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The Table Video

Keith Ward

Thoughts Without Brains

Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford / Fellow of the British Academy / Priest of the Church of England
July 24, 2013

Keith Ward sat down with the Biola University Center for Christian Thought in San Diego, California in July of 2013. In this clip, Ward discusses whether it’s possible to have thoughts without having a brain, and what that would mean about the nature of conscious life.

[soft piano music]

I don’t think there’s any serious doubt that consciousness is a function of a highly, complex, integrated human brain. Well, could be animal brains as well, but certainly, intelligent, rational, moral sorts of conscious seem to correlate with the existent of a very complex brain. And, of course, we can identify parts of the brain which, if you eliminate certain capacities, are eliminated so you can correlate capacities with events in the brain. So, I don’t want to doubt that at all. The question, I think, that is really most interesting is whether this is a necessary connection. That is to say, whether the connection between a brain state, neurons firing in your brain and you having a feeling or a thought. A private experience, really, that other people don’t know about. One goes along with the other. So, I’m not doubting that. There’s a correlation. When I have a thought, I have a brain state and when I have a brain state of a certain sort, I have a thought, that’s true. But is this contingent? And by that I mean, is it just a matter of fact which could have been otherwise? Could I, to put it really bluntly, could I have thoughts without a brain? Or I couldn’t, maybe. Could there be thoughts without a brain? I don’t want to bring God straight into this, but obviously, if you want to think of a case of thoughts without a brain, God would be such a case. I mean, presumably, God thinks in some sense and I presume God doesn’t have a brain.

Well, you could say that’s just fantasy language but it seems to make sense to most people and I think it does make sense. There could be thoughts without a brain. They wouldn’t be fully human thoughts, they wouldn’t be just like our thoughts. But, why can’t you think of, even, say I’m sitting here and having a view of this room and that view is correlated with the state of my brain and the fact that my eyes are functioning and I’m getting electrical impulses from my eyes to my brain, all that’s happening. But, why couldn’t it be possible, it’s the philosophers dream, you know, a philosopher’s thought experiment. Why couldn’t it be possible for me to have this view of this room but not be an embodied agent at all? Just to have a view. You can even think of cases of this, when you watch television or something like that, then you can see things, which, from a point of view where you’re not. I mean, it’s as though you were on the Alps climbing up but you’re not. It’s just a picture that you’re seeing.

Well, I find no difficulty in thinking that there could be beings which just had pictures like that but they weren’t actually located or embodied in the picture. In fact, let me give another case, dreams. You have dream and you think, well, things are happening but you’re not embodied in that dream. These are images, visual, sometimes, sounds as well which you have but you’re not embodied there. So, a key question, some people think it’s a silly question but, perhaps, philosophers are silly people. I think it’s a real question, is could you have experiences when you were not embodied? And I don’t see why not. To be quite honest, I don’t know whether you do or not. I don’t know whether you physically could or not but I don’t see why, I don’t see that it’s impossible.

So, if somebody comes along to me and says there couldn’t be experiences without a brain, I would say, well, according to the laws of physics that we have, that’s true but, of course, there could be a universe, in which there were experiences without brains. And that’s not a totally silly thought because if you think of it, most religions and most philosophers throughout the world have thought that this happens after death. That, when you’re dead, your physical brain is not the same brain, exactly, as the one you had when you were alive because it’s decayed, it’s ceased to exist. So, a lot of people can make sense of saying you can have experiences without your physical brain. And a lot of people believe it’s true and I’m one of them. You do have such experiences.

So, philosophically, my view would be this, brain states are correlated with human experiences. Thank goodness that’s true because otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to sort out how my thoughts corresponded to where my body was. I have a body. I’m an embodied being. But I think, I’m not a necessarily embodied being. And to put it in Christian terms, I think, there will be, as Saint Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15, a totally different kind of body, he calls it a body of spirit, doesn’t he? Soma pneumatikon, which is a spiritual body or a body of spirit. And he says, it’ll be quite different from this physical body. This physical body decays, it’s corruptible but that resurrection body will be not subject to decay. My translation of that, which is not quite in the New Testament, is it’ll be a body which is not subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. And I think, you might say, well, that’s not a true experience about anybody but it’s the experiences of the same person with a different sort of body. And I think it’s part of the Christian faith. It’s obviously part of faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism etc. Which believe in reincarnation.

So, if a philosopher comes along and says well, all that is not only false, it’s nonsense, I think that philosopher is, almost certainly, wrong. [soft piano music]