Daily Archives: August 18, 2008

Do Humans Have Souls?

Many Christians consider this a settled question. Of course we have souls! … Right?

At the 2008 Oxbridge conference earlier this month, however, the question was very much open to debate. In fact, two of the plenary speakers gave talks that took polar opposite views on the matter.

The highly esteemed Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford, gave a rigorous argument for the existence of the soul as an entity of entirely difference substance than the body (substance dualism). Swinburne is about as dualist as you can get on the matter—even moreso than Descartes. I won’t go into Swinburne’s arguments (which were thorough and intriguing, if a little hard to follow), but it should be pointed out that outside of Christian philosophical circles, substance dualism is a rather marginalized position.

On the other end of the spectrum was Nancey Murphy, Christian philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary. Murphy is a proponent of non-reductive physicalism, which is the notion that there is no separate mental realm or “soul,” apart from the physical, but that the mental cannot be reduced to merely physical properties. Murphy’s talk at Oxbridge was entitled “Why Christians Should be Nonreductive Physicalists.”

Essentially, Murphy’s main thesis is that humans are their bodies; there is no additional metaphysical element such as a mind or soul or spirit. She suggests that the perception that the bible teaches dualism is simply a result of bad translations. Whereas dualism is completely theoretical and has no scientific evidence, Murphy believes that there is ample evidence to prove that we are merely physical (rather than metaphysical) beings. In her book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, Murphy suggests that the cognitive neurosciences give us reason to think that the human capacities we attribute to the soul can be understood as “processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems, all interacting with the socio-cultural world.”

Of course, Murphy’s commitment to physical/material explanations of everything also means that she cannot accept the existence of angels or demons and is dubious about things like the “holy spirit” (in the metaphysical sense that Christians have conceived of it)… which maybe makes her a heretic. But apart from looking slightly goth, she doesn’t seem too heretical (she’s ordained in the Church of the Brethren)…

But does any of this abstract philosophizing make a difference on a practical, how-we-live-our-lives level? Perhaps. If Christians adopt physicalism (as Murphy hopes we do), we must put a greater emphasis on the significance of the body, and on the earthly reign of God, in which followers of Jesus participate by active love of neighbor and in struggle for justice and peace. If one adopts Swinburne’s hardcore dualism, our commitment to the body (which Swinburne is reluctant to say will even exist in heaven) is undercut and our motivation to redeem the physical all but made moot.

Alas, I will reserve judgment on the matter until I read books on both positions. I find the whole debate highly provocative and important to have… Though it does alarm me that Christians can be so utterly opposite on a matter so seemingly basic and vital to our faith. But in the spirit of healthy discourse, maybe the disparity should thrill me.