Theology Thursday: William Hasker

by Max Andrews

Theology Thursday is a new feature on the blog, which gives a brief introduction to a theological person of significance.

Theologian: William Hasker (Contemporary)

General summary of his theology: Hasker is an open theist and has focused his research in two major areas: omniscience and the mind-body problem.  In this post I’m only going to focus on the latter.  Whatever theory we adopt about mind and body, and their interaction, there is still mystery (whether it be physical, immaterial, or a combination of the sort). The issue of one of transcendence:  how can an embodied being such as humans, transcend their physicality and have mind-like awareness of oneself (when the body is not a mind)?  Hasker says it is not enough to choose theory M (say, materialism) over D (say, dualism) simply by showing that dualism has seemingly insurmountable problems. One should take the speck out of one’s eye first:  one must examine objections to M, too, for these may be even more severe than those against D.  A healthy reminder that having reasons against ~p is not the same as having reasons in favor of p.  [Epistemic principle here:  just because P and Q are logically not co-possible; and you have (non-decisive) evidence against P; it doesn’t follow that you have (decisive, or even non-decisive, perhaps) evidence for Q (cf. Islam and Buddhism, say)].

He makes a distinction between the two properties.  Physical properties:  a property or attribute which can characterize an ordinary physical object, whether or not that object is thought of as being alive or as being possessed of mind, awareness or consciousness.  Mental properties:  a property or attribute which can only characterize an entity which is possessed of some kind of consciousness or awareness  So, the mind-body problem:  how are we best, or at all, able to explain the fact [which seems undeniably true] that human beings have both physical and mental properties?  Hasker adopts a model called emergentism.  Emergentism suggests that the mind results from the aggregate brain activity. The mind is produced by the human brain and is not a separate element added to the brain from outside, which agrees with materialism. The mind is distinct from the brain and its activities are not completely explainable in terms of brain function, which agrees with dualism.

A critique of Hasker’s position: Hasker’s position is a very interesting one.  Whenever I lecture on the mind-body problem I have difficulty critiquing it.  I’m a bit of a Cartesian dualist.  I believe that we are primarily an immaterial mind and we occupy a body.  This is certainly more idealistic than physicalism.  To give a comparison, my position is halfway to one pole on the spectrum while Hasker is halfway on the other side of the spectrum.  I find this view quite attractive to be honest.  My main point of attraction is the scientific aspect persuading my philosophy–a sort of quantum consciousness.  My primary objection is theological.  I am a Cartesian because of how I understand the future resurrection.  I wouldn’t necessarily discourage this view and I believe it’s certainly a viable option.


11 Responses to “Theology Thursday: William Hasker”

  1. “The mind is distinct from the brain and its activities are not completely explainable in terms of brain function”

    Not yet. Has anyone shown they are unexplainable in principle?

    • What do you mean by in principle?

      • In the same sense as when we say something is unfalsifiable because it could not even be shown to be false in principle. Meaning there’s no conceivable circumstances.

        Does that help?

    • Well, it’s not so much of a negative case so much as it is a positive case. The negative being that the brain is insufficient in explaining certain things like consciousness and the mental phenomena give good reason[s] to believe that there is a difference.

      • Why is it insufficient? What extra mechanism are you proposing, why is it necessary, and what explanatory power does it have?

      • So your answer to my question APPEARS to be be that you believe natural causes are in principle incapable of explaining consciousness. In other words, you don’t simply see it as something that we currently cannot explain.

        If I do not understand you correctly, please let me know.

        Up until Einstein and Eddington’s work around a century ago, it was known that Newtonian physics alone could not account for the movements of Mercury. Some scientists speculated that the descrepancy between expectation and observation was evidence of God tinkering with the cosmos. If someone at the time had claimed that science was ‘in principle’ incapable of solving the problem, they’d have been dead wrong, right? It would have been hubris to make such a claim then, and would be hubris to make similar claims today. All you can really say is that science is still working on it. If you rule out science EVER finding an answer, you should really set out the basis for your confidence.

  2. I’m more of a property dualist. But I find emergentism quite attractive, as well.

  3. Perhaps my position is a result of my reductionist tendencies, but I have always had a difficult time with emergent properties when they involve non-quantifiable elements. Whatever “functions” arise from systems of matter arranged in a particular way are explicable in terms of physics. They are entirely predictable, and they are entirely quantifiable. Emergent properties, at least in this context, are thus only those features of a system that of which we lack the requisite knowledge to explain.

    If one is committed to a materialistic view, then the mind is explainable in purely materialistic terms. That is simply to say that the material cannot generate the immaterial. Of course, once the “mind” is reduced to a collection of particularly arranged chemicals, you then have to deal with all the unpleasant implications that follow.

    Given Hasker’s views on the mind, how does he explain free will? Correct me if I’m wrong, but he is a proponent of metaphysical free will, right?

    I realize I’m oversimplifying the issue, but I should probably stop lest I write something stupid (who knows, maybe I already have).


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