Is Nonreductive Physicalism Compatible with Adventist Belief?

Due to some work and volunteering for the Adventist Church, I’ve visited a variety of adult Sabbath school classes around North America and the world. Despite the cultural differences, in most of them, a few questions briefly emerge in my consciousness around 10:36 a.m. “If this is called a class, why is no one really asking questions? In terms of ecclesiology, what is the ontological difference between the 40-minute soliloquy by this teacher and the upcoming sermon?” 

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

In his book *Galileo’s Error” Philip Goff argues that the great Italian philosopher and science made a mistake by eliminating consciousness as something that could be studied scientifically. This was necessary, in his mindset, as science cannot quantify things like emotions, ideas and intuitions, so these had to be neglected in order to study the physical world systematically and dispassionately.

The rest, as they say, is retrospectively predictable history. We have come to understand the physical world at a level that Galileo might not have been able to comprehend, while science has made absolutely no progress in explaining even the most simple questions of human existence. For example, there is no scientific equation which can say why we prefer logic and progress over irrational, chaotic thoughts and machines that don’t do anything or take us somewhere.

Goff’s solution to is to suggest a return to a panpsychism, a philosophical system that is as old as philosophy itself.

In this view, consciousness is thought to be ubiquitous in the cosmos, even predating the creation of physical world, and matter is taken to be an emergent property of mind.

Of course, there is no scientific reason to accept panpsychism’s hypotheses, but then again, science cannot tell us anything about the state of the cosmos before the Big Bang anymore that it has had any luck in finding the elusive “seat of consciousness” or “The Divine Spark” anywhere inside the human body. So there is no reason to expect that science will ever be able to solve “the hard problem” of physics as David Chalmers and others now refer to it, until such time as consciousness is returned to its natural and perhaps preeminent place in human philosophy and ontology.

How does panpsychism comport with the Bible and/or Christianity? I suspect very well, as long as one doesn’t insist on biblical inerrancy, absolutely accurate translations and interpretations of a 2,000 year old, nonscientific document, and accepts that Jesus “gospel” is not an objectively quantifiable endeavor which may even have some panpsychist undertones. That is, would someone who didn’t believe that consciousness is an essential part of all matter insist that rocks can sing or have any power over something as supposedly “unconscious” as a thunderstorm?


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The story Jesus told is a parable!

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
Luke 16 vs 1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man,
The Rich Man and Lazarus
vs19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.
–NIV, BibleGateway

–Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The New Testament Witness

So what pray tell is the difference between the Lesson’s apologetics and Murphy saying the problem is poor translations?

It seems the lessons apologetics are to be criticized and Murphy praised. This rather looks like someone that does not have a whole lot to say but wants to sound smart! I would love to hear possible answers to the question

That would be intriguing what does science tells us about something that science does not deal with at all…metaphysics! ( metaphysics Definition: A priori speculation upon questions that are unanswerable to scientific observation, analysis, or experiment.)

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The idea of nonreductive physicalism has never made sense to me. I’m sure the idea is compatible with Adventism. But is it compatible with logic? Somehow, physical properties are said to come together in a way that produces a new reality (consciousness, mind, soul) that is greater than the sum of its parts. This new reality is an “emergent” property. Yet the pathways by which this occurs are simply posited rather than spelled out. If they could be spelled out, after all, then the explanation would be reductionistic. But how is this idea of an “emergent property” different from, say, an “abracadabra property”? In the words of David Bentley Hart:

“At the purely material level, whatever is emergent is also reducible to that from which it emerges; otherwise, “emergence” is merely the name of some kind of magical transition between intrinsic disparate realities.”

Carpenter should give Adventism more credit. Our position is amazing, nuanced, and actually an intermediate between reductive physicalism and dualism. It is also not really nonreducttive physicalism either.

The problem with reductive physicalism is that it destroys the self. We are just a bag of chemicals reacting in a very sophisticated way, but a way that obeys the laws of physics and chemistry. We are not real, and since we are only chemicals, there is no “right” or “wrong”, just chemical reactions that we interpret as such. The self is an illusion. Here are two quotes from materialists:

Susan Blackmore: “You can let go and just accept that it’s just the universe doing its stuff. It’s not me against the world because there really isn’t any me at all. Death has no sting, because there never was a you to die.” And:
Daniel Bennett, philosopher at tufts University: “Our conception of a self is an illusion created by our experience of the world.”

Jerry Coyne takes this position as well.

But it is impossible to actually live this philosophy. That little creature that runs to greet you with hugs and kisses is more than mere chemicals and no one can act that way. If that were so, what difference would it make if she were raped and tortured to death? Rather a brutal way to put it, but if we are just chemicals, is there another way to look at it?

But we are not dualists either. We do not believe in the soul. And this is a Biblical position.

The Bible has shades of reductive physicalism. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes” is certainly reductionist. There appears to be no distinct reality apart from the body. We teach that. That is our reductionist foundation, and it is comparable with science.

But we also believe in a resurrection. That we will come back as ourselves and we will be our actual selves, recreated from the mind of God. But how can this be? It is not explained in scripture, but only demonstrated by Jesus when he was raised. He had a real body, and ate something to prove it (see Luke 24:36-44). And Paul says we will be like him.

So, is the resurrection real? There is pretty good evidence in scripture, particularly i Cor. 15. Several people saw Jesus after the resurrection. Personal testimony can be unreliable, but when groups of people, and there were several groups, see something, it is hard to argue that it is not true.

So this is our faith position. Faith based on evidence, but faith nonetheless.

Reductive physicalism seems true. But its conclusions make us nothing, and our selves illusions. That cannot be true, and no one can live that way. Reductionists will make up a value system, and live by it, but it is not a reality. Christianity has so much more to offer, and God indeed respects us as individuals. So much so that he died for us.

Although this is a faith position, it has great explaining power, and confirms the value of a human, while reductive physicalism make a human worth about, what, a few dollars in chemicals.

You might find an article written by Ross Douthat in answer to a response by Jerry Coyne interesting. NYT, Opinion, 1/6/2014,

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Alex’s article is noteworthy on many levels, not least of which is the dearth of meaningful discourse in many discipleship (“Sabbath School”) classes. Even more than the lesson content itself, this reality creates a tragic and indefensible Adventist state of the intellectually dead.

Also noteworthy, in the comments section above I found myself agreeing with Allen. I have marked this on my calendar accordingly. :wink:

The Adventist doctrine of the state of the dead matters more to me than our doctrine of a countercultural, liberating Sabbath, important as that is. If on the New Earth it turns out I was wrong about “souls” frying forever in a tormented afterlife, I will harbor more everlasting doubts and fears about God than if I learn I was wrong about our Sabbath.

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For me it is not productive to devote much time or energy in contemplating what “state” we humans will “experience” in death; a state which is unknowable to the living. It is more productive, I think, to devote attention to what it means to be alive. I am not saying that for others its study is not helpful or defensible. Eugene O’Neill interestingly imagined experiencing what it was like to live after dying in his quasi-theological/philosophical play Lazarus Laughed. And in exploring life’s meaning one would be blind not to realize that life is more precious because it is ephemeral.

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Not really.

Most of the world’s population has easily been making, and living by, the “it ain’t necessarily so” argument for the past two millennia, and with good, scientific reasoning:

Further, there is no safety in the number of eye witnesses one claims to have found. As they are questioned about what they actually saw-individually and apart from the group-one typically finds an ever-increasing number of inconsistencies to the point where it becomes virtually impossible to determine what actually happened. So there is no reason to think this wouldn’t be the case with all of the groups mentioned in the NT who allegedly support, and supposedly substantiate, the NT case.

(See Kurrosawa’s 1950 classic “Rashomon” or the “What color is the dress” controversy of a few years ago:

What color is this dress? | CNN )

For whatever reason, neither Paul nor any of the gospel writers who came after him, mention having made such detailed inquiries of their purported witnesses. This ostensibly because such due diligence would have taken time away from their desperate, “Hail Mary” last pass efforts to evangelize as many as possible before what they believed was to be Jesus’ imminent, and undoubtedly awe-inducing, return.

Another, simpler explanation however, is that Paul and the other NT authors had heard what they wanted to believe and accepted their stories as confirmation without any further investigation. Besides, to question their testimonies would have meant that the nature of Paul’s own “personal” interactions with his “christ” would be the subject of much more intense scrutiny and skepticism, for which the biblical accounts do not jive.

Christianity, and Adventism to an exponentially larger degree, assert that natural human reasoning has been corrupted from Genesis 1 and is essentially flawed; is as “filthy rags”. Therefore, if either of these theologies “makes sense” to humans, then by logical extension of their own argument, neither has explained anything. Proving you’re not insane to a crazy person really doesn’t accomplish much. Indeed, one of Christianity’s and EGW-ism’s most essential dogmas is that their apologetics, theology and eschatology must be taken in toto, at face value and on faith since neither deigns to explain itself in purportedly unreliable human terms, insisting instead to depend on inexplicable divine rationalizati…I mean, heavenly logic. :wink:

At the very least!!!

In fact, it is so jaw-droppingly astounding that most people find it it literally incredible and choose not to believe any of it!

But thankfully, despite its binary, “believe us or suffer a painful death followed by eternal nonexistence” theology, Adventism isn’t at all arrogant! :+1::wink:

Of course, this unassuming, self-professed humility/exceptionalism is only made possible by the fact that it is impossible to prove a negative. That is, no one will ever be able to conclusively establish the a priori intuition that Jesus’ three day/two night sojourn in The Ether didn’t happen or that EGW’s “inspiration” was the desire for worldly recognition and financial monetization rather than supernatural revelations. So just as none of the multitude of different, so-called Christian denominations can ever be proven wrong, Adventist’s un-arrogant “we might just be right because what we’re saying can’t be proved untrue” philosophy cannot be denied them on rational grounds, despite countless subjective and a posteriori objections to the contrary. That is, even if there are no falsifiable facts to support the SDA case, and despite the mountains of tangible evidence stacked up against it, hope springs eternal and there’s no conclusive reason to abandon the belief that EGW’s long-promised miraculous ship might one day come in, finally vindicating every bit of SDA-ism. :crossed_fingers:t3:

Given this mindset, it doesn’t matter if Adventism’s adherents are just a tad-or even a ton-boastful, make no attempt to temper their absolutist claims with loving, self-effacing admissions to the effect that “we don’t know everything”, or carelessly rattle off “too good to be true” promises which they, themselves, know they cannot, and will never be required to make good on. And certainly there is no probative value or conclusive merit to the idle assertions that their evangelism might be done out of egotism, simply because misery loves company, or arises from a worldly desire to at least look good even though one continues to do very bad things. Instead it can and supposedly must be believed (because this too cannot be proven) that their Herculean-or possibly Sisyphean?-efforts to save the world are undertaken with the most scared of intentions, always in the name of heaven, and only for Christ’s sake.