The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Can you disprove this?

That can be true… and yet isn’t to the exclusion of choices likewise being able to actually change brain chemistry.

Yes… but those choices, whether your own choices or the choices of others, are still affected by some type of neurotransmitter in your overall brain chemistry. You seem to be pointing to the fact that human thought is not 1-dimensionally affected by a single type of neurotransmitter?

I haven’t studied neuroscience, but I would assume that it took trillions or maybe exponentially more than trillions of chemical reactions in my brain, nervous system, and arms/hands/fingers to write this short post.

It is a fact that many of the chemical reactions that occurred in my nervous system led towards me typing other responses. But certain actions of certain neurotransmitters, coupled with the accessing of many sections of my mind - i.e. “choices” - led to this actual post.

Brock, I appreciate your vigorous argument. However, I cannot agree with it in toto.
Granted, there is brain chemistry. But to go further than this, to state that consciousness just is brain activity, would be nonsense. A mind-brain identity theory has been floated around philosophically for hundred of years, and found wanting.
Materialism just does not work as an explanation of self-awareness or God-awareness.
Now it would be easy for us to start talking past one another in a cycle of ‘we are responsible’ and ‘no, God is at root to blame for everything we freely do’ but I hope to avoid that tiring and unproductive way of going about things, so let me refer to a source that takes this subject on in a thoughtful and philosophical way, and I’ll just ease out of this thread, if I can.

Evidence that brain chemistry plays a role in choice, I think is very clear. When we use drugs like SSRIs, behavior can completely change. So physical alterations to brain chemicals alter behavior… This cannot be disputed.

Of course, that’s obvious. Agreed.

At the time that I studied “philosophy of mind” at the University of Manitoba in the 1960s, the prevailing view was that mental events are tantamount to brain events. I didn’t accept that. My mark in the course depended entirely on a single essay, and my presentation of it to the class. I argued for the existence of the “metaphysical ego” that transcended the mere physical. Concerning the human mind, the professor believed in the prevailing philosophical concept of the time—that mental events were but brain events.

After my initial class presentation, the prof said, “Your reasoning is weak here, and here, and here. Go home and deal with that and try again.” I did so, but did not swerve from my position that the metaphysical self transcended the mere physical brain and yet was inextricably connected to it.

After I turned in my final revised paper, the prof wrote his remarks on it. As I remember, his remarks were something like this: "Much improved. Thinking expressed much more clearly, but still wrong. He gave me an A minus.

This is a long post, and I apologize for the length, but those involved in this thread may be very interested in it, agree or not.
It’s from Bill Vallicella:

The Problem of Consciousness and Galen Strawson’s Non-Solution
The problem can be set forth in a nice neat way as an aporetic triad:

  1. Consciousness is real; it is not an illusion.

  2. Consciousness is wholly natural, a material process in the brain.

  3. It is impossible that conscious states, whether object-directed or merely qualitative, be material in nature.

It is easy to see that the members of this triad are collectively inconsistent: they cannot all be true. Any two of the propositions, taken together, entails the negation of the remaining proposition.

And yet each limb of the triad has brilliant defenders and brilliant opponents. So not only is consciousness itself a mighty goad to inquiry; the wild diversity of opinions about it is as well. (The second goad is an instance of what I call the Moorean motive for doing philosophy: G. E. Moore did not get his problems from the world, but from the strange and mutually contradictory things philosophers said about the world, e.g., that time is unreal (McTaggart) or that nothing is really related (Bradley).)

The above problem is soluble if a compelling case can be made for the rejection of one of the limbs. But which one? Eliminativists reject (1); dualists of all types, and not just substance dualists, reject (2); materialists reject (3).

I agree with Strawson that eliminativism has zero credibility. (1) is self-evident and the attempts to deny it are easily convicted of incoherence. So no solution is to be had by rejecting (1).

As for (2), it is overwhelmingly credible to most at the present time. We live in a secular age. ‘Surely’ – the secularist will assure us – there is nothing concrete that is supernatural. God and the soul are just comforting fictions from a bygone era. The natural exhausts the real. Materialism about the mind is just logical fallout from naturalism. If all that (concretely) exists is space-time and its contents, then the same goes for minds and their states.

Strawson, accepting both (1) and (2) must reject (3). But the arguments against (3), one of which I will sketch below, are formidable. The upshot of these arguments is that it is unintelligible how either qualia or intentional states of consciousness could be wholly material in nature. Suppose I told you that there is a man who is both fully human and fully divine. You would say that that makes no sense, is unintelligible, and is impossible for that very reason. Well, it is no less unintelligible that a felt sensation such as my present blogger’s euphoria be identical to a state of my brain.

What could a materialist such as Strawson say in response? He has to make a mysterian move.

He could say that our understanding of matter at present does not allow us to understand how conscious experience could be wholly material in nature, but that it is nevertheless wholly material in nature! Some matter is sentient and some matter thinks. My euphoria is literally inside my skull and so are my thoughts about Boston.

(Compare the orthodox Chalcedonian incarnationalist who says that the man Jesus of Nazareth is identical to the Second Person of the Trinity. Put him under dialectical pressure and he might say, "Look it is true! We know it by divine revelation. And what is true is true whether or not we can understand how it is possible that it be true. It must remain a mystery to us here below.)

Or a materialist mysterian can say that our understanding of matter will never allow us to understand how conscious experience could be wholly material in nature. Either way, conscious experience, whether intentional or non-intentional, is wholly material in nature, and falls entirely within the subject-matter of physics, whether a future physics achievable by us, or a physics which, though not achievable by us, is perhaps achievable by organisms of a different constitution who study us.

If I understand Galen Strawson’s view, it is the first. Conscious experience is fully real but wholly material in nature despite the fact that on current physics we cannot account for its reality: we cannot understand how it is possible for qualia and thoughts to be wholly material. Here is a characteristic passage from Strawson:

Serious materialists have to be outright realists about the experiential. So they are obliged to hold that experiential phenomena just are physical phenomena, although current physics cannot account for them. As an acting materialist, I accept this, and assume that experiential phenomena are “based in” or “realized in” the brain (to stick to the human case). But this assumption does not solve any problems for materialists. Instead it obliges them to admit ignorance of the nature of the physical, to admit that they don’t have a fully adequate idea of what the physical is, and hence of what the brain is. (“The Experiential and the Non-Experiential” in Warner and Szubka, p. 77)

Strawson and I agree on two important points. One is that what he calls experiential phenomena are as real as anything and cannot be eliminated or reduced to anything non-experiential. Dennett denied! The other is that there is no accounting for experiential items in terms of current physics.

I disagree on whether his mysterian solution is a genuine solution to the problem. What he is saying is that, given the obvious reality of conscious states, and given the truth of naturalism, experiential phenomena must be material in nature, and that this is so whether or not we are able to understand how it could be so. At present we cannot understand how it could be so. It is at present a mystery. But the mystery will dissipate when we have a better understanding of matter.

This strikes me as bluster.

An experiential item such as a twinge of pain or a rush of elation is essentially subjective; it is something whose appearing just is its reality. For qualia, esse = percipi. If I am told that someday items like this will be exhaustively understood from a third-person point of view as objects of physics, I have no idea what this means. The notion strikes me as absurd. We are being told in effect that what is essentially subjective will one day be exhaustively understood as both essentially subjective and wholly objective. And that makes no sense. If you tell me that understanding in physics need not be objectifying understanding, I don’t know what that means either.

As Strawson clearly appreciates, one cannot reduce a twinge of pain to a pattern of neuron firings, for such a reduction eliminates the what-it-is-like-ness of the experience. And so he inflates the concept of the physical to cover both the physical and the mental. But by doing this he drains the physical of definite meaning. His materialism is a vacuous materialism. We no longer have any idea of what ‘physical’ means if it no longer contrasts with ‘mental.’

If we are told that sensations and thoughts are wholly material, we have a definite proposition only if ‘material’ contrasts with ‘mental.’ But if we are told that sensations and thoughts are material, but that matter in reality has mental properties and powers, then I say you are talking nonsense. You are creating grammatically correct sentences that do not express a coherent thought.

Besides, if some matter in reality senses and thinks, surely some matter doesn’t; hence we are back to dualism.

Why is Strawson’s mysterianism any better than Dennett’s eliminativism? Both are materialists. And both are keenly aware of the problem that qualia pose. This is known in the trade as the ‘hard problem.’ (What? The other problems in the vicinity are easy?) The eliminativist simply denies the troublesome data. Qualia don’t exist! They are illusory! The mysterian materialist cannot bring himself to say something so manifestly silly. But, unwilling to question his materialism, he says something that is not much better. He tells us that qualia are real, and wholly material, but we don’t understand how because we don’t know enough about matter. But this ‘theological’ solution is also worthless because no definite proposition is being advanced.

Strawson frankly confesses, “I am by faith a materialist.” (p. 69) Given this faith, experiential items, precisely as experiential, must be wholly material in nature. This faith engenders the hope that future science will unlock the secret. Strawson must pin his hope on future science because of his clear recognition that experiential items are incomprehensible in terms of current physics.

But what do the theological virtues of faith and hope have to do with sober inquiry? It doesn’t strike me as particularly intellectually honest to insist that materialism just has to be true and to uphold it by widening the concept of the physical to embrace what is mental. It would be more honest just to admit that the problem of consciousness is insoluble.

And that is my ‘solution.’ The problem is real, but insoluble by us.

Dave, in a sentence or two, would you explain what you see as “the problem” that is real?

Those were Bill Vallicellas’s words, not mine. He’s in Europe at the moment, but maybe we’ll keep this in mind and ask him when he gets back.

Here’s one more on the same theme, maybe more appropriate. Also BV:

Could the Mind be the Brain?
Few philosophers nowadays would maintain the bald thesis that the mind is identical to the brain, but it is a view that one hears among the laity. So it is worth refuting, this being a blog that I hope is somewhat accessible to the proverbial ‘educated layman.’ (One of my motives in starting it over seven years ago was to offer free philosophy lessons, thereby doing my bit to enlighten the masses and counteract, if ever so slightly, their immersion in panem et circenses.) But note: proving that the mind cannot be identical to the brain does not amount to proving that the mind is capable of existing apart from some material embodiment or other.

So my question is this: Are mind and brain identical? To answer the question one must know what one means by ‘identity.’ I mean strict numerical sameness. Consider the sole of my boot and the print it leaves on the trail. Are boot sole and boot print identical? Well, if you permit the phrase ‘qualitatively identical,’ then they are qualitatively identical, identical in respect of at least one quality, namely, having the same shape. But they are obviously numerically distinct. Count 'em: one, two. You could say that there is a correlation between the two. But correlation is not identity. If x and y are correlated, then they are precisely not numerically identical but numerically distinct. Correlation entails numerical distinctness.

So don’t confuse qualitative with numerical identity, and don’t confuse identity with correlation. That’s the beginning of wisdom, but only the beginning.

I now introduce a principle known in the trade as the Indiscernibility of Identicals. Stated roughly, it says that if x and y are numerically identical, then they share all properties. (A precise formulation would have to address the question as to what exactly counts as a property. Does ‘is identical to Obama’ pick out a property?) The Indiscernibility of Identicals is not only true, but necessarily true in the sense that it is impossible that x and y differ property-wise if they are numerically identical.

Given the self-evident necessary truth of the Indiscernibility of Identicals, if my mind is identical to my brain, then my mind and my brain share all properties: everything true of the one is true of the other, and vice versa. But it is clear that they do not share all properties. The brain is a physical thing with a definite mass, weight, location, size, shape. One can inject dyes into various of its subregions. One can insert electrodes into it. One can remove and discard parts of it. One can add parts. I can literally give you a piece of my brain. (And you hope I won’t.) But can I literally give you a piece of my mind? Does my mind have a weight in grams? Is it divisible? Do my thoughts have a location or a volume? if one thought has a second as its object, as when I reflect, is the second thought located above the second? How far above? Can we intelligibly speak of the voltage drop across a thought?

It is true that my mind is now wholly occupied with the mind-body problem. But it is either false or makes no sense to say that my brain is now wholly occupied with the mind-body problem. It follows from these facts alone that my mind and my brain cannot be identical. The argument is very simple, and because so simple, very compelling (simplex sigillum veri):

If x and y differ property-wise, then x is not y.
Mind and brain differ in respect of the property of being wholly occupied with the mind-body problem.
Mind is not brain.

The most we could say is that a proper part of the brain is thinking about the mind-body problem. Not everything the brain does is concerned with consciousness or with thinking. The parts that control cardiac and respiratory functions have nothing directly to do with mental activity. Connected with this is the fact that, even if every mental event is a brain event, not every brain event is a mental event. A blockage of a brain-internal blood vessel is a brain event, but not one that is mental. The brain has perhaps 100 different structures and some of these such as the vascular and bony structures have nothing directly to do with mental phenomena. In simple terms, the brain cannot function without oxygenated blood pumped through a system of blood vessels, but those processes are not conscious processes. There is nothing mental about them.

So it is clear that the mind cannot be identical to the brain. If that identity held, then every brain state would be mental, which is obviously false. But what is wrong with holding the converse, namely, that every mental state is a brain state?

A similar indiscernibility objection can be made. If every mental state is a brain state, then every belief (e.g. my belief that Boston is on the Charles River) is a brain state. But beliefs have properties that brain states cannot have. One is the property of being either true or false; another is intentionality. So no belief is a brain state. But then there are mental states that are not brain states.

Here is another way to look at it. For reasons already given, it is obvious that there are brain states that are not mental states. So if there are mental states that are brain states, then there must be some properties that distinguish these brain states that are mental states from the brain states that are not mental states. These properties will have to be specifically mental: no physical property could do the trick. But then, applying the Indiscernibility of Identicals once again, any brain state that was initially supposed to be a mental state would be seen to have a property that would entail its non-identity witha brain state. Think about it.

What are your own thoughts about all this, Dave? As for me, I am not a dualist. I see mind and body as two aspects of a person, each of which cannot exist independently of the other.

Also, it is the case that when something affects the mind, the body can be affected. For example if one worries, he can acquire stomach ulcers.

Conversely, when something affects the body, the mind can be affected. Old age can result in memory loss, and decreased ability to engage in other mental activities. DON’T I KNOW IT! I am in my 81st year of life!

Dave, thanks for the thought-provoking posts today.

My thinking on the content of your posts has led to some questions that relate to the discussion:

I assume you believe that a person’s spiritual essence is granted before death and interacts with a person’s body to collectively, along with brain matter, create the “mind”?

What Biblical reasons are there to believe that God grants each person a supernatural spirit/soul essence before death? The Bible certainly implies that both the Holy Spirit and demonic spirits can affect a person’s nervous system. Does it also imply that we have personal supernatural spirits (equivalent or nearly equivalent to our “minds”) that affect our bodies?

In my conscious memories of Bible reading, I have no reason to conclude that we each have a supernatural spirit before death. But as I stated in another thread, I have some minor brain damage that affects my memory in strange ways sometimes.

The only questionably applicable verse that comes to mind is Mark 12:30: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

Is Jesus not simply drawing distinctions of types of brain wave/neurotransmitter activity when He refers to the heart, soul, and mind separately?

Gents - I do not know ‘the’ answer. I read many of the ‘identity theorists’ back in the day but was never convinced by their arguments - at least the ones I understood (turns out they could not understand one another either ;-)).
And I’ve studied some brilliant dualists but still remain undecided.
I do think it is clear that not all brain activity is mental activity (mind)- the brain does lots of stuff that we are not conscious of. But not much follows from that lack of identity, because we could still hold that mind is a part of brain, the part that is mental.

Suppose we had a large screen that we could peer through and watch the actual physical processes in the brain. (Big supposition). Going further, we observe subject A, when thinking proposition P (“I’m too fat”) has a total brain state X.
Three possibilities:

  1. A says P and then the brain enters X immediately
  2. A says P and the brain concurrently enters X
  3. The brain enters X and then A says P.

(1) would suggest dualism
(2) would suggest identity
(3) would suggest epiphenomenalism.

Sadly we do not have such a device, and without that empirical evidence we are thrown on our own resources. Thus - books, many many books, and no consensus.

All that aside - what a marvelous, awesome, wondrously fashioned thing is the human brain!! The more I read about it, the more overwhelmed I feel, and thankful I am for such a Creator.

But even allowing for such choices (as blueberry v apple pie), being free to choose God, or choose to be saved, is surely not possible? Even our faith is a gift from God (Eph 2:8), not something we just decide to have (like blueberry pie).

Luther likened free will to a stone being dropped from an outstretched hand. Unless it has outside help, the stone will always fall downwards. This ‘outside help’ is what the regenerate Christian is said to possess to some extent. It could be a tiny influence on the will, or, in those who draw nearest to God and are more closely aligned to the divine will, can even cause choices which are certainly not in the individual’s self interest, yet are decisions freely chosen (even the willingness to die).

God bless



You said our choices are still affected by some type of neurotransmitter in your overall brain chemistry. You’re actually incorrect about that. For a very long time, scientists thought that brain chemistry is what controlled us, but what psychologists have known for quite some time now and what science is finally proving with more recent experiments is that brain chemistry actually follows the emotional state. So a person can actually change their emotions and that changes their brain chemistry. We are not controlled by our chemistry. Our subconscious runs about 95% of our system and there are a whole lot of beliefs and emotions tied together in our subconscious (one might call it the heart). If a hypnotherapist wants to take care of a person’s health problems, all he has to do is get the person in a theta brainwave state and let the subconscious start talking through the person in order to tell what emotion and belief is causing the health problem. Then the hypnotherapist can correct the brain chemistry, the health problem, and the emotional problem simply by correcting the belief issue.

I worked with people with Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD/DID) for five years helping them integrate their alters (alternate personalities) into a single personality. Once all of the alters were emotionally healed by removing their abusive memories among other things, they’d naturally integrate on their own into a single personality. When that happened, all of their health problems would go away instantly. We’re talking incurable diseases, terminal diseases, all kinds of stuff. All of it vanished suddenly. It’s completely normal for a multiple to shift their diseases and eyesight and eye color and blood type just by changing alters (alternate personalities). So one alter will have certain emotional trauma happen to her which caused certain health problems like, let’s say, really bad vision, high blood pressure, type O negative blood, and an incurable disease. A doctor takes her blood, does tests, gets the blood type, and confirms all of those issues. Then the person will have another alter take over the body and they’ll do the blood test again. Suddenly, the blood is a different type, the person takes off her glasses because she has perfect vision, and has none of the diseases or conditions the other alter had before. Instead, she has different medical conditions. It all depends on what kind of trauma she endured and how that twisted her subconscious beliefs and emotions. You lock away the traumatic memories and the beliefs and emotions they prompted get hidden away, as well, and stop affecting the body with problems. I’m not multiple but I’ve managed to get rid of physical issues very quickly just by fixing emotional issues or by convincing my subconscious to react differently. I used to strain tendons when I’d work out. It’d take 1-2 weeks for them to heal so I could start working out again. Then I developed a method I started using immediately after I strained a tendon. It’d take me less than a minute to correct the problem and the tendon strain would go away and I’d continue working out again immediately. I also got rid of a long-term candida overgrowth in my gut that way.

So again, chemicals aren’t what’s controlling a person–their subconscious is.


A lot of people misunderstand what freewill is. They couple power with it. But when you separate them you can start figuring out what freewill actually is and whether we have it or not.

Freewill is strictly a choice. It is not the power to execute that choice. So if I want to fly without the aid of anything, I can choose to fly. But if I don’t have the power to fly, I will not be able to execute my freewill choice to fly.

Now let’s say there’s a really big guy who has me in a prison cell. I can choose with my freewill to escape the prison, but I don’t have as much power as the big guy who has me locked up. His will is to keep me in the cell. So since he has more power than me, his freewill is what actually gets done.

Same goes for God. We have freewill, but He has the power to manipulate events in the world and especially in our circumstances around us. And He knows our hearts so well that He can orchestrate our circumstances in such a way that it will get us to choose whatever He wants us to choose in any given situation. Why? Because He has way more power than we do…but we still have freewill. He simply uses His power to get His will done because His will is loving and ours is selfish.

He shows this in Proverbs when we’re told, “A man plans in his heart but the Lord directs his steps.” It’s really that simple. It’s complex in practice and only God could do it, but it’s simple in concept. I do this with my seven-year-old son. I give him three choices, but I know there’s one choice that he’ll pick over the others because I know his heart. But he doesn’t know that’s what I’m doing. He’s just using his heart to choose what he wants with his freewill, even though I’m directing his freewill without him knowing it. Make sense?

Most of us Christians hold to the Greek philosophical concept of the soul—that your soul is the “real you”, a non-physical entity that inhabits your body whose essence is your consciousness. I understand that Plato believed in re-incarnation, that after your death, your immaterial soul would inhabit a baby some time in the future if you had lived a good life. Otherwise, it might inhabit one of the other forms of animal life.

The main Greek concept (not necessarily Plato’s) was imported into Christianity and has had it place for centuries. The vast majority of Christians believe that their “immortal soul” never dies, but that after death it goes immediately to either heaven or hell.

In the New Testament, the word “ψυχος” (psychos) which is usually translated as “soul”, is used to represent “self” and so your “soul” is your “self” (or “yourself”), although sometimes it may refer to your life. Here is an example of that use of the word in the New Testament:

16 And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man produced plentifully,
17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’
18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.
19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’
20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? (Luke 12:16-20 ESV)

To whom was the rich man talking when he was addressing his “soul”? Which was “the real you”, the man, or his soul? Was he not simply talking to himself?

Today we would probably relate verse 19 a bit differently. If the man’s name were “Sam” we might have him saying, "And I will say to myself, “Sam, you old son of a gun! You have enough money and goods to last for many years. You can simply relax, eat, drink, and be merry!”

Then in verse 20, we might write, "But God said to him, “Fool! Tonight your life is required of you.”

Wow, we really got into a discussion about whether the mind is physical or spiritual?

The problem here is that we are limited in our equipment to prove such things. However, there has been some fringe science on this so that we can prove the mind is a spirit entity and the body is interacting with it, if I’m not mistaken. I think the book The Field talks about the research, but I’ve forgotten the specifics. We’ve proved that plants have minds, actually, with scientific research studies. Not only that but plants react to our thoughts. That’s 100% proven. Weird stuff.

But if we take the fact that doctors have pronounced people 100% brain-dead, and yet a person comes out of body and is seeing everything being done to them and things being done in other rooms in the hospital, and then they get resuscitated and tell all about those things is plenty of proof that the mind is a spiritual entity, not physical.

Also, when people are dead, they say their mind in their head goes away completely and their mind ends up being in their chest where their heart is, and it is quite a bit different in how it functions. Food for thought. Enjoy!

This seems to be more of a clarification and opportunity for further clarification of what I originally said. Yes, our subconscious and emotions affect neurotransmitters (as neurotransmitters affect our emotions and - maybe indirectly - our subconscious). But our emotions are regulated by parts of the brain - specifically the limbic system.

By “brain chemistry” I was speaking of all subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules in our brains - and their chemical interactions. There are a mind-boggling number of atoms in a single neuron in the brain. And perhaps 80 - 100 Billion neurons in the brain. All of those subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules follow the natural laws that God sustains. That isn’t to say that God doesn’t allow the bending of those natural laws by the spirit world. But then, what sustains and regulates the spirit world but…once again…God?

Hence God is ultimately responsible for every natural and/or spiritual chain reaction that produces every single human thought or action. He is the artist of the physicality and history of the universe. From His perspective, we are just along for the ride… although we have free will from our perspective. That seems to be another way of expressing the Proverb in your initial post.

Who are you reading on the topic of spiritual death experiences? Has there been a reputable scientific study on the matter? I’m not implying that the stories are fabricated, but it would take a lot for me to believe such.

I think all people agree that we have a mind and a body and that there is an interaction between the two.
The question is whether we possess a “soul” or “spirit” that is separate from our body.

But I don’t think that even “fringe science” has proved that the mind is a “spirit entity”.