Are Humans Sophisticated Carbon-Based Machines?

By Chris Du-Pond

A paramount question that humans ought to consider is what philosophers have labeled the “mind-body problem.” The key point here is this: are humans made of one substance or more? Are humans nothing more than physical matter or do they also incorporate an immaterial mind/soul? These distinct perspectives are known as physicalism and dualism. To answer that question carries profound implications, for if the soul/mind exists, then physicalism is certainly false. It is clear as well that if the mind exists as a disembodiable entity, then it is possible that humans can exist after the physical body dies. In this essay I will argue that humans are not just physical matter and thus physicalism is false.

The challenge for those who hold to physicalism is to offer a coherent explanation detailing how mind and consciousness can arise from the rearrangement of carbon atoms. If physicalism is true, the humans are just complex rearranged and super-evolved bags of chemicals. This challenge becomes exponentially acute if we attempt to explain the emergence of mental states and consciousness.

Is there a way to ascertain if physicalism is false and that a soul/mind exists independently? Dr. J. P. Moreland believes that—with the use of simple logic and a few clear definitions—we can be reasonably convinced that physicalism is false. What comes from the physical, by means of the physical will be another form of physical matter. There is, however, strong evidence for the existence of the soul/mind independently of the brain/body.

The first step to show that physicalism is false is to define a few key terms to use as clarification tools to decide if the brain and the mind are the same “thing.” Within the realm of dualism there is what is called substance dualism and property dualism. To understand these views requires the differentiation between substance and property. Property is an attribute or characteristic (squareness, redness, hardness, density). Properties tend to end in “ness” and “ity” in English. Properties are “had” by things. We can speak of the property of being blue, and then we can speak about the object holding that property, for example: “the pen is blue.”

A substance is something that has properties but nothing has it; for example, a pet has a property of being fluffy, of weighing 20 lbs, of being color brown, but nothing “has” the pet. The pet does all the “having.” Substances have properties and can gain or lose properties as well and remain the same substance. A pen can be painted green and lose the blueness property, but still be a pen (same substance).

To make our case against physicalism, we need to understand the nature of identity: Leibnitz’s law of identity posits that if we have a substance (or a property) X and another substance (or property) Y, if X is identical to Y, then whatever is true of X will be true of Y and vice-versa. For example; let X be “Neil Armstrong” and Y be “The first man to walk on the Moon.” If X is identical to Y, then Neil Armstrong is the first man to walk on the Moon. If this is true, then X and Y are the same substance. This is also true of properties. Now, if it can be proven that one thing is true of X that is not true of Y, then they are not the same substance or property. This is extremely important because now we can ask the question: is your consciousness nothing but physical properties of your brain? Are you your brain—and nothing more?

The key premise to test using the law of identity is the following: If there are true things of mental properties that are not true of physical properties, then they can’t be the same thing.

Let’s now review three arguments that show that there are some true things of mental properties that are not true of physical properties:

Argument 1: The property dualist agrees with the physicalist that we are physical substances (brain) but adds that the brain has two types of properties: physical and mental properties (and they are not the same). The brain has physical properties and mental properties. There is one possessor with two kinds of properties. Sensations are mental properties. Sensations can be perceptual sensations and non-perceptual. A sensation is a state of awareness that arrives from a sense organ (for example awareness of color, sound, smell, taste, texture). A non-perceptual sensation does not come from a sense organ (for example, fear, anger, love, anguish). A thought is a mental content that can be expressed in a whole sentence and can be true or false (for example, I can be thinking that “snow is white” but express it in French or Spanish). A belief is a mental content I take to be true (beliefs are not thoughts, for a person can hold a myriad of beliefs but not be thinking about any of them). Desires and acts of the will are also mental properties. The issue here for the physicalist is that these properties happen “inside of us” and there are properties that are true of sensations, thoughts, desires and acts of will that are not true of physical properties and vice versa; for example, thoughts don’t have size or shape. A thought can be true or false, but a feature of the brain or a group of neurons is neither true nor false. A brain state has a physical pattern of electricity, but the pattern is neither true nor false. We can think of a pink elephant and have an awareness of pink, but that awareness is not physical and we can’t find the color pink in the brain for which we experience such awareness. A sensation is pleasurable or not, but no physical property is pleasurable. There are true characteristics of our sensations that are not true of physical properties so they are not the same substance. This demonstrates that physicalism is false, and at least property dualism is true. No amount of information about our bodies can say everything there is to say about our conscious self.

Argument 2: I have the property of being possibly disembodied (the possibility that my “self” exists apart from my body) but my body doesn’t have the property of being possibly disembodied so I am not my body. By contrast, if water is H2O, is there’s anything that could possibly happen to water that couldn’t happen to H2O? No, there is nothing that wouldn’t happen to water that wouldn’t happen to H2O if they are the same thing. Even if life after death is false, surely, humans are at least possibly the kind of thing that can live after death. If that is so, then humans can’t be purely physical objects. There is something true of a human that is not true of the human body: I am possibly disembodiable. This does not prove immortality, but it illustrates that the body is not identical to the self.

Argument 3: The reality of free will. If all you are is a brain (even a conscious brain) and you believe physicalism is true, then all your behaviors are fixed by genes, brain structure, and environmental inputs. Physical objects behave according to natural laws and inputs, including the brain. But free choice requires that you are not simply your body because bodies are governed by physical laws. Free choice requires that humans be more than matter or brains. Matter, chemistry and electrical impulses can’t exercise free agency. But I submit to you that humans have significant freedom and moral responsibility and therefore true free will. In fact, our daily experience highlights the reality of true freedom of the will.

These three arguments show that there are true things about the self that are not true about a material body/brain and therefore physicalism is false.

Chris has an M.A. in Apologetics from Biola University and writes on the topic of Apologetics and Theology in Spanish and English at t Veritasfidei.org


1.William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, ed., “The Mind-Body Problem”, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 229.

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23 replies
  1. Andy Ryan says:

    “We can think of a pink elephant and have an awareness of pink, but that awareness is not physical and we can’t find the color pink in the brain for which we experience such awareness.”

    How do you know that the awareness is not physical?

    “we can’t find the color pink in the brain for which we experience such awareness”

    That’s doesn’t mean it isn’t in there. We knew physical characteristics were hereditary for decades before we’d discovered DNA, the mechanism by which those characteristics were passed on. Even now we don’t know what genes cause ‘tallness’ but it’s fairly obvious that very tall people tend to have taller kids and that this will be down to genes.

    “A thought can be true or false, but a feature of the brain or a group of neurons is neither true nor false”

    A computer can give you answers to math questions. Those answers can be true or false, but inside the computer it’s just zeroes and ones, binary. So what?

    “But I submit to you that humans have significant freedom and moral responsibility and therefore true free will”

    ‘Submitting’ something isn’t the same as presenting an argument for it. You’ve not shown that free will exists. Further, you’ve not shown that property dualism or the supernatural would create free will anyway.

    “I have the property of being possibly disembodied (the possibility that my “self” exists apart from my body)”

    What do you even mean here by ‘possibly’? How do you know this is possible?

    So is it possible that consciousness is an arising property of our brains? You’ve not said or argued anything that suggests to me otherwise. Is this conscious qualia the SAME as our brains? No, but it is caused by it. When the brain is damaged or influenced by drugs, the conscious experience changes. If the brain is like a vehicle being driven by a ‘true’ personality that exists separately to the brain, then what is happening when a person’s personality is changed by drugs or an accident or a stroke? Does that mean there are now TWO personalities – the real one and a fake one? Does this mean a fake (completely material) personality can appear ‘real’ to outsiders? Is so, and one cannot tell the difference, then how can you look at how humans behave and say they can’t be completely material?

    Reply
  2. KR says:

    Argument 1 seems to boil down to: sensations, thoughts and beliefs are conceptually different from physical things like brains – therefore sensations, thoughts and beliefs cannot emanate from physical brains.

    This seems like a non sequitur to me. If we start up an engine, we’re likely to experience noise. Noise is clearly different from an engine: it is not an object, it has no weight, it cannot be assembled and disassembled but it can propagate as waves. Since engines and noise are conceptually different, we must – applying the above logic – conclude that the noise we’re hearing cannot be emanating from the engine.

    Argument 2 starts off with this statement: “I have the property of being possibly disembodied (the possibility that my “self” exists apart from my body) but my body doesn’t have the property of being possibly disembodied so I am not my body.”

    The problem here is that by contrasting “I” with “my body”, dualism – which was supposed to be the conclusion – is already built into the premise. The physicalist position is of course that “I” = “my body”, which makes the above statement incoherent. Does the fact that I can imagine a mind without a body demonstrate that minds can exist without bodies? Of course not. I can easily imagine myself flying without the help of any technology but that doesn’t qualify as a demonstration that it can actually be done.

    Argument 3 is an appeal to free will. As a determinist I don’t think there is any such thing, the whole concept seems logically incoherent. I’ve laid out the argument for this in other threads on this site but here it comes again: to qualify as a free will choice (I’m talking about libertarian free will), this choice must have a reason. A choice made without a reason lacks intentionality and deliberation and cannot be the expression of the agent’s will – it’s basically a random occurrence. Moreover, the reason for the choice must be under the control of the agent – otherwise the choice is determined and not free.

    This means that the reason for a free will choice must also be a choice, which of course also needs a reason, a s o, a s o. The only way the agent can get out of this regress with his free will intact is through an action that is not by choice but still under the agent’s control. In other words, it would have to be simultaneously involuntary and voluntary – an obvious contradiction.

    Reply
    • Alfredo says:

      A free will choice can be established when a thought is brought into the conscious part of the brain without any external influence from the environment. So, suppose I ask you to think of a memory. You have the free will to literally think of any memory you choose to without any dependence from external stimuli. Though you are responding to a request of mine, the overall process of thoughts chosen by you occur at an unpredictable outcome. Only you hold the power to bring whatever thought you want to from the unconscious part of the brain into the conscious. Imagination, beliefs about certain concepts, the ability to uniquely design creation, perception, the rational/logical/mathematical ability to understand and uniquely problem solve, and moral/value deduction are indications of an unseen force driving the motives of every thought and action. This unseen force is the truest you. The part of you that can exist without the body. The soul. The brain is merely an organizing center incoming information from both the environment and the soul. The brain is an instrument of your personal choices, and only follows commands.

      Reply
      • Alfredo says:

        The brain does react on it’s own on occasion as a built in defense system encoded from actual information in order to stay alive. This is the “involuntary” nervous system.

        Reply
      • Luke says:

        When I read “think of a memory”, a memory appeared in my head. I had no sensation of choosing it. It wasn’t there one second, then it was there.

        Is that not how it happens for you Alfredo?

        Thanks,

        Luke

        Reply
        • Alfredo says:

          But I had no influence over the memory you specifically chose. You can choose to access any memory you want to. That’s free will.

          Reply
          • KR says:

            Alfredo wrote: “But I had no influence over the memory you specifically chose. You can choose to access any memory you want to. That’s free will.”

            Your definition of free will is clearly not what the blog poster meant. Chris Du-Pond wrote: “But I submit to you that humans have significant freedom and moral responsibility and therefore true free will.”

            To establish the moral responsibility of the agent, it’s not enough to show that the agent wasn’t coerced by another person. As I’ve already explained, you need to demonstrate two things:

            1) That the choice made by the agent had a reason, i.e. that the choice was intentional. If the agent is not aware of why he made a specific choice, then the choice is not an expression of his will and he obviously can’t be held responsible for it.

            2) That the reason for the choice is under the control of the agent. If it’s not, then the cause of the choice is determined, not free and the agent can’t be held responsible.

            This kind of “true free will” choice will, as I’ve shown, inevitably lead to a logical contradiction. If the reason for the choice must be under the control of the agent, then we will end up with a regress of choices based on previous choices which can only be broken by an action that is not by choice but still under the control of the agent – a logical impossibility.

          • toby says:

            Can we? Are there no external influences that lead us to pick a certain one? Let’s take a similar situation as an example. Say you’re at work and someone is talking about some country’s royalty their lords, kings, queens, princes, etc. And then after a few minutes you’re humming Purple Rain. Was that your choice or was it a subliminal connection that evoked that response and out of your control?

      • KR says:

        Alfredo wrote: “Though you are responding to a request of mine, the overall process of thoughts chosen by you occur at an unpredictable outcome.”

        If the process of picking a memory is unpredictable, then it clearly doesn’y qualify as a free will choice. It’s no more an expression of my will than rolling a die and seeing what comes up. If, on the other hand, there’s a reason for picking a particular memory then the next question becomes: did I choose that reason?

        For example, I might come up with a memory of a recent trip. If asked for the reason I thought of this trip I might answer that I enjoyed the trip and it’s a pleasant memory. In other words, I get a positive emotional reaction from thinking about this trip – but did I choose to have this positive reaction?

        The very question is absurd – we obviously don’t choose our emotional reactions. In other words, the reason for thinking about the trip is out of my control – a determined outcome and not a free will choice. In my experience, all our choices can be traced back to causes that are beyond our control. Our experience of choosing freely is an illusion.

        My experience is the same as Luke’s: I never feel that I choose my thoughts, they just appear in my mind.

        Reply
        • Josef Kauzlarich says:

          I’m not to familiar with free will philosophy. However, I am curious why you put any stock in your own thoughts if they are just chemicals reacting in your head (perhaps that is a misrepresentation of your view)? I can’t see any reason why your brain would have any natural reason to even come on here and argue over such a topic. Does it help you live longer? Please help me understand your view 🙂

          Thanks!

          Reply
          • KR says:

            Josef wrote: “I’m not to familiar with free will philosophy. However, I am curious why you put any stock in your own thoughts if they are just chemicals reacting in your head (perhaps that is a misrepresentation of your view)?”

            The short answer is that I put stock in my own thoughts in proportion to how well they’re supported by my empirical experience.

            “I can’t see any reason why your brain would have any natural reason to even come on here and argue over such a topic. Does it help you live longer?”

            The only “natural reason” for my brain to do anything is its genetic and environmental programming. In my case, this programming has made me interested in the subject of free will.

          • Josef Kauzlarich says:

            Thanks. KR. I appreciate it. One more question…and I’m not probing for an answer I already have…if you put stock in your chemical reactions (thoughts) as long as they are backed by your empirical experience (which is also just a bunch of consistent chemical reactions), why should I or anyone else believe anything you say? Or why should anyone follow you?

            I’m also really curious how you do morality from this perspective. In your view, isn’t evil absolved? Or non-existent?

          • Josef Kauzlarich says:

            KR…also…why would your genetic and environmental programming make you interested in free will? I’d like to see more detail od that thought you gave. I realize time is scarce so I’m sorry I’m asking alot. You can also point me to your favorite resources. Thanks for any response!

          • KR says:

            Josef wrote: “…if you put stock in your chemical reactions (thoughts) as long as they are backed by your empirical experience (which is also just a bunch of consistent chemical reactions), why should I or anyone else believe anything you say?”

            I’m not insisting anyone should believe anything I say. What I’m saying is I see empirical verification as a way to test whether by beliefs are true. Are you saying we should dismiss empirical observations because they’re “just a bunch of consistent chemical reactions”? If so, what other means of validating our thoughts would you suggest? In fact, how would you get through the day without relying on what your senses are telling you?

            “Or why should anyone follow you?”

            I don’t really join discussions in order to gain followers, I’m happy just to exchange ideas.

            “I’m also really curious how you do morality from this perspective. In your view, isn’t evil absolved? Or non-existent?”

            I think morality is a result of the programming I mentioned earlier. Some of it is probably genetic. Primatologist Frans de Waal (google his namne and you’ll find some interesting YT clips) has shown that a capacity for compassion and a sense of fairness is “hard-wired” into our brains and that this is true also for our relatives among the other primates. Compassion and fairness seems like a pretty good start to any morality.

            The rest I would say comes from our environmental programming: our family background, cultural background, education and life experiences. What we count as “evil” would depend on this programming.

            “KR…also…why would your genetic and environmental programming make you interested in free will?”

            I’m not sure what you’re asking. I could explain why I feel it’s an important subject but I sense you might be suggesting that there’s some agency involved here that has driven me to becoming interested in this topic. Could you clarify?

          • Josef Kauzlarich says:

            Thanks KR. Not suggesting anything…just trying to understand your views. Thank you very much for taking the time to respond. I appreciate it!

        • Luther says:

          Hrm, that’s interesting KR because I’m actually going to start a youtube series on free will vs God’s sovereignty: can they coenside. What I can tell you as just a preview is the short answer. Do we have free will? Or even a better question, can we have free will? Is it even possible?

          Short answer, yes, of course we have the will to freely choose.

          I’ve just made the freewill choice to reply back to your comment. I didn’t have to reply or even look at you comment, nor was forced to by any means or presuppositional thought patterns, I made a volitional, purposeful, deliberate decision to read your particular comment and then to type a reply.

          I could have, in the same manner, made a purposeful, deliberate decision not to look at your comment, or reply regardless of how strongly I feel about it now or how strongly I’ve felt about similar comments in the past. Even if my whole life before I typed this particular reply was all about typing reply’s to any and every comment I see on any blog on any subject whatever, I still made a volitional choice to affirm the action in this particular situation of typing you a reply.

          We have the will to choose for or against our feelings, we are not forced, as it were, to choose with our feelings. People choose against their feelings all the time. It’s not the most pleasant thing to do, but it is, can be, and has been done countless times by many people throughout human civilization.

          I won’t give you the long answer explanation just now because I’ve used up a lot of time, but I will leave you with just the beginning of the long answer.

          Again, the question, do we/can we have free will?

          Long answer, yes, but, our free will isn’t completely autonomous, we have a limited free will within the framework of reality. There are some decisions that we simply cannot make and there are some outcomes that we simply cannot control no matter how many free will choices we make.

          But, I will save the rest for my video series on this very subject. Thank you for your time sir.

          Reply
          • KR says:

            OK, so you’re claiming that your decision to reply to my comment was a free will choice. Let’s put that to the test. Can you give me the reason you chose to reply to my comment?

  3. L.K. says:

    I may be wrong, but doesn’t Jesus make a solid case about the mind/soul differing from brain/body in His historical reliable, eyewitness account of Lazarus and the rich man? We have no indication that this is a parable. It reads: Luke 16:19-31 “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. “Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ “Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”
    The things I read that convince me that we are more than body/brain are the following:
    The initial contrast of rich man and Lazarus. Obviously free will choices are made,desires exist ,good & evil are encountered and unfortunate turn of events are evident here while they are in their physical bodies on earth.
    The rich man dies and is buried. Punct. Lararus does not get a burial but it carried away by angels. Did the dogs who licked his wounds, eat his necrotized flesh? It’s plausible. Perhaps this is why there is no body to bury.
    Rich man and Lazarus’ spirits go to Hades where disembodied spirits wait.
    The rich man does posses a memory of Lazarus, his brothers and somehow recognizes Abraham.
    The rich man has desires for relief from torment.
    The rich man has emotions. He cries for mercy.
    The rich man has requests (and not a very nice one at that-asking Lazarus to leave the comfort of Abraham’s bosom to go serve his other greedy brothers).
    The rich man possibly? more probably regretting his earthly choices, gets very evangelistic (problem solving) for his brothers’ sake.
    The rich man now believes(too late unfortunately) in a resurrection of the dead.
    The rich man gets schooled on the supernatural; unfortunately he respects it too late to make any different choices effecting his outcome.
    The rich man learns? becomes aware? finally appreciates? the value of hearing God’s word (Moses and the prophets) that would lead one to repent and make wise choices that effect him in Hades (ultimately eternity) where things are fixed and unchanging. Torment and comfort. I don’t know about you but thanks to Jesus and all that He is, this evidence has always convinced me we are more than body/brain. Thus making physicalism false. We are indeed a soul that is in need of saving and Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life! Follow Him! “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thess 5:23.

    Reply
  4. Luke says:

    Hi LK,

    I am not sure how the verse you posted argues for dualism. To me, it seems to provide evidence against it.

    What did the rich man do? “And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.” (emphasis added)

    It seems from this verse that the rich man has eyes in the afterlife. The eyes are part of the body. He also sees Abraham and Lazarus. It doesn’t make sense that he would see something immaterial. Since he is able to recognize them, it makes sense that he sees their bodies. We are told that Lazarous has a finger, which is also a part of the body.

    It seems that the verse argues pretty convincingly that all three had bodies, even after death, not the opposite.

    Thanks,

    Luke

    Reply
    • L.K. says:

      Luke
      We do know the carbon-based body of the rich man was buried. The body in the after life is not carbon based. Looking at 1 Corinthians 15: 35-58 and 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 we learn there is a spiritual kind of flesh that is separate from the physical body. The spiritual/heavenly body is not carbon based. It is made by God who is Spirit. It does have recognizable features. So the 3 did have bodies but they were spiritual. We can have dualism. A physical-carbon body and a spiritual body. Thoughts?

      Reply
      • Luke says:

        Hi LK,

        Your first argument stated that it seems from the Bible that mind and body are separate — that the mind can be (exist and function) without a body.

        I pointed out that the cited verses actually showed the mind only working with a body (did not show an example of a mind without a body). A mind without a body would give strong evidence for the mind and body being separate, but this is not what your verses demonstrated.

        You then said that the mind is separate from a carbon-based body. This does not give evidence for dualism, however. In other words, even if this were true, it fails to show the mind existing separately from a body.

        You do make this non-carbon based body claim, and you back it up with some verses from One and Two Corinthians (h/t Donald Trump). Let’s look at those verses. “All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another flesh of birds, and another of fish.” Paul tells us.

        So fish, and beast, and people all have different flesh. We know that all are cabon based.
        Paul goes on to say that just as these are different, our hevenly bodies will be different.

        There just is no logical reason to conclude that these bodies will not be carbon based. Paul just told us that various carbon based bodies are “not the same flesh”, so why assume that the next time he says “another” flesh, he means “not carbon-based”?

        Sure, that could be true, but there is no evidence in the text to warrant such a conclusion. And again, even if there was, it does nothing to provide evidence for dualism, since it is just another example of a mind with a body.

        Thanks,

        Luke

        Reply
  5. FS says:

    I think morality is a result of the programming I mentioned earlier. Some of it is probably genetic. Primatologist Frans de Waal (google his name and you’ll find some interesting YT clips) has shown that a capacity for compassion and a sense of fairness is “hard-wired” into our brains and that this is true also for our relatives among the other primates.

    Why would evolution hard-wire compassion and fairness into any brain? Evolution is survival of the fittest

    Reply

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