Why not physicalism? (1)

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question:  There was a point in time when we did not exist — that is, the particles that make us existed, but there was no sense of  “me” in them. So the consciousness that we usually call “life” did not exist. This is because the organ that is responsible for the feeling of consciousness (the brain) did not exist in a working form billions of years ago.

The brain is responsible for our thoughts (that is why certain pills have warnings that they may cause violent thoughts), memory (Alzheimer's etc. affects memory), dreams (certain conditions, e.g. Rye syndrome, cause nightmares), consciousness (why we lose the sense of “me” when we faint through lack of blood supply), emotions (our emotions and mood swings with certain brain conditions, e.g. Creutzfeldt Jakob disease). In short, the brain is what gives us this sense of consciousness.

Now, death is defined as an irreversible loss of brain function — that is, the loss of the organ that allows us to feel conscious. So my question is if billions of years ago this organ did not function. — because we did not exist — why will the second time around (what we call death) be any different? (Christian, male, under 18, North America)

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries. This is an interesting question (to say the least!) — but the answer is deceptively simple.

Your question asserts that something that never was (the particles of my brain-therefore-me before the earth was formed) is equivalent to something that has died (the particles of my brain-therefore-me after death) — because the particles currently occupying my brain would be somewhere else in the universe if I wasn’t using them — and I concur with you about those particles.

But my grandmother’s not here, either… yet I find myself writing this electronic communication to you. So, here’s the thing: you cannot say — and especially in the light of my writing this answer — that the state of my grandmother being dead is the same state as if my grandmother had never lived.

If those states were equivalent in any meaningful way — and having her component particles existing in the same cosmos before and after death is not meaningful… because that’s the state of all other particles at all times — then both I and this missive would be missing. But instead… here we are! — the data which disproves your premise.

The main problems with physicalism — which is the philosophy you’re trying on for size here — is that it is simplistic, reductionist and deterministic… and it doesn’t offer the best explanation for the empirical data.

Now, this in itself is ironic, because physicalism says of the world there are only empirical data, and that its proponents have dibs on what that data means — nothing! But their reductionist analyses gloss over the many in-your-face aspects of life… like the fact that something exists rather than nothing at all… or why physical entities follow physical laws… or the fact that human beings are driven. And since we are driven to do things like asking this question, the real question is, driven by what? — and this answer is not in the physical realm.

The Bible teaches (and Christians generally understand) that an immaterial God exists (John 4:24), that an immaterial moral code exists (Romans 2:14-15) … and that we have an immaterial soul that is distinct from our bodies (1 Samuel 18:1) — which is called body/soul dualism.

But physicalism (aka materialism and naturalism) asserts that there are only physical causes of phenomena, and that there is no independent entity called the soul or the mind — and that what dualists believe to be the soul or the mind are merely the result of brain states — and are, therefore, not immaterial controlling entities.

With physicalism then, there is no “essential self” as we Christians understand it, so self-awareness — which is a universal phenomenon within people (…. and the defining property of people) — must be an illusion… but I think more of humanity than that.

Now, if I’m reading your question correctly, you are in sympathy with physicalism… but while identifying yourself as a Christian. The problem with this is that in physicalism, there is neither God (who is, by definition, non-corporeal) nor morality (which, by definition, over-arches the physical)… so, I’m a little confused about where you actually stand. But I’ll continue in hope nonetheless.

I agree that the physical brain relates to our thoughts, memories, dreams, consciousness and emotions, but I do not agree that our brain states cause these… and one of the reasons for this is that I do not believe that the brain and the mind are the same entity. In fact, I affirm that they are distinct… and that the mind is the driving force behind our emotions and volitional acts. I see the mind as an entity that is over and above the brain.

“There are things that are true of consciousness that are not true of the states of my brain... so they cannot be the same thing.” This is a quote from Dr. JP Moreland who is an expert in the issues surrounding mind/body dualism. He comes with my highest recommendation.

The second death (to use your words and meaning… because the Bible, too, uses the term “second death” … but very differently [Revelation 2:11]) cannot be the same as the first non-existence because God worked his plan of redemption through the physical universe — capitalizing on the second law of thermodynamics to keep sin somewhat at bay (Romans 8:21-22). But this requires that he install volitional people on a habitable planet… and here we are! But what makes humans so special?

People are the soulish hominids to whom God also gave his spirit (Job 32:8) — and who are the purpose of his creation. The biblical take on creation is that the entire universe was created and sustained to prepare a place for us here. This smacks of purpose, of course — and purpose smacks physicalism — right in the face! And make no mistake, Christianity and physicalism are diametrically opposed. So, choose you this day whom you will serve (Joshua 24:15)… because we dwell in a land of choice — a phenomenon which physicalism, being deterministic, also denies.

If a person puts all of his eggs into the physical basket as your question has done, then it is true that there is no continuance of a person after brain death… and that the brain’s physical components will eventually decompose and be ready for another building project. So, “death” in this scenario, would indeed be much the same as before life showed up on earth.

But if there is a mind that is over the brain — and if there is a person that is distinct from the physical-self — then that is not at all true. Our real selves will persist without the burden of our physical selves… even though our bodies decompose just as in the physicalist view. This is what the Bible teaches — dust to dust (Ecclesiastes 3:20) — and this is what Christians generally believe.

So, the setup for your question fails on two fronts: it has confounded physical personhood with essential personhood, and it postulates that non-existence is equivalent to death. But the state of being back when just particles existed — that is, before the universe became organized into stars and planets — is not the same as death. Death requires that there must first have been life… and there was no life to die before the universe became highly organized!

But when the earth was ready, God brought forth the soulish creatures we call humans, and he gave us the extra-physical attribute of a soul (Genesis 2:7) … and then he placed us in charge of everything (Genesis 1:28). Now, how we’ve responded to that stewardship is the subject of some debate, but the fact that we have subdued the earth is not much in doubt. We have been efficacious because we have been in charge… and stewardship is a soulful enterprise.

Don’t let the fact that God chose entropy to drive the world fool you into thinking that there’s not another world for us to deal with after death. Hey… even physicalists postulate a multiverse! The problem with that is that Natural Theology demands a God who is sovereign in every possible world… so even there they can’t escape from the idea of God.

The Bible teaches that a new creation is coming (Revelation 21:1) … which is good… because it also teaches that God’s people are new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17) — and he’s not talking about our physical forms. This is all about the spiritual. So, life is not a pile of physical happenstances… which is the physicalist view.

God created billions of unique persons who will persist for eternity (Matthew 25:46) — and they will do so in spite of the dust-to-dust aspect of their corporeal beings… because there are things that are true of the physical universe that are not true of life (John 10:10). Every human has an eternal purpose, and therefore, eternal jeopardy.

To be fair to the physicalist argument, our life experiences don’t feel dualistic. It feels like our physical body is our actual self… I mean… how could it not? We’ve lived with our body and soul joined together since birth. And furthermore, the body has been responsible for continual input and output for all that time. So, no wonder it’s hard to imagine a conscious yet non-physical state.

That being said, we will never be able to prove which position is true while we are here on earth… so we’ll have to wait until we die. If physicalism is correct, then at death, consciousness ends and there is nothing resembling the lives we just had. Game over.

But if dualism is correct, all persons — whether they subscribed to theism or not — will face a conscious eternity. The problem with waiting, of course, is that not everyone will be prepared to meet this God they dismissed. Game never over.

I’d think this one through again.

(To see the follow-up question, click here.)

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