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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

God And The Argument From The Mind: Part I

John Calvin, in his landmark work Institutes of the Christian Religion, observes the following: "No man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves."

Have you ever thought about how amazing our cognitive faculties are? We reason, contemplate, reflect, remember, wonder, believe, accept truth, reject error and do all sorts of amazing things with our minds. Could these faculties really have arisen from matter plus chance? Many in our society reply yes … because our survival depended on it.

Oh? Does the belief of an amoeba really contribute to its fitness to survive? Do mollusks really contemplate their existence, or starfish reflect upon metaphysical questions? Does natural selection care about the content of beliefs, or does it merely care about our adaptive behavior?

These kinds of questions lead us into an area of apologetics known as God and the argument from the mind. It goes by different names: the anthropological argument, the argument from consciousness, and the argument from rationality.

It is an argument for God's existence in two ways. One, it argues against the possibility that physicalism is true (defined below). Two, it presents an argument for the existence of God because of the fact that human beings have rational minds. Naturalistic explanations for the existence of rational minds are at best, hand waving, and at worst, self-refuting. The most reasonable explanation for rationality is the existence of a greater rational mind.

I will rely heavily on J.P. Moreland's book, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity, Chapter 3 as my source material for this series.

Since this fascinating argument wades into philosophy, I need to define some terms in order to lay the groundwork. I will do my level best to put the cookies on the bottom shelf … for everyone including me. I am not a professional philosopher, and this is not a philosophy blog.

Here are some helpful terms and how I am using them.
Physicalism. This is the view that reality in general, and humans in particular, are entirely made of matter.

Dualism. Forget Plato's ideas on dualism or gnosticism for a second … that is not the kind of dualism we are dealing with in this argument. The way I am using dualism is as an opponent of physicalism. It asserts that in addition to the body, a human being also has a nonphysical component called a soul, mind or self.

Property dualism. A type of dualism. Property dualists hold that the mind is a property of the body. Just like red is a property of an apple, the property dualist maintains that the mind is just a property of the body. The mind, to a property dualist, is a series of conscious or unconscious mental states and events. This is important. The mental states and events are never the cause of bodily activity … they are the effects of bodily activity.

Substance Dualism. A different type of dualism. Substances are different than properties. Substances have four characteristics. One, they are particulars. They cannot be in more than one place at one time. Two, substances can experience a change in their properties. A leaf, for example, can change from having the property of greenness to the property of redness … but it never loses its "leafness" (substance). Third, substances are basic, fundamental existents. Finally, and this is critical, substances have causal powers. Substance dualists, and I happen to be one, maintain that we are in fact, a body and a soul. Our soul causes things to happen in our body. My soul (my mind) entreats my arm to raise, and it raises. A property dualist would not see it that way … he would see the arm raising and his mind entering into a new mental state that recognizes the fact that his arm is raised. Nuanced, but important.

Epiphenomenalism. This fancy word is a synonym for property dualism. The mind is to the body as smoke is to fire. Smoke does not cause fire. It is a by-product of fire. Similarly, the mind "rides" on top of events in the body. Body events cause mind as a byproduct. The mind is a property of the body that ceases to exist when the body ceases to function.

I don't like long posts ... and this post is already too long. Enough groundwork has been laid.

In the next post, we will examine why physicalism is self-refuting.


Keep it coming. A great beginning and excellent definitions of terms. look forward to seeing where you go with this.

If you are going to define property dualism and epiphemonemalism in the same way, then why use both terms?

In practice, the standard definitions for them are not the same... your definition of property dualism is non-standard. I suggest you edit your definitions and remove from the definition of property dualism "The mind, to a property dualist, is a series of conscious or unconscious mental states and events. This is important. The mental states and events are never the cause of bodily activity … they are the effects of bodily activity"... because none of that is true.

Similarly you should remove "This fancy word is a synonym for property dualism" from Epiphenomenalism... because it isn't. Epiphenomenalism is not connected to property dualism - there is no reason an Epiphenomenalist could not be a substance dualist.

I think the best evidence for the immateriality of some aspect in the human mind is the fact of conceptual thought. I have always found the following extract from Dr.Mortimer J. Adler’s “The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes” persuasive.

'The argument in its bare bones hinges on two propositions.

The first proposition asserts that the concepts whereby we understand what different kinds or class of things are like consist in meanings or intentions that are universal.

The second proposition asserts that nothing that exists physically is actually universal; any that is embodied in matter exists as an individual; and as such it can be a particular instance of this class or that.

From these two propositions, the conclusion follows that our concepts must be immaterial. If they were acts of a bodily organ such as the brain, they would exist in matter, and so would be individual. But they are universal. Hence, they do not and cannot exist in matter, and the power of conceptual thought by which we form and use concepts must be an immaterial power, ie., one the acts of which are not the acts of a bodily organ.

The reasoning that supports the first proposition is as follows. Our common or general names derive the meanings they carry from the concepts we have. The meaning of a common or general name is universal in its denotation and its connotation; that is to say, a common or general name always signifies a class of objects, never any particular instance or member of the class. Therefore, the concept that confers meaning on a common or general name must be a universal meaning- an act of the mind which has an intentionality that is universal. Were it otherwise, the concepts that we form when we exercise our power of conceptual thought would not enable us, as they do, to understand what it is like to be a dog, or a poodle, or a quadruped- or an electron, a galaxy or so on.

The second proposition is supported by the facts of common experience. The objects of our common experience are all individual things, ie., this individual dog, or poodle, or quadruped. One and the same individual object may be a whole variety of particulars according as it is a member of whole variety of classes; the object lying at my feet is this one unique individual thing, but is many particulars, for it is this particular dog, this particular poodle, this particular quadruped. The same holds true of objects outside the domain of common experience, such as theoretical entities that are posited objects of scientific knowledge. Each elementary particle moving about in a cyclotron is that one individual particle, thought this individual particle may be a particular electron, and that particular particle may be a particular neutron.

The facts just stated lead to the generalization that all physical objects, whether they are objects of common experience or objects of scientific knowledge, are individual things. This generalization can be stated in the following proposition and its converse: the proposition is that whatever exists physically (ie., whatever is embodied in matter) exists as an individual; and the converse proposition is that whatever exists as an individual exists physically. Since these two propositions state empirical generalizations, they are capable of being falsified by a single negative instance. But no negative instance has yet been found; no one has ever produced an existent object of common experience or of scientific knowledge that is at once physical or material in its most of existence and also universal in character (ie., a class of things rather than an individual thing.)

The argument then reaches its conclusion as follows. Our concepts are universal in the character of their intentionality. Hence they do not exist physically; they are not embodied in matter. Since our concepts are acts of power of conceptual thought, that power must itself be an immaterial power, one not embodied in a physical organ such as the brain. The action of the brain, therefore, cannot be the sufficient condition of conceptual thought, thought it may still be a necessary condition thereof, insofar as the exercise of our power of conceptual thought, depends on the exercise of our power of perception, memory and imagination, which is a corporeal power embodied in our sense organs and brain. (If it can be shown that any other animal, such as the dolphin, has the power of propositional speech and therefore, the power of conceptual thought, the argument just stated would lead to the same conclusion about the dolphin; namely, that it had an immaterial power and that the action of the dolphin brain may be a necessary, but cannot be the sufficient, condition of the dolphin's engaging in propositional speech and conceptual thought.)'


Neat argument on the universality of concepts. Thanks for posting it. There are indeed many defeaters for physicalism.


From the keyboard of JP Moreland, p 79, Scaling The Secular City

"Property dualists hold that the mind is a property of the body. As Richard Taylor puts it 'A person is a living physical body having mind, the mind consisting, however, of nothing but a more or less continuous series of conscious or unconscious states and events ... which are the effects but never the causes of bodily activity'. This view is called epiphenomenalism."

I am more interested in epiphenomenalism than property dualism. I am sure there are differences, which would make my "synonym" comment in error. However, it is a blog post ... and my goal is not to unpack the entire mind/body problem in one post.

Thanks for the comments.


From the keyboard of Moreland, on p 79, Scaling The Secular City

"Property dualists hold that the mind is property of the body. As Richard Taylor puts it, 'A person is a living, physical body having mind, the mind consisting, however, of nothing but a more or less continuous series of conscious or unconscious states and events ... which are the effects but never the causes of bodily activity.' This view is called epiphenomenalism."

I am less interested in property dualism than I am in epiphenomenalism. I probably could have ommitted p.d. entirely without harming anything.

It's just that I'm not myself sure whether to believe property dualism, substance dualism or idealism. So when I see someone saying property dualism (a very plausible possibility) and epiphenominalism (which is the most easy to refute idea ever invented) I have to raise an eyebrow.

I don't know what to think about the Moreland quote. His quote from Richard Taylor correctly describes epiphenomenalism. Perhaps Moreland's editors mistakenly joined the two? Perhaps Moreland copy+pasted into the wrong place? Perhaps Moreland doesn't know the difference himself, unlikely as that seems? It is argued by some (in my opinion correctly) that the more physicalist forms of property dualism such as Anomalous Monism actually end up being epiphenomenalist... but that's as close as the relationship gets.

Anyway, "property dualism" is virtually synonymous with "dual aspect theory". Basically they both say that the substance that constitutes the universe (or at least the physical part of it) has both physical properties and mental ones. eg an apple has both shape and weight. So, it is suggested, the one fundamental substance of whatever it is has both a physical aspect/properties and a mental aspect/properties. This is really a very general theory capable of subsuming many other mind-body theories under it. The differences come when you start thinking about to what extent the two properties can affect each other and whether either of them can change without affecting the other.


In my thinking you seem to have missed a division between the physical and the abstract. I think I understood you to say that if I think about an abstract (such as 'dog', distinct from a particular dog), then the fact that it is a class of things means that it cannot be physical, and hence cannot be the result of an arrangement of electrons in my brain. I would argue that it can be a result of such physical processes, because humans aren't capable of thinking of true abstracts that we know of. As hard as I try, when I think abstractedly of 'dog' I end up with a kind of medium sized, vaguely gray thing, not unlike a standard schnauzer. I don't mean that I can picture the hair on its ears - I'm thinking as abstractedly as I can - but I nonetheless form a fuzzy mental image. The same is true if I imagine an abstract circle (greyish image on a whitish background) or even love (the leap of my heart when I think of my kids) or hunger (how my belly feels).

So all of these aren't abstracts, but my understanding of abstracts, and as such are uniquely tied to me. We could debate whether they are manifestation of physical processes or not, but there existence for me refutes the logic of your argument (your argument may still be true, but as put forward it is not complete).

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