What Are the Differences between Mental and Physical Entities? Part 8

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Last post we looked at the issue of personal identity through change.  Dualists explain this phenomenon by positing the existence of a soul which remains constant throughout a person’s life.  Physicalists, however, deny that there is an absolute sense of personal identity, but this creates problems for their view.  J. P. Moreland draws out those problems below:

First, the fact that I can have a memory that an earlier self had presupposes that I am the same person as that alleged earlier self. Memory presupposes personal identity; it does not constitute it.

Second, in self-awareness I seem to be aware of the fact that I am literally the same self that continues to exist throughout my life and that unites my stream of consciousness into one stream that is mine. How can a physicalist . . . explain this basic awareness?

Third, why should I ever fear the future, say, going to the dentist next week? When the day arrives, I will not be present; rather, another self who looks like me (or has my memories) will be there, but I will have ceased to exist. The same issue arises with any emotion or attitude related to the future.

Fourth, why should anyone be punished? The self who did the crime in the past is not literally the same self who is present at the time of punishment.

Dr. Moreland summarizes the problems faced by the physicalist:

Physicalism . . . seems to require a radical readjustment of these basic, commonsense notions because these notions presuppose a literal, absolute sense of sameness through change, and this makes sense only if the soul is a substance that is a continuant (something that remains the same through change). If the intuitions expressed in points one through four above are reasonable—and we maintain that they are—then this provides further evidence for substance dualism.

The cumulative case for dualism and against physicalism continues to mount, but we have not even touched on some of the most important problems for physicalism.  In future posts, we will look at the issues of free will, morality, responsibility, and punishment.  Stay tuned!!

  • What are memories? Are they ‘immaterial’? Well, the evidence is overwhelming that memories are strictly and wholly anatomic chemical neurology. Doctor Moreland (Ph.D. in philosophy) specifically states that memory does not constitute identity.

    Oh really?

    And his evidence for this remarkable claim that is contrary to what we know is true in reality? As far as I can tell, only a metaphysical argument based on unrecognized false dichotomies that ignores compelling evidence from neurological anatomy.

    You see, Bill, assuming ghosts exist in the biological machinery that causes effect in reality is a truth claim about reality that requires evidence not from metaphysics, not from theology, not from tarot cards, not from tea leaves, not from divination, not from personal revelation, not from disembodies voices, not from the entrails of goats, not from a seer or medicine man, not from a reading of stars and their alignment, but from REALITY.

    Why is this such a difficult concept to grasp? Provide evidence that is compelling from reality to support a truth claim made about reality so that all of us everywhere can reach the same result and we can dispense with all this other superstitious nonsense.

    The problem – as J.P. Moreland fully understands – is that reality just isn’t cooperating. In fact, it continues to provide overwhelming evidence contrary to this claim. When this happens, it is a pretty safe bet that the claim is wrong.

  • You don’t understand the issue. The article you linked to merely reports on neurological aspects of memory. Nobody is denying that the brain affects memory, but this does not demonstrate identity of brain states with the mental experience of memory recall. The only way the neurologist can, in principle, know that brain damage affects memory is because the patient is telling the neurologist what he is experiencing (remember private access and first-person perspective). Without the patient telling the neurologist what his private, first person, mental experiences are, the neurologist would have no clue how brain activity relates to memory.

    In case you’ve forgotten, here is Moreland’s quote on this issue of identity from earlier in the blog series:

    “It may be that brain events cause mental events or vice versa: Having certain electrical activity in the brain may cause me to experience a pain; having an intention to raise my arm may cause bodily events. It may be that for every mental activity, a neurophysiologist can find a physical activity in the brain with which it is correlated. But just because A causes B (or vice versa), or just because A and B are constantly correlated with each other, that does not mean that A is identical to B.

    Therefore, and this is critical, physicalism cannot be established on the basis that mental states and brain states are causally related or constantly conjoined with each other in an embodied person. Physicalism needs identity to make its case, and if something is true, or possibly true of a mental substance, property, or event that is not true or possibly true of a physical substance, property, or event, then physicalism is false.”

  • Tom Rafferty


    I must call you out. I have posted several times in the last several days within this series and you have essentially ignored me. Yes, you have intermittently responded to some more lengthy comments of others, but you have failed to respond to my simple questions. That effectively tells me that you have no response that will allow you to continue with your unsupported believe system.

    You, my friend (as you have sarcastically labeled Mr. Croft), are simply deluded. Why do I state such? You are rock-solid in your beliefs in spite of several commenters presenting evidence that you are wrong. In addition, you whole supernatural opinion is devoid of support by science and is implausible.

    I will leave you with two posts from my blog and bid you good bye. Based on our prior interactions, I do not expect a response. However, I am convinced that if you do respond, you will not address any of my questions posed by the first link below.



  • Bill, I think you’re getting lost in your interpretation when you write identity of brain states with the mental experience of memory recall.

    Identity refers to how we see and describe ourselves and not, as you write, a description of a brain state, whatever that may be. This identity has to be drawn from somewhere… usually from recall (meaning memory). Also, we know that a change in the brain by damage or chemical alteration will alter to some degree how we see and describe ourselves, meaning ‘identity’. When we lose or impede our recall for specific components that make up our typical identity, what we have done is negatively affected our recall. Without recall (meaning memories) we have nothing on which to build a particular identity. psychology and neuroscience are chalk full of fascinating examples of how identity is affected and presented. I have yet to see, hear, or read about a living identity disassociated from a living brain. Perhaps you have.

    Remember, Moreland is not a neuroscientist. He is a theological philosopher. This is why he thinks it important to remind us that A as a mental activity and B as a physiological response to it are not identical. Well duh. Thanks for that important reminder. But he utterly fails to account for the fact that the brain really does cause the arm to raise. In fact, when one imagines lifting the arm, there is very much the same brain activity and some kinds of research about Locked In Syndrome are looking at exactly how and why there is interference between the brain and its failure to cause the arm to function. But Moreland fall into a trap of his own making forgetting that because the brain is very complicated and we are just beginning to understand some of its functions does not mean we can pretend our explanation that its all about a magical ghost in the machinery answers any questions at all. Without causal evidence, his assertions about physicalism are just so much metaphysical musings unrelated to reality.

  • We are not talking about the same definition of “identity.” You are referring to “identity” in terms of who a person is or how a person describes herself. That is not the definition that Moreland is using. He is speaking of “identity” in terms of a logical relationship, as described in this way:

    Leibniz’s Law of the Indiscernibility of Identicals: For any entities x and y, if x and y are identical (they are really the same thing – there is only one thing you are talking about, not two), then any truth that applies to x will apply to y as well. This suggests a test for identity: If you could find one thing true of x not true of y, or vice versa, then x cannot be identical to (be the same thing as) y. Further, if you could find one thing that could possibly be true of x and not y (or vice versa), even if it isn’t actually true, then x cannot be identical to y.

  • Hi Tom,
    The reason I have not responded to you is simple. It seems to me, based on what you’ve said in numerous comments, that the only thing I could say to you that would not make you angry with me is something like the following: “Tom, you are right about naturalism and I am wrong about theism. My beliefs are not based on science or reason, and yours are. I turn my back on Christianity and join the ranks of enlightened atheists.”

    Since I am not ready to say any such thing, I figure that saying nothing is better than needlessly making you even more angry with me. Every effort I have made to communicate has been strongly rebuffed and criticized as unscientific, irrational, nonsensical, and so on. If you were me, would you talk to someone like you?


  • Tom Rafferty


    You are correct. I fully see now that you are not willing or able to accept what I have said.

    Your opening statement from your last post, http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2012/04/16/is-testimony-really-that-unreliable-part-1/ is telling:

    “There are 3 ways that a person can gain knowledge: experience, reason, and testimony. Experience simply means that we observe something directly with one of our five senses for ourselves (e.g., “There is a computer screen in front of me”). Reason means that we make rational and logical inferences from knowledge we already have to new knowledge (e.g., syllogisms). Testimony means that we gain knowledge by hearing it from another person (e.g., “Napoleon was a short man”).”

    You do not use the term “evidence.” Was this an oversight or purposeful? Only you know. However, on the face of it, it tells me that you, at least, minimize its importance. Thus, our basic disagreement.

    In your reply above you mentioned that you are afraid that any response would anger me. This is not true. Perhaps this statement is a reflection of your misunderstanding of why atheists are “pushing back” against theists. I am only interested in the truth and, since this is a public forum, I think it is perfectly appropriate to respectfully challenge statements and ask for evidence in support of such. Nothing you can say will anger me. However, looking at the totality of our communications over the last several months, I can honestly say that I am surprised that someone with your intellect and engineering background can so blatantly ignore virtually all scientific findings that challenge your worldview. As you know, I was a devout Catholic most of my life, but was skeptical in all other matters. After exposure to the same sort of evidence that others are challenging you with on this blog, it took me a very short time to realize I was wrong all those decades.

    In case you haven’t clicked on my blog post addressing Christian apologists, here it is again:


    I, again, challenge you to slowly read and digest what I am saying here. Both of us can’t be right. I am continuously searching for the truth. If you can refute anything in this post, then please present it and we can continue with a respectful discussion. If you don’t respond, I will take it as follows:

    You haven’t read it or you read it but have no rebuttal.

  • Yes, I know this word salad represents Moreland’s flawed attempt to describe the brain and mind as ‘identical’ when no one is suggesting this. Mind is a process, brain is an object. Note the difference in words. This is important.

    I seem to recall this bad premise was clearly shown to be fallacious way back when you first introduced this series. You attributed to ‘physicalists’ these premises and simply ignored the outpouring of complaint (and many explanations) that it was not true: physicalists – meaning those who insist that causal claims be backed up by evidence – do not accept this key premise Moreland insists they must hold for his own silly argument to hold.

    To then extrapolate that human identity IS to be understood only in this way means that all you’re doing is building on a falsehood. Identity in neuroscientific terms is about how we see ourselves, what identifiers (not identicals, of all the ridiculous notions) we use to describe ourselves.

  • “Mind is a process, brain is an object.”

    You are merely begging the question instead of arguing against Moreland’s points. Of course, from your perspective, there is no such thing as mental entities, but that position has to be argued, not merely asserted.

    All you’ve done is say the following: “As far as neuroscientists are concerned, there is only the brain and central nervous system. Anything that Moreland mentions about mental substances, properties, and events is false because mental entities don’t exist. Therefore, his argument for dualism against physicalism is false.”

    Put another way, your style of argumentation is to start with the answer (i.e., physicalism), and then say that any arguments pointing away from physicalism must be false. But you cannot start with physicalism, because that is what is being questioned! You have to provide accounts of how physicalism can explain all of the mental substances, properties, and events that pervade human consciousness. You have never even attempted to do this.

    All you’ve said is “the brain is very complicated and we are just beginning to understand some of its functions,” as if that is an answer. Promissory physicalism is not an answer. It is an admission that physicalism, as a theory, has serious and currently unsolvable flaws.

  • By the way, this identity issue is really simple. I’m not sure why you have a problem with it.

    1) Physicalists believe that there only exist material substances, properties, and events.

    2) Every human being experiences beliefs, desires, sensations, thoughts (i.e., human consciousness).

    3)Therefore, these aspects of consciousness must, ultimately, reduce to (be identical to) material substances, properties, and events, for there is nothing else that exists.

    It is the physicalists’ job to show how human consciousness (or what has traditionally been called the human mind) is really just physical substances, properties, or events. Show how they are identical, in other words.

  • Tom Rafferty

    “Of course, from your perspective, there is no such thing as mental entities, but that position has to be argued, not merely asserted.”

    Bill, what us “Physicalists” are saying is that the scientific method works from “Methodological Naturalism”. Any effect on our reality must have an impact on the natural world. This doesn’t necessarily rule-out supernatural causes, but requires a full elimination of potential natural causes before entertaining the supernatural explanations.

    You are making the positive claim that there are “mental entities.” Since scientific knowledge strongly supports the hypothesis that the mind emerges from the brain and that there is no evidence for a “ghost in the box”, the onus is on you to present strong evidence of this “mental entity.” So far in this series you have only presented unsupported assertions and speculations.

  • Tom,
    You don’t want your blog post refuted, and you certainly don’t want to hear my responses to your post. I really don’t understand why you say that you do. We have been down this path many times together, and it has always ended with you being incredibly frustrated and angry with me. And please don’t tell me that’s not the case, because I’ve seen you get mad at me face-to-face!! It has just carried over to your blog comments.

    With other atheists on this blog, I imagine they are angry with me by the insulting and mocking language they use. With you, I don’t have to imagine, because I’ve seen you for myself. In any case, my goal is to lead those who are seeking to Christ, and it’s my perception that most things I say to you merely push you further away. I don’t want to be responsible for that. It is going to take another Christian to bring you back to Christ, someone you love and trust. That is not me.

  • More for you to chew on. The mind-brain identity theory has its own Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, so I don’t think it is Moreland’s made-up word salad. It seems that you just aren’t aware of the debates within philosophy of the mind.

  • Tom Rafferty

    You are labeling me as angry. Frankly, I believe you are presupposing such due to a warped view of atheists being angry. To challenge a theist is to be angry? You can continue to believe it. It certainly is in keeping with the delusion of your worldview.

    You wrote above: “You don’t want your blog post refuted, and you certainly don’t want to hear my responses to your post. I really don’t understand why you say that you do.”

    What do you mean I don’t want my worldview refuted? All I have done is present my worldview and challenge you to refute it. I have told you that I am willing to change a belief if you can present evidence better than what I have now. You continue to attack me personally without refuting me.

    Bill, just give me reasons to change my worldview once again. Multiplying unsupported assertions is not data.

    Evidence presently shows that the probably of brain/mind dualism is low. Since you are claiming to have support against this evidence, you who is making the positive claim have the obligation to refute it.

    Yes, there are gaps in scientific knowledge. However, unlike you, I can accept the statement “I don’t know.” You must fill it with unsubstantiated claims of a god.

    You cannot push me any further away from your fantasy so why don’t you just put up or shut up. Show me EVIDENCE.

  • Why don’t you have a go at explaining intentionality, personal identity through change, first person perspective, awareness of the self, subjectivity of experience, private access, and incorrigibility using physics and chemistry? Moreland claims these things cannot be explained by them, but you seem confident that they can be, so take it away!

  • Andrew Ryan

    Isn’t it Moreland’s claim that needs backing up? Does Moreland have a detailed alternative explanation? Saying ‘it’s God’ is no more an explanation than ‘it’s naturalistic’ in terms of explaining HOW. Moreland offers an argument from ignorance. No one person can tell you exactly how all the functions of a mobile phone work. That doesn’t mean you’re justified in claiming it is supernatural.

  • Tom Rafferty

    Bill, Andrew said it about a good as I can say it.

    Please understand the following:

    Science shows that the mind/consciousness (not the same, but what I am about to say applies to both) is directly effected by changes to the brain. There has never been a change in mind/consciousness that has not been detected in the brain when studied. This gives strong empirical support for the mind/consciousness being a natural emergence from the brain.

    Given the above, you are making a positive claim against this strong evidence. It is your obligation to supply evidence in support of this claim that is more convincing that the present known evidence. That is science.

    As you know, this is one (the greatest?) frontier in science. There is a vast amount that is unknown in this area. However, as Andrew stated, you are putting a non-material explanation in our gap of knowledge with only speculation.

    A skeptic is comfortable in accepting the “I don’t know” position. This posture has served humanity well for hundreds of years, with advancement in knowledge within and around us and a great improvement in our quality of life. How has religion done in these areas?

    I challenge you to reflect on virtually everything you are posting on this blog that is against the findings of science and then ask yourself is the content of such posts evidence against the established science or just a speculation to fill the gap with god. It is very clear to me what the answer should be.

    Both of us use evidence to conduct our everyday lives. However, you exclude this requirement when addressing religion and faith. Why?

  • Tom Rafferty

    Coincidentally, I received this from the New Scientist today. Enjoy.


  • The Standford citation says The identity theory of mind holds that states and processes of the mind are identical to states and processes of the brain. Strictly speaking, it need not hold that the mind is identical to the brain.

    A month ago I wrote, Norm Doidge describes some fascinating examples of what you call ‘mental entities’ in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, which shows that these ‘entities’ are no such thing. They are the brain’s interpretation of sensory data.

    You continue to insist that your style of argumentation is to start with the answer (i.e., physicalism), and then say that any arguments pointing away from physicalism must be false.

    Exactly wrong. I do not start with anything except ask for evidence to back up claims of causal effects and for those who make such claims to show by what mechanism cause relates to effects. You’re right that I find any answer of “Oogity Boogity” insufficient. They are insufficient not because I find them so but because it shows that the person making the claim has NOTHING to go by.

    I have shown that what Moreland calls ‘entities’ in the brain are in reality no such thing. You claim agreement with Moreland about mental ‘substances’ without providing any evidence for these ‘apparent ‘things’. I have provided evidence that they are representations made by the brain subject to instant change with a change to the brain! This evidence clearly shows that in all ways, the ‘substances’ and ‘entities’ believed to be in existence by Moreland and you is a claim not supported by evidence from reality. This is not “promisory physicalism” as you have asserted but clear and compelling evidence that these entities you believe in do not exist.

  • Philosophy of mind may be of great theoretical interest to many, but I am far more interested in how the brain actually works because ALL the evidence so far seems to point to the brain’s role producing what we call mind. All.

    Any philosophy that fails to adequately account for this fact is suspect. Moreland’s argument fails to account for this fact. Ergo…

    Now you insist that I hold an a priori belief, namely, that “Physicalists believe that there only exist material substances, properties, and events.”

    If you are trying to establish what is real and what is merely symbolic of process and concepts of relationships between physical discrete and concrete things, then we need some way, some method, that yields this information. If I were to make a claim that you are not human but an alien creature with physical form causing effect in the world we share, then it falls to me to provide compelling evidence from reality for this claim.

    If I make a claim that I enjoy romantic literature more than romantic music, then I am not making a claim about reality but about my subjective preferences. I need no evidence from reality for this claim. I do not need a similar method for evidence from the reality we share because I am making no claim about reality we share; I am making a claim about my subjective preference alone. It makes no sense to try to describe this kind of claim as a statement about causal effect in the world we share.

    But when you present Moreland as making a claim about discrete and concrete entities in the brain – ones that just so happen to have no physical properties by which to know them – then we have a problem. So we turn, instead to effect and see that we have what looks like some thing. So the right question here is, “Is this true?”

    You write that It is the physicalists’ job to show how human consciousness (or what has traditionally been called the human mind) is really just physical substances, properties, or events. This is ongoing research but so far has yielded consistent and reliable evidence to show exactly this.

    We can change and repeatedly and consistently have changed the effect claimed to be a discrete entity by Moreland (effect used as evidence for these separate entities) directly by changing the physical properties of the brain. This shows us that the two are directly and causally related, that the entities are a product of the brain. In fact, the very ‘entities’ used to justify this dualistic argument are clearly and unequivocally shown to be causally related to the physically specific parts of the brain that produces them. This indicates that the effects do not stand alone as ‘entities’ whatsoever but are fully the product of the brain.

    To get around this rather inconvenient fact to the philosophy of mind that seems to provide some wiggle room for dualism, you attempt to blame something other than the incorrect model you use so that you can blithely carry on descending into the bowels of metaphysics to prove your case while singularly ignoring exactly the evidence from reality that shows you model to be factually incorrect.

    To those who make claims for causal effect in the physical world, you need to show compelling evidence for this causal relationship AND show how the cause and the effects produced are linked. Failing this, the claim of ‘Oogity Boogity’ is not an answer but an evasion.

  • It’s behind a pay wall. Tom.

  • Tom Rafferty

    I know. It is very easy to register and is free. Sorry for not mentioning it. It really is worth reading.

  • Duh. My bad. I didn’t even read the site but assumed…!

    You’d think I’d learn.

  • tildeb said:

    “If I make a claim that I enjoy romantic literature more than romantic music, then I am not making a claim about reality but about my subjective preferences. I need no evidence from reality for this claim. I do not need a similar method for evidence from the reality we share because I am making no claim about reality we share; I am making a claim about my subjective preference alone. It makes no sense to try to describe this kind of claim as a statement about causal effect in the world we share.”

    And so we find the circularity in your argument. Here is the debate in the philosophy of mind: Can the reality of consciousness be explained in physical terms?

    In response to that question, you said above that reality does not include subjective claims, but that is what consciousness is. Consciousness is subjective. In other words, you have said, as your starting position, that consciousness is not part of reality.

    I find it incredible that you would take the fundamental attribute of human existence, consciousness, and sweep it into the “this isn’t part of reality” trash bin. You have a priori defined reality as that which is material or physical, but that is what is being argued. You cannot start with the answer, but that’s what you’ve done.

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