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Matt Donnelly


Is Science Good for the Soul?

Nancey Murphy, professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Seminary, is no shrinking violet when it comes to making her voice heard in the marketplace of ideas. And people are taking notice of what she says, not only because Murphy is forthright about speaking her mind, nor because she writes with an uncommon blend of authority, clarity, and rigor—though that certainly helps!—but because what she says, if true, has far-reaching consequences for how Christians understand themselves and their relation to God's created order.

In recent years, Murphy has been saying that human beings do not have a soul, at least not in the way that soul has traditionally been defined—"the spiritual part of a human being that is believed to survive death," as one popular dictionary has it, or as the seat of personhood and individual identity. The soul as traditionally conceived has been identified with the divine "breath" referred to in Genesis 2 that most intimately connects us to God our creator. It is closely linked with, if not identical to, consciousness and the "self." Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland defines the soul as "a deep unity of parts, properties, and capacities [that is] diffused throughout the body and can enter into complex cause-effect interactions with that body."

In place of this traditional conception—dualism, as it is commonly known—Murphy advocates an understanding of the human person rooted in what she calls "nonreductive physicalism." As she explains,

"Physicalism" signals our agreement with the scientists and philosophers who hold that it is not necessary to postulate a second metaphysical entity, the soul or mind, to account for human capacities and distinctiveness. "Nonreductive" indicates our rejection of contemporary philosophical views that say the person is "nothing but" a body. That is, many physicalist accounts of the person are reductive: they aim to show that human behavior can be exhaustively explained by means of genetics ...

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