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A Neurosurgeon and a Philosopher Debate Mind vs. Body

Philosopher Joshua Farris defends controversial Cartesian dualism. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor critiques it but thinks it may account for near-death experiences

In “Why Cartesian Dualism,” neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviews theology professor Joshua Farris on dualism, the idea that the human being is both mind and body. That is, the mind is not simply a product of the brain, as many philosophers and scientists believe. What are the arguments for and what is the evidence for the reality of the mind? In this podcast, they talk about a specific type of dualism, Cartesian dualism — developed by French mathematician René Descartes (1596– 1650).

A partial transcript and notes follow:

Michael Egnor: The topic today is why Cartesian dualism? In this episode, we’ll discuss the merits of a theory of the mind–body relationship, in contrast to alternative viewpoints, such as materialism, hylomorphism, and Berkeleian idealism.

Michael Egnor

Materialism is a dead end because of the phenomenon of qualia and the Hard Problem of consciousness. of consciousness. There’s also a quality problem in materialism too, but that’s a different issue. Some form of dualism or immaterialism can satisfy these concerns.

Cartesian dualism has become sort of a whipping boy in philosophy, theology, and the sciences, even more so than its cousins in the dualist family. Why is this? Does Cartesianism have any advantages over the alternatives?

Joshua Farris has argued, yes, in fact, it does. There’s one feature of persons that seems to require Cartesianism, but Cartesianism is compatible with versions of idealism, and possibly even hylomorphism.

One of the interesting implications of Cartesianism that needs spelling out is its theistic grounding. Some consider this a weakness, but others see this as a welcome and attractive feature of Cartesianism.

My guest is Dr. Joshua Farris. He is a Professor of Theology of Science at Missional University. He is also a freelance writer for several academic news outlets, and on topics of the soul, science and faith, and public theology. He is a consultant, writer, and product developer for Raising Families. He was the executive director at Alpine Christian School and a part-time lecturer at Auburn University at Montgomery. He’s also the Director of Trinity School of Theology… He’s authored a number of volumes, and he is co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Idealism and Immaterialism.

For our listeners, what is Cartesian dualism, and how can it help us understand the relationship between the mind and the body?

Joshua Farris: Cartesianism is kind of a tradition following from René Descartes. It’s a tradition that’s developed over time, and there are a few of us around today who defend some sort of Cartesian view.

It is within a family of what’s called substance dualism… On a Cartesian understanding, there’s something unique about the mind-body relationship. If you’re following somebody like Richard Swinburne or John Foster, who are both Cartesian dualists of sorts, they would say (and I would tend to agree with them) something like this.

“That I am just my soul. I am my soul that has a body, or has some sort of singular relation or interactive relationship to my body. But my body is not me, strictly speaking. I’m not an animal.” Some of their views would say, “I am a soul, and particularly, I am my soul.”

Joshua Farris

“The soul is the core or the essential part of me. It’s the thing that carries along my personal identity” …

Michael Egnor: The first problem I have with the Cartesian view is that whatever value the Cartesian dualism has in understanding the mind–body relationship, I think it is as a general metaphysical view, really deficient. That is, that Cartesianism is bad metaphysics.

I think it’s better mind–body metaphysics than it is general metaphysics, but I think the general metaphysics is pretty bad. Animals aren’t machines, and the things that exist in the world are a great deal more than just matter extended in space.

Note: One controversial aspect of Cartesian dualism is the notion that an animal is just a machine, with dire consequences for animal welfare: “Descartes himself practiced and advocated vivisection (Descartes, Letter to Plempius, Feb 15 1638), and wrote in correspondence that the mechanical understanding of animals absolved people of any guilt for killing and eating animals. Mechanists who followed him (e.g. Malebranche) used Descartes’ denial of reason and a soul to animals as a rationale for their belief that animals were incapable of suffering or emotion, and did not deserve moral consideration — justifying vivisection and other brutal treatment (see Olson 1990, p. 39–40, for support of this claim). The idea that animal behavior is purely reflexive may also have served to diminish interest in treating behavior as a target of careful study in its own right.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michael Egnor: How do you feel about the general metaphysical presuppositions of Cartesianism? If they are significantly deficient, does that make the mind-body aspect of Cartesianism less valuable?

Joshua Farris: It seems to me that the claim that I just am my soul is the minimalist sort of Cartesian commitment that I’m committed to, that I think is the product of common sense — a sort of common-sense epistemology…

That minimalist commitment is, I think, really the strength of Cartesianism. But I don’t think I’m committed to the idea that the world is merely sort of a meat machine, or that the world lacks a sort of teleology, or that the natural world, that is the natural organisms, physical organisms, are sort of just mechanistically explained all the way down, to their sort of component atomistic parts.I don’t think a Cartesian, at least as I’ve defended Cartesianism, [has] to be committed to those other sort of metaphysical commitments that are often characteristic of Descartes’ larger metaphysical program.

I’m… more interested in defending this more core claim, this minimalist claim. I could call it kind of a neo-Cartesianism: This idea that I just am my soul. I am not a composite of my soul and body or mind and body. I am not a complex. My personal identity is not complicated, in say the way that a materialist, or arguably an Atomist, would be.

Michael Egnor: To me, the two great strengths of the Cartesian view, as you pointed out, [are that] it gives more grounding to the sense that we all have, that there’s an “I” there, that there’s a single metaphysically simple, unitary thing that is us…

The other aspect of the Cartesian view is it seems to accord very well with near death-experiences. There’s a lot of things in near-death experiences that are much more readily explainable from the Cartesian view of the soul, than it is from the Atomistic or other kinds of views of the soul.

One problem with the Cartesian view, is that it seems to make it difficult to know why, or in what way we would know, a particular soul is associated with a particular body. I mean, let’s say that my friend, Joe and I came into work one morning, and Joe said, “Well, I’m Mike now.” His soul is here. And I said, “Well, I’m Joe, and we switched last night.”

How would you disprove that? I mean, if the body is just the ship that the soul is piloting, well, pilots can switch ships. That gets to the modern problem that we’re having with transgenderism. That is that, if the Cartesian view is correct, a person could very readily say, “Well, yeah. I’m a woman’s soul in a man’s body.” Whereas, the hylomorphic view would be, “No, you’re not. Your body is very much a part of you. You have a spiritual or psychological problem but you can’t be a woman’s soul in a man’s body.”

Joshua Farris: I’m reminded of the movie Being John Malkovich. It’s a fascinating film, because there’s John Malkovich and there’s this 33½ floor. People can actually go up to that partial floor. There’s this little portal and they can slide down this portal — and they end up somehow accessing some of the items of John Malkovich’s perception. They’re able to perceptually experience life through his body.

Joshua Farris: I think, obviously, body-swapping intuitions are more readily at home with Cartesianism and that’s why there are these intuitions that we have when we think about the possibility of existing, or persisting out of the body, or in a sort of near-death experience.

I think that’s kind of the trade-off, but I don’t know if it’s as severe as people have made it out if we sort of tweak our sort of Cartesianism along the lines of something like an emergentist view, say something like William Hasker’s view. Hasker affirms a kind of emergent dualist view, where he says that, “The mind is a phenomenal unity of consciousness, that it’s the sort of binding force or the thing that provides unity to the items in one’s phenomenal consciousness.”

If we think about the body and the soul relationship, he uses the example of the magnet and the magnetic field. When certain conditions are met, the magnet gives rise to this magnetic field.

There’s certainly a distinction between the two but there is this close, intimate connection between the field and the magnet that are not easily separable…

Michael Egnor: Wouldn’t that just be hylomorphism? If you get to the point where you’re really sort of talking about form and matter, which is, obviously, the more fine-grained functional relationship, then it would just be a hylomorphic view.

Note: Hylomorphism “Aristotle famously contends that every physical object is a compound of matter and form. This doctrine has been dubbed “hylomorphism”, a portmanteau of the Greek words for matter (hulê) and form (eidos or morphê). Highly influential in the development of Medieval philosophy, Aristotle’s hylomorphism has also enjoyed something of a renaissance in contemporary metaphysics.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

On that view, the body is matter and the mind is form.

Joshua Farris: I guess I was taking the hylomorphic view, to implicate a more robust ontology of matter form, relationship …Certainly most emergentists, whether they’re sort of non-reductive physicalists or they are dualists like William Hasker would be reticent to call their view hylomorphic.

Michael Egnor: Right. I’ve long had problems wrapping my mind around emergentism. “It sticks in my craw,” is what I say. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand what emergence is, and I don’t see how it is a level of explanation. It seems to me kind of magical.

Note: Emergentism “Consider, for example, a tornado. At any moment, a tornado depends for its existence on dust and debris, and ultimately on whatever micro-entities compose it; and its properties and behaviors likewise depend, one way or another, on the properties and interacting behaviors of its fundamental components. Yet the tornado’s identity does not depend on any specific composing micro-entity or configuration, and its features and behaviors appear to differ in kind from those of its most basic constituents, as is reflected in the fact that one can have a rather good understanding of how tornadoes work while being entirely ignorant of particle physics. The point generalizes to more complex and longer-lived entities, including plants and animals, economies and ecologies, and myriad other individuals and systems studied in the special sciences: such entities appear to depend in various important respects on their components, while nonetheless belonging to distinctive taxonomies and exhibiting autonomous properties and behaviors, as reflected in their governing special science laws.” – Timothy O’Connor, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The tornado emerges from the components; it is not simply the components. The emergentist philosopher may argues that the human mind likewise emerges from the brain but is not simply the brain.

Joshua Farris: Timothy O’Connor is one defender of what he calls an emergent individualist view, which is just a version of non-reductive physicalism, which says that there are these properties or powers, that at some suitable level of neurocomplexity just gives rise, in a law-like fashion to consciousness, and free will…

Hasker is building upon that sort of emergentist set of literature and saying something similar, in that what emerges, is actually substantial. What is required if we are going to have say, downward causation, or freedom of the will, or a first-person perspective, is a substance of a sort that emerges from a suitably complex neural structure and central nervous system.

He says that what we need is something like “thisness”; he calls it some sort of phenomenal thisness and this is where phenomenal consciousness becomes really important for him, why he ends up affirming a kind of substantial dualism. He doesn’t think that phenomenal consciousness can be made sense of as a non-reductive physicalist, but rather, it requires this additional feature that binds together the items within one’s phenomenal consciousness.

I can go out and experience all the elements in the green pasture, including the wind blowing the flower out in the middle of the green pasture. I experience it as one unified field, and I can isolate and pick out various items within my field of consciousness, but there is some something about that that is unique and unlike anything that we have in the physical world. That requires what Hasker would say is a “thisness.”

Emergence may be magical. The kind of emergence that I am committed to is a more sort of minimalist commitment. Emergence is commitment that could be accounted for by way of simply theistic contentions. “Why am I connected to this body?” Well, simply, as John Foster would say, “Well, because God set it up that way.”

Michael Egnor: I thought a great deal about emergence. I guess everybody has their bugbear, and that’s one of my bugbears because, whenever I hear it described, at the end of the description, I really feel as though I don’t know any more about what’s going on than I did before the description. It doesn’t seem to me to explain anything.

Emergence is, from my perspective, a psychological phenomenon — meaning the discovery that something is behaving on a large scale [in a way] that you didn’t expect from knowledge of its behavior on a small scale.

Why would H2O molecules feel wet when you put them together to make water? There’s nothing about the H2O molecule itself that would make you think of “wet” but when it all goes together, it does feel wet. You say, that’s an emergent property of water molecules; [they’re wet when] you get a lot of them together. That’s just a psychological thing. There’s nothing magical that’s happening when the water molecules get together. It’s just that, psychologically, we didn’t anticipate that it would feel wet, and, hey, we’re surprised it does.

If emergence is really a psychological phenomenon, which again, I think a pretty good case can be made that it is, it can’t be used to explain the mind, because it presupposes the mind. To me, it’s just smoke and mirrors. It doesn’t really explain anything.

Certainly, the things that emergence tries to explain are fascinating and important things. For example, the unity of conscious experience is very important, but I don’t think saying that it’s an emergent property explains anything. I don’t get the explanatory power…

Joshua Farris: I’m already, as a sort of theist Cartesian, committed to some version of idealism, as it stands. I mean, at some level, God’s intentions are the ultimate causal explanation of the world.

That mind is what, at least in part, explains values and the meaningfulness of natural events, that maybe, themselves, don’t have apart from God’s intending or conferring. They only have meaning in that sort of theistic context, where God intends them in that way, something like a sort of personal idealism…

We experience the physical world, as extrinsic or external to our minds, but it is something that God communicates to us that we experience, we have phenomenal experiences of. The view that says that I am strictly speaking identical to my soul or my mind, that is, at the base, what explains my consciousness, and my freedom, freedom of the will, and the fact that I am me, and not someone else. That’s the important Cartesian claim that, I think is compatible with the sort of Berkelian Idealism. I haven’t gone there yet, but it is compatible with it.

Michael Egnor: Yes. I do feel that the sense that we are ourselves, is something that is not well accounted for in the hylomorphic understanding, and that that is a strength of the Cartesian perspective.

Here’s the second part: Dualism is best option for understanding the mind and the brain. Theories that attempt to show that the mind does not really exist clearly don’t work and never did. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor reviews the mind-brain theories for East Meets West: Theology Unleashed. He think dualism makes the best sense of the evidence.

Here are all the segments in order:

A neurosurgeon and a philosopher debate mind vs. body. Philosopher Joshua Farris defends controversial Cartesian dualism. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor critiques it but thinks it may account for near-death experiences. They both critique emergentism, the view that the mind, while not merely what the brain does, emerges from the brain and has no separate existence or origin.

How does dualism understand personal identity? Both neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and theology professor Joshua Harris acknowledge weaknesses in their philosophies’ understanding of personal identity. Aristotelianism, in Egnor’s view, interprets the mind– brain relationship better but Cartesianism, in Harris’s view, interprets personal identity better.

Excluding all reference to God from science is a form of theology. It’s negative theology, to be sure, Michael Egnor and his guest Joshua Farris agree, but still a theology — and one with implications. The neurosurgeon and philosopher agree: Excluding God from science provides an opportunity to make up all sorts of illogical ideas and call them science.

You may also wish to read:

How did Descartes come to make such a mess of dualism? Mathematician René Descartes strictly separated mind and matter in a way that left the mind very vulnerable. After Descartes started the idea that only minds have experiences, materialist philosophers dispensed with mind, then puzzled over how matter has experiences.


Dualism is best option for understanding the mind and the brain. Theories that attempt to show that the mind does not really exist clearly don’t work and never did. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor reviews the mind-brain theories for East Meets West: Theology Unleashed. He think dualism makes the best sense of the evidence.

Show Notes

  • 01:27 | Introducing Joshua Farris
  • 02:36 | What is Cartesian Dualism?
  • 07:32 | Is Cartesianism is bad metaphysics?
  • 13:02 | The Cartesian View and Transgenderism
  • 19:31 | What is emergence?
  • 25:30 | The Cartesian view and God as the God’s Mind.

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A Neurosurgeon and a Philosopher Debate Mind vs. Body