Evidence for Christianity – Consciousness, the Soul, & the Will

Posted: January 21, 2013 in Apologetics, Arguments for God's Existence, Atheism

Blue Lit Brain

“Why naturalism fails to explain matters of the mind”

Following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, western culture experienced an enormous shift in its foundation of thought. Darwin proposed a purely naturalistic mechanism to account for the diversity of life on earth, eliminating the need for a deity of any sort. Beginning in the science department, it was not long before the ripple effect of naturalism infiltrated nearly every other hall of the academy. If the naturalists were correct – no god exists and the universe is nothing but matter and energy – each area of study must be rewritten on these terms, from science and philosophy to history and ethics.

Naturalism, as with any worldview claims, must correspond with reality on all levels; therefore, every subject of study must submit to naturalistic presuppositions. If contradictions and incoherence arise (i.e. a naturalistic version of a subject fails to correspond with reality), the worldview as a whole is undermined and alternatives must be sought. I aim to show here that naturalism faces serious challenges from the field of metaphysics, specifically issues of the mind, and that Christian theism provides a more coherent system within which to makes sense of reality.  Readers will perhaps find this evidence against naturalism more compelling than any other, for it deals with what we each know best, our own personal experiences and selves.

The Problems of Mind

The existence of minds and the complexities associated present the naturalist with a host of problems. These difficulties can be separated into three main categories: consciousness, the self (or soul), and the will. In the remainder of this article, each will be examined and shown to be serious threats to the naturalistic worldview.

The Problem of Consciousness

Consciousness can generally be defined as what you are aware of from the first person perspective, usually consisting of one of the following states: sensations, thoughts, beliefs, desires, and volitions. However, consciousness can also be described in the following four ways. Phenomenal consciousness is the raw experiential feel of being awake. It is the “what it is like” of a particular event. Epistemic subjectivity is possessing direct access to my own conscious states; it is the ability to introspect. Although a neuroscientist may have more knowledge of my brain states than me, he can never achieve a greater knowledge of my mental life than me, for only I have access to this. Ontological subjectivity refers to a conscious state always being associated with an “I” – they belong to a subject. Access consciousness is having second order thoughts about first order thoughts, that is, conscious persons can think about their thinking and other mental states. This type of consciousness gives vividness to our experiences.[1]

So what implications does this have for the naturalist? Although he believes in a world comprised solely of matter and energy, consciousness seems to point to an immaterial self that observes the physical world. So what has been offered by the materialist to counter this threat? The most common response is to state that consciousness is nothing but an illusion (Daniel Dennett is one proponent of such a view). On this view consciousness is just the outworking of physical processes, therefore there really is no first person perspective, just chemical reactions. Does this claim have merit?

According to Leibnitz’s law of identity (i.e. if x has a property that y doesn’t have, then x and y are not identical), if consciousness is nothing more than brain states, then what is true of brain states must be true of consciousness. But this certainly is not the case as shown by the following examples. Thoughts can have the property of being true or false, but brain states do not possess this property. Thoughts don’t have geometric or chemical properties but brain states do. Thoughts have intentionality (an of-ness or about-ness) to them, a quality that brain states lack. Finally, neuroscience itself – the study of brain states – relies on first person reports, the very thing neuroscience does not have access to. For these reasons and others, we can affirm the immaterial reality of consciousness, and if true, naturalism suffers another crippling blow.

The Problem of the Self/Soul

The Christian view of persons claims that each individual possesses a soul, a collection of faculties such as the mind, the will, emotions, the senses, etc. The soul is the “you” of you, the essence of your humanity without which you would not be human. Naturalists on the other hand deny the immaterial soul, claiming we are nothing more than a collection of material parts. Among the many arguments for the existence of the soul, two should be mentioned.

First, I am not capable of being divided into parts like material objects. For example, if I were to lose all my limbs, I would still be Jordan; therefore I am not my body. I may even lose a portion of my brain due to a surgery, but I would still be 100% me – not just partially me. Although unprovable, this intuitive notion of indivisibility seems to point to an immaterial essence or soul, an unacceptable conclusion for naturalists.

Second, human beings seem to posses a particular essence or soul that endures through time, a self that experiences change and events. As I reflect on my own life events, it appears the same self, not some collection of different selves, experiences all these events. Since the naturalist denies the existence of the soul, they must adopt an aggregate view of humanity where persons are nothing more than a collection of material parts. But since there is no essence or self, the material aggregate changes identity with every physical change, creating challenging ethical problems. Consider someone who commits a crime and then is convicted one year later. Is it truly fair for the convicted felon to serve jail time for a crime committed by a different, non-identical human? The convicted felon could rightly say, “It was not me who committed this crime but anther man.” Certainly one can see the chaos that would result from this materialistic view of humanity.

Finally, and perhaps most interesting, is the binding problem. When our sense receptors begin collecting data from the material world (sights, sounds, etc.), different parts of the brain in geographically different locations process this information. Colors are processed in one area, shapes another, etc. Yet when we “see” in our mind’s eye, we have a unified field of vision – a unified experience. What accounts for this? Who or what is doing the collecting of this data from the different regions of the brain, putting it together, and then giving you (whoever “you” is) a unified picture of the world? The soul provides an adequate explanation for this phenomenon.

The Problem of Free Will

The final, and arguably the most crushing problem for naturalism is that of the will. Morality, ethics, relationships, debates, rational discourse, the learning process, and nearly every other aspect of human life hinge upon the notion that people posses a will to choose. Without the ability to choose, humans are reduced to machines, automata that receive inputs and produce outputs. But the ability to make a choice presupposes a self who does the choosing, an unacceptable conclusion for the naturalist. So how might the naturalist respond? How do they reconcile this problem?

Those who seek to reconcile the intuitive notion of free will within a naturalist worldview often resort to a view known as compatibilism. Compatibilism states that things outside your control determine everything you do; while you are free to follow your desires, you are not free to desire what you want. They would argue that persons have the hypothetical ability to choose differently, but nevertheless they never do, for one always acts on their strongest desires.

This should strike the reader as nothing more than philosophical slight of hand. Compatibilism makes free will an illusion and makes determined, materially based desires the efficient cause of action. But they have done nothing to solve the problem of free will, rather they have only pushed it back one level. At the core, humans are nothing more than a can of coke – fizzing over due to chemical reactions inside the can.

If the naturalist chooses to accept this position, another problem has been created, that of self-refutation. If choices are nothing more than the result of prior chemical or neurological causes, then the naturalist “chooses” to hold his position of naturalism and compatibilism not because of a free choice based upon evidence but based upon his chemical reaction. He has therefore undercut his entire argument and committed intellectual suicide. Why should anyone believe the truth-value of a chemical reaction? Additionally, how could a Christian be faulted for his belief in free will, since it was only a reaction that led to that belief? So if compatibilists are correct, we could never know for sure. In fact, can we even be said to know anything at all?

Problems of the Mind: Conclusion

As evidenced by consciousness, the soul, and the will, the naturalist has severe problems trying to account for these realities. Efforts to avoid obvious conclusions force the naturalist to embrace counterintuitive and even self-refuting positions. They must deny free will, eliminate the “you” of you, and reduce your mind to a chemical chain of proverbial dominos. For the rational thinker, this seems too high a price to pay. There must be a better alternative.

The Christian Alternative

If Christianity is a true and accurate description of reality, it must be able to account for the truths discussed above, namely the existence of mind, soul, and will. Regarding mind, first consider God as described in the Bible – a rational, moral, and immaterial being. Human beings are created in his image, therefore we posses many of the same attributes. We choose because God chooses. We think because God thinks. We are moral beings because God is a moral being. We are, at our core, immaterial beings, just like our creator. Christianity can explain the mind, consciousness, and the will because it claims these phenomena originate in the creator God. Where naturalism falters, Christianity seems to offer supreme explanation, an explanation consistent with Christian doctrine and the experience of reality.

Jordan Tong

[1] These definitions were given by Dr. J.P. Moreland during a lecture given at BIOLA on January 11-12, 2013.

  1. Adam Darrow says:

    What you have identified are primarily difficulties concerning a naturalistic worldview, not falsifications.

    The problem of consciousness.
    You misrepresent the naturalist argument by saying brain states should be equivalent to thoughts. Cognition is a vastly complex process, and what we would think of as being a “thought” would have to be the result of an immense number of brain states. Your argument here is against a straw man.

    The problem of the self/soul
    Addressing your points as you lay them out:
    1. “Seems to point to an immaterial essence”? Could it not as easily be the case that your personality is preserved in material form? If you lesion the frontal lobe (think Phineas Gage) or the amygdala, “you” changes radically. This is direct evidence of the naturalist’s case that what we consider to be a soul is indeed no more than what we are materially. Your counterpoint is to suggest that an intuitive notion of “self” argues for an immaterial essence?

    2. Again, this is only a difficulty. This “soul” that endures through time is as easily found in the areas of the brain that store memories. Non-naturalist perspectives should have a difficult time explaining phenomena such as false recovered memories without appealing to natural causes. How can a memory be implanted in a soul that endures?

    3. The “unified experience” can easily be explained as being the high-level experience of the system as a whole. A central executive, in cognitive terms. There is no need to suppose the supernatural is occurring here.

    The problem of free will
    Your position here is that if there is no free will, if all is determined, then one cannot evaluate the evidence as one is simply the output of chemical processes. This is a non-sequitur, as it cannot be shown that even if thoughts are predetermined in some sense, they do not have bearing on the truth. Further, whether or not we can know anything for certain has no bearing on what is actually true.

    The Christian Alternative
    The Christian explanation offers no explanation. Saying “God did it” tells you nothing of how he did it. Saying “the soul endures” tells us nothing of how, where, or why it endures. A Christian perspective has no power in revealing further knowledge of what we experience as ourselves. Meanwhile, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and others unravel more of the mystery every day without the assumption of a soul. Your argument takes the form of a “god of the gaps” fallacy where mysterious aspects of the self are attributed to supernatural causes because we don’t have complete natural explanations yet.

    • Jordan Tong says:

      Adam, thanks for the response. Hopefully I can respond to all the issues you raised. To do so, I will start with the last comment about “god of the gaps.” A god of the gaps argument is identifying an unexplained aspect of nature and then appealing to God as the explanation because I can’t find the natural one. This is not what I am doing. I am showing the challenges the mind creates for naturalism (not that it is a certain defeater) and then offering up the Christian worldview as a better alternative. I’m trying to point out that Christianity has greater explanatory power regarding issues of mind. If I was going to make a cumulative case for Christianity, I would take a step by step approach and examine the whole of reality and show Christianity to be superior than other worldviews in explaining each aspect (e.g. origin of universe, morality, fine-tuning, beauty, purpose, evil & suffering, etc.).

      The Problem of Consciousness – I’m not following you here. How am I misrepresenting the naturalist position. A thought, on their view, ultimately boils down to brain states (one or many) or some other physical process. All of the problems I raised regarding the law of identity would relate to any physical process you postulate, regardless how complex. So I hardly see how I am attacking a straw man.

      The Problem of Self/Soul
      (1) I agree that we are affected by our brain states and damage to our brain affects alters the physical abilities of “you.” But I would argue that these are just accidental changes, but the human essence, the “you”, remains unchanged. This discussion wades into the deeper metaphysical waters of essence, identity, etc.. But given the strong intuition of self, I think the burden of proof rests on you to overturn this notion.

      (2) Regarding your objection here, I would resort back to the what was discussed on the consciousness section (i.e. identity).

      (3) Check out wikipedia to look more into the binding problem, for it is a legitimate problem. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binding_problem

      The Problem of Will – You say, “Your position here is that if there is no free will, if all is determined, then one cannot evaluate the evidence as one is simply the output of chemical processes. This is a non-sequitur,” This would boil down to what you mean by “evaluate.” If determinism is true then we do not evaluate – we process, like a computer. Evaluating is something unique to minds.

      You say, “…it cannot be shown that even if thoughts are predetermined in some sense, they do not have bearing on the truth.” I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “have bearing”, but if your thoughts are predetermined, you personally could not know that you know the truth. It is possible that your predetermination could give you truth values, but you could not know this for sure. What you cannot do (as a determinist) is act is if you are able to parse through the arguments and then pick which one is true. If free will is an illusion, you are just reacting, not identifying truth. Your response to me would be nothing more than a chemical reaction as is the response I’m now typing to you.

      You also say, “whether or not we can know anything for certain has no bearing on what is actually true.” I would agree with this statement.

      Again, I am just arguing for what seems intuitively the case. The burden of proof would rest on you to show otherwise, and that seems to me a tough task.


      • Adam says:

        Thanks for your resply. I guess I’ll write my response in the order in which you present yours.

        “This is not what I am doing. I am showing the challenges the mind creates for naturalism (not that it is a certain defeater) and then offering up the Christian worldview as a better alternative.”
        Exactly. You’re saying that naturalism has a tough time explaining particular aspects of the human experience, therefore it must be the case that we have a soul. It does not follow. You can reject naturalist explanations all you like, but the rejection of these ideas does not entail a soul, least of all a soul as described by one particular religion.

        “I’m trying to point out that Christianity has greater explanatory power regarding issues of mind.”
        As I alluded to in the conclusion to my response (which you either fleetingly addressed or did not address at all), I fail to see how a Christian worldview can tell us anything about the truth of our experience. Studies into the activation of populations of neurons, modeling of neural networks, fMRI and EEG studies are all unveiling the complexities of processing information. Instead of just asserting repetitiously that Christianity has better explanatory power than the tools of science, you would have to show this to be the case. Instead, what you have are statements about the nature of a soul and of an individual that are entirely subjective. If Christianity can tell us so much about the mind, why have we learned so little about its machinations in the last 2000 years? I’d submit to you it is because there is no test that can be done, no logical proof that can show that any statement made about a human soul holds more truth than any other. The Christian explanation offers no explanation unless you can show otherwise.

        “I hardly see how I am attacking a straw man.”
        Very well, let me rephrase. Your use of Leibnitz’s law of identity argues that thoughts are different than brain states, but no one would disagree with that. A solitary brain state of course does not give rise to a complex thought. You’ve dissociated thoughts and brain states, but you have not shown that thoughts are in any form independent of the physical properties that give rise to them. What is a thought without a brain? So far you have not spoken to that issue. Thus, you have no basis to say “we can affirm the immaterial reality of consciousness” from this argument.

        “But I would argue that these are just accidental changes, but the human essence, the “you”, remains unchanged.”
        Yes, I suppose this depends on how “you” is defined, and we’ve clearly defined it different ways. To me, “you” refers to the human organism. Brain lesions change the personality drastically, and I consider that alteration meaningful. Without knowing how you define “the human essence”, your position is unfalsifiable.

        “But given the strong intuition of self, I think the burden of proof rests on you to overturn this notion.”
        I feel obliged to point out your attempt at shifting the burden. “Having a soul” is not a default position to take, regardless of how culturally-reinforced the notion is. The default is not claiming anything. You have claimed the existence of souls and I am criticizing your argument for the existence of souls. The burden rests squarely on you. Strong intuitions do not change that.

        I guess the same dependencies apply on the consciousness argument, as you pointed out in your response. I will again point out the peculiar notion of positing some supernatural essence that endures as the self, when we can easily show where in the brain memories are stored and retrieved. What is a soul to do when these areas are lesioned and the soul has no access to memories and personal experiences? Surely, if there is a soul or essential essence, it’s no help to patients who have suffered severe brain trauma.

        It is a legitimate problem, but positing the supernatural is not a legitimate solution to this problem, as it still cannot show *how* having a soul fixes this problem. The explanatory power is limited to “the soul does it”, which solves nothing of the details of this problem. Our understanding of the binding problem in the brain would still be exactly as it is now.

        The problem of will
        “Evaluating is something unique to minds.”
        Only if you define it in such a way as to presuppose that conclusion (petitio principii).
        The rest of the problem of will I don’t even pretend to think I can tackle here. What I attempted to say was that regardless of whether the position of not having free will is self-defeating in some sense, it does not mean that there is free will or that free will is guaranteed by God. That is a separate proposition altogether that does not rest on whether determinism is ironically determined.

        “Again, I am just arguing for what seems intuitively the case. The burden of proof would rest on you to show otherwise, and that seems to me a tough task.”
        Again, no. You put forth an argument, and I criticized your argument. Your intuition doesn’t change that.

    • Jordan Tong says:

      Adam, I’m going to do my best to pare down the topics to the essentials.

      (1) I am not saying that naturalism has trouble, therefore it follows Christianity is true. I am saying that on this particular point (the mind) Christianity can do a better job. It does not follow that Christianity is true or that naturalism is false. As someone who has struggled with my worldview, the approach I think is best is a cumulative one. Which worldview does the best job of explaining the whole of reality. The mind is just one piece of that puzzle. So I want you to see that I am not trying to overstate my case here with this one post.

      (2) Regarding the who “burden of proof” issue, I guess we can just agree to disagree. I did make the argument – you are correct – but it is the naturalist position who seems to counter what seems obvious to most and what has historically been the belief among philosophers (until Darwin). Denying the immaterial self (it seems to me) is like denying that the external world is real. You better have a strong case for it to overturn what seems obvious to most. Now I realize that we can debate over what is “obvious” and that will turn into a discussion about our presuppositions (naturalism or supernaturalism). Therefore, as I stated, we will just have to agree to disagree.

      (3) You seem to imply that if I cannot explain “how” the soul works than I have not offered a viable solution. This seems to me to be begging the question that naturalism is true. You want me to offer some mechanical explanation for an immaterial entity. Science (answering the “how” questions) can only take us so far in a conversation. From there, we move into the realm of philosophy. All that I am attempting to point out in the first part is that naturalism has much difficulty and this seems to point to a self/soul. All that I want to show is that this fits nicely into the teachings of the Christian worldview. Not only is there no contradiction, but there is great coherence with what has been historically taught in Christianity (long before philosophy of mind became a subject of study).

      (4) You say, “You’ve dissociated thoughts and brain states, but you have not shown that thoughts are in any form independent of the physical properties that give rise to them. What is a thought without a brain?” You allude to this same line of argument in other comments you made – since our thoughts/consciousness/self are tied to our brain, that they are, in fact, the brain. I do not deny that all of these things are intricately tied to the brain, but identity is not correlation or cause/effect. That was the main thrust of my argument. Regardless of what physical mechanism you postulate, the law of identity causes problems for naturalism.

      (5) We can play word games all day long, but at the end of the day determinism is a self-defeating position. William Lane Craig offers a nice summary: “Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed. There is a sort of dizzying, self-defeating character to determinism. For if one comes to believe that determinism is true, one has to believe that the reason he has come to believe it is simply that he was determined to do so. One has not in fact been able to weigh the arguments pro and con and freely make up one’s mind on that basis. The difference between the person who weighs the arguments for determinism and rejects them and the person who weighs them and accepts them is wholly that one was determined by causal factors outside himself to believe and the other not to believe. When you come to realize that your decision to believe in determinism was itself determined and that even your present realization of that fact right now is likewise determined, a sort of vertigo sets in, for everything that you think, even this very thought itself, is outside your control. Determinism could be true; but it is very hard to see how it could ever be rationally affirmed, since its affirmation undermines the rationality of its affirmation.”

      Thanks again for the challenging response. Challenges always help me clarify my thinking and eliminate any error I may have slipped into. Feel free to chime in on any of my posts.


  2. Debilis says:

    Brilliant points!
    Thank you for adding this to the conversation; it is much needed.

  3. C--- says:

    True! If naturalism was right then every day I woke up I would be a different “I” with the memory of another “I”.

  4. […] body and soul. For an in-depth argument of why this view makes the best sense of reality, check out this link. For now, let’s just describe this basic distinction between soul and body. Your soul is the real […]

  5. […] body and soul. For an in-depth argument of why this view makes the best sense of reality, check out this link. For now, let’s just describe this basic distinction between soul and body. Your soul is the real […]

  6. donsalmon says:

    “naturalism” is a weasel word coined to avoid admitting that nobody anymore knows what “matter” is, and nobody can agree on any definition of ‘physical” except “it’s not mental’. So let’s be honest and call it physicalism, which is not a positive statement about the nature of anything, only a creed that dogmatically asserts (without the possibility of a single item of empirical data, much less proof of any empirical or logical kind) that the foundation of everything is a non-living, non-conscious, non-intelligent mystery.

    Now, under that definition, not only does physicalism completely fail to enlighten us in any way about the mind, it offers us nothing, no insight, no explanation, about virtually anything.

    All we know consists of a world of subjective (meaning alive, conscious, experience) reality. It is entirely the responsibility of the physicalist to show us why we should accept his non-provable, non-empirical utterly faith based belief system.

    If you need any more proof of the absurdity of physicalism, even if you accept the many universes theory (a completely made up theory whose only real justification is it avoids the inevitable requirement for some kind of intelligence prior to the Big Bang), you still need to justify how it is possible that laws of physics “emerge” at some point and are sustained.

    I can’t go into the reasons why – intellects far superior to mine have shown us this with the utmost clarity for thousands of years (but if you want a simple version, google “Freya Matthews” and her writing on laws of physics) – but simply put, in a mindless universe, even if by some utter miracle some subatomic particles “emerge” (another weasel word that tells us nothing) there is utterly no reason, no logical way to understand how they could possibly continue to act in a predictable way.

    In a mindless universe, the only logical thing that could possibly appear (not that anything could “appear” in a mindless universe, since the very word “appear” implies an observer to whom it appears) would be total chaos.

    That’s not a bad place to start, Jordan. You can infer the whole of the essence of Christianity from this, and not fear any reprisals from mindless physicalists!

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