Free Will: The Soul is the Sole Option

In my previous post, “The Existence of the Soul: Philosophy, Not Neuroscience,” I discussed one of the logical difficulties that plague physicalism’s claim that we are our brains and nothing more. I now wish to turn to what I believe is an intractable problem for those who deny the existence of the immaterial soul: the impossibility of free will.*

Remember that in the materialist/physicalist picture of the world, there exists nothing other than matter in motion, so there is no such thing as an immaterial soul. The direct implication of this is that every single neurochemical event in our brains must be the result of the neurochemical event that preceded it. Essentially, our thought processes are nothing but chemical chain reactions subject to physical environmental influences. All of our beliefs, desires, emotions, and actions are inevitable and can be comprehensively explained at the molecular level. We cannot really make conscious decisions and we cannot take voluntary actions. We feel as if we do these things with freedom, but that “freedom” is only illusory. Sure, we are conscious that we act according to a desire, but that desire is nothing more than the chemical step preceding the one that produces the related thought or action.550px-Draw-a-Brain-Step-20

In a nutshell: physicalism entails determinism and determinism eliminates any possibility of true free will; you are an organic machine running on chemical software.

In sharp contrast, the substance dualist holds that there is an immaterial soul that serves as the seat of cognition and free will. While all thought and action involves neurochemical activity, the soul is the “self” that transcends brain function and can direct some of this activity. The soul acts as an operator of sorts, one that can freely choose rational and physical actions. For example, I can choose to examine the evidence related to the existence of God, systematically apply the laws of logic to the information I have, and then choose my conclusion accordingly. But if there is no “I” to which my neurochemistry is subordinate, then my conclusion was the outcome of a chain reaction over which I had no control.

Think of the implications here. If physicalism is true, we can’t justify holding anyone accountable for their actions, because humans don’t really have free choice in anything. It would be like prosecuting a machine for doing what its programming predetermined it to do. Furthermore, the physicalist cannot claim that they reached their view by thinking through the evidence in a rational manner, because such a process would involve the ability to deliberate with total freedom. No freedom, no rationality. What a dilemma.

Isn’t it funny, then, that so many physicalists write books trying to convince others of their viewpoint? If their viewpoint is correct, no one can intentionally choose to believe it. Wouldn’t that make those book-writing efforts utterly futile? ;-)

Prager University has a fantastic short video that explains the relationship between the soul, free will, and rationality. Enjoy!

*By “free will,” I mean libertarian free will.

The Existence of the Soul: Philosophy, Not Neuroscience

In the first part of this series on the existence of the soul, “Man: Mind Over Matter or Mindful Matter?” I made the claim that “Some of the deep problems that plague physicalism cannot be solved by simply understanding the material brain better. They transcend neuroscience.” Remember, physicalism is the view that we are nothing more than our physical bodies and everything about us, from consciousness to higher rationality, can be explained by biochemical processes.[1] In philosopher-speak: I am identical with my material body. In this installment, I will discuss one of the several major problems with this view.

Many physicalists (both theist and non-theist) point to the great strides the neurosciences have made in correlating brain states (neuron firing patterns) with mental states (conscious experiences). For instance, if stimulation of brain region Q in a subject who is anesthetized but awake results in the subject reporting an experience of tasting an orange, the physicalist conclusion is that the mental state (tasting an orange) simply is an event in brain region Q. They are one and the same thing, and there is no need to posit a soul to explain the conscious experience. This is known as mind-brain identity theory.

I believe this conclusion is unjustified, and my reasons have nothing to do with the hard sciences. In fact, the problems with mind-brain identity theory would not diminish even if neuroscience manages to one day have comprehensive knowledge of brain physiology. Here I will discuss just one of the problems.

We know from the principle of identity that in order for mental events (M) to simply be brain events (B), everything that is true of M must be true of B, or else they are not one and the same thing. Reflecting upon the properties of M and B, we can see that they do, in fact, have different properties. For one thing, mental events are self-presenting to the person having them, and cannot be accessed by an outside observer (such as the neuroscientist monitoring brain events). The subject experiences the taste of an orange, but the scientist only sees neurons firing in a region of the brain and must ask the subject to report the nature of the inner experience. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig have taken this fact to formulate an argument against mind-brain identity:

  1. No physical properties are self-presenting.
  2. At least some mental properties are self-presenting.
  3. Therefore, at least some mental properties are not physical properties. [2]

In other words, we can draw correlations between physical properties (brain states) and mental properties (first-person experience) all day long, but the fact remains that they cannot be one and the same thing. Stimulation of a brain region may cause neurons to fire in a certain pattern which in turn causes the orangey taste sensation, but there still must be a transcendent self having the conscious experience. Note that those who believe that immaterial souls exist do not deny the causal relationship between the brain and mental events; rather, they argue that the physical data cannot, by its nature, tell the whole story.

millGottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), famous German mathematician and philosopher, anticipated this kind of argument with his famous mill analogy (think of the old-fashioned mills that were run by flowing water turning a water-wheel connected to gears and pulleys which operated a grinding apparatus inside the mill house). Leibniz likens the mechanical mill to the physical human brain:

If we imagine that there is a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and have perceptions, we could conceive it enlarged, keeping the same proportions, so that we could enter into it, as one enters into a mill. Assuming that, when inspecting its interior, we will only find parts that push one another, and we will never find anything to explain a perception. And so, we should seek perception in the simple substance and not in the composite or in the machine.

By “simple substance,” Leibniz is referring to the indivisible immaterial mind, which is the perceiver, the experiencer of sensations that are brought to it through sensory organs and brain events. Furthermore, he hints to the problem of consciousness, which continues to plague physicalist accounts of mind.

Ultimately, positing the soul is a metaphysical move, not a scientific one, and is a supplement to neuroscience in explaining our mental lives. Those who claim that science has made the soul superfluous are mistaken. Moreland says that

once we get clear on the central first and second order issues in philosophy of mind, it becomes evident that stating and resolving those issues is basically a (theological and) philosophical matter for which discoveries in the hard sciences are largely irrelevant. [3]

I love Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goetz’s remark in their book, A Brief History of the Soul: 

One cannot help but wonder if this alleged challenge from science against belief in the soul’s existence is much ado about nothing. [4]

Stay tuned for Part 3!


[1] For those keeping score, by “physicalism” I mean reductive physicalism; I think non-reductive versions are incoherent, but that’s a discussion I will save for another time.

[2] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (2003), 234.

[3] J.P. Moreland, Consciousness and the Existence of God (2008), 158.

[4] Charles Taliaferro and Steward Goetz, A Brief History of the Soul (2011), 152.

Mankind: Mind Over Matter or Mindful Matter?

After the question, “Does God exist?” the next most important question a human being can ask is:

“What am I?”

According to the view known as physicalsim, a human being is identical with the material stuff of their bodies. In other words, we are our bodies and nothing more; we are self-aware, animated meat inevitably destined to become dead meat.

The competing view (which I hold), substance dualism, says that man is more than the material sum of his parts. His personal identity is grounded in an immaterial entity commonly referred to as the mind or the soul, which has an interactive relationship with the physical body/brain.

Famous philosophers of the Early Modern/Enlightenment era recognized the centrality of the soul question and some of the major implications of each view. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the brilliant mathematician and Father of Modern Philosophy, said that if our nature is no different from that of other living things, then “after this life we have nothing to fear or to hope for, any more than the flies and the ants” (Discourse on Method, V). In other words, if we do not have souls that survive the death of our bodies, our existence ends at death, just like that of insects. Descartes was a Christian who strongly endorsed dualism (you may be familiar with the label “Cartesian dualism”).

A contemporary of Descartes’, another renowned mathematician/philosopher, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) also stressed the importance of the soul question: “The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us and which touches us so profoundly that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is…our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject” (Pensees, III.194). He, too, was a dualist and a Christian.

BrainContrary to what you may be thinking, not every Christian theist is a substance dualist; there are some who believe that we are nothing more than our bodies, that our minds are the sum total of our brain activity, and that we will cease to exist at death. Proponents of this materialist view maintain belief in an afterlife by postulating that the resurrection of believers at the end of all things will involve our reconstitution, complete with our same consciousness and memories. I make note of this alternative view because it nullifies the fallacious accusation, “You’re only a substance dualist because you’re a Christian.” In fact, I hold the substance dualism view because I believe it has far more explanatory power and logical coherence than physicalism. It makes better sense of what we observe about ourselves through introspection and about the external world. That it is less problematic when it comes to understanding biblical anthropology is, of course, a huge bonus for the Christian theist.

Another common misconception is that advances in neuroscience have undermined the case for the soul, or that future progress in neuroscience will close any explanatory gaps that remain. This isn’t the case. Some of the deep problems that plague physicalism cannot be solved by simply understanding the material brain better. They transcend neuroscience.

This concludes Part I of a two-part series. In my next post, I will offer examples of the problems faced by physicalism and give reasons why the soul hypothesis is a superior option for explaining  observable reality.

Christianity and Violent Self-Defense

swordThe issue of Christian ethics and the use of violence in self-defense has been hotly debated. The recent surge of hostility against Christians, including beheadings, church bombings, etc. has led me to more deeply examine the questions: Is it morally permissible for Christians to use violence to protect themselves and others when faced with an imminently fatal situation? Does Scripture have anything to say about this issue one way or the other, or are we left to extrapolate our ethic–as best we can–from examples set by biblical figures? Here I will argue that there are contexts in which violent defense is completely justified and supported by Scripture. Some preliminary discussion is in order.

First, it should be emphasized that Christians are called to love our enemies:

But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Jesus, in Luke 6:27-28)

Furthermore, Christians are instructed to be peacemakers:

Blessed are the peacemakers, because they will be called sons of God. (Jesus, in Matthew 5:9) 

The obvious conclusion from these passages is that we should go to the greatest length possible to avoid violence and achieve peace with our fellow man. Insult, robbery, or minor physical aggression are not justifications for retaliation, including the attempt to physically harm another human being:

If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks from you, and from one who takes away your things, don’t ask for them back.(Jesus, in Luke 6:29-30 ) 

Often, Christians who advocate for pacifism at all costs will often misuse Luke 6:29 (above) in making their case. Note that this verse says nothing about what we should do in a life-threatening situation, therefore it cannot be cited as support for avoiding violent self-defense. 

Another common argument employs the “Jesus example.” In the Gospel of John, we find an armed mob, led by Judas, arriving to arrest Jesus. Simon Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, Malchus (John 18:10). Jesus miraculously heals Malchus and says to Simon Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). There are two important things to note here: The High Priest’s mob was heavily armed, but Jesus’ life was not in immediate danger. The mob had not come to kill Him, only to arrest him. But far more importantly, this situation was wholly unique to the Messiah–He was acting in direct obedience, doing what was required of Him for the salvation of mankind. In parallel fashion, Jesus subsequently endured merciless scourging and Roman crucifixion.

Martyrs throughout Scripture are sometimes upheld as examples for us to follow in the event that our very life is demanded by fellow men as a consequence of our Christian faith. I believe this, too, is a flawed argument. The account of Stephen’s martyrdom, for instance, doesn’t support the idea that we should calmly submit when our life is threatened. Before his stoning began, God gave Stephen a vision of God’s glory and of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This was another unique situation, one in which God was directly communicating with Stephen, showing him that his appointed time of departure was near. Nothing in the passage indicates whether or not Stephen tried to defend himself during the stoning, though he certainly demonstrated bravery, forgiveness, and dignity at the end. The account of James’ martyrdom isn’t detailed, it simply says that King Herod had him killed with the sword (Acts 12:2). But nevertheless, the issue of martyrdom is unique and must be carefully distinguished from other cases where violent self defense is necessary.

So, what case can be made for the morally-permissible use of violence in self-defense or the defense of the vulnerable (someone who is unable to defend themselves)? The fact that human life is sacred can be easily supported by Scripture. Thus, its preservation is of the utmost importance. If an attempt is made on your life or the life of your child, and your only course of protection is to deter the attacker in a manner that could be fatal to said attacker, doing so is not only morally permissible, it is a moral duty. Though human lives are equally valuable, situations arise in which innocent life necessarily trumps that of the one attempting to wrongly take life. It should be noted, however, that this is completely different from actions of retaliatory violence.

Besides the sanctity of life, is there a more direct endorsement of violent defense of life in Scripture? Yes, and it came from the mouth of Jesus, no less. Before he was arrested, He had a serious conversation with his disciples in which He prepared them, mentally and practically, for the days to come. Things were about to change for all of them on a cosmic scale, and tremendous danger would dog their footsteps for the rest of their lives. Jesus instructs them:

But now, whoever has a money-bag should take it, and also a traveling bag. And whoever doesn’t have a sword should sell his robe and buy one. (Luke 22:36)

 I don’t believe there’s any other way to interpret this statement; Jesus knew they should be equipped with weapons of self-defense as they faced the looming persecution.

My conclusion is that violence is to be avoided when at all possible, but not at all costs. Scripture clearly supports the defense of human life “by the sword.”  In our day, most of us don’t walk around with a sword strapped to ourselves (now that would be incredibly cool), so you’re probably thinking about modern weapons. Without getting into the numerous complexities of responsible firearm legislation, I will simply say that I believe the right to bear arms for the purpose of defense is, in essence, the right to be able to preserve human life under the worst of circumstances.