Book Reviews, Dualism, epistemology, naturalism, philosophy

“The Knower and the Known” by Stephen Parrish, Part 2

kk-parrishStephen Parrish’s The Knower and the Known is not merely a critique of physicalism. As we noted in the review of the first part, that critique itself is a decisive, thorough demolishing of major physicalist theories of mind. Here, we will explore Parrish’s exposition of a theory of consciousness.

Thought and Consciousness

What does it mean to have a thought? Parrish notes several aspects which go into the very act of knowing. There must be an object of knowledge; there must be a subject to consider the object; there must be consciousness in order to apprehend concepts and aboutness; there must be a relationship between subject and object and consciousness; there must be understanding of that relationship; and finally there must be a view of the world in which all of this can occur.

Consciousness itself is an extremely complex notion which involves phenomenality: the actual experience of thought; intentionality: the turning of one’s thoughts to consider an object; subjectivity: an agent which is itself the subject of the thought; and rationality: the capacity to order thoughts in such a way as to make sense of them. (206-213).

Consciousness has certain phenomenal properties. That is, when we consider our own thoughts, there is a distinct feeling to them which allows us to differentiate them from simple sense perceptions. There is an aspect of inentionality or attending-to our thoughts which is itself irreducible. Moreover, we are able to comprehend things which are themselves non-physical, such as the nature of a logical argument like modus ponens (226-228).

Consciousness must somehow interact with the physical world. If one is a physicalist, it becomes a matter of reducing consciousness to purely physical explanations, eliminating consciousness, or offering a brute relationship between consciousness and the physical world.

Qualia are also extremely important when considering consciousness. How is it that we are able to see objects as objects with certain properties? What process allows for individual particles/rays of light to manifest themselves in phenomenal consciousness in such a way as to provide a coherent picture of an object? Moreover, “there is more to recognizing qualia than just having color in one’s sensory field; there is also our attention to said qualia, the judgments we make about them, the objects that they represent, and also our memory of them–and these factors can make all of the difference” (257).

Subjectivity is also extremely important to forming a theory of consciousness. It seems that subjects are, in fact, irreducible. For the physicalist, the concept of a subject is extremely difficult. After all, a subject at t1 is going to be different from that subject at t2 in a number of highly relevant physical ways. Their neurons are firing differently from t1 to t2. How is it that subjectivity is maintained. The substance dualist holds that subjectivity is maintained through unity of consciousness which may not be reduced to the physical (291). The unity is preserved through intentionality but more thoroughly through rationality. The use of reason is one of the primary ways to offer continuity of the self. For the subject, S, at t3 is considering both thoughts at t1 and t2 in order to come to a  conclusion at t4. Reason itself has aspects of intentionality which cannot be accounted for on a physicalist view of reality, for a physical object is capable of performing mathematical computations but not understanding the aboutness inherent in those computations (266-267).

Our Minds in the World

Parrish grounds his understanding of consciousness in a theistic worldview. There are numerous difficulties with an account of substance dualism which seem to only be soluble on a theistic interpretation. One of these is the problem of the interaction between body and mind. If God exists, then it seems inherently possible that a deity would be capable of forming the world in such a way that mind could interact with body. Parrish addresses several objections to the notion that an immaterial being could interact with a physical universe while also making an argument for non-physical selfs apart from God interacting in the universe (324ff).

The match of our minds with the world is something which must be accounted for. Parrish notes that if we ground ideal objects in an immaterial being like God, the difficulties with such objects existence and subsistence may be solved. Moreover, the glorious match of our mental life with reality is also explained, for a rational being is the source of all which we observe. If that is the case, then we no longer must appeal to simple brute fact to attempt to explain the phenomena of consciousness; instead, we may note that it is exactly as one might expect given theism (337ff).

And Then There was More…

Parrish concludes the work with a brief comparison of physicalism and substance dualism across multiple questions related to consciousness and the physical world. Finally, there are two appendices which address free will/agency and the theory of panpsychism, respectively.


In Part 1 of this review I outlined Parrish’s discussion of physicalism. Here, we have seen the structure of his substance dualism. It seems to me that Parrish’s deconstruction of physicalism is quite powerful. In particular, I noted that he makes a strong argument that physicalist theories ultimately boil down into either epiphenomenalism or mysterianism, neither of which is plausible. Moreover, his use of numerous examples and thought experiments throughout makes the work easier to comprehend while also providing a solid basis for grounding further discussions in philosophy of mind. Finally, the vast amount of research and documentation Parrish provides makes the work invaluable as a reference for physicalist writings alongside its clear value as a thorough critique of those same works.

The second major section, in which Parrish outlines his view of a theistic dualist ontology, is equally important. He provides a large amount of background for understanding how to put together various aspects of consciousness while also noting that, on theism, these observed phenomena cohere within an ontology, while on physicalism they are generally either discredited or ignored. The one thing the work may lack is a bit of cohesion in the section on substance dualism. Parrish has given a broad vision for how to hold a dualist ontology, but sometimes leaves it up to the reader to put the pieces together. The pieces are there, but not always assembled. I should note, however, that even here Parrish has provided an invaluable resource for those who wish to argue for a dualist vision of philosophy of mind.

I have already noted that Parrish’s The Knower and the Known is a tour de force in the realm of analyzing physicalist theories. However, the work is much more than a simple refutation of physicalism. Alongside that critique, Parrish has laid out the groundwork for substance dualism as a cogent alternative. Simply put, it is a must read for anyone with any interest in philosophy of mind. Comprehensive in scope, exhaustively documented, and interesting to read, The Knower and the Known is a must-have.


Stephen Parrish, The Knower and the Known (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2013).



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


6 thoughts on ““The Knower and the Known” by Stephen Parrish, Part 2

  1. JW, it is easy to fall into the trap of asserting that because a biological process and/or function is difficult to understand or lacks a cohesive explanation right now (fully informed by some natural mechanism without some external directing agency) does not support that some version of Oogity Boogity is a reasonable alternative. It’s not. It’s an argument that is doomed to be equivalent to ignorance because time and again it’s not an answer or reasonable explanation at all; it is an excuse to believe something that is later shown to be unjustified by reality. It’s a pseudo-answer that fools us into thinking without merit that we know something about reality that simply isn’t true in reality.

    An author can dress up all kinds of words to give logical form to a set of premises that yields zero descriptive and useful knowledge and this is what’s going on here. Just look at the descriptive technique being used by Parrish to coagulate certain approaches to understanding neuroscience that yields exactly this kind of wordy descriptive salad (physicalism, eliminativism, identity theory, functionalism, epiphenominalism, phenomenality, substance dualism, mysterianism, and so on). It is the word salad that is then manipulated to reach the desired conclusion, (Oogity Boogity to no one’s surprise) and that’s why none of these terms link directly to things in reality but must pass through one’s interpretive filter first, screening out the inherent fuzzy bits that are so indeterminate in meaning that we can then apply to these terms meanings what it is we are supposedly seeking from them. Before you read this book, you already know what the conclusion is going to be: some version of …therefore, Oogity Boogity.

    So, armed with this new ‘understanding’ Parrish has brought into our lives, show me a mind without a body, please. Show me dualism in action, a mind in action independent and unrelated to a brain in action. Don’t use words; use reality. Demonstrate how this dualism works, by what mechanism it links mind to body to causal effect in reality.

    The silence and lack of substance is a clue…

    When Parrish can do as I ask and demonstrate that mind and brain are two things in reality, only then is he offering us anything of explanatory value having anything to do with knowledge. All he is really offering is disguised theology.

    Posted by tildeb | August 12, 2013, 8:51 AM
    • Your complete misunderstanding of substance dualism might be why you wrote this comment. You wrote “Show me dualism in action, a mind in action independent and unrelated to a brain in action.” Substance dualists are not asserting this is what human beings are. In fact, substance dualists hold that mind and brain are interdependent in many ways.

      Of course there are minds without bodies, but to “show you” one is a pretty ridiculous claim. It’s like saying “Show me modus ponens.” Well of course you could shoe me the form of a modus ponens written out, but modus ponens is a concept, not a physical entity. You can’t show it to me. The way you construe reality, though, seems to mean that it would therefore be unreal. Ridiculous.

      I don’t actually see any other argument in your post, just a series of complaints about not believing in dualism. If you want to offer an argument, feel free to do so in your reply.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 12, 2013, 2:55 PM
      • Modus ponens is an axiom and not a ‘thing’. What we call the mind is not an axiom but a ‘thing’ in operation influenced by environment and causing effect when acted upon. The mind should be available as an independent ‘thing’ different from the brain if the daulistic notion were true, but dualists cannot provide any such evidence so they pretend by use of clever obfuscating words and fuzzy terminology that the brain and mind are actually is interdependent… using that nifty phrase, substance dualists… as if this clever use of language overcomes the lack of evidence for the assertion! Is the mind in any way INdependent of body to provide us a boundary of separation from brain to claim it is part of but not wholly brain (because THAT is the core assertion made by any kind of dualist… the clue resting with the term ‘dual’, meaning ‘two’, and not an interdependent 1A and 1B as substance dualists apparently try to foist in its place)?

        All the evidence clearly and unequivocally indicates that mind is what the brain does and we can affect what we call the mind every time by altering the physical brain that produces it. That, too, is a clue… I think it is evident that using the word ‘mind’ provides an opening for people to assume it is somehow qualitatively AND quantitatively different and separate from the brain. There is no compelling evidence to support this. This is why words matter, and to be clear there is zero evidence that what we call ‘mind’ is in any way independent of or separate in any way from the brain. This is why neuroscientists are in consensus that what only appears to be, what feels like, two different ‘things’ – mind and brain – are in fact one biological organ: the brain (and parts of the body with neuropeptides active in them). No amount of philosophy of mind and metaphysics and relativistic terminological pseudo-speak can gain knowledge insight into either the brain’s physical functions or the mind’s cognition and all its operations and processes contrary to its sole materialistic basis by which it works. There simply is no separation of any degree. All incoming gains in knowledge about the brain and cognition are all in one direction only: away from dualism… of any kind.This isn’t my problem; it belongs fully with dualists who claim otherwise but don’t have the evidence to back it up with anything other than words. That’s why the assertion it remains strictly theology in action… fooling people into believing what reality does not support.

        Posted by tildeb | August 12, 2013, 6:58 PM


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