For Every Theist there are One Hundred Materialists


As concerns philosophy of mind, for every theist, there are one hundred materialists in the present-day philosophical community. Theism, purportedly has many problems, but it does do a nice job explaining the seemingly qualitative difference between subjective experience (that is, mind) and the perceived (and purportedly) mind-independent world. I will return to theism at the end.

Among materialists, for every eliminative materialist (as concerns mind) there are five pure property dualists. For every property dualist, there are ten Russellian monists of one stripe or another and a like number of panpsychists. These last two categories often overlap with some versions of Russellian monism (sometimes called dual-aspect monism) becoming panpsychism at larger scales. There are also monisms that do not become panpsychism, and panpsychisms that do not rest on monisms. While materialist philosophers (the materialism often amounting to little more than stipulation) of these various philosophies of mind talk to one another about the differences in their theories (each intended to overcome specific problems seen in their competitors), none of them ever mention their over-arching issues, problems that all of these various theories have in common. This essay is the result of my attempts to discuss these common problems with several of these philosophers all of which have been met with stony silence.

Each of these materialist approaches to mind is supposed to solve the “problem of mind” without reference to a Deity who would, should he exist, obviously have the power to create both the physical universe and mind within it. The starting point for all materialist solutions is the physical universe which must (again often coming down to stipulation) be the only source of everything  else and the physical  is founded on “causal closure”. This fundamental principle comes down to the idea there is only physics in the universe and all the physics that now exists came from physics and nothing else. There is another axiom and a few corollaries to the causal closure principle. The other axiom is that physics (besides being produced by only physics) itself produces only [more] physics. The corollaries are (1) nothing of physical mechanism is purposeful, or “there is no teleology in physics”, and (2) there is reciprocity in physical mechanism. A cause is always in someway changed by its effect. Physics recognizes two sorts of causes in the universe: macro-physical determinism, and micro-physical indeterminism. Both types of cause fully comply with causal closure, axioms and corollaries.

The central problem addressed in all of these theories of mind (except eliminative materialism) is that consciousness, in particular human mind (though applies also to the higher animals), does not appear on its surface to be material at all. Yet mind does very much appear to be a cause productive of physical effects; the manipulation of some associated individual body. If mind emerges purely from physics, is nonmaterial in some sense, and a cause in the physical, then the causal closure principle as it stands is false. One or both of the axioms cannot be true.


Eliminative materialism is the only PoM that does not entail some change to causal closure. Indeed, it does not suffer from any metaphysical origin issue (there being nothing needing any metaphysical ground), nor any problem with property specification or interaction, one or more of which, as we will see, plague every other theory including theism. The problem with eliminative materialism is that it achieves all of this by denying consciousness exists. It saves all of causal closure by claiming that consciousness does not belong in the list of real phenomena (ontology) filling our universe, making itself prima facia absurd! It is to overcome this absurdity (and at the same time avoid supposing an existential intentional source of mind) that all the other PoMs were invented!


Property Dualism is almost always a basis of the other theories except for theism and even here there are sensible interpretations that are largely property-dualistic and not Cartesian substance or Thomistic hylomorphic dualism. Both monisms and panpsychism, at least in many of their interpretations, come out to mind of our sort being a not-material phenomenon having certain properties emerging from brains. In pure property dualism, there is nothing other than the physics and biology of brains involved, that is causally closed physics as understood by most physicists. Yet in this view, the second axiom of physics, that physics produces only physics is seemingly violated. In one special case, the case of brains, physics produces something that while yet supervening on physical properties displays novel properties, a seemingly nonmaterial subjectivity, and with this the power to cause physics, to cause a physical change in the brain that results in the uncontroversially physical control of a body. This breaks the first causal closure axiom, and amounts to proposing a third kind of cause in the universe, mental-cause.

As with all of these theories there are variations. Some property dualists avoid proposing a third cause with a variation called epiphenomenalism. Here the idea is that consciousness, our subjective, seems real enough from within it, but as concerns the external world, its powers are purely illusory. Brains do produce consciousness, but consciousness does not “cause physics” (Sean Carroll “The Big Picture” 2016). Epiphenomenalism, however, while preserving the first causal closure axiom doesn’t save the second.

Pure property dualism doesn’t suffer from any particular metaphysical or property specification problem. Since mind comes only from brains there is no need for further metaphysical grounding and since only these brain-based minds are at all mental there is nothing to discriminate or specify as concerns the mental properties of anything other than brain-minds. Property dualism does have an “interaction problem”. As noted above causal closure is violated in at least one (epiphenomenalism), and often two directions. The problem how mind interacts with physics (even if only for physics to manifest it)  is not resolved.

How exactly does the new dualistic entity emerge from pure physics (we have found no other example of such an emergence), and how, by what means exactly, in its bi-directional variation, does it “cause physics” in turn? No one can say. Henry Stapp’s Quantum Zeno Effect is an interesting speculation (mind can partly-constrain wave function collapse in special micro-structures of the brain). QZE only pushes the problem up one level. It is a suggestion regarding what mind does to brains, not how it accomplishes this feat.


Both Russellian monisms (of various sorts) and panpsychism (also of various sorts) are, conceptually, advanced to suggest solutions to this mystery in pure property dualism. How does ordinary physics under causal closure come to have the extraordinary ability to produce something nonphysical and how does that entity come to have causal effect on the manifestly physical brain? Maybe physics isn’t as purely physical as physicists think. Maybe all they can detect and measure is the physical, but physical law has psychic or proto-psychic (I use these terms interchangeably throughout) qualities built into it? Whenever we measure the physical, we are measuring combined physical and proto-psychic qualities.

When brains come along, they produce mind as we know it because these psychic qualities somehow sum up in brains in a way that expresses them in what we experience as subjective consciousness. Supposedly this avoids violating causal closure because what physics calls causal closure already has the psychic built into it. Brains evoking minds are merely the culminating expression of these qualities.

This is, in essence, the core of both the monisms and panpsychism. One-way or another, either at the micro-level or the universe taken as a totality, psychic-potentials in the form of something positive attached to physics, add up to consciousness as we know it when brains come along. These qualities have to be positive. If they are merely potentials, possibilities, then they are no different from all other phenomena presently in the universe including galaxies, stars, life, and so on. All of them were obviously possible, made that way by the conditions of the Big Bang and the cosmological settings.

Yet while monisms or panpsychisms seem to resolve one issue, and not even that very well as we will see, they raise more than one of their own. Where do they come from? How is it “psychic-properties” pervade physics (or cosmology)? What is their origin? Physics, cosmology, itself has the quantum vacuum. There is all this material stuff and process in the universe because the quantum vacuum is unstable and the macroscopic universe, the Big Bang, is the result (see “A Universe From Nothing” Lawrence Krauss 2012). Importantly, the resulting galaxies, stars, planets, and all cosmological evolution at least up to the appearance of life, fall out of our physical equations given the measured cosmological settings. Getting all this requires no extra-influence, no psychic-qualities. Significantly, there are no extra [psychic] terms in the mathematical equations describing any of this.

Monists and panpsychists say the proto-psychic properties are brute, built-in to physics at the micro (monism) or cosmological (panpsychism) scale and what we measure as such in physical measurements already includes the proto-psychic properties. Yet, no psychic-placeholders are needed to represent physical phenomena in our equations. For cosmology, the properties of the big bang, including the values of the cosmological settings, are sufficient to ground (make possible), all of physical reality as we find it, including life. Life’s origin perhaps presents a special problem, but not a topic I will address here (See “Answering Five Questions: The Relation between Science and Religion”). Only mind seems to need something more. Something more that is than the possibilities inherent in pure physics. Other than this, the psychic properties, at any other level, are explanatorily redundant.

Another problem raised by panpsychism and Russellian monism are the properties of the proto-psychic. We can say something about what “psychic qualities” are for our own minds. They are the substance of our experience, our “what is it like to be” and include qualia and intentionality (our free capacity to direct our attention) among other properties. Yet except for a negative characterization “it isn’t that”, none can say anything positive about what these micro or cosmological psychic properties actually are. They are not consciousness. So what are they? Nor can anyone answer the related question: what do these psychic qualities do exactly to physics? How would physics be different if they weren’t there?

The retort here is that these qualities are what they are such that when material organization becomes dynamic and complex enough, subjectivity, mind, emerges. This is after all the reason these speculations exist. But if these psychic properties have no effect on physics until complex brains evolve, this solution becomes ad hoc. If brains are utterly contingent (as pure physics has to claim) then they might not have ever evolved. That being the case, psychic properties in the micro physical or cosmological would have had no purpose what-so-ever, more explanatory redundancy.

On the other hand, perhaps the psychic qualities we cannot describe do something long before life and brains come about. What? They would act in such a way as to push physical evolution towards strengthening the likelihood of otherwise contingent evolution to produce life and eventually brains! If this is the case, then to be clear, teleology, purpose, is put back into physics, the purpose, in this case, of evolving minds! Now we are face-to-face with some purposeful mind behind all of this, or we must accept that, purely by accident, there is attached to physics that which cannot be detected, comes from nowhere (the Quantum Vacuum doesn’t help here), and happens by sheer chance to push cosmological and biological evolution towards mind.

All of this though begs again the question of the mechanism of this influence. A self-respecting chemist will scoff at the notion that any process, even one as finely tuned as a living being or a brain does anything, on the purely physical level, but satisfy the physical equations. Any influence the psychic has would have to be invisible to what pure physical theory addresses perfectly well, for example selecting mutation X over the equally likely mutation Y. Since no such influence can be detected, we face again, although the devoted will object, a manifestly nonphysical phenomenon (except by stipulation that it must be physical because there is nothing else) that has some effect in (and on) the physical. We have, in short, an “interaction problem!”

In short, philosophers put up a placeholder that supposedly explains the capacity of the material world (at the micro or cosmological level) to invoke consciousness from brains, but can say nothing positive about this placeholder. They cannot say how it happens to exist or where it comes from. They cannot describe any of its properties, they cannot say how it manages to work, how it interacts with physics. On top of all this the theoretical edifice must either add teleology back into physics and cosmology or it is explanatorily redundant until brains happen, contingently, to arrive on the scene!


Theism is the notion that some minded and purposeful entity, God, exists and has the power to spawn the physical universe by some mechanism (perhaps the big bang), and purposefully direct its evolution towards life and mind. Under theism, there must be a purpose to otherwise purposeless physical mechanism. Since God is purportedly infinite (eternal) and uncaused-cause (unique in the universe [of which the physical is but a part] having no prior-cause), postulating him puts a stop to infinite-recursion of causes.

Theism has an inverse counterpart to Eliminative Materialism, Berkeley-ian style “pure idealism”. The idea is that nothing is real except mind, our individual mental arenas. What “appears to mind” as the external world from the inanimate to other persons, even our own bodies, is put into our minds by God. This idea is not as prima facea absurd as eliminative materialism. It accepts mind, at least my own mind (idealism can drift towards the solipsistic), as obvious and since God is infinite he has the capacity to do exactly what idealism claims he does.

Idealism is even less popular than eliminative materialism because God is needed to make it work. But it has other problems. For example, why should this mind of ours find, what amounts to a simulated mind-independent world, so complicated? It is one thing for God to put a virtual tree outside my virtual window, but as I further explore the tree I discover incredible complications. Not only the tree’s cells their macroscopic (deterministic) intricacies, but all the rest down to quarks and the Schrödinger wave equation. Doesn’t all of this amount to God deluding us about what seems to be a reality independent of mind even if recognized only from within it? For these reasons the preponderance of evidence favors a genuine, mind-independent, world whose properties we discover through application of mind.

A good God would not be in the business of deluding us. If there seems to be a mind-independent world, and if, with mind we appear capable of grasping its intricacies, then evidential experience suggests the mind-independent world is real. At least at middle size scales (roughly dust motes to mountains) there is a remarkable correspondence between the world and its representation in mind.

Besides idealism there are two well-known theistic PoMs, Cartesian-style substance dualism and Thomistic (Aquinas) hylomorphism, the first being much better known than the second. I do not believe either is satisfactory. Hylomorphism is vague about what exactly is formed, or what mind is a form of or in. Cartesian substance dualism has never given enough credit to brains. For Descartes, mind, being immaterial, should in theory be able to float free of any particular instantiation. Why is mind associated always and only with brains?

My own view is closely related to materialistic property dualism adding a catalyst that evokes the nonmaterial mind from the activity of brains. The catalyst (Cosmic Mind, perhaps a poor choice of names) is not mind as such and combining the two (brains and catalyst) is required. For more on this and how it differs from Cartesian dualism see “From What Comes Mind”. My interest here is how theism in general compares with the materialistic theories as concerns their metaphysical issues: origins, teleology, psychic qualities, and the interaction problem.

Regarding origins, brains are physical and come up an evolutionary chain. The catalyst comes, in one-way or another by some direct of indirect route, from God as does the physical universe within which evolution occurs. God, being eternal-uncaused-omnipotent, has no particular metaphysical problems of his own granting his existence for the sake of argument. The question “from whence comes God?” is answered. God comes from God.

The relation between the teleological and causal closure, a problem for panpsychism and Russellian monisms is also solved. Causal closure in physics is true. Mechanisms in the physical are well and truly purposeless. At the same time God has, seemingly, a purpose for purposeless physical mechanism. Universe physical outcomes, governed by the conditions of the big bang and the cosmological settings, do not merely allow for life and later mind, but were intended, deliberately, to deliver them over time. Even if Cosmic Mind has no teleological role before the appearance of brains (I do not assert this to be true, but my argument does not hang on its truth) it is not redundant (as are proto-psychic properties with no teleological impact) because the eventual appearance of brains is not, under a theistic view, contingent.

The description or properties problem, acute for panpsychism and the various monisms, is not an issue for theism because there are no proto-psychic qualities to describe! Stars, rocks, and thermostats have no proto-psychic qualities, nor does the physical universe as a [physical] totality. The equations of physics need no proto-psychic term because there are none to apply. Nothing is psychic until brains evolve and then the interaction between Cosmic Mind and brains evokes subjective consciousness. Notice that this not only includes animal brains, but supports exactly the hierarchy of consciousness that we find on Earth. Lower-order brains have lower-order consciousness. There is something it is like to be a bat, and something less to be a lizard, and less still a fish, and so on. Cosmic mind, uniform throughout the universe, invokes mind only to that level the underlying brain makes possible.

This then brings us to the interaction problem. Theism does little better here than panpsychism, Russellian monism, or for that matter both two-way property dualism and one-way epiphenomenalism. Every PoM apart from eliminative materialism suffers from the same interaction problem! Even so, theism does a little better than the others. Nobody can say how any of these theories (their implied ontologies) work to evoke mind from brains, but theists can say, at least, there is someone who knows the trick. Further we have no reason to suppose that this trick of God’s is comprehensible to the minds invoked by it.

It does no-good for the Russellian monists or panpsychists to argue that they have no interaction problem because the claimed “proto-psychic” properties are built-in to physics and so physical by stipulation. This move is part of the whole point of these theories but it is disingenuous, merely pushing the lump to another part of the rug. The proto-psychic presumably has some impact on what would happen in the physical. Physics would presumably come out differently in its absence. Without being able to say what this impact is, how physics differs thanks to these properties, and merely stipulating that they are physical without distinguishing them from a physics without them, makes them explanatorily redundant.

Of the three problems, metaphysical ground, property specification, and interaction, theism resolves two and makes sense of our epistemic incapacity to resolve the third — God’s powers are beyond our ken. The gap between mind and the doings of the physical brain is intrinsic to the nonmaterial character of mind and the causally closed qualities of physics. Mind cannot be directly probed from the third person perspective, and from the first person, its own origin is phenomenally transparent.

Theism gives something additional that all the various alternative solutions never address directly, free will! Free will is the elephant in the consciousness room (see “All Will is Free”). Pure property dualism can only scratch its head about its appearance, its power, seemingly automatically embedded in mind. Panpsychism and the monisms do accommodate its possibility, but offer no clue as concerns its origin or mechanism. Theism grounds free will.  A free intentionality is possible and exists because a free intentionality with the relevant power put it there, the integral facet of our subjective experience (a truth ironically recognized by atheistic Schopenhauer). It turns out there is a point to everything after all (see “Why Free Will”)

Meanwhile, the PoM consequences of theism fit experience. Why does the evolution of mind in the universe seem to be something more than purely contingent? The intuition is true, mind was intended. Why is mind alone, within a teleology-free physical mechanism, purposeful (intentional)? Because the source of both mind and physics is intentional, minded.  Why does consciousness appear nonmaterial from its own viewpoint and invisible from the viewpoint third parties? Because the catalyst (Cosmic Mind) is not material, but in mind of the biological type, the nonmaterial is grounded in all three of the “fundamental joints” in reality (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” and “Why ‘One Size Fits All’ Ontologies Never Work”).

I could go on and others of my papers explore some of this from different perspectives. The point here is that Theism answers questions and resolves ontological and epistemic mysteries much better than do any of the non-theistic PoMs. In fact, these theories leave everything out! Their only reason for existence is to reject theistic explanations. There cannot be a God, so what then supports mind? Is it mysterious proto-psychic properties that have no discernible origin or metaphysical ground that we can find or even speculate about, no properties we can say anything about, and suffer from the interaction problem they were stipulated to avoid?

Of course philosophy must be free to speculate about experiential phenomena from any perspective whether theistic or atheistic. My problem with the atheists in PoM is not that they advocate for their ideas, but in my extensive reading not a single one acknowledges any of the fundamental problems I have here raised.

What happens if the proto-psychic is subtracted from physics? Materialists can say only that, while the cosmos would look much the same, mind would never appear. Even if brains evolved, the creatures animated by them would be David Chalmers’ P-Zombies! By contrast, if God were subtracted from the universe, there wouldn’t be any universe at all, but rather nothing. This outcome is philosophically advantageous. It is this common origin of both mind and physics that grounds the metaphysical possibility of their interaction. No, we cannot fathom the interaction mechanism, but under materialist PoMs even the possibility of the proto-psychic is left unexplained.

In the end there is no stable position in the philosophy of mind between eliminative materialism and theism. Eliminative materialism is stable because it claims there is nothing what-so-ever to explain. Theism is stable because it self-grounding (God comes from God) and because it has the resources to do the job (explain why the universe is the way it is including mind and free will), even if the matter of how exactly that job gets done remains forever beyond our pay grade.


Review: Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser 2006

One would expect a book on this broad subject to leave some dangling issues. Dr. Feser’s sympathies clearly lay with Aristotelian dualism, even theism. He begins with a nuanced statement of Cartesian Substance Dualism. His aim is to explicate the logical strength of substance dualism, aware also of its primary weakness (the “interaction problem”) and then ask if the various alternatives to it, particularly those promulgated by materialist philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries, are coherent in their own right and if so, successfully defeat dualism’s logic.

As noted in the review (reproduced below with a link to the book on Amazon) Feser spends the bulk of the book on this latter task. He demonstrates that none of the suggested alternatives actually work. Some (eliminativism of two kinds and epiphenominalism) are incoherent, while others (functionalism, behaviorism, and many others) fail to capture the substance of subjective first person experience, in effect explaining it away. Most of these critiques focus on epistemological issues, but some also run into metaphysical issues, indeed the same “interaction problem” faced by Cartesian dualism (see also “From What Comes Mind” and “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”).

Having demolished the contenders, Feser asks if there is something else, a different sort of dualism that might work and yet not require or point to theism? His solution is Aristotelian Hylomorphic dualism. Alas, as noted in the review, here he fails but doesn’t seem to notice it. Either the form emerges from the facts of the assemblage that is the brain, or it is added intentionally from the outside. Hylomorphism either collapses into reductive (or supervenient) materialism, or it leads back to something that must stand in the place of, if not be, God. Feser leaves this matter dangling.

Other issues dangle. Feser cites many authors I’ve read, among them David Chalmers, but as I read Feser, he seems to misunderstand Chalmers’ “property dualism”, more or less equating it with epiphenomenalism,  the idea that our mental arena is merely an accidental by-product of brain function with absolutely no causal consequence. It is precisely the point of Chalmers’ property dualism that it does have causal consequence and so is not epiphenomenal but rather a radical emergence.

From the physics of brains alone emerges what amounts to a substance with novel properties, the upward property of subjective experience itself, and a downward causal power, subjective will, on that same physics. Chalmers, being bothered by the radical character of the emergent subjectivity, speculates on panpsychism or various types of monisms that might be embedded in physics and so support such an emergence (see above linked “Fantasy Physics…” essay for details). These various ideas for sources of the phenomenal in a hidden property of the physical are quasi-material in Feser’s taxonomy.

Another matter of interest to me is Feser’s characterization of substance dualism. His sketch is more nuanced than that usually given by his materialist peers but there are other possibilities that yet remain broadly Cartesian. For example, a property dualism supported by the presence of a spacetime field that is not physical but also not phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal).

The field need not be mind as such. It need have no phenomenal/proto-phenomenal properties of its own. Viewed from the material, mind is a radical emergence (upward) and has, as a result of its novel properties, also downward causal qualities. Its appearance, however, its form and nature, is the result of an interaction with this everywhere present (and yes, mysterious) field and not equally mysterious undetectable properties embedded in physics. For a detailed explication of this model see my “From What Comes Mind?”

Of course an “interaction problem” comes immediately forward. This hypothetical field is, after all non-material. But this interaction issue is the same faced by property dualism generally along with panpsychism, and Russelian or dual-aspect monism. All of these theories propose proto-phenomenal properties embedded in micro physics or the universe as a whole, but none ever say how exactly to identify the proto-phenomenal, in what exactly its properties consist. Nor do they speculate on their origin, and how they interact with the physical we know; how exactly they perform their teleological function driving the physical towards [genuinely] phenomenal expression.

Feser notes that materialist philosophers always cite “Occam’s Razor” as reason for rejecting theism and so any sort of substance dualism. He should somewhere have noted Occam’s Razor is supposed to apply to two or more theories that equally explain all the data! Theism answers two of the questions left dangling by quasi-materialisms. It explains why it is we find the phenomenal, any phenomenal proto or otherwise, only in association with brains. It has also an origin story in theistic intentionality, the phenomenon we find at the core of the recognizably phenomenal, our phenomenal, itself!

Quasi-materialisms deny intention in the proto-phenomenal leaving the transition to intention in brains hooked (metaphysically) on nothing. None of this, not the postulation of a field or the proto-phenomenal explains how exactly interaction occurs. The problem with theism isn’t merely the interaction (about which at least “God knows the trick”) equally suffered by all the non-eliminative materialisms. The problem is the postulation of an intentional source of the field supporting intentionality as we experience it. Yes this is a big pill to swallow, but without it we can say nothing about how any of this works anyway. Rejecting the possibility of theism leaves behind more mysteries than it resolves.

Surely suggesting that there is an intentional (minded) source of intentional, subjective mind begs the question. Of course it does! It remains, however, a coherent, possibility! God can not only be conceived, his necessary qualities can be specified to considerable detail (see my “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). It isn’t clear that the proto-phenomenal can be conceived, and even if we allow its conceivability there seems to be nothing that can be said at all about any  of its qualities.

I said at the end of the book review I would say something about free will. Feser does not mention it. Free will is related to intentionality. The ability to direct our attention purposefully is the core of the matter and some (Schopenhauer) would say it, is the essence of the conscious self! “Mental causation” or in Rescher’s terms initiation is, when not subconscious, agent-directed. We experience our agency as will (and this why the ‘free’ in ‘free will’ is redundant’ see “All Will is Free”). Will’s  relation to “philosophy of mind” should be obvious. We experience our volitional agency in mind, and like qualia and intention, the nature of volitional agency is mysterious, doubly so because it is a mystery on top of a mystery!

I have said much about free will and its associated agency elsewhere in the blog. On the negative side (the absurdity of denying it) see “Arguing with Automatons”, and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”. On the positive side, “Why Free Will”, “Why Personality”, and “The Mistake in Theological Fatalism”.

The two best books on the subject are “Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” by Nicholas Rescher and E. J. Lowe’s “Personal Agency”. My own books, “Why this Universe” and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” both address the subject.


Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser (2006)

I picked up Feser’s “Philosophy of Mind”, a book in an introductory series, for the sake of little else to read at the time, but I’m glad I did. It is, perhaps the best basic-evaluation of this subject (one of my specialty areas) I have ever read. It doesn’t merely introduce and review the subject. It makes an argument, a point about the present philosophical state-of-the art on the nature of mind, and does it very well.

Feser begins by introducing the subject and settles on representative-realism (the external world is real more or less as we experience it, but what we experience as subjects is nevertheless a representation of it) as the fundamental datum which a philosophy of mind must account. He then moves to examine the various proposals put forth by modern philosophers, some with their roots back in classical Greek times. He begins with Cartesian (substance) Dualism, a rather more sophisticated treatment than is usually accorded by modern philosophy. He shows us that substance dualism rests on more solid logical foundations than is usually acknowledged even if it smacks of being unscientific thanks to its infamous “interaction problem”.

From that point Feser looks at what has been offered as alternatives to Dualism, various materialisms (eliminative, functionalism, behaviorism, pure epiphenomenalism, causalism, reduction and supervenience) and quasi-materialisms (panpsychism, Russelian-monism, property dualism). All of this treatment constitutes the bulk of the book and as he covers each solution there emerges the best taxonomy of philosophies-of-mind I have yet seen. The modern emphasis on qualia is explored thoroughly but he argues that intentionality, even given the representational realism with which he begins, is more important, more central to mind and consciousness, than qualia.

In doing all of this Feser drives home the point that none of the alternatives is without serious metaphysical or epistemological problems. All of the quasi-materialisms, in fact, come up against the same interaction problem as substance dualism, and the others are either incoherent (two sorts of eliminativism), or simply do not get at two core problems: why do we experience anything at all and why does the subject that appears throughout all experience seem so obviously causally potent?

In the last chapter Feser asks if there is anything else that does address the core issue without having to invoke what ultimately comes down to God? His answer is Aristotle’s “Hylomorphic Dualism” (also championed by Thomas Aquinas though his variation relies directly on God). To explain consciousness, to get at its core and resolve the ever-present interaction problem, Feser says all we have to do is reject the contemporary physicalist insistence that material and efficient causes (two of Aristotle’s four leaving out formal and final cause) exhaust causality in the universe. This would be, to say the least, a big pill for 21st Century science, and most of philosophy, to swallow.

Further while Hylomorphic dualism might deal nicely with the epistemological issues Feser everywhere touches, it does no better than the quasi-materialisms concerning the metaphysical. Either the form of the human mind springs entirely from the arrangement and dynamics of physical particles, in which case we are back to reductive or supervenient materialism, or it does not. But if it does not, where does it come from? That physics cannot detect any teleology in the physical universe does not mean it isn’t there. It does mean that it has to come from somewhere other than physics and be prior to individual human minds. We are on the way back to God.

There is also a notable absence. Feser never mentions free will. A discussion might be beyond Feser’s scope in this book, but I’m surprised he did not at least note its obvious relation to intentionality. I will cover this and other implications in a blog commentary.

The Understandable Inconclusiveness of Metaphysics Part I


“…metaphysics can indeed be about reality, and can avoid collapse into empirical scientific theory, provided we can learn to be content with the fact that, as far as actuality is concerned, metaphysics cannot provide us with certainties” E.J. Lowe The Possibility of Metaphysics (1998)

The central question of metaphysics might well be “what must be true to make the universe we experience possible?” As E.J. Lowe puts it in the aforementioned book “… metaphysics has been thought of as the systematic study of the most fundamental structure of reality…” The experience to which I refer includes all that we take to be an external world impinging on our sensory systems, but also the fact of experience itself, that all that impinging has a subjective result, a “something it is to be like ourselves”. In its turn, a part of that subjective experience seems to include a power, an ability on the part of the subject, to effect events in the external world without such actions being either chance occurences or ridgedly determined by antecedent events. It is not controversial that such impact is effected through the movement of a body, but from the subjective viewpoint, such movement is but the terminus of a process initiated by what appears, literally to our selves as a self, that again subjectively, appears not to be merely identified with a body, but a controler of it.

It is the present fashion in both the sciences and philosophy to claim that what appears to be a free and extra-material controller of a material body is but an illusion. Similarly, the subjective arena in and with which the controller seems to function is also declared to be illusory. There is somewhat more sensitivity in the latter claim to the matter of how it is that an illusion can appear to be something to itself? Mostly these viewpoints amount to a modern version of nihilism, but their proponents claim to be doing nothing more than following out the logical consequences of physics, that is the discoveries about the external world (the one that impinges on our senses and of course including the senses themselves) that physics has revealed. This is a disengenuous claim. Proponents are assuming that the only explanation that can be provided, and by this I mean as concerns both the objective and the subjective, is the one that physics is able (if not now than ultimately) to provide. No other explanation can count for anything other than fantasy if it is not expressible in physical terms.

This “naturalistic error” becomes quickly associated with a “physicalist error”. Because the technological results of scientific methodology at least do strongly suggest the validity of our conclusions concerning the physical world (with a few controversial “edge cases”) and coupled with the observation that a methodology employing physical instruments can only detect physical phenomena, one reaches for the conclusion that the physical must be all there is.

Physicists and philosophers who are worth their Ph.D’s all admit that this reach is an assumption. They know that there is no logical proof of the being, or not being, of anything real in the universe that is other than physical. So why this insistence of a declaration of naturalism (no explanation other than science) and physicalism (nothing but the physical exists) on the part of so many otherwise well educated people? The reasons are mostly negative. Beginning with the assumption that “there is more than the physical” that is real, philosophers have for centuries offered answers to the fundamental question (what must be true for all of this to exist) that, while they might answer the question, simply cannot be confirmed as the true or best such answer. Put in technical terms, experiential evidence (including that of physics), underdetermines metaphysical theory. In non technical terms this means that more than one such complete explanation can work and there is no objective methodology that can be used to pick out the right one.

Physics as such has reduced the ultimate question to “what must be true to make our physical world, implied by the macroscopic (and deterministic) reality we experience through our senses, the way it is?” This is a perfectly legitimate question and physics has discovered much of what lies beyond our natural (that is biological) senses forming parts of the answer to that question. That these explanations are real answers and that they are complete answers is demonstrated, again via our senses, by the fact that technology grounded in the consequences (philosophically speaking “necessary corollaries”) of those explanations actually works! Not only does it work, but we can predict to an extraordinary degree of precision how alterations in material inputs will affect (that is alter) their outputs! This means that any further explanation, any explanation that entails anything beyond or besides physical inputs, is redundant.

There do remain a few edge cases, places where our physical explanations have, at least for the moment, run up against a wall. An interpretation of quantum mechanics is perhaps the most famous of these, but the completion of the standard model, in particular the basis of gravity and its capacity to warp space is another as is the origin of life, and the genesis of the big bang. What these questions have in common is the shared, universal assumption on the part of physics, that the answers to them will form a self consistent set and that they will prove to be strictly physical making non-physical additions redundant. Interestingly though, it is with physics here at these limits exactly the same as with metaphysics in that our evidence, the evidence with which we seek to discover the answer to what must be true, underdetermines theory. As with metaphysics there are multiple possible explanations that account for the physical evidence and at the moment we have no definitive way of choosing between them.

Then there is the matter of consciousness, the observers at the end of the chain seeking the answers to all such questions. On this planet at least only humans appear to be observers of this kind. There is a general acceptance of higher animals (at least) being conscious in the sense of having a “something it is like to be” experience. But none of them (and indeed not all humans) appear to ask or care to look into the fundamentals of that experience. Still, only humans ask these questions, and only humans direct behavior towards answering them.

As an edge case for physics the matter of consciousness poses a special problem. No one denies that consciousness in some sense exists in the physical universe. But it is not, like the other edge cases, so obvious that the answer to the “what must be true” question would or could be purely physical, leaving no room for a non-redundant, non-physical component of the answer. Most physicists and philosophers today simply assume that, like everything else that physics has discovered, this limit too will ultimately prove to have a purely physical explanation. But this reasoning ignores the fact that physics can detect only the physical whether there is anything else in the universe or not; we are returned to the physicalist assumption.

Even if physics happens to be wrong concerning physicalism, metaphysics, some explanation for both the physical and the non-physical cohabiting the universe, will be unhelpful unless there is some means by which we can narrow metaphysical possibility. Underdetermination is a problem whenever the observers reach, temporarily or otherwise, some explanatory limit. Physics has a methodology (observational, mathematical, and experimental) it applies to limit the range of possible explanations though as I will show in part II the edge cases, even apart from consciousness, are often, even in principle, beyond such treatment. Even where applicable, math, experiment, and observation might not serve to pick a single explanation, but they do limit the reasonable candidates. Not all theories qualify. For metaphysics to be reasonable the same consideration must apply. There may be no method by which a single metaphysical theory can be identified as “the true answer”, but there should be some means to narrow the candidate field. Science is about what happens, while metaphysics is about what is possible.

Metaphysics has one tool analogous to mathematics, that being logic. But the validity (in the sense of being true of the actual universe) of both logical deduction and induction rests on the truth of assumptions and those assumptions (and this is just as true of physics) are made only by observers having subjective experience, the very experience whose inclusion in the universe for which we are trying to account! In turn this means that besides logical consistency, the only limiting methodology available to metaphysics is experience itself; that is a correct apprehension of it. Metaphysics must account both for physics and subjective observer experience as concerns both the fact of the latter in the universe and its content. Metaphysical answers must not be inconsistent with physics and at the same time, they must account for both the appearance of the non-physicalness of consciousness and that of free will. They must also account for all that manifests in the consciousness of observers; not merely qualia but also ideas, intension, meaning, and value.

This sets up something of a built-in circularity to metaphysics. What must limit its speculation is the very experience we are trying (among other things) to explain. The facticity of these phenomena and their purported non-material nature is the very quality open to question. To avoid a patent circularity, metaphysics must, like science, modify the central question. Not what must be true for the world to be as it is, but what must be true of the world for it to appear to us as it does. That would include the appearance of subjectivity and especially free will without presupposing their facticity.

Metaphysics has from this requirement generally suggested two broad sorts of answers to the “what must be true” question; either monism, or dualism. The physicalism already sketched is one form of monism. It argues that there is only one kind of thing in the universe that is real, the physical, including everything from the microphysical quantum universe to spacetime curved by gravity. Anything that appears to have some non-redundant non-physical aspect is only an illusion. But an illusion is a subjective phenomenon. An antecedent subject is presupposed and that cannot be an illusion because some subject is experiencing it. Physicalists have argued that the subject itself is the illusion but then who or what is it that makes this claim? Non-subjects (like rocks or statues) do not have illusions, and it is for this reason that physicalism gets around eventually to a nonsensical nihilism in which the subject making the claim denies not only his own experience, but by that the meaningfulness of the claim of illusion. As with illusions, only an antecedently existing subject can experience meaning.

But physicalism is not the only direction monism has taken. At the other extreme there is idealism, the contention that there is indeed only one real thing and that it is not the physical universe measured by physics strictly speaking, but the experiential subject-consciousness doing the measuring. This subjectivity, the “mental realm” in general is shared in the sense that we all participate, that is have our individual subjectivity, within this realm and so it is not surprising that we can compare notes as it were and recognize that some components of “the mental” are experienced by all of us accounting for the appearance of the objective world. But idealism does not satisfactorily account for our technology. It is one thing to share a mental realm and agree that a tree is a tree and a rock a rock, but it is quite another to expect to use that contingent agreement to make an airplane that flies or build a functioning quantum computer.

Just as nihilism is a nonsensical corollary of physicalism, the notion that airplanes only appear to fly because we all agree that they do is nonsensical. Airplanes do not merely appear to fly they actually fly. That means the physics underlying their flight is not merely a matter of inter-subjective agreement but a necessarily true antecedent to that agreement. Physical reality must in fact be real prior to and apart from the mental. Because monism, taken seriously, permits only a single category, there is not much room between physicalism and idealism for any other strict monism. But a less strict version appears as a component of “property dualism”.

Like monism, dualisms come in various flavors. What they have in common is an acceptance of the subjective experience, and in particular free will, at face value. The physical realm is real, the mental realm is real, and beyond this, physics alone cannot account for the mental realm unless there is more to physics than has yet been observed. What this more consists in is mostly where the property dualism debate lies. On one extreme there is no more strictly speaking, but it is nevertheless asserted that a causally closed physics, a physics that comes only from physical causes and has only physical effects, can nevertheless cause a non-physical phenomenon to emerge, and is subsequently responsive, causally, to this entity. Of course this amounts to a contradiction, a physics that has only physical effects has (or causes), at least one, non-physical effect (or emergence) that being consciousness. It does however at least underpin our intuition that the mental does have reciprocal impact on the physical; our experience of free will.

Physics is the source of the mental and therefore the mental can interact with and affect physics. This all comes out very neat and tidy until one realizes that no physicist anywhere has ever detected (measured) or observed the physical eventuating the non-physical. Causal closure does not, to 300+ years of experimentation and observation, ever appear to result in anything non-physical. One is tempted to exclaim that consciousness is indeed the only such example there is, but surely this then begs the question.

To avoid such question begging, some philosophers (but understandably no physicists) have suggested that there is something hidden in physics, that is hidden in causal closure, that remains undiscovered and is specifically directed at producing subjective consciousness. One problem with this is that like subjective experience itself, these hidden properties are not measureable with physical instruments. They are merely presumed to be present because, after all, consciousness exists and there is nothing in the measureable properties of the physical that appears able to explain it. This really is more “begging the question” based on a non-negotiable faith in physicalism, but faith is indeed the right word to use here.

Philosophers have suggested several variations on these “hidden properties”. Anomalous monism (Davidson and Nagel) lies at one extreme; un-measurable properties truly hidden either in physical law (process) or the properties of objects as we otherwise know them. Their redundancy as concerns physics strictly speaking should be enough to dismiss their presence. On the other side we have those like David Chalmers who suggest instead a set of parallel laws, not strictly in physics but present (pervading the universe) along side it. This approach avoids the issue of redundancy because these parallel laws become noticible only after the emergence of observers who notice them indirectly by having a subjective experience. That is, the measure of their presence is their detection by the phenomenon of subjective experience. This idea leads directly to some form of panpsychism whose effect, prior to the emergence of consciousness, must have driven otherwise contingent physical outcomes towards life and ultimately consciousness.

This is not an entirely unreasonable hypothesis, but its problem is again the nature of the physical. There is nothing we are aware of in the phenomenon of the big bang or anywhere in physics that would serve to support either the reality or the efficacy of a parallel set of psychotropic laws. We may not know why the big bang occured, but at least there is the manifestly unstable quantum vacuum. The quantum vacuum can be manipulated (mathematically modeled) to generate all of our physics, but not anything of panpsychism.

It is exactly the fact that there appears to be nothing in physics that supports panpsychism that leads away from property dualism where the dual-reality must have its ground in physics to substance dualism in which the ground of the mental purportedly originates, reasonably enough, outside of physics. The “psychotropic laws”, after all, stand in exactly the same relation to consciousness no matter where they originate. If they cannot come from physics perhaps they originate in something else? But what? An external origin relieves physics of incompleteness at the cost of suggesting some other quality of the universe that is not only non-material (and as such capable of grounding psychotropic laws) but must have the power to interact with physics to produce all of what the mental, to common experience, appears to produce; including free will.

It is for this reason that substance dualism is so often associated with theism or deism. Although these solutions do not explain the mechanism of the interaction, they posit an entity, a God, who knows the trick. We further ascribe self-cause to that entity to block an otherwise infinite recursion of metaphysical antecedents. Personally I do not find a theistic solution to the ultimate question unreasonable. It is certainly coherent, and as concerns an “inference to a best explanation”, a legitimate limiting test recognized as generally valid where more rigorous inductive or even deductive proofs are not applicable, theism is complete. That is to say that beginning with a few assumptions as concerns the nature God must have to be an explanation or an answer to the ultimate “what must be true” question, one can show that the corollaries of these assumptions are both consistent with physics, and all of experience including qualia, intensionality, intellection in its broadest sense, and free will.

In particular theism can account, in the sense of providing explanations, for the juxtaposition in the universe of purposeless mechanism (what physics probes) and purposeful free will (the choice of the physicist to probe it), something that materialism has been singularly unable to do. I have written three books exploring the theistic inference to best explanation of human experience and more recently “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” laying out a minimal and consistent set of axioms from which the rest can be derived. I will not further explore this subject here. In part II I will explore what philosophers, and physicists being philosophers, have proposed as explanation for why the physical universe is the way it is even leaving consciousness aside. All of these suggestions are made assuming that theism is not true, that no God exists. Yet while remaining anchored ostensibly in the physical all of these hypotheses suffer from the same problems as metaphysics in general and theism in particular as concerns physics; among them underdetermination and redundancy.