Tag Archives: Aboutness

Six reasons why you should believe in non-physical souls

This podcast is a must-listen. Please take the time to download this podcast and listen to it. I guarantee that you will love this podcast. I even recommended it to my Dad and I almost never do that.


In this podcast, J. Warner examines the evidence for the existence of the mind (and inferentially, the soul) as he looks at six classic philosophical arguments. Jim also briefly discusses Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos and discusses the limitations of physicalism.

The MP3 file is here. (67 MB, 72 minutes)


  • Atheist Thomas Nagel’s latest book “Mind and Cosmos” makes the case that materialism cannot account for the evidence of mental phenomena
  • Nagel writes in this recent New York Times article that materialism cannot account for the reality of consciousness, meaning, intention and purpose
  • Quote from the Nagel article:

Even though the theistic outlook, in some versions, is consistent with the available scientific evidence, I don’t believe it, and am drawn instead to a naturalistic, though non-materialist, alternative. Mind, I suspect, is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy.

  • When looking at this question, it’s important to not have our conclusions pre-determined by presupposing materialism or atheism
  • If your mind/soul doesn’t exist and you are a purely physical being then that is a defeater for Christianity, so we need to respond
  • Traditionally, Christians have been committed to a view of human nature called “dualism” – human beings are souls who have bodies
  • The best way* to argue for the existence of the soul is using philosophical arguments

The case:

  • The law of identity says that if A = B’ if A and B have the exact same properties
  • If A = the mind and B = the brain, then is A identical to B?
  • Wallace will present 6 arguments to show that A is not identical to B because they have different properties

Not everyone of the arguments below might make sense to you, but you will probably find one or two that strike you as correct. Some of the points are more illustrative than persuasive, like #2. However, I do find #3, #5 and #6 persuasive.

1) First-person access to mental properties

  • Thought experiment: Imagine your dream car, and picture it clearly in your mind
  • If we invited an artist to come and sketch out your dream car, then we could see your dream car’s shape on paper
  • This concept of your dream car is not something that people can see by looking at your brain structure
  • Physical properties can be physically accessed, but the properties of your dream care and privately accessed

2) Our experience of consciousness implies that we are not our bodies

  • Common sense notion of personhood is that we own our bodies, but we are not our bodies

3) Persistent self-identity through time

  • Thought experiment: replacing a new car with an old car one piece at a time
  • When you change even the smallest part of a physical object, it changes the identity of that object
  • Similarly, your body is undergoing changes constantly over time
  • Every cell in your body is different from the body you had 10 years ago
  • Even your brain cells undergo changes (see this from New Scientist – WK)
  • If you are the same person you were 10 years ago, then you are not your physical body

4) Mental properties cannot be measured like physical objects

  • Physical objects can be measured (e.g. – use physical measurements to measure weight, size, etc.)
  • Mental properties cannot be measured

5) Intentionality or About-ness

  • Mental entities can refer to realities that are physical, something outside of themselves
  • A tree is not about anything, it just is a physical object
  • But you can have thoughts about the tree out there in the garden that needs water

6) Free will and personal responsibility

  • If humans are purely physical, then all our actions are determined by sensory inputs and genetic programming
  • Biological determinism is not compatible with free will, and free will is required for personal responsibility
  • Our experience of moral choices and moral responsibility requires free will, and free will requires minds/souls

He spends the last 10 minutes of the podcast responding to naturalistic objections to the mind/soul hypothesis.

*Now in the podcast, Wallace does say that scientific evidence is not the best kind of evidence to use when discussing this issue of body/soul and mind/brain. But I did blog before about two pieces of evidence that I think are relevant to this discussion: corroborated near-death experiences and mental effort.

You might remember that Dr. Craig brought up the issue of substance dualism, and the argument from intentionality (“aboutness”), in his debate with the naturalist philosopher Alex Rosenberg, so this argument about dualism is battle-ready. You can add it to your list of arguments for Christian theism along with all the other arguments like the Big Bang, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, stellar habitability, galactic habitability, irreducible complexity, molecular machines, the Cambrian explosion, the moral argument, the resurrection, biological convergence, and so on.

Some arguments for substance dualism, and one objection

Philosophy of mind is not something I’ve studied very much, but I do know about the different views like physicalism, epiphenomenalism, property dualism and substance dualism. I also know some of the basic arguments for and against each view.

In this post, I just wanted to show people a little bit about how you argue for substance dualism, using philosophical and scientific arguments. I find this topic to be really really dry, and I can barely stay awake when J.P. Moreland talks about it in lectures. But I hope a little bit of exposure won’t put you all to sleep.

Philosophical arguments

Let’s start with this old paper by John Depoe.

He writes about the persistent identity argument:

Another argument supporting substance dualism is that one maintains personal identity through change. Even though one is continuously going through physical changes and experiencing different mental states, a person continues to be the same person. If persons were identical with their physical parts or mental states, they would cease to be the same persons as these changes occurred. Therefore, it is necessary to postulate an immaterial, substantial self that endures through change.

Suppose that someone believes that people do not maintain identity through change and concludes that the previous argument for substance dualism fails. This denial of personal identity through change, I contend, presents untenable difficulties. First, there is one’s own awareness of being the same person through change. Moreover, if one is not literally the same person through these changes, how can a person maintain long-term goals and desires?

If you are your body, and your body is always changing, then you aren’t the same person now as 5 minutes ago.

There are more arguments for substance dualism here, from J.P. Moreland.

Experimental evidence

Doug Groothuis talks about some experimental evidence in this paper.


Dr. Wilder Penfield was known for his ground-breaking work with epilepsy. His work involved stimulating brain tissue in conscious patients in order to find the causes of epilepsy. During these sessions Penfield found that the prodding of certain areas of the brain triggered vivid memories of past events. The patients reported remembering clearly such things as the taste of coffee. One patient, while on an operating table in Montreal, Canada, remembered laughing with cousins on a farm in South Africa. What amazed Penfield was that his patients, who were not under anesthetic, were simultaneously conscious of the re-experienced memories and of being prodded by an electrode in an operating room. Penfield called this a “double consciousness” wherein a memory was stimulated physically but was attended to and recognized as a memory by a conscious patient. Penfield likened this to the patient watching a television program while remaining aware that it wasn’t now happening.

Penfield repeated these results on hundreds of epileptic patients and concluded that a separable mind was able to track what the brain was doing as a result of the artificial stimulation. One’s mind in a sense could transcend the operations of the brain, monitoring memories without actually placing oneself in the situation remembered. Penfield noted that “The mind of the patient was as independent of the reflex action as was the mind of the surgeon who listened and strove to understand. Thus, my argument favours independence of mind-action.” Penfield also stated that if we liken the brain to a computer, it is not that we are a computer, but that we have a computer.

Penfield, who began his research as a materialist, switched to dualism after extensive research with epileptic patients. He said, “Something else finds its dwelling place between the sensory complex and the motor mechanism. . . . There is a switchboard operator as well as a switchboard.”

Although nonepileptic patients do not respond similarly to brain stimulation, other researchers, such as Sir John Eccles, a neurobiologist, have similarly concluded that the brain alone cannot account for a many phenomena. Eccles’ hypothesis is that the self-conscious mind is an independent entity that is actively engaged in reading from the multitude of active centres in the modules of the liaison areas of the dominant cerebral hemisphere. The self-conscious mind selects from these centres in accord with its attention and its interests and integrates its selection to give unity of conscious experience from moment to moment.

Thus, Eccles’ conclusions agree with Penfield’s, and his areas of research extend farther than that of epileptic patients. Eccles deems the “monist materialist” hope for an eventual physical explanation for mental events as wrongheaded in principle because mental events are not “simply derivative of aspects of nerve endings. There is no evidence for this whatever.” Further, Eccles argues that his “strong dualist-interactionist hypothesis . . . has the recommendation of its great explanatory power. It gives in principle at least explanations of the whole range of problems relating to brain-mind interaction.”Eccles notes that it has been impossible to develop a materialist explanation of “how a diversity of brain events come to be synthesized so that there is a unified conscious experience of a global or gestalt character.” Given this impasse, Eccles proposed that “the self-conscious mind” serve to integrate the apparently disparate brain processes into a unified consciousness.

I think that Alvin Plantinga, Keith Yandell, J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, Stephen Davis, John Depoe, Douglas Groothuis and Charles Taliaferro all defend substance dualism. I’m a substance dualist, myself.

What’s the objection to substance dualism?

The big objection to substance-dualism is the problem of how you get the non-physical substance to interact with the physical substance. It’s like how people put forward the grounding objection when talking about middle knowledge and where God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom comes from. I wonder if anyone can post a comment for me to point me to a resource on answering the interaction problem in the comments.

UPDATE: One of my elite special forces ninja commenters writes:

Here’s Ed Feser on the Interaction Problem:




The thrust of his argument is that, if the soul is the extension of the body’s “form” without matter, then it interacts with the more material parts of us in the same way that forms in general interact with matter- this approach involves rethinking our metaphysical understanding of matter, rather than coming up with a clever idea of the soul, and it does get rather involved in Thomistic metaphysics, but I think it’s pretty interesting.

MUST-READ: J.P. Moreland’s argument for theism from consciousness

Here’s a post from Thinking Matters New Zealand.


Last year, the release of J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig’s Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology saw a lot of attention. And quite rightly. The Companion marshalled some of most cutting-edge work in the field of the philosophy of religion and showed why natural theology is fast becoming an exciting scholarly domain again. But in the shadow of the Companion’s release, another of Moreland’s works was published: The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism. Although it might not have got the same amount of attention, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei also represented an important entry in the contest of ideas and a powerful defense of theism. In it, Moreland argues for the theistic position by way of a stinging attack on naturalism and its failure to answer the problem of consciousness and account for the basic facts of human experience, such as free will, rationality, and intrinsic value.

And here’s the formal argument:

1. Genuinely non-physical mental states exist.

2. There is an explanation for the existence of mental states.

3. Personal explanation is different from natural scientific explanation.

4. The explanation for the existence of mental states is either a personal or natural scientific explanation.

5. The explanation is not a natural scientific one.


6. The explanation is a personal one.

7. If the explanation is personal, then it is theistic.


8. The explanation [for the existence of mental states] is theistic.

That’s the argument. Each of the premises needs to be more likely than not for the argument to go through. And you can read about how each premise is supported in this helpful post from Bill Vallicella at Prosblogion. This is good little argument to ad to your quiver of scientific arguments. I think this argument and moral argument are two nice little philosophical arguments that show that theism is the necessary starting point for morality and rationality. Particles in motion will not do the job.

I actually learned about this argument by reading chapter 3 of “Scaling the Secular City”, and listening to J.P. Moreland lectures. If you want to learn about this argument in a lecture, try this one. This is one of my favorite lectures. It was delivered at the University of Georgia. That’s the one I use when I’m training this argument, along with his lecture on “The Invisible Man” for Stand to Reason’s Masters Series, which is also good. Moreland also does public debates.

I notice that the new book mentioned above is quite expensive, and you’d be better off buying “Body and Soul” and “Philosophical Foundations for a  Christian Worldview”. SPCK is an academic press and so their books are very expensive, compared to IVP.