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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 or neurobiology. So the difficult issue is to explain how we can claim that we are our bodies, yet without denying the "higher" capacities that we think of as being essential for our humanness: rationality, emotion, morality, free will, and, most important, the capacity to be in relationship with God.1

What we have traditionally identified as the soul, Murphy's colleague Warren Brown writes, is "a dimension of human experience [that] arises out of personal relatedness," and the capacity for personal relatedness is itself "an emergent property of human cognition." It is the human brain, with its rich network of neural connections, that makes us conscious creatures and allows us the ability to relate to one another and to God. But, Brown is quick to add, although the emergent properties traditionally identified with the human soul or mind or both are dependent on the cognitive capacities from which they emerge (and indeed cannot exist without them), they cannot be fully understood by, or reduced to, neurobiology. And these emergent properties in turn exercise a causative influence—"top-down causation"—on the "neurophysiological systems that instantiate them."

At first glance, this attempted redefinition of the soul might seem like a matter of academic interest, at best. After all, throughout the history of the church, philosophers have carried on esoteric debates about the precise nature of soul that had little impact on believers in the pews. So what's new? What really matters is that, as believers in Christ, we know that when we die, our souls will not perish. We will be in heaven with the saints who have gone before us, awaiting the Second Coming of Christ, when we will be restored to bodily life in a new, imperishable form. Right?

Not exactly, says Murphy. And that is one reason why this debate matters. (More on this in a minute.) But there's another reason why the current debate about the soul should be of pressing interest to Christians generally, not only to philosophers and theologians. The larger cultural context of this debate is crucially distinctive.

If, in centuries past, the most influential thinkers took the reality of the soul for granted, the most influential thinkers in our post-Christian society are virtually unanimous in their rejection of any notion of the soul. In widely acclaimed books such as Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained (1991) and Steven Pinker's How The Mind Works (1997), one finds an unabashed confidence in the ability of science to provide a purely physical account of the human person. Cognitive science, we are assured, is both the outworking and the ratification of Charles Darwin's view, which he expressed at the end of The Origin of Species, that "[p]sychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation." For her part, Nancey Murphy suggests that "neuroscience has in a sense completed the Darwinian revolution, bringing not only the human body but the human mind as well, into the sphere of scientific investigation."

The findings of neuroscience have joined with advances in geology, anthropology, and biology to paint a picture of human nature that is markedly different from that held by educated people even as recently as two hundred years ago. It is the cumulative weight of such evidence that has led Christian thinkers such as the distinguished neuroscientist Malcolm Jeeves to concur with their secular counterparts that the soul as traditionally conceived may very well be redundant.

So is it time to take soul out of our catechisms and sermons, our hymns and praise songs? Not all Christians agree. Historian Allen Guelzo, writing in these pages ["Soulless," January/ February 1998], observed that "while Christians are mostly consumed with opening yet newer rounds in their century-and-a-half-old war with Charles Darwin, they have scarcely the faintest idea that the new consciousness enthusiasm"—that is, the broad consensus represented by secular thinkers such as Dennett, Pinker, and Patricia and Paul Churchland and Christians such as Murphy and Jeeves—"is by far the greater threat to the integrity of Christian belief." The case against dualism, Guelzo suggested, has by no means been definitively made.

Perhaps the most substantial contemporary defense of the traditional understanding of the soul is John Cooper's Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting (1989). Cooper, professor of philosophical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, carefully considers philosophical arguments for and against dualism, but the core of his book is a detailed consideration of the biblical understanding of the human person, as revealed in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. "The Christian defense of the body-soul distinction," Cooper acknowledges, "has in large part been motivated by the doctrine of the afterlife." More specifically, he writes: "Traditional Christianity has held fast to an ontological distinction between body and soul mainly because it follows from the doctrine of the intermediate state."

In other words, most Christians believe in the existence of the soul because they believe that Scripture teaches the existence of an intermediate state, after death and before Christ's Second Coming, where humans have conscious existence, followed by their reuniting with their glorified physical bodies at the Parousia. If this, as Cooper argues, is what Scripture clearly teaches, how can Christian thinkers like Murphy deny the existence of an immaterial soul?

Murphy and others argue that the Bible itself does not actually teach the existence of a soul that survives death. In their view, many interpreters have injected a belief in an immaterial soul into the text because they hold to a dualist understanding of human nature that is derived from extrabiblical sources. Murphy and others suggest that if the Bible is read without these dualist presuppositions, it will be seen that both the Old and New Testaments teach that human life always requires a body.

For example, biblical scholars Joel Green and Ray Anderson suggest that the well-known passages on the afterlife in Paul's correspondence to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 15:38-58; 2 Cor. 5:1-10) do not teach body-soul dualism, but instead show Paul's eschatological longing for the day when his "tent" (earthly body) is transformed into his resurrection body. This reading, Murphy and others argue, makes better sense of Pauline distinctions between "the perishable" and "the imperishable" than postulating the existence of an immaterial soul.

Anderson and Green make the further observation that all of Paul's discussions of the future life center on the continuity between our physical and resurrection bodies, not any hypothesized continuity between our physical body and our soul. They argue that it requires a considerable exegetical leap to suppose that Paul thinks of the soul as prominent in Christian understandings of the afterlife when he never uses the word soul in the relevant passages and instead seems focused on discussions of embodied existence, here in this life and in eternity.

But it could still be asked how a person can have continued existence of some sort after death, and before receiving a resurrection body—which from our earthly perspective will be at the Second Coming—without having a soul. Anderson admits that Scripture does not detail how "personal self-identity continues through the death and resurrection process in such a way that this is the very same person who dies with a corruptible body and is raised with an incorruptible body, as Paul seems to indicate is the case." He points out, though, that we will exist after death solely because of God's sovereign will to "remember" us, with "the Spirit as a guarantee" (2 Cor. 5:2-5) that we will receive our resurrection bodies. In short, Anderson concludes that Paul does not teach that the continuation of an individual's personhood requires a soul. Anderson notes that at most we can say that "as the 'person' was present in the unborn state through divine perception and determination (Ps. 139), so the person can survive death by that same knowledge and power."

At the moment, the debate between dualists and nonreductive physicalists is at an impasse. Murphy, Jeeves, and others take a more sanguine view of modern scientific understandings of the nature of the human person than do traditional dualists, and thus are disposed, on the view that all truth is God's truth, to read the biblical text in a manner consistent with the mainstream of modern science. In contrast, dualists, without rejecting wholesale the findings of neuroscience, argue that the Scriptures clearly teach that humans are composed of a body and an immaterial soul.

Will the monist-dualist debate eventually be resolved, maybe through a serious and mutual reexamination of each side's understanding of the nature of science and the role it plays within a Christian worldview? Or will the debate, much like that over evolution and creation, drag on for decades with no end in sight, with each side merely circling the wagons? Only time will tell. But one thing is certain: Christian debates about human nature will only intensify in the future if (or may be when) human cloning be comes commonplace, robots achieve a level of sophistication akin to that of conscious beings, or we're faced with some other previously unforeseen scientific breakthroughs.

While talk of conscious robots or cloned humans may sound like science fiction, Christians must be prepared to engage this brave new world by articulating a vision for the future of humanity that combines scientific knowledge with biblical wisdom. The world is watching. It remains to be seen how Christendom will respond.

Matt Donnelly (comag@ChristianityToday.com) is the assistant editor of CHRISTIANITY ONLINE magazine. He has a master of theology degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

1. Nancey Murphy, in Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, edited by Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Maloney (Fortress Press 1998), p. 2.

For Further Reading:


Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, by John Cooper (Eerdmans, 1989) [dualist].

Christian Perspective on Being Human, ed. J. P. Moreland and David M. Ciocchi (Baker, 1993) [dualist].

Conciousness Reconsidered, by Owen Flanagan (MIT Press, 1992) [monist].

Science, Life, and Christian Belief, by Malcolm A. Jeeves and R. J. Berry (Baker, 1998) [monist].

Whatever Happened to the Soul?, ed. Warren S. Brown et al. (Fortress Press, 1998) [monist].

Web Sites

Brain & Mind Electronic Magazine on Neuroscience (http://www.epub.org.br/cm/home_i.htm)

David Chalmer's
Brain, Conciousness, and Artificial Intelligence Links


FEED's Brain Candy (http://www.feedmag.com/brain/links.html)

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