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.

6 responses to “Do Humans Have Souls?

  1. This is very interesting especially with the leaps and bounds forward afforded by scientific processes that people have, and one of the mains problems that many people have today is to create a sense of reductionism with regards of simply diminishing the value of a person down to some kind of neurochemical process. But I think that it is with Kant if I remember correctly who had basically shifted the philosophical questions of what is it that I know, to the more compelling question of how is it that I know–or rather, how am I cognizant of all of this in the first place? And I think that Kant is able to bring us closer to the question of the soul with this…that rather than sealing these questions with a scientific manhole cover, one should not trap oneself in a deadlock of pure science….

  2. I recommend reading Tom Wolfe’s essay Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died for a pretty overall look at how cognitive neuroscience eliminates the need for anything but the physical body to create ego et al.

  3. Not to be a doctrine cop, but I am pretty concerned that Murphy’s view calls into question the existence of spiritual beings INCLUDING the Holy Spirit. This should receive more than a passing “oh, here’s one teensy repercussion of her views” remark, if you ask me. (I know, of course, that you are probably just as concerned about that as I am).

    As you’ve stated, both of these views are pretty extreme. I almost said that the “correct” view is probably in the middle, but the more I think of it, the correct views are rarely in the middle, left or right. They are (if we must speak dimensionally!) ABOVE. They transcend.

    Or so says this ignorant blogger.

  4. Yeah I’m not sure why materialism eliminates the Holy Spirit (or even angels and demons, although there are plenty of other reasons to dismiss them). The fact that there’s no Casper-like metaphysical ghost wearing your body like a hermit crab’s shell doesn’t mean there’s no metaphysic– and in fact it seems to me that a progression into such thought necessitates a physical, bodily God who lives in a location, presumably somewhere in outer space.

  5. >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.

    I doubt this, although I think Swinburne gets himself in trouble with his ‘events’. If you read St. Thomas or Aristotle – Aristotle’s _On the Soul_ or St. Thomas’ Question on the Soul – or any of the other classical dualists – you’ll see that they’re actually preaching that the soul and body are two separate substances which combine in a sort of ‘irreducible complexity’ kinda way to create a new substance of which they are what philosophers like to call the formal and material causes.

    These philosophers argue that the soul can’t perform its functions without the body, and that a ‘person’ doesn’t exist without both… in fact, Aristotle himself rather famously concludes that the soul is separable and immortal, but then ends in a pickle as he cannot figure out how having an eternally separate soul would benefit anyone, as it could not execute any of its essential functions. This, of course, is treated as the best ‘natural’ argument for the resurrection of the body, and has formed Christian dualism since the whole thing started. It’s also frequently trotted out as one of those eerie supports for Christian doctrines found in the ancient world.

    Anyway. Excuse the philosophy nerd time, but I’m pretty sure it’s Christian philosophers of Platonic descent that are the ones who traditionally have to worry about Manicheanism, and not your run-of-the-mill Christian dualists, who descend rather from Aristotelian thinking.

  6. Your right about one thing here Do people have souls? NO we do not… but there’s something I want to ask you in the bible there’s a passage thats states when Christ returns he will raise the dead…. why would Jesus raise the dead if we have souls? wouldn’t that just be a empty shell? kinda like the old saying we are a peanut & the shell is our body….. well here’s your answer we will get a soul when Christ resurrect’s us, Jesus was a man like you or I until he was resurrected, your trying to find something that isn’t there until the time comes, so that being said do I think we die and are judged right away…NO if you are born again and have asked Jesus Christ to forgive you for your sins and ask him to be your personal savior then you get to be with him in heaven period, so now your thinking are all those Christians that have gone before us laying in a grave???? Yes they are, I believe they have no conscience and lay waiting for the return of Jesus, I do not believe we burn in hell when we die if we are not born again, a lovely God as we have would not torment you like that, HELL was taught to scare you into believing or else, Jesus in the bible was teaching somewhere and was giving a example of a place called Hordes(I believe) this was a place where garbage and the dead who say died of a sickness was sent it was a giant fire pit simply put, he went on to explain that without the father it would be like being thrown in Hordes burning up, he did not mean YOU would burn up he used that example to explain its like being nothing without God cause in the pit whatever was there until it burned up into nothing, so Jesus was saying that without him/The Father you will be nothing…. see its not a threat it means if you do not want God fine when you die you will be nothing, in turn separated from God, this means Yes all the non Christians laying in there grave will be just that and nothing more when Christ comes back for all of us……note once again “I do so believe that a relationship as Jesus being your personal savior is a must just like it says in the bible I would never want someone to think there’s a quick easy way out, well there is but you wouln’t like it, again no not burning in Hell but to me whats worst then that is being “Separated from God in total” now to me thats Hell…..

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