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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label materialism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label materialism. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Demanding Scientific Proof for the Soul is Like Valuing a Sunset by Its Price Tag

I recently had a discussion with an atheist on where we debated the reality of the soul. During a Twitter exchange, I had mentioned the soul as a real entity. Here’s the first part of that exchange:

@comereason: Never discount the witness of the soul.

@chipsalonna: True. One should discount the soul itself until such time as its existence is proven.

@comereason: Just what do you mean when you say "proof"?

@chipsalonna: Actual evidence. Hard data. Good, peer-reviewed scientific efforts. That kind of thing. Not anecdotes. Not stories. Not feelings.

@comereason: So you want to only use materialistic tests to prove the existence of an immaterial object. And you think that's rational?

@chipsalonna: If you have verified procedures/tests for proving immaterial things exist, I'm all ears. If you don't, why should I believe the soul exists?

As you can see, my interlocutor didn’t see the inherent problem with his criteria for proof of the soul. If the soul is an immaterial entity, asking for material proof helps you in no way at all. He wants "verified procedures/tests" as proof. But what does that mean? The phrase implies that he’s still looking for some kind of scientific way to prove the soul’s existence. But science is a discipline that only informs us about the material universe. It can never test for things like good and evil, whether someone is in love, what the experience of the color blue is, or whether immaterial entities exist.

One way to think about this is to remember the premise of the film The Matrix. There, people were unknowingly trapped inside what would be considered an incredible virtual reality world. They believed they were free, experiencing the sun on their faces or walking down the street when in reality electrodes were feeding their brains with stimulus from a computer program to make them believe their experiences were real.

If we were to see the scientists trapped in the Matrix, we’d see them doing experiments and obtaining results. They would be drawing conclusions from these verified procedures and tests. But the tests themselves weren’t real because the world the scientists believe they inhabit isn’t real. The test results are part of that virtual reality program, and as anyone who has played video games can attest, the laws written in the program can violate those of the real world but still make sense within the program itself.

This does not mean there are not convincing forms of evidence for the existence of the soul. The fact that we have thoughts prove that immaterial things like minds exist and we can know that our minds are not our brains. We can show the soul’s existence through both logical argument and direct experience. Asking for scientific proof for the soul or for other immaterial things like God’s existence is a clear category error, akin to asking for the monetary value of a sunset. The sublime experience of a sunset is not something one can measure in financial terms. Economics is simply not the right discipline regarding the nature of beauty. If your criteria for believing in the immaterial is to be shown material proof, then your criteria is irrational.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Atheists Assuming Too Much from Neuroscience

Most atheists today are materialists. They don't believe people have immaterial souls and think that all of our experiences and thoughts can be reduced to electro-chemical functions in the brain. In fact, they often point to neuroscience to make their point.

In my debate against Richard Carrier he made such a claim, stating:
We can break your consciousness. A bullet can go through your brain or a surgeon can go into your brain and cut out a piece of it and you will lose that function. For e.g., there is a part of your brain that recognizes faces. We can cut that out and then you can't recognize faces anymore. You've lost a part of your consciousness. And every single thing that we do, like vision, the seeing of color, the seeing of red, is associated with a location in the brain that we can cut out, and you won't have it anymore. So we know that there is actual machinery that is generating this stuff.1
Of course, Carrier is equivocating on the word consciousness, using it only in terms of ability rather than sentience. Using the word as he uses it above, a blind man is less conscious than a sighted man while a dog hearing a dog whistle has more consciousness than any human at that moment. Obviously, such an idea is flawed.

But let's leave that aside for the moment. Instead, I'd like to focus on Carrier's assertion that we can know a certain part of the brain is responsible for us seeing red or recognizing faces. I've heard this claim many times in conversations, usually with atheists pointing to fMRI imaging of people thinking about a thing or medical studies where neurologists will point to a damaged portion of the brain inhibiting something like speech. Like Carrier above, they claim that science has proved this is the area responsible for this function and the function is therefore wholly materialistic in nature. The brain is basically a biological computer and should be understood as such.

Testing What We Know vs. Assuming What We Don't

It turns out, though, that Carrier's confidence in knowing "there's a part of your brain that recognizes faces" or whatever is over-simplistic. The case is made very well in a new article from The Economist magazine. Originally entitled "Does Not Compute," the article states how neuroscience has drawn most of their conclusions through the study of the two methods I mentioned above. However, Neuroscientists Eric Jonas of the University of California, Berkeley, and Konrad Kording of Northwestern University, Chicago decided to go a different route and test these tests, so to speak.

Jonas and Kording reasoned if the computer is an accurate analog for the brain, then they should be able to find which portions of a computer chip are responsible for specific functions by either incapacitating that portion or imaging the chip to capture activity. Since all aspects of a computer chip and its functions are already known, they could see how well these tests accurately identified the structures as those primarily involved with that function. The article states they chose a MOS Technology 6502 CPU chip, one used in early Atari games and Apple computers. It was simple enough to handle but still had a wide variety of programs and functions to be tested.

Assumptions Come Crashing Down

The results of their tests were fascinating. The article reports:
One common tactic in brain science is to compare damaged brains with healthy ones. If damage to part of the brain causes predictable changes in behaviour, then researchers can infer what that part of the brain does. In rats, for instance, damaging the hippocampuses—two small, banana-shaped structures buried towards the bottom of the brain—reliably interferes with the creatures' ability to recognise objects.

When applied to the chip, though, that method turned up some interesting false positives. The researchers found, for instance, that disabling one particular group of transistors prevented the chip from running the boot-up sequence of "Donkey Kong"—the Nintendo game that introduced Mario the plumber to the world—while preserving its ability to run other games. But it would be a mistake, Dr Jonas points out, to conclude that those transistors were thus uniquely responsible for "Donkey Kong". The truth is more subtle. They are instead part of a circuit which implements a much more basic computing function that is crucial for loading one piece of software, but not some others.

Another neuroscientific approach is to look for correlations between the activity of groups of nerve cells and a particular behaviour. Applied to the chip, the researchers' algorithms found five transistors whose activity was strongly correlated with the brightness of the most recently displayed pixel on the screen. Again, though, that seemingly significant finding was mostly an illusion. Drs Jonas and Kording know that these transistors are not directly involved in drawing pictures on the screen. (In the Atari, that was the job of an entirely different chip, the Television Interface Adaptor.) They are only involved in the trivial sense that they are used by some part of the program which is ultimately deciding what goes on the screen. 2
Of course none of this proves that the consciousness of living beings comes from an immaterial source. There are other really good reasons to believe that. The big takeaway in Jonas and Kording's research is that all the Sturm und Drang made by atheists on how neuroscience has "proved" our thoughts come from our brains is shown to be bias rather than fact. Neuroscience is in its infancy and has proven nothing of the sort. In fact, even fMRI imaging is nothing more than "a conjecture or hypothesis about what we think is going on in the brains of subjects."3

At one time, people spoke assuredly of bloodletting as the cure to various maladies. They had confidence in the science of their day. Today, people speak confidently of how much they know from neuroscience. Carrier's assertions above are just one example. One cannot simply "cut out" one area of the brain responsible for facial recognition. If atheists are as open to reason as they say, they need to stop making grandiose claims from very tenuous data.


1. The Great Debate: Does God Exist? Lenny Esposito versus Richard Carrier. Prod. Come Reason Ministries. Perf. Lenny Esposito and Richard Carrier. Come Reason Ministries, 2012. DVD.
2. "Testing the Methods of Neuroscience on Computer Chips Suggests They Are Wanting." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 21 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.
3. Nöe, Alva Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons of Consciousness.
New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. 20.

Image courtesy Gengiskanhg, CC BY-SA 3.0

Monday, October 19, 2015

I Think, Therefore God Exists

Rene Descartes is famous for his quest to identify at least one thing that was absolutely certain. He considered what he saw and what he felt, but he reasoned that his senses could be lying to him. He considered his past experiences, but he thought that it could be the case that he didn't remember them accurately or perhaps an evil daemon placed those thoughts in his mind even though they weren't real events (think: The Matrix). The more things he thought about, the more he doubted until he came to the realization that he couldn't doubt the fact that he was doubting! If doubting is going on, thinking is going on and someone has to do that thinking. Thus we get Descartes famous statement, "I think, therefore I am."

Conscious thought not only proves the existence of the thinker, as Descartes argued, but it also points to the existence of the Creator of the thinker. Materialists believe that all thinking is merely the outworking of physical processes like brain chemistry and electrical stimulation. But that view faces huge problems; it fails to explain where thoughts come from at all and why unconscious matter would suddenly have this new ability, especially given an evolutionary paradigm.

We Can't Assume Thought Just Emerges

Have you ever had a brand new thought that seems to come from nowhere? Or perhaps you held to a particular belief and you read something and it strikes you that your belief is wrong, even though the piece you're reading isn't directly related to that belief. Where do these thoughts come from? How do they appear? Why should we have them at all?

J.P. Moreland says that to simply wave off consciousness as a product of the physical functions of the brain is tantamount to ignoring the question. Mental states do not "just appear." JP says they are "puzzling entities that cry out for an explanation."1 Philosopher Thomas Nagel agrees. In his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False he explains that the goal of science is to understand just how it is that things work the way they do. Nagel states that in science there is "an assumption that certain things are so remarkable that they have to be explained as non-accidental if we are to pretend to a real understanding of the world"2

The materialist view that thoughts are simply products of brain chemistry without need of any further explanation should then be considered the opposite of real understanding. It's guesswork and it's offered because the materialist holds a preconceived bias against immaterial causes such as the soul as the source of thought.

Why Should an Organ Produce Consciousness?

 Another problem with the materialist account of human consciousness is it doesn't fit neatly into the Darwinian explanation of how complex entities arise through means of natural selection. Just how does unconscious material become conscious in the first place? When we see plants that grow in the direction if the sun, we can explain their actions through physical processes, but since it's impossible to describe mental events using physical explanations, it's impossible to offer a physical explanation for the emergence of consciousness.

This is why Darwinian explanations for the emergence of consciousness fall short. David Berlinski noted the same when he asks:
Why should a limited and finite organ such as the human brain have the power to see into the heart of matter or mathematics? These are subjects that have nothing to do with the Darwinian business of scrabbling up the greasy pole of life. It's as if the liver, in addition to producing bile, were to demonstrate the unexpected ability to play the violin. This is a question Darwinian biology has not yet answered.3
Consciousness, the ability human beings have for rational thought, cannot be explained in materialist terms. Our ability to reason separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is something that cries out to be explained and by limiting oneself to only the materialist's tools of empirical evidence gives us no explanations at all. Our senses can deceive us, as Descartes rightly reasoned. Instead, consciousness points to an immaterial aspect of who we are and the emergence of consciousness points to an immaterial origin. Minds come from minds, consciousness comes from conscious beings. The Christian argues that the conscious mind is part of the immaterial soul, created by a conscious, rational, immaterial God. Such an explanation is both consistent and sensible. Consciousness gives us reason to believe God exists.


1. Moreland, James Porter. The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism. London: SCM in Association with the Center of Theology and Philosophy, U of Nottingham, 2009. Print. 24.
2. Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
3. Berlinski, David. The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. New York: Crown Forum, 2008. Print. 16-17

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Consciousness Undermines Evolution

In his groundbreaking book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, philosopher Thomas Nagel identifies consciousness as a problem for not only the materialist (one who believes only physical/material things exist), but also the evolutionist. He makes the case that consciousness cannot be simply reduced to physical processes like brain synapses firing firstly because there is a difference between a brain state and the concept of pain and secondly because subjective experiences show that physical processes cannot explain all aspects of mental consciousness.

Nagel then focuses on the problem of the origin of consciousness, which he sees as a crucial issue. All evolutionary theories must account for our mental states if they are to be held as the only explanation for our existence. But since mental states cannot be accounted for through purely physical means, it is no surprise that absolutely no kind of Darwinian account exists other than assuming consciousness as a brute fact. This holds huge implications, as Nagel states:
What kind of explanation of the development of these organisms, even one that includes evolutionary theory, could account for the appearance of organisms that are not only physically adapted to the environment but also conscious subjects? In brief, I believe it cannot be a purely physical explanation. What has to be explained is not just the lacing of organic life with a tincture of qualia but the coming into existence of subjective individual points of view—a type of existence logically distinct from anything describable by the physical sciences alone. If evolutionary theory is a purely physical theory, then it might in principle provide the framework for a physical explanation of the appearance of behaviorally complex animal organisms with central nervous systems. But subjective consciousness, if it is not reducible to something physical, would not be part of this story; it would be left completely unexplained by physical evolution—even if the physical evolution of such organisms is in fact a causally necessary and sufficient condition for consciousness.

The bare assertion of such a connection is not an acceptable stopping point. It is not an explanation to say just that the physical process of evolution has resulted in creatures with eyes, ears, central nervous systems, and so forth, and that it is simply a brute fact of nature that such creatures are conscious in the familiar ways. Merely to identify a cause is not to provide a significant explanation, without some understanding of why the cause produces the effect. The claim I want to defend is that, since the conscious character of these organisms is one of their most important features, the explanation of the coming into existence of such creatures must include an explanation of the appearance of consciousness. That cannot be a separate question. An account of their biological evolution must explain the appearance of conscious organisms as such.

Since a purely materialist explanation cannot do this, the materialist version of evolutionary theory cannot be the whole truth. Organisms such as ourselves do not just happen to be conscious; therefore no explanation even of the physical character of those organisms can be adequate which is not also an explanation of their mental character. In other words, materialism is incomplete even as a theory of the physical world, since the physical world includes conscious organisms among its most striking occupants.1
Consciousness is a significant problem for the evolutionist. It fails to account for that thing that makes us human. Without consciousness we cannot even reason towards an evolutionary theory, yet all evolutionary theories have no plausible explanations for that very consciousness. It is much more reasonable to believe that materialistic accounts of life are false.


1. Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 44-45. Print.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

We are More than Our Brains – The Reality of the Soul

Last week I was invited to a college campus to answer questions about Christianity and the Bible. The event was hosted by the local Christian club and several members of the Secular Student Alliance were in attendance to offer their best objections. It was a good interaction.

At one point, the discussion came to ideas about the soul. The secularists held that all our thoughts, feelings, ideas, and even our consciousness could be explained by pointing to electrical signals firing across specific neurons. They claimed they knew this and that science has allowed us to see this happening. Of course, it is easy to assert such things but when one examines the details of PET scans or MRI-type imaging, we find out that the science isn't so precise after all. Neuroscientists cannot see thoughts at all. As the secular neuroscientist Alva Nöe explains, "images produced by PET and fMRI are not in any straightforward way traces of the psychological or mental phenomena. Rather, they represent a conjecture or hypothesis about what we think is going on in the brains of subjects."1 (See his fuller explanation here.)

The Problem of Physical Explanations

Given that scientific instruments cannot give us any real window into the inner workings of thoughts, I told the students that we can know our consciousness is different than simple brain activity by thinking about it a bit more. First, physical attributes can always be explained using physical descriptors. For example, if I wish to talk about why an apple has the attribute of redness, I can talk about physical wavelengths of light being absorbed or reflected on the apple's skin. If I want to explain why a computer completes a specific task, I can talk about binary code, chains of ones and zeroes that will affect the mechanical apparatus attached to it. Physical attributes can be explained using physical terms.

However, thoughts and intentions are not like that. When one asks about an intention to lift one's arm, where does that come from? Sure, you can explain the lifting of the arm in bio-mechanical terms, even if it were possible to trace the beginning of the action to an initial signal sent from the brain. But where did that initial signal come from? Why does that signal appear when you wish to ask a question but not when someone asks for volunteers to clean the bathroom? Who materializes the desire or intent to raise an arm? The electrical stimulus doesn't just appear out of nowhere; if it did we'd be raising our arms as a happenstance, which would cause quite a bit of confusion in the classroom, I'm sure! Mental attributes cannot be explained in physical terms.

The Difference Between Physical and Meaningful Descriptions

A second point is that there is a difference between physical descriptions of thoughts or ideas and meaningful descriptions. To demonstrate this to the students in attendance, I walked up to the classroom whiteboard, picked up a marker and wrote "John Loves Mary." I then wrote next to the sentence a bunch of scribbly lines that had no real pattern to them. I then asked "Is there a difference between the first writing and the second?" The class grew a bit quiet. I continued, "If I were to explain each of these writings using the language of physical and chemical properties, the sentences would appear to be exactly the same. It's the same board, the same ink, and the same kind of chemical bond that keeps the ink applied. Let's assume there is the same number of straight lines to curved lines and the same amount of ink was used. There is no way you could physically describe the sentences to show the difference between the first and second sentence. But there is a real difference between the two: the first one conveys an idea and the second doesn't."

I think this is a big problem for those who would reduce our conscious behavior to simply neurons firing and brain chemistry. Anyone can see there is a fundamental distinction in the words "John loves Mary" as compared to a scribble. In fact, the key difference doesn't even require the whiteboard. I can say the statement, I can transmit it via Morse code, or I can simply think about the sentence without it ever being physically output at all. No matter the physical medium, the central aspect of the message is consistent and remains unchanged

The Secular Student Alliance students didn't seem swayed by my arguments, but they didn't have any answers, either. They couldn't explain why the first sentence is different from the second. They had no idea where intentions or will comes from. Given that their "proof" of MRI imaging is far from conclusive, I think they need to seriously examine the fact that human consciousness requires more than a physical system to work. Consciousness is not physical; it's part of the immaterial aspect of human beings. Consciousness resides in the soul.


1. Nöe, Alva Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons of Consciousness.
New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. 20.
Image courtesy Wellcome Images and licensed via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Why Claiming “Belief is a Psychological Crutch” Backfires

I just had the opportunity to listen to a recent Unbelievable? podcast where Christian biologist Zachary Ardern squared off against Peter Atkins, debating the topic "The Case from Science For & Against God." Atkins is an avowed atheist and is steeped in philosophical naturalism and scientism. He even said near the end of the interview (about 55:35 and following) that science is really the only way to discover truth and if one isn't leveraging science as the ultimate arbitrar of truth people are "not fulfilling their human capability."1 I guess that means we should shutter all the humanities departments at the colleges as a huge waste of money!

Given Atkins' full-blown scientism, it should be no surprise that he repeatedly decried any appeal to an immaterial cause for the order and design we see in the universe as "intellectually lazy." Arden tried to challenge Atkins on this point by explaining that scientist routinely distinguish between personal and mechanistic explanations every day (such as by forensic scientists). He then extended that to say an immaterial mind could provide better explanatory power than a purely mechanistic account of how the universe came to be.

The Mind as a Physical Process

Atkins objected to even the idea of an immaterial mind as "gobbledygook." He then replied, "We know what mind is. We know that mind is the outcome of the functioning of the brain. We know that the brain is a conglomeration of interacting cells. We know that those cells work upon physical/chemical principles. So, to say that there is a kind of ‘super-mind' out there, disembodied, that can effectively do what it wants and create the material universe, I think, that's just fantasy."

Arden objected to Adkins characterization. "I think it's very fair to us that there is a distinction between personal explanations and mechanistic explanations."

Atkins quickly shot back: "Well, I agree with that, but I think to understand the personal explanation, you put your subject onto the psychiatrist's couch and you explore how they come to those… that kind of understanding."

At this response, host Justin Brierley sought Atkins to clarify that he believes all minds basically reduce down to the chemical processes that happen in the brain, and Atkins gave a non-equivocal response of "Yes, absolutely!"

What's supposed to happen on the couch?

I want to take up Atkins appeal to the psychiatrist's couch. Atkins seems to hold one who believes in God is mentally deficient. He described it as "the lazy way of answering the big questions" and derided theism throughout the interview. So, Atkins claims anyone who settles on the answers to the origin of the universe by positing an immaterial mind should undergo psychiatric evaluation to uncover the false basis for their belief.

The charges that believers are mentally deficient and rely on mental fantasies have been around since Freud began making them himself.2 But here's the question I would pose to Atkins and other materialists: What is supposed to happen on that couch? Certainly Freud, who was also a materialist, believed that through psychoanalysis a person could change their beliefs. But what is this thing that's doing the changing? If our beliefs are ultimately a product of those physical/chemical reactions, then how can a person will to change anything? Further, how can person A declare person B's physical/chemical processes in the brain as defective if it's simply person A's physical/chemical processes that brought him to that conclusion?

You Can't Change Mechanistic Minds Through Ideas

You can quickly see the problem. If Atkins (and Freud) really believes that the mind is an outproduct of mechanistic laws and chemical reactions, there is no way to know if Arden's or Atkin's processes are those that are functioning correctly. Given the sheer number of theists versus atheists, one may conclude that it is Atkins that needs to seek the couch. But further, the assumption that theists are deluded and they can somehow become undeluded by working through their problems and talking about their feelings makes no sense, either. Certainly we can now change brain chemistry through drugs, but is that what Atkins and other materialists are really proposing? For any action or belief another person does that you don't like, give him drugs to change his brain chemistry. How rational is that?

Peter Atkins has a problem with his understanding of what a mind is. His appearance on Unbelievable? and engagement with Zachary Arden shows he wishes to change minds by making his case. But that very act contradicts his fundamental understanding of what the mind is and how it functions. By appealing to the psychiatrist's couch, Atkins denies the very materialism he claims. To me, holding on to two such disparate viewpoints is, well, crazy.


1.Brierley, Justin, Peter Atkins, and Zachary Arden. "The Case-from Science For & Against God." Audio blog post. Unbelievable? Premiere Christian Radio. 15 Aug. 2015. Unbelievable? 10 Sept. 2015.
2. Nicholi, Armand M. The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. New York: Free, 2002. Print. 38.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Why it Is Reasonable and Scientific to Consider the Soul

A 2008 article in the magazine New Scientist by Amanda Gefter criticized several Christian philosophers for rejecting a purely physicalist account of consciousness. However, Dr. Angus Menuge provides a compelling rebuttal as to why it is both reasonable and scientific to consider a human being as one who is made up of both a body and a soul:
At any given time, scientists should infer the best current explanation of the available
evidence, and right now, the best evidence from both neuroscience and rigorous philosophical analysis is that consciousness is not reducible to the physical. Churchland’s refusal to draw this inference is based not on evidence, but on what Karl Popper called "promissory materialism," a reliance on the mere speculative possibility of a materialistic explanation. Since this attitude can be maintained indefinitely, it means that even if a non-materialist account is correct (and supported by overwhelming evidence), that inconvenient truth can always be ignored. Surely the project of science should be one of following the evidence wherever it leads, not of protecting a preconceived materialist philosophy. Isn’t it that philosophy—the one that constantly changes its shape to avoid engagement with troublesome evidence, either ignoring the data or simply declaring it materialistic—that most resembles a virus?
Gorra, Joseph. "EPS Philosophers Respond to New Scientist Article On 'Creationism' and Materialism."  EPS Blog. Evangelical Philosophical Society, 23 Oct. 2008. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why Our Culture's Value of Feelings Will Be Its Downfall

How much do your feelings matter? Are they the most important thing in deciding whether you're living a successful life? Many people think so. Just this week Ezekiel Emanuel, the director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, published an article in the Atlantic saying that death at 75 should be the goal for healthy living.1 After that, he will refuse testing and treatment—including simple things like flu shots or antibiotics—and seek to take on death where it may be found. His reasoning? Emanuel says, "I want to celebrate my life while I am still in my prime" and he simply thinks that after 75his life would no longer be good, but simply "succumbing to that slow constriction of activities and aspirations imperceptibly imposed by aging."2 Emanuel sees the good life as the one in which he feels good.

 Emanuel's reasoning is an example of what sociologist Pitirim Sorokin called the Sensate culture.  Writing in the early 20th century, Sorokin noticed that cultures seem to be aligned into a couple of dominant types: societies that emphasize the spiritual aspects of existence and believe in things such as religion, transcendent values and morality above the physical he labeled "Ideational." Those who devalued or dismissed the spiritual and held the material world as the true reality and the guiding principle of life he labeled as "Sensate".3

Sorokin stated that we are not only in a Sensate culture, but one that is falling apart due to its own excesses. John Uebersax quotes Sorokin in saying:
In the twentieth century the magnificent sensate house of Western man began to deteriorate rapidly and then to crumble. There was, among other things, a disintegration of its moral, legal, and other values which, from within, control and guide the behavior of individuals and groups. When human beings cease to be controlled by deeply interiorized religious, ethical, aesthetic and other values, individuals and groups become the victims of crude power and fraud as the supreme controlling forces of their behavior, relationship, and destiny. In such circumstances, man turns into a human animal driven mainly by his biological urges, passions, and lust. Individual and collective unrestricted egotism flares up; a struggle for existence intensifies; might becomes right; and wars, bloody revolutions, crime, and other forms of interhuman strife and bestiality explode on an unprecedented scale. So it was in all great transitory periods. (BT, 1964, p. 24)
The "passions and lust" that Sorokin mentions above were stated in more detail in a book he published entitled The American Sex Revolution. Written in the 1950s, well before the age of the Pill and free love, he writes, "every phase of our culture has been invaded by sex. Our civilization has become so preoccupied with sex that it now oozes from all pores of American life.... Whatever aspect of our culture is considered, each is packed with sex obsession."

And Sorokin nails the last seventy years. According to Russell Nieli, his book predicts basically all the social ills we face today:
The harmful trends that Sorokin described in his book, many of which were cause for only moderate concern in their own time, would become much more extreme in subsequent decades, and today are generally acknowledged as a major source of social and cultural decline in what is not inaccurately described as a "post- Christian" West. These include declining birth rates and diminished parental commitment to the welfare of children; vastly increased erotic content in movies, plays, novels, magazines, television shows, radio programs, song lyrics, and commercial advertising; increased divorce, promiscuity, premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexuality, spousal abandonment, and out-of-wedlock births; and related to these developments, a growing increase in juvenile delinquency, psychological depression, and mental disorders of every description. So extreme have some of these trends become, particularly since the late 1960s, that many today can look back nostalgically upon the 1950s when Sorokin issued his warnings as a period of great social stability, "family values," and dedication to traditional Christian understandings of sex, marriage, and child rearing.4
Our culture's overemphasis on sex is a result of its overemphasis on the material, to the detriment of the spiritual. Truth is relative and life isn't lived for a higher purpose, but for those things that makes one feel good, the result being that society devolves into self-pleasing beings who only see value in whatever feels good. Thus we get someone like Emanuel, a key bioethicist who was one of the chief architects of Obamacare stating that he thinks prolonging his life after 75 is a waste. Is that important? Does it worry you?

Our Sensate culture cannot continue, according to Sorokin. I think he's right. By valuing the material over the ideational, Sorokin says that we have set ourselves up to either perish or change. Which will it be?


1. Emanuel, Ezekiel J. "Why I Hope to Die at 75." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 17 Sept. 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
2. Ibid.
3. Uebersax, John, PhD. "Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin." Satyagraha. Satyagraha, 19 Aug. 2010. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
4. Nieli, Russel. "Critic of the Sensate Culture: Rediscovering the Genius of Pitirim Sorokin." The Political Science Reviewer. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. 266.
Image courtesy Tom Morris. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why Evolution Cannot Produce a Mind

Yesterday, I posted an article declaring how the mind is a fundamentally different kind of thing than the brain. I wanted to follow up with a couple of possible objections to the mind/brain distinction that people offer today. The first objection is known as emergence and its proponents claim that the mind, while different from the brain, emerges as the brain grows in complexity. Thus the mind is distinct from the brain but it is the evolution of the brain, growing more and more complex, that eventually produced the first mind.

Emergent properties are familiar in both science and philosophy and they basically mean that the whole cannot be described solely by describing its parts. For example, we can talk about a snowflake by its chemical composition. A snowflake is comprised of nothing more than H2O in a solid state. However, describing the chemical bonds that create H2O does not describe a snowflake. The snowflake is something more specific than the chemical reactions of H2O, and thus a snowflake is an emergent property of H2O. Flocks of birds, molds, even societies are used as examples of emergence, where these things are different than the sum of the parts. 1

Materialists will then use this kind of description to say that the mind may be an emergent property of the brain. It exists because the brain's chemistry and electrical pathways are arranged in a specifically complex fashion. Just as the molecules of water or the grouping of people to form a city emerges as a new property that didn't exist in that entity's building blocks, so the mind emerges as a new property of the brain's makeup. Thus, they claim, the mind is a real property but it comes from the physical structure and function of the brain. No soul is required.

The Problems with Emergence

The explanation sounds good, but there are several problems with the claim that the mind is emergent. First, in a complex system where new properties emerge, those new properties fall into the same domain as the system's constituent parts. In other words, any physical emergent system will produce emergent properties that can be described physically. Water may have properties that hydrogen and oxygen lack such as the ability to crystallize into a snowflake. However, a snowflake is still describable by using the chemical language of solid/liquid/gaseous states and crystalline structures. The components are physical and the new property is also physical. Likewise, cities emerge from groups of people getting together and choosing to live a certain way. People are sociological and cities are described sociologically.

The mind however produces mental properties. As we've said, mental properties are non-physical. Therefore there is still a difference in kind in the property one is trying to account for. How does one account for non-physical properties from purely physical substances?

Secondly, emergence runs into the problem of impotence. J.P. Moreland notes that if the complexity of the brain produces a mind "like fire produces smoke or the structure of hydrogen and oxygen I water 'produce' wetness," then the mind is nothing more than an effect of the brain and it therefore has no causal powers. J.P. writes that if this was the case, "mental states are byproducts of the brain, but they are causally impotent. Mental states merely 'ride' on top of the events in the brain." 2

If this is true, then we cannot change our minds, really. We can only dance to the electro-chemical reactions that are happening in our heads. In other words, we have no free will whatsoever! We are simply victims to whatever processes our body and any outside events that we come in contact with cause. We are not making decisions, but our brains, like so many dominoes falling in a row, are just following the rules of chemistry and physics. The mind is simply the smoke, but it's the fire of neurons in the brain that's doing all the work.

The self-refuting nature of a material view of self

Because a purely material origin for the mind leads to determinism, such a description can be seen as contradictory. J.P. quotes from H.P. Owen who says:
Determinism is self-stultifying. If my mental processes are totally determined, I am totally determined either to accept or reject determinism. But if the sole reason for my believing or not believing X is that I am causally determined to believe it I have no ground for holding that my judgment is true or false.3
I think Owen and Moreland are right here. Much like the argument from reason, trying to relegate our conscious awareness to the physical becomes a fool's errand of determinism and contradiction. Such suggestions really don't explain why unique properties of the mind exist and it leads us to conclude that no one really makes any free choices. That's an awful lot to give away in order to escape the necessity of the soul.


1 For examples of emergence as used popularly today, see this slideshow provided by the PBS science show Nova.
2. Moreland, J.P. and William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downer's Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 2003.240.

3. Ibid. 241.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Why Your Mind Cannot Be Your Brain

When I was a child, my mother used to look in at the clutter of room and exclaim, "How in the world can you leave your room in such a mess? Have you lost your mind?!" My mom's statement was hyperbole. She was expressing both disapproval with my living in a way that contradicts appropriate practice and bewilderment at why I would even want live in such a state of disarray. It simply made no sense to her how a teenage boy could say he cared for his things while treating them as such. Of course a lot of this was simply immaturity expressing itself through laziness. Today, it does not take a pole vault to get from my door to my bed.

However, I fear that our today culture is in danger of losing our collective minds. As I've stated before, we live in an age where science is lauded above all else. With the overemphasis on science comes a presumption of materialism—that is that the material aspects of ourselves are the only things that are real or they are the only things that really describe us and our actions. Neuroscientists scan the brains of serial killers, looking for some physical trace as to why those individuals would commit such heinous acts, even if the findings show that they themselves have the same physical traits as the killers!

The problem is that while modern scientists assume that brain scans are all we need to understand the mind, no one should make the mistake that the mind is the brain. The mind is something completely different than the brain and one can see that in several ways.

Mental states are fundamentally different than physical states.

First off, when we talk about the mind, we are referring to things called mental states. These include thoughts about something, experience, will or desire, intentions and things of this sort. A serial killer has intent to hunt and kill a victim even before he does so. After News Year's Day, many of us change our eating habits because we have an intent to lose weight, so we conform our actions to our intent. Notice that biologically, the drive to eat would make sense. We feel hunger. But our intention overrides that natural feeling and we curb our eating anyway.

Things like thoughts, ideas, desire, intention, and will are qualitatively different from brain states. A thought contains content that is not physical at all. Think of the sentence "I think, therefore I am." That sentence holds an idea, a concept that doesn't exist physically. If you are reading this on a computer right now, you cannot understand the sentence in the least bit if you were to measure its length and width on your screen. Neither will it help you if I explained the inner workings of my computer and told you how electrons traveled from my keyboard through my CPU, how data is stored on servers on the Internet and how it's delivered to your device. None of this tells you anything about the sentence, what it means, or whether its true. The idea is independent of the mechanism by which it is delivered. The idea is understood by the mind, regardless of how it was perceived by the senses and brain.

Because ideas are fundamentally different, we must recognize that they are not physical, and the same is true for thoughts, desires and other mental actions. It makes as much sense to say that my intent to lose weight rests 4.5cm from my right ear near my cerebellum as it does to measure the letters on your screen to understand a sentence. Mental states simply cannot be described using physical descriptors. That should be a tip off that mental states are fundamentally non-physical. The working of the mind, therefore, is not the same thing as the working of the brain. The mind is an immaterial aspect of a person. Thus, a person must be made up of material and immaterial components. That part of a man that is immaterial is the part Christians identify as the soul and the mind is one part of a man's soul.

In the rush of science to reduce knowledge to those things that are physical, they have run roughshod over the idea that the mind is distinct from the brain. Brain scans are supposed to tell you your thoughts, even though such a process is completely incapable of so doing. Such a concept bewilders me as much as my messy room confused my mother. It shouldn't be considered appropriate practice and I believe it reflects a level of ignorance and immaturity among its adherents.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Don't lose yours in the hype.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

If We're Only Our Bodies, Life Is Meaningless

What is the thing that makes me me? I found an interesting comic on the Internet the other day that does a great job in unpacking one of the problems of the materialist position that all we are is the sum total of our physical makeup. You can read the whole thing here, (it's rather long) but I will summarize.

The comic depicts a day where science has finally invented a machine to transport objects instantly from one location to the other. Think Star Trek. Of course, everyone hails this great technological feat, but at least one man, the protagonist of the strip, is disturbed. The comic states:
The machines did more than transport people. They also killed them. Since the machines didn't use exactly the same atoms in exactly the same position, what arrived on the other side wasn't the original but only a copy. However, because the copy had the memory of the original's past, it believed it was the same person.
The man is disgusted at the wholesale death that people were accepting for the sake of convenience, which he deems immoral. He eventually meets the inventor of the machine and confronts him on such wanton disregard for human life. The inventor counters by answering, "My boy, surely you don't think that 'you' are the individual atoms of your body, do you? One carbon atom is the same as the next! And your body itself flushes out and replaces atoms all the time, yet you say nothing of copies. 'You' are not the atoms in your body but the pattern of the atoms." The man realizes now that every day he awakes his atoms are different. He dies every night as he loses consciousness and a copy wakes in the morning with the memories of the past. The man goes into an existential crisis.

The question of identity that the strip portrays is one that has a long history in philosophy, going back to ancient Greece. Known as Theseus' Paradox, it is usually represented as a ship piloted by Theseus whose weather-worn components are replaced one at a time until eventually there are no original parts. Is this still Theseus' ship? What if one were to take all those original pieces and reassemble them right next to the repaired ship? Which would properly be Theseus' ship now?

What is the Essential Element?

Both the transporter machine and Theseus' paradox ask the question of what makes up the essential element of a thing. If we are only a pattern of atoms arranged in a certain way, then can two specific identical patterns of atoms both claim to be the same person? The comic assumes that our material nature is really all there is to us. Our consciousness and our memories are what inevitably come from a specific arrangement of those atoms. That means the mental reduces to the material, and you can recreate a consciousness by duplicating the specific material components.

As the comic shows, if this is true then life can be seen to be meaningless. What one does doesn't matter since a real you doesn't continue through life, but a bunch of copies. When viewed through a materialist lens, there is really no meaning to life at all. However, Christianity offers an answer to this dilemma. The Christian view of humanity teaches that we are not merely the assembly of atoms. Human beings have not only a body but a soul, an immaterial aspect of ourselves that stays the same throughout our existence. The soul is not replaced bit by bit. It is fundamentally the same thing. The soul is our essential self. While humans are made to be both body and soul, it is in our souls where our conscious selves reside. Even when we sleep, our souls continue and we don't cease to be.

Implications of a Soul

The idea that each of us possesses a soul has incredible implications. It not only provides continuity in this life (I am the same person tomorrow when I awake and I am today), but it gives us an understanding that people who are born without things like arms and legs are still fully valuable as human beings because they do not have less of a soul. It helps us understand why unborn human beings are valuable individuals. It also helps us to understand that what we do in this life matters because even if our material elements are destroyed in death, our souls will continue on.

J. P. Moreland has quoted J. Gresham Machen who said, "I think we ought to hold not only that man has a soul, but that it is important that he should know that he has a soul." We can clearly see why it is so important. If we are to take the materialist position, we are entirely consistent to believe there is no meaning to anything at all and there's really nothing to live for. But because we are body and soul, God has given us real meaning for this life as well as for the next.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

G.K. Chesterton on Materialist Beliefs

"For we must remember that the materialist philosophy (whether true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion. In one sense, of course, all intelligent ideas are narrow. They cannot be broader than themselves. A Christian is only restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted. He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian; and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be an atheist. But as it happens, there is a very special sense in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism. Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel. 
"The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts."
Taken from Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy (New York: Image Books | Doubleday, 2001) .18-19.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Thomas Nagel on Why Materialism Fails to Explain Reason

Is reasoning ability based in only biology? We have sense perceptions, such as sight or taste, and those could be explained by the need for survival. But reason isn't like the senses.  Reason is a very peculiar thing and something that doesn't come about by use of the senses. It is different than that. For example, I may have a sense perception that I see water in the distance. I can see rippling waves on the horizon and I may assume that rippling waves mean water is present. However, once I reach that place where I thought the water to be, I see that all that lies before me is dry, barren desert.

If all I have is my sense perception, I would be caught in quite a pickle. Should I believe my senses when they tell me water is in a place or should I believe them when they tell me there is no water here? It is here I use something different than my senses to break the tie: I use reason. I can reason that while I've associated wavy ripples with water, there may be other things that cause the effect of wavy ripples that I saw. I can also reason that my senses have misled me in the past; I've seen optical illusions that are not real, though they appeared to be. I can therefore draw a conclusion that there is no water and the wavy ripples may have in fact been an optical illusion just like others I've experienced.

In all of this, reasoning has an objective quality that stands above sense experience. To reason is to shoot at an objective criterion: the truth. The truth lies outside the individual and can stand in contrast to things like sense experience. Your sense experience may tell you that the sun circles the earth, but by reason and knowledge you are able to understand that it is the earth that is circling the sun.1 This fact is as true in ancient times, when it wasn't believed, as it is today when nearly everyone believes it. The truth is, then, something that stands apart from the organism while sense experience is something subject to the organism.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel draws this distinction as well. He states:
"Thought and reasoning are correct or incorrect in virtue of something independent of the thinker's beliefs, and even independent of the community of thinkers to which he belongs. We take ourselves to form true beliefs about the world around us, about timeless domains of logic and mathematics, and about the right thing to do. We don't take these capacities to be infallible, but we think they are often reliable in an objective sense, and that they can give us knowledge. The natural internal stance of human life assumes that there is a real world, that many questions, both factual and practical, have correct answers, and that there are norms of thought which, if we follow them, will tend to lead us toward the correct answers to those questions. It assumes that to follow those norms is to respond correctly to values or reasons that we apprehend. Mathematics, science, and ethics are built on such norms."2
In in his recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong, he looks at the problem of deriving reason from a materialist position. He first dismisses the attempts to reduce reason to some property held within the elementary particles that make up the organism. He writes that rationality "cannot be conceived of, even speculatively, as composed of countless atoms of miniature rationality."3 He then underscores the point that reasoning is something different than just cause and effect relations. Cause and effect relations are what computers do. If you feed the computer an input, it will, by the nature of its programming, produce an output. There is no understanding that happens.

In rejecting these options, Nagel says any explanation of reason that reduces it to merely matter, chemistry, and physics is increasingly unlikely. He writes, "This would mean that reason is an irreducible faculty of the kind of fully formed conscious mind that exists in higher animals, and that it cannot be analyzed into the mind's protomental parts, in the way that sensation perhaps can be."4 Thus Nagel, an atheist himself, rejects the materialistic explanations for reason and says that some new explanation is needed.


1. Copernicus used reason and geometry to show the earth rotated around the sun. It wasn't until Galileo that there was new observational data to confirm Copernicus' model. See J. L. E. Dreyer History of the planetary systems from Thales to Kepler. 312-316. Available online at
2. Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.71.
3. Nagel. 87.
4. Nagel. 87-88.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christian Megathemes: Thinking Less About Stuff and More About God

We've recently been looking at the Barna Group's findings of six Christian Megathemes—dramatic shifts in beliefs, attitudes and actions of the Christian church—that have emerged in the last ten years. The trends are not healthy, and in this series I seek to provide some recommendations on how both churches and individuals can be proactive in reversing them. Click here to read previous entries.

Theme #3: Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.

The third megatrend Barna discovered is that American Christians, especially young Christians, tend to minimize the intangible aspects of their lives like developing a deeper and more meaningful faith for the more tangible and material. They report:
When asked what matters most, teenagers prioritize education, career development, friendships, and travel. Faith is significant to them, but it takes a back seat to life accomplishments and is not necessarily perceived to affect their ability to achieve their dreams. Among adults the areas of growing importance are lifestyle comfort, success, and personal achievements. Those dimensions have risen at the expense of investment in both faith and family…. Practical to a fault, Americans consider survival in the present to be much more significant than eternal security and spiritual possibilities. Because we continue to separate our spirituality from other dimensions of life through compartmentalization, a relatively superficial approach to faith has become a central means of optimizing our life experience.
While Americans have always been known for their pragmatism, I feel that this shift is significant and different. The desire to get things done and accomplish goals is not bad in and of itself, and it has helped grow our country. But that desire should always be guided and guarded by understanding that there are bigger ideas to which we are beholden. Growing a strong agricultural economy is good, since it feeds people and raises the standard of living. But if such an economic model relies on slaves, then it should be abandoned. The bigger idea of all human beings having equal value outweighs economic concerns. Therefore, giving up the pragmatic approach to slave-driven agriculture and facing an upheaval in the economic model of the South was necessary.

As Christians, we should always judge our actions and desires in this way. Paul instructed the Thessalonian church that they should "Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good" ( 1 Thess. 5-:21). But, the only way one can measure anything is by a standard against which they may compare it. As C.S. Lewis noted, one cannot tell what a crooked line is unless one first has a some idea of a straight line. Barna noted part of the problem when he wrote:
The turbo-charged pace of society leaves people with little time for reflection. The deeper thinking that occurs typically relates to economic concerns or relational pressures. Spiritual practices like contemplation, solitude, silence, and simplicity are rare.  (It is ironic that more than four out of five adults claim to live a simple life.)
This is a huge problem with the practice of Christianity in the modern world. The noise of this present age has trained us to be uncomfortable in quiet reflection. Try this experiment and see how you do – the next time you have to travel for some distance, say 30 minutes or so, turn off the radio or iPod and any other distractions.  See how long you can go without needing any distracting stimulus to counter the silence so you can think. Most people will get very uncomfortable after less than ten minutes in such circumstances.

Paul, when writing to the Colossian church instructed them to start thinking more circumspectly about matters of faith. "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." (Col. 3:1-2) We need to relearn how to be quiet and train our minds to think about specific thing very deeply; we need to be intentional in concentrating on the things of God. By avoiding wrestling with ethical and theological questions, we are doomed to hold a very superficial view of both Christianity AND life. That is not only sin, it is a travesty of living.

Tips on becoming more spiritually reflective and less superficial

For the individual:
  • Set aside some devotional time each day, with some of that time reserved for reflection. Start with smaller quantities of tine, say 10 minutes, and gradually increase it as you become better at reflection.
  • Don't try to rush through your devotional reading, but think about different ways the verses may apply to you.
  • Start journaling or blogging. Writing down your thoughts forces you to express them in a cogent manner and the act of writing gives you more time to see if what you feel is really what you mean.
  • Pick a book that's a little above you intellectually. Determine to not only read it, but to understand it. This may require additional helps, such as commentaries or reference works. That's OK. The goal is to stretch yourself.
For the Church:
  • Pastors need to stress the concept of thinking through passages of scripture.  This doesn't come naturally, so your congregation will need to be trained on how to do so.
  • Preach the importance and the scriptural commandment of developing the Christian mind.
  • Rather than simply preaching against the superficiality of the world, we need to model how to think through issues. Hold an apologetics class or a Sunday School class and offer up some real ethical dilemmas. Talk through each aspect of the choices people may make.  Here's a good example from a Harvard philosophy class.
Image "American way of life" by AnaïsFernandes - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
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