Do We Have Souls?


Plato taught that the soul is a simple immaterial thing that relates to the human body (brain included) as a captain to a ship. The person is a soul, the bearer of all psychological capacities and the fount of purposive action. It has a body as a vehicle for acting upon this world, until death severs its ties and it continues on forever, as something that is naturally indestructible and so immortal. Recent evidence suggests that Plato wasn’t spinning out an entirely novel idea. People, it seems, are ‘natural-born dualists,’ natively disposed to think of themselves as entirely separable from their bodies. But others have thought differently about the soul. Plato’s own, more empirically-minded student Aristotle held that the human soul is the distinctive ‘form’ of the human body, different in kind from the souls of other living things in conferring capacities such as rationality. However, at death, the organization of the body breaks down and so with it the soul, the living body’s form, ceases to be.

Zoom ahead from ancient Athens to 17th century Europe. Many took the success of the new mechanistic and reductionistic approach to physics to leave one with two stark options regarding the soul. The first, argued by Descartes, is a softened variant of Plato’s mind-body dualism. The material world ultimately consists in material particles wholly governed by mechanical laws of motion. The human soul is an immaterial substance, but (departing from Plato) its existence and proper functioning intimately depends, causally, on the healthy functioning of the brain. It is not naturally immortal; if it survives death, it must be a consequence of God’s sustaining it apart from the body. We still have a sharp dualism: bodies large and small generally operate according to principles distinct in kind from those according to which souls/minds do. Their convergence in the human brain has to be taken as a brute given, a contingent connection perhaps established by the power of God. The other option, one that grew in popularity over time, was de la Mettrie’s reductive image of ‘man a machine.’ It is essentially Descartes’ picture of reality minus souls. According to it, human persons, no less than inanimate chunks of the physical world, can be entirely understood (in principle) in terms of the interactions of the body’s basic parts. Psychological states that Descartes assigned to the soul are here taken either to be epiphenomenal—having no influence on other psychological states or bodily behavior—or as (somehow) consisting in complex states of the brain.

Many contemporary thinkers follow de la Mettrie in dismissing philosophical and religious talk of “the soul” as having no place within our ever-growing scientific knowledge concerning the embodied natures of human persons. But insofar as there is more than one notion of the soul, it may be no less misleading to state simply that there “is no such thing as the soul” than it would be to affirm its existence without qualification—one may be taken to deny not only unwanted associations but also others that one embraces or (as I will suggest) should embrace. Let us take a different, rehabilitative tack and use the word “soul” as a placeholder for whatever underlies the constellation of capacities of thought, emotion, and agency that we observe in mature, fully functioning human beings. Then our question shifts from the categorical Do we have souls? to the open-ended What is the nature of ‘the’ soul (or ‘ensoulment’) and its current and future limits? This way of posing our question invites us to consider answers lying between the extremes offered by Descartes and de la Mettrie.

With many, I take mind-body dualism of Descartes’ sort to be implausible. We have had an explosion of relevant information from evolutionary and developmental biology and cognitive neuroscience. This information, while still incomplete and only imperfectly understood, sheds light on the deep natural history of humans and present-day animals; the processes by which individual organisms of any species develop from inception to maturity; some of the function-specific neural structures and processes that sustain and help regulate the unfolding first-person perspective of conscious agents; and finally, observed correlations between increasing complexity of neural structures and increased psychological complexity (in organismic development and across sentient species). This information does not comport well with the two-substance or dualist metaphysical account of human persons. The fundamental problem is that our sciences point to highly continuous processes of increasing complexity, but the two-substance account requires the supposition of abrupt discontinuity. The coming to be at a particular point in time of a new substance with a suite of novel psychological capacities (awaiting only physical maturation in the body in order to become activated) would be a highly discontinuous development, both in large-scale bio-geological time and within the development of individual organisms.

However, de la Mettrie’s reductionist vision is even less plausible than mind-body dualism: conscious states of experience, thought, emotion, and purposive agency are our most immediately accessible empirical phenomena, and consequently they lie at the root of all our understanding of the world around us. We are not simply given the world to our understanding; we are given most immediately our experiences of it. To deny this givenness is to cut off the branch on which scientific understanding sits. And, while not self-defeating, the claim that all such experiential and belief states and purposive intendings just are enormously complex neural states or processes is also deeply implausible. We have direct, first-personal acquaintance with properties of these states that are manifestly different in kind from the hierarchically-structured physico-chemical properties of the brain states that are the most plausible candidates for such an identification. Just consider the feeling of a sharp pain or of coming to understand a complex scientific idea; how a red rose looks to you in bright sunlight and then later at dusk; the confident, considered belief that Beijing is the capital city of China; the thought that it is doubtful that there is life on Mars; and your conscious decision to pick up some milk on the way home. Each of these conscious states have distinctive intrinsic features, immediately apprehended by their subject, that in no way resemble the sorts of features science attributes to complex neural states

If neither dualism nor reductionism is plausible, what might a middle way alternative look like? Start by noting that the reductionist ‘atoms in the void’ conception of nature came under fierce scientific challenge in the twentieth century, and is growing ever stronger. (For a sampling of evidence from diverse contemporary sciences, see the Feb 2012 themed issue of Interface Focus: A Journal of the Royal Society entitled ‘Top-down Causation: An Integrating Theme Within and Across the Sciences?,’ co-edited by cosmologist George F.R. Ellis, systems biologist Denis Noble, and myself.)

Despite such evidence, De la Mettrie’s reductionist vision has had a tenacious hold not just on the beliefs, but also on the imagination, of many scientists and philosophers. They have lost sight of the ‘Aristotelian’ alternative. Aristotle’s specific philosophical account of objects as form-matter compounds is no more appealing to many of us than are his antiquated physics and biology. But his broader nonreductionist, nondualistic vision is very much worth developing in contemporary terms. A number of scientists and philosophers attracted to this vision have latched onto the term “emergentism,” and I will follow them here. But we should be careful to note that this term has meant different things to different thinkers. Here I mean a view on which human persons, other sentient animals, and possibly a wider array of complex systems are wholly materially composed while having irreducible and efficacious system-level features. These features are originated and sustained by organizational properties of the systems (in animals, by properly functioning brain and nervous systems) while also having in turn causal influence on components of the system in its evolution over time. That is, emergent systems involve an interplay of ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ causal factors. While they are not fundamental building blocks of the world in the way that fundamental particles or Descartes’s souls would be, they nonetheless are natural unities, causally basic entities.

The difference between reductionism and emergentism is empirical. The reductionist posits the bold and sweeping thesis that all organized phenomena in our world are wholly fixed or determined by comprehensive micro-physical patterns constrained only by global features such as the topology of spacetime. The emergentist recognizes that such fundamental-level physical laws apply everywhere, but holds that they are incomplete: corresponding to some kinds of organized complexity there are additional laws, interfacing with the fundamental laws, that are no less basic, though they have application only in limited contexts. These laws identify holistic properties of specified system kinds and describe both the preconditions and causal impact of their occurrence. This is nothing objectionably strange or ‘magical’ in such a layered picture of physical reality as against the ‘flat’ picture of the reductionist: both are pictures of the world as law-governed and causally unified, open to scientific exploration and description. Hence, deciding whether our world manifests emergence should be a matter of empirical evidence, not a priori presumption or bias in favor of the tidiness of reductionism. For many of us, the evidence, particularly when it comes to human psychological phenomena, points strongly in favor of emergentism.

And now I return to my question: What is the nature of the human soul? What we know from our own subjectivity and agency, evolutionary biology, and the emerging sciences of brain and behavior point in the direction of human beings as wholly materially composed individuals—yet composed individuals of a very special, emergent kind. We are living bodies, dynamically changing parts as all bodies do, but bodies with psychological and moral (and perhaps spiritual) capacities that do not reduce to the outworkings of a vast network of impersonal physical particle interactions within the human brain. To have a human soul, on this account, is to be an embodied creature having (in some measure) such personal capacities or the biological potential to develop such capacities.

Is this account congruent with religious understandings of the nature and destiny of human souls? In remarking briefly on this question, I will restrict myself to the understanding common to my own Christian belief and those of the other Abrahamic religions. Reflective theological speculation concerning the soul down through the centuries has not been so nearly uniform as popular thought, with many theologians emphasizing on scriptural no less than philosophical-empirical grounds the deeply embodied nature of human persons. (It is not for nothing that the ancient Christian creeds, e.g., look forward to the bodily resurrection of the dead.) However, we might wonder whether a psychological, fully embodied account of the soul is consistent with the belief that all persons are deemed of ‘equal worth in the sight of God,’ given that some human persons exhibit these psychological capacities to a far lesser degree than others. By way of reply, I turn to the foundational Genesis text that states that all humans are divine ikons, image-bearers of God. Plausibly, this is not only describes our present distinctive capacities for rationality, for self- and God-awareness, for moral freedom, and for self-emptying love, it promises a future gift: the offer of friendship with God and an eventual, fuller realization of our human potential. From this point of view, we are all in the process of becoming fully human: beyond a descriptive biological-psychological notion of human nature lies a teleological one—a telos not of nature but of God’s loving purposes for us. Despite our unequally born deficits—physical, cognitive, emotional, and moral/spiritual—we are all destined for a fuller, supernatural realization of our common nature.

Of course, this promised destiny is predicated on the assumption that we will individually survive death. But how can this be, on an embodied view of the soul, given what death entails for the body? Note that in the Abrahamic religions, human persons are not naturally immortal. (Indeed, all of created reality is sustained in existence by God.) Survival of death would be a supernatural gift. Alas, we don’t (yet) get to see the miracle in action of God’s transporting us into another form of life and we have not been vouchsafed an account of how it goes. Thus, all we can do is speculate. Philosophers have done plenty of that, but there’s no space here to survey some of their ingenious ideas. But, to get you started, note that no particular bits of matter are essential to any living thing—biological life is continual change. And on the emergentist account of embodied persons, what survival would require is sufficient psychological continuity embodied in a minimally materially continuous but changing process. And with that, I offer a teaser: if God could endow the particles of my body (or some crucial subset of them) with the ability to fission into separated spaces, and arrange for this to occur just at the moment of my demise, then maybe…

 Questions for Discussion:

What do the non-Abrahamic faiths suggest about the nature of the soul?

Is religious faith necessary in order to accept the idea of a soul?

How do recent scientific developments inform the understanding of what makes us human?




Discussion Summary

“Do We Have Souls?”

By Tim O’Connor

The first thing that our discussion brought home to me is the enduring popularity of mind-body dualism. While many contemporary scientists and philosophers often dismiss this account of human persons, one should recognize that it provides in some respects a much clearer account of our data than anything currently on offer (my own emergentist view included): how an individual can be one and the same person over a lifetime of gradual but cumulatively dramatic physical and psychological changes; why it is so easy to imagine ourselves existing apart from our bodies (nobody claims to readily imagine this for, say, chairs); how it can be that conscious awareness and thinking are so qualitatively different from either simple or structured physical states; and for those who take certain religious ideas as data, how we might survive death.

That allowed, I also think the mind-body dualist account should be resisted. Sometimes the right answers are not always the easiest to grasp. Mind-body dualism solves these problems, in effect, by taking the being of persons as metaphysically primitive (an immaterial soul). All ontological analysis must end somewhere, so metaphysical primitives are not objectionable in principle. But, as I noted in my essay, what we now know about the correlation of mental and physical complexity within organisms and the gradualist picture that evolutionary theory provides render implausible taking human persons as metaphysically primitive entities.

I think of emergentism as marrying the strengths of mind-body dualism and what we might call ‘straight’ materialism. With the former, it contends that the seemingly evident fact that conscious and intentional mental states are very different in kind is to be taken at face value: they are different in kind. With the latter, it maintains that human persons are wholly materially composed and that mental capacities and properties arise in tandem with physical changes in the brain, developmentally and dynamically in mature brains, and that brain states support mental states, not vice versa. (Although mental states can causally influence brain states.)

Some of the commentators essentially point out that this emergentist account only outlines a sketch of how we might bring mind and matter together. Alas, that’s all that philosophers tend to be good for when it comes to giving answers. (We’re better at asking puzzling questions.) The emergentist picture, if correct, implies that there must be a rather complicated story to be told about mental-physical dynamics, and I appreciate that it’s hard to see how solid scientific progress can be made when half the equation must rely on self-reports of conscious states. But the scientists’ job is to deal they are played; if the world doesn’t cooperate with the desirable end of a tidy unification, so be it. Roy Baumeister argues persuasively that there is a dimension to this question that my essay left out: the profound role that the social world plays in exploiting relatively small, evolutionarily-driven changes in brain and even voicebox (!) architecture to give rise to massive cognitive advances. In a word, culture is there as a profound shaping influence right alongside biology.

The comments also brought out that there are two distinct strands in our mental lives that push away from straight materialism: the character of conscious experience and our direct awareness of it (which gets all the attention these days), o the one hand, and abstract thought and the directedness of many mental states outside themselves (e.g., I believe that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris—my state of belief is directed at something far away from me. I can even have beliefs or desires about things that don’t exist, such as Santa Claus, which is more puzzling still: they are directed at—what, exactly?)

James Laird correctly notes that contemporary cognitive science complicates the ‘interiority/exteriority’ relationship, in a way that revives the ancient puzzle of how we can confidently get behind appearances to reality

Finally, some raised questions concerning the adequacy of an emergentist account of human persons to the adequacy of Christian theology. Here I’ll simply report that there is a lively recent philosophical literature on such matters. (For my own contribution to one particular such question, see my article co-authored with Jonathan D. Jacobs, “Emergent Individuals and the Resurrection,” European Journal For Philosophy of Religion 2, 2010: 69-88.)


New Big Questions:

1. How can the role of environment/culture be incorporated into an emergentist framework?

2. If conscious mental states are emergent, can they admit of categorization and analysis in a way that makes them tractable for scientific investigation?

3. Can an emergentist account of human souls allow for the possibility of survival of death? How might that go?



34 Responses

  1. Benson says:

    A thoughtful historical review but the author’s conclusion is murky. It seems as though his head answers  “No!” but his upbringing and feelings answer “Wouldn’t it be nice?”

  2. David Roemer says:

    A human being is a metaphysical composition of body and soul. The human soul is a metaphysical principle or incomplete being that makes humans equal to one another and superior to animals. The human body is the principle that makes humans different from one another. Atheists think that the human soul is just an idea. But since we can’t define or explicate free will and the conscious knowledge of humans as opposed to the sense knowledge of animals, we can say that humans are indefinabilites that become conscious of their own existence. Or, humans are embodied spirits. Another way of saying this is to say the human soul is spiritual. 

  3. Janet says:

    This is definitely one of the big questions and relates to other complex issues such as the nature of consciousness, human biblical anthropology, the mind/brain problem and religious/spiritual experience (including neural correlates). The author briefly addresses 3 possible views: materialism, dualism and emergence theory. Although I agree that radical or substance dualism is not tenable, other forms of dualism (holistic, aspect, or interactive) are plausible models. Emergence theory, which the author claims is supported by scientific evidence, nevertheless provides only an explanation for the data; it is clearly superior to reductive materialism but has difficulty accounting for things like hypnosis, psychokinesis, and psychoneuroimmunology research. Finally, although the biblical view is primarily holistic (body/soul unity) we need to account for the divine ‘breath of life.’ E.g. at what stage of embryonic development does the soul ’emerge’? I am not convinced we will ever have a satisfactory scientific solution to the question posed here – and in fact may be concerned if we ever do!

  4. Tim O'Connor says:


    Your reading my answer this way suggests to me that you think the soul-as-immaterial-substance view as the only way of thinking about the soul. If we move away from that (appealingly) simple idea, things do get more complicated and uncertain. A precise answer is possible only by careful philosophical reflection informed by scientific knowledge, and the relevant science is far from complete.


    I am familiar with some Catholic philosophical-theological thought concerning the soul, especially that of Thomas Aquinas, who of course is given pride of place in much Catholic teaching. Aquinas was influenced heavily by Aristotle, and he struggled to reconcile a broadly Aristotelian view with Catholic teaching on surviving disembodied for a period before the general resurrection of the dead. Aquinas’s view is notoriously tricky to understand, but I don’t think it is well captured by what you say here. See recent essays by philosophers Christina van Dyke, Brian Leftow, and Eleonore Stump (you can locate them via their dept web pages) for really careful discussion and solid philosophical reflection generally on the question of human nature.


    My view may be closer to what you call ‘other forms of dualism’ than you think. As I note in the brief essay, terms like ‘emergence’ – and this goes for ‘dualism,’ too – get used in different ways by different people, leading to a lot of unfortunate confusion. I would describe my view as ‘substance monist, but interactive property dualist.’

  5. AthanasiusOfAlex says:

    First of all, I think it can be proven (1) that there is a principle that transcends the merely material aspect of man and (2) that this principle is both simple (i.e., it has no parts) and immaterial (i.e., that it does not depend on matter for its existence).

    Perhaps the easiest way to do that is to think about how we form concepts. Think of a tree, or a cat, or whatever you would like, and you immediately realize that your concept of tree (or cat, or what have you) is immediately applicable to every tree (or cat) you encounter, independently of its particular characteristcs (growth history, size–even species).

    How is that possible? Only because the human mind, somehow, is able to become identified with the object that it knows. The tree (or cat), in a way, comes to reside inside your mind, and all of its individuating characterists are left behind, including its very matter.

    Well, only an immaterial subject can make immaterial representations of things (especially if those things are material). Moreover, immaterial subjects lack the composition necessary to have parts (not that it is a bad thing to lack it or anything–in fact, being material is a limitation); this subject is, therefore, also simple.

    Now, although I affirm with Plato (and to a lesser extent with Descartes) that there is a simple, immaterial principle that transcends the human body (we can call this principle the soul, but with a caveat, as I will explain), I would completely disagree in affirming that the human body is a substance. (I can’t speak for Plato, but Descartes was famous for characterizing man as being composed, practically, of two substances, the res extensa, or body–conceived as a substance–and the res cogitans, or soul.)

    The body cannot, in my opinion, be characterized as a substance, because it depends on the soul for its very existence, not only at its origin, but at every moment of its existence. When the soul departs (regardless of what we think of what happens to that soul afterwards), what is left is not a human body, but a cadaver.

    Here is the caveat regarding the soul: neither is the soul–in the state we find it in now, i.e., sustaining a living human body–a substance in the proper sense of the word. It is a substance in potentia (it could be a substance; it has all the trappings of a substance), but in actu (right now), it is the principle of a substance.

    The unique substance, however, is the man.

    We now have an idea, I think, for how to prove that the soul (or more correctly, man) is immortal, in the sense that at least the most noble part of him (his soul) does not dissolve after death. In essence, a simple, uncomposed entity (such as the soul) has no constituent parts into which to dissolve, so it must persist. Of course, after death all that remains is the soul (unless God restores the body), and so in that case, yes, the soul is a fully-fledged substance.

    Given the reflections above, I would challenge the idea that the Abrahamic religions consider man to be mortal by nature. I can’t speak for contemporary Judaism or Islam, but the Christian philosphical tradition has certainly opted for the unnaturalness of death (prompted by Genesis 3, no doubt, which portrays death as a punishment for sin).

    Anyway, these are some reflections. Comments are welcome.

  6. Mark Christensen says:

    The question can’t be answered literally.  As Kant remarked, the needs of reason are both inescapable and unrealisable.  That said, metaphysical questions can still be of epistemic value, if the right question is posed. 

    As discussed in the article below, Man is beset by a (seemingly) impossible dilemma: he can transcend himself and feel his soul; or he can stay in this world and attempt to understand it in a dualistic fashion.  We can’t Be and understand Being at the same time, since the experience is, by definition, mind-emptying.  At this point, Man is obliged to put his epistemological goals – the need to know – before his ontological needs – unconditional love, connection with God – as the latter, while more vital, overwhelms the former and thus renders our quest for knowledge forsaken.  Given the sense that reason and progress are somehow important, we opt for them over faith, with anomie and nihilism the result.

    There is, however, a way around this dilemma, a way for reason and faith to co-exist as non-overlapping sources of knowledge: reason can figure out why this is the case, why it cannot know it all and why, in the end, a leap is unavoidable.

  7. James Laird says:


    I really enjoyed reading your essay, and I support your ideas regarding emergentism. I believe that souls exist for all living entities, they’re directly related to the existence of God, and they’re eternal in nature.

    In your essay you stated the following: “The emergentist recognizes that such fundamental-level physical laws apply everywhere, but holds that they are incomplete: corresponding to some kinds of organized complexity there are additional laws, interfacing with the fundamental laws”. I have three comments regarding that sentence.

    1. The “additional laws” you’re referring to may not actually be laws (i.e., constant relationships in nature). Instead, new “emergent forces” associated with “life” may be causing the “irreducible and efficacious system-level features” you referred to. In other words, life may be caused by subcomponents but not predetermined by those subcomponents, and therefore it’s not always the case that laws control the emergent properties of life. I think humans are just now beginning to realize that there’s something more to reality than just the four fundamental forces of physics – there are new emergent forces that don’t result from a direct sum of preexisting forces. When a person observes reality located around their body, they visually perceive of an infinite number of emergent properties. Why can’t forces be a new emergent property as well? And if there is such a thing as “new emergent forces”, wouldn’t it make sense that those forces wouldn’t be a direct sum of preexisting forces, since forces located in different fields don’t add directly with one another?

    2. I’ve thought about your phrase “interfacing with the fundamental laws”, and I believe that new emergent forces associated with life are capable of “transcending multiple force fields”. That’s how living forces interface with the fundamental laws. For example, the forces exerted *by* one thought located within your physical brain may interact with the forces exerted *by* another thought located within your brain (i.e., mental causation is true), and in addition, the forces exerted by an associated conclusion may transcend fields and interact with forces at the electro-chemical level (i.e., the neuron level) thereby causing your body to move. When the forces exerted by your thoughts interact with the “fundamental laws”, there’s a net summing that occurs within same force fields as well as interaction *across* different force fields. I’m thinking that’s the fundamental idea regarding “living forces” – they interact with one another in one field while also transcending and affecting other fields.

    3. When you state “The emergentist recognizes that such fundamental-level physical laws apply everywhere”, I totally agree – the four fundamental forces of physics are part of what determines the path of reality, but that doesn’t mean there are *no* other forces that emerge and add into the net sum thereby *also* affecting the path forward. We humans have difficulty sensing the existence of new emergent forces because our five senses only allow us to perceive of the *result* of the net sum of forces after it has already occurred for each moment of time. For example, when a boy looks at a young tomato plant growing in his backyard, he only perceives of the visual image of the plant growing over time. Humans simply cannot directly sense any of the forces that affect the way the plant grows, and therefore we *naturally* don’t believe those forces exist. It’s a fundamental human reference issue, and we’re getting ready to evolve past it.

    These are exciting times for the human race.

  8. formeriraqhostage says:

    Is it not as simple as this: the question posits the translation as “dominion” (often seen too as rule over, or some such).   Without a linguistic free for all, I suggest  it is not this common understanding of the word as current English usage would imply at all.  The better word to use would be, all other questions aside, stewardship, both a right with duties, as creative creatures of the inscrutable Creator. 

  9. Tim O'Connor says:


    You are making some fast inferences here. The move from the ‘immateriality’ of conscious thought to the immateriality of the thinker is just the move the emergentist wants to resists. Conscious thought (using ‘thought’ broadly here to refer to experiences, emotions, and the like, as well as abstract thoughts), I agree, do not consist in myriad material components of the brain having certain properties and standing in certain relations. They are states constituted by fundamentally distinct kinds of properties (qualitative and intentional). That’s property dualism. But it seems to me to need argument to infer from this that the thinker is an immaterial substance. Why can’t these distinctive kinds of properties be had by organized physical systems (in the case of ‘thoughts,’ by physically composed humans and other animals?

    As regards the ‘unnaturalness’ of death in Christian theology, that can be understood in two ways. The intended way, I think, is the claim that God would not have permitted human beings to experience physical death had they not sinned. But it is no part of that claim to say that our souls would continue to exist forever, by their own steam: that is true of nothing in Creation, if Christian theism is true. I meant to deny only this latter claim.


    Well, you know, I think Immanuel Kant was a very bright fellow and an astoundingly creative thinker. But for all that, I don’t regard his Critique of Pure Reason as the final word on anything. (It’s not just Kant: no one ever gets the final word in philosophy.) In my humble judgment, Kant’s arguments for our inability to give coherent and plausible answers to metaphysical questions are not at all compelling. And I think his attempt to draw a distinction between the world ‘as it appears’ and the (unknowable) world ‘as it is in itself’ is itself just another piece of metaphysics, and not an especially attractive one at that. Much has happened in philosophy since Kant’s day, and recent decades have seen a resurgence of excellent work in metaphysics. The proof is in the pudding, not in transcendental arguments against the whole enterprise. The history of overturned metaphysical systems should make us humble, certainly, but I daresay there has been progress in metaphysics, long after Kant.


    You are raising good and difficult issues. But just briefly: I don’t think we really disagree here. I don’t think of emergent properties and the laws that would describe them as the mere ‘sums’ of more basic, non-emergent laws. These are basic, or non-structured, properties. As I think of it, they are caused to be and sustained in regular ways by organized systems, but not in accordance with the laws governing material reality generally. If we think of emergent features in force terms, then yes, these would be additional basic forces in the physical world, albeit ones that have localized influence.

    Now, that’s a philosopher’s characteristic abstract ‘picture’, or maybe just a sketch of a picture. Describing how this actually plays out in human beings and any other emergent systems is a daunting task – happily, one for the scientists!

    • AthanasiusOfAlex says:


      Thank you for taking the time to respond.

      Certainly, I concede your point that in the Abrahamic traditions (at least the Christian tradition–I don’t have the familiarity with Jewish and Muslim sources to be able to assess them) a creatio continua is necessary for the continued existence of any creature. (It is not enough for God to create something; he must maintain it in being.) I suppose I was taking “nature” to be roughly a synonym of “essence”: what sort of thing something is. It seems to me that Western philosophy–at least the part that was taken by Christian writers up to the modern period–is fairly unanimous in saying that simple substances (i.e., spirits, including the human soul) are naturally incapable of disintegrating: that is, their dissolution would be contrary to their nature or essence. God could, of course, decide to stop maintaining something in existence, but that would not be a natural act, but rather an act that does violence to the nature in question. (Of course death in the human context entails only the dissolution of the body; the question then turns on the soul, if we accept that there is one.)

      Regarding thoughts and their immateriality (if we can speak of that), just a question, so I can understand your position better: how do you explain the universality of the concepts? I think it might be helpful to distinguish properly intellectual activities (forming concepts and judgments) from other things that certainly have an effect on the intellect, or mind, but are not properly part of it: emotions and the whole complex of tendencies, passions, and the like. It seems to me that there is a qualitative difference between emotions and the strictly sensible aspect of experiences, on the one hand, and the universally appicable knowledge derived from them, on the other. It is curious that human beings can, in a way, become identified with the things that they know–all the while being fully aware that they have become so identified–and yet not lose their identity as human beings. I think that can only be explained if the subject in question–the man–is simple (part-less) by nature.

      Anyway, I find the article and discussion fascinating. Thank you for bringing it up.

  10. James Laird says:


    We both agree that it’s possible for some emergent properties to interact with the fundamental laws (i.e., the four fundamental forces of physics). Wouldn’t we therefore also necessarily need to believe that forces are exerted by those emergent properties and that those new forces add together with the fundamental forces, thereby forming a new net sum that determines the path of reality?

    I’m thinking that it’s essential for science to consider the existence of new forces that are associated with emergentism – it’s not an option.

    • Tim O'Connor says:


      Yes, exactly. If emergent properties are basic and causally efficacious, then what happens cannot be determined in every case by fundamental forces alone. Emergence — as I am proposing to think of it — is not merely a matter of there being ‘high level patterns of behavior’ that require concepts other those of fundamental sciences to describe. It entails local causal influence that is additional to the net sum of fundamental force influences being exerted ont he region in question.

  11. atomico says:

    I have found in the following video an interesting theory on the soul:

    This video is in italian but has English subtitles.

  12. Luke Van Horn says:

    Prof. O’Connor,

    I have the same objection to your attempt to construct a Christian version of materialism/physicalism (or whatever you want to call a view that says that human persons are material objects of some sort, even if they have emergent mental properties) as I do to Trenton Merricks’s attempt (I’ve responded to him in “Merricks’s Soulless Savior” in Faith and Philosophy July 2010).  In brief, the problem is that if human beings are material objects of some sort (e.g., organisms, brains, things constituted by and colocated with organisms, material spacetime worms) then in the Incarnation the Second Person of the Trinity (SPT) would have had to become a material object (or would have a material object as a temporal part).  But that’s impossible (I give an argument for this in the above mentioned paper).  Unless you want to endorse PvI’s relative identity theory of the Incarnation, or something like Stump’s/Leftow’s theory (in which the SPT assumes, rather than becomes, a human being), it looks like the Incarnation, which requires that Christ become a human being just like us (except without sin), entails substance dualism of some traditional sort like Descartes’ (or Plantinga’s).  On this view, SPT becomes a human being by becoming a human soul, which is just a rational immaterial substance that is embodied in a member of Homo sapiens.

    A number of philosophers/theologians have suggested that the biggest difficulty for Christians who want to be materialists is making sense of resurrection, but to me it seems that the biggest difficulty is making sense of the Incarnation.

    Do you have a theory of the Incarnation that is consistent with your materialism?

    • Tim O'Connor says:


      The Christian doctrine of Incarnation – that God became fully human while remaining fully God – is a really difficult idea to understand all by itself, of course. (What we lack a good understanding of is the relation between the divine and human natures in Christ such that it is true that he is just one, dual-natured (unblended) individual.) So I would go slow in thinking that this or that account of human nature can square with the doctrine while some other cannot. I do follow Stump and Leftow in their compositional account of Incarnation, though I think you misdescribe their view as one on which the Divine Son assumes a human person. Rather, the view is that the Divine Son assumes a human nature, such that he (uniquely) has two natures, divine and human. On their (and my) way of thinking of this, the human nature of the Son is a part of the Son. Does that make the Son a material object? No, at least not in an unqualified sense. In his essential divine nature, he is an immaterial person, of one substance with the Father and the Spirit. By simultaneously creating and absorbing into himself a human nature, he has become an immaterial-material composite. He has a material part, one that is asymmetrically dependent on his immaterial, essential part.

      There is a lot more to be said here. I have been giving a talk co-authored with Philip Woodward called “Trans-Universe Identity: Incarnation and the Multiverse.” As its title suggests, its main focus is on exploring the possibility of multi-incarnation. But we sketch our way of thinking about the metaphysics of Incarnation on an emergentist picture. I can send a draft along to you.

      • Tim O'Connor says:


        On my way of thinking of emergence, it involves more than ‘inter-level’ feedback loops. (It is perfectly intelligible, that is, that complex systems that are usefully characterized in this way do not involve the kind of new basic forces that James Laird and I discuss above. While I think some such systems may involve emergence, it’s an open empirical question whether they do. For a model of how the existence of robust high-level (or coarse-grained) patterns are wholly consistent with all basic causation taking place at the fundamental level, asymmetrically determining everything at all higher levels, consider Conway’s Game of Life’ cellular automata. (I don’t know that we are disagreeing here, I just wanted to make the point explicit since, as I said int he article, different people mean different things by “emergence.”

        On Kantian idealism: I had a long dinner conversation once with a very distinguished neuroscientist. During the day’s conference sessions, he seemed to take the stance of an arch-reductionist, telling us how he and his peers are now able to manipulate small clusters of neurons to produce macroscopic effects, blah blah. But after several drinks, he argued that cognitive science shows us that “Kant was right.” The idea was that we’ve come to understand that our perceptual processes and post-perception processing of sensory information are highly dynamic and malleable. The view that he seemed to want to hold was something like this: brains and their component neurons are ‘real’ in just the way neuroscience describes. But the world around our brains are pretty much unknowable in themselves; all we have are our constantly shifting representations with no reason to think that they capture the way things really are. My response was (and is) this: it takes a whole lot of realism about the physical world in general to get you to a point where you can have well-grounded beliefs concerning brains and their components. So to reject the former on the basis of what you learn about the latter is to saw off the branch on which you sit. He took the point, said philosophy is hard, and ordered us some brandy.

        • jsg says:

          Dear Prof. O’Connor,

          Many thanks for your reply to my post. I suppose one could say that the Kantian distinction between phenomena and noumena is itself self-refuting, since it recognizes an actual state of things—the phenomena/noumena split—while stating that one can’t recognize an actual state of things. However, it does seem to me that recognition of the distinction between internal representations or models and external conditions is a valuable insight.

          The question then seems to be, where does one draw the line between interior and exterior? Belief in nothing but interiority leads to solipsism, while belief in a one-to-one correspondence between interior and exterior is gainsaid by neuroscience. When I drive a car, I don’t believe that other cars are figments of my imagination, for example. But I also don’t wear sunglasses at night, since this makes it hard for me to see the road. So I guess what counts is a clear-eyed view of things, which to me includes recognition of the interior/exterior distinction. 

          • Tim O'Connor says:


            Start with a commitment to the truth of general claims from recent neuroscience that there is a lot of processing of information from sensory input to belief output, involving representation of our environment, and nowhere within the processing do we find a simple, wholly veridical ‘mirror’ of objects in the environment. That’s your interior/exterior distinction, and it can sound like an empirical case for a strong, vaguely Kantian divide between reality as it is in itself and as it appears to us. But, I suggested, it presupposes (contra Kant) that we can, in the end, come to a pretty accurate picture of our environment (at the scale of medium-sized objects), since brains are such objects and you can reliably learn about those only if you can reliably know about the nature of other such objects used in the process of studying brains. (That’s why it’s not really a Kantian picture. Kantian knowers – in themselves – are outside the realm of appearance, and so not something we can know about. Well, that’s how the story is supposed to go, but with many others, I suspect Kant of inconsistency on this point.)

            The question is then how, not whether, we manage to get a reasonably accurate understanding of objects around us – move from the limited, malleable, and shifting ‘interior’ to the exterior. That would take a long answer, but surely in part it involves recognizing the fact that we are, cognitively speaking, more than simple perceptual processors.

      • Luke Van Horn says:

        Prof. O’Connor,

        Thank you for your response.  I would be very interested in reading the paper you mentioned.  I should point out that I didn’t misdescribe the Stump/Leftow view as SPT assuming a human “person.”  That would be Nestorianism, which Stump/Leftow would reject.  Rather, SPT assumed a human being.  The human nature that was assumed was a body/soul composite that is intrinsically identical to us in every way (assumption being something that is extrinsic, I believe; this is made explicit in Tom Flint’s version of the Stump/Leftow view of the Incarnation).  I gather you would modify this view to say that the human nature assumed was a human organism intrinsically identical to us (you’re an animalist, correct?), rather than a body/soul composite, but otherwise your view is the same?

        If that’s the case, then I reject this view of the Incarnation for the standard reasons, particularly that it’s really Nestorian but avoids the label merely by playing fast and loose with the term “person” (the fact that there are two numerically non-identical centers of consciousness in the Incarnate son, SPT and Jesus the man, entails Nestorianism, or so I think).  I also have problems (some of which are layed out in Thomas Senor’s critique of the Stump/Leftow account) with the metaphysics of the view (e.g., property borrowing, the mereological claims), but maybe your paper explains how to avoid some of these, so that’s another reason I’d be pleased to read it.

        • Tim O'Connor says:


          I’ll send you the paper. But just a quick reply to your concern about Nestorianism (the non-Orthodox view that the God-man is a union of two distinct persons): I don’t see that there is any special pressure in this direction coming from an anti-dualistic view of human persons. The challenge is that Church councils taught that in Christ there were (and are) distinct divine and human intellects and divine and human wills — and yet that might seem sufficient for there being two persons, human and divine, just as Nestorianism holds! (It’s far easier to maintain a consistent heterodox view of Christ than the orthodox one, which helps explain why heterodox ideas are popular.) I won’t take the time now to go back and re-read Stump on this point, but I know that Leftow, at least, suggests that we solve the problem by saying that (a) there is but one ultimate center of subjectivity and agency, and it resides in the divine nature, and (b) in some way, the one person, the divine Son, has (limited, and I’d say fallible) human thoughts and experiences *through* his human intellect and forms human intentions (or ‘volitions’) *through* his human will. And I follow Leftow here. And, further, it seems to me that the mind-body dualist should (and can) say much the same thing.

          • Luke Van Horn says:

            Prof. O’Connor,

            Thank you, I look forward to reading your paper.  Just to clarify, I wasn’t claiming that there’s any extra pressure to be Nestorian coming from materialism.  I think the Stump/Leftow view in all of the versions I have read, whether by dualists or materialists, results in a position that is either Nestorianism or distinguishable from Nestorianism only in ways that don’t make the view any less objectionable than Nestorianism (yes, I’d say that about the church fathers, too; as Swinburne said, many of the Church fathers and medievals, when thinking about the Incarnation, trapped themselves in “metaphysical muddles”).  I agree that it’s easier to be heterodox than orthodox, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think orthodoxy can’t be maintained.  I sketched what I think is a defensible orthodox (e.g, it avoids Nestorianism, Apollinarianism, monophysitism, etc.)  view of the Incarnation in my paper responding to Merricks, which I mentioned before.

          • Tim O'Connor says:


            You asked (several comments above) how I can explain the universality of human concepts while rejecting the idea of the soul as a simple immaterial substance. Well, the nature of concepts and how we grasp them is a really hard question and I don’t think anyone has a good account of this yet. I am hoping my current doctoral student will solve it, though. J I agree with you that the prospects for doing this on ‘standard issue’ materialism are bleak. But I don’t see that substance dualism has any clear advantage here over my substance monist, property dualism. You follow certain medieval Aristotelians in talking of material objects as ‘residing in’ or being ‘identified with’ the immaterial human mind (in immaterial form, stripped of their individuating characteristics). But these metaphors don’t really illuminate the matter, it seems to me. They are not much more than a way of saying that the relation involved in grasping a concept is metaphysically primitive. And the property dualist could say that, too.

  13. jsg says:

    I find the notion of top-down causation, in the sense of feedback loops between “higher” and “lower” levels, to be  holistic and deeply appealing. This leads me to think that “soul” and “agency” may be two words for the same thing, if by them one means all the processes, including environmental ones, that comprise a human being. Viewing “soul” or “agent” in this light leaves no room for a ghost in the machine.

    With regard to Kantian idealism, I’m not sure that it really is passe. While philosophy may have moved away from it, science seems to be moving toward it. I’m thinking of the standard neuroscience notion that we know the world through our internal representations of it rather than as it “actually” is, which appears to correspond to Kant’s distinction between what we can know and the thing in itself. 

  14. Dr.GSPANGLOSS says:

    To prove or infer the possibility that souls exist by empirical evidence is untenable by use of the Scientific method as is presently understood and practiced , since any new discovery would be added to the list of previously unknown ,but now at least partially understood/explained , natural phenomenon , and any mention of a deity would be met with contempt ,and delegated to the “pseudo science ” ,”God of the Gaps” group of arguments .If a non physical realm can be proved to exist by inference and analysis of it’s properties ,and for which the strongest inferential and deductive arguments  lead one to conclude of an immutable existence which predates humans(Relatively speaking,of course) , then a God who exist and existed , before mass , energy, and the laws of nature can be inferred, and cannot be dismissed ,before  an impartial judge and jury , to the land of fairies , figments and folly . Does such a realm exist? If it exist ,does it’s existence stem from ( for lack of a better word) a conscious entity?A conscious entity’s understanding of the Universe does undoubtedly  survive  his physical self(Einstein’s Theories). However, does it exist independent of other beings(earthlings or others)?It can be logically justified this is so.The relationship that exist between the integers is immutable ,and yet  paradoxically , it’s understanding is evolving by emergent phenomenon , which stems from so simple a concept(counting ), that most preschool children can grasp . If God exist ,why would he not allow a “proof” of his existence?Perhaps,because our logic is by necessity incomplete, in order to be, and remain consistent?If man could prove(By deductive reasoning),without emotional qualia , the existence of what is by necessity a first axiom( God),would he then derive evil and not evil as equivalently justified theorems,because of the” Completeness “of his understanding ?  -I apologize for my philosophical,mathematical  and theological trespasses.

    • Tim O'Connor says:

      Dr. Pangloss,

      Too much going on there, and too inchoately, to reply point by point. You are right, of course, that one cannot argue for God’s existence by purely scientific means, but that does not mean that there could not be extra-scientific and rational arguments for theism. There is much I could cite from contemporary philosophers well-acquainted with both the methods and the contents of current scientific theories, but I’ll just suggest that you look up the relevant work of Richard Swinburne, incl. his book, The Existence of God. And I make a more modest contribution in my Theism and Ultimate Explanation. The best theistic arguments are not at all ‘God-of-the-gaps’ arguments; they pick up where scientific explanation necessarily leaves off.

      On whether souls as non-physical substances — which of course is not my view — could be (in principle) a respectable scientific hypothesis, I don’t see why not. See here Swinburne’s book The Evolution of the Soul and, more recently, the essays by Robin Collins and Hans Halverson in Mark C. Baker and Stewart Goetz (eds.), The Soul Hypothesis: Investigations into the Existence of the Soul.

  15. ntadepalli says:

    I have some ideas on “self” of humans.

    1.Body : We have only the brain,consisting of billions of conditioned neurons with their influences extending into the entire human body.The brain is just living matter.

    2.Mind : The conditioned neurons of the brain receive sensory information and process the same along with their own reactions.The result is our experience,mind.Based on the experience ,a suitable response is also produced by the conditioned neurons.So the mind refers to certain functional activities of conditioned neurons in an awareness or consciousness of their own activities.

    3.Soul : The conditioned neurons have also some evolved capabilities to act on their own selves in oder to control their reactions to environmental stimuli.These capabilities ( which are to be identified in self-control,self-regulatio and self-improvement ) come into play based on the nature,nurture and culture of the individual,to improve their own conditioning.The souls are different and many.

    so souls refer to these evolved capabilities of conditioned neurons.

    Consciousness is the unexplained mystery here.

    • Tim O'Connor says:


      I can agree with much of what you say here: our bodies are living matter (i.e., fundamental material stuff organized in distinctively biological form, beginning with cells), and the nexus of much of the regulation of the body is the brain with its distinctive type of cell, the neuron. As we are now learning, neurons are conditioned to respond to stimuli in accordance with their role in the functional hierarchy of the nervous system. (And for a beautifully readable and lucid account of the current state of knowledge of the functional architecture of the brain, I heartily recommend my colleague Olaf Sporns’ Networks of the Brain.) But when you say, “consciousness is the big mystery here,” I say: indeed! A ‘mystery’ as regards its intrinsic nature vis-a-vis the intrinsic nature of neurons and neural assemblies and (so) also as regards its being the result of neural activity. And since conscious states of all kinds impact physical behavior, it seems that we cannot fully account for human ‘ensoulment’ in purely bottom-up fashion. Do you agree?

  16. ntadepalli says:

    Thanks for your reply, professor.

    I agree that we cannot fully explain human “ensoulment”.But this limitation is due to our inability to explain consciousness.

  17. ianful says:

    I wondered about this, and science was of little help and my mind just ended up confused. Eventually God gave me answers, and these I would not have come up with in many lifetimes.  I was trained as a scientist, and eventually came to the realization that science only provides us with a model description of our world and universe. It is a basic description of the material world that we have extrapolated into describing plants, animals, and humans – but it is still a material based description. Science is also constructed by human minds from observations and thus is dependent on our perception and ultimately our senses and history. However, science freed us from mumbo-jumbo and superstition and gave us understanding and the opportunity to spend our life in a more predictable world. Science is relevant to the self (or ego if we are Western, or nafs if we are Arabs).  Science deals with the concrete, and we have had religion to deal with the abstract nature of God, the Spirit and Jesus etc.  Mankind has attempted to explain all this for good and bad purposes: large egos got mixed up with religion, and philosophers have been trying to sort out the mess since. However, in using reason, we are limited by the capacity of the human mind, which Al Kidhr informed Moses did amount to as much as a drop of water in all the oceans. In other words, even Moses had better leave understanding to God. (Quran Ch. 18)

    Perceiving the soul is beyond the senses and so the soul belongs in the abstract world, as does God and the Holy Spirit. It is interesting that we seem to have introduced the abstract into science these days with the acceptance of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, even though these are not observable. 

    The best I can describe the soul as, is the being that is implanted at creation; it is implanted in all of creation by the creator, and we are His agents in our creative tasks.  Science has only identified the sperm, the egg and DNA, but it has not identified energetic, spiritual, or awareness aspects of creating a new individual. The soul enters at conception, and remains with us until we die. At this point the soul may proceed to the next life, in the manner forged by Jesus, or it may return to earth via reincarnation in order to raise its spiritual level. . The soul has no form and takes the shape of the container it is in. It is the soul is that can return to God, and it was the souls of Jesus, Mohammed, and others that journeyed to the seven heavens. Our soul has all of our awareness and consciousness.

    There are lots of hints in our religious texts.  For instance, the Quran states that God is closer to us than our jugular.  Buddhists even talk about us living in a sea of awareness, and levels of awareness. There are different degrees of awareness, material has basic awareness and even the material world is capable of thought, but plants, animals, humans have increasingly self-awareness.
    Maybe, the question should be … What kind of soul do we have – material, plant, animal, or human?

    We cannot directly observe the soul of another. However, we can infer the nature of another’s soul.  For instance; those with a material soul are concerned with wealth and power; those with plant souls are selfish and fiercely competitive; those with animal souls are combative and loving to offspring; those with human souls are loving and charitable to all. The level of our soul can be raised over a lifetime, but that depends on God.  There are many examples of rags to riches to benevolence. Andrew Carnegie is a good example, in the first part of his life he gathered and accumulated wealth, and in the second he distributed his wealth benevolently

    We allow the self (or ego) to run day to day things for us and let it suppress the soul. The soul is deprived of purpose and spiritual evolution in this world and rendering it largely insane.  However it would be disastrous for an untrained soul to be in charge. The Dr Jekyll (self) and Mr Hyde (a material soul) is an example where an untrained soul is allowed to slip into control.  It is only God who can change the level of a person’s soul, or train the soul to take over from the ego.

  18. Roy Baumeister says:

    It’s always a pleasure to read the very lucid, disciplined, yet open-minded writings by Tim O’Connor. I had never thought of souls being mortal, but that makes them more plausible than immortal ones.

    Anyway, you ended by asking for discussion of what makes us human, based on recent scientific findings. About a decade ago I got very interested in that question and spent my sabbatical at the Center for Advanced Study reading lots of interesting research findings.

    After I had been doing this for many months, I came to the impression that most if not all the distinctively human traits — the ones that set us apart from the other animals, including the ones from whom we evolved — are adaptations to enable us to create culture. I assume humans evolved from other animals. Like all animals, indeed all living things, we face the problems of survival and reproduction, if life is to continue. But humankind’s way of solving these problems is very unusual: We create culture. Today, for example, people turn to the culture, the social system, to get the things they need for survival (food, health care) and reproduction.

    Culture starts with communication. The human capacity for vocal speech far surpasses what other animals have, especially when you include the voice box, the changes in hearing (sacrificing detection for resolution, unlike most animals), the memory for hundreds of thousands of words, and the grammatically competent brain. Beyond that, humans have ‘theory of mind’ (understanding that others have inner mental states similar to but also distinct from one’s own), as well as a complex functioning self that can juggle multiple roles in a cultural system. Humans have a highly elaborate way of controlling their actions that gives rise to the expression “free will” (although that may be a misnomer, depending on how one defines the term) and, more important, enables humans to adjust their actions according to layers of cultural influences, including moral rules, laws, religious principles, long-range plans, and social expectations. This list is not complete, but I hope it illustrates how I think we can understand the human mind: Nature made us to ‘do’ culture.

    Roy Baumeister

    • Tim O'Connor says:


         You use the concrete/abstract distinction where I think what you want is material/immaterial. Abstract objects, if such there be, include such things as numbers, properties, and propositions [the same proposition can be expressed by sentences in different languages]. They are usually thought of in negative terms, lacking temporal as well as spatial characteristics and not having causal influence. God and immaterial souls would certainly have causal influence, and souls, at least, would be temporal as well. Indeed, according to some, they would also be spatial, inhabiting the same region as the brains they influence, just lacking in characteristic material properties.

         You are certainly correct to point out that contemporary physics blurs our understanding of materiality. Our folk conception has to do with having three-dimensional shape and resistance to force to some degree.

         And we might also consider this. One response to the problem of understanding consciousness within a material world is to suppose that it is there on the ground floor, so to speak. How could one possibly think that? Well, start by observing that what physics tells us about the fundamental properties of matter is purely functional/dispositional: negative charge, e.g., is, very roughly, that property of certain particles that attracts oppositely charged properties with a certain measure of force in inverse proportion to the distance between them, likewise repels similarly charged particles, and in general interacts with other fundamental properties in accordance with the fundamental dynamical equations governing the evolution of particle systems over time. Other properties are characterized in similarly dispositional terms, such that the resulting picture of physical reality is a dispositional network of properties that co-evolve in certain patterns. We do not directly observe or intuit these properties in the way we (ostensibly) directly grasp the shape of a middle-sized object– in that sense, fundamental physical properties are purely theoretical posits. We only observe their macroscopic effects. Physics, in short, is necessarily silent on the intrinsic character or nature of the properties. As Bertrand Russell put it, physics gives us a ‘skeletal’ picture of the physical world, leaving us in the dark about its flesh. Or, to switch the metaphor, we’re given an abstract network conception without being told what the qualities are that inhabit the individual nodes; we’re only told what they do.

         Here a certain kind of philosopher steps in and says, that’s interesting. For when it comes to human consciousness, we do immediately grasp the intrinsic character of conscious qualities—the subjective looks, sounds, odors, tastes, and tactile qualities of our experiences. But it’s not (they say) immediately apparent what those qualities do in relation to physical reality. So maybe we should take seriously the seeming hand-in-glove quality of the relationship of physical and conscious qualities. Maybe consciousness discloses the intrinsic character of reality, while physics describes its structural and dynamical character. This is the doctrine of panpsychism, lately being revived by some philosophers (who are otherwise quite sober thinkers!). What we are aware of on conscious experience is the intrinsic character of our own brain states. Noncognitive physical entities such as rocks also have intrinsic characters, but lack the (still unexplained) mechanism of conscious awareness.

         Thoughts, anyone?

      • Tim O'Connor says:


           Everything you say here seems right, and it is a necessary broadening out of the highly abstract perspective of a metaphysician reflected in my post! It illustrates what I take to be an important point: comparatively smallscale differences from a purely structural/physical standpoint can result in very large differences of capacities once the environmental embeddedness of a system is taken into account. (There I go talking in abstract terms again—sorry!) Specifically, humans are profoundly different in personal and social characteristics from other mammals who have significant structural similarity to us and with whom we share common ancestry in the comparatively recent past. This is less to do with physical or mental evolutionary ‘add-ons’ to our biological or cognitive equipment, directly in and of themselves, as with cultural exploitation of small differences (leading to selection pressures refining those hardware differences).

           If, as I do, you think of some of those small ‘equipment’ differences as emergent in my sense, this helps to reconcile an emergentist account of mental capacities with a larger picture of the evolving biological world as a process of continual, small incremental changes at the structural level.

           Perhaps we need to think of emergence in terms of a joint outcome of individual strutural organization and environmental exploitation and development. I confess I find it difficult to conceptualize things in these terms, owing to the biases of my particular sort of philosophical training, but the undoubted recent insights of ‘wide-scope’ sciences seem to push in this direction.

  19. harry says:

    The simple fact that we can seize upon and be affected by immaterial, incorporeal abstract concepts demonstrates that there must be an immaterial, incorporeal component to our intellect that is somehow integrated with our physical brains. If that is not the case then please explain how the immaterial and incorporeal can affect strictly material brains.

    • Tim O'Connor says:


      Athanasius and I had a brief exchange on this issue above. It’s a puzzling claim that abstract concepts can literally causally affect anything. Puzzling that they could affect emergent-but-physically-embodied minds or immaterial minds. Puzzling enough that we might wish to deny it. While we grasp concepts (somehow – this, too, is puzzling), concepts as such don’t affect us. (Our grasping a concept of course has real-world effects, but that is a mental event, not an abstract entity.)

      How do you think of concept-to-immaterial-mind causation as working? Presumably, it has to occur under certain conditions. (I am not always thinking, e.g., of the concept ‘horse.’) How does the concept ‘sense’ when the conditions are right?