Illogic Primer Quotes Clippings Books and Bibliography Paper Trails Links Film

Naturalism, Christianity, and the Human Person

J.P. Moreland, "Naturalism Part IV" in Promise (Sep/Oct 1996), pp. 34-37.

What is the nature of the human person? A mere conglomeration of matter that consists of different levels of brain state or a being that is also endowed with a soul? In this final part of the series on Naturalism, Dr. J. P. Moreland exposes the philosophical inadequacies of physicalism and explains why the Christian message is more convincing.

Cultural myths die hard. For example, the belief that movie stars are qualified to speak as moral authorities persists in spite of the flood of evidence to the contrary virtually every time a famous actor tries to do so. After all, the name “Tinseltown” as a title for Hollywood has more than a little ring of truth to it. Another cultural myth that manages to stick around is the idea that most thinking people are naturalists. As naturalist philosopher David Papineau opines, “nearly everybody nowadays wants to be a ‘naturalist’….”1 But no matter how loudly this opinion is shouted, it is plainly false. The overwhelming number of people around the world, including educated people in developed nations, are theists of some sort or another. And in Papineau’s own discipline, philosophy, it is a safe bet to say that if one were to add up all the members of the Society of Christian Philosophers and toss in Catholic and Protestant philosophers worldwide, the total would most likely surpass the number of naturalists in the discipline. But even if this were wrong, it is clearly true that not everyone in philosophy wants to be a naturalist.

It is important to make this point about numbers because naturalists often try to give the impression that the really smart people all end upon their side, so there must be some secret knowledge or insight they possess to which average folks don’t have access or else they would be naturalists too. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the final analysis, of course, the issue is not numbers, but arguments and evidence. Therefore, in this final installment of my four-part series on naturalism, I want to wrap-up my critique of naturalism by showing what is wrong with the most consistent naturalist view of human beings: physicalism.

In part I of this series, I described naturalism in this way: the spatio-temporal universe of physical objects, properties, events, and processes that are well established by scientific forms of investigation is all there was, is, or ever will be. There are three major components of naturalism. First, naturalism begins with an epistemology, a view about the nature and limits of knowledge, known as scientism. Second, naturalism contains a theory, a causal story, about how everything has come-to-be. The central components of this story are the atomic theory of matter and evolution. Third, naturalism has a view about what is real: physical entities are all there are. In part I we also saw that the naturalist’s creation myth-evolution-is religiously embraced with a fervency well beyond what the evidence justifies because evolution 1) is thought to be the only scientific, and therefore, rational alternative to origins available and 2) serves as a convenient myth for a secular lifestyle.

In part II, I argued that naturalism is inadequate because it fails to provide room for the existence of objective, normative states of value-virtues, proper human functioning, moral rules. I also claimed that naturalism fails to give metaphysical grounding for equal human rights. In part III, I showed that the nature and evidential value of religious experience provide grounds for believing in God and the truth of Christianity over naturalism. In what follows, I shall argue for the same conclusion in light of the nature of human persons.2

Naturalism, Christianity, and the Human Soul

Physicalism is the view that human beings, including all their parts, features, abilities, and internal states, are nothing but physical objects. To be sure, humans are very complicated, even computer-like physical objects, but for all of that, physicalists still insist that humans are mere arrangements of physical stuff. Though some would demur, most naturalists have taken their position to require strict physicalism precisely because the latter seems to be implied by the constraints placed on one’s anthropology by the three aspects of naturalism mentioned above. William Lyons’ statement is representative of most naturalists on this point:

[Physicalism] seem[s] to be in tune with the scientific materialism of the twentieth century because it [is] a harmonic of the general theme that all there is in the universe is matter and energy and motion and that humans are a product of the evolution of species just as much as buffaloes and beavers are. Evolution is a seamless garment with no holes wherein souls might be inserted from above.3

For the naturalist, there should be a coherence among third person scientific ways of knowing, a physical, evolutionary account of how our sensory and cognitive processes came to be, and an analysis of what those processes are. Any entities that are taken to exist should bear a relevant similarity to those that characterize our best physical theories, their coming-to-be should be intelligible in light of the naturalist causal story, and they should be knowable by scientific means.

Historically and biblically, Christianity has held to a dualist notion of the human being. A human being is a unity of two distinct entities-body and soul.4 The soul, while not by nature immortal, is nevertheless capable of entering an intermediate disembodied state upon death and, eventually, being reunited with a resurrected body. The name for this view is substance dualism. On this view, the self or I is a substantial, unified reality that informs and causally interacts with its body and that contains various mental states within it — sensations, thoughts, beliefs, desires, and acts of will. A sensation is a state of awareness or sentience, a mode of consciousness, e.g., a conscious awareness of sound, color, or pain. A thought is a mental content that can be expressed in an entire sentence and that only exists while it is being thought. Some thoughts logically imply other thoughts. For example, “All dogs are mammals” entails “This dog is a mammal.” Some thoughts don’t entail, but merely provide evidence for other thoughts. For example, certain thoughts about evidence in a court case provide evidence for the thought that a person is guilty. A belief is a person’s view, accepted to varying degrees of strength, of how things really are. At any given time, one can have many beliefs thatare not currently being contemplated. A desire is a certain inclination to do, have, or experience certain things. Desires are either conscious or such that they can be made conscious through certain activities, for example, through therapy. An act of will is a volition, an exercise of power, an endeavoring to do certain things.

Now if something is merely physical, then in principle, it call be given a complete description in physical terms, say, in the categories of physics, chemistry, biology, and neurophysiology. Substance dualists want to insist, however, that neither the self nor its internal states can be described physically. Briefly put, the dualist claims that no material thing, e.g., the moon or a carbon atom, presupposes or requires reference to consciousness for it to exist or be characterized. You will search in vain through a physics or chemistry textbook to find consciousness included in any description of matter. A completely physical description of the world would not include any terms that make reference to or characterize the existence and nature of the I or any of its stares of consciousness. Yet the I and its internal states do require consciousness to characterize them adequately. So the I and its internal states are not physical.

To understand more fully why dualism is to be preferred to physicalism, we need to look briefly at what is called the nature of identity. Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) once remarked that everything is itself and not something else. This simple truth has profound implications. Suppose you want to know whether J. P. Moreland is Eileen Spiek’s youngest son. If J. P. Moreland is identical to Eileen Spiek’s youngest son, then in reality, there is only one thing we are talking about: J. P. Moreland is Eileen Spiek’s youngest son. Furthermore, J. P. Moreland is identical to himself; he is not different from himself. Now if J. P. Moreland is not identical to Eileen Spiek’s youngest son, then in reality we are talking about two things, not one.

This illustration can be generalized into a truth about the nature of identity: For any x and y, if x and y are identical (they are really the same thing, there is only one thing you are talking about, not two), then any truth that applies to x will apply to y and vice versa. This suggests a test for identity: if you could find one thing true of x not true of y, or vice versa, then x cannot be identical to (be the same thing as) y. Keep in mind that the relation of identity is different from any other relation, for example, causation or constant connection. It may be that brain events cause mental events or vice versa (e.g., having certain electrical activity in the brain may cause me to experience a pain, having an intention to raise my arm may cause bodily events). It may be that for every mental activity a neurophysiologist can find a physical activity in the brain with which it is correlated. But just because A causes B (fire causes smoke), or just because A and B are constantly correlated with each other, that does not mean that A is identical to B. Something is trilateral if and only if it is triangular. But trilaterality (the property of having three sides) is not identical to triangularity (the property of having three angles), even though they are constantly conjoined.

It is not enough to establish physicalism that mental states and brain states are causally related or constantly conjoined with each other in an embodied person. Physicalism needs identity to make its case, and if something is true or possibly true of a mental substance, property, or event that is not true or possibly true of a physical substance, property, or event,
physicalism is false. With this in mind, here are four arguments for a dualist construal of human persons.

First, there is the simple fact that consciousness itself is not something that can be described in physical categories. For example, the felt, experienced texture of our sensory states of awareness the hurtfulness of pain, the experienced tone of an awareness of sound, the vivacity of an awareness of red cannot be captured by physics, chemistry, or neurophysiology. A pain is not a hardware stare of the brain, nor is it a tendency to grimace and shout “Ouch!” A pain is a certain felt state of consciousness to which I have first person, private access. No one can be aware of my pain in this way, but others can be aware of the brain stare correlated with my pain in the same ways I have available to me. If a red object seems orange to me for some reason or another, then the statement “the object is orange” is false (since it is red), but the statement ‘the object seems orange to me” is true. The former statement is about a physical object, say a red ball, and could be-and in this case, is-false; the latter statement is about a private stare of my own consciousness-the state in which something seems or appears orange to me, and it is hard to see how I could be wrong about such a claim. If the object appears orange to me then I know this for certain, even if my claim about the ball itself could be mistaken. A scientist deaf from birth who knew everything there was to know about the Physical aspects of hearing would, if she suddenly regained her ability to hear, learn completely new facts totally left out of her prior exhaustive knowledge of the physical aspects of hearing, viz., what it is like to hear. If one hallucinates a pink elephant, then there is an awareness of pink in one’s mind, but there is no awareness of pink in the brain as would become evident if a detailed brain scan were done at that moment. All such a scan would reveal would be chemical and electrical activity, but no awareness of pink would be detected.

Second, our conscious states have intentionality, but no physical state has intentionality, so our conscious states are not physical. Intentionality refers to the “ofness” or “aboutness” of our mental states. I have a thought of the President, a hope for rain, a fear about a coming visit to the dentist. No physical state is of or about another physical state. One state of the brain may cause another one to follow, but no brain state is about anything. A thought is only one type of mental state that has intentionality. Sensations, beliefs, and desires have this feature as well. But while we are on the topic of thoughts as an illustration of intentionality, it will be useful to say a few more things about thoughts that show they are not physical. To repeat, thoughts are of things, but nothing physical is of anything. Second, a thought, say, that necessarily, triangles have 180 degrees, does not have size, shape, spatial location, chemical composition, or electrical properties. But the state of my brain correlated with a thought does have these features. Third, some thoughts logically entail other thoughts. For example, the thought “grass is green” logically entails the thought that “it is false that grass is not green.” There is no possible world that even God could create where grass would be both green and not green at the same time in the same sense. But no physical thing entails another physical thing. Moreover, the laws of nature (e.g., the law of gravity) are not necessary as are the logical laws of thought. It is easy to conceive of possible worlds where the laws of nature are quite different from their character in our world. But there is no possible world in which the laws of logic do not obtain. Finally, certain thoughts are normative with respect to other
thoughts, that is, if I hold to certain thoughts, then I ought to hold to other thoughts. If I believe that P is taller than Q and Q is taller than R, then I ought to hold that P is taller than R But no physical state is normative with respect to another. Physical states just are; they have no normative character whatsoever.

Third, a physical object like a desk or car does not stay literally the same object if it looses its old parts and gains new ones. If, for example, you take a car and replace all of its parts with new ones, then the car is literally a different car. By contrast, a human being remains literally the same human person even if he has an entire replacement of parts and mental states like memories or personality traits. If God wished, he could give a person an entirely new body, set of memories, and personality traits and that person could still be literally the same individual. In fact, it is possible for a human person to exist with no memories or personality traits at all, say the first few seconds after God created Adam. Moreover, it is surely possible that a human person could exist even if no physical object whatever existed. These considerations point to the conclusion that a human person is more than his body, memories, and personality traits. A human person is a substantial, unified ego, an enduring I who has a body, memories, and personality. Substance dualism makes sense of this fact.

Finally, what is sometimes called libertarian freedom is real and sufficient to refute physicalism because physicalism implies determinism.5 But, libertarians claim, the freedom necessary for responsible action is not compatible with determinism. Real freedom requires a type of control over one’s action-and, more importantly, over one’s will-such that, given a choice to do A (raise one’s hand and vote) or B (leave the room or simply refrain from raising one’s hand), nothing determines which choice is made. Rather, the agent himself simply exercises his own causal powers and wills (or has the power to refrain from willing) to do one or the other. When an agent wills A, he could have also willed B or at least refrained from willing A without anything else being different inside or outside of his being. He is the absolute originator of his own actions. When an agent acts freely, he is a first or unmoved mover; no event causes him to act. His desires, beliefs, etc., may influence his choice, but free acts are not caused by prior states in the agent. Such freedom is real-moral responsibility requires it and we are aware of exercising such freedom when we act-and it presupposes a substantial, immaterial self to be possible.

Naturalism, Christianity, and the Origin of the Human Soul

We have seen that there are good reasons to accept substance dualism and reject physicalism. It should come as no surprise to Christians that if we are made in God’s image, there should be something about us that reflects our Creator and, therefore, that would be very difficult to treat in strictly naturalistic terms. Given the truth of substance dualism, how are we to explain the origin of mental selves and their states? These broader worldview implications of the mind/body debate are what have driven many thinkers to embrace physicalism in spite of its obvious weaknesses. As UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle has noted:

How is it that so many philosophers and cognitive scientists can say so many things that, to me at least, seem obviously false?… I believe one of the unstated assumptions behind the current batch of views is that they represent the only scientifically acceptable alternatives to the anti-scientism that went with traditional dualism, the belief in the immortality of the soul, spiritualism, and so on. Acceptance of the current views is motivated not so much by an independent conviction of their truth as by a terror of what are apparently the only alternatives. That is, the choice we are tacitly presented with is between a ‘scientific’ approach, as represented by one or another of the current versions of materialism, and an ‘unscientific’ approach, as represented by Cartesianism or some other traditional religious conception of the mind.6

Along similar lines, naturalist philosopher Paul Churchland asserts:

The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process …. If this is the correct account of our origins, then there seems neither need, nor room, to fit any nonphysical substances or properties into our theoretical account of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.7

For the naturalist, there is in principle no scientific explanation as to how evolution, a strictly physical process operating on physical materials, could give rise to something utterly non-physical. How can unconscious, purposeless, mindless particles give rise to unified immaterial selves with internal mental states by simply rearranging according to strict physical laws? The naturalist simply has no answer to this question. By contrast, the Christian theist has an excellent answer as to how mind could arise in the course of events that constitute the history of the universe. For the Christian, personhood and, in fact, a Specific Person, is more fundamental to reality than matter. So it is no problem to conceive of a personal God creating finite personal selves by an act of His will. But no amount of study of matter will make it at all conceivable that physical stuff, all by itself, could give rise to mind. Howard Robinson was right when he said, “The idea that science captures everything, except the centre of everyone’s universe, his own consciousness, makes a laughing-stock of its [naturalism’s] claim to present a plausible world view.”8 John Calvin once remarked that when we contemplate our own souls and their faculties, our minds are directed immediately to the Creator who gave us such endowments. Calvin was right. The nature of the human person is the final nail in the naturalist’s coffin.


  1. David Papineau, Philosophical Naturalism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993), p..1.
  2. For more on this, see Gary Habermas, J. P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), chapters 1-3; J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), chapter 3.
  3. William Lyons, “Introduction,’ in Modern Philosophy of Mind, ed. by William Lyons, (London: Everyman, 1995), p. Iv. In context, Lyon’s remark is specifically about the identity thesis, but he clearly intends it to cover physicalism in general.
  4. For my purposes, I will use “soul,” “mind,” and “spirit” interchangeably. I actually take the mind and the spirit to be different faculties of the soul, but the differences among these entities are not relevant for our current discussion.
  5. Even if physicalism is taken to imply indeterminism, this is not sufficient to allow for libertarian freedom. The reason is that physicalism, in both its deterministic and indeterministic forms, implies event causation: All events are (deterministically or probabilistically) caused by prior events and no room is allowed for a first-moving, substantial agent who initiates action. The discussion of event-causation is a bit technical, so I will continue to talk about freedom and determinism instead of freedom and event-causation. For more on this see William Rowe, Thomas Reid on Freedom and Morality (Ithaca, N. Y.; Cornell University Press, 1991).
  6. John Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 3-4. Cf. p. 31.
  7. Paul Churchland, Matter and Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984), p. 21.
  8. Howard Robinson, Matter and Sense (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 2. See also, Searle,p. 10.