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Sunday, June 20, 2010

We have no souls :)

Today I read/listened to Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy at the Fuller Theological Seminary, discuss her 2006 book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?. She begins by asking a question ....

Which of the following accounts of human nature comes closest to your own view?
Option 1: humans are made of three parts, body, soul and spirit.
Option 2: humans are made of two parts, either a body and a soul, or a body and a mind.
Option 3: Humans are made of just one part, if you want to call it a part, that is a physical body [physicalism].
And then option 4 is “Who cares!”

I myself used to believe that people were made up of one part, just bodies, that the mind was really only a construct of the brain, and that there was no soul. Now, though, I vacillate in hope between two other views - that maybe we are two parts and that we have bodies which perish and souls which are immortal, or alternatively, that maybe we are just one part, bodies which are 'selves' but without souls, that in some way become changed and immortal after death. If that sounds unintelligible :) it might make more sense after you read (or listen to the mp3 files of) the three part interview (Christianity, Neuroscience & the Soul) with Nancey Murphy.

In the first part of the interview she discusses the biblical view of bodies/souls and the change in that line of thought due to the incorporation by medieval scholasticism of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle which showed interest in the soul.

The second part of the interview deals with the blow to Aristotelian physics and Thomas Aquinas' interpretation of it, that integration of matter (bodies) and Form (souls), from the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, and atomism. Some thinkers went completely atomistic like Hobbes (sort of the father of contemporary physicalism), others referenced Plato's idea of radical body/soul dualism for the sake of free will, like Descartes. Most interesting to me in this part of the interview was this bit ......

One of the things that happened with Descartes is that, while the Aristotelian synthesis claimed that plants, animals and humans have souls, for Descartes, only human beings have souls, and so that had come to be the accepted view between 1650 and 1850. And so Darwin comes along and points out this huge amount of continuity between humans and animals. Well, if animals don’t have souls, one line of reasoning goes, then why should we think humans must have them? And so on the one hand there was a strong movement towards physicalism on the basis of that argument. But on the other side people would say, oh, if Darwin is showing all of this continuity between humans and animals, how are we going to make it clear that there are major distinctions between us and the animals? And one common strategy was to say, well, we have souls and they don’t.

In part three of the interview, Physicalism, free will, and the promise of resurrection, she talks about how modern neuroscience seems to prove there is no soul in the Aquinas or Descartes sense of the word, and that some Christian theologians and biblical scholars have been saying for 50 to 100 years that "Christians don’t have souls, never needed them, and Christianity would be much better off if we never had thought we had them". The interviewer asks how, if we are just bodies without souls, we can escape determinism and achieve immortality. Her answer is interesting - that while being just bodies without souls, still we're more than the sum of our material parts, and that we do get resurrected. Here below is the text of the third part of the interview .....


Part Three

Interviewer: Well, that certainly leads us to a whole host of new problems, and maybe best brought to light by Francis Crick’s comment that he has “falsified” Christianity by proving there is no soul?

Well, if he had done his homework, he would know about the Christian theologians and biblical scholars who have been saying for 50 to 100 years that Christians don’t have souls, never needed them, and Christianity would be much better off if we never had thought we had them.

I recall a very amusing remark that you made at a conference last fall where you introduced yourself as someone who teaches at a graduate theological seminary and spends her time telling her students that they have no souls.

(Laughs) I do get their attention (big laugh). And I have a running debate with the president of the seminary, who is a dualist himself—he says primarily on philosophical grounds—but when I first started preaching physicalism, he would stop when we were singing hymns that had soul language in it, and he would tell me I was not allowed to sing those hymns (laughs).

Well, I know you’re using the word “preaching” figuratively when you say “preaching physicalism,” but it does seem to me that physicalism poses some very serious problems. Once you acknowledge that the brain is what’s doing it, you get back to some very serious stakes for Christians, do you not?

Yes. And serious stakes for the whole human race. It’s the problem that Descartes and Hobbes already recognized: if human bodies are controlled by the laws governing their parts, then everything that a human being does must be controlled by the laws of the natural sciences, and if that’s the case, then not only do we not have free will, not only do we not have moral responsibility, but we can’t even have rationality. And so if what you and I are saying is simply the product of the outworking of the laws of neurobiology inside our heads, then there’s nothing rational about what we’re doing: we’re just making noises.

Well, if I thought determinism was true I wouldn’t have spent so long preparing for this interview.

That’s right, you would have known that it was either going to come out well or badly!

Exactly! But how do we get out of this now? This is a tough spot.

I believe that, in contrast to Hobbes’ day, we are in a position right now where we can begin to unravel the knot. We have this image of the way the world is constructed, and an image about how the major sciences relate to one another, that I will call the “hierarchy of the sciences” with the corresponding “hierarchy of complex systems.” So we think that everything is made of subatomic particles, whatever the physicists say they are this decade, and atoms are composed of those, chemical compounds are composed of those, biochemicals are composed of vast complexes of those simpler molecules, and now you’re getting into the range of biology. You can start talking about cell walls and variously more complex tissues, and then organs, and then organisms, and then you can move to ecology to talk about the large systems in which the organisms live, or you can move to psychology and the social sciences to talk about the complex relations among human beings. It seems to me that the major assumption throughout the whole of the modern world view has been that the parts of any of these complex entities unilaterally determine the behavior of the whole. This makes sense in some kinds of systems. If you think of an ordinary mechanical watch, it’s just almost undeniable that the behavior of the parts of the watch determine the behavior of the whole.

And this is something that’s often called “bottom-up” causality.

Exactly. And in fact, if your watch doesn’t work that way, you throw it out and get another one. But we’ve also got lots of different kinds of different systems in our world that don’t work that way. For instance, if you look at a system like an ant colony, you find that the very character of the ants in the colony is shaped by their relationships to the other ants around them. They’re all genetically identical, but one ant will become a forager, and another ant will become a nest builder, and this depends on frequency of running into ants of the various sorts as it’s running around doing its business. And so the same little ant body is made into a forager, or a nest builder, or some other functional kind of ant in the system depending on how the system as a whole affects its experiences.

What we’re looking for here is higher-level ordering that is in some sense causally autonomous, or not “reducible,” whatever that means?

Yes, and so the ant colony is an example. You’ve got the genetic level, you’ve got the level of the organism as a whole—the ant—you’ve got the colony itself, and then you’ve got the wider environment, and so you’ve got four levels of complexity there, and so what you find when you get systems complex enough, with enough causal levels, the system as a whole will have holistic system qualities not manifest by any of its parts. For instance, colonies last about the same length of time as the queen does, and in some subspecies that’s about 15 years. If you find a young colony, the ants in it are going to be more aggressive and less predictable. If you find an older colony, the ants are less aggressive and much more predictable. The worker ants are replaced I think maybe once every year, so it’s not that you’re training the same ants. It’s that the system as a whole is going through a developmental phase that shapes the parts themselves and the roles that they play.

Now our goal in this intellectual endeavor is not just to understand ant colonies, but to give a sense of the human person, and some of the phenomena that we associate with being one, like subjectivity, a sense of having the ability to choose, of having free will, the sense of being responsible for our actions, of being moral agents, and of course, very importantly, the ability to have a relationship with God or the divine. So how do we get there from this?

Well, we are like the ant colony. We are complex systems with holistic characteristics. Some of those holistic characteristics are able to exert downward effects on lower level parts, and much of this is what’s going on in our cognitive systems. I have the ability to perform what I call self-transcendence. For instance, I find myself angry at a student, and I can then move to a level of evaluation and ask, “Why am I angry at that student? Should I be angry or should I not be angry?” and make a judgment about that. And if I think I should not have been angry, then I can go back and try to redesign my cognitive processes so I’m not so likely to be upset about students doing those sorts of things.

And when we get to the point where we can reflect on those higher order reflections in light of moral concepts provided by our culture, we’re at the level that we can become morally responsible agents. So I can decide that I was perfectly justified in being angry at the student. I treat the student badly as a result. But then I reflect on whether that was a Christian way to interact with the student, and Jesus’ enemy-love comes to mind, and I think, “Oh, whoops! I failed morally.” So we have to have these multilevel capacities for self-transcendence and self-evaluation. We have to have the cultural resources of moral evaluative language, and that is what gives us the capacity to be moral thinkers. Of course the capacity to make ourselves carry out what we decide is the moral thing to do, that’s a discussion for another whole day.

Now it does appear to me that some of our older notions of causality and the causality of the will are going to have to be reexamined here, because it doesn’t sound to me like the will is going to turn out to be some kind of “uncaused cause.” Right. But, also one has to wonder, if the self, the mind, the soul is just a manifestation of very complex meta-levels of organization of a physical system, then what happens to immortality? What happens to life after death?

Well, the Christian view, the early Christian view, and some scholars say the only suitable view for Jews also, is the view of the resurrection of the body. Jesus simply died. There was no soul going off to heaven. But three days later his body was, not just resuscitated, but raised in a transformed manner, suitable for some other world than this crass material world that we live in. And so what Christian preachers need to do is to reemphasize the resurrection at the end of time, rather than the sermons that say your loved-one’s soul has flown to God and is at peace in heaven and all that sort of stuff. And I think that’s much more authentically Christian than the souls-flying-away kind of image.

I must ask this skeptical question: why is it that the physical sciences and neuroscience have been able to chip away at dualism, whereas the seeming improbability of bodies being brought back to life is accepted? (That was a very poorly worded question!)

(Laughter) Well, actually there are a lot of Christians who accept pretty much all of the Christian teaching except resurrection. You can ask scholars, is there enough historical evidence available, and there is a small but strong minority of Christian scholars who say that we’ve got adequate evidence to conclude that something really strange happened on that third day. It was such a powerful event that it totally changed the lives of the disciples, who’d been hiding—turned them into fearless evangelists. We would all say that we can’t describe exactly what it was like. It’s not a ghost, it’s not a resuscitated corpse, it’s like nothing anybody has ever seen. But to be a Christian, Saint Paul would say, “If Christ be not raised then our hope is in vain.” So it’s a part of the package of being a Christian, and even if there isn’t enough historical evidence for it to stand on its own legs apart from the whole system, you have to ask is there enough reason to believe in the Christian system as a whole. And I could go on for ten days straight about why I think there is.

Well, I suppose my question really is, where do you draw the line? What aspects of your theology have to accommodate themselves to contemporary science, and what aspects remain matters, inviolable matters of faith?

Well, belief in God and God’s doings in the history of his people are not really the sorts of things that science could ever disprove. And I really want to emphasize again that, on this matter of the soul, although it’s been taken to be central to Christian thought for many centuries, I was convinced prior to looking at the science that physicalism was a perfectly okay understanding, and even a better understanding of the original biblical teaching. So biblical scholars beat the neuroscientists to this conclusion by almost a hundred years.

Well… right on!

(Laughter) But I would be really upset if I found some aspect of what I see as central to my Christian belief-set to be in radical conflict with science, and couldn’t find any way to resolve the conflict.

Professor Nancey Murphy, thank you very much.

Thank you very much. It’s been a delight.



Blogger PrickliestPear said...

I think neuroscience is the wrong place to look. Neuroscientists tend to reduce "mind" to "brain," as if the former was just an "epiphenomenon" of the latter -- but this is vastly reductionistic. Neuroscience looks at one type of evidence, and it is here that we find the brain and its functioning. The evidence for the mind is of an entirely different order that neuroscience doesn't even attend to.

The so-called "hard problem" of understanding how mind arises from matter has yet to be solved. To simply reduce one to the other is not the solution, however.

8:41 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi PrickliestPear,

It is reductionist but the more I read about neuroscience the more I do wonder if the mind is just the brain. I saw an article a couple of years ago in the Catholic Herald by a psychiatrist. He wrote about how mental states affected religious states - how people with tumors in certain places in the brain became more religious, how people with Alzheimers didn't just forget about God but lost interest in the subject, etc. Some of Oliver Sacks' books are interesting too.

Keith Ward would disagree, I think. He has an interesting lecture on materialism and the mind - Materialism and its Discontents

I'm not sure what to believe.

12:03 PM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


Look at it this way: a person's brain might be manipulated in such a way that they will think it is actually much colder than it is. Does this mean no one is every genuinely cold? Of course not. So the argument that a person's brain might be manipulated (by some kind of damage, or whatever) to make them "more religious" is hardly evidence against genuine religion.

3:52 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Good example. No, I didn't mean to say that because (or if) the mind is a construct of the brain that what we experience or conclude from our experience is not real (though sometimes it can be induced, like you mention).

It is strange, though - I ask myself what's the part of me that's me. Is it my body? Then am I less me if I lose some of it? If it's my mind, and I lose my mond am I still existing? What's the me made up of that can hopefully survive the death of the body - a soul? Or will I not survive it but be brought back with my body at resurrection?

So many questions :)

6:16 PM  
Blogger Deacon Denny said...

Good, interesting questions, though, even if they're not so resolvable. I agree that neuroscience is the wrong place to look. I see the power of that discipline regularly at the hospital, but I also see what I think are limitations. But then, I'm looking through a faith lens.

When I'm with a family praying for someone who's dying or has just died, we're regularly very confident that there's a presence of that person that neuroscience can't account for, and our experience of that presence has very real effects. I know that's no real proof for the scientist, but I really don't care!

Really good interview, thanks.

6:31 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Denny,

When I'm with a family praying for someone who's dying or has just died, we're regularly very confident that there's a presence of that person

I've heard people say that and I don't discount it. My friend Susan just had a post about this kind of thing.

I guess Nancey Murphy wants, as she said in the interview, to be able to square her religious beliefs with the latest in scientific knowledge, and for her that means that people are material only, but material in a way that allows for spiritual aspects and which allows for eventual bodily resurrection.

This is kind of what Keith Ward says, I think - -maybe I'll post a little of what he sasy later..

1:54 AM  
Blogger victor said...

As a non educated person and just some body who is trying to believe that God and His Angels will direct me in the long run because I've asked Him to do so with a sincere heart and come what may me, myself, i plus any other forces call them what we wish will also learn what we learn but weather we all accept "IT" is a another question all to get her, I mean all together.

Anyway to try and summer rize what I've learned is impossible here so I'll simply say that for over four thousand years slaves prayed to God not to be born simply to be killed and to kill. To make a long story short Our Heavenly Father heard their cries and helped but still S.I.N. could not understand and continued to keep their so called animal gods who still hold a LOT in Time.

I better stop now cause "IT" sounds like I'm preaching. :)

God Bless,


5:13 PM  
Blogger vanderKOK said...

THE BEST REFUTATION of NANCEY MURPHY I have come across can be found at

also see

note: I was in a class at Fuller Seminary taught by Nancey Murphy and found it to be unintelligble and completely contrary to all my Christian beliefs and my Christian education coming out of Calvin College & Seminary where they don't teach anything written by Nancey Murphy. I am surprised she refers to Mouw as a "physicalist" who won't sing when a song is about "soul", because I always thought of Mouw as being in agreement with mainstream Christianity and Calvin College (he used to teach at Calvin, maybe that's why he left) . I think this sort of teaching that refutes the existence of soul is extremely dangerous, especially at the seminary level where future pastors are being (supposedly) trained

10:52 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for the links - I'll check them out. I guess Murphy is trying to be true to both science and religion. The whole body/soul issue is interesting, with so many views, from the gnositc emphasis on the soul, to the Catholic body/soul combo, to her view of the body sort of being the soul.

3:46 PM  

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