But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
The Apostle Paul, Philippians 3:20-21
I’m currently in a conversation, perhaps even a debate, with a top notch philosopher about the nature of the soul and particularly some comments about “substance dualism” and the soul in Mere Science and Christian Faith.
Since I like the idea of having this conversation along Magdalen College’s Addison’s walk where C.S. Lewis used to stroll and where I just paid a visit (thus the picture), I’ve decided to set the conversation there. (This dialogue is abstracted from an email exchange, but I hope, represents the spirit of the conversation.) And by the way, forgive me for taking the majority of the verbiage—I’m simply trying to clarify my ideas in light of some excellent and spirited challenges.
A philosopher: As we walk along this beautiful path that has been trod by thinkers like Lewis and Tolkien, I have to let you know that I think you’re vague about the nature of the soul. If you mean what the Bible teaches about the soul, then we will have to respectfully disagree. Not because I believe the Bible teaches that there is a substantial soul, but because I believe it doesn't teach anything about the existence or nonexistence of the soul. The Bible isn't a philosophical text, and so, it seems to me, it simply assumes common sense, that is, what ordinary people believe.
|Magdalen College, Oxford from High Street|
Greg: I know that you’re really convinced of this point because you’ve repeated it on various occasions. I'm surprised that you don't think the Bible teaches anything about the nature of the human person and thus the reality of the soul or not. As just one resource, I'd highly recommend Hans Walter Wolff's Anthropology of the Old Testament (he has an entry on "soul" on pages 17-18), but he demonstrates (broadly speaking) that the human person is a unity that can't easily be divided into substantial parts, whether we call those "throat," "neck," "desire," "soul," "life," or "person." The New Testament similarly describes human beings with one word "body," as Rudolf Bultmann unfolds expertly in his Theology of the New Testament. (And it's not difficult to find other scholars who agree.) Our soul then is one aspect of the entirety of the human person and not separable. (I will bracket for a moment the intermediate state while we await our bodies.) This conviction of the unity of the human person--and an unwillingness to define us as "souls" and material "bodies"--is clearly in several passages from Paul such as Philippians 3:21: Christ "will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself." To put a fine point on it, I don't see any separation implied there where our "soul" neatly leaves our body. And what I'm saying implies the broader point that the Old and New Testaments certainly teach about the human person even if they are not philosophical texts in the sense that we describe those today. Teaching about any particular subject can be done directly or indirectly, narratively or expositionally, or in a variety of means. It would be a sad day for humanity if all our teaching had to come through rational philosophical expositions. Jesus and his parables would certainly be in trouble!
A philosopher: Greg, I want to return to what you wrote,
“Floating around many Christian circles are the dualistic versions of the soul—that there is an entirely separable substance within our bodies—something like air inside a tire, or more philosophically what Gilbert Ryle called the 'ghost in the machine.' This owes much more to Plato than the Hebrew Bible, which begins by describing that God created the first man to be found its pages, adam, from the dust, adamah, by breathing in his breath (Genesis 2:7). We like Adam and Eve are a psychosomatic unity of body and spirit. In this case, engaging cognitive science can help us correct our doctrine of the soul by reminding ourselves of the Scripture, which sees human beings as body/soul, a psychosomatic unity.”(Mere Science and Christian Faith)
I do think you’re correct on this point: most Christians are right: the soul is a substance that is separate and separable from its physical body.
GSC: Wow! You philosophers have amazing memories!
If by "substance dualism," we mean that there are two separable and reasonably independent substances, and that the soul is the “real me,” then I must demur. That is, however, what most Christians believe in my experience and so to that degree you're correct. But it's not good Christian teaching. And here we arrive at that critical difference between the immortality of the soul (via platonic thought and the Hellenism that took over Judaism after Alexander’s conquests in the 4thcentury BC) and the resurrection of the body (which is older and gradually formed and which the Pharisees stoutly held to). This is where Jesus and the Pharisees (with whom he agreed on most theological points) substantially agreed and confessed the resurrection of the body. What survives death? It appears, from the biblical texts, that it’s a bit mysterious because it’s of the new creation, but it’s certainly not to be a disembodied spirit. Instead it’s an embodied unity of our selves, which is fit for the new heavens and the new earth. We know for example, that Jesus ate after the resurrection, which spirits cannot do. And Paul, like Jesus, was dead set (as it were) on the resurrection of the body.
|The New Buildings at Magdalen College|
A philosopher: Hey, there’re the “New Buildings” at Magdalen where C. S. Lewis’s office was, near staircase three.
GSC: Those buildings look fairly old for "new" buildings.
A philosopher: Actually, those buildings date to the 1730s and a “new” in relation to the older ones that are on High Street, which are centuries older.
Back to a more philosophical note, the claim (which you seemingly accept) that the belief in substance dualism has its roots in Plato is a canard. Jesse Bering, Nicholas Humphrey, Paul Bloom, Alfred Gell, etc. all know that human beings are natural-born substance dualists.
GSC: This assertion is the easiest to disprove, despite the merits and acumen of Bering, Humphrey, Bloom, and Gell. For one thing, the concept of what “we all know”—i.e., “common sense”—needs to be scrutinized. There are at least three separate historical versions of non-dualistic and/or materialist of the soul. Of course, Lucretius (with whom I’m sure you’re familiar) brought a stunning non-materialist. In the 6thcentury and in a different part of the word (i.e., Arabia), Muhammad was laughed at because he proclaimed resurrection from the dead and the Arab world of his time (a religious world at that) had no sense that anything lasted past the body. And I’m going to assume your comment about Buddhist belief in a disembodied spirit was a slip because Siddartha Gautama certainly didn’t teach it (he felt it was an unimportant doctrine), and the Buddhist concept of anattais often translated “no soul.” What goes from one life to the next is like a flame being passed from one candle to the next, it is not a thing or a substance. (As I might have mentioned, I teach religious studies at Chico State, and so I’ve had to reorient myself with these teachings in the past few years.)
Let us continue walking as we ponder these things…