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The Emergence of Human Persons: Bewteen the Scylla of Dualism and the Charybdis of Reductionism

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Is there nothing new under the sun?

Consider the great variety of complex structures and patterns of activity that have appeared over time within our universe—physical, chemical, and (much later) biological and psychological. Is there reason to say that all such systems are, at bottom, nothing more than atoms in motion? This question has been with us, unresolved, ever since the seventeenth century, when the strongly anti-reductionist philosophy of nature handed down from the ancient Greek Aristotle was displaced by the successes of the new mechanical-reductionist philosophy.

Obstacles to simple versions of the mechanical philosophy soon became apparent, but the basic ‘reductionist’ vision of the natural world as fully describable solely in terms of the properties and forces that govern the world’s most elementary constituents continues to be embraced by many thinkers. Opposition to this vision is generally rooted in its manifest inability to explain the conscious mind. But the common ‘dualist’ alternative to reductionism is equally extreme: minds are wholly distinct substances from bodies, possessed of their own causal powers, which include the power to affect and be affected by the brains and bodies that belong to individual minds in a happy but theoretically strange ‘monogamy’.

I will argue for the scientific viability of a middle path, on which human persons (and other sentient animals) are wholly physically composed objects having ‘emergent’ capacities of consciousness, thought, emotion, and will: capacities that are causally sustained by but irreducible to the properties and relations of our elementary parts.

This talk is part of the The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion series.

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