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The Table Video

Mark Baker& Gregg Ten Elshof

Baker on Language and the Soul (Full Interview)

Distinguished Professor of Linguistics, Rutgers University
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
November 16, 2012

Dr. Gregg Ten Elshof interviews Mark Baker (Rutgers University) on scientific approaches to the study of the mind, as well as the bearing of human language on the existence of an immaterial soul.


Hello, I’m Gregg Ten Elshof, director for the Center for Christian Thought and a professor in the philosophy department here at Biola University. The Center, this year, where our theme is Neuroscience in the Soul. So we’re exploring the bearing of contemporary science on traditional belief about the soul. Does the soul exist? If it does, how’s it related to the brain? Is it caused by the brain? Is it just the brain?

Can it exist even if our bodies and our brains are destroyed? Is there life after death? Questions like these. I’m joined today by professor Mark C. Baker, a professor of linguistics at Rutgers University. Professor Baker’s been thinking and writing about these and related questions for some time. He writes at the intersection of several disciplines, philosophy and cognitive science, among them. And recently edited a book on these and related topics. So welcome.

Mark, your book is entitled “The Soul Hypothesis: Investigations Into the Existence of the Soul”. What is the soul hypothesis and how might it be investigated? And in particular, what does science have to do with it? People might have thought, well, given the kind of thing the soul is supposed to be, it doesn’t seem like science would have much to say about it. So does science have something to say about it? And how should we think about these things?

Well, of course those are all great questions and complicated questions and takes some teasing apart. We picked the title Soul Hypothesis fairly carefully. We wanted to use soul hypothesis rather than soul religious belief or something like that, because we believe that it had and should have some intersection with science.

On the other hand, we picked it, soul hypothesis rather than soul self-evident truth or something because we didn’t know that that was that or what the implications of that would be. But that idea of a hypothesis, generally, in a scientific theory is it’s some serious idea that you’re testing out to see how it relates to other ideas, how it works together to explain things that we see.

And kind of the idea of the book is that this has been kind of ridiculed or downplayed in the effort to kind of secularize everything. But if we took that idea, again, and put it back into the equation and saw how it would relate to other ideas, maybe we could explain some things that we couldn’t otherwise. And it’s not like a cognitive science and neuroscience and so on have solved everything and there are no mysteries left to do, so it seems worth a try.

One often gets the impression in reading about these things that though there may be some mysteries left over, one thing that has been established is that our entire mental life is caused by the brain. Whether or not it’s the same thing as, whether our minds are just the same thing as our brains. Surely, everything that happens in our mind finds its cause in the brain, at least this is the impression one gets. What do you make of that?

Sure. That’s the impression that one gets when one reads neuroscientists or cognitive scientists who would like more funding for what they do. And which I understand that. But I think there’s a kind of a fallacy that we can fall into here. So the brain does a lot of things, a lot of important things, no doubt about that. I think we know that. And we know that every part of the brain does something.

So I remember studying and hearing about injuries to different parts of the brain and thinking where would I rather have my brain injury? And the answer is, there’s no good place to have a brain injury. But then I think you can go from a fallacy to that the brain does a lot and every part of the brain does something to the brain does everything. And especially if you’re kind of in that, so your job is to study the brain.

You’re used to framing questions in a certain way, you’re used to thinking of questions in a certain way. And the answers to all of those questions might be in the brain. But you forget that there’s a wider range of questions out there.

Now your questions in particular, the questions of your field have to do with language. You’re a linguist. Now what kinds of questions does that field bring you into in connection with this? What does the science of language have to do with whether or not we’ve got immaterial souls?

Uh huh, well it just happens to be what I am, so that’s my background, so that’s where I’ve gotta start and I know a little more than some people maybe. So I don’t know that language is there, but one of the interesting things about language is it is something uniquely human. So it’s something that only human beings do in the way that we do.

You never find otherwise intelligent chimpanzees interviewing one another for video interviews or anything like that. So it’s something that’s distinctly human. And if you look at it from religious point of view, Christian or other ones, we see say in the Bible in Genesis chapter one, God speaking. So you could think from a religious point of view, that our language behavior is something we share in common say with God and the angels, rather than something that we share with the rocks and the trees and even the monkeys.

So it is a distinctive part of human life as opposed to other kinds of life. And it might be our best window into how humans think and how human beings think differently from other kinds of creatures.

Right, still one might think that our capacity for language is ultimately explainable by the functioning of the brain, that we’ve got these various capacities that make language possible for us, and as we study the brain we’ll find correlates in the brain for each of those capacities. You’ve argued otherwise. You’ve argued that there are capacities required for language use that can’t be explained by appeal to the brain. What are they and why think that?

Well this is one of the things that I did get interested in when I read some of my colleagues in neuroscience and they were saying things like every aspect of the mind is totally dependent on the brain. And then so I started thinking about well, what different aspects are there of language? What’s the checklist that we could look at to see if that’s true or not? And there is a classic analysis of language that says that is comes in three parts.

So there’s vocabulary, that’s kind of obvious. English has a whole bunch of words and we list those in a dictionary. Then there’s the rules of grammar, how you can put those words together and how you can’t. But then the third more subtle part of it is kind of the capacity to put those things together, to put the words together using the rules of grammar to make and understand new sentences. It’s a classic analysis of the famous linguist, Noam Chomsky, that language has the vocabulary, the grammar, and the capacity to use those resources to form new sentences. And so then what I did was I looked at the literature from studies of brain damage and so on to see if those things were affected by damage of the brain.

And you got an interesting result, I think, that does brain damage affect people’s vocabulary? Absolutely yes, there are famous aphasias that if you have a problem in this area of your brain, you’ll lose your understanding of words. Are there damages to the brain which lose the capacity to form grammatical sentences, to put words together in the right way? Again yes, a different part of the brain is injured and you lose that capacity, your vocabulary is okay but you can’t put the words together but then what about that third part?

That third part of is there can you just have a brain damage that will leave the vocabulary okay, it will leave the grammar okay, but it will knock out your ability to use them to form new and form and understand new sentences. And the answer is no. A 150 years of research in different kinds of aphasia hasn’t found an aphasia that specifically knocks out that capacity.

So thinking of this from a Christian point of view, I think okay, maybe the vocabulary is in the brain, the grammar is in the brain, but the ability to use those to say interesting new things is not in the brain.

So some might hear this and think there’s something going on here like the God of the gaps argument for the existence of God. Whereas we used to explain a lot of things by appeal to the existence of God, the more science teaches us the less we need God to explain the things we find around us. Is this a soul of the gaps argument? Is there less reason for believing in the soul than there was say 50 years ago, but there’s still these features of cognitive life that hang on?

Well I don’t know, I wasn’t doing this 50 years ago, so I don’t know what the shift might have been. Is it a God of the gaps argument? I think sort of. I don’t think all of the ways that belief in God and souls is relevant our God of the gaps arguments. This one might be to some extent. But I’m not totally embarrassed about that.

Of course science might prove otherwise. That’s fine, I have no problem with that. But you’d think if there was something important like God at work in the world, or if God gave people souls, those souls should make a difference. So there should be something we can do because we have a soul, that we wouldn’t be able to do if we didn’t have a soul. And that’s gonna be a God of the gaps sort of argument.

It’s gonna look like that to people coming from a different perspective. So I’m not necessarily embarrassed about that, a little bit humbled, maybe, but not necessarily embarrassed about it. And again, we can make a comparison. I mentioned brain injury. But if you look at what chimpanzees can do about language you can teach a chimpanzee a certain vocabulary of about a 150 words. You can teach a chimpanzee a simple grammar where it’ll put its 50 verbs in front of its 50 nouns. But no chimpanzee, even the most talented, have started using these in creative ways to make new sentences. If you look the most talented apes, their average length of utterance, it’s called the average size of a sentence that they’ll spontaneously make, is 1.1 words. That’s one word sentences.

That’s not what we’re doing here, anything close. And similarly with computers. You can program computers to have a large vocabulary. They’ll understand lots of words. They could look it up. Google Dictionary will do that. There’s no problem teaching them the words, but we still don’t have computers that can talk freely about novel stuff. So it really seems like if you look at computers, if you look at comparison with animals, if you look at brain damage, there seems to be something special about this capacity to form and understand novel sentences.

One of the capacities traditionally associated with the soul, the immaterial soul, perhaps, is this capacity for freedom, freedom of the will. And one of the ways that we take ourselves to be importantly different from computers is precisely that, that we’ve got this capacity for freedom. How does that show, could you say more about how that shows up in our capacity to use language? Where does freedom show up?

Well I think that’s exactly at the heart of what we’ve been talking about so far. So it might be, that might be programmed into me that the word for chair is chair. I don’t have any freedom about that. It might be programmed into me that the object of the sentence comes after the verb. I don’t really have any freedom about that. But I do have freedom about whether I talk about chairs now or not. I have freedom about how I answer you.

That does not seem to be programmed into me. And I think that kind of the connection is here this whole capacity to make and form new sentences, is really just traditional free will applied to the area of language. But I think that that’s interesting. So that’s a kind of a convergence between the gap that we find in neurological evidence and the traditional Christian idea of what souls do.

They have free will. So that’s just exactly where the Christian idea of the soul has power is where there is a gap in the traditional understanding. I find that as an interesting convergence between the holes in science and what Christianity is offering.

So why not think that our choice of sentences, say, is governed by laws, but they’re very complicated laws, so it’s hard to predict at any given moment which sentence I’ll choose, because the laws governing my choice of sentence are very complicated ones. You’ve argued that no, there’s good reason to think that my choice of sentence is free in the way that my vocabulary may not be and the grammatical may not be Why so?

Well I don’t know that we can just take this, I don’t think we can just maybe figure this out. So I don’t know if I can prove that to you. But we can do kind of plausibility arguments. I guess the thing I was gonna say before is I think we see our freedom of the will most clearly in our language behavior. Even more clearly than other things. I suppose I have free will in lots of ways. But we see it in our language behavior. Why? Because it’s easy to talk and because there aren’t a lot of consequences to talk. So I may not murder my friend because of the legal consequences, but I might still curse my friend or insult my friend, or so on.

So we show kind of what’s in our hearts most fully maybe because talking is so easy. There’s such a wide range of things we can do, such a wide range of things we can say, and there are fewer consequences. So I think maybe that’s the place where we see our freedom of will in kinda the richest, fullest kind of way.

Now we come to then the question of is what I say determined by my situation? I’m sure materialists who are convinced that that’s the only thing it could be, would say that it’s some very complicated process. What’s the evidence for that? So I have never been in a situation like this before in my life. This is my first view of, my first trip to the Center for Christian Thought and so on. So I have never been in a situation like this before. So now what would you want to know about my history or my situation or anything that will help you predict what I’m gonna say next? It just seems you could believe that, but we’re in new situations all the time. We say unpredictable things all the time.

Even if you think oh I’m gonna say something in this general area because you read my book, or whatever, you still don’t know exactly how I’m going to say it. And you could think okay the more and more I know someone, I’ve been married to my wife for over 25 years now, I know certain things that are important to her for sure, but can I predict more accurately exactly what she’s gonna say, word for word, and so on, how she’s gonna express that? No.

It seems to me like you could know every fact there is to know about what somebody thought or said or all the situations of before, you wouldn’t be any better positioned to predict the details of what they’re gonna say next and otherwise. So why should we believe that? I mean we should believe that if that’s what our philosophy tells us that’s the only thing it could be, then maybe we believe that. But I think to an open mind I don’t see any evidence for believing that.

Cognitive scientists have sometimes suggested that the human mind is like a very complicated computer, and we can explain everything that goes on in a computer by appeal to its physical parts and their functions. We’ve been talking about one dimension of the human mind that seems importantly different from computers, its capacity for free choice and the way that shows up in language use. Are there other dimensions of the human mind that you think are importantly different from computers?

Well maybe. It is generally true that a computer will only do what it’s programmed to do. And what a computer does is deterministic function of what’s put into it. And we don’t have any evidence that that’s true for us. That doesn’t mean that computers don’t surprise people, because they’re so complicated, there might’ve been a mistake in them or something, well they’ll do something surprising to the programmer.

But that’s an accident when that happens. Another thing that I’ve been thinking about recently is one of the special properties that our thoughts apparently have is that they can be true or false. So I can say to you it’s raining today and that has a certain meaning. It means that it’s raining today. And either that’s true or false. In fact we can look that up. But natural systems don’t typically have that property. Any kind of if you have a certain rock or something, it might show the effects of things that have happened to that rock in some way or another. It might show that somebody hit it with a pickaxe.

But that rock doesn’t say I was hit by a pickaxe. And it’s not saying true John hit me with a pickaxe and false Mary hit me with a pickaxe. And that’s probably true even of computers, that they might represent various things. But they don’t in and of themselves have the property of being true and false of those things.

Can we explore that a little further? So you might’ve thought that in so far as something is capable of encoding information, if it can have information in it. A rock face can contain information about its causal history, or we talk of storing information in our computers, and you might’ve thought in so far as something can encode information, it can thereby be either true or false, the information thus encoded can be true or false. You’ve argued not so. There’s an important difference between the encoding, something’s being able to encode information and something’s being true and false. Why think that?

Well this is something that’s just occurred to me pretty recently in that how important that distinction might be. But so suppose a geologist is studying a cliff face in the Grand Canyon, say, and sees there’s maybe 13 layers of rock on that cliff face. And he deduces rightly or wrongly there were 13 different geological ages that come from that. So did the cliff face have information about when that part of the world was under water or whatever or not? Yes, absolutely, there is information there about what happened to make all those rocks.

But is that cliff face true or false about that? So imagine one of the layers of rock is missing there. Is that layer, is that cliff face, false because it says there were 12 geological ages when really there were 13? Well I would say no it’s misleading, but it’s not false. There was some other factor that went into making that that you didn’t know and you got confused.

So my idea studying that might be false. But the cliff face itself isn’t false. So natural objects like cliff faces, they can give all kinds of information of the things that’ve caused them or affected them. But they’re not specifically true or false, the way our human ideas or our human language are true or false.

Sentences on a page are one way of thinking about it natural objects, just as our rock faces, and yet clearly you do think that sentences on a page can be true or false. What’s the added kick that they get that the rock face doesn’t have such that they can be true or false?

I think the added kick is that they were written by someone with a mind, with an intention to communicate a certain thought. You could actually say that even the sentences on the page are not really true or false ’cause most sentences have some degree of ambiguity or something in them. So you need to say okay, well what was intended? If I say this was big, do I mean this is big compared to small things, or do I mean this is big compared to other things?

You don’t actually know whether that’s true or false until all the ambiguities have been resolved. So it’s really not the sentence that’s true or false, it’s the thought that was expressed by the sentence that was true or false. So I think you could still say that only thoughts are true or false, and so there’s something very special about those.

You’ve been thinking recently about this capacity for things to be true or false, but this might give us some evidence not only for the existence of immaterial souls but also for the existence of God. This might be confirmatory of belief in God’s existence. Can you say something about that? Why might this be relevant for the question of God’s existence?

Uh huh, I maybe say it a little bit differently again, that there’s things I would say maybe there’s things that are puzzling if you don’t believe in God, that seem less puzzling if you do believe in God. And I think this matter of kind of true and false is again like that. If I’m just a natural object and all my beliefs come from things that’ve have affected me in some way or another, then I’m not different from that cliff face.

I might bear all the impressions of things that’ve affected me but doesn’t give me this idea of true or false. But God is in a very different relationship to the world than I am. So God created the world. God sees everything that happens in the world. God has perfect knowledge of the world. So whereas my ideas are kinda fallible and my relationship to the world is indirect, God’s ideas are perfect and He creates and upholds the whole world, so He has a perfect relationship to the world, where I have only a partial and imperfect relationship to the world.

So I think where the true and falseness of my ideas comes from might be, well God sees the world perfectly, and God sees what’s going on in my head, and He’s the one who can validate my ideas as true or false. And that gives them this extra quality whereas otherwise they’d only be information, they would only be impressions that’ve been caused by something that happened to me. But it’s God’s intelligence that kind of underlies and underwrites my intelligence in that way.

So is the idea then that my thoughts much like perhaps the rock face, they’re not intrinsically true or false, they’re intrinsically information loaded, but they require the underwriting of something like God to take on this property of being true and false?

I think that’s right. That’s how I like to think about that now. I maybe would clarify it a little bit when we say my thoughts, we haven’t clarified who’s me and what are my thoughts. So if we’re just thinking of me as my brain, and my thoughts as the neuroactivity that’s going on in my brain as materials orientated people do, then I think that physical sense of me isn’t really different from the cliff face. And therefore it needs something else.

Just like the cliff face needs the geologist to understand it, to figure out what that means about the geological ages and kinda say okay this is what it means. In the same way we as physical creatures might need God to understand us and give the physical things that happen in us meanings, that can have true or false. We go back to the soul hypothesis, there is the possibility that there’s a little more to me and to my thoughts than just that neuro part.

I might have a soul as well. And then if you put my soul into the equation and my thoughts aren’t just the neurons firing in my brain but they’re my neurons firing in my brain being understood by my soul, then that might already make them different from the cliff.

Okay well this concludes our time. I wanna thank you again Professor Baker for being with us, for this fascinating conversation.

My pleasure. Thanks for having me.