This week while driving in the bush I happened across an interview on ABC radio’s Philosophers Zone with English philosopher of the mind David Papineau.
Papineau is what is termed a “physicalist”. This means he thinks that what we call our minds – our thoughts, feelings, desires, wills, identities and so on – are merely the products of the physical workings of our brains. For physicalists there is no ghost in the machine: no soul, no real “me”, no mind/body dualism of any sort. Papineau claimed that nearly all British philosophers were physicalists, and if this interview was all that you had heard you might be forgiven for thinking that physicalism is a philosophical given. But physicalism does face a few challenges.
The most obvious problem with physicalism is that it goes against human intuition and the way we think and speak about our minds. Most of us have a deep sense that while we are inextricably linked to our bodies, we nevertheless are not identical to them. It does feel like we are in our bodies but they are not us. So, for example, if I lose an arm there is certainly less of me, but I do not feel that I am any less “me” as a result. Papineau’s response to this was that there are many things in the universe that are counter-intuitive, but true nevertheless. So if science, and in this case neuroscience, is telling us that human consciousness is nothing more than a few electrons whizzing around the grey matter in our heads then we are best to just face reality and accept it. What we shouldn’t do, he said, is look “desperately” for evidence to back up any religious notion that there is more to it than this.
This leads to another problem for physicalism. Papineau is correct that truth should trump intuition, but he is not correct that physicalism has won the philosophical day. There are a whole range of philosophical arguments in support of some sort of mind-body distinction and they are being made by some of the world’s foremost philosophers, like, for example, Alvin Plantinga. Moreover, while clearly our brains and minds are deeply correlated, consciousness remains a mystery and neuroscience to date just can’t give us the sort of explanation for our minds that allows us to rule out the idea of a soul.
The Christian claim that a man has died and risen again after three days presents the possibility that my intuitions are correct and that the physical realm does not exhaust reality. In any case, the claim that physicalism is incontrovertible is, at least for now, an astonishingly arrogant position to hold.