What is the nature of human beings? Is it much different from the nature of the rest of the animals? Is a human primarily physical in nature or primarily nonphysical? Are we at all different from animals in our nature?
The belief that humans are completely physical in nature is called physicalism – or materialism. The belief that humans are both physical and nonphysical is called dualism. Dualism refers to the two types of natures that make up a human. The physical is obviously the body and whatever responses occur through the wiring of the brain. The nonphysical is a bit more ambiguous. It can be synonymous with terms like mind, soul, spirit, or heart. The physicalist might not necessarily deny that there is an inner sense within the consciousness of each person; they just attribute such things to particular physical operations in the brain.
On its surface, physicalism might appear to be fairly ridiculous to anyone who is keenly aware of his innermost thoughts. But the advances in neuroscience have sparked somewhat of a renaissance in the belief in materialism. Now neuroscientists can examine the parts of the brain that are at work when a person is thinking certain types of thoughts. They can identify the parts of the brain that seem to be associated with “religious experiences.” And they can even induce certain responses by triggering particular parts of the brain. Therefore, it appears to the neuroscientist that anything that is performed, thought, or believed is tied to a certain area of the brain. This ability for the brain to correlate with every human experience has led many to believe that the brain explains the full scope of all human belief, thought, and experience.
If you are a believer in God, can you be OK with the idea that humans are entirely physical beings? If not, do you have and effective response to one who might believe in physicalism?
There are a few issues that I have in response to physicalism from a theistic, distinctly Christian, perspective. First, physicalism must be deterministic. Second, physicalism cannot explain its own existence. Third, physicalism seems opposed to clear biblical teaching. Fourth, physicalism presents non-falsifiability and a category mistake. Fifth, physicalism does not explain certain human experiences.
1: Physicalism must be deterministic: In a materialist world, physical events rely on a prior physical event. If the human is purely physical in nature, then complete control of the person is, of course, physical. Our so-called “will” would be dependent on a previous physical state. Our free will would be an elaborate illusion. The reality would be that each thought is physically dependent upon a previous thought. Any interruption of this physical, neurochemical sequence could only be attributed to something that is different from the physical sequence. This interruption, or sense of control, is what we would call free will. Instead, the physicalist must admit that a domino sequence of cause and effect reactions entirely determines our thoughts and actions. One of those thoughts would itself be physicalism. Therefore, they would physically determined to believe physicalism, and therefore have no rational grounds for believing its truth.
2: Physicalism can’t explain its own existence: The argument from first cause should lead us to believe that the physical cannot be the cause of all things. When looking at the origins of physical space and time, we are looking for an origin that is not itself physical space and time. Physicality is subject to decay and is sequential in nature, leading us to believe that it is not eternal. Instead it must’ve had a beginning that is not itself physical in nature.
3: Physicalism opposes clear biblical teaching: It seems to be a prevalent teaching that the body as we know it is temporary, but the soul lives on with God. The flesh is weak, but the spirit is strong. Jesus said, “Don’t fear those who can only destroy the body. Instead, fear God who is able to not only destroy the body, but destroy the soul.”* We are told to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.** How can this be done if we are only mind and strength? Jesus himself was fully physical in nature, yet fully God in nature. How could this possibly be except for the fact that human persons are physical and spiritual in nature? We are promised eternal life. How can this be if we are subject to physical bodies of decay and every type of limitation? Furthermore, every instruction and every attitude of prayer and devotion in the Bible seems to presuppose the ability for the human will to freely turn the core of their being to God.
4: Physicalism presents a problem of non-falsifiability and a category mistake: Those that hold to scientism – that we only know things by the study of the material world – say that everything that a human thinks is explainable by the physical mind. However, their experiments only accept data which is physical in nature. It is as if you were to drop a net into a lake with large holes in it. After dragging this net through the lake, you pull it up only to find a few large fish. You conclude, therefore, that the lake contains no small fish. The problem is obvious; the instruments used are set up to locate only limited types of things.
5: Physicalism does not explain certain human experiences: There have been numerous documented near death experiences – which seem to occur while the brain is in a completely inactive state. This may or may not be the case in all circumstances. Regardless, there are things seen in this state of affairs which cannot be explained by mere physical reality. I recall the story of a child going into a clinically dead state and sensing their soul being detached from their body. She continued to be able to see. Her soul ascended above the hospital building. When the child was able to communicate with people again, she told them that she saw a shoe on the roof of the hospital. When they looked, they ended up finding the shoe exactly as she had described it. Many such stories are circulating.
This transcendent knowledge is not limited to near death experiences. People also make evident physically inexplicable things such as spontaneously speaking fluently and an unlearned language, making some sort of prophetic prediction, or having an insight into a life that they otherwise could not have known. Such things, though basically rare, show the transcendent capability of the mind.
What’s your theory on the distinction between the body and the mind? (I will post mine soon!)
**Deut. 6:5, Luke 10:27