By Joshua R. Farris


There’s still a lot of buzz concerning naturalistic consciousness but much of that buzz has moved from physicalism to panpsychism. As of late, we’re hearing quite a lot about different theories of consciousness under the rather strange set of views called panpsychism. The latest and most public proponent of the view at the present moment seems to be Philip Goff. There are of course other defenders that historically had a significant impact on the discussion including David Chalmers and Thomas Nagel.

Goff recently touted success for his view as the middle way between materialism and dualism in his work Galileo’s Error, which came out a few years ago and has experienced significant success. Recently, he has advanced another via media between atheism and theism, which he sees as a kind of parallel related to the materialism-dualism debate in his recently published work, Why. What is interesting is that he continues to advance some form of panpsychism that suggests that at some lower level, rocks and atoms are conscious, and give rise to higher-order consciousnesses. And, more than that, he posits that while atheistic explanations fail to give us ultimate or comprehensive explanations of consciousness, purpose, and the origins of the universe, theism fails as well because of the problem of evil.

Whether or not his view will be successful remains to be seen. One thing he shows quite conclusively is that physicalism and atheistic alternatives fail to explain the data, particularly the data of conscious experience—what it is like to experience the qualities of certain things in the world. But, I want to highlight a different point and one that I believe is quite revealing in the present moment. And that is that with all the perceived success attributed to Goff and his colleagues, there is a striking elephant in the room and it's not altogether clear how or why panpsychism fares any better as an explanation of all the data. That elephant in the room is that souls are a better explanation for consciousness (an old idea, I know) and that these are intimately related, and that theism is a better explanation of the origins of the universe and consciousness (as we don’t just pop into existence, but there is some necessary explanation for our contingent existence as conscious beings). And, here’s the problem, so many touting the success of panpsychism are silent on the topic of this ancient notion of the soul and God. But, what is rather surprising is how often Goff and his panpsychist colleagues (and historically other secularist alternatives) are platformed online without even a mention given to the older view that we are souls created by God (or gods). You rarely hear about this view, and the famed Scientific American won’t platform it—that’s the Elephant in the Room.

Despite this fact, we are seeing something of a resurgence of interest in the dualism and theism of old. It is experiencing something of a renaissance amidst the success of panpsychism that should not go unnoticed. Here’s a taste of some of the developments that deserve a mention.

There are some places of light in academia. Just consider Humane Philosophy where dualism and supernaturalism are actually platformed and taken seriously. Whilst many groups would be reticent to platform, let alone publicize, the merits of both dualism and God, the recent Humane Philosophy Project has done just that. The success of dualism as a compelling option in the mind-body discussions as well as variants of theism as a plausible explanation of the origins of the universe are not only platformed with great persuasion but publicized in a variety of forums on their channel. Recently, the Humane Philosophy Project featured an exceptional lineup in their Summer Study and Conference called Minds, Persons, and CosmosWhat the interested party will find is that they platformed a series of thinkers defending both the notion of the soul and God as the appropriate lens and explanation for souls. In fact, several talks highlighted the compatibility of souls with physics, neuroscience, and quantum physics—particular sciences often advanced as incompatible with the notion of souls. And, this is just one of the successful series of talks discussing these and other relevant issues at the intersection of souls, cosmic purpose, and supernaturalism.

Consider also the recent flurry of works on dualism that open us up beyond naturalism or physicalist-akin views so often advanced and promulgated by naturalists. There have been several books in the past year attesting to the viability of something like dualism. These works advance, in varying ways, the successes of that older view called dualism and, at a minimum, imply theism as a part of the package deal. The first work advances an explicit case both for dualism and theism as a package that is ontologically tied together.

This work is The Creation of Self by Joshua R. Farris. Farris advances a case for the person or self as being the fundamental bearer of conscious properties. It is important to note that Farris advances something of a case for what is often called Cartesian or Neo-Cartesian dualism, where the primary bearer, binder, and ground of consciousness is the soul as an immaterial substance. The substance of consciousness is precisely the type of thing that yields some form of theism as an explanation of souls.

The second work recently published is The Mind-Body Problem and Metaphysics by Ralph Weir . The philosopher Ralph Weir at the University of Lincoln offers us a rich reflection on the recently advanced theories of the mind-body problem that have gained popularity in recent years called property dualism. He contributes the first book-length argument for why property dualism not only has no advantage over substance dualism (again, the view that we are comprised of immaterial and material substances), but that property dualism actually finds a better explanation in substance dualism. He explores the modal logic of varying conceivability arguments for the soul by considering Descartes, Kripke, and others along with the parity of zombie-twins and ghost-twins to show that if we accept the modal distinctions of zombies, then we should, likewise, accept the possibility of ghosts, which points us to souls.

The Substance of Consciousness was recently published by Wiley-Blackwell and it is the most comprehensive defense of substance dualism to date. Consider it something like an encyclopedia or a kind of catalogue of arguments for substance dualism. It is an important achievement that lays out arguments for the soul and where competing philosophical anthropologies come up short. Given its size, density, and tone, it is written for advanced audiences in philosophy and will be perceived as dry, but it is a considerable achievement in the recent philosophy of mind discussions.

Minding the Brain edited by Brian Krouse is one of the more unique collections in the history of mind discussions. Its aim is not explicitly defending dualism, but to criticize the variant materialist and naturalistic options of subjects and agents on offer. The bulk of the authors end up defending something like substance dualism or, at a minimum, something akin to it that affirms the priority of immaterial subjects that can explain mental events but are not explained by physical events (e.g., idealism). It uniquely touches on a variety of issues in mind-brain discussions at the intersection of particular scientific disciplines.

Interestingly, these last three books give an explicit defense of substance dualism and show that this old view that we are souls is not only viable and deserving of a place in conversation with panpsychism, but that it is superior to the monist and property-dualism options available today. These last three works do not give a defense of theism, but it’s no surprise that the authors defending dualism are also theists. The arguments represented therein could be taken up and explored as theistically inclined options. The first work, The Creation of Self, brings together some of the arguments for the soul and lays a path for how we should consider its relation to God.

In sum, the recent successes of panpsychism that take mental events seriously reveal two things in contemporary discussions. First, they point to the ongoing decline of interest in physicalism and the conviction that we are, in fact, more than our bodies and brains. Second, they reveal something of a significant critique in recent discussions toward atheistic, secular, and naturalistic theories of consciousness and the origins of the universe. In light of this, there are good reasons to affirm the age-old notions of souls and God, and more, there is a flurry of literature attesting to their richness as explanatory options in debates about minds and the cosmos.

— Joshua R. Farris (PhD) is an ordained minister and the Humboldt Experienced Researcher Fellow at the University of Bochum. He was a previous fellow at The Creation Project, Carl F. H. Henry Center, TEDS, and Heythrop College, University of London. He was also the Chester and Margaret Paluch Professor at Mundelein Seminary, University of Saint Mary of the Lake. He is the author of The Creation of Self: A Case for the Soul.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay