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We are More than Just Brains: an Argument from J.P. Moreland

By: Justin Wishart

Long ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle codified what is known as the Laws of Thought[1], which are recognized as the most basic concepts required in thinking. They are so fundamental to our thinking that most people never take the time to contemplate them. One of these Laws is called the Law of Identity[2](henceforth, LOI) which says that when I am thinking or speaking of (A), it is (A) that I am thinking or speaking about. You can substitute (A) for anything; a cat, a bus, or a math equation. When I think of a bus, I am thinking of a bus; as opposed to thinking of a cloud for example.

Let me show you a way the LOI works in a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say that someone walked up to me and asks who Jojo Ruba is. I could reply that he is the Executive Director of Faith Beyond Belief. I am now saying that Jojo Ruba and the Executive Director of Faith Beyond Belief are the same person. Anything that I now say truthfully about Jojo Ruba is also true about the Executive Director of Faith Beyond Belief. If I say Jojo Ruba is 4 foot 3 inches, the Executive Director of Faith Beyond Belief is 4 foot 3 inches. If I say Jojo Ruba was born in the Philippines, the Executive Director of Faith Beyond Belief was born in the Philippines. Seems simple enough. However, if I say that Jojo Ruba is 140 pounds today and the Executive Director of Faith Beyond Belief weighs 200 pounds today, and that information is true, then Jojo Ruba and the Executive Director of Faith Beyond Belief cannot be the same person. The Laws of Thought are so basic, so obvious, that most don’t take time to contemplate their significance. But how does this apply to our brains and our minds?

Christians believe that the human mind and the human brain are not the same substance. We believe that there exists something beyond the physical world, like our minds. Some Atheists argue that what we experience as minds are merely physical reactions in our brains. They would say that minds can never be separated from the brain. Is there any way we can logically demonstrate we have minds that are different from brains? 

We must pause here and give a definition of a mind and brain before we continue. Many definitions can be given for the mind and an in-depth study would be of great benefit. However, for the purposes of this article, I will simply define our minds as those parts of us that are not physical. Examples include our memories, logic, willpower, and conciseness. A simple definition of our brain is the mass of neurons and other physical components that is protected by our skull.

Now that we have a working definition of the mind and brain, let’s apply the LOI to them like we did in our hypothetical situation. Remembering our Jojo Ruba example, we can see that if I am able to say something that is true of the mind, but not true of the brain, then by the LOI we cannot be talking about the same thing anymore.

J.P. Moreland , in his chapter entitled ‘God and the Argument from Mind’[3]writes about things that can be true of the mind but not of the brain. The following is a summary of some of his points:

 The Distinctiveness of Mental and Physical Properties

As what is hinted in my definitions of mind and brain, we see right from the beginning that our minds and brains have different properties. There is a reason why we use different words to describe minds and brains.

“My thought of Kansas City is not ten centimeters long, it does not weigh anything, it is not located anywhere (it is not two inches from my left ear). Nor is it identical to any behavior or tendency to behave in a certain way (shouting “Kansas City” when I hear the name George Brett). But the brain event associated with this thought may be located inside my head, it may have a certain chemical composition and electrical current, and so forth. My afterimage of a ball (the impression of the ball present to my consciousness when I close my eyes after seeing the ball) may be pink, but nothing in my brain is pink.”

Private Access and Incorrigibility

We all have private access to our mental thoughts that is simply not available to anyone else. I can know what are my thoughts at all times, but no one else can know what they are unless it is somehow shared. However, someone might know more about my brain then me.

“It would be possible for a brain surgeon to know more about my brain than I do. He may be looking into my brain, seeing it better than I, and knowing its operations better than I. But he does not – indeed, he cannot – know my mental life as well as I.”

Also, it seems as if I cannot be mistaken with the mental events that are going on in my mind. Those thoughts might not reflect reality, but I know for sure what I thought. However, people can be wrong about what is happening in a brain.

“Suppose I am experiencing what I take to be a green rug. It is possible that the rug is not there or that the light is poor and the rug is really gray… But it does not seem to be possible for me to be mistaken that I am experiencing what I take to be a green rug right now… The brain surgeon could be wrong about what is happening in my brain. But I cannot be wrong about what is currently happening in my mind.”

The Experience of First-Person Subjectivity

There is a subjectivity that comes with the mind. When I see a red stop sign, and you look at the same stop sign, we don’t seem to have any way of knowing that the red I see is exactly the same as the red you see. When I hear Handel’s ‘Messiah’ or RUN DMC’s, ‘Radio Station’, you have no real clue to how this manifests in my mental state including what I actually hear or how it makes me feel. But, you can read my brain waves and both of us can know which neurons are firing when listening to music. It seems as if there are subjective knowledge with the mind, and objective knowledge with the brain.

“Suppose a deaf scientist became the world’s leading expert on the neurology of hearing. It would be possible for him to know and describe everything there is to the physical processes involved in hearing. However, something would still be left out of such a description – the experience of what it is like to be a human who hears.”

Moreland gives many more examples of things that are true for the mind but not true for the brain. However, I think what is provided here should be sufficient to show that since the properties of the mind and the brain are different, we cannot be talking about the same thing; just as saying Jojo Ruba weighs 140 pounds and the Executive Director of Faith Beyond Belief weighs 200 pounds ensures these two cannot be the same person. How all these two things work together is another question, and Moreland addresses this, but it should be clear that our thinking involves something more than just synapse firing and chemicals being secreted. We must be something more than just our brains.

[3] Ed. Chad V. Meister, Khaldoun A. Sweis, Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources, Chapter 42 ‘God and the Argument from Mind, J.P. Moreland, Zondervan, 2012
  • You are just redefining “mind” then saying that the mind is not subject to the physical or chemical interactions of the brain.

    Let me play your game here and define “mind” as the consequence of our brain’s physical and chemical interactions. How about that?

    Defining something as you believe it is does not make it true.

  • What your describing is called “Property Dualism”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Property_dualism

    It is true that Christians are “Substance Dualists”. However, this article did not address which of these two distinctions are true. I could possibly write on this in the future. I did allude to this consideration with the last sentence.

    “How all these two things work together is another question, and Moreland addresses this, but it should be clear that our thinking involves something more than just synapse firing and chemicals being secreted. We must be something more than just our brains.”

    However, I don’t think I simply defined things in a way that made my point. It should be obvious that logic is something different then atoms. That is essentially the point of my article. This means there is a physical reality and a mental reality. However, for some reason, some Philosophical Naturalists deny the reality of anything outside physical reality. (Much like a Hindu denies physical reality) That is what this article is addressing.

    You rightly point out that now the conversation shifts to Property Dualism vs Substance Dualism.

    Thank you for commenting! I appreciate your feedback.

  • I was extremely disappointed by this talk. Of the “things that can be true of the mind but not of the brain” most of these are basic properties of neural networks. Neural networks are not just theoretical constructs – people have been building artificial versions of them for quite a while. Call it applied philosophy if you want.

    The average person simply isn’t familiar with artificial neural networks so the claims sound fairly credible at firs but really appear to hold very little water. Neural networks are kind of weird at initial examination but then again people with neurological disorders also behave strangely.

    If claims like this are getting used extensively that would just seem to suggest that we simply haven’t yet found good arguments for a separation between the physical brain and the mind.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and to offer this response. I assume that you went to our conference, however this blog was a summary of a small section of a chapter Moreland wrote. This summary in no way sums up Moreland’s complete argument and thought on the soul/mind. If you remember during his presentation he listed a few things he wanted to cover if he had time. He ran out of time and could not cover points that would have at least partially addressed your concerns.

      My good friend’s job is to program AI, and neural networks is one type. So, I am a bit familiar with neural networks. Again, with using the Law of Identity, it can be easily shown that neural networks are not the same as human thinking. One major difference is that humans are able to think something that has no input or output, while neural networks require data sets. For example, a child can develop an output of guilt, and often does not have any input which could produce this feeling. It is an entirely new output with no correlating input. Also, a child can imagine something where they had absolutely no input for. They can create a fantasy world. Descartes “cogito” seem very plausible but notice that if the cogito is true, it would be true if it were in a complete void. With no inputs, the mind would still be able to think. This is not possible with a neural network. Therefore, if this argument is sound, then human thinking is not the same as a neural network.

      However, even if I were to grant computers consciousness, which I don’t believe to be true, it would not be very important to this discussion. The reason is this: all a conscious computer would prove is that property dualism is possible. Even if this consciousness looks very similar to human thinking, it would still not make much of a point here. Moreland, and I, believe humans to be substance dualists. All a computer seems capable of is property dualism and because property dualism and substance dualism are different things, creating a property dualist system says very little about substance dualism. Now, in the chapter that Moreland wrote, he provides good arguments for substance dualism of humans over property dualism. I did not include this in my summary here due to space.

      In the end, even your critique affirms the argument provided in my summary. All the argument concluded was that we are more than merely material elements. The argument does not address if we are property or substance dualism but merely that we are some sort of dualism. Your critique implied that you accept some sort of dualism as well. I should follow up with an article on Moreland’s argument for substance dualism. Stay tuned for that argument.

      Again, thanks for the reply.