Science, Body, and Soul 2 (RJS)

We began last Thursday to look at Kevin Corcoran’s book Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul where he develops a constitution view of human persons.  Professor  Corcoran is a philosopher teaching at Calvin College specializing in philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion  – a philosopher who tries to connect philosophy with bible, theology, faith, and science. Reading this book is something of a new experience for me as I have taken one and only one philosophy course – some many years ago as a freshman in college. Formal philosophy is not, and never has been, high on my list for leisure reading. But this book is interesting.

Today’s post will consider a few points from Chapters 1 and 2, the dualist and nothing-but materialist views of human persons. The key question is that introduced in the last post – what is the essence of a human person? What relationship does this essence have to our physical bodies?

Dualism is pretty clear – at least in the common view. Human persons consist of separable parts – body and soul. Corcoran introduces three varieties of dualism and discusses arguments for and against each.

The nothing-but materialist view is also relatively clear – metaphysical naturalism claims that there is nothing but the natural world and thus we must be defined by our bodies. We are not defined by the precise matter of composition, neither are we defined merely as animals – organisms. But we are defined by some natural feature of a living body.

This whole discussion leads to the significance of consciousness as we consider the essence of a human person – the capacity for consciousness.

Corcoran suggests that consciousness is a problem for nothing-but materialism, but no less so for dualism. Consciousness does not prove that we possess an immaterial soul.

This leads to the questions for discussion today.

Does the capacity for consciousness define the essence of a human person?

Is consciousness an argument for the existence of God? Is it something that cannot be explained by natural mechanism alone?

I struggled with this post – there are a dozen discussions I would like to start (perhaps some of them will come up again in later posts). It was hard to choose a focus for this post. But I am a scientist, and as such the role of science and naturalism in the way we think about the world around us is a problem that constantly confronts – as a result I am going to pick up on this point in Corcoran’s book.

Consciousness is an unsolved problem. We have no clue what creates consciousness – in humans, or in animals, for who would suggest that cats and dogs, for example, have no consciousness. (Just watch the video on a soldier and his dog in Weekly Meanderings and try to claim the absence of consciousness.) It is clear however, that consciousness is intimately connected to the brain and to the physical structures of the brain.

In the scientific community there is an assumption that there must be a natural explanation for consciousness – we may never know the explanation, our brains may be constitutionally incapable of discovering it – but it must exist. The metaphysical naturalism of many absolutely requires a natural explanation, for nothing else exists.

Is this the perfect place for to look for proof of God?

Corcoran here has a discussion that I find particularly good – worthy of consideration, so I will quote at length.

And I think what McGinn means by “resolutely shunning the supernatural” is to rule out a priori, the existence of God, the soul, or anything supernatural or immaterial. To put it another way, McGinn is a metaphysical naturalist (a naturalist about everything: the natural world is all there is, so it is exhaustive of reality). But one need not embrace that thoroughly secular claim in order to believe that is is in virtue of some natural property of brains that organisms are conscious.

For example, I am a theist, a supernaturalist, you might say. As such, I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And since I believe in the God of the Christian Scripture, I believe neither that the natural world is all there is nor that the natural world is “casually closed.” I believe, in other words, that God can intervene in the natural world, that God has done so, and that God continues to do so. Nevertheless, I believe that, for the most part, God does not directly intervene in the natural world. Since the natural world has yielded in so many ways to scientific explanation over the past several hundred years, it seems only plausible to believe that God created the world – the natural world – with its own integrity, such that is operates according to regularities that can be grasped and understood not only by those who acknowledge its author but also by those who do not and whose explanations, though accurate, do not appeal to the author of nature. …

Since God created the natural world and all that it contains with its own integrity, it is also reasonable to believe that consciousness itself – a feature encountered in the natural world – has a natural explanation. In other words, we can accept McGinn’s assertion that it is in virtue of a natural property of the brain that organisms are conscious without accepting his metaphysical naturalism. (pp. 59-60)

Corcoran suggest that we should take a view of chastened naturalism. Chastened naturalism accepts a natural view but refuses to take it all the way. Granting that consciousness is a natural property of organisms is not capitulation and does not require the sacrifice of Christian commitments. Consciousness may some day yield to natural explanation and the Christian faith will emerge unscathed.

Back to the topic of consideration – Corcoran finds the identification of human persons with an immaterial soul or a material body unconvincing. I agree – dualist views that divorce thought and consciousness from our physical being are unconvincing – both scientifically and philosophically. Research on the brain demonstrates a deep connectedness between our consciousness and the essence of what makes us human persons and our material bodies. Consider, for example, studies that show that interfering with signals in a specific part of the brain can turn off a natural tendency to see ourselves positively, glossing over negative characteristics. Don’t these kinds of studies prove that mind and brain are not separable? That, despite what Descartes claimed, the part of me that thinks is identical, at least in this life, to the body?

But perhaps you disagree.

Is consciousness a problem for materialism and an indication of the dual nature of human persons as body and soul?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

  • Your Name

    It would be good to see these questions posed in a wider secular forum. It seems that so many Science Fiction stories, such as AI, some of Isaac Assimov’s and others assume that if you can develop artifical intelligence to a certain level, it becomes a living being. I’d like to know how many people realy believe that — or have given it much thought?

  • Robby Charters

    …I’m sorry — that last comment went out without my name attached…

  • dopderbeck

    The problem I have with Corcoran’s thesis is that it seems to adopt a metaphysical binary with respect to the “soul.” So, he says: “in virtue of some natural property of brains that organisms are conscious.” This is almost certainly true, but it begs the question whether a human being is entirely and only a natural “organism” and whether “conscious” is an adequate term to encompass what the Christian tradition means by “soul” and “will.” In other words, Corcoran seems to assume a materialist ontology, rather than allowing that there might be a “spiritual” layer of reality that is not accessible to science.
    There seems to be almost no doubt that Cartesian dualism is not true, but there are other substance dualisms that are not Cartesian, particularly Thomistic dualism. Aquinas’ view of the soul as the “form of the body” is subtle and sophisticated, and recognizes that the soul and body holistically comprise one person: “The body is not of the essence of the soul; but the soul by the nature of its essence can be united to the body, so that, properly speaking, not the soul alone, but the “composite,” is the species.” ST Q. 75.
    A Thomistic holistic dualism, I think, can adequately accommodate that data from neurobiology. The “why bother” question might be answered by the Biblical materials, the Tradition, and the question of survival of the person after death and before the Resurrection.

  • Darren King

    Going in a slightly different (but related) direction here: what do we do when people claim they can see/perceive aspects of what appears to be a spiritual realm? There are several questions here: Are they *really* seeing it? Are they seeing it with their eyes? Or by, perhaps, inner sight? What is “inner sight”? How is their physical brain capable of perceiving aspects of reality that exist beyond the *normal* material parameters?
    I have a close friend who I trust a great deal, and who’s credibility is pretty much unquestioned from my perspective. About 20 years ago he had an experience that some might call a psychic break. At the time he was able to perceive auras or energy around people. He could also see energy moving from person to person as they interacted. And he also remembers this energy having a distinctively moral dimension. In other words, some of the energy was good, some evil.
    Anyway, his family assumed this was a mental breakdown, and he was admitted to hospital. When everything returned to *normal* several days later, he was released. At the time he was not a Christian and quite rigidly materialist in his mindset. In other words, he was probably the last person in the world who would have *wished* for such an experience. It was worldview-shattering for him. And, ultimately, this experience made him realize that there was much more going on than many of us realize. He became a committed Christian as a result. Now, he recognizes that the experience was some form of psychic break; but also believes he really did have a window into aspects of reality that really do exist.
    To add to the picture here: this friend is highly intelligent, and quite astute in science. He worked in the computing programming industry for a couple of decades and understands quantum physics, for example, to a degree I have yet to fully grasp. I say this to point out that the conclusions he’s come to, he didn’t come to willy-nilly. Interestingly enough, he also studied numerous spiritual traditions before arriving at Christianity following this experience.
    I bring this all up because it seems relevant to the discussion RJS has set up for us here. Thoughts?

  • chaplain mike

    What implications does this discussion have for a doctrine of an “intermediate state” between death and resurrection? Are human beings capable of living consciously in the presence of God before the body is raised?

  • Jon

    I agree that classic Cartesian dualism is not persuasive. However, I’ve struggled with how the materialist view can account for identity, the resurrection and the intermediate state. So far, the former Calvin philosopher John Cooper has been most persuasive for me, arguing for a ‘holistic dualism’ (in Body, Soul and Life Everlasting). He argues for a functional holism not an ontological holism. I look forward to hearing how Corcoran addresses those points.

  • RJS

    Corcoran introduces three variants of dualism – Descartes and substance dualism, Aquinas and compound dualism, and a more recent expression of emergent dualism. He comes to the conclusion that the Thomist approach is essentially a variant of substance dualism, although somewhat different from Descartes. Emergent dualism is also interesting to consider.
    My original post talked about much of this in addition to what I have above – but was about 3 or 4 times as long (way too long for a blog post) so I cut it to consider just this issue.
    Perhaps I should also put up the discussion of dualism, as it bears on many things – including chaplain mike’s comment about the nature of the intermediate state and the nature of the resurrection body.

  • dopderbeck

    I’ve about exhausted my expertise on Thomistic dualism with the quote I gave! My understanding is that Aquinas could be considered a substance dualist, but that his concept is very different from Descartes. Thomas’ notion is drawn from Aristotelian philosophy, in which the soul and body cannot readily be conceived of apart from each other, while Descartes thought of the body more a machine that houses the soul. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good overview.

  • dopderbeck

    My ref to SEP was supposed to link here:

  • Ken

    You quote Corcoran as writing: And since I believe in the God of the Christian Scripture, I believe neither that the natural world is all there is nor that the natural world is “casually closed.” I believe, in other words, that God can intervene in the natural world, that God has done so, and that God continues to do so.
    I think it should be “causally closed” rther than casually closed”. This is good, thought-provoking stuff. Thank you for all you do.

  • Tim Chambers

    How is “emergent dualism” distinct from a materialist view again?
    Is it the idea that the brain in some way “generates” a immaterial “soul?”… hence it is dualistic in that there are two things at work a functional brain and the soul it somehow makes.
    (I guess semantically I’m not sure how different that is from saying that a consciousness is the immaterial result of a functioning brain)
    Maybe in emergent dualism the mind/soul is considered an immaterial THING, where in materialism, the mind is not so much of an actual THING as much as the state of a functioning brain?

  • Napman

    Unlike RJS, I am not convinced that any dualism is inappropriate, philosophically or scientifically. The problem of intentionality, or how our mind chooses to specify a reference within a particular thought, is intuitively difficult to conceive for me under materialistic assumptions. Much of the philosophical turn against dualism has followed the preference for material explanations of everything, including the mind. But for Christians, it should not be difficult to imagine a mind without a body, for as Alvin Plantinga has noted many times, that is exactly what we confess about God.
    I am not sure what the scientific objection to a sophisticated dualism is anyway. Citing the dependence on the working order of the physical structure of the brain for the sound functioning of the mind does not prove the identity of the mind and brain just as the reliance of our brains for oxygen from our lungs does not prove that they are identical. I am not sure what findings of science demonstrate the identity of the mind and brain or why the materialistic assumptions of science (which are, or should be, simply adopted as a methodology, not necessarily an ontology!) should render us skeptical of dualism (or materialism for that matter). In fact, some of the most accomplished scientists of the brain have been dualists. This does not show dualism is true or false of course, but it does show that dualism is not inimical to a scientific understanding of the brain and that it is not scientific knowledge that requires its rejection. See the essay “Materialism and Christian Belief” by Alvin Plantinga in Persons: Human and Divine, published by Oxford University Press, 2007.

  • RJS

    Tim (#11),
    Emergent dualism according Corcoran’s book:
    The soul is a substance that emerges from the formation of a complex object – the brain, and is not simply reducible to the physical properties of the brain. While the soul is thus tightly connected with the body that generates it, God can keep people in existence – even after the body disintegrates. Corcoran argues that this view runs into some of the difficulties of substance and compound dualism. (Descartes’ view is substance dualism, Aquinas’ view is compound dualism.) An additional difficulty with this view is seen in the idea of resurrection and resurrection bodies. How can a soul that emerged from one body be placed into another – and why doesn’t the new body produce its own soul?
    A rejection of emergent dualism however, doesn’t necessitate the rejection of emergentism.

    The basic idea behind emergentism in the philosophy of mind is that consciousness and mentality do not appear until physical systems reach a sufficiently high level of configurational complexity. … According to emergentism, therefore, the appearance of mentality is dependent on a physical system of appropriate complexity.

    There is another feature of emergentism, namely, that mentality is, in some important sense, irreducible (it is not really something else under a different description; mentality is not, in other words, reducible to neural firings). … But the mental is a novel feature of the world, something that in an important sense cannot be reduced to the neurobiological processes that cause it and, furthermore, that can exert force on the system from which it emerges. (pp. 40-41).

    Both emergentism and emergent dualism are interesting topics to consider.

  • RJS

    Ken – definitely “causally closed” – and it is my typo, not in the original.
    The illustration about oxygen and brains is an unhelpful distraction – an illustration that sheds no light on the topic at hand as that relationship bears no reasonable relation to brain/soul on any reasonable level.
    You are right – dualism is something worth discussing. But it must be discussed in a fashion that considers all of the evidence. At this point I would ask what a soul is – what aspects of us would you consider “soul”?

  • John Sobert Sylvest

    RJS wrote that “Consciousness may some day yield to natural explanation and the Christian faith will emerge unscathed.”
    Very well done and very well said. Thanks so much for this effort and sharing these thoughts.
    I agree that the consciousness problem remains, as they call it, “the hard problem” and, whatever we eventually figure out, if we do, it will not threaten the Christian faith.
    Another thing that Hans Kung rightly points out, whatever is going on after we die, it isn’t temporal, so talk about what happens to us eventually, or in the interim, or so on and so forth, now vs later, is rather meaningless and possibilities are wide open (none that would threaten the Christian faith).

  • Frog Leg

    I have a wide set of comments, so I’ll keep each brief.
    RJS: “…the dualist and nothing-but materialist views of human persons.”
    As I said in the previous posting, this, like dualism itself is a false dichotomy. There are other metaphysical choices besides these two.
    “We have no clue what creates consciousness.”
    The problem lies deeper than that. It has been utterly impossible to even define what consciousness is, let alone how it works. And this is key to begin understanding what it is. To define something is to objectify it, to literally turn it into an Object. Consciousness on the other hand escapes all such attempts. It cannot be objectified. In the language on Levinas, it is pure Subject. In this it share much with Free Will. In fact, it seems to me that Free Will has to be considered part of consciousness–without consciousness, there is no free will.
    “Consciousness may some day yield to natural explanation and the Christian faith will emerge unscathed.”
    If this were to happen, free will would also be given a natural explanation. A natural explanation however would make Free Will a non-entity. Giving something a natural explanation means putting it in a rigid cause-and-effect framework. If there is such a causal explanation, the Will cannot be free, by definition.
    “Is consciousness a problem for materialism and an indication of the dual nature of human persons as body and soul?”
    Material objects by definition are those objects that can be objectified by means of input through our senses. If as I argued above the essence of consciousness is that it cannot be objectified, then it certainly is a problem from a purely materialistic viewpoint. However, again, a dual nature of body and soul is not the only alternative. If instead the body is that part of ourselves that can be objectified by means of input through our senses, the “rest of us,” i.e. our soul is different from the body not in essence but only in the way we know it.
    “Is consciousness an argument for the existence of God? Is it something that cannot be explained by natural mechanism alone?

    Is this the perfect place for to look for proof of God?”
    I certainly would say yes to these statements. The Bible teaches that we are made in the image of God. To look at consciousness and free will is to add depth and specificity to this teaching. In certain aspects Free Will is an “uncaused cause,” to use Aristotle’s language. Then our Free Will is the image of God as Prime Mover. Our free will is merely an image, not a perfect copy of God as Prime Mover, since we are dependent on God, but in many respect they are similar.

  • Napman

    The comparison between an immaterial mind or “soul” and the brain and the brain dependent on oxygen is meant to show that dependence does not demonstrate identity. Damage to the brain that decreases the performance of the mind does not show the two are identical, just as the brain is not identical to the lungs that provide it with the oxygen it requires to function properly. I am sorry that you do not care for the illustration but I think you may misunderstand its point-stated in my comment-that dependence does not demonstrate identity. I think my illustration makes that point.
    For further discussion see the Plantinga essay I cite in comment 12. The reason why I find a form of dualism most attractive is that I think it makes better sense of scripture, it more adequately explains our continuing identity through time and it better accounts for the things we want to say our minds do. The fact that God exists without a body does much to lessen the difficulty of envisioning our existence as having an immaterial aspect.
    If you wish, RJS, I would like to hear what philosophical and scientific objections you have to sophisticated versions of dualism.

  • RJS

    So I come back to my question. What are the characteristics of the soul?
    Are consciousness, thought, or emotion characteristics of the soul or the body? The problem I have with a dualist view is the deep interrelation. Mess with this part of the brain and thinking and emotion change. This is why I brought of the example of an experiment where signals in a specific part of the brain turn off a natural tendency to see ourselves positively, glossing over negative characteristics. Mess with a few cells or the signals in a region of the brain and the person thinks, understands, and feels differently.

  • Napman

    I find it hard to conceive of any mind capable of thought, reason, decision, perception, intentionality, consciousness, etc., to be the result of purely material objects interacting with one another. The soul to me is simply another word for these mental functions.
    I acknowledge experiments which show how changes in the brain effect changes in the functioning of the mind. There, however, is more than one logical explanation for this result. One can simply collapse the mind into the brain and say that the brain is all there is. Or one can conclude that the brain and an immaterial mind depend on one another in deep and powerful ways. The experiment does not disclose the conclusion drawn, in my opinion, but other considerations that require independent argument. It is these independent arguments that incline me to a more dualistic position.