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Getting Mind Out of Meat - Introduction


A Non-Reductive Physicalist Account of Human Nature

Nancey Murphy
Fuller Seminary


Now, I understand that when you give a public lecture you're supposed to start with a joke to get people's attention. But I'm a philosopher and philosophers are not noted for having a good sense of humor. So I don't have a joke for you. But I'm also a professor and I know a foolproof way to get attention, that is to announce a pop quiz. Now, don't worry, you don't have to turn this in. You're not going to get a grade; you didn't pay enough to get a grade for this (laugh). See I told you we don't have a sense of humor.

Here's the question. Which of the following comes closest to your view of human nature?

Pop Quiz

Which of the following comes closest to your view of human nature?

1. Humans are made of three parts; e.g., body, soul and spirit. (trichotomism)

2. Humans are composed of two parts: (dualism)

2a. A body and a soul

2b. A body and a mind

3. Humans are composed of one ‘part’: a physical body (materialism/physicalism)

4. The question doesn’t make sense!

1) Humans are made of three parts, for example, a body, a soul and a spirit. This is a view that's called trichotomism.

Option number two: Humans are composed of two parts--this is called dualism, and there are two versions available in our culture: A body and a soul, or a body and a mind.

Third option: Humans are composed of only one part, a physical body. And this position can be called either materialism or physicalism. And if you don't find yourself there you can always opt for number four. That question doesn't even make any sense. I put that in there because I actually think that that's probably what many of the biblical authors would say if they were forced to answer this quiz.

So I'm going to ask you for a show of hands. How many of you would choose option number one? That's a pretty good number.

Option number two, dualism of either sort. Okay.

Option number three, physicalism. A few--two or three.

How about number four? How many of you would choose number four? All right. Good.

Well, that's kind of the sort of spread that I always get when I lecture on this subject. It's interesting that this is a topic that is rather important. I mean, we're talking about the very nature of ourselves as human beings. And there's a vast amount of disagreement on this issue. But interestingly, it's a topic that has not been talked about in public. And that's the reason that we can have a group of people and nobody can really guess who is going to say what when they're asked to answer that question.

However, as Adrian pointed out in his introduction, it's a topic that's getting to be more and more a topic of discussion and debate in our culture. And to a large extent, this has to do with the developments in the neurosciences. I think you quoted--it was Francis Crick that you quoted--arguing that for Christians the notion of you might see a detachable mind or soul as an essential part of their teaching. So if the neurosciences can show that there is no such thing, then poof, argument against Christianity in one fell swoop.

So it's important for Christians to talk about this issue and discover for ourselves whether dualism or trichotomism really is essential. My own view is that it's not. But it's not my job to argue that here today; I'm here as a philosopher not a biblical scholar or a theologian--thank heavens.

So what I'm going to do is take option number three, physicalism, as the best alternative; I'm going to assume that it fits better with science than the other options do. And I'm also going to assume for present purposes that it's at least as compatible with biblical and theological teaching as dualism or trichotomism is.

My job then is to deal with the issue of reductionism. So option number three (Physicalism) actually hides two very different views here: A reductive view of physicalism or materialism and a non-reductive view of materialism or physicalism.

First of all, I want to try to make that distinction clear to you. And in both this talk and the one after lunch, I'm hoping to make it clear that it's possible to be a physicalist but not make the reductionistic moves that would, in fact, be disastrous for Christians and other religious believers. And, in fact, it would be equally disastrous for anybody who cares about the rationality of human thinking processes.

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Getting Mind Out of Meat - Introduction

A Hierarchy of Sciences
Defining ‘Life’
Reductionism and Non-Reductionism
Downward Causation
Consciousness and Information Processing
The Physicalist Thesis
The Distinctiveness of Being Human


Dr. Nancey Murphy

Presented at the 'Ethics, Values and Personhood in the 21st Century' Conference held in January 2000 at Seattle Pacific University

See also:

The Cognitive and Neurosciences
What Makes us Human?
Are we Free?
Saint Augustine
Rene Descartes
Sir Isaac Newton
Books on Neuroscience and Theology