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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 soul. Show all posts
Showing posts with label soul. 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.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Science Cannot Ignore Where Consciousness Comes From

"The physiologist studies the development of the first cell of each new human baby into a full-grown adult. The evolutionary biologist studies the forces which have formed the genetic structure of such a first cell. But relatively seldom do either of these scientists point out that their descriptions and explanations cover only the evolution of the physical characteristics of man, and that they give no account of the evolution of the most important characteristics of man-the characteristics of his conscious life, his feelings and desires, hopes and beliefs, those characteristics in virtue of his possession of which we treat men, and think that we ought to treat men, as totally different from machines. Most philosophers of the past four centuries have been well aware of the difference between the conscious life of a man and goings-on in his body. but their views have relatively seldom made any significant difference to the writing and teaching of biologists and physiologists.

"Scientists have tended to regard the life of conscious experience as peripheral, not central to understanding man. But there is so much and so rich human experience, and experience which is apparently continuous and is causally efficacious that this attitude will not do. His life of experience has to be taken seriously if we are to understand man."
—Richard Swineburne The Evolution of the Soul.Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007.3.

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.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Importance of the Soul

The immortality of the soul is a matter of such importance to us; it affects us so deeply that we must have lost our wits completely not to care what it is all about. All our actions and our thoughts must follow such different courses depending on whether there are eternal rewards to hope for or not, that it is impossible to take a single step with sense and judgment unless it is determined by our conception of our final end.1
~ Blaise Pascal

"I think it not only important to know that man has a soul, but that it is important that he should know that he has a soul."2
- John Gresham Machen


1.Pascal, Blaise. Pascal's Pensées. Translated by Martin Turnell. London: Harvill Press, 1962. 103.
2.J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man. New York:  Macmillan, 1937. 159.

Monday, June 15, 2015

What Should We Think About Genetic Engineering?

What does it mean to give your children the best chance at success? Would it include changing their DNA so they would never get sick? Could it include genetically changing them to make them stronger, smarter, and faster than others? Is that even moral?

These questions used to be relegated to the realm of science fiction, but as genetic technologies advance, they have become more and more real. There are already instances of people using genetic screening during in vitro fertilization.1 While this process is currently used to only identify the correct number of chromosomes in an embryo, the Guardian article states, "If doctors had a readout of an embryo's whole genome, they could judge the chances of the child developing certain diseases, such as cancer, heart disease or Alzheimer's."2

While genetic screening itself opens a host of moral questions, even more provocative is the concept of genetic engineering: changing the gene itself to either rid the embryo of a trait or to enhance natural traits such as strength or intelligence. This morning I read two articles from Christians (J.W. Wartick and ElijiahT) who outlined the issue and offered their views. They've done a good job in laying out most of the arguments, both pro and con, that you find see in the debate, so I won't rehash them here. Both are worthy of your time. But there is an aspect that neither touched on which I think is fundamental to the discussion.

Genetic Therapy and Genetic Enhancement

First, I do wish to distinguish between the two goals of genetic engineering. There is a distinction between genetic therapy, which is basically correcting a genetic defect such as Sickle-cell disease that Wartick offers, and genetic enhancement, which takes a function that would fall within the normal range and improve it. 3 Yet, even here the standard isn't so easily discernable. For example, the deaf community even today has significant disagreement whether deaf children born to deaf parents should receive cochlear implants.4 In fact, one lesbian couple sought out a sperm donor who had five generations of deafness in his family to ensure their IVF child would be deaf.5

I have some problems with the couple's approach, but it does illustrate that defining disability versus difference isn't always so clear. However, with most cases, I think a case can be made that genetic therapies fall within a Christian construct. God has given us the ability to learn about His creation and to try and alleviate some of the suffering brought on by the Fall. Treatments for maladies are currently invasive (they require surgery), artificial (stints, mechanics, etc.) and even happen in utero as with fetal surgeries. Delivering treatments at the genetic level seems to me to be only a difference in degree, not in kind.

We are More than Our Genes

I have a different concern with genetic enhancements however. In his article, ElijiahT quoted Kurt Baier writing, "The best course of action is… the course of action which is supported by the best reasons. And the best reasons may require us to abandon the aim we actually have set our heart on."6 This is a fair standard and one that I think I can use to expand the debate.

The piece missing in both articles above is that every human being is not simply a product of his or her genetics. Human beings are also living souls and God is extremely concerned with the development of the soul as well as the ability of the body. Theologians have understood that while eliminating suffering is important and Christians should help those who they can, God's providential ordering of things is also important. That's why the Psalmist writes "For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."7

Part of our fearful and wonderful makeup is our specific limitations in certain areas. These shape us into who we are as much as our ability to excel. While I personally didn't struggle academically, I wasn't a natural athlete growing up. I was very small as a teenager and didn't have much experience with a ball. However, I found sports that stressed endurance such as cross country and wrestling and I was able to do very well in both. Striving there taught me perseverance and discipline that I may not have otherwise experienced. If my strength and height were genetically enhanced in utero, I wouldn't have the soul-shaping experienced I had, which helped form my spiritual makeup and attitude.

In his post, Wartick opines, "It is unclear, though, whether genetic enhancement would undermine the good of accomplishment and human achievement. Indeed, one could argue that genetic enhancement, in fact, bolsters human achievement by widening the scope of possibility for humans."8 Physically, that may be true, but I am not sure that it would be true spiritually. While our culture overburdens the concept of diversity, there are things one can learn from those who have varied obstacles they had to overcome. Sometimes, those experiences inform the rest of us in new way. We can learn from Helen Keller.

No Genetic Lottery

So are we to leave our children to what has been deemed the "genetic lottery"? And, to extend the argument, is seeking a child's excellence through genetic enhancement techniques any different from some of the advantages certain children currently enjoy? Outlining this aspect of the pro-enhancement position, ElijiahT writes:
Parents make choices regarding the life and welfare of their children all the time, yet no one claims the autonomy of the child is being violated. Expectant mothers will regularly take vitamins (to enhance the prenatal environment), read or play music to the developing child and alter her diet, all in an attempt to give the child the best environment possible. After birth, parents deliberately choose the child's nutrition, education, entertainment and health. In fact, to neglect these things is often seen as inappropriate parenting.9
I agree. Yet, the difference is qualitative; it's one of nature versus nurture. One need look no farther than the recent Lance Armstrong scandal. No one would bat an eye if Armstrong was reported taking the best vitamins, using the best trainers, and following the best exercise and diet regimen. It was the artificial input of what should be a natural (e.g. "God-given") function of his body. If we are created fearfully and wonderfully by a holy God, it simply may be that our limitations are there to build our character and our spirit.

Escaping the Playing God Dodge

ElijiahT counters with the argument that "playing God "with another's life may be a fallback excuse: "The actions associated with ‘playing God' are usually new technologies that alter something about the human condition. In this case, genetic engineering is seen as playing God, but couldn't the same argument be used as a ‘catch-all' for anything that makes us uncomfortable?"10

Of course he's right. The objection has been used as a conversation-stopper many times. But that doesn't mean that it is always fallacious. A doctor who indiscriminately euthanizes his patients is playing God; he's taken upon himself the mantle of choosing which people are worthy of life—the province of God alone. Similarly, if God is interested in shaping us into mature souls, he may limit certain physical attributes that we would otherwise wish for ourselves or our children. These differences are not defects caused by the fall, but truly differences that God allows for our good. One shouldn't assume to modify them because we believe they are not as worthy as other characteristics.

There's an interesting scene in the 1999 hit move The Matrix, where Agent Smith tells Morpheus that human beings don't thrive in paradise. The character explains:
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.11
That's an oversimplification, but it does bring up a point. Struggle and hardship may be uncomfortable, but they are not always to be avoided. They can and often do serve to benefit believers. Holding to a "genetic lottery" assumes at the very least a deistic worldview. While we mitigate the defects brought on by sin, including Original sin, we shouldn't be so bold as to assume we can improve physical characteristics that are not defective. The Nazis sought to do that with race, but race isn't a defect. Neither are our lesser or grater physical abilities.

Without a discussion of the soul-shaping nature of bodily limitations, the questions raised regarding genetic modification is incomplete.


1. Sample, Ian. "IVF Baby Born Using Revolutionary Genetic-screening Process." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 7 July 2013. Web. 15 June 2015.
2. Sample, 2013.
3. There is also a distinction between treating someone genetically where the modified genes are localized versus recoding the person's entire DNA, as would happen at the first stages of life. Biologists differentiate the two by referring to the first as somatic genetic treatments, where the gene therapy would not be passed on to succeeding generations. Germ-line genetic treatments, however, are passed from parent to child.
4. Ringo, Allegra. "Understanding Deafness: Not Everyone Wants to Be 'Fixed'" The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 Aug. 2013. Web. 15 June 2015.
5. Spriggs, M. "Lesbian Couple Create a Child Who Is Deaf like Them." Journal of Medical Ethics 28.5 (2002): 283. Web.
6. ElijiahT. "Why You Should Genetically Engineer Your Children." ElijiahT. ElijiahT, 07 Dec. 2014. Web. 15 June 2015.
7. Psalm 139: 13-14, ESV
8. Wartick, J. W. "Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?" Always Have a Reason. J.W. Wartick, 15 June 2015. Web. 15 June 2015.
9. ElijiahT, 2014.
10. ElijiahT, 2014.
11. The Matrix. Prod. Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. By Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. 1999.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Does a Fertilized Egg Have a Soul?

A recent article in the British publication Premier Christianity asked the question, "Does individual life really begin at conception?"1 David Instone-Brewer argues conception is too early to consider the embryo or zygote a person, pointing to the fact that cells are undifferentiated and the embryo could split into twins. He notes that prior to the 14 day mark, cells are undifferentiated, therefore "the number of nerve and brain cells in the human embryo is zero, and it has less complexity than the simplest microscopic worm."

Instone-Brewer doesn't rest his argument on biology, however. He's more fair than that. He offers a theological argument as to why 14 is the magic number. He continues:

For a completely different reason, theologians might also regard 14 days as a significant starting point for individual life. This is the date before which the cell-bundle could split into identical twins or larger multiples. We don't know if God injects a fully formed spirit at some point (like Plato imagined) or whether our spirit develops while our body develops. However, we can be sure that God does not give an individual spirit to a bundle of cells before 14 days because if those cells did subsequently split into identical twins, they would have only half of a human spirit each. Theologically speaking, therefore, individual spiritual life cannot start before 14 days after conception.

What Makes a Living Thing Alive?

Here is where I think Instone-Brewer goes wrong. While it is true that a single embryo will infrequently split into multiples, Instone-Brewer seems to offer a stunted definition of what the soul is. In his explanation above, he tries to separate the soul from the growing embryo as something that God perhaps adds to the entity. Yet, he doesn't take into account what is the thing that causes the embryo to be considered a living thing at all.

Regardless of whether our soul is fully formed or develops with the body, there is something that is unique about an embryo in that it is a living entity. It is different from a rock or a piece of wood. It is even different from a human corpse. The embryo is alive. The Bible has traditionally taught that the thing that separates a living being from an inanimate object is the soul.2 In Genesis 2:7 we read, "Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." The word used for God's breathing and the word used for being are both forms of the Hebrew word nephesh which is the primary word for soul. In the Genesis passage, God fashions the body—that is, all the parts are there and read to work—but the body doesn't become alive until the soul is given to it by God.

There are several other passages that illustrate the soul as being the distinctive element separating life and death. Genesis 35:18, which recounts Rachel's death, describes her passing by recording her soul's departure from the body. Also, Elijah when raising the widow's dead son in 1 Kings 17:21 prayed "Let this child's life (nephesh) return to him."

The Difference between a Being and Tissue

Of course, someone may offer an objection at this point, asking "What about cells such as skin cultures they keep alive in Petri dishes? Certainly, those don't have a soul, do they?" Well, I would argue no. First, a soul is a single entity that relates to the entire being. Instone-Brewer is right in noting that an embryo splitting into twins would leave each with half a soul. Similarly, a sperm cell and an ovum don't each have half a soul that fuses together when they unite. This is equating the immaterial aspect of the soul with the material aspect of the cells themselves. The soul encapsulates and animates the entire person.

Because the soul supervenes upon the entire person, it can be said that the soul provides the guidance or teleos for the body to operate properly. In other words, one's body is like an assembly of musicians and one's DNA is the sheet music. However, without a conductor to regulate the system, a symphony would never be produced. An embryo and even a zygote (fertilized egg) have that conductor in the soul, which animates the organism with forward progress. It builds a body.

Contrast that with cells in a dish. There is no telos there; the cells simply continue in a mechanical fashion as long as. In fact, one can compare them to the organs of an organ donor. If you are an organ donor, you have allowed certain body organs to be taken from you after you die and transplanted into another person. The organs are not removed until you are really dead, yet certain organs can for a limited time and with intervention stay viable for longer periods. While the cells of these organs are still operational, they will also die unless they are placed within a living being where their purpose may be fulfilled.

Embryos are not like an organ simply because the telos of an embryo is to create an independent entity. One may realize this doesn't happen in 14 days (or even nine months; it takes many years before a human being can be considered fully independent), but it marks a clear distinction between that which is a living being and cells that are mechanically operational.

On the question of where the soul of the twin comes from, you can read the excellent reply Peter D. Williams writes here. However, by ignoring the theology about what makes a human being alive, I think Instone-Brewer's answer is too short-sighted.


1. Instone-Brewer, David, and Peter D. Williams. "Does Individual Life Really Begin at Conception?" Premier Christianity. Premier Christian Media Trust, 14 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.
2.. Although I offer some examples here, a much fuller argument for the soul as that which gives life may be found in J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae's Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), pages 26-40.

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.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Your Mind is Not Your Brain

Historically, Christianity has taught that human beings are creatures made up of two fundamental kinds of "stuff"—body and soul. We are physical creatures, interacting with the world around us, and we are spiritual creatures who can interact meaningfully with God and with one another. However, there is a trend today that dismisses the spiritual side of humanity and seeks to only affirm the physical aspects of our existence. Atheists, scientists, and others claim that we are only our bodies. There is no such thing as a soul. All of who we are may be explained in terms of scientific understanding. There is a big problem with this view, though. There are certain aspects of the human condition that simply cannot be explained in physicalist term, such as the attributes of the mind.

In order to better understand the problem, I'd like to look at the attributes of the mind. Whenever on seeks to classify a certain thing, it is the attributes of that thing that help us in so doing. For example, when British naturalist began to explore Australia, the discovery of the platypus gave them fits! Here was an animal, kind of shaped like a beaver with a bill and webbed feet of a duck. Further, the creature laid leathery eggs and produced venom like a reptile. How would one classify such an animal? It is because the platypus was warm blooded, covered in hair (not feathers or scales), and nursed its young that naturalists listed the animal as a mammal. The attributes of the animal help us categorize it.

Similarly, there are specific attributes of the mind which clearly demonstrate that the mind cannot be reduced to brain activity. Brain activity is electro-chemical and can be described using physical nomenclature. For example, if their instruments are sensitive enough, one could measure the amount of dopamine present in the brain or tell if certain neurons were firing at x point in time. But as Daniel N. Robinson has succinctly noted, "One who spoke of pounds of thought or volts of memory would be considered not a native speaker! Equally bizarre, at least in the area of common sense and ordinary judgments are the claims to the effect that brain tissue makes moral judgments and wishes nothing but happiness for the bride and groom."1

Here are at least five attributes of the mind that can in no way be explained in physical terms:

  1. Thoughts - Thoughts are one of the most basic elements of the mind. A thought is any idea that can be expressed in the form of a sentence. I can ask you to think about pink elephants right now and you can picture a pink elephant in your head.
  2. Beliefs – Beliefs are different from thoughts. Beliefs carry a truth value to them. If I believe that the Los Angeles kings will win a third Stanley Cup championship, then I hold the statement to be true. I currently believe that I am sitting in front of my computer right now typing this blog post. Such a belief is not hard to hold. However, I also believe that the memories I have of yesterday are true. That belief is harder to prove.
  3. Intentions – Intentions are mental events that are usually tied to some action or event. I can intend to raise my hand and my hand will rise. My intention caused m hand to go up. However, intentions are not the same thing as the action. People who suffer from Tourette's syndrome move parts of their body without intending to do so. Also, I may have intentions without being able to execute them. If my hand is tied down, I will not be able to move it, even though I'm intending to do so.
  4. Desires – Desire are primarily natural inclinations that one experiences. Hunger is the desire to eat food. Desires can produce thoughts or intentions, but they are different. They sometimes have a biological basis, but not always. One can have the desire to solve a particularly pressing math problem for example.
  5. Sensations – Sensations are how our minds comprehend sensory input from our bodies. While our ears can translate sound waves into electrical signals and send them to our brains, only our mind can have the experience that the sound is pleasing or annoying. Feeling pain or heat happen at the mental level. Even seeing the color red, one has an experience of "redness." Red has a certain quality to it that green doesn't and one cannot explain such qualities by talking about wavelengths of light any more than one cannot warn a two-year-old about burning her hand on a hot oven with talk of high energy molecules.
All of these attributes above are real and each of us has experienced them. You have had thoughts, beliefs, intentions, desires, and sensations. These things are real and, as J.P. Moreland states, they are "puzzling entities that cry out for an explanation."2 Even atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel states that mental events need to be explained Nagel holds 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"3 and the mind is one of those. He later writes that "the physical sciences will enable us to understand the irreducibly subjective centers of consciousness that are such a conspicuous part of the world."4

Tomorrow, we will look more closely at why physicalist explanations of the mind fail. But for now, it is important to realize that your mind is not your brain. It is something with different attributes, which means it falls into a separate category: the category of the soul.


1. Robinson, Daniel N. "Neuroscience and the Soul." Philosophia Christi Issue 15:1, Winter 2013.
(La Mirada, CA: The Evangelical Philosophical Society, 2013.) 13.
2. Moreland, J.P. The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism.
(London: SCM Press, 2009). 24.
3. Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Neo-Darwinian Conception of the World is Almost Certainly False.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.) 7.
4. Ibid. 42.

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.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Why Artificial Intelligence Isn't

photo by Fumi Yamazaki

I've had an off-and-on again discussion with an atheist friend of mine on the concept of the soul. Being an atheist, he routinely defaults to a naturalistic/materialistic understanding of the world and how things work. For example, he recently made the claim on my Facebook page that "The new thing that is emerging is 'machine life' (artificial intelligence). It will surpass us in intelligence." There are two claims being made in this statement, both of which I think are faulty and the first rests on the understanding of the second.  The primary claim that machines will someday be considered alive due to advances in artificial intelligence that are happening even now. The second is that this intelligence will allow machines to be smarter than us.

The problem here is one of language. We've heard people discuss sentience or intelligence as synonyms. Then, we see a new device, such as a smart phone or intelligence-assist devices and think that people are using the words in the same fashion.  But that is simply not true.  In the first sense, intelligence means to be able to comprehend the facts that are presented to you, to understand a concept. The biggest point of understanding is not the medium through which the concept is presented nor is it the reaction or outcome.  Understanding is an act of consciousness and consciousness has a specific kind of experience associated with it that machines can never have.

You see, machines simply are cause and effect loops. Given a specific input, a computer acts like any other mechanical device—it spits out a result based on preset programming.  This is true even if the programming has a randomizer built into it.  As computer programs become more complex we can be tempted to think the machines are "understanding" what is going on, but they aren't. They are merely acting like an extremely complicated Rube Goldberg machine and producing an outcome based on their prior programming.

Philosopher John Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment is a great example of the difference. Searle asks you to imagine a man inside a locked room with two slots in the wall. A Chines messenger will slip a question written in Chinese on a piece of paper through the door and in a little while the paper will be returned through a second slot with an answer inscribed at the bottom, also in Chinese.  The messenger and probably all observers would believe the man in the room spoke Chinese.  However, inside the room the facts are different.  The man actually speaks no Chinese at all. He just has a very large code book that will tell him "If this combination of characters appears on a piece of paper, then you should write this second combination of characters at the bottom and return the paper." The man inside the room has no idea what the question is or what the answer says. It is a qualitatively different experience than conscious understanding. (For a more detailed explanation of the Chinese Room and some great animation, see this page.)

This is exactly how artificial intelligence works.  Even the head of the Google Car project can teach you how to program your own self-driving car in just seven weeks. See the page at and look at the list of topics covered in the class.  All the programming features are simply rules in a code book that must be followed by the machine.  No understanding is required. The CPU in a computer is basically a Chinese Room, except the language is binary, 1s and 0s.

I don't think the label artificial intelligence will ever change; it's become too ingrained in our culture.  However, it still can be understood that the term intelligence can mean different things. If I say my cell phone is dead, I don't mean that at one point it was capable of biological life. In the same way if I say my phone is smart, I don't mean that it is capable of conscious understanding. We would do well to note the difference.
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