I Cerebrate Myself: Is there a little man inside your brain?
Murphy (Nancey)
Source: Books and Culture 5/1 (Jan-Feb 1999), p. 24
Paper - Abstract

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  1. This paper is referenced in "Cooper (John) - Body, Soul and Life Everlasting: Preface to the Second Printing", which is how I came across it, though my interest was piqued because I’ve come across the author (Nancey Murphy) in other contexts.
  2. It is a broadly supportive review of "Block (Ned), Flanagan (Owen) & Guzeldere (Guven) - The Nature of Consciousness", and in particular "Guzeldere (Guven) - The Many Faces of Consciousness: A Field Guide", with the message that the evangelical Christian has nothing to fear from physicalism1 or materialism2 – whether materialist3 accounts of the origin of life or of consciousness itself. She thinks that the battle-lines are wrongly drawn if the Christian makes a stand on dualism. Rather, for her, the stand should be made against the reductionist versions of physicalism4 that give up on human freedom, moral responsibility, and religion . I’m not clear that the stand even needs to be made there, as I don’t believe that reductionist physicalism5 does have these implications, given the possibility of a compatibilist account of free will and determinism. But she is right that if reductive physicalism6 did have these implications, a stand would have to be made by the Christian, if not by the philosopher.
  3. She is correct (in my view) to warmly receive a development in philosophy
      Interest in philosophy of mind has blossomed in recent years due to a combination of factors. One is the light shed on these issues by developments in the neurosciences and in studies of artificial intelligence7. But these developments have provided a stimulus to philosophy of mind only because of a reconceptualization of philosophy itself in the past generation — one that refuses to isolate it, as "conceptual analysis," from empirical studies.
  4. She notes that "Block (Ned), Flanagan (Owen) & Guzeldere (Guven) - The Nature of Consciousness" contains no papers from a dualist perspective. Is this fair? She doesn’t raise the issue, but (appears to) agree with "Churchland (Patricia) - Can Neurobiology Teach Us Anything about Conciousness?", where
      In assuming that neuroscience can reveal the physical mechanisms subserving psychological functions, I am assuming that it is indeed the brain that performs those functions — that capacities of the human mind are in fact capacities of the human brain. This assumption and its concomitant rejection of Cartesian souls or spirits or "spooky stuff" existing separately from the brain is no whimsy. On the contrary, it is a highly probable hypothesis, based on evidence currently available from physics, chemistry, neuroscience and evolutionary8 biology. .
  5. The (admittedly unsupported, in this article) reasons she gives for why the Christian need not fear physicalism9 are:-
    1. In the Hebrew Bible, human life is regularly understood monistically rather than dualistically, and this unified being is a physical being.
    2. New Testament writers recognize a variety of conceptions of the composition or makeup of the human being but do not teach body-soul dualism.
    3. Original Christian hope for life after death10 is based on bodily resurrection, patterned after that of Jesus, not on immortality of the soul.
    4. Christian salvation in the end is not "soul-ectomy " but rather participation of the entire person as new creation in the kingdom of God.
    5. The moral value of humans is not due to their possession of an immortal substance, but rather to the fact that God has created us and has chosen to be in relationship with us. .
  6. For justification, we are referred to "Brown (Warren), Murphy (Nancey) & Malony (H. Newton), Eds. - Whatever Happened to the Soul: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature", where it is argued that “Christians can get along quite nicely with a view of the human being as a purely physical creation — one whose capacities for consciousness, social interaction, moral reasoning, and relationship with God arise as a result of the incredible complexity of our brains.”. I am sympathetic towards this viewpoint.
  7. She is also supportive of "Gillman (Neil) - The Death Of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought", quoting: Why stress bodily resurrection rather than immortality of the soul? For many reasons:
    • because the notion of immortality tends to deny the reality of death, of God's power to take my life and to restore it;
    • because the doctrine of immortality implies that my body is less precious, important, even "pure," while resurrection affirms that my body is not less God's creation and is both necessary and good;
    • because the notion of the bodiless soul runs counter to my experience of my self and of others; … and
    • because resurrection affirms the significance of society
  8. She notes that an earlier writer in Books and Culture (Allen C. Guelzo, Soulless: Is Consciousness an Illusion?) had taken the opposite stance11.
  9. Murphy briefly discusses five topics related to consciousness that she thinks Christians should take seriously:-
    1. Does consciousness exist?: Guelzo was most worried about this. Murphy thinks that "Dennett (Daniel) - Quining Qualia" is unclear, and that if anyone really denied that human beings are conscious, we’d not have the linguistic resources to carry on the argument.
    2. What is consciousness? Murphy thinks the essays discussing this question are tedious because they rely on conceptual analysis rather than neuroscience, and passes on to the next question.
    3. Can consciousness be explained scientifically? Murphy contrasts the positive approach in "Churchland (Patricia) - Can Neurobiology Teach Us Anything about Conciousness?" with the negative response in "Nagel (Thomas) - What is it Like to Be a Bat?", and diagnoses a temptation to agree with both as down to confusion as to what would count as an explanation. I think Nagel is too pessimistic, in that we can have some idea how it might be like to “see” by sonar by analogy with ordinary vision and that "Jackson (Frank) - What Mary Didn't Know" is more relevant. Murphy thinks that “life” has now been explained without the need for a vital force (though she admits that many Christians would disagree, and be perturbed at the thought), and that one day “consciousness” will be similarly explained scientifically.
    4. Does consciousness do any work? Murphy reprises Libby’s work purporting to show that consciousness of a decision to do X occurs after the readiness potential, so that conscious intention to act is not the source of action but rather a belated report on the fact that the action is under way . However, she seems supportive of the reinterpretation of the results of Libby’s experiments in "Flanagan (Owen) - Conscious Inessentialism and the Epiphenomenalist Suspicion" which suggest that it is consciousness that allows for the potential veto of the intention. She’s keen on the causal efficacy of the mental in general (and of consciousness in particular) and against reductive physicalism12 (as I noted earlier). But it’s not clear to me what this worry amounts to in the absence of dualism. If the mind just is the brain in action, then the mind is causally efficient even in the presence of reductive physicalism13, is it not?
    5. Is consciousness unitary? Again, Dennett is at work (in "Dennett (Daniel) - The Cartesian Theatre and 'Filling In' the Stream of Consciousness"), but Murphy seems in sympathy with his view that a “theatre” in which “multiple drafts” of experience are processed is a throw-back to Cartesianism. She also seems to suggest that the medieval (and later) spiritual tradition of the “interior castle” – while attractive – follows the same mistaken path. She thinks that true Christianity is not so much “interior” as social. It is this section that is relevant to the “little man inside your brain” from the paper’s title, which Murphy (as well as Dennett) of course rejects, but it seems to me that it’s difficult to avoid language that implies the existence of such a homunculus. So Dennett believes that the unity14 and continuity of consciousness is only apparent — we simply do not attend to the discontinuity and gaps. This illusion about the character of consciousness is an occupational hazard for neuroscientists. But, just who or what is this “we”?


In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 11: As does Cooper in "Cooper (John) - Body, Soul and Life Everlasting: Preface to the Second Printing". Cooper doesn’t care about the philosophy if it contradicts (his interpretation of) Scripture.

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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