Are we more than matter? 1

Keith Ward, in his new book, More Than Matter?: Is There More to Life Than Molecules?, says Yes indeed. This may be the best written piece of philosophy I’ve ever read, though it is hard to outflank Elizabeth Anscombe’s famous Intention. This series on Keith Ward’s book is meant to complement RJS’s series on Joel Green’s book — and so it is appropriate for me today to begin this series on one of her days of posting — Tues and Thurs.

Which means I’ll ask some scientific questions: of the eight theories below which best explains creationism, theistic creationism and intelligent design? Which theory of humans is at work for each?

Ward begins with Francis Crick, and so shall I. Crick lays down these lines as a way of reminding us, however brutal, of who we are:

You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve-cells and their associated molecules.”

And Keith Ward, who thinks Crick’s view is philosophically and scientifically naive, ends his introduction with this riposte:

you, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are much more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve-cells, and that ‘more’ gives each personal life a significance and value that expresses and points to the ultimate meaning of the universe itself. Human persons are not accidental mistakes in a pointless perambulation of fundamental particles. They are a window into the inner reality, value, and purpose of the cosmos.

So there. Ward was a student of Gilbert Ryle, and that means he was up against the odds because Ward is a Christian and Ryle, well, he wasn’t.

Which leads him to a well-written, wry, and witty set of observations on the eight theories of the relationship of body and mind, or body and soul, or the ontology of humans. Here’s the way we work: our commonsense tells us about consciousness and about something more in who we are (person, soul, spirit, mind, etc) and it tells us that the mind can influence what is happening in the real world, and that we can explain intentions and the like. But is this all true? Are these just mental acts that do not really explain the world “out there”? Here are his eight views:

1. Phenomenalism: radical empiricism; nothing exists except sense-data. What happens is what you see; what you don’t see does not happen.The mind makes sense of sense-data.
2. Naive realism: objects do exist — continue to exist — even when we are not observing them.
3. Materialism: nothing exists but matter — publicly observable things with location in space and time.
4. Dualism: humans are made of two parts, body and mind (or soul). They normally exist together, but can exist in principle apart from one another.
5. Epiphenomenalism: minds, consciousness, and mental properties exist, but are wholly caused by brain-events, and have no causal role in the universe.

Now he enters into three forms of idealism, which means that material objects would not exist without mind or consciousness, so that mind is the primary form of reality, and causes material things to exist. “Minds are not illusory ghosts in real machines. On the contrary, machines are spectral, transitory phenomena appearing to an intelligible world of minds” (58).

6. Critical idealism: we must assume that reality is ultimately mind-like, but we cannot theoretically demonstrate it, and the material world is not just in our human minds. (Kantian transcendental idealism is another way of framing this theory.)
7. Absolute idealism: there is one Absolute Mind of which all finite minds and all matter are parts, or which that Mind generates by inner necessity. Hegel belongs here.
8. Pluralistic idealism: the theory that mind, not matter, is the ultimate reality. But there are many minds, not just one (not just the mind of God, for example).

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  • rjs


    I am interested in this book and in seeing where Ward goes in his discussion.

    I don’t think Crick was scientifically naive, but he was philosophically naive, and an adamant reductive materialist and atheist. This was is philosophical commitment that shaped all else.

    The statement that “material objects would not exist without mind or consciousness” is a philosophical position that can be nothing more than a mind game. As a Christian I think this is true because God created all, everything exists because of God. But take God out of the equation and it is not in any way deduced from input.

  • I’m a little confused by one of the final 8 points. I don’t understand how Naive Realism is addressing the body/mind or body/soul relationship. Naive realism is about whether or not we perceive the real world (at least that’s how John Searle explains it).

  • Epiphenomenalism: minds, consciousness, and mental properties exist, but are wholly caused by brain-events, and have no causal role in the universe.

    Is a waterfall ’caused by’ the cliff and the flowing water? Or is that the waterfall is the cliff and the flowing water? Something water does?

  • DRT

    rjs#1, as I understood some of the small scale physics, I thought that one of the theories is that matter does not exist until it is observed, and this observation is what brings it into being…no?

    As far as that position being a “mind game”, well, yes, that is the definition of what a mind game would be.

  • rjs


    First – “observation” doesn’t mean a mind. Second – I’ve never heard – scientifically – that matter doesn’t exist until it is observed, I’d have to know where you got this.

    An electron (to take an example) doesn’t exist at a well defined position until it is observed – and immediately after observation it stops existing at a well defined position. But the electron exists at all times – the wave function remains normalized at 1.

  • Joe Canner

    RJS #5: I think DRT is referring to a popular philosophical take on quantum physics (a la The Tao of Physics) in which Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (as you described) and Schrodinger’s Cat are interpreted to mean that matter does not exist until it is observed. While such an extrapolation may have philosophical value (as an updated version of “if a tree fell in a forest…”) I doubt if such an extrapolation has any currency in the scientific community.

  • I continue to think that some forms of idealism–if the caught on popularly–would be very difficult for Christian apologists to counter.

    I suppose the question for me ends up being, can a Christian be anything but a dualist in this list? It seems the most obvious and natural fit.

  • Interesting series coming up here, Scot. Looking forward to it. Especially because it bring to the front my Introduction to Philosophy class and a paper I wrote on George Berkeley. During my research I was captured by his “idea-ism” and his enduring statement: to be is to be perceived … the ultimate perceiver is God.

    I have blogged on this over the years and it is something that has really be foundational in how I think and act.

    It is how Christ “holds all things together” … his constant perceiving … and it is also how we find the truth: Jesus is the Truth — and his perception is the only fully true perception.

    Blessings, all….

  • Well … my link to the search results didn’t work, so I’ve put up a quick post with links to my posts — and a link back here to this conversation.

    Here’s hoping for a great discussion….

  • I wonder then … does this make me a Pluralistic Idealism supporter? I wish there was one which laid out “Idea-ism” as Berkeley did.

    Scot, do you see any reference to Berkeley in any of this book? Just wonderin’….

    Okay … gotta scoot. I’ll check back later to see how this goes. 8)

  • DRT

    rjs#5, joe#6, I agree with rjs example of the electron, and suppose that it is more of a definitional thing than anything else. But the particle/wave duality and the quantum entanglement issue make me define reality based on our existance. The cat in the box is a non-starter for me too.

    I have reached my depth on this…..

  • Scot McKnight

    Peggy, he discusses Berkeley briefly.

  • Thanks, Scot … now my curiosity is piqued! 8) For many, Berkeley is misunderstood. I will be interested to see how the discussion goes.