The Myth of Consciousness . . .

Consciousness Explained.  By Daniel C. Dennett.  Boston, MA:  Little, Brown and Company, 1991.  511 pages.

It is, by now, common knowledge that it is far easier to explain something which ultimately does not need to be explained.  Take, for example, the birth of Pegasus.  If you were to ask me to explain how it is that Pegasus was begotten from the blood spilling out of Medusa’s decapitated head, I should simply respond, “Pegasus and Medusa do not exist.  What is there to explain?  Perhaps, what you really want is a historical account of how this mythological tale came to be.”  One does not need to explain how a creature like Pegasus, who only seems to exist (i.e., whose existence is grounded in our imagination), is begotten from the blood of a dead goddess.  Likewise, if we are to accept Dr. Dennett’s stance, one does not need to explain consciousness—at least, not in the traditional sense.  For, according to his view, consciousness only seems to exist; it is mythology.  What we really want, when exploring the nature of conscious mental states, is a scientific, third person, account of how the notion of consciousness arises.  It is in this sense that consciousness is explained (or, perhaps, more fairly, explained away) in his book.

Setting the Stage

Dr. Dennett sets the stage by introducing the means by which he intends to “demystify” the notion of consciousness.  His first move is to reject Cartesian Dualism as a matter of principle.  It will strike some readers odd that, save for a couple of humorous comic strips and a handful of vague comments regarding the, all too cliché, problem of interaction, he seems entirely uncompelled to provide rigorous argumentation against the Cartesian view.  Most, however, will be sympathetic to the fact that it is far more economical in a lengthy work of philosophy to simply pronounce, ex cathedra, the death of an opposing point of view.  Such an approach, I might point out, makes the task of promoting one’s own view far easier.  To be fair, though, it must be conceded that Dr. Dennett makes several strong assertions about why we should ignore dualistic theories of the mind.  He declares that dualism is both unscientific and mysterious.  As he states:

[The] fundamentally antiscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs.  It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up (37).

Rather than wallow in mystery (and, really, who wants to wallow?), Dr. Dennett proposes a more sensible way—materialism.  But not just any form of materialism, a materialism that faces the problem of consciousness realistically; without ignoring the key features of conscious mental states which render them so difficult to account for.  The bulk of his book, therefore, is spent attempting to provide a broad materialistic framework by which we might account for all of the features of consciousness.

From this standpoint, his book is essentially a conglomeration of various materialist theories on human cognition, neurology, psychology, physics, chemistry, and biological evolution pulled together to provide a cumulative case against those who might view consciousness as being at odds with a materialist ontology.  Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that his real goal is to undercut traditional assumptions about the nature of consciousness (ie., the ones that need to be explained), and thereby remove the obstacles facing empirical scientific approaches.  He achieves this by redefining or calling into question these assumptions—such notions as a “center of consciousness,” intentionality, identity over time, and qualia—which continue to mystify scientists.

The Death of Qualia

One key feature of conscious mental states that resists any and all materialistic explanations is what philosophers call qualia.  Material things can be described, almost exhaustively, from an objective or third person stance.  For instance, I can examine and explain nearly everything there is to know about a rock—its mass, weight, location, geological history, chemical makeup, etc.—without invoking any subjective or first person properties.  Conscious mental states, in contrast, seem to possess a quality that rocks, and all other material objects, lack.  As Dr. Dennett explains:

Don’t our internal discriminative states also have some special “intrinsic” properties, the subjective, private, ineffable, properties that constitute the way things look to us (sound to us, smell to us, etc.)?  Those additional properties would be the qualia (373).

Recognizing that subjective experience poses a serious problem to his materialist proclivities, Dr. Dennett spends a considerable amount of time on the issue.  I will highlight several of the more innovative approaches he utilizes to “disqualify” qualia as being a serious obstacle to materialism.

First, he wisely chooses not to quote any philosopher who makes a case that qualia is: (a) a legitimate property of consciousness and (b) a serious challenge to materialism.  This is a very smart move, because it frees him from having to deal, directly, with their arguments (an understandable choice to make, considering the book is already 511 pages).  Instead of engaging the literature on the subject, Dr. Dennett utilizes a fictional character named Otto (a.k.a., the Straw Man) to represent the opposing side.  He then proceeds to deconstruct the problem of qualia as it is espoused by Otto.  I will deal with this in greater detail in a moment.

The second approach Dr. Dennett uses, which proves to be very effective, is what philosophers call equivocation—the ambiguous use of a key term in an argument.  At the beginning of chapter twelve, Dr. Dennett correctly identifies qualia as being a “subjective, private, ineffable,” property that constitutes, “the way things look to us (sound to us, smell to us, etc.)” (373).  A couple of pages latter we see a subtle shift in his use of the term:

When Otto, in chapter 11, judged that there seemed to be a glowing pinkish ring, what was the content of his judgment?  If, as I have insisted, his judgment wasn’t about a quale, a property of a “phenomenal” seem-ing-ring (made out of figment), just what was it about?  What property did he find himself tempted to attribute (falsely) to something out in the world (375, emphasis mine)?

Note how seamlessly he shifts from qualia being an internal subjective property to an external property we attribute to something out in the world.  Such sophisticated sophistry is a rare gem.

Following this subtle shift in the meaning of the term, Dr. Dennett spends multiple pages discussing color and providing a very lively and entertaining third person scientific account of how various organisms perceive reflective light surfaces.  He then draws the following conclusion:

What property does Otto judge something to have when he judges it to be pink?  The property he calls pink.  And what property is that?  It’s hard to say, but this should not embarrass us, because we can say why it’s hard to say.  The best we can do, practically, when asked what surface properties we detect with color vision, is to say, uninformatively, that we detect the properties we detect.  If someone wants a more informative story about those properties, there is a large and rather incompressible literature in biology, neuroscience, and psychophysics to consult.  And Otto can’t say anything more about the property he calls pink by saying “It’s this!” (taking himself to be pointing “inside” at a private, phenomenal property of his experience).  All that move accomplishes (at best) is to point to his own idiosyncratic color-discrimination state . . . but not to any quale that is exuded by it, or worn by it, or rendered by it, when it does its work.  There are no such things (382-383).

If this passage leaves you feeling confused, you are not alone.  At first, Dr. Dennett seems to be discussing the “property of pink” and the “surface properties we detect with color vision” (i.e., external, third person properties); then, without warning, he declares the death of qualia.  It is impossible to appreciate Dr. Dennett’s argument because he does not make one, but I submit that we can admire this paragraph for what it is: a powerful form or rhetoric.

This leads us to the third approach Dr. Dennett utilizes to disqualify qualia: begging the question.  It should be noted that this approach is perhaps one of his greatest strengths.  Rather than disprove the existence of qualia (or, for that matter, any of the key features of consciousness) he simply assumes materialism is true.  With this assumption in place, it is all too easy to explain qualia away.  Consider, for example, how he handles the problem of inverted qualia.  Dr. Dennett starts with the assumption that materialism is true and that our subjective qualitative experiences are simply reducible to our “reactive dispositions” (392).  He then utilizes these assumptions to undercut the thought experiments propounded by those who consider inverted qualia a serious challenge to materialism.  For example, his response to one thought experiment which demonstrates that, even with perfect technology, “no intersubjective comparison of qualia would be possible,” is merely to point out that it, “provides support, however, for the shockingly “verificationist” or “positivistic” view that the very idea of inverted qualia is nonsense–and hence that the very idea of qualia is nonsense” (390).

It seems that by placing quotation marks around the terms verificationism and positivism, Dr. Dennett hopes to downplay the self-contradictory nature of both views.  Unfortunately, sarcasm and well placed quotation marks do not negate the fact that verificationsim and logical positivism are dead-end’s which have been abandoned by serious philosophers for years.  The reason being that both views promote a hopelessly limited epistemology.  Dr. Dennett, however, seems undeterred by these problems because, after all, in his view materialism is true; and, if materialism is true, there must be some empirical (i.e., materialistic) way to verify the existence of qualia (outside of the fact that we all have subjective qualitative experiences).  Naturally, if we accept this, our inability to compare our subjective experiences through some sort of third person objective standpoint leads to the conclusion that qualia is nonsense.

The process of question begging demonstrated above is utilized repeatedly, and with great rhetorical flare, throughout the chapter.  Consider Dr. Dennett’s response to Frank Jackson’s much debated thought experiment: Monochromatic Mary.  The point of the experiment is to demonstrate that Mary, a super intelligent color scientist who has never personally experienced color, learns something knew upon her release from her monochromatic prison.  Although she has learned everything there is to know about physical third person explanations of reflective light surfaces, human vision, neurology, and biology, she learns something knew upon personally experiencing a red rose for the first time.  This “something new” is of course qualia–her subjective qualitative experience of the outside world.

His response to the problem this story generates for materialism is merely to assert the truth of materialism.  He does this by telling his own version of Mary’s first color experience:

 And so, one day, Mary’s captors decided it was time for her to see colors.  As a trick, they prepared a bright blue banana to present as her first color experience ever.  Mary took one look at it and said “Hey!  You tried to trick me!  Bananas are yellow, but this one is blue!”  Her captors were dumfounded.  How did she do it?  “Simple,” she replied.  “You have to remember that I know everything–absolutely everything–that could ever be known about the physical causes and effects of color vision.  So of course before you brought the banana in, I had already written down, in exquisite detail, exactly what physical impression a yellow object or a blue object . . . would make on my nervous system.  So I already knew exactly what thoughts I would have (because, after all, the “mere disposition” to think about this or that is not one of your famous qualia, is it?).  I was not in the slightest surprised by my experience of blue . . . (399-400).

Note how his story simply assumes the non-existence of qualia–the very thing in question.  Admittedly, this method works very well to Dr. Dennett’s advantage.  Why argue for your position when you can simply assume it to be true?

Concluding Thoughts

The hard problem of consciousness, as it has been called by David Chalmers,  is exactly the type of problem one would expect to be solved in a book entitled Consciousness Explained;  ironically, quite the opposite is true.  It is, rather, the hard problem of consciousness which is explained away by Dr. Dennett.  The most significant features of consciousness, the one’s that incessantly resist materialistic explanation, are simply dismissed as being some sort of illusion.  Qualia, intentionality, and other irreducible features of consciousness are no different from mythology in his view.  Harking back to the analogy I presented in the introduction:  the story of Pegasus and Medusa is exciting, and even thought provoking, but at the end of the day it is not based on reality.  Likewise, for Dr. Dennett, our subjective inner qualitative experiences are a nice story but do not correspond to reality.  Reality, if we accept his understanding, is anything explainable in terms of evolutionary biology, neurology, cognitive science, and the overarching laws of physics; period.

As disconcerting as this may be, it is not quite as disconcerting as the means by which Dr. Dennett arrives at his conclusions.  Arguments against dualism (in any way shape or form) are completely absent from the text.  Materialism is, thus, taken for granted and consistently used as a defeater for any feature of consciousness that poses a challenge for materialism.  A great deal of time is spent providing third person scientific accounts of physical processes without directly addressing the actual arguments of those who would object to Dr. Dennett’s materialism.  For these reasons his book should not be considered a serious work of philosophy.  It should, however, be praised for its good humor and readability.  If anything, it is a shining modern example of sophistry and should be read diligently by anyone who seeks to learn how to make the weaker position seem strong.


Aquinas’ Alternative to Cartesian Dualism (UPDATED)

Since the rise and dominance of metaphysical naturalism in both science and philosophy, many academics have rejected the traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of the soul.  To be sure, substance dualism–the view that both immaterial and material substances exist–is not a popular position amongst contemporary philosophers of mind.  However, substance dualisms’ fall from grace is not entirely due to naturalistic philosophy.  Another reason for its failure has been its persistent association with Cartesian dualism.[1]

The linkage between substance dualism and Cartesian dualism in contemporary philosophy of mind is unfortunate for two reasons: (1) most philosophers believe Descartes arguments have been soundly refuted, and (2) the Cartesian form of dualism exhibits significant conceptual difficulties.  It seems, then, that it is not substance dualism, per se, that modern philosophers find repugnant, but its widespread Cartesian formulation.

Thankfully, while Christians are committed to some form of substance dualism, they are not necessarily committed to a Cartesian view.  As Eleonore Stump explains, Cartesian dualism is hardly the only game in town for orthodox Christians:

As a matter of historical fact . . . it is not true that a Cartesian sort of dualism has been the view traditional espoused by all major monotheisms.  Aquinas, whose views surely represent one major strand of one major monotheism, is familiar with an account very like Cartesian dualism, which he associates with Plato; and he rejects it emphatically.[2]

Unbeknownst to many, Aquinas proposed a form of substance dualism significantly different from both Plato and Descartes; one which naturalistic philosophers may find harder to refute.

This paper will introduce Thomistic dualism, compare and contrast it with the Cartesian view, and offer several reasons why Christian philosophers should favor this form of substance dualism above the Cartesian model.  It will accomplish this by: (1) outlining Descartes understanding of the mind and the body and posing two formidable difficulties facing it, and (2) outlining Thomistic dualism and explaining how it better addresses the problems facing the Cartesian view.

Descartes and Cartesian Dualism

Cartesian dualism, as it is most commonly formulated, goes something like this:  the mind, being a nonphysical object, is a completely different sort of thing than the body, which is a physical object, “located in space” and comprised of, “atoms familiar to chemistry.”[3] Unlike the body, the mind is completely immaterial, lacking an exact special location, and unable to be seen or touched.[4] Although the mind and the body are two completely different substances, they stand in a causal relationship with one another; each having a distinctive impact on the other.

To understand this causal relationship, one can imagine the mind and body working together in a way much like a scientist controlling a space probe:

Your body is like a probe, sent by NASA to explore a distant planet.  The probe sends pictures back to mission control, where scientists decide what the probe should do next.  Instructions are sent back to the probe which responds accordingly.  The probe itself is entirely unintelligent.  Similarly, information about the world is communicated by the body to the mind; the mind decides on a course of action and communicates the decision back to the body.  The body itself makes no decisions.[5]

As it stands, the body is not autonomous; depending upon the direction of the mind to accomplish anything.

Descartes arrived at these conclusions about the nature of the mind and the brain through a prolonged introspective process which he recorded in his seminal work: Meditations on First Philosophy.  During his meditations, Descartes came to the startling conclusion that he could imagine himself without a body.[6] Conversely, he also realized it was equally impossible for him to doubt that he had a mind: “If I try to doubt I have a mind, I will discover myself with thoughts like ‘I doubt I have a mind’, and so must admit that I have a mind—for the activity of doubting is mental.”[7] Based upon these fundamental introspections, Descartes developed his theory of substance dualism.

As his thinking evolved, Descartes came to the disquieting conclusion that the mind constituted the total essence of the human being.  As he explains, “I know I exist, and meanwhile notice nothing clearly to pertain to my nature or essence, except this alone, that I am a thinking thing, I rightly conclude that my whole essence consists in this one thing, that I am a thinking thing.”[8] Descartes refusal to give the body a place in the essence of a human being was the natural outgrowth of his epistemology; namely, his near complete rejection of empiricism.  For Descartes, the senses could not be trusted, and therefore, the only true knowledge one could have about the world was that which could be arrived at by pure reason.  As a rationalist, the only aspect of his own humanity that he could be totally certain about, was the unavoidable fact that he was a “thinking thing.”[9]

Seeing as how the mind and the body constitute two “ontologically distinct substances”, and that the, “mind alone constitutes the essence of the individual and the body in no way partakes of this essence,” Descartes concluded that the mind could exist completely independent from his body.[10] This is made clear enough in his own words,

Because on the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am only a thinking thing, not extended, and on the other hand a distinct idea of body in so far as it is only an extended thing, not thinking, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body and can exist without it.[11]

Unsurprisingly, this radical distinction between the mind and body is the source of significant challenges for Cartesian dualists.

To begin with, from a philosophical and scientific perspective, Cartesian dualists fail to provide an adequate account of the, “union of mind and body,” that is, to explain how two ontologically distinct and self-contained substances are capable of working together in a causally integrated way.  Exactly, how is it that the mind (which is immaterial) can have a direct casual affect on the brain (which is material)?  While, this objection does not constitute a defeater for Cartesian dualism, it does constitute a significant conceptual hurdle; one which is responsible for it’s rejection by contemporary philosophers.

Secondly, from a theological and anthropological perspective, Cartesian dualism fails to account for the importance or value of the physical body.  Why is it, that God embodied our souls in the physical realm at all?  Why is it that God insists on resurrecting our bodies in the last days?  Why did God come down as the incarnate word of God—as the physical man Jesus Christ?  Furthermore, why is it wrong, morally, to harm or disparage the human body?  These, and other questions, are exceedingly difficult to answer under the Cartesian model.

It is for this reason that the author recommends the following Thomistic form of substance dualism.

Aquinas and Thomistic Dualism

In order to understand Aquinas’ view of the soul, one must first have a basic grasp of Medieval metaphysics.[12] Like Aristotle, Aquinas and other scholastic philosophers distinguished between two basic dimensions of physical entities: matter and form.[13] To understand Aquinas’ distinction between matter and form, one must strip away any modern conceptions of matter they might have.

To begin with, one should not think of matter in a physical sense; that is, “as an independently existing raw material yet to be formed.”[14] Rather, one must think of matter in terms of “potentiality”; as Aquinas explains, “Matter is that which is not as such a ‘particular thing,’ but is in mere potency to become a ‘particular’ thing.”[15] In other words, matter (or ‘prime matter’ as Aquinas termed it) on its own has no existence; it simply has the potential of being actualized into an existent entity.[16] In this sense, prime matter is, “that which is common to all material things and which is formed into different entities by the second element—the substantial form.”[17]

This leads naturally into the second dimension of all physical entities: the substantial form.  The substantial form is the, “inherent principle which makes the existent entity [a physical object] what it is.”[18] Or, put another way, the substantial form constitutes the essence of and actualization of a physical entity.  One could very well imagine the substantial form as being the “information”, “blue-print”, or “code” underlining all reality and bringing physical existence into being.

When combined with prime matter, the substantial form “becomes the existent [individual] entity,” or substance.[19] Hence, the substantial form acts as the grounding of all physical being; and as such, any physical thing that exists, or has being, has form.  This basic metaphysical truth can be most easily remembered in Aquinas’ famous dictum:  “form gives existence to matter.”[20]

Seeing as how form is the essence of all existing entities, and provides grounding of being, it follows that physical entities are not the only objects which have form.  According to Aquinas, immaterial entities (such as God or Angels) do as well–he referrers to this as the subsistent form.  Subsistent form applies only to immaterial entities which have no physical instantiation—in this sense, it can be understood as, “form existing on its own.”[21]

Aquinas’ motivation for adopting this view was derived from Augustine, who believed that, “being is a matter of having order, species, and mode.”[22] In other words, anything that has being or existence must have some distinguishable order, configuration, or characteristics which make it distinctive from other entities; that is, it must have an essence.  This is why immaterial entities, like angels, must also have form.[23]

Now that these basic metaphysical principles have been elucidated, the reader is in a position to grasp Aquinas’ understanding of the human soul.

Aquinas and the Human Soul

To begin with, Aquinas understood the soul to be the substantial form of the body.  He maintained this view because human beings are a part of physical reality; as such, like any other physical entity, they require a substantial form in order to instantiate or actualize their physical existence.  As the reader will recall, “a substantial material form is the configurational state of a material object that makes that object a member of the kind or species to which it belongs and gives it the causal powers characteristic of things of that kind.”[24] Accordingly, the soul, acting as the substantial form of the body, is what configures and differentiates and gives life to a unique human individual.

J. P. Moreland explains it this way:  “the soul is an individuated essence that makes the body a human body and that diffuses, informs, animates, develops, unifies and grounds the biological functions of its body.”[25] As such, the human person “must be defined as a deep unity of form and matter.”[26] Accordingly, the combination of body and soul, like matter and form, constitutes one complete substance.[27]

However, the soul, unlike the substantial form of other physical objects, may persist upon the death of the body, and unlike other material things is capable of existing without a physical instantiation.  For this reason, Aquinas also identified the soul as being a subsistent form.  In this sense, the human soul is truly unique, in that it has its foot in both the material and immaterial realms.[28] Stump elucidates this paradoxical reality:

The human soul . . . is a configured configurer.  On the one hand, like an angel, it is able to exist and function on its own, apart from matter.  On the other hand, the human soul is not, as Plato thought, a spiritual substance moving the body which is also a substance in its own right; rather, the human soul is the substantial form constituting the material substance that a human being is, and it configures matter, as material forms do.[29]

Hence, the soul, as both the substantial and subsistent form, contains the information that constitutes human essence; and even after we die, and the particles of our body dissipate, the information, that constitutes our essence, our identity, continues to exist.

However, it is important to note that when the soul is separated from the body this constitutes an abnormality; that is, the existence of the soul apart from the body is an incomplete one.  As Aquinas explains, “since the soul is a part of human nature, it does not have perfection of its nature except in union with the body . . . and so, although the soul can exist and intellectively cognize when it is separated from the body, nonetheless it does not have the perfection of its nature.”[30]

Facing the Challenges of Cartesian Dualism

The reader may recall that Thomistic dualism was offered up as a happy alternative to Cartesian dualism in light of the significant challenges facing Descartes theory.  This final section will briefly demonstrate how Thomistic dualism faces up to the considerable challenges facing the Cartesian model and why Christian philosophers should favor this form of substance dualism above others.

The first hurdle facing Cartesian dualism was its inability to define the union between the soul and the body–more pointedly, it’s failure to explain how two ontologically distinct and self-contained substances are capable of working together in a causally integrated way.  While this is a formidable problem for Cartesian dualism; the Thomistic dualist has less to be concerned about.  This is because the Thomistic dualist, unlike the Cartesian, is not postulating the existence of two individual substances; rather they are postulating one complete being whose nature is comprised of both material and immaterial form.

As Aqunias says, “We must not think . . . of the soul and body as though the body had its own form making it a body, to which a soul is super-added, making it a living body; but rather that the body gets its being and its life from the soul.” [31] Under the Thomistic view, the union of body and soul is deep and well defined; hence, the conceptual problem of explaining the causal relationship between soul and body is much less significant.

Regarding the second hurdle, concerning the theological and anthropological significance of the body, Thomistic dualism is completely unfazed.  Unlike the Cartesian, the Thomistic dualist holds that the physical body is part of the nature of man.  Under the Thomistic model it’s considered normal for a soul to be united to a body; and, while the soul can subsist without a body, this is considered abnormal.  Accordingly, it’s easy to see why God places such importance and value on the human body; why God sent his son to exist as a physical man; and why God intends to reunite our souls with a new glorified body at the resurrection.


While Cartesian dualism is viewed by many philosophers as being the only option for someone interested in substance dualism; it is certainly not the only game in town.  As this paper demonstrates, Thomistic dualism offers a dynamic and arguably superior alternative to the Cartesian view.  Unlike Descartes’ model, Aquinas’ conception of the body and soul is comprehensive and avoids the major challenges often thrown at substance dualism; by providing a clearer picture of the soul’s unity with the body and rendering the body intrinsically valuable.  Consequentially, Thomistic dualism is more likely to stand up against the materialistic explanations of the mind which currently dominate western thinking; and place substance dualism back on the table as a viable option.


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Aquinas, Thomas. Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings. Translated by Ralph McInernny. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Graham, George. Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction. New York: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Moreland, J. P. and Scott B. Rae. Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000.

———. P. and Stan Wallace. “Aquinas versus Locke and Descartes on the Human Person and End-of-Life Ethics.” International Philosophical Quarterly XXXV, no. 3 (Fall 1995).

Moyal, George J. D., ed. Descartes: Critical Assessments Volume III. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Ravenscroft, Ian. Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Stump, Eleonore. Aquinas. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2003.

[1]Eleonore Stump, Aquinas (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2003), 191.  Emphasis mine.

[2]Ibid., 191-192.

[3]Ian Ravenscroft, Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 9.


[5]Ibid., 10.

[6]George Graham, Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction (New York: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 151.


[8]George J. D. Moyal, ed., Descartes: Critical Assessments Volume III (New York: Routledge, 1991), 150.


[10]J. P. Moreland and Stan Wallace, “Aquinas versus Locke and Descartes on the Human Person and End-of-Life Ethics,” International Philosophical Quarterly XXXV, no. 3 (Fall 1995),

[11]Moyal, Descartes: Critical Assessments Volume III, 150.

[12] It is the opinion of the author that this is the primary reason why Thomistic dualism is completely overlooked in contemporary discussions in the philosophy of mind.

[13] Moreland, International Philosophical Quarterly.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, trans. Ralph McInernny (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 19.

[21]Stump, Aquinas, 198.

[22] Ibid., 200.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 197.

[25] J. P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000), 202.

[26] Moreland, International Philosophical Quarterly.

[27] This point can be confusing because Thomistic dualism is classified as a form of substance dualism.  The truth be told, Thomistic dualism is a bit strange; it doesn’t fit into any category neatly.  It is not a materialistic reductionist theory which reduces the mind to the brain and it also doesn’t fit well within the confounds of property dualism (the postulation that mental states emerge from brain states).  Seeing as how Thomistic dualism still distinguishes between material and immaterial entities, it makes more sense to classify it as a form of substance dualism.

[28] Stump, Aquinas, 200.

[29] Ibid., 200-201.

[30] Ibid., 201.

[31] Moreland, International Philosophical Quarterly.</I>

An Addendum to My Previous Post: Abortion and the Philosophy of Mind

Also posted on Of Virtue and Life

In my recent post Abortion and the Philosophy of Mind I made this comment:

“In all of the debates raging over the status of the fetus I have yet to come across material which articulates the connection this issue has with the philosophy of mind.”

I am happy to report that I’ve found an excellent book which deals with this very issue from a dualist perspective.  The title of the book is Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics by J. P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an articulate account of the nature of human beings, the philosophy of mind, and bioethics from a Christian perspective.

I shall write more on this subject myself in the very near future; until then, please enjoy this great book!

Abortion and the Philosophy of Mind

In all of the debates raging over the status of the fetus I have yet to come across material which articulates the connection this issue has with the philosophy of mind.  This strikes me as odd, because one’s theory of mind is inextricably tied to one’s anthropology.  More to the point, one’s theory of the mind will have a dramatic impact on how he views the fetus.

The most pertinent topic in the philosophy of mind relating to this issue is the so called mind/body problem—which deals with defining what a mind is and how it relates to the brain.  Philosophers tackling the mind/body problem usually fall into two camps: dualists-those who believe both immaterial and material substances exist–and physicalists—those who believe only material substances exist.   In more common language, dualists believe human beings have a soul and physicalists do not.  In relation to issues regarding the fetus, the question boils down to this: if souls exist, does a fetus have a soul?  And how does this impact the abortion debate?

How one answers the mind/body problem will not only have a dramatic impact on how he views the fetus, but on how he views a full grown human being.  This is because one’s theory of mind reflects his general ontology of the human being.  For example, if one adheres to a physicalist theory of the mind then he believes that a human being is nothing more than matter and energy—the hapless byproduct of billions of years of evolution.   Under this scheme, human beings are not endowed with any special or unique importance or value-our existence is just a brute fact of nature.

In contrast, those who hold to some form of substance dualism—that both material and immaterial substances exist—believe human beings have a soul.   If human beings have a soul, this entails the existence of a transcendent immaterial being—namely God.  In natural theology, this forms the basis for the so called Argument from Consciousness which has recently been reformulated by J. P. Moreland (Consciousness and the Existence of God, Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion.)   If the argument from consciousness is sound, then God exists; and if human beings are a special part of his creation, it stands to reason that human beings have a purpose—a reason for existence–and that they are inherently valuable.

So we see how foundational our theory of mind is to the status of the fetus.  If the fetus is merely matter and energy, and God does not exist, then the fetus has no intrinsic or objective value or importance.  But, according to the physicalist scheme, this is true for the full grown adult as well.  In essence, there is no ontological difference between a fetus and a full grown human being under the physicalist perspective—both are simply matter and energy and neither one possess intrinsic value or dignity.

However, if substance dualism is correct, then there is a strong possibility that God exists.  If God exists, man has a purpose and is intrinsically valuable.  Like the physcialist, the dualist theory does not delineate an ontological difference between the fetus and a full grown adult.  Both posses a human soul, both are made in the image of God, and therefore, both are intrinsically valuable.

It becomes obvious that the position one holds on the status of the fetus and abortion is inextricably tied to ones theory of the mind.  If a fetus is simply matter and energy then it is ontologically equal to a full grown human being—that is, it possesses no intrinsic value or dignity.  As such, there is no objective reason why abortion is wrong—and for that matter there is no objective reason why the killing of a full grown human being is wrong either.

Conversely, if the fetus is made up of more than matter and energy—if it has a soul—then it is ontologically equal to a full grown human being.  More importantly, if a fetus has a soul, it has intrinsic value and worth—and this is true of the full grown human being as well.  Accordingly, there is an objective reason why abortion is wrong; because it is the killing of a human being; the destruction of a life endowed with the same value, dignity, and worth of a full grown adult.