Some Problems with Physicalism

In an intellectual climate that values scientific research and investigation—accompanied by obvious progress in technology and medicine as illustrations of the benefits of science—it is culturally tempting to attribute to science a limitless potential. A healthy love of science can slip into scientism (the view that all knowledge is scientific knowledge), or its corresponding ontology, physicalism (that all of reality is made of the stuff accessible by the physical sciences). When applied to the mind-body question, this takes the form of monism; there is only the brain, and mental phenomena are either reducible to physical states or are to be eliminated altogether. To those who are now familiar with science shaving away (in the name of Occam’s razor) other previously cherished entities, losing the soul may not be too high a price to pay for progress. But this position is not without significant problems. What follows are some of the typical arguments raised against physicalism.

There are various lines of argumentation in favor of property dualism, which undermine strong physicalism (eliminative or reductive materialism). Consciousness involves certain properties not attributable to matter. Intentionality (to think about something) is an exclusively mental property; brain states or neurological firings are not about anything else, any more than a rock or a sand dollar can be about Russian literature. This demonstrates that there is a whole realm of knowledge that is not possible to describe in physical terms. Qualia refers to the awareness of what something “is like”—the experience of the pain of a stubbed toe or the taste of vanilla ice cream. It is possible to list, from the third-person scientific perspective, all of the physical features involved in these sensations, but the subjective experience itself is entirely missing. This is illustrated in the Knowledge Argument about the scientist Mary, who is an expert neurophysiologist who has omniscience with respect to the empirical facts about the experience of seeing color, but has operated in an absolutely black and white room for her entire life. There is obviously something missing in her knowledge about color, which is the experience of seeing it herself.[1] But to agree with this assessment is to declare physicalism falsified.

Further philosophical arguments have been advanced for substance dualism, or the existence of the soul. First, the existence of the self is best explained by the existence of the soul. That is to say, personal identity as a unified and absolute reality experienced through time cannot be grounded in the changing, diverse features of a material body. Down to the cellular and molecular level, I do not have the same body that I did ten years ago, or even ten minutes past. But I have an incorrigible belief that I have persisted through time. On the other hand, my identity cannot be located merely in my mental properties or changing ideas and memories. There must be an immaterial essence that identifies me.[2]

But it is not only identity through time that is troubling for physicalism, but also the basic awareness that I exist.[3] What is the referent for this I? No physical feature of my brain or body, or all of them combined, can serve as the antecedent for this pronoun; indeed, the fact that I speak of my brain and my body indicates that I am distinct from these things. First-person indexical statements such as “I am Evan May” or “I am enjoying my life” cannot be expressed in the third person without the loss of essential content. However, if I am a physical object, then all the facts about me can be expressed from the third-person, scientific point of view. Conclusion? I am not a physical object.[4]

Related to personal identity is the concept of free agency. Most people would operate with a recognition that they are free agents who willingly make decisions to act in certain ways. I decide to raise my hand; therefore, I raise my hand. But if ultimately there is no I beyond the (mechanistic) neurological activity causing physical actions to take place, this free agency is an illusion. Of course, this then raises the problem of who is experiencing the illusion!

Moreover, thought experiments involving disembodied minds or transembodied minds seem eminently plausible. Even if they are not physically attainable, they do not appear to be conceptually incoherent. Audiences connect with comedy films such as Freaky Friday (in which a mother and daughter switch bodies) because they have an intuitive assumption of mind-body dualism. As such, these scenarios are strongly conceivable.[5]

There is additional empirical data that is inconsistent with a physicalist understanding of mind, such as near death experiences and certain paranormal phenomena.[6] If consciousness can be experienced without any accompanying brain activity, it is evidently not reducible to brain states. Furthermore, when subjects report veridical information gained from these experiences that they could not have otherwise known, naturalistic explanations become increasingly implausible.[7]

Such are some of the objections to be raised against physicalism. But it must be recognized that arguments in favor of strong physicalism are not only unpersuasive; they are self-refuting. Take the statement, “I believe physicalism is true.” On physicalism, every word in that sentence represents an illusion, to say nothing of the proposition itself. There is no I (only the physical characteristics of the natural world), there are no beliefs (talk of such things belongs to folk psychology, not to proper neuroscience) and there is no truth (naturalism forbids normativity). Accordingly, there can be no physicalism.

[1] The Knowledge Argument was first proposed by Frank Jackson and then developed by Thomas Nagel and others. See the discussion in David J. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 103-104; 140-146.

[2] This argument is advanced in Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of the Soul (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 145-173.

[3] This is why eliminative materialists such as Alex Rosenberg deny the existence of the personal self. Cf. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), 220-241.

[4] J.P. Moreland, Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument (New York: Routledge, 2008), 182.

[5] See the discussion of strong conceivability in Moreland, 183-185.

[6] Gary R. Habermas & J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998), 155-218.

[7] Ibid., 157-172.


About Evan May

Evan May is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary and a pastor at Lakeview Christian Center in New Orleans.
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