought to expect if dualism-interactionism is true. The soul uses the brain as an instrument for thinking.

What we will do next time is begin to look at whether we ought to think of man as trichotomous, dichotomous, or whatever.[12]


[1] Angus J. L. Menuge, “Why Not Physicalism? The Soul Has Work to Do,” unpublished ms. delivered at the Evangelical Philosophical Society panel for the Society of Biblical Literature, San Francisco, CA, November, 2011.

[2] 5:02

[3] 10:01

[4] 15:07

[5] Daniel Dennett has used the term, but the term “moist robot” was actually coined, interestingly, by Scott Adams, creator of the “Dilbert” comic. “Free will is an illusion. Humans are nothing but moist robots.” See and for examples.

[6] 20:24

[7] “This book isn’t conveying statements. It’s rearranging neural circuits, removing inaccurate disinformation and replacing it with accurate information. Treat it as correcting maps instead of erasing sentences.” Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2011), p. 193.

[8] 25:02

[9] 30:06

[10] Uwe Meixner, “New Perspectives for a Dualistic Conception of Mental Causation,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 15/1 (2008): p. 25.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Total Running Time: 34:14 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)