Nothing More than Blood and Bones?:
Consciousness, Artificial Intelligence & God

Peter S. Williams

It’s unusual to find a piece of modern music advocating substance dualism, but prog-rockers Woolly Wolstenholme’s Maestoso[1] do just that in a track from their album One Drop In A Dry World (2004) called ‘Blood and Bones’. In the chorus Stuart Wolstenholme, who wrote the song after being stunned by a visit to the Körperwelten (Bodyworlds) exhibition, sings:

Seems to me there’s more to this than meets the eye
Something more than just the life we’re living
Without a soul, we’re nothing more than
Blood and Bones, Blood and Bones, Blood and Bones[2]

The pedantic urge to mention neurons does nothing to militate against the common sense of Wolstenholme’s fundamental point. The majority of humanity echo the thought that there is more to a person than meets to eye, even if you expose the ‘blood and bones’ of their inner physical workings.[3] And it is likewise the common-sense opinion of the majority that a person is more valuable than ‘blood and bones’ because they have an immaterial soul. Wolstenholme’s common-sense may continue to be popular, but it is not fashionable, for a vocal minority of academics have, for some time now, sought to convince us that we are indeed nothing more than ‘blood and bones’. Is this one of those instances, beloved of self-styled ‘sceptics’, where common sense must bow before the magisterial onward march of scientific knowledge? I think not.

We can’t sensibly separate thinking about the metaphysical nature of human consciousness from thinking about the metaphysical nature of reality in general. For example, if metaphysical naturalism (or ‘materialism’) is right about there being nothing supernatural, so that reality is exclusively naturalistic (or physical), then it follows inescapably that the human mind is nothing but a natural, material, physical thing. As socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson affirms, for the naturalist, ‘conscious experience is a physical and not a supernatural phenomenon’[4] This general approach to consciousness is called ‘physicalism’. Physicalism is a natural result of a naturalistic worldview, because naturalism rejects the existence of anything besides the natural world. As William A. Dembski observes, although the literature attempting to account for human consciousness in naturalistic terms is vast, the materialist’s options are in fact rather limited:

The materialist world is not a mind-first world. Intelligent agency is therefore in no sense prior to or independent of the material world. Intelligent agency is a derivative mode of causation that depends upon underlying natural – and therefore unintelligent – causes. Human agency in particular supervenes on underlying natural processes, which in turn usually are identified with brain function.[5]

Strong AI

One popular physicalist theory of mind is that the brain is really nothing but a fantastically powerful computer. Three observations: 1) In so far as we can construct and programme computers to do things that were until recently only achievable by human thought (for example, winning a game of chess), this theory gains a measure of plausibility. 2) In so far as some of us understand computers, this theory gives the impression that we understand the human mind. 3) In so far as we can hope to match the computing power of the human brain, such a theory suggests that we might hope to create artificial intelligences that are, practically speaking, indistinguishable from conscious intelligences - even ones like ourselves. As Ray Kurzweil writes: ‘you cannot measure subjective experience – you can only measure correlates of it, such as behaviour. . .’[6] If Robbie the robot behaves exactly like a conscious intelligence, who is to say that he isn’t a conscious intelligence? And if no-one is going to say that Robbie isn’t a conscious intelligence, who is going to say that there is anything to the consciousness you and I enjoy above and beyond some analogue of Robbie’s processors and programming? Perhaps Robbie will.[7]

Physicalist problems

According to naturalist Jerry Fodor, ‘Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious.’[8]

Neither Steven Pinker nor I can explain human subjective consciousness... In How the Mind Works Steven elegantly sets out the problem of subjective consciousness, and asks where it comes from and what’s the explanation. Then he’s honest enough to say, ‘Beats the heck out of me.’ That is an honest thing to say, and I echo it. We don’t know. We don’t understand it.[9]

How can objective things like brain cells produce subjective experiences like the feeling that ‘I’ am striding through the grass? This gap is what David Chalmers calls ‘the hard problem.’ ...It is a modern version of the ancient mind/body problem – but it seems to get worse, not better, the more we learn about the brain... The objective world out there, and the subjective experiences in here, seem to be totally different kinds of things. Asking how one produces the other seems to be nonsense. The intractability of this problem suggests to me that we are making a fundamental mistake in the way we think about consciousness – perhaps right at the very beginning.[10]

We have no conception of our physical or functional nature that allows us to understand how it could explain our subjective experience... in the case of consciousness we have nothing - zilch - worthy of being called a research programme, nor are there any substantive proposals about how to go about starting one... Researchers are stumped.[11]

Block writes: ‘I believe that the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” will be solved by conceptual advances made in connection with cognitive neuroscience.’[12] He goes on to explain: ‘There is an “explanatory gap” here which no one has a clue how to close... The mind-body problem is so singular that no appeal to the closing of past explanatory gaps really justifies optimism, but I am optimistic nonetheless.’[13] One could not hope for a clearer admission from a committed naturalist that we lack a naturalistic account of consciousness and optimism about the possibility of such an account is based upon nothing but faith in naturalism.

Strong problems with strong AI

Naturally, problems for physicalism in general are problems for Strong AI in particular. Anthony Freeman, editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, admits that:

Despite its newfound popularity and apparent confidence, cognitive science is still long on questions and short on agreed answers... Meanwhile, the whole enterprise of treating the mind/brain like a computer that processes information still finds opposition at the highest level...[14]

For example, following in the footsteps of Christian philosopher John Lucas[15], mathematician and naturalist Roger Penrose argues against a computational explanation of the mind from Godel’s incompleteness theorem.[16] John Searle, another naturalist, argues against Strong AI using his now famous ‘Chinese room’ thought experiment:

Imagine that you are locked in a room, and in that room are several baskets full of Chinese symbols. Imagine that you (like me) do not understand a word of Chinese, but that you are given a rule book in English for manipulating Chinese symbols... Now suppose that some other Chinese symbols are passed into the room, and that you are given further rules for passing back Chinese symbols out of the room. Suppose that unknown to you the symbols passed into the room are called ‘questions’ by the people outside the room, and the symbols you pass back out of the room are called ‘answers to questions’ Suppose, furthermore, that the programmers are so good at designing the programs and that you are so good at manipulating the symbols, that very soon your answers are indistinguishable from those of a native Chinese speaker... Now the point of the story is simply this: by virtue of implementing a formal computer program from the point of view of an outside observer, you behave exactly as if you understand Chinese, but all the same you don’t understand a word of Chinese.[17]

The only understanding of Chinese in the story is to be located in the programmers and the questioners. Hence, according to Searle, ‘You can expand the power all you want, hook up as many computers as you think you need, and they still won’t be conscious, because all they’ll ever do is shuffle symbols.’[18] Like the Chinese room, computers imitate mental operations, but they do not thereby exemplify them. As Erik Larson writes:

It is one thing to debate whether computers could ever pass the Turing Test; whether they could simulate a mind by displaying the outward signs of general intelligence. But it is quite another issue whether computers could actually reproduce a mind; have real, subjective experiences within. What, after all, do you program into a computer to generate anger or taste or the experience of, say, the color red? What sort of instructions do you give a computer which lacks this, in order that it experiences it?[19]

Some heretical thoughts

Brain researcher Joshua Stern humorously vents his frustration with the mutually contradictory ‘parochialism’ of consciousness studies in the journal Psyche:

Physicists advocate [quantum mechanics], biologists neurons, and good computationalists like myself, computers, each looking with bemused condescension upon their eccentric neighbors. Can we get some bakers to participate in this forum, who will advocate that the roots of consciousness reside in the éclair?[20]

Perhaps the problem is not so much with deciding what physical system explains consciousness, as with the very attempt to give consciousness a physical explanation in the first place. Such a suggestion is of course heretical to the reigning naturalistic paradigm. John Searle observation is insightful:

Acceptance of the current [naturalistic] views [in philosophy of mind] is motivated not so much by an independent conviction of their truth as by a terror of what are apparently the only alternatives. That is, the choice we are tacitly presented with is between a ‘scientific’ approach, as represented by one or another of the current versions of ‘materialism’, and an ‘unscientific’ approach, as represented by [the] traditional religious conception of the mind.[21]

You can see this prejudice in the work of naturalist Daniel Dennett, who begins his discussion of consciousness, a discussion that leads him to deny the reality of subjective awareness[22], by adopting what he calls ‘the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs.’[23] There is nothing apparent about the dogmatism of this rule. Indeed, Dennett admits to having an ‘initial allegiance’ to describing absolutely everything from ‘the third person point of view’ using the language of ‘the physical sciences.’[24] In other words, Dennett’s account of consciousness is nothing but an exercise in begging the question.

The humorous suggestion that the root of consciousness might reside in the éclair seems to me to be on a par with the suggestion that neurons, or any other physical system, might be up to the task. Suppose we play a game of ‘odd-one-out’. If we consider a toaster, a sandwich-maker, a microwave and a hedgehog, then obviously the hedgehog, as the only organic and non-man-made thing in the sequence, would be the ‘odd-one-out’. What if the things listed were: a rock, a computer, a brain, an éclair, and ‘the feeling of wet grass on your bare feet’? Which is the ‘odd-one-out’ here? Searle produces an understatement when he says that ‘it is hard to see how mere physical systems could have consciousness.’[25] It seems to me that C.E.M. Joad had a point when he suggested that ‘This parochial concept of mind is, in turn, due to a parochial identification of reality with that which can be seen and touched or which is at least of the same nature as that which can be seen and touched.’[26]

His review of various responses to the problem of consciousness leads Anthony Freeman to this conclusion: ‘A final – but little heard – possibility might be... the placing of conscious thought in a different realm from the physical world.’[27] As philosopher of mind John Heil admits: ‘In recent years, dissatisfaction with materialist assumptions has led to a revival of interest in forms of dualism.’[28]

 Leading philosopher of mind Jaegwon Kim says that ‘if a whole system of phenomena that are prima facie not among the basic physical phenomena resists physical explanation, and especially if we do not even know where or how to begin, it would be time to re-examine one’s physicalist commitments.’[29] Kim says that naturalism extracts a high price in terms of what one can believe about reality, and as a naturalist himself, recommends denying the reality of the mental! But if these are the lengths to which naturalism drives us, I agree with J.P. Moreland when he comments: ‘If feigning anesthesia is the price to be paid to retain naturalism, then the price is too high.’[30]


Reasons to discard physicalism are automatically reasons to discard naturalism. They are also reasons to consider the alternative Mind-first worldview of theism. For example, if one accepts the existence of something supernatural about the mind, then as naturalist Colin McGinn recognizes, one faces a problem:

How can mere matter originate consciousness? How did evolution convert the water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousness? Consciousness seems like a radical novelty in the universe, not prefigured by the after-effects of the Big Bang; so how did it contrive to spring into being from what preceded it?[31]

Perhaps the oldest answer to this question is still the best: ‘So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:27)

Recommended Reading

Robert M. Adams, ‘Flavors, Colors, and God’, in R. Douglas Geivett & Brenden Sweetman (ed.’s), Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, (Oxford University Press, 1992)

William Lane Craig (ed.), Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, (Edinburgh University Press, 2002)

William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview, (IVP, 2003)

William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland (ed.’s), Naturalism: A critical analysis, (Routledge, 2001)

Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, (Penguin, 1993)

John Eccles & Karl Popper, The Self and Its Brain, (Springer-Verlag, 1977)

Gary R. Habermas & J.P Moreland, Beyond Death, (Good News Publishers, 1998)

William Hasker, The Emergent Self, (Cornell University Press, 1999)

Ray Kurzweil, Ray Kurzweil vs. the Critics of Strong A.I., (Discovery Institute Press, 2002)

C.S. Lewis, Miracles, second edition, (Fount, 1998)

Angus J. Menuge, Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004)

J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, (Baker, 1987)

J.P. Moreland, ‘The Argument from Consciousness’, in Paul Copan & Paul K. Moser (ed.’s), The Rationality of Theism, (Routledge, 2003)

J.P. Moreland & Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics, (IVP, 2000)

Ronald H. Nash, ‘Miracles & Conceptual Systems’ in R. Douglas Geivett & Gary R. Habermas (ed.’s), In Defence of Miracles, (Apollos, 1997)

Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind, (Vintage, 1995)

Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, (Oxford, 1993)

Victor Reppert, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea, (IVP, 2003)

John Searle, Minds, Brains and Science, (Harvard University Press, 1986)

Jeffrey Schwartz & Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, (HarperCollins)

Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator, (Zondervan, 2004)

Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of the Soul, (Clarendon Press, 1997)

Charles Taliaferro, Consciousness and the Mind of God, (Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Roy Abraham Varghese, Great Thinkers on Great Questions, (OneWorld, 1998)

John Beloff, ‘Minds or Machines’ @

William A. Dembski, ‘The Act of Creation: Bridging Transcendence and Immanence’ @

William A. Dembski, ‘Converting Matter into Mind’ @

William A. Dembski, ‘Conflating Matter and Mind’ @

William A. Dembski, ‘Are We Spiritual Machines?’ @

William A. Dembski, ‘The Primacy of the First Person: Reply to Ray Kurzweil’ @

Douglas Groothuis, ‘The Great Cloud of Unknowing’ @

William Hasker, ‘How Not to be a Reductivist’ @

Robert C. Koons, ‘The Incompatibility of Naturalism and Scientific Realism’ @

Gregory Koukl, ‘All Brain, No Mind’ @

Gregory Koukl, ‘Dominoes, Determinism, and Naturalism’ @

Erick Larson, ‘Rethinking Deep Blue: Why A Computer Can’t Reproduce a Mind’ @

Steven Lovell, ‘C.S. Lewis’ Case Against Naturalism’ @

Alvin Plantinga, ‘An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism’ @

‘Dr. Reppert on the Argument from Reason’ @

Victor Reppert, ‘The Argument from Reason’ @

Victor Reppert, ‘Taking Lewis seriously: Apologetics and the personal heresy’ @

Richard Swinburne, ‘The Justification of Theism’ @

Dallas Willard, ‘Knowledge and Naturalism’ @

Dallas Willard, ‘Non-Reductive and Non-Eliminative Physicalism?’ @

Peter S. Williams, ‘Why Naturalists Should Mind About Physicalism’ @

Peter S. Williams, ‘Book Review: Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction, John Heil (Routledge, 2004)’ @

[1] cf.

[2] Stuart J. Wolstenholme, ‘Blood and Bones’ @

[3] The idea that ‘every person has a soul that will live forever, either in God's presence or absence,’ is embraced by 79% of American adults (cf. According to a recent British survey, 69 per cent of Brits say they believe they have a soul (cf.

[4] Edward O. Wilson, Consilience, (New York: Vintage, 1998), p. 132.

[5] William A. Dembski, ‘Kurzweil’s Impoverished Spirituality’, in Are We Spiritual Machines?, (Discovery Institute, 2002), p. 107.

[6] Ray Kurzweil, Are We Spiritual Machines?, (Discovery Institute Press, 2002), p. 45.

[7] Of course, if Robbie behaves exactly like me, he will provide exactly the same fodder for the same arguments for dualism as do I. What does the proponent of Strong AI do when Robbie claims to have a soul and begins to argue like Descartes or Swinburne? It might be suggested that because we will have constructed Robbie, we will naturally know that there is nothing supernatural about Robbie. However, knowing how to make something that appears conscious does not necessarily mean knowing why the method in question works. Perhaps something supernatural is both a correlate of the method in question and a necessary component in its success. On the other hand, if it is to be maintained that we know there to be nothing supernatural about Robbie, it would still not follow that we therefore know there to be nothing supernatural about ourselves. As John Searle argues, the reproduction of behaviour is not necessarily the same thing as the reproduction of consciousness. Perhaps there is more than one means to the same behavioural end. Besides, every scientist involved in the creation of Robbie would have their own subjective consciousness, and the attendant arguments for dualism, to place in the balance against the physicalist argument from Robbie’s (supposedly naturalistic) behaviour. Such an argument for physicalism would amount to an appeal to Occam’s razor, and it would, I suggest, fall foul of the overriding requirement for adequacy of explanation. It would be perfectly reasonable, in the hypothetical situation under consideration, for one of Robbie’s creators to argue both that while she knows that Robbie should be given a physicalist explanation, she also know that she should not. After all, in her own case she has access to evidence that she does not (and cannot) have in Robbie’s case, namely, her own conscious experience.

[8] Jerry Fodor, ‘The Big Idea: Can There Be A Science of Mind?’, Times Literary Supplement, July 3, 1992, 5.

[9] Richard Dawkins, quoted by Varghese, The Wonder of the World, p. 56.

[10] Susan Blackmore, ‘What is consciousness?’, Big Questions in Science, in Harriet Swain (ed.), Big Questions in Science, (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p. 29-40.

[11] Ned Block, ‘Consciousness’, in A Companion to Philosophy of Mind, (ed.) Samuel Guttenplan, (Blackwell, 1994), p. 211.

[12] Ned Block,

[13] Block,

[14] Anthony Freeman, ‘What is a thought?’, Big Questions in Science, op cit, p. 48.

[15] cf. John Lucas, The freedom of the will, (Oxford, 1970)

[16] Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind, (Vintage, 1995)

[17] John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science, (Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 32-33

[18] John Searle, ‘Do Brains Make Minds?’, on Closer to Truth, quoted Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator, (Zondervan, 2004), p. 248.

[19] Erik Larson, ‘Rethinking Deep Blue: Why a Computer Can’t Reproduce a Mind’ @

[20] Joshua Stern, quoted by Larry Witham, p. 196.

[21] John Searle, Rediscovery of the Mind, (MIT Press, 1992), p. 3-4.

[22] ‘…the self… turns out to be a valuable abstraction, a theorists’ fiction rather than an internal observer or boss.’ – Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, (Penguin, 1991), p. 431.

[23] Daniel C. Dennett, quoted by John Foster, in Varghese, Great Thinkers on great Questions, (OneWorld),  p. 61.

[24] Daniel C. Dennett, A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, (Blackwells, 1995), quoted by Hasker, The Emergent Self, (Cornell University Press, 1999), Preface, p. x.

[25]  Searle, Minds, Brains & Science, p. 15.

[26] C.E.M. Joad, The Recovery of Belief, (Faber and Faber, 1951), p. 189-190.

[27] Freeman, op cit, p. 49.

[28] John Heil, Philosophy of Mind – a contemporary introduction, (Routledge, 1998), p. 53.

[29] Jaegwon Kim, Mind in a Physical World, p. 96, quoted by Moreland, ‘The Argument from Consciousness’, The Rationality of Theism, p. 217.

[30] Moreland, ‘The Argument from Consciousness’, op cit, p. 217.

[31] Colin McGinn, The Mysterious Flame, (Basic Books, 1999), p. 13-14.

Copyright © 2005 Peter S. Williams. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 9.29.05