January 30, 2004
Lying on a hard narrow wooden bench in minor agony after straining my lower back recently, I again had that old Platonic desire: if only I could escape my body. Although usually enjoying (or rather taking for granted) good health as a young Australian male, a few days flat on my back in bed needing help even to eat found me occasionally wishing that bodies could be overcome, pain responses turned off. Surely, the important bit of us—the bit that is really us—is inside, requires no food but thought, is made in the image of God and will last long after we have shuffled off this mortal coil.
Such sentiments have a long history in western culture. From as far back as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, we have liked to see ourselves as embodied souls. Our body is merely a machine—or perhaps a clay jar—carrying round a hidden treasure: a mind, or soul, or spirit. This division of the person into two parts, body and soul, with the latter having pride of place, is called dualism. 
This attitude was wedded to the Western imagination by René Descartes (1596-1650): mathematician, anatomist and ‘father of modern philosophy’ (as every first year philosophy student will tell you). Descartes’ dualism led him to pen his famous dictum: “I think, therefore I am”. In order to build an unshakably certain foundation for knowledge, he dismissed all sources whose contributions were in any way iffy: tradition, mere opinion, superstition and especially the interference from his deceptive bodily senses. Finding all other potential candidates to be more or less dubious, he finally reached a single undoubtable belief that I am, I exist. If I’m wondering whether I might be deceived, there must be an ‘I’ who is doing the wondering. Since I am thinking, at least I must exist.
This seemingly innocuous move has had huge ramifications for the subsequent direction of Western thought concerning that age-old riddle: ‘what is human?’ If I am first and foremost a thinking thing (res cogitans), then I am essentially my mind; my body is superfluous, even a liability. If so, then thought is more fundamentally human than action. Clear rationality is to be preferred to those parts of thinking that seem fuzzier and more emotional, more influenced by the bodily passions. My thinking must seek objectivity by stripping away all the interferences of not only emotion, but also culture, history, race, class and gender. I must erase everything that suggests I exist at a particular point in space and time and see things from a particular perspective. In short, I must conceal the fact that I am embodied. If I am a thinking thing, my body is a slave of my mind, that is, a slave of me. At best, it is a tool to be exploited, at worst, a prison from which to be liberated, temporarily by objective (i.e. disembodied) contemplation and then permanently by death. Furthermore, and perhaps most crucially, if my own awareness of myself is the rock upon which to build all other beliefs, then I am the measure of all things and my consciousness is the centre of my world (the only one I can truly know and hence the only one that matters). I am not merely angelic, but divine.
Although Descartes did not take his dualism to these extremes, his work further entrenched the tendency to move in these directions and became part of the background assumption of what it meant to be human for the following centuries.
Mind-body dualism, especially of the Cartesian variety, has come under increasing criticism over the last few decades. Some see it as part of the intellectual backdrop that has fostered the growth of individualism, helped to justify slavery, upheld the patriarchal oppression of women, held back science by placing study of the mind off-limits and encouraged the exploitation of animals (who, in Descartes’ opinion, are stimulus-response machines, incapable of thought or feeling). Insofar as Christianity has been assumed (by both those inside and outside the faith) to be necessarily committed to dualism, it too has faced many of these same criticisms.
Many Christians presume they must defend the existence of an immortal and immaterial soul at all costs, but is this just defending Descartes? Does Christianity entail dualism of this sort? Are there other kinds of dualism less indebted to philosophy or might the Bible actually paint a non-dualistic picture of humanity that we have missed due to our fascination with Plato and Descartes? The God who proclaimed his creation ‘good’ and human bodies ‘very good’, who himself abhorred not the virgin’s womb, who rose bodily from death, who remains an incarnate human, who promises resurrection life, who dwells by his Spirit in human bodies as his new Temple, who will judge every deed done in the body, who one day will release the creation from its bondage to decay, this God seems positively committed to our physicality. What then are we?
At least three recent books have attempted to wrestle with these issues. Each presents a case for a Christian anthropology that seeks to avoid the widely acknowledged pitfalls of Cartesian dualism while remaining - indeed in order to remain - thoroughly biblical.
Moreland and Rae argue that the progressive abandoning of dualism has led to the present crisis in bioethics (involving issues such as abortion, euthanasia, cloning, genetic engineering and stem cell research). They argue that the Bible is consistently dualist and propose rejecting Cartesian mind-body dualism in favour of the soul-body dualism presented by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Only a retrieval of this view of human personhood will enable us to chart the perilous journey through critical ethical concerns. This is a serious attempt at philosophical theology from two American heavyweights, yet their omission of any engagement with neurological research is disappointing. They do set up a case for the priority of philosophy and theology over science in determining issues of human personhood, but to point out that scientific data is always interpreted within a conceptual framework needn’t silence such data, even if it does call for more reflective treatment of it than is often evident in triumphalistic books of popular science.
The other two books are collections of essays from specialists in a variety of fields (biblical, philosophical, neurobiological, theological). The introductory chapter of one summarises current options for accounts of the nature of the person as follows:
The first option encompasses both Descartes and most of traditional Christianity. The last is the viewpoint of modern scientism (the worldview that confidently expects science to solve all mysteries and provide an exhaustive description of reality). The second has become something of a new standard Christian view. However, it is in the third that the authors of these two books are most interested.
Drawing on recent neurological research, these essays present the view that the findings of neuroscience not only nail the coffin of Cartesian dualism but also undermine any form of anthropological dualism. Other essays also provide biblical and theological reasons for rejecting the claim that Christianity requires a dualist anthropology. These books maintain that the terms ‘soul’, ‘spirit’ and ‘body’ as used in the Bible are not technical terms referring to discrete entities that make up a person, but are overlapping functional descriptions of the whole person considered from different aspects. That we so ‘naturally’ read them otherwise is evidence of our philosophical heritage.
On the other hand, many of these essays are also fighting against reductive materialism, whose strongest weapons are ‘merely’ or ‘nothing but’; the workings of your mind, your thoughts, feelings, experience of free will and personal identity are all nothing more than incredibly complex biochemical processes in patterns which will one day be comprehensively analysed and even reliably predicted by neuroscience. The reply: the mind may be based upon the functioning of fourteen hundred grams of grey yoghurt inside my head, but to claim that thought is nothing but biochemistry is a much stronger philosophical claim than the scientific evidence warrants.
The larger and more technical of the two books (Neuroscience and the Person) also contains some essays from atheists working on the same issues. The ensuing debate about whether it is possible to reduce one level of explanation to another (e.g. to reduce descriptions of emotions or beliefs into descriptions of neurological activity, as is needed to achieve a reductive materialism) is a highlight of the book. In particular, such a discussion highlights the philosophical nature of scientific claims.
The question of who we are has traditionally received answers from theology, philosophy and poetry; we are now hearing them from biology, psychology, anthropology and neuroscience. It is no surprise that at stake in all these books and throughout this debate are competing conceptions of the relationship between science and theology: rivals, foreigners, master and slave or friends? While Moreland and Rae are a little quick to dismiss science as a poor cousin, some essays in the other two books are guilty of applying interesting data from neurological research directly into philosophical conclusions. The best chapters use intriguing results in neuroscience as a stimulus for further reflection upon our assumptions in reading the Bible.
If Calvin is correct to assert that knowledge of humanity and of God are mutually dependent, then these are not idle questions. Implications abound in all kinds of areas: is there a legitimate distinction to be made between ‘saving souls’ and caring for physical needs? A monist may well still think so, but the ‘soul’ that is to be saved will include the whole of the person’s life. Is death the separation of the soul (psyche) from the body or the cessation of life (psyche)? If the latter, then in what way is the dead believer ‘with Christ’? Is the Christian promise of a resurrection like Jesus’ the re-embodiment of the departed soul or the reanimation, perhaps recreation, of a living body? If the latter, is this the same person being resurrected? Reflection upon such eschatological questions has historically been a strong motivation for dualism (and is a central strut in Moreland and Rae’s argument). However, the consequences of one’s anthropology are not confined to eschatology.
Is it more important to be fit mentally than physically? Are activities that please the senses intrinsically inferior to those that stimulate the mind? Are the physical conditions of, say, a church service irrelevant to one’s spiritual experience?
Intimately connected to (and often driving) one’s answer to ‘what are we?’ is the more pressing question, ‘what are we to do?’ Both sides are quick to point to the ethical fruits of their position. Dualists claim that monism leads to a reluctance to grant full human personhood to those on the margins of life: the unborn, the terminally ill and those with a disability (especially mental). Historically, Christian belief in the inestimable value of each human soul led to the defence of such unpopular causes as those of the slave, the gladiator, the savage and the infant. Monists reply that imitating Jesus’ love for all and especially the outcast, the sinner and the prostitute has no necessary correlation with belief in an immortal and invisible soul. Indeed, Plato’s Athens condoned infanticide and Plato himself recommended it as a form of population control. Dualism without love is in itself no refuge for universal human dignity; in fact, it has often helped justify oppression of slaves, women and the lower classes. The source of radical Christian inclusivity is to be sought in the command of God, the example of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, not anthropological dualism.
More work needs to be done on Christian anthropology in order to contribute to this debate across the various disciplines. How specific is the Christian understanding of the body and mind, and what does Christian theology have to add to fields such as neuroscience or the politics of disability?
E N D N O T E S
 Like many philosophical labels ‘dualism’ has a wide variety of uses in different contexts. In The New Testament and the People of God, N. T. Wright catalogues ten different uses (pp. 252-56). We are here only concerned with soul-body (or mind-body) dualism.
 These last two accusations are based on a series of mutually reinforcing metaphors that negatively contrast body-slave-female with mind-master-male.
 J. P. Moreland & Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics, Intervarsity Press, 2000; Warren S. Brown, Nancy Murphy and H. Newton Malony (eds), Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, Fortress, 1998; Robert John Russell, Nancy Murphy, Theo C. Meyering and Michael Arbib (eds), Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory Publications, 2002
 Brown, Whatever Happened to the Soul?, pp.24-25
 Interestingly, I find that few pieces of writing compare in clarity and brevity with some essays by C. S. Lewis in exposing the poverty of this ‘nothing-buttery’ strategy of reductive materialism. In particular, his ‘Transpositions’ and ‘Meditation in a Tool Shed’ both question the absolute priority of the description from below (or from outside). For a similar argument specifically regarding consciousness, see Kirsten Birkett, ‘Conscious Objections: God and the consciousness debates’ in kategoria #16, 2000, now available on the CASE website. Birkett argues that many contemporary reductive materialist writers when discussing the consequences of neurobiological research on Christian beliefs “assume their conclusion and then use it as a basis for argument”.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.1.1.
[i] Like many philosophical labels ‘dualism’ has a wide variety of uses in different contexts. In The New Testament and the People of God, N. T. Wright catalogues ten different uses (pp. 252-56). We are here only concerned with soul-body (or mind-body) dualism.
[ii] These last two accusations are based on a series of mutually reinforcing metaphors that negatively contrast body-slave-female with mind-master-male.
[iii] J. P. Moreland & Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics, Intervarsity Press, 2000; Warren S. Brown, Nancy Murphy and H. Newton Malony (eds), Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, Fortress, 1998; Robert John Russell, Nancy Murphy, Theo C. Meyering and Michael Arbib (eds), Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory Publications, 2002:
Comments will be approved before showing up.
January 02, 2017
January 02, 2017