What Are the Differences between Mental and Physical Entities? Part 4

Post Author: Bill Pratt

One of the most important differences between the mental and physical is the property of intentionality.  Philosopher J. P. Moreland explains just what intentionality is and why physicalism does not account for it.

Intentionality is the mind’s ofness or aboutness.  Mental states point beyond themselves to other things.  Every mental state I have is of or about something – a hope that Smith will come, a sensation of the apple, a thought that the painting is beautiful.  Mental states can even be about things that do not exist – a fear of a goblin or a love for Zeus.

Does physicalism account for intentionality?

Intentionality is not a property or relation of anything physical.  Physical objects can stand in various physical relations with other physical objects.  One physical thing can be to the left of, larger than, harder than, the same shape as, or the thing causing the motion of another physical object.  But one physical object is not of or about another one.

Moreland gives a concrete example to draw out the difference:

When I am near a podium, I can relate to it in many ways: I can be two feet from it, taller than it, and my body can bump into it.  These are all examples of physical relations I sustain to the podium.

But in addition to these, I can be a conscious subject that has the podium as an object of various states of consciousness I direct toward it.  I can have a thought about it, a desire for it (perhaps I want one like it), I can experience a sensation of it, and so forth.  These are all mental states, and they have intentionality (ofness, aboutness) in common.

Hence, mental states possess intentionality, while physical states do not.  Mental states are not physical states.

Continue with part 5 of the series.

  • I am not a monist, but I’ve long had a problem with Dr. Moreland’s philosophy on this subject. I think he is presupposing too much to make his case and oversimplifying the details the are present in the problem.

    Is not intentionality the idea of having a goal? Granted a simple object does not have intentionality relative to another object. And granted the mind has an intentionality aspect to it. But, while I can not claim to be able to make a machine with consciousness (the qualia), I can very well claim, and have on several projects, developed machines that have intentionality. In one case is a missile intent on hitting its target and another is a laser system intent on keeping a missile from hitting an aircraft. The key difference between the objects Moreland uses in his examples and those I am talking about, and the brain as well, is that intentionality is present where there is a system that has feedback and correction ability. Learning systems can go beyond their initial programming to observe new patterns and built upon knowledge. In other words, machines can mimic the simple processes of the brain.

    As well, don’t animals, who are not “spiritual” have intentionality? I am not convinced by Dr. Moreland’s arguments that dualism is true. I believe it is true, but don’t accept his arguments for it. To be honest, I don’t think he can make the case from the philosophical arguments he makes. The only evidence I know of to say there is something beyond the body is the verifiable out of body experiences where a person has knowledge of something during the time of “death” that they could not possibly have known about. Moreland writes about that along with Habermas.

    I do believe we are more than mere machines, but Moreland just has not made the case. If he has, it isn’t in a convincing form or fails to resolve the difference with what we already can do in the engineering world.

    Now, all of that is not referring to consciousness itself as being something that we can put our finger on and know how to duplicate in a machine. Self awareness is different than talking about mere mental states. I personally believe mental states are in the brain and give rise to an awareness that is itself not a “state” in the brain. This idea about the neurosurgeon not being able to find a pink elephant in a person’s brain is silliness since the image is distributed throughout the brain. It is the awareness of it that is peculiar that a neurosurgeon cannot point to.

  • Boz2012

    “verifiable out of body experiences where a person has knowledge of something during the time of “death” that they could not possibly have known about.”

    Walt, this is interesting, can you please link to examples?

  • Boz, these are cited in the Moreland & Habermas book titled Beyond Death. I have no links to provide. I took a class from Dr. Habermas and he gave several examples where the temporarily dead person ended up knowing details of events they could not have known of since they were in the hospital at the time.

  • Boz, try this: http://www.apologetics315.com/2009/07/near-death-experiences-evidence-for.html

    And here is a writeup: http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1340&context=lts_fac_pubs

    I have not listened to or read these, I’m going by what he said in the class and expect it to be the same.

  • The con man’s game is to know ahead of time what will be revealed later and then pretend to use supernatural powers to ascertain what ‘couldn’t possibly be known’ by any other means. This technique is very persuasive to those willing to believe.

    I see no difference in the evidence put forth by these various testimonials. What is not collected is information on how often these reports are factually wrong (which is usual in my experience). In addition, people often embellish their eye witness accounts of NDEs with later correct detail to enhance the effectiveness of the story telling.

    So let us assume that there is a clear criteria on what dead means, a criteria where no cognition can occur. Is there any evidence that the automatic cellular decay and damage that happens after death is suddenly reversible in some instances by some unknown mechanism of rejuvenation to bring a dead person back to living without impairment? No. Is this the kind of death what we mean is experienced by a near death experience? Hardly. But what we do find are many claims to almost-dying experiences shared to a remarkable degree by those who have undergone brain alterations from chemical, biological, and physical changes. Why is this similarity so prevalent when it could be – and should be if the nebulous ‘soul’ is an independent entity – completely different? Why isn’t this separate and distinct ‘consciousness’ unaffected by materialistic changes to the brain?

    What is being sought here is a god-of-the-gaps kind of argument where introducing some element of ‘I don’t Know’ translates into an equivalent possibility of ‘Therefore Jesus.’ It is not uncommon for people to insert pseudo-answers – like a supernatural realm of existence – to paint over ‘I don’t know’ conclusions when faced with baffling evidence. But what it is uncommon to apply critical thinking to such possibilities and follow the questions raised if the hypothesis is true to their logical conclusions. For example, by what mechanism is this supernatural consciousness that can separate from the almost-dead and fly about collecting data connected to us so that it is capable of causing such observational effect in the natural? Is our consciousness subject to gravity or does it willingly fly at some 40,000 Km/hr to keep up with our physical bodies rotating on this planet and is immune from gravity’s effects. How does it move in the natural world and not be flung by centrifugal force into space in order to accurately locate running shoes? If it is subject to gravity, then it must have mass. If it has mass then it is a physical thing with a location in space and time that is quantifiable. Is there any such evidence for this proposition? Is there evidence against this proposition?

    You see the problem? Such stories are fine for a campfire or fireside chat where the goal is to be entertaining with spooky element to enhance the effect. But if one wants to seriously consider consciousness as a separate and distinct part of our being, then the entertaining ramblings of such religious philosophers with an agenda is hardly a go-to source.

  • tildeb,

    You have read these accounts to see that they may not be what actually happened but were embellished?

    I’ll grant you god in the gaps for NDEs in general. Any spiritual theory could explain them and it is not understood what is going on in a dying brain from a purely natural perspective. But these particular accounts that Habermas gives are not god in the gaps accounts because God is not being hypothesized to explain how someone knew things they couldn’t have known otherwise. Rather, these are explained by the spiritual explanations that they reveal and that is about as far as it can go. Now, if you have information to show these were fraudulent claims, that is a different story. As far as I can tell from what you said, you are only speculating about these instances because of your personal experience with some other instances that might have well been exaggerated. For general testimony, things are often exaggerated. But for a medical journal, I wouldn’t expect it.

    Unless I misunderstood, the point of this post by Bill is about the question of duality in human nature, not whether there is a God.

  • No, Bill doesn’t care to question dualism whatsoever; he requires it to be so to support his faith, therefore it IS so… and all contrary evidence in reality can be safely ignored. That’s what faith does to people’s critical faculties. And Bill’s faith, not reality, informs what’s true in reality for Bill. That is why he has ignored the serious criticisms against dualism just as I predicted he would:

    From Monday, March 19, 2012

    Bill, I have little doubt that you will read this and then continue to go on your merry way assuming that dualism is still a valid concept. It isn’t. It’s thoroughly discredited (and has been for nearly 500 years). There is no evidence for any ghost in the machinery of your brain.

    The very best and honest answer to particular cases raised by Habermas is “I don’t know how much if any of these stories are even true.” But is that what is being presented? Of course not. What is being presented are stories to act as second hand ‘evidence’ for an afterlife. Habermas says as much in his radio interviews. This links back to necessarily needing a part of our consciousness that is not connected to our biology in order to have something that exists past death. But this just doesn’t fit with what we do know about our consciousness and its susceptibility to physical changes. The faithful require this element of dualism – this ghost in the machinery – to be true so as to justify submitting to some eternal authority in THIS life.

    But this ball of string called dualism unravels when its hypotheses are examined in detail, when we base predictions on them that are wrong, when we test it for veracity and find it wanting. Occasionally, we get an outlier result where something is reported that doesn’t seem to fit with a strictly biological model. So what? The honest answer is “I don’t know” rather than the dishonest answer of “Therefore dualism is true,” or in your case “explained by the spiritual explanations.” Bunk. These outliers do not contribute to understanding the event itself when assigned a ‘spiritual explanation’ but creates just enough wiggle room for wild conjectures to be made as if they were fact about the supernatural that fail to adequately explain anything. It is into this gap where we find the only ‘evidence’ up for grabs, which is promptly co-opted by the faithful to be evidence for some supernatural entity that remains incoherent with everything else we know about the brain and consciousness.

  • Tom Rafferty

    I attempted to comment on this post and it seemed to “take.” However, after I sorted it, it disappeared (???). Don’t know if Bill is monitoring comments to that degree. In any event, here is my attempt to repeat the comment.

    I responded to Bill in the “Part 1” post and he never replied (see here: http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2012/03/26/what-are-the-differences-between-mental-and-physical-entities-part-1/).

    This situation is classical “god of the gaps.” Unanswered questions are no reason to accept unquestioned answers.

    The naturalism website (naturalism.org) has a nice post (but quite long) addressing the philosophy of J.P. Moreland in general and specifically his opinion on this topic: http://www.naturalism.org/Morelandreview.htm.

    The last paragraph sums it up:

    “To know for sure that a supernatural agent is behind a phenomenon, for instance consciousness, we’d have to have an evidence-based account of the agent’s categorically supernatural characteristics and modes of operation, otherwise the default conclusion would be that a natural explanation exists that we haven’t yet discovered. What doesn’t follow is that an ongoing failure to naturalize a phenomenon supports the supernatural hypothesis in the absence of positive evidence for that hypothesis. To be epistemically responsible in the mode of science, we need proof of supernatural agency in terms of verifiably supernatural characteristics before we justifiably admit something supernatural into our worldview and give up on naturalistic explanations. Until such time as the supernatural hypothesis gets more specific, and gains a shred of intersubjective evidence, the naturalistic alternatives should direct our investigations into the puzzles of consciousness, human nature and ethics. Moreland and other supernaturalists like to think naturalism has failed, but the explanatory emptiness of their hypothesis, and the successes of science thus far, suggest quite the reverse. ”

  • Hi Tom,
    This series of posts is not arguing for the supernatural. It is arguing for the fact that human consciousness cannot be reduced to a physical substance with physical properties, and that mental entities therefore exist. I do not equate the existence of mental entities with the supernatural.

    To get from the existence of mental entities, such as the human mind, to the supernatural, is another set of arguments altogether.

  • Tom Rafferty


    I think you are being disingenuous when you say you are not arguing for the supernatural. You are trying to “set the stage” for such through this argument. If you can convince the reader that the mind is a non-material entity in the brain, then you can go to 2nd base, etc.

    You first need to show evidence for your hypothesis. You, and no one else, has done so. Again, all you and other theists are doing is positing philosophical speculations. Scientific research in the area of the mind strongly points to it being purely natural. That is a fact. The following statement is the present scientific consensus on this subject: The mind is emergent from the brain and is a verb, not a noun. Is the evidence for such conclusive? No. Are there competing hypotheses that have supporting evidence? No. If you can provide me with any evidence to support your hypothesis, now is the time. Otherwise, I challenge you to admit that what I am saying is the truth.

    Let me ask you a personal question. Would you ever change your theist worldview under any circumstances? You are professionally successful and have a loving family that shares your worldview. You also have many friends who also share the same worldview. As I did, I’m sure you derive great comfort from your worldview and all of this reinforcement of such. Are you willing to step outside of the dogma of your faith to consider what science truly says on the subjects you are addressing on this blog? I did and I am so much more free, alive and happy. I will take truth over comfort now. It took me several decades of struggling with the social reinforcement of my prior worldview verses what I now realize is reality.


  • Tom Rafferty
  • Pingback: What Are the Differences between Mental and Physical Entities? Part 3 | Tough Questions Answered()

  • Cristero

    “The following statement is the present scientific consensus on this subject” – a consensus is not authomaticaly truth. Not all neuroscientists are physicalists

    Naturalism is dead and only dogmatic naturalist can not see it.

  • Cristero

    successes of scienc? Science of the gaps?

  • Cristero

    What abotu serious criticism about physicalism? atheist are dogmatic matherialist.

  • C

    Would you change your mind like Lewis, Flew and others did?