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Are We More Than Bodies?

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July 4, 2010 Tags: Brain, Mind & Soul
Are We More Than Bodies?

Today's entry was written by the BioLogos Editorial Team. You can read more about what we believe here.

In much of his writing, C.S. Lewis explored the cultural consequences of scientific knowledge. In particular, as a scholar of the sixteenth century, he was acutely aware of the influence of the Copernican Revolution. Copernicus upended the notion that Earth was the center of the universe by showing that Earth and the other planets revolved around the Sun. Lewis felt the significance was not simply that new knowledge had been born, but that the new mechanical view of the Universe was supplanting the traditional spiritual view.

Lewis scholar Michael Ward explains, “Since the Copernican revolution, the heavenly bodies had been steadily evacuated of spiritual significance until they were regarded as no more than large aggregations of rock or gas.” Lewis, Ward argues, preferred the more imaginative, medieval view of the heavens, not because he believed astrology was literally true, but “because the pre-Copernican model of the cosmos viewed the planets as more than merely material it was a model worth keeping in mind. It was, in this sense, a more Christian model than the Newtonian or Einsteinian versions which have succeeded it.”

Lewis brought these ideas powerfully to life in his fiction. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace declares, “In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” The fallen star Ramandu replies, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of” (emphasis added).

Just like the heavens, some believe that living beings—especially humans—have become de-spiritualized in the wake of modern biological science. Because we now understand the inner workings of our bodies, and the progressive development of their structure, they seem to have less spiritual significance. But we are more than the molecules that make up our bodies! We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).

If we as Christians are to continue worshiping God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, we must fight to retain the spiritual value of our bodies, even as we continue to understand them better through scientific discovery. What does that mean to be made in God’s image? Does it have anything to do with our bodily composition? Does it have anything to do with the physical process by which God made us?

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,

what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

--Psalm 8:3-5

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Merv - #20820

July 7th 2010

it ‘science’ of course.  But the observation that rain comes from clouds is the same kind of observation that we call science now.  They also attributed it all to God.  We pray for healing today.  Then we get advice from a doctor, do what we can, and if we get better we still thank God for good results.  We don’t withhold gratitude from God on the grounds that since a doctor or some medicine was involved that therefore God wasn’t.  So even modern Christians, despite their protests when it applies to origins, have already practiced this ‘dual’ thinking.  I’m not attributing anything to ancient Biblical authors that they didn’t already exhibit.  In fact they seem to be ahead of some of us on this particular curve.  The problem with YECs today isn’t that they are creationists.  It’s that they aren’t creationist enough.  By insisting that God’s work must only be the apparently miraculous (shazzam-poof!) type, they effectively

Merv - #20821

July 7th 2010

discount ordinary providential workings of God as if those somehow don’t quite count as being God’s.  What they need to realize is that God created you and me every bit as much as He created Adam or Eve.  Yet to say that we came from our mothers is also true.  Once you get re-accustomed to these ‘both/and’ ways of thinking, the thought of Adam being formed by God can be freed up to mean more than one thing.  Then science is free to investigate and try to find out what some of God’s processes may have looked like.  It’s important to note that all this isn’t to deny the ‘poof’ types of miracles—-God will do whatever He wants.  But it is a fair observation to say that those are not ordinary, and science is only useful to the extent that ordinary providence (uniformitarianism if you will) applies.  Beyond that there is nothing science can do.


Greg Myers - #20877

July 7th 2010

Roger writes
“First of all the Bible does not teach heliocentrism.”
No, it teaches geocentrism - that the earth does not move, and that therefore everything we see in the sky moves around it.

“If the human being is just a body, then it follows that humans are not rational.”

I am not sure where that comes from, but I don’t think we are all that rational, though we are sometimes capable of rationality when we work hard at it, and listen to our community.  This is what is so cool about scientific peer review - to have other smart people, experts in your field, challenge your data and conclusions.  It helps us be more rational.

So why can’t we think, if we are natural creatures?

Greg Myers - #20878

July 7th 2010

Merv, thanks.  I don’t agree with your conclusions, but I can see where you are coming from.  Your example of prayer is a telling one.  Over time, we’ve found that “God, guide the hand of the physician” works better than “be healed” (just as good as letting the doctor do their work).  Does God actually break into history and do anything?  As much science as we’ve done says no.  For example, Anglicans all over the world pray for the royal family every Sunday, but they don’t live any longer, don’t seem any wiser than folks who don’t get all that prayer.  Prayer studies have not demonstrated any difference for having been prayed for.  The United States, for all that it is one of the most believing, church going nations in the world, is not on the top of any of the indices of well being - quite the contrary, it has lots of violence, divorce, people in prisons, etc.  Mother Teresa is viewed by the world as a saint, but she says she never heard from God for decades.

So is it possible that God exists, but does not interact with the world?  Sure.  But that is not the God of most believers.  Some Buddhists, perhaps.  Karen Armstrong and Bishop Spong.  But their “god of a warm thought” is not so far from atheism itself.

Merv - #20893

July 8th 2010

I agree that the Christian God is one who interacts with creation.

Most prayer ‘research’ (and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of research touting conclusions diametrically opposed to those you mention) isn’t any thing I would place a lot of stock in.  If some repeatable experiment was performed with prayer mantras and consistent healing results, then what you have is another causal phenomenon to scientifically study and not the actions of a freewill agent.  And if the Christian God isn’t a freewill agent, then there is no God at all but just another predictable phenomenon like gravity.

If Christians are right then God is doing His normal providential work right before our eyes, and of course remains free to do special works at will as well.  But ‘free’ means, well, free.  Hardly a formula for repeatability in a laboratory.  Yes, that does keep it conveniently above falsifiability.  But what else could it be?  We can only claim plausibility, though you are free to disagree with that as well.


Charlie - #20939

July 8th 2010

We understand much of how the body works biochemically, all the way to emotion and memory (some might see these as part of the soul), yet there is much we have yet to learn.  Hypothetically, lets say we have the entire human body figured out, every single cell, every single molecule, and it is all biologically explained.  People can always fall back on religion and say a biologically explainable event is the result of God (just like what Biologos does with evolution).  How can one make the assumption that God did it?  Why not Zeus or Santa Claus?  This is really the core of the disagreement between science and religion: the methods for determining something to be true are polar opposites.  One needs evidence, the other doesn’t, simple as that.  Do people not agree with me that to follow both science and religion, one must be inconsistent in their methods for determining truth?

Greg Myers - #21066

July 9th 2010

Merv, thanks.  I would be interested in links to any prayer study that supports the idea that prayer is effective.  I’ve seen no well designed study that shows anything of the sort.

If God works in the world, then it should be measurable, in at least some instances.  To stay with prayer for a moment, a study looked at intercession for hospital patients that continued for over a decade:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article1072638.ece .

The result?  No difference in the groups prayed for and not prayed for.

“The study found no appreciable difference between the health of those who did not know they were being prayed for and those who received no prayers.”

I would expect that, if prayer works, you would see folks who are prayed for do better than folks who are not.  If you say that God is free to do what he wants, and if by that you mean he makes no measurable difference in the world- well, that is not the traditional understanding of God.

It is the same with the body - everything we do or are is accounted for by physical processes - we are no more than out bodies.  Adding in the notion of soul or spirit does not explain us any better, and obscures what is really going on in our lives.

Scanman - #21075

July 9th 2010

We are not a house….we live in a house.

We are not our bodies…we live in our bodies.


Merv - #21132

July 9th 2010

When I get home, I’ll see if I can find reference to what I remember—-I think it was from a Philip Yancey book “Prayer” which I have on my shelf but it was several years since I read it.  If I can find on-line links to anything for you I’ll post them.

To address what you (and Charlie) imply, I think that Christianity (and prayer) should have evidence of some kind (even if it is personal or experiential or testimonial—-and therefore not qualifying as scientific evidence).  So I guess I disagree with Charlie that Christians and scientists are not “opposite” in their methodologies.  I think a better comparison would be to say that for Christians the domain of qualifying evidence is cast wider so that the more narrow criteria of what qualifies as ‘scientific’ would be a subset of that wider domain. 


Merv - #21133

July 9th 2010

I know you want “data”, Greg, and I’ll see if I can round it up for you, but if I may make at least one appeal to a fictional (and I thought brilliant) anecdotal work to help you see a different point of view—-there was Jim Carey’s “Bruce Almighty”  In it Bruce gets the chance to ask the real God for something at which point Bruce obligatorily stammers on about wanting world peace, etc.  God then smiles at Bruce and tells him:  That was a great prayer .....  if you were MS. AMERICA.  Now tell me what you really want.  At which point the more candid Bruce gets passionate about what he wants from his estranged relationship with his girlfriend.  God then replies ...Ahhhh—now there’s a real prayer. 

That insight expresses perfectly why I find the concept of “control groups”, statistical “prayers” offered up for some strangers and withheld from others to be almost laughable as an understanding of prayer.  As one of the commentators in the study you referenced put it:  “it makes for bad science and bad religion.” 

But I’ll see if I can find the research I remember that purported to have different conclusions. 


merv - #21175

July 9th 2010

Thanks, Greg, for being the cause of my getting a copy of “Prayer” by Philip Yancey down off my shelf and dusting it off.  I had forgotten how deeply insightful he is.  And even though Yancey does have the perspective of a Christian, I would still recommend his writings to non-Christians if they really want to understand Christian thought.

At one point (p. 251) Yancey refers to numerous studies done by various “prominent physicians”:  (Larry Dossey, Herbert Benson, Harold Koenig, Bernie Siegel) who authored books that Yancey says “have climbed the bestseller charts, touting scientific studies that prove the relation between prayer and physical healing.”  Yancey does not go into any detail over what methods these studies used, I suppose it would be easy enough for those interested to Google up their works for more detail.  But my point is that studies can apparently be found to support just about any side of this you want. 

I will mention the specifics of this study, though, which Yancey does say more about on the same page.  He mentions a

merv - #21176

July 9th 2010

San Fransisco Hospital study of 393 Heart Attack patients – I found a link

here to that same double-blind study (by Byrd in 1988)  It purported to show that prayer does make a difference (though not unambiguously so—there were some qualifications, you can read the details).  Near the end of that same linked page you will find the conclusion of another study that will be more to your liking stating that the results of prayer cannot be distinguished from the results of expectancy (meaning that people who know they are being prayed for do tend to have better outcomes.)  This would leave you free to dismiss it as *nothing more than* positive thinking.  Whereas I will differ with you and celebrate how

merv - #21177

July 9th 2010

God designed our bodies complete with the power of our own minds to take a significant part in the healing process.  It’s the same story all over again of the false dichotomy that goes thus:  either nature did it or God did it, but not both, etc.  Sorry if my response to this is becoming an ad-nauseum but …..  “both/and”.

Even were these studies supporting the positive effects of prayer were born out as valid I would still, for the reasons already given in the last post, not take them seriously involving as they do artificially orchestrated “prayer groups”—-even with sincere Christians.  They are interesting, but I don’t find such things conclusive in either direction.

(Yancey wrestles with the hard questions that many Christians mostly avoid about unanswered prayer.)

(sorry about that link, I must have got the syntax wrong & you’ll have to copy & paste rather than just clicking)

merv - #21178

July 9th 2010

One more try on that link I meant to give you above: 

here is one example of a study (among many, apparently) claiming to show the positive effects of prayer.


merv - #21180

July 9th 2010

I will blame the ever “helpful” Microsoft Word on my failed attempts here—-if this third one doesn’t work, I’ll give up.

Click here for the study.

For some reason my paste feature alters my link format.


Greg Myers - #21191

July 9th 2010

Merv, compare this single, small, flawed study with the placebo effect.. The placebo effect is well documented by a large number of studies - and it achieves statistical significance for a great number of conditions.  Clinical trials are designed to show that a treatment performs better than placebo (not just no treatment)  because it is a well documented fact that placebos work.  But they do not need to take prayer into account - prayer is not a statistically significant factor in recovery.  The study you mention’s author admits the outcome was not statistically significant, and his attempts to work around this are also flawed.

James 5:14 “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well…”  James would lead you to expect prayer to be more effective than a placebo.  Yet it is not.  In fact, over many studies, prayer has no impact.

“God designed our bodies complete with the power of our own minds to take a significant part in the healing process.” This idea is not supported by the bible.  Odd that positive thinking is more powerful than prayer (though neither helps with cancer).

merv - #21225

July 10th 2010

Greg, you challenge my notion of ‘positive thinking’ as not being supported by the Bible.  Actually it is.  Scriptures tell us that we are created by God—- so while many things in our bodies can and do go wrong, there are also an amazingly bigger number of things that we barely give a second thought to in an ordinary day that go right—- every time blood clots to stop a scratch from bleeding, every time white blood cells fight off an infection that you will never even be aware of, and so forth.  The Christian can & should praise God for all these good things.  Among these good things is our mental capacity to have faith.  Jesus tells many of those he has healed that “your faith has made you well”.  I’m not saying that this means Jesus played no role in their healing.  Obviously he did.  But their own faith also plays a significant—even essential role.  Expectancy and positive thinking can in many (not all) cases be a significant aspect of faith.  The fact that writers of thousands of years ago didn’t use our twentieth century phrase for something doesn’t mean the concept has no support.

Greg Myers - #21230

July 10th 2010

Merv, the data shows it has no support. Clinical trials are randomized, double blind tests of the claim that a particular treatment is safe and effective. Though many trials go wrong (showing how difficult it is to setup and run these trials), they do often manage to demonstrate that a treatment works or does not. Early on, they learned that they had to account for a statistically significant placebo effect. They have not found the need to account for patients being prayed for, or patients with a positive attitude, or special amulets- because these do not have a noticeable impact on outcomes.

Wha is more, it is not clear to me how your comments support the idea of positive thinking. Surely biblical faith is not just a happy thought, but confidence in god?

merv - #21233

July 10th 2010

cosmic vending machine concept isn’t dependable enough to satisfy determined skeptics.  That is good and well; Christians probably shouldn’t be confusing prayer or God with that anyway.

I know you will continue to find what you look for (most of us do), but should you ever really want to investigate prayer, you may need to come to terms with faith.  The atheist utters the phrase “I’ll see it when I believe it” with a sneer.  Then when the atheist is done laughing, the believer says the same thing but in all seriousness and with a depth of understanding.  If or when the Spirit gets hold of you and grants you eyes of faith, then read Scriptures with new eyes, and pick up a book like Yancey’s and start to grow in a rudimentary understanding of what prayer is all about.


merv - #21234

July 10th 2010

This is part 1 of a 2 part post with the second part above accidentally posted first.

Regarding your allegation that prayer is no more effective than a placebo, you will site studies that purport to show this, and find fault with or ignore studies that purport to show otherwise.  Such will be the “objectivity” of those seeking signs when none will be given according to faithless demands.  (See Mark 8:12)

Prayer is an enigma (that frustratingly fails to work like a vending machine, or even a statistically evident probability working x% of the time as you essentially point out), especially with regard to selected Scriptures which taken by themselves seem to promise vending machine-like results.  There are levels at which a person of faith legitimately wrestles with God and prayer and even can experience faith crises over them.  All of these scientific studies don’t even reach that level as they fail to understand the non-scientific nature of the subject.  In short, of the many reasons to experience doubt (and they do exist) these studies don’t rank very high (just as the so-called positive studies whose faults you especially excel in finding also don’t rank very high as reasons FOR having faith).  They do prove that the

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