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Is it metaphysically possible that we could exist without a brain? Swinburne on free will and the brain.

1. Introduction

Swinburne holds that the whole history of the world can be told with our familiar system of categories: substances, properties, and times. Talk about places is reducible to talk about substances and their relation to other substances. Swinburne understands by a substance a particular concrete object. Substances exist all-at-once and totally, and may have other substances as parts; they have properties (they have properties or exist for periods of time). A property may be a monadic property of one substance, or a relation between two or more substances. Properties are universals: they could be possessed by different substances from the ones by which they are possessed. Of the properties which a substance has, some are essential properties of that substance. Some of the properties of a substance are contingent properties of that substance. (Swinburne, 2013)

2. Property and Event Dualism

Swinburne counts any universal characteristic picked out by a predicate as a property. It is a pure a priori matter whether one property is identical with another, and whether one kind of property supervenes on another kind of property. Physical substances are what they are in virtue of their properties. An event is either some substance having a certain property at a certain time, or the coming into existence or the ceasing to exist of some substance at some time. There is nothing more to the history of the world than all the events which have occurred, are occurring, or will occur (the occurrence of some events entails the occurrence of other events). The requirement that we be able to tell the whole history of the world by listing a subset of events which entails all the events put restrictions on the possible identity criteria (Swinburne, 2012). The restriction is that the properties, substances, and times constituent of events must be picked out by informative designators (the identity of an informative designator is constituted by the criteria for its application). The history of the world is just a succession of events. To tell the full history of the world involves listing all the events of some subset which entails all the events that happen under their canonical descriptions. Swinburne argues that there are two kinds of event in the world--physical events and mental events (Swinburne, 2007).

According to this discussion, a mental event is one to which the substance involved has privileged access, whereas a pure mental event is a mental event which does not entail a metaphysically contingent physical event as that substance. Swinburne contends that no mental event is identical to or supervenes on any physical event. Pure mental events are events either conscious or accessible to consciousness, additional to physical events. A full history of the world must list events of both kinds. Mental events (in particular intentions) often cause brain events. Brain events often cause mental events including conscious events, whereas conscious events often cause brain events and thereby bodily movements, and also often cause other conscious events. The most evident way in which our conscious events cause physical events is when we are performing intentional actions. (Swinburne, 2011a) In the case of every publicly observable action and of pure mental actions, various physical events need to occur if we are to perform the action. A physical substance is one for which the possession of a mental property is not essential, whereas a pure mental substance is one for which only pure mental properties are essential. (Swinburne, 2013)

3. Propositional Mental Events and Agent Causation

Swinburne writes that there are two kinds of conscious propositional events: thoughts and intentions, and two main kinds of propositional events which are continuing mental states: beliefs and desires. An inclination to believe some proposition is a belief that there is quite a chance that the proposition is true. Beliefs are continuing mental states, but our paradigm understanding of what beliefs are is provided by beliefs of which one is conscious. Beliefs are dispositions to cause conscious beliefs and behavior, and are pure mental events: someone's beliefs entail no consequences about what they will do unless combined with intentions. We can only believe that p if we believe that our belief was caused by the event described by p, or some event which entails p. Thoughts include the conscious beliefs which one expresses to oneself and expressions to oneself of ideas which one entertains but does not believe. A thought is a propositional event not analyzable in terms of sensations. The occurrence of a thought does not entail the occurrence of any physical event in the thinker. One's thoughts just are the thoughts of which one is currently aware (thoughts are conscious events). A disposition to have the conscious events which are sensations is a continuing mental state. (Swinburne, 2008)

What these latter observations reveal is that, as well as the propositional events, there are sensations--which are non-propositional events. Different people may have been introduced to words denoting sensations by different paradigm examples because the public events may cause different sensations in different people. Sensations have no necessary connection with any public behavior. Swinburne maintains that the neural connections underlying sensations are sometimes different in different people. The disposition to have sensations is a non-propositional event, but a continuing mental state. Beliefs and desires are continuing mental states. Desires are felt inclinations to do certain actions intentionally of which we can become aware if we choose to introspect, are pure mental events, and are involuntary. Beliefs and desires have consequences for behavior only in combination with each other or other mental states. Different combinations of mental states may have the same consequences for behavior. All the propositional mental events have some necessary connection with ways of public expression. There are public criteria for which humans probably have which propositional events (we can have informative designators of most of our mental properties).

All of this can be taken as evidence of the recognition that the discussion above suggests that although we are influenced by brain or mental events to form the intentions we do, sometimes no such events determine those intentions. An intentional action is one which an agent does and means to do. Forming an intention is itself an intentional action. Most actions result from combinations of beliefs and intentions, whereas different combinations of beliefs and intentions may lead to the same public behavior. Swinburne contends that having some intention or belief by itself entails no physical events involving the believer or agent. Our beliefs are involuntary in the sense that we cannot change them at will. People cannot be mistaken about what their intentions are, being infallibly aware of their present intentions. Intentions are to some extent conscious. (Lazaroiu, 2010) We cause a brain event by forming the intention to cause some effect of that brain event. We are ourselves aware of causing effects, by exerting causal influence which makes it naturally necessary that they will occur. Trying to do an instrumentally basic action is a causally basic action. It is in part from the experiences of ourselves causing effects that we derive our concept of causation. Intentions are simply the intentional exercises of causal influence. (Swinburne, 2013)

4. Substance Dualism, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility

As Swinburne puts it, individual substances belong to a world of change, and continue to exist over periods of time. Their identity conditions are more complicated than those of properties. There are different ways of cutting up the world into kinds of substance that enable us to give a true and full description of the world. A full history of the world will need to mention only substances of certain genera. A mental substance is one for which the possession of some mental property is essential. Each human is a pure mental substance, having a soul as their one essential part and a body as a non-essential part. It is compatible with what we are that any human should continue to exist without their present body or any body at all (each of us is a pure mental substance). It is an unavoidable datum of experience that we are pure mental substances. Swinburne points out that the existence of consciousness requires a pure mental substance whose consciousness it is. Any pure mental substance needs only some pure mental property in order to exist. A person can continue to exist without having conscious experiences. Our continued existence depends on our continuing to have mental events. Pure mental substances are not mere bundles of co-instantiated properties. The human soul is non-physical and indivisible, and possesses essentially only pure mental properties. (Swinburne, 1997) Humans are essentially pure mental substances who intentionally cause their bodies to move in certain ways, are in part rational beings, and fully rational, and are quite often rational in their processes of belief formation. Our characters depend on the brains with which we are in causal interaction. A full history of the world will have to include the histories of both human bodies and human souls. It is metaphysically possible that there can be bodies without souls and souls without bodies. When humans make difficult moral decisions we will never have enough evidence to predict what they will decide.

Research findings like the ones mentioned here constitute an important body of evidence in favor of the claim that moral responsibility only applies to someone who has moral beliefs: someone who has moral beliefs and does an intentional action is morally responsible for that action, unless he or she is fully caused to do it. Swinburne argues that the agent can only make a difference to which bodily movements he or she makes when they have equal strongest desires and moral beliefs or where there is a conflict between desire and moral belief. We are often morally responsible for our actions. Determinism would rule out moral responsibility. The fundamental moral principles are logically necessary truths. Our moral beliefs are of crucial importance in the formation of our intentions. Our particular moral beliefs are causally sustained by a conjunction of particular non-moral beliefs, and in part by fundamental moral beliefs, and rationally should change as they change. No belief can be held without being sustained by certain other beliefs. (Swinburne, 2011b) Moral beliefs and desires vary in strength. People do not always act on their moral beliefs in a way which reflects the strength of those beliefs. Most of our executive intentions follow inevitably from our ultimate intentions and our beliefs. All our beliefs and desires at a given time are caused ultimately by prior brain events. (Swinburne, 2013)

5. Conclusions

According to Swinburne, human intentions and actions are not fully determined by prior events. Human brains are very seldom in exactly the same state in relevant respects. The same soul is probably connected to the same body while that body is the body of a living human. Humans can choose between alternative actions independently of the causes which influence them, bearing moral responsibility for their decisions. In any finite human life the most probable outcome does not always occur because the agent may do what they are on balance inclined not to do. Intentional actions are caused not by events but by agents themselves. Physical inability to do some action excuses failure to do it; the degree of blameworthiness or praise-worthiness depends on the strength of the causal influences on the agent to do or not to do the action. (Swinburne, 2013)

Received 8 May 2015 * Received in revised form 10 October 2015

Accepted 12 October 2015 * Available online 24 October 2015


Spiru Haret University


I am greatly indebted to Richard Swinburne, whose insightful comments helped in improving and clarifying the argument put forward by this article.


A previous version of this paper was published as a book review of Swinburne, Richard (2013), Mind, Brain, and Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, in Review of Contemporary Philosophy 12: 175-178.


Lazaroiu, George (2010), "Richard Swinburne: The Nature of God and the Problem of Evil," The 18th Ecumenical Theological Symposium--Meaning and Mystery: From the Philosophy of Knowledge to the Theology of Person, Metropolitan College of New York, December 4.

Swinburne, Richard (2013), Mind, Brain, and Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swinburne, Richard (2012), "How to Determine which Theory of Personal Identity Is True," in Georg Gasser and Matthias Stefan (eds.), Personal Identity--Simple or Complex? New York: Cambridge University Press, 105-122.

Swinburne, Richard (2011a), "Could Anyone Justifiably Believe Epiphenomenalism," Journal of Consciousness Studies 18(3/4): 196-216.

Swinburne, Richard (2011b), "Dualism and the Determination of Action," in Richard Swinburne (ed.), Free Will and Modern Science. London: British Academy, 65-82.

Swinburne, Richard (2008), "Che cosa mi rende me? Una difesa del dualismo delle sostanze," in Andrea Lavazza (ed.), L 'uomo a due dimensioni. Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 67-86.

Swinburne, Richard (2007), "From Mental/Physical Identity to Substance Dualism," in Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman (eds.), Persons: Human and Divine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 142-165.

Swinburne, Richard (1997), The Evolution of the Soul. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
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Title Annotation:Richard Swinburne
Author:Lazaroiu, George
Publication:American Journal of Medical Research
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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