The Decade of the Brain

Advancements in neuroscience were soon forthcoming after George H.W. Bush pronounced the 1990s as the decade of the brain.[1] Since then new brain-related discoveries have been (and are continuing to be) shaped into an overall narrative that the mind and the brain are identical. Due to these advancements, theologian Nancey Murphy writes, “neuroscience has in a sense completed the Darwinian revolution, bringing not only the human body but the human mind as well, into the sphere of scientific investigation.”[2] In other words, since the mind is the brain, science can explain thoughts and behaviors as mere neuronal activity.

As a substance dualist, I will attempt a cumulative case for showing that the mind cannot be identical to the brain. Please note, these arguments will trade on a couple of factors: 1) if it can be shown that the mind is not identical to the physical brain, then the mind is an immaterial substance; 2) If it can be shown that the mind is immaterial then human beings have souls.[3]

Our Sustained Identity

There is a fundamental problem at the heart of suggesting that we are a physical body and nothing more; that is, our body keeps changing. Think of it this way: Let’s say Joseph is 5’9” at age 32 whereas his body was only 4’9” at age 12. The cells at all levels in his body have been replaced various times over in his life such that his body is entirely different than the way it was at age 12. And yet Joseph, the person, retained his identity throughout the entire process. There was no partial Joseph or a degree of a Joseph. He was fully Joseph at every moment of his life. The physicalist who holds that the mind is identical to the body cannot adequately explain: 1) why there is a unified center of experience otherwise known as an enduring “I”; and 2) why this enduring “I” remains the same even though the body’s parts continue to change.

Intentionality of the Mind

Our minds possess intentionality; that is, we have the ability to make choices based on purposes. So, for example, I am writing this post for the purpose of giving good reasons for the soul’s existence. But, if a neuroscientist were to look into my brain at the moment of this writing, my brain states would not be for or about anything. That is because no physical state of my brain has intentionality. Physical objects, like brains, “can stand in various physical relations with other physical objects… But one physical thing is not of or about another one.”[4] Think of it this way: If Ron Burgundy was trying to sell an SUV his thought would be about the vehicle. But if a wooden podium were to stand next to an SUV, it would not be about the vehicle at all. Physical objects, like podiums and brains, cannot be about other objects; only thoughts can. And, since the mind has thoughts, it cannot be identical to the brain.

Subjective Quality of the Mind

In 1974 Thomas Nagel wrote an article entitled “What Is It Like to be a Bat?” proving that a subjective quality of the mind exists that cannot be scientifically measured. His argument can be explained this way: Imagine the future where a leading expert on the neurology of hearing also happens to be deaf. Due to the advanced neuroscience of his time, the expert knows every physical fact about the brain pertaining to the act of hearing. Suppose this expert, one day, began to hear for the first time. He would learn brand new facts that he never knew before. Nagel describes this new knowledge as the “what it is like” to hear. The philosophical implications for this are devastating. Since the expert has now learned new facts (even though he knew every physical fact about the act of hearing) then it follows that these new facts are mental facts. Since these mental facts are not identical to physical facts then the mind is not identical to the brain.

Final Thoughts

Remember: If it can be shown that the mind is immaterial then human beings have souls. I believe these arguments are sufficient to build a cumulative case for the existence of an immaterial substance apart from our physical bodies. Therefore, the question you must ask is: Which worldview (that is, the physicalist or the substance dualist) has the better explanation for our mental experiences?


[1] George H.W. Bush, “Presidential Proclamation 6158,” Library of Congress, http://loc.gov/loc/brain/proclaim.html (accessed November 23, 2013).

[2] Nancey Murphy, “Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues,” Whatever Happened to the Soul?: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, eds. Warren S. Brown, et. al (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 1.

[3] Since, by definition, the soul is the immaterial aspect of a human being.

[4] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 237.

1 COMMENT

  1. I agree with you regarding the value of Nancey Murphey’s comment, which seems to be utterly thoughtless. Not sure the phrase ‘immaterial substance’ makes sense though.

    If minds are immaterial, why would it follow that we have souls? This seems to need an argument, since it would not be only possibility.

    • Thanks for the comment, Guymax. By the way, do I just call you Guymax? Can I call you, G-max? Or GM? I like GM. It sounds managerial.

      Very simply: the soul is the nonphysical locus of personal identity (as Charles Taliaferro describes it). So, in order to show that there is a soul, I need to show that there is something nonphysical about our selves; since it is necessary for there, first, to be a nonphysical locus of identity in order for a person to have some of the features of a mind.

      Also, “immaterial substance” can make sense if, by “substance,” I’m speaking of “essence.”

  2. Thanks for asking. I may change my name sometime if it’s possible. Guy would do.

    I see that you would need to show all this, but by showing it you would have shown that we have souls, only that it is not impossible.

    I still find that ‘immaterial substance’ does not compute. It is seems to be a self-contradiction. Can something that is not material be extended? Descartes thought not.

    The Buddhist view seems more logically sound. Don’t take my word for this, since this is as deep as it gets, but it would be that there is no essence, or, if there is, it would be unmanifest. This avoids the need for immaterial substances, since there would be no substances.

    • Descartes thought not… That reminds me of the joke: Descartes walks into a Starbucks and looks at the menu. The barista asks him, “Would you like a scone to start off with today?” Descartes said, “I think not.” And he disappeared.

      That’s about as good as it gets with the jokes around here. Okay, the Buddhist says there is no essence. Then, what is the explanation for the features of the mind that are not identical to the physical brain?

      Also, if, by extension, we’re going to end up with the question: How does the immaterial soul interact with the physical body? Then let me save you the trip. I’m not sure I’ve found a satisfactory answer, Guy. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to explain how something is the case if I can simply show that it is the case. The thing that I think must be accounted for (which goes back to my first question) is: What is the best explanation for the features of the mind that are not identical to the physical brain? I say there’s two substances – physical and immaterial.

      And the Buddhist says… ?

  3. Lol. Nice joke.

    As far as I can make out, there would be two aspects of phenomena, mental and corporeal, but by reduction neither would be truly real. In short, nothing would really exist.

    We tend to see matter as substantial and real, and mind as insubstantial and somehow less real, which creates an insurmountable problem for a reductionist theory. The problem goes away if we do not reify either of them but say they are both epiphenomenal and insubstantial. Or we could say they are ‘void’ or ’empty’.

    To say they are dependently-arisen is to say they are two different things, so dualism would be correct in a way. To the extent that they exist, as appearances, they would be two things. As such they could be described as they would be for Chalmers’ double-aspect theory of information which he calls ‘naturalistic dualism’. But this would be a non-reductive theory. For a fundamental theory we would have to reduce these two aspects. For this we would have to suppose that they are merely aspects, and would not reduce one to the other. .

    I’m not convinced that there are any mental phenomena that do not have a physical aspect, and vice versa. This is pure speculation but it makes sense to me. Either way, the idea would be that as well as mental and corporeal phenomena there would be something else, and this ‘something else’ would be the origin of all apparent phenomena and mediate the mind-brain relationship. Without this extra ingredient the relationship between mind and matter would be paradoxical and inexplicable.

    For this higher level view the distinction between subjects and objects is transcended, and this completely changes the terms of the mind-brain debate. It solves many well know problems, but leaves us with the problem of trying to make sense of the solution.

    Best to read some experts on this though. I see that the Buddhist solution would work in principle, but do not understand it well enough to explain it in a trustworthy way. To do this I would need to get down to a few more lifetimes of practice.

    • I figured you’d say something like this, Guy. So thanks for putting that out there on the record.

      So here are two different views: one that observes an ontological difference between mental and physical phenomena and one that doesn’t. I’d say we leave it here and let everyone else decide what they think is true. Appreciate the comment, as always, sir! You represent your view very well.

  4. Very interesting. This also has implications for psychiatry’s claim that “mental” illness is, in fact, an illness. Our physical brains can certainly be diseased but an immaterial something cannot be “sick.”

    • Interesting comment, the Bible would seem to say opposite. Our immaterial minds can be “sick” as can our immaterial soul which is why we were in need of Savior. The Bible teaches that the result of sin not only scarred the physical nature of things but also the immaterial nature of our heart, mind, soul etc., and the immaterial aspect of our heart is deceitful. I didn’t have the time to provide verses for support of this though I will if you’d like, but according to the Bible, Jesus died so that we could be restored and worship correctly. (a lot of Bible talk there but just making a point- feel free to ask for elaboration where needed)

  5. “If it can be shown that the mind is immaterial then human beings have souls” is merely an assertion, not a logical implication. Heat is immaterial, therefore heat is supernatural? This makes no sense.

    • You are thinking of ‘material’ in the everyday sense as something you can touch but the author doesn’t intend it this way. Heat is physical inasmuch as it’s molecules moving at high velocity.

      • I think you’ve totally misinterpreted what I stated – because the very point of my criticism is based on disagreeing with the article writer “thinking of ‘material’ in the everyday sense.” “Immaterial” does not imply non-physical – and for the reason you stated. There are emergent properties in physical processes, and some of them are “immaterial.” The mind – mental processes – is an example of this, being an emergent property of physical interactions of matter and energy in the brain. The fact of the matter is that in regard to science, whether neuroscience, or psychology, or what have you, the scientific evidence is all correspondent with the mind being produced by the brain (well, in fact there are other relevant elements, because the brain is not in isolation, but is in a body providing oxygen and various chemical streams such as hormones and so on as well as information inputs from the external world, such as images through the eyes) – and no scientific evidence of anything other than this. There are numerous studies, for example, of how the mind is altered (and even fractured), and how it is altered, when various parts of the brain are damaged or destroyed – where indeed the mind can be reduced to nothing even while basic biological function is sustained in massive brain injuries where the person does die, because it’s all the parts of the brain related to producing mind that no longer function.

        Constructing vacuous word games such as about “material” and “immaterial” is quite common in the rhetoric of religious apologetics, which is precisely why I took issue with Sala’s article. I don’t actually have any problem with the word “soul” in the sense of referring to an aspect of a person’s mind (we could call this the metaphorical sense) – but the problem is with all the religious baggage that the word “soul” has, and this is the way Sala is employing it. “Immaterial” does not imply supernatural, yet this is what Sala is founding his argument on, and is precisely why it’s a bad argument.

        • Hi Steve,

          I am certainly writing from a particular worldview, but what I didn’t do was appeal to God, the Bible, or my faith. So I would caution you to assume that there is “religious baggage” in the word “soul” in this post. I can tell you (since I wrote it) that the point of the post was to establish an ontological distinction between the mind and the brain. Sure I can use this distinction later to talk about how it supports Christianity if I want to. But that’s as far as this post goes.

          If you’re the same Steve Greene that has commented before on our site then this definitely seems to be a pattern for you: importing a litany of your religious hangups into posts that are only dealing with certain, specific issues. I appreciate what you’ve offered in your comment (I disagree with most of it of course) but you haven’t actually refuted the article since I haven’t said what you think I’ve said. The only person saying “supernatural” at this point is you. I would challenge you to pay very close attention to the actual words people are saying. Because it looks like you and I agree, whether you’re a property or substance dualist, you’re still a dualist Steve.

  6. Here’s another obvious error in this article: It employs the false premise that the mind is static, i.e., that it does not change. But in fact the mind is dynamic and is literally changing constantly, every second.