An Objectivist Critique of “Self-Ownership”

Paul McKeever does us a great service in the following video, where he argues that there can be no such thing as self-ownership unless you believe in a soul.  Obviously Mr. McKeever thinks this disproves the concept of self-ownership because a soul is an imaginary religious thing that has no business in philosophy.

I have to hand it to him, he’s quite right about this.  To believe in self-ownership is to believe in a soul.  Of course, he’s quite wrong that the soul has no place in serious philosophy.  The soul is nothing more than another word for consciousness, with the added belief that consciousness is a distinct eternal aspect of the universe.  Belief in a soul has nothing to do with religion or idol worship, and everything to do with the nature of consciousness.

What’s great about his video is that it creates a reason to believe in a soul based right out of libertarian principles.  I’ve always had this gut feeling that there was a merger point between the metaphysical and physical in terms of libertarian principles, yet I could never quite put my finger on it.  I’m not sure if Mr. McKeever is the first to come up with this argument, but I love it all the same.

SO LETS TALK PHILOSPHY!  Allow me to present a re-post of a previous article that refutes Mr. McKeever’s claims about philosophy and the nature of the soul:

First I want to make a distinction between belief and faith.  Belief does not require or equate to faith.  One can “believe” that the day sky is blue, but such a belief can be subjected to a test.  Since one can prove through various means that the color of the day sky meets the accepted definition of blue, believing that the day sky is blue does not amount to a faith based belief.  One could also believe that the day sky is green, but that belief could be refuted through evidentiary means.  For the purposes of this article, a faith based belief is one that cannot be proven through evidentiary means.

Belief in a soul, defined as an immortal conscious awareness, is rather different from believing that any given religious doctrine is “God’s word.”  One does not need to believe in the Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon or any other religious doctrine to believe that consciousness is a separate, distinct, eternal and fundamental feature of this universe.  Belief that any given religious doctrine is “the one true doctrine of God’s word” demands faith, since such claims cannot be proven, whereas consciousness is obviously something that definitively exists within this universe, and as such, can be subjected to various tests.

It should also be pointed out that belief in a soul is also distinct from a belief in God(s).  It is not a logical contradiction to believe in a soul, yet not believe in a God, since the two could very well be separate entities.  The existence of an all powerful, all knowing and eternal entity’s existence cannot be disproved.  Such a God could have simply created the universe and set it into motion and then left it to its own devices.  Yet neither can such a God be proven to exist, unless that God decided to make his presence manifest for inquiry.  Presently, belief in the existence of such a God is an act of faith.

What I’m trying to point out with my arguments here is that belief in a soul is entirely separate and distinct from a belief in a God or a religious doctrine.  One can believe in a soul, yet not be in a logical contradiction with one’s own beliefs if they did not also believe in a God or a particular religious doctrine.  And, since consciousness indisputably exists, holding a particular belief about its nature is not the same as having faith in the existence of a God or religious doctrine.

That said, let’s take a closer look at the nature of consciousness.  Modern scientific inquiry is unable to determine the causal properties of our awareness.  We simply don’t know why the physical matter of our brains should give rise to the experience of awareness we deem to be consciousness.  Science has provided us numerous deterministic theories in regards to how this may be possible, but there are no definitive answers that spell out precisely how inanimate matter can be organized into a conscious awareness.  Nor does modern science tell us why the given organization of matter in our brains should give rise to conscious awareness.

However, modern scientific inquiry has provided us a wealth of knowledge in regards to the biological functions of the brain.  So let’s go over some of the things we know to be true about the physical properties of the brain.  Scientists surmise that synaptic bonds are the method by which memory is encoded into the brain.  They make this assumption based on the fact that the inhibition of a specific protein kinase, which blocks the strengthening of synaptic bonds, leads to apparent memory loss in animal tests.  However, there are some problems with this theory.

It is debatable that there are enough synaptic bonds to account for the amount of memory we know the mind is capable of storing.  Further, we know from brain scans that short term and long term memories appear to be stored and recalled in differing areas of the brain.  Modern science has not produced a plausible mechanism by which this transport of memories to differing areas of the mind could take place over time.  Thus, it is accurate to say there is no proof that memory is entirely a physical construct of the brain.  Obviously this is important given the intimate ties between experiential awareness and memory.

Further, modern science has not provided us with an origin point of thought within the brain.  Brain scans reveal that thoughts appear as a cascade of bio-electrical activity originating at differing points across the entire brain.  There is no singular point in the brain that scientists can point to and say, “this is where all thoughts originate from.”  There is no decision maker in the brain that decides what we will think about at any given moment.

It is in the silence of the mind that we find a deeper understanding of the nature of consciousness.   Science cannot tell us what biological mechanism provokes a thought into existence.  Thoughts appear to coalesce in the mind purely at will.  They appear to be willed into being by an unknown causal agent.  A person can chose to think or not think at will, and as such, our consciousness appears to have total control over the thoughts we chose to manifest.

If consciousness were purely the product of deterministic bio-chemical processes, it seems doubtful to me that we would have such control over our own minds.  How is it possible that I can chose to think or not think, at will, if random bio-chemical reactions are the process through which consciousness manifests itself?  If bio-chemical reactions are not the initiators of thought, then what is?

At this point, I want to make a further distinction between thought and awareness.  While most people consider them to be one in the same, there are notable differences between the two.  You can have awareness without thought, but it is impossible to have thought without awareness.  If we define thought as that which we think, and awareness as the ability to be aware of what we think, it should become clear that the two are not one in the same.  For example, when I read something, I “audibly” speak the words I’m reading to myself in my own mind.  My mind creates a mental voice that turns what I’m reading into a mental noise.  The mental noise is what I’mthinking about, but the ability to be aware of that noise is my awareness.  When I stop thinking, the mental noise is silent, yet I am still “aware” of my conscious existence.

Try it once.  Notice the silence around you.

In order to notice silence, a curious thing takes place.  The mind must become silent itself in order to notice silence.  Noticing silence is a recognition of an awareness beyond thought.

Getting back to the science of the brain, modern science has been able to dissect the brain down to the atomic level, yet it still has not produced a causal initiator of thought.  Nor has it produced a physical mechanism that would explain how animal life becomes aware.

Further, consciousness cannot be the result of macro processes if one believes in free will.  This is because all macro processes are deterministic in nature.  Probabilistic behavior of matter only occurs at the atomic/subatomic level.  If we are to believe that macro processes are the causative agents of consciousness, then every thought and every action we have ever undertaken has been predestined to happen.  I find this to be a rather ridiculous line of reasoning.  Consider all of the judgments, emotions, and decisions that occur within an ordinary conversation between two people.  Are we to believe that the reactions, judgments and emotions that arise between both parties are predestined to occur?  How is it even possible for the two brains to coordinate a coherent response between each other if they are entirely separate entities governed by entirely separate deterministic processes?

Due to the lack of plausible macro causal agents, many scientists have moved their theorizing to the subatomic level.  I regard this as simply obfuscating the problem of awareness behind the incomprehensible jargon of quantum mechanics; I will explain why in just a moment.  While I agree that there must be some kind of physical agent that creates the cascade of brain activity we see in brain scans, I disagree that it is even possible for any physical agent to be responsible for conscious awareness.

Whether or not thoughts are physical manifestations of the brain is a debatable subject, but the nature of awareness itself is much more cut and dry.  Natural philosophy makes it quite clear that it is very unlikely for awareness to arise out of physical matter.  To prove my point, let’s start out with a thought experiment.  If you have an unlimited amount of blue Lego blocks, is it possible for you to create a large red object by putting those blue Lego blocks together in various ornate ways?

Obviously the answer is no.  This is because all properties of a system must be inherent in the components that make up that system.  Since you only have blue blocks to work with, there is simply no way to produce a red object.  Similarly, if I create a gadget that utilizes electricity, I must supply a flow of electrons into that gadget before it will work.  If I want to create a soft fluffy pillow, I can’t do it if I only have steel nails to work with.  This argument is called the problem of strong emergence.

To claim that a physical manifestation of matter, be it macro, atomic or subatomic, is the causal agent of awareness, is to simultaneously claim that the matter in question is also aware itself.  For one cannot produce a system with properties other than those already inherent in its component parts.  Have scientists found any evidence to suggest that atomic/subatomic particles are aware of their own existence?

Now which argument sounds more crazy?  That atomic/subatomic particles are inherently aware, or that awareness is a separate fundamental component of the universe itself?  Further, what are the implications if atomic/subatomic particles ARE aware?  At this point we have entered the realm of faith again haven’t we?  Since it cannot be proven nor disproved that atomic/subatomic particles are aware or have some aspect of awareness to them, isn’t it faith to believe they are the causal agents of awareness?  On a philosophical level, we know physical matter exists because we are able to experience it.  However, it is a fallacy to then conclude that because we can experience physical matter, that experience itself must be composed of physical matter.

So what does science have to say about the nature of quantum mechanics itself?  Interestingly, many experiments have demonstrated that in order for matter to exist, it must be consciously observed.  This means that consciousness must have been present before matter came into existence.  QM is quite explicit in stating that observation must be present to collapse a wave function (ie. bring matter into a measurable state of existence).

Physicists often like to cite quantum decoherence as an solution to this problem; however, quantum decoherence on its own does not attempt to solve the measurement problem.  Decoherence as an explanation for wave function collapse results in either a many worlds or many minds interpretation of the physical universe.  This “chicken or egg” problem of consciousness is called the quantum mind-body problem.

A many minds interpretation leads to a continuous infinity of minds existing in an infinite number of universes.  This leads to a system that is unable to explain single photon interference patterns in experiments such as the double slit experiment.  A many-worlds interpretation implies that all possible alternative histories and futures are real, each representing an actual “world” (or “universe”).

A many-worlds interpretation that does not include a conscious observer leads to pure determinism and the absence of free will.   No matter which one you chose, conscious observation is inherently necessary before a wave function collapse, or branching of the universe, occurs.  The rejection of a conscious observer in QM theory leads to pure determinism, no free will, and no explanation for experiential awareness.

We can see that the fundamental tenants of QM theory are directly opposed to its use as an explanation for consciousness.  Yet scientists have no other means to explain consciousness, other than through QM theory, because that’s the only avenue left that could possibly incorporate free will.  The end result being that they are left floundering around in obscure mathematical theories trying to prove something that logic says cannot be proven.

Now that I’ve covered the big scientific and philosophical points, I want to move on to something more metaphysical.  While many scientists have poo pooed near death experiences as being the byproduct of a dying brain, there can be no doubt that these experiences do occur.  Many people who have had a near death experience are able to report on verifiable veridical events that occurred while they were seemingly unconscious, which could later be confirmed by medical personnel.  Here are a few cases for your consideration:

Dr. Pim van Lommel, a cardiologist, conducted studies on NDEs that led him to conclude that consciousness is non-local (resides outside of the brain).

Dr. Lloyd Rudy, a cardiologist, reports on a patient that accurately described his resuscitation procedure while unconscious in a state of near death.

Dr. Eban Alexander, who was an associate professor of neuroscience at Harvard, underwent a near death experience that made him a believer in the afterlife.  Dr. Alexander was an atheist materialist determinist prior to his NDE.

Pam Reynolds, a musician, reported events while in a state of clinical death that were verified by medical staff.

Hopefully these few examples will whet your appetite and cause you to dig a little deeper into this phenomena.  What I find fascinating about these experiences is that nearly all of the people who experience a “deep” NDE report that time seems to lose all meaning.  Many of them report that they experience the infinite, which is something that seems impossible for the physical brain to create.

Given that the best science we have today says consciousness must preexist matter, and given that logic dictates that the properties of a system must be inherent in the components of that system, and given that all macro processes are deterministic, and given that science has found no causal agent for the initiation of thought, and given that science is unable to explain a mechanism for the transference of memories between differing brain regions, and given that the number of synapses in the brain seems too small to hold volume of memory we know the mind is capable of storing, and given that atomic/subatomic particles show no signs of awareness, is it illogical to conclude that consciousness is not a property of matter, but is instead a separate fundamental component of the universe?

I say no.

I would also like to point out the timeless nature of awareness.  No matter what we experience, we can only experience things that are happening at this present moment.  We cannot experience the future, nor can we experience the past.  Awareness seems to reside outside of time in this regard.  We can experience time as a sequential flow of moments, but only ever experiencing one moment at a time.  If time were to stop, would we cease to experience?  Logic says no, since we don’t ever experience time in the first place. We only experience this moment.

While it is true that the senses need time to receive information and transport it to the brain for processing, the experiences those senses bring to us reside outside the flow of time.  Physical things need time to act and react, sense receptors need time to encode and decode information that is sent to our brain, but experience is always instantaneous in the present moment.  If experience was not instantaneous, everything we experience would be smeared across time.  It’s impossible to even comprehend what that might be like.

In conclusion, I believe that consciousness is separate from the physical mind and that consciousness is infinite and eternal in nature, and I don’t need any faith to arrive at this conclusion.


  • Robert Ve

    All of this is thinly disguised new age mumbo jumbo. At best you can say that there is currently insufficient evidence for both the “consciousness is brain” and “consciousness is innate”.

    However, the past has shown that these kind of issues usually fall to the hardcore scientific point of view eventually, which in this case is that the brain does indeed create the subjective experience of consciousness.

    I don’t think the libertarian philosophy needs consciousness or a soul. Most people would agree to the basic ethics regardless of their origins. They have only been perverted into thinking that there are exceptions for some situations and people.

    • The fact that you are conscious is simply new age mumbo jumbo.

      • Robert Ve

        You don’t know that I am conscious! In fact I am a zombie. So there shows how much you know.

  • Christian McMahon

    I think his argument is ridiculous. He argues about self ownership when freedom is external to the human. Freedom is being allowed to make mistakes, learn from them, and then succeed. It’s also about reserving your natural god given rights without asking for permission for them.
    The person (not a corporation), human being, ID, lizard brain, really have nothing to do with liberty. They may desire liberty. Liberty is the ability to adapt to the current situation without interference. I personally love liberty.
    Sic Nos Sic Sacra Tuemur

  • Peter Surda

    Self-ownership does not imply the existence of a soul. It merely implies that we can interpret a person in two different ways: as an object (or a scarce resource, as an economist might say), and a subject (or an actor from praxeological point of view). This does not require that this distinction has a basis in reality. It just means that we can derive utility from this dual interpretation.

    As Stephan Kinsella argues, there can be no rights in the abstract, because their enforcement can only apply to to physical, scarce resources (or in my reformulation, there is no such thing as immaterial human action). But this does not refute the existence of abstract (immaterial) goods! Immaterial goods are merely a different interpretation of the physical world around us, and this interpretation arises because it increases utility.

    You can see it on Bitcoin as well, or any money for that matter. Bitcoin, just like any immaterial good, always requires a physical manifestation. The blockchain and keys need to be encoded and stored in a physical object, be it a magnetic disc or a brainwallet. But from the perspective of market participants, Bitcoin is not the same as the physical object it is stored on. They ascribe it a separate identity as a good, even though it’s only a pure abstraction. Of course, this does not mean that Bitcoin has a soul! It merely means that two different interpretations are possible, and depending on the context we prefer one or the other.

    I find it very interesting that we can agree on the Austrian economics, but have such vast philosophical differences. You’re a spiritual god believer (christian, presumably), while I’m a materialist atheist (even determinist). But we both arrive at the conclusion that the greatest evil is the state.

    • “You’re a spiritual god believer”

      What makes you think that?

      • Peter Surda

        You’re not?

  • The McKeever argument is wrong for two reasons. First, the argument that a thing cannot own itself begs the question, “Is the mind and body one thing or is the mind a *product* of the body thus making it a *separate* but dependent thing?” I see the mind as a product of the brain. The second problem is to treat the mind as an inanimate object when by definition it isn’t… a mind has volition. Ownership requires volition thus the mind can own things.

    Overwhelming physical evidence tells us that the mind is a product of and dependent upon the brain. We know for instance that brain injuries will cause memory loss and change personalities. We know that drugs alter the mind and cause hallucinations, impair judgment, and effect body control. So if by acting on the brain, the mind is altered, we can conclude that the mind is dependent on the physical brain. If the mind were a separate entity from the body (as say a soul), it would be unaffected by changes to the body.

    Now suppose a technology exists in the form of an artificial brain that exactly duplicates a human brain in every way. Suppose then that for each human brain cell you could replace it with an artificial brain cell one at a time. If you transform one cell, would the conscious mind notice? We’ll assume no. Now repeat the process of replacing each human brain cell with a duplicate artificial cell… The brain is then effectively converted to an artificial brain but the conscious mind is unchanged… If such a transfer were possible (and one day it might be), then the mind would effectively be separated from the body… Assuming this is plausible, then it would follow that consciousness and the brain are not the same but rather the brain *causes* consciousness. An analogy would be to think of rain as the mind and clouds the brain. Rain and clouds are two separate things but rain cannot exist without the clouds.

    What that implies then is that consciousness is really active or *living information* (like a self-modifying computer program running in silicon chips). And living information can exist in any accommodating medium. Bottom line, the mind *is* a separate actor from the body but is biologically dependent. Once technology exists to free the mind from the body, then there’s no telling what medium it might inhabit.

    Given that the mind can be described as living information, then it must be considered separate from the body thus making it the *owner* of the body. Self-ownership then is consistent with the Lockean principle of homesteading. That the process of growing the body (or biological “land”) and mixing one’s labor (action) confers ownership to the mind (the acting agent).

    And living information (the mind) is destroyed if the medium it inhabits is destroyed in the same sense that if your car is destroyed with you in it, so are you. This also tells us that there is no soul, or restated, there is no way for the mind-as-living-information to exist beyond the destruction of the medium it’s running in.

    • And I see all of these assertions as being wrong:

      “I see the mind as a product of the brain. The second problem is to treat the mind as an inanimate object when by definition it isn’t… a mind has volition. Ownership requires volition thus the mind can own things.

      Overwhelming physical evidence tells us that the mind is a product of and dependent upon the brain. We know for instance that brain injuries will cause memory loss and change personalities. We know that drugs alter the mind and cause hallucinations, impair judgment, and affect body control. So if by acting on the brain, the mind is altered, we can conclude that the mind is dependent on the physical brain. If the mind were a separate entity from the body (as say a soul), it would be unaffected by changes to the body.”

      If mind is a product of the brain, then it makes no sense for the mind to own the brain, which negates the concept of self-ownership. Is it possible for you to create something that then in turn owns you? While what you suggest may or may not be true, if it were to be true, the concept of self-ownership wouldn’t make any sense at all.

      As for the “overwhelming physical evidence tells us that the mind is a product of and dependent upon the brain.” I don’t see any at all. In fact, I see a separate mind/brain duality explaining a lot of things that don’t presently make sense.

      Consider that if the brain acts as notebook computer, and the mind acts as cloud computing server that the brain connects to, the brain would be capable of processing and transmitting information to the mind, but its destruction wouldn’t effect the mind at all. Further, such a situation would explain things like multiple personality disorder and brain plasticity. If the signals from two “servers” were being sent to the same notebook, you could end up with a confused notebook that doesn’t know which server it should be talking to. Brain damage and other such instances of brain dysfunction can all be fully accounted for in a non-local model of the mind.

      • “Is it possible for you to create something that then in turn owns you?”

        I didn’t say the mind is created by the brain, I said it was dependent on the brain. And yes, it is possible to own something you depend on…

        “Consider that if the brain acts as notebook computer, and the mind acts as cloud computing server that the brain connects to, the brain would be capable of processing and transmitting information to the mind, but its destruction wouldn’t effect the mind at all.”

        That’s a non sequitor. Without the notebook, the data on the server is no longer “living”… What you are suggesting by this analogy is that some other notebook miraculously comes into existence somewhere unseen to continue using the server where the destroyed notebook left off…

        Again without the medium, the information is no longer alive. There is no evidence of this “other” reality to store the living information. There is amble evidence though to suggest the living information is running in the wetware of the brain. That the “notebook” is all there is and there is no sky server…

        • “I didn’t say the mind is created by the brain”

          Yes, you did:

          “Overwhelming physical evidence tells us that the mind is a product of and dependent upon the brain.”

          And no, I’m not offering non sequitor as an argument. You’re conjuring up a straw man. I never said the data on the server was living or needed to be alive, in fact I was rather explicit in saying it is non-local, and thus, not physical. I’m not sure what point you are even trying to make here.

          • Then you’re deliberately misreading my meaning and that’s not cool. The mind is self-directed but depends on the brain to exist… Do you disagree that it is possible to own something you depend on?

            “I never said the data on the server was living or needed to be alive…”

            Then I don’t understand the notebook analogy. Do you have another?

          • “Do you disagree that it is possible to own something you depend on?”

            That’s not the argument I made. I said it was impossible for something of your own creation to own you. I think you are the one who is deliberately misreading what I’m writing.

            How about a radio? A radio receives and process a radio signal from a radio station. Destroying the radio does not destroy the radio station broadcasting the signal.

            Brain is essentially a radio receiving a radio signal of consciousness.

          • Uh, no. The mind depends on the brain… that’s *my* argument. And I asked you is it possible to have to depend on what you own (as in mind depends on brain)? The answer is yes of course.

            Ok… a radio. Suppose the radio is damaged and the signal garbled. If what you say were true, the signal would still be the same but might be noisy. Same channel, same program, but maybe not so good reception… Implying the same person but impaired function.

            But that’s not what happens with brain injury or drug use. It would be as if the radio drops and not only change the channel but starts broadcasting in Morse code… It’s no longer the same radio. Implying changed person… and implying that the broadcast originated from inside the radio.

          • I am fully aware that you are arguing that the mind depends on the brain, and I’m saying that is wrong. By saying that the mind is a creation of the brain, you are in a logical contradiction with the concept of self-ownership. For it is impossible for something of your own creation to assume ownership of yourself. Does the brain own the mind or does the mind own the brain? This question must be answered in order for the concept of self-ownership to remain logically consistent.

          • “For it is impossible for something of your own creation to assume ownership of yourself.”

            It is possible. If humans are a product of the Earth for example, and humans depend on the Earth for sustenance, can humans own the Earth? Of course they can and do in part anyway.

            If a child is the product of a mother, and a child depends on the mother for sustenance, can a child own a mother? I think most mothers often feel “owned” by their child…

            In the movie the Matrix, humans created intelligent machines which then in turn came to “own” the humans and also depend upon them.

            Ownership is not a matter of “what created what” but simply of “what owns what”…

            “Saying that the brain is the creator (owner) of the mind implies that a dead mans brain is the owner of his dead body.”

            Not so. The mind dies with the brain (or the parasite dies with the host) therefore ownership becomes moot. If the mind continued after the destruction of the body, then that would imply ownership continues.

            It’s really by *your* logic that the dead body is still owned after death because by your admission the mind continues on. That if someone fails to create a last will and testament, their property should go into a perpetual trust because they might show up one day to resume their life…

            But ownership is abstract. It is a legal concept used in a social context. Applying it to an individual is a semantic bait-and-switch. But if ownership means to control or dispose of at *will*… The mind then controls the body at will, thus the mind “owns” the body in this sense. The fact that the body “produced” the mind is incidental to the fact that the mind controls the body yet still depends on it. Mind and body are two separate but co-dependent things.

            You say that by damaging the radio, it changes the tuner… but to what? You have an incongruent argument. What you’re saying then is that when one uses drugs or suffers brain injury that somehow their brain is tuned into some other mind… like entering a new url. But that doesn’t fit with experience. What we see is that when the mind is damaged it retains vestiges of itself and not some other self. That suggests the same mind only damaged… and that suggests the mind inhabits the brain.

          • Ok. Believe what you will. This isn’t going anywhere. I disagree with your logic completely. You aren’t even addressing the concept of self-ownership.

          • How am I not addressing the concept of self-ownership? It seems to me that it’s not that this isn’t going anywhere… you don’t like where it’s going.

  • I’m not sure that McKeever has drawn any logically coherent distinction between “liberty” (which he defines as control over one’s own body) and “self-ownership” (which he defines as ownership of one’s own body). That is to say, what logical distinction is there between control and ownership, in the philosophical sense? If there is no real distinction, McKeever’s conclusion that the idea of self-ownership should be discarded as based on an irrational premise is not valid, because he is not offering any real alternative. Am I missing something?

    Also, McKeever’s view that a materialist theory of the mind is rational, while all spiritualist theories of the mind are irrational strikes me as assuming too much. Both types of theories might be rational or irrational (or a mixture of both), depending on how they are constructed from initial assertions. Of course there can be disagreement about what initial assertions are true, and what evidence is valid for proving or disproving them.