Is an Unembodied Mind too Abstract a Notion to be the Cause of the Universe?

Jason Dulle

A cosmological argument for theism looks something like this:

Everyone intuits the causal principle that every effect/event requires a sufficient cause. What, then, is the cause of the universe? What is causally sufficient to account for the observed effect? Since the effect includes time, space, and matter, the cause must be timeless, non-spatial, and immaterial, not to mention intelligent and powerful to account for the specified complexity of the universe. Only two things fit this description: abstract objects, or an unembodied mind. Since abstract objects are causally impotent by definition (they do not stand in causal relations with concrete objects), they cannot be the cause of the universe. That leaves us with an unembodied mind, who is a personal agent. This makes sense. Not only are we are intimately acquainted with the idea of immaterial minds causing physical effects, but it also makes sense of the design and order we see in the universe.

In response to this argument, some think we should reject the notion of a disembodied mind on the grounds that it is too abstract; i.e. it is something we are not acquainted with, and hence have no reason to believe is possible. There are at least three reasons to reject this line of thinking.

First, there is nothing logically incoherent about a disembodied mind. The notion may not be familiar to us, but we ought not confuse familiarity with plausibility. A person raised in the remote parts of the jungle has never seen ice, but his lack of familiarity with ice does not mean the existence of ice is implausible. Neither would it constitute good grounds on which for him to reject evidence being presented to him that ice exists. Likewise, just because we are not personally acquainted with the idea of an unembodied mind does not mean an unembodied mind does not, or cannot exist. Neither does it constitute good grounds on which to reject the evidence being presented for the existence of such a mind. The cosmological argument provides warrant for believing in something we may not have thought probable otherwise.

Second, even if we are not personally familiar with unembodied minds, we are very familiar with the concept of mind (each of us has one), and its causal powers. In other words, even if the specific form of the mind in question is unfamiliar to us, the function of a mind very familiar to us: minds exercise causal agency. And I see no reason to think this capacity is dependent on our mind being embodied. The property of causal agency belongs to the mind, not the body, so there is no reason to think an unembodied mind is too abstract a concept to be the cause of our universe.

One might respond that it would be impossible for an unembodied mind (immaterial) to cause effects in the physical realm. This must be false. Why? Because our minds cause effects in the physical realm all the time, and our minds are an immaterial entity (it may stand in a causal relationship with the brain, but it cannot be reduced to the brain/physicality). The only difference between our minds and an unembodied mind is embodiment, but I fail to see how embodiment is significant. The fact remains that human minds, as well as a divine mind, are immaterial in nature, and a source of causation which produces effects in the physical world.

A case could even be made that human minds do not have to be embodied, and indeed, become disembodied upon death. I am thinking in particular of empirical studies into near-death experiences. While many of the experiences are unverifiable, a small minority are. And in these instances, there are examples of continued consciousness, even after brain death. In fact, in some cases the person is conscious of things happening outside of the room where their body lies (things they could not have possibly known, even if their body were functioning normally). So I don't think the idea of an unembodied mind is abstract, or that we are not acquainted with this. Even if most of us are unacquainted with it experientially, we are acquainted with the concept, and there is nothing incoherent about the concept. Strange, maybe, but incoherent, no.

Finally, those who wish to reject both abstract objects and an unembodied mind as the cause of the universe need to offer an alternative. Given the criteria, I cannot fathom what that could be. If no other alternative is possible, then they must either reject the causal principle and say the universe popped into existence uncaused, or else embrace an eternal universe. Given the fact that the causal principle is one of our strongest metaphysical intuitions and enjoys undisputed empirical confirmation, and given the fact that the scientific evidence and philosophical arguments against an eternal universe are more than compelling, neither is a good option. We have good reason, then, to think the cause of the universe was a powerful, intelligent, immaterial, non-spatial, eternal mind. This is an apt description of what most theists have traditionally meant by the term "God."


See also:

Why is there Something Rather than Nothing?
Existence and Necessity
Big Bang Cosmology and Atheism Go Together Like Peas in a Blender

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