Is the Person All Material?

From Robert Lawrence Kuhn, host and creator of Closer To Truth:

I consider myself a “person,” not a “thing.” I feel my inner-self unity and know, as I know anything, my lifelong continuity. But what I think I feel could be illusion, and what I think I know deception.
What makes a human being a “person,” not a “thing”? What is it that provides people with such unity and continuity?
Memory? Is not a brain-injured person without memory still a person? The same body? The body is never the same, and over time, it is completely different. While most people assume that to be a person is to have (or to be) a soul, most philosophers—and even some theologians—conclude that persons are all material, that persons have no need, and no room, for anything nonphysical.
Is the person, or a “self,” all material?
I begin by asking Daniel Dennett, a distinguished philosopher who rejects all manner of things nonphysical. To Dennett, everything that exists is material, persons and selves included.
“The standard understanding is one self per body,” Dennett says, and he seeks “clues” to what “one self per body” means by examining “cases where there’s more than one. … It used to be called ‘multiple personality disorder.’ Now it’s ‘dissociative identity disorder.’ But these are human bodies that seem to be inhabited by more than one self,” he explains.
“You begin to realize that what makes a self is a whole big collection of memories and projects and plans and likes and dislikes—a psychological profile,” he continues. “Now what holds that all together? Opponent processes in the brain, which tend to abhor inconsistency.”
Dennett’s insight is that “self-hood” is a “center of narrative gravity”—the continuity of first-person memory woven into a life story—not some ethereal spirit or soul. And as for the common conviction that there has to be a single right answer to “What is a self?”, he asserts that such a question is “leftover from metaphysical absolutism, and we should just dismiss it.”
To Dennett, personal identity is no mystery and nothing so special. About “persons,” he says there’s “no fact of the matter” and certainly no need for an ethereal soul. All is explained by states of the brain: There’s no pearl in this oyster.
I love listening to Dennett. But I still cannot suppress the sense that “persons” are more than illusions. I’ll explore the opposite view, and I know just the philosopher diametrically opposed to Dennett.
It’s no secret that Alvin Plantinga, who re-energized Christian philosophy, defends the traditional religious doctrine that persons are immortal souls. He uses a logical argument: If there are possibilities for A that are not possibilities for B, then A and B are not the same thing; in this case, A is the person and B the person’s body.
“I guess I take an old-fashioned view,” Plantinga says. “I know it’s all the rage nowadays to be a materialist, to think that human beings are material objects, but I don’t believe that for a minute. I don’t think that’s right. … It seems to me perfectly conceivable that I should exist when my body does not. So if it’s [even] possible that I could exist when my body does not exist, then I’m not identical with my body because there would be something true of me that’s not true of my body—namely, possibly exists when my body does not. And my reason for thinking that is possible is in part because I can easily imagine it. I can imagine my waking up in a beetle body.”
He admits that “mental functioning depends in essential ways on brain function,” but stresses, “dependence is one thing, and identity is something totally different.”
Plantinga is clear: The person is not all material because there are things true of the person—even if only possibilities—that are not true of the body. Something beyond the body, beyond the brain, is required to make the person a person. Something nonmaterial.
But some Christian philosophers take an all-material view of the person, including Plantinga’s colleague at the University of Notre Dame, Peter van Inwagen. He finds no need for an immaterial substance to enable personal continuity.
He says, “If you believe, like Plato or Descartes, that we’re immaterial things, it is easier to account for our identity across time than if you believe, as I do, that we are living animals, material things. Still, we’re not just any old material things: Bits of matter don’t come to be parts of our systems by being stuck onto us. We assimilate them. Our systems are designed to take in new matter and impress on it an already existent form. I believe that is the way animals persist through time. … Animals can change their parts—and, in fact, undergo a complete replacement of their parts, the parts in question being atoms, large organic molecules—and still be the same being.”
As van Inwagen believes in Christianity, he also believes that God will resurrect the dead.
How, I ask him, can that occur?
He sees the traps: “Even God couldn’t resurrect persons by just looking back in time, seeing how the atoms were arranged just before the person died, then arranging some atoms so as to make a perfect duplicate, while fixing up whatever caused the person to die,” van Inwagen says.
“That wouldn’t work because 10 years before, the person was made of completely different atoms.” (Also, if simple reassembly were the mechanism, God could make numerous copies of the same person, blurring badly what happens to the singular sense of first-person consciousness.)
“God would need to ensure some kind of continuity, although the mechanism certainly doesn’t seem to be obviously present,” van Inwagen notes. “But I would have to assume that since God is omnipotent, God’s resources may include things I don’t understand.”
OK, I’ve got the religious options for “persons”: immortal soul and/or resurrection. But there are other views, of course.
John Searle, a distinguished philosopher of mind, takes issue with those who argue that the person is not all material, that a “special substance,” a different kind of stuff, is needed.
“The people I know who hold this sort of view,” Searle begins, “hold it for some religious reason. They have a hidden agenda. But let’s forget their belief in God and ask, ‘Do we have any reason to suppose that in addition to all the phenomena of our conscious life, there is something else—a soul—in which all of this occurs?’ I have never seen any solid argument for the existence of the soul in addition to the obvious facts of consciousness. It isn’t just that there’s no argument for a soul, but it’s hard to know how any argument could fit into what we know about the physical world.”
Searle claims that “a perfect science of the brain that’s consistent with the view I call ‘biological naturalism’—which says all of our conscious life is caused by brain processes and realized in the brain—would give us an answer to all of the meaningful [mind-related] questions, including the self. You don’t have anything left over which the hypothesis of the soul would be able to account for.”
Searle is unsparing. If I believe that anything nonmaterial exists, I am denying science and paying the intellectual price for allowing an ethereal hope to fool me into harboring a false belief. I’d not be pleased to find myself limited to the material world, but self-delusion is worse, and so accept it I would.
“Not so fast,” philosopher David Chalmers would advise me. Can he restore my hope for something of the person beyond the physical?
“Every physical theory ever devised leaves a gap when trying to explain consciousness,” Chalmers says. “I banged my head against a wall for years trying to come up with a physically based theory of consciousness. You don’t postulate extra entities without necessity, but when the existing theory doesn’t explain all the phenomena, you’ve got to expand the theory. We’ve got to add new fundamental properties to our worldview—not just space, time, mass, energy, but also consciousness … and it could still be completely compatible with science; it could still be naturalistic. You could have a science of consciousness; this needn’t lead to ghosts, to spirits, to demons, or even to God,” he goes on.
“I would really love it if there were an immortal soul because I want to live forever,” Chalmers admits. “But as a scientist, I have to step back and ask, ‘What’s the evidence? What’s the reason to believe in this?’ And so far, I don’t see any scientific evidence that forces one to believe in a soul. Yes, there’s consciousness, but that’s just another natural property of beings as organisms in a natural world. … It’s reminiscent of the Buddhist idea that consciousness is at the ground of all being. It’s a beautifully integrated worldview, it’s natural, it’s actually compatible with most of science.”
Here’s where I find myself (at least for now). What makes you, you; me, me? Forget hope. What’s real? I start by arraying the landscape. As I see it, there are five possibilities:

1. Materialism is correct: Only the physical is real. You are your brain; the person, the self, is all material. When your body dies, you die—you are gone and shall never more be.

2. There are material and spiritual worlds. But the person is still all material. God exists and, at some unknown time in some unknown way, God will resurrect the person.

3. Persons have souls, and souls are immortal. After death, souls do all sorts of things pertaining to soul-kind (depending on religion)—go to heaven, hell, purgatory, reincarnate, flow into cosmic consciousness.

4. Consciousness is fundamental and natural, like space and time, energy and mass. Consciousness is not material, but need not be supernatural.

5. Consciousness is the essence of existence, the substantive totality of the bedrock of reality. All else, all physics, is an expression of consciousness.

Smart people hold each of these views. But only one is closer to truth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Daniel Dennett, Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, John Searle, and David Chalmers in “Is the Person All Material?”—the fourth episode in the new season of the Closer To Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series (43rd in total).
The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Thursday, we’ll discuss the current episode.

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Category: Closer to Truth


One Response

  1. Tom Clark says:

    Another naturalistic possibility not listed above: consciousness is entailed by being a complex representational, knowledge-seeking system such as ourselves, whose basic representational elements necessarily assume *for the system itself* an irreducibly qualitative aspect (the redness of red, the painfulness of pain) because of what’s involved in complex, recursive representation. See Thomas Metzinger’s books Being No One and The Ego Tunnel (the latter more accessible for lay folks) and

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