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What Is Primary: Mind or Matter? 

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Editor’s note: We are delighted to present Stephen Meyer’s Afterword to the new book by Joshua Farris, The Creation of Self. Dr. Farris is Humboldt Experienced Research Fellow at the University of Bochum, in Germany. Dr. Meyer is the author most recently of Return of the God Hypothesis. Go here for the free mini-book by Dr. Meyer, Scientific Evidence for a Creator.

The question is an ancient one. Does our world — and ourselves — ultimately trace our origins to atoms in the void? Or are we the creations of a Mind? In The Creation of Self: A Case for the Soul, Joshua Farris has combined philosophical precision, common sense, and mastery of the field to argue for the latter. Each human is not a mere body, but rather has a substantive soul. And our souls are at the center of personhood, including what it is to be an individual, a self with a unique consciousness and experience of the world. We are persons, not things. 

Notable in Farris’s defense of neo-Cartesian dualism is his careful critique of rival theories. Among these are not simply the usual suspects of secular reductive and non-reductive physicalism, but religious rivals as well, including prominent versions of emergence. Farris repeatedly shows that these rivals, whether secular or religious, are incapable of capturing the self — in particular, the singularity and thisness of each individual’s experience. 

Whence the Soul?

Moreover, Farris has answered another age-old question: whence the soul? He convincingly argues that souls do not emerge from any “bottom up” material process but rather originate from the “top down.” Our souls are special creations of God. We are not merely of earth, but of heaven as well. 

As Farris himself notes, humans have intuitively recognized for millennia that they are not mere matter and that consciousness is not the kind of thing that can arise from any known material process. Moreover, in the historical sweep of human experience, our collective and reflexive instinct has been to conclude that our souls come from a transcendent source. 

After all, if matter cannot produce us, then the explanation must lie beyond anything physical. Such has been a default belief for the majority of humans in our history. 

So Why This Book? 

Why is this book so necessary when common sense and collective wisdom suggest the matter has been long settled? One would think that the answer might be something like the following: a defense of the soul (and of its creation by God) is necessary because in the 20th and 21st centuries new developments in philosophy, cognitive science, physics, and elsewhere have produced powerful new evidence that personhood is explained by bottom-up material causes. New rivals, complete with broad explanatory power and amassed evidence, now threaten traditional views. The old fortress must be buttressed. 

According to this line of thinking, advances in science and philosophy now threaten traditional views of the soul. Thus, thinkers like Farris must marshal a defense against an unstoppable tide of opposition. Such is the standard narrative among many elite academicians. More fully, the narrative tells a story of the increasing merit of materialistic causes. All of this allegedly occurs in a series of inevitable stages. When unadorned, the Great Advance narrative (as we might call it) runs something like this: 

Stage 1 

For a very great while in human history, the naïve default of the vast majority of human beings was to repeatedly and instinctively identify the self as a substantive soul. They also believed, largely by intuition, that the origin of the soul was from a divine source. Unfortunately, this view persists to the present day, especially in lay circles. Various attempts to articulate and defend this folk view — notably by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Descartes —  have been invariably unsuccessful. Of course, more enlightened thinkers suspected all along that these theories had intractable problems. How could Descartes solve the interaction problem, for example? But for centuries, no naturalistic alternative had been suitably articulated and defended. 

Stage 2 

Then came the second movement in the Great Advance. Charles Darwin showed in the Origin of Species that human beings arose from earlier, primitive primates; and those primates themselves arose from still simpler mammals, and back down the line. As such, the human “soul” came about by material processes in a long and unbroken line of cause and effect. We are creatures of the soil, not the sky. Of course, at this moment in history, enlightened thinkers still lacked a robust naturalized account of the soul. Their theories did not yet have the imprimatur of strong empirical justification and broad explanatory power. Some accounts showed promise, but data gathering in particular was nascent and unrefined. Solid empirical evidence remained elusive. 

Stage 3 

Then came the next wave of the Great Advance. Starting in the mid-to-late 20th century (or thereabouts) the deliverances of cognitive science and other fields joined forces with rigorous analytic precision to produce a unique melding of naturalistic theory and scientific evidence. At last, credible material alternatives to the traditional view were on offer. As research progressed, some of these alternatives required revision or rejection, of course. And yet, despite strong differences of opinion between some practitioners, the naturalistic research program produced an embarrassment of riches: new theories, both reductive and non-reductive, were articulated, defended, and refined. Although some thinkers viewed the enterprise with suspicion, it was widely held that one of these naturalistic theories, or something near enough, was surely correct. 

Such is the story of the Great Advance — material causes and their inevitable ascendency in light of growing evidence. But as Joshua Farris has cogently argued, contemporary naturalized theories are in fact inadequate. Among other things, their merit came about in part by ignoring or downplaying the very lifeblood of any inquiry: first-person experience and the singularity of personhood. And even non-reductive accounts, which take first-person experience more seriously, do not at all explain how mere matter brought about conscious experience. Not remotely. None of the proponents of these theories has any defensible idea of how mind could arise from matter. Non-reductive accounts are little more than materialism with qualifications and apologies. 

Yet all along, the official narrative among such thinkers was that some bottom-up account had to be correct. Even a number of religious thinkers accepted this idea, pausing to reassure lay believers that God was hidden behind material causes. Yet on this view, the Great Advance was inevitable. Why? The answer, at least in part, had to do with Charles Darwin. He was said to have settled the matter, at least in basic outline. (Of course, a broad range of other thinkers and forces were also influential — Marx, Freud, Dewey, and others, not to mention the complex machinations of politics, economics, and the like.) Yet whether tacitly or explicitly, a number of thinkers today believe that the Origin was the pivotal beachhead. Of all the causes and characters in play, Darwin is first among equals. And on Darwin’s theory material causes are the driving force behind evolution, including the evolution of human beings. Matter gives rise to mind. On this view, some naturalized theory has to be correct. The faith of today’s elites in the efficacy of material causation finds a great deal of its deep justification in the Origin of Species. Doxastic inertia follows as a matter of course. In effect, Stage 1 of the Great Advance decided the matter. 

Moving Onward 

Of course, the deeper question is whether Darwin is in fact correct, and whether faith in his research program was (and is) well considered. Two brief points can be made on this score. The first is simply to point out the increasing power of the cumulative case for intelligent design across the sciences — from cosmology to astrophysics to biology to paleontology. Again and again, scientific evidence points to the activity (and detectability) of a Mind rather than purely material causes. Science itself shows that materialistic explanations are not making a Great Advance but in fact are in clear retreat. 

And a Second Point

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that, if Darwinism is correct, then some bottom-up theory of mind must be correct. (As we have seen, this is a core tenet of the Great Advance.) Supposing that this is so, then Joshua Farris’s argument has provided a neat and devastating modus tollens to this line of thinking. Among other things, he has shown that bottom-up theories are untenable. They cannot account for persons. And, if he is right, then by the internal logic of the Great Advance itself, Darwinism is incorrect. Farris has demonstrated that Stage 1 of this advance is mistaken. Today’s elite academicians, whether secular or religious, should never have placed their trust in the Origin and its commitment to the inevitable triumph of material causation. 

That is why, in the end, The Creation of Self is important. Among other things, it promises to liberate readers from soulless naturalistic theories of the self. It promises to restore personhood as it was intended and as we experience it every day. Still further, The Creation of Self promises to free readers from a moribund 19th-century biological theory and its failing quest for dominion. And beyond even those important contributions, Farris’s book points all readers to the transcendent God who is, in the deepest sense, the Creator of each and every person.