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Argument from Physical Minds

The argument from physical minds (APM) is a strong but neglected argument in the case for atheism. Two versions of the argument have important implications for the philosophy of religion. The first is the mortalistic argument from physical minds, which runs as follows:

If a nonphysical mind (rather than the brain) does our thinking, then altering the brain (say by lobotomy) should have no effect on one's ability to think. But, in fact, altering the brain does (often dramatically) affect one's ability to think. Therefore, thinking is probably not something done by a nonphysical mind, but rather something that the brain does. And since the brain is destroyed by death, thinking--or one's mind as a whole--is probably destroyed by death too.

Since the mortalistic version concerns certain forms of immortality, articles on the mortalistic APM are included separately on the immortality page.

The second version, the atheistic argument from physical minds, runs as follows:

Since all known mental activity has a physical basis, there are probably no disembodied minds. But God is conceived of as a disembodied mind. Therefore, God probably does not exist.

The atheistic APM was first formulated by atheist philosopher Michael Tooley in an oral debate on the existence of God; it has since been defended by agnostic philosopher Paul Draper in his oral debates. According to this argument, the fact that minds are physically dependent upon the brain is some evidence for atheism.

-- Keith Augustine

A Case for Physicalism about the Human Mind (Great Debate) (2007) by Andrew Melnyk

In this chapter, I describe evidence for the view that the human mind is a physical entity, in much the same way in which the human digestive system or the human immune system are physical entities. The first section characterizes this view more fully. The second section explains the evidential relevance of physicalism about the mind to theism. The third section sketches two kinds of evidence that support physicalism about the human mind, while the final section considers an antiphysicalist response to the reasoning of the previous section.

Objections to Melnyk's Case for Physicalism (Great Debate) (2007) by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro

According to physicalism, what we ordinarily take to be a causally undetermined mental action is both caused and determined. But if physicalism is true, important elements of the first-person point of view are mistaken: Andrew Melnyk's choice to write his paper is not ultimately and irreducibly explained by a purpose, but by the nonpurposive causes of events in his brain. Physicalism implies that at bottom there are not purposive and causal explanations, but simply causal ones, and that there are not free and determined events, but only determined ones. Given these implications, why think that physicalism is true?

Physicalism and the First-Person Point of View (Great Debate) (2007) by Andrew Melnyk

In "A Case for Physicalism about the Human Mind," I tried to assemble positive evidence that physicalism about human mentality is true, while insisting that no aspect of human behavior makes it necessary to adopt any kind of dualism about human mentality. In their reply, Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goetz fail to engage my positive case for physicalism, and offer no examples of human behavior that can only be explained by some kind of dualism. Instead, they primarily object that my paper overlooks features of human mentality purportedly incompatible with physicalism and accessible only from "the first-person point of view," such as free choice and reasons for acting. My response focuses on this objection alone.

The Empirical Case for Metaphysical Naturalism (1999) by Jeffery Jay Lowder

Lowder argues that the physical dependence of minds upon the brain, along with the argument from evil, can be used to construct an empirical case for metaphysical naturalism.

Dr. Tooley's Opening Statement (1994) (Off Site) by Michael Tooley

Tooley notes that "All minds that it is generally agreed that we are definitely acquainted with ... are either purely physical in nature or else are causally dependent on something physical in nature." Therefore, Tooley concludes, "probably there is no mind that exists independently of some associated physical arrangement of matter that it is either identical with or at least causally dependent upon."

Mind-Brain Dependence as Twofold Support for Atheism (2001) by Steven Conifer

Conifer presents a pair of parallel (evidential) atheological arguments whose basic premise appeals to the empirical and conceptual implausibility of disembodied consciousness. He critically examines and refutes numerous objections to his two arguments. Accordingly, he concludes that both of them constitute potent demonstrations of God's nonexistence.

Naturalism vs. Theism: The Carrier-Wanchick Debate (2006) [ Index ]

In this online debate between Richard Carrier and Tom Wanchick, Carrier opens with a discussion of method followed by 5 arguments for naturalism and 2 arguments against theism, while Wanchick opens with 9 arguments for theism. In the first rebuttals, each debater criticizes the arguments offered by the other in the opening statements. In the second rebuttals, each debater defends their opening arguments against the criticisms of the other in the first rebuttals. Both closing statements focus on the purported deficiencies of the other debater's overall case.

Why I Am Not a Christian (2006) by Richard Carrier

In this explanation of why he is not a Christian, Richard Carrier outlines the top four reasons why he rejects Christianity: God's silence, God's inactivity, lack of evidence, and the overt conflict between discovered reality and Christian theory. Though a lay exposition geared at a general audience, the essay appeals to a variety of atheistic arguments, including the argument from religious confusion, an evidential argument from evil, divine hiddenness, the argument from biological evolution, and the argument from physical minds. In an interesting twist on the argument from design, Carrier turns the fine-tuning argument on its head, noting that several features of our universe--features predicted by naturalism--are highly improbable if Christian theism is true.

Jeffery Jay Lowder maintains this page.