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Dispatches From the Physicalist Frontier, Part 1

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August 19, 2012 Tags: Brain, Mind & Soul
Dispatches From the Physicalist Frontier, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Kevin J. Corcoran. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: Today and tomorrow, an essay from Calvin College philosopher Kevin Corcoran continues our foray into contemporary Christian thinking on the materiality and/or immateriality of the human person in light of recent scientific study of the body and brain. Leaving the specific claims of neurobiology and physiology aside for now, our focus remains on finding philosophical frameworks that help us put such claims in a biblical context as well as a scientific one; Corcoran’s proposal is to re-think the problem of human persons from a physicalist perspective that has no need of a non-physical soul. In Part 1, Corcoran lays out the basic premise of physicalism and addresses two common Christian objections to it. In Part 2, he takes up a third objection–the question of life after death–and expands on his sense of how human persons exist in relation to our physical bodies, what he calls the Constitution View.

I’m a physicalist when it comes to human persons. I believe, in other words, that we are wholly physical objects. I don’t believe there are non-physical souls in the natural world. So I don’t believe that we are or have such non-physical souls as parts. I believe we are through-and-through physical. The physical stuff that I believe wholly composes us is chock-full of surprising potentialities, such as the potential to produce the wine of consciousness from the spectacularly complex network of one hundred billion nerve cells and their several hundred trillion synaptic connections in the wet-ware of the human brain. Even in a world overflowing with natural wonders—consider the marsupial wolf and the carnivorous plant, for example—it is a particular wonder that the natural world should contain conscious, self-conscious, personal, moral beings like ourselves. But it does! And while, to me, the “why” of our consciousness seems to fit most easily within a theistic understanding of the universe, the “how” of our consciousness seems increasingly to yield to naturalistic explanation.

Let me be clear. I do not reject dualism on account of any kind of philosophical or other kind of argument. In fact, I find many arguments against dualism—philosophical and otherwise—to be pretty weak specimens. I’m what a friend calls an antecedent materialist. In other words, I come to the discussion assuming I am a physical object, since that is what I have always seemed to myself to be for as long as I can remember. A non-physical soul doesn’t explain anything about consciousness that cannot be explained without it, and it is furthermore a wholly unnecessary hypothesis for many religious doctrines, despite intuitions to the contrary by many religious believers. For example, belief in an afterlife, belief in the peculiarly Christian idea of the incarnation of Christ, as well as the belief that we human beings bear the image of God—none requires belief in a non-physical soul in order to be made sense of. So until I am confronted with some knock-down, drag-out argument to the contrary, or until I am presented with some phenomena that cannot be accounted for in naturalistic terms or, yet again, until I have something resembling a conversion experience that forces me to renounce my physicalism, I'm sticking with it.

To go a bit further, let’s consider several theological doctrines that seem to cut against a physicalist conception of human personhood. These constitute perhaps the three most common objections Christian physicalists receive to their physicalism. After I address these objections, I will say a little more about the content of my own physicalist conception of human persons, The Constitution View. Perhaps in a future post I can say a little bit about the science of consciousness itself and address some of the most common objections to physicalism based on that mysterious phenomenon.

Theological Objections to Physicalism about Humans

The Incarnation of Christ

The doctrine of the incarnation of Christ is a central tenet of Christianity, and it may seem that the doctrine is inconsistent with a physicalist conception of human personhood. Yet I believe a physicalist view of human persons—like my own—actually makes better sense of the incarnation than does dualism. Let me explain.

The putative problem for the physicalist is this: if God (or the second person of the Trinity in particular) is essentially a non-physical being, then how could such a being become purely physical without losing an essential property? And if the second person of the Trinity loses an essential property, then wouldn’t he not simply cease to be fully God but simply cease to exist? (An essential property is a property a thing has and can’t lack without ceasing to exist. For example, my dog has the property of being a canine. He can’t lose that property without ceasing to exist—he is essentially a canine.)

For a more thorough discussion of essentialism, see the exchange between Bruce Little and Robert Bishop in our Southern Baptist Voices series.

Well, according to the Chalcedonian formulation, the incarnate Christ is one Person with two natures, a fully divine nature (that of the Second Person of the Trinity) and a fully human nature (that of Jesus from Nazareth). The Constitution View I hold divides things just where one would expect—between the human nature and the divine nature of the single person. And keep in mind, by the way, that the person of Christ is not human; he is divine, being the second person of the Trinity. But this one person, in the incarnation, had two natures--human and divine. In this understanding of the dual natures, Christ is wholly non-physical in his divine nature and wholly physical in his human nature. Now consider the somewhat-awkward cleavage Substance Dualists must offer. According to Substance Dualism, Christ is wholly non-physical in his divine nature and partly physical and partly non-physical in his human nature. Not especially elegant. To my mind, far from being unable to accommodate the doctrine of the incarnation, my physicalist view of human persons is actually better able to explain the doctrine than is dualism.

Notice that if what I said above is true, the way this objection is often put contains an important mistake in assuming that the second person of the Trinity ceased to be something he was apart from the incarnation. Indeed, the second person of the Trinity did not become purely physical (or even partly physical!). The second person of the Trinity did not give up non-physicality in the incarnation. Remember: one person (Divine and non-physical) with not one but (in the incarnation) two natures—one non-physical, the other physical. How can that be? I don’t have the slightest idea; but, the mystery of the incarnation is not explained away by any account, be it dualist or physicalist.

The Imago Dei

Now, what of the imago Dei or image of God? If it’s true that we human persons are wholly physical beings—as any version of physicalism must claim—then what does it now mean to say that we have been created in God’s image? Doesn’t having been created in the image of God just mean having a non-physical soul and the features of intellect, will and emotion that characterize soul? I do not believe that our having been created in the image of God means that we are non-physical as God is non-physical. What then does it mean?

See Tim O’Connor on other ways to think about the imago Dei.

Well, there are many ways of understanding the claim that we human beings image God. One might mean that we image God when we care for Creation and contribute to the terrestrial flourishing of the Created order. This, after all, is what the Bible means when it speaks of our having been given “dominion”. We are God’s vice-regents, as it were. To have dominion is to care for others, including non-human “others” like oceans and streams, octopus and salamander; in other words to have dominion is tend to the well being of all the earth. Second, one might mean that we image God when we live in loving relation to other human beings and invest ourselves in their flourishing and well being. For we are essentially persons-in-relation. Since God is a Trinity, it is not surprising that we should image God in virtue of our essentially social nature. The tenor of the relation between the three persons of the trinity is one of a harmonious and free exchange of love and joy. So engaging in acts of mercy, hospitality, love, kindness, etc. is to act like God. In fact, we image God when we image Jesus, who welcomed the outcast, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, hated evil and delighted in doing the work of the Father. Finally, one might claim that we image God in our suffering. God is love. To love is to open oneself up to suffering. And suffering love is God-love.

Now of course none of these ways that I have mentioned that we image God rules out the possibility that we are wholly or partly non-physical beings; but it doesn’t imply it either. The fact that we have been created in the image of God is perfectly compatible with the claim that we are wholly physical beings. Indeed, there is nothing in the doctrine of the imago Dei, rightly understood, that entails a dualist view of human nature.

But even if neither the doctrine of the incarnation nor the doctrine of humanity as reflecting the imago Dei require that we be at least partially non-physical beings, what about the issue of life after death? I’ll address that third challenge to a Christian physicalism tomorrow.

Kevin J. Corcoran is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. His research interests include metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and the emerging Church. Corcoran received his doctorate of philosophy from Purdue University, a master’s degree with honors from Yale University, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of several books including Church in the Present Tense; Soul, Body, and Survival: Essays on the Metaphysics of Human Persons; Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul and the upcoming Incurably Human.

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Gregory - #72042

August 19th 2012

K. Corcoran is supported by (Christian or deist?) Thomas Jefferson:

“‘To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But heresy it certainly is.” (1820)

What position Jefferson was in to speak with knowledge or authority of heresy, I don’t rightly know. Certainly he didn’t teach at Calvin College, which was established in 1876, 50 years after Jefferson’s death.

wesseldawn - #72044

August 19th 2012

I enjoyed your paper. It’s very thought provoking and I can certainly see why physicalist’s believe as they do. I suppose that Physicalist’s are also evolutionists [as evolution (although I think it’s more adaptation than anything else) is a physical science and obviously the means whereby the earth recycles)?

Since God is a Trinity, it is not surprising that we should image God in virtue of our essentially social nature.

I would disagree with this statement as socially we are like the animals as we tend towards the “pack” mentality (religious groups, political groups, gangs, etc.), the Alpha of the group always leading the way.

“‘To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings,

Just because it’s unfamiliar (and science presently unable to measure it) does not mean it’s nothing. Looking at the state of affairs of the world (in any generation), one must wonder if there is a God at all - but then the Bible never did say that it was God’s world! Jesus said that this was not his world, and Plato so eloquently stated:

“...there were two worlds and the one we see is just an illusion, evil, an imperfect copy of the real world, transitory, and will decay. The real world, which we cannot see because it’s invisible, is good, perfect, eternal, and static or unchanging. In the real world there’s obviously no variation or change, nor need for any because all the organisms there, the Types, are perfect.”

Or another quote from the Gnostics (sometimes they got things right):

a religion that differentiates the evil god of this world from a higher more abstract God revealed by Jesus Christ, a religion that regards this world as the creation of a series of evil archons/powers who wish to keep the human soul trapped in an evil physical body, a religion that preaches a hidden wisdom or knowledge only to a select group as necessary for salvation or escape from this world.”

Some physicists are beginning to think that our so-called reality is not what it appears (and the Bible agrees) that this world is fiction (an elaborate lie - like pixels generated from somewhere else) and the true world, intangible/immortal!

Francis - #72047

August 19th 2012

Kevin J. Corcoran,

I have about five questions.

How is physicalism in accordance with the traditional Christian teaching that at the moment of death the person’s soul is judged and sent to heaven or hell (aka the particular judgment), with the person’s body to follow later upon Christ’s return at the end of time (aka the general judgment; the Creed’s “The resurrection of the body” )?


What goes to heaven or hell? Is it

1) Loving or non-loving actions, or

2) Loving or non-loving physical bodies, or

3) Loving or non-loving persons?


Does not Christ indicate it’s # 3?

Does not Christ say that the persons going to hell are going there body and soul? [“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Mat 10:28]

Do you believe in hell (i.e. eternal punishment of body and soul)?



Since I returned on 8/15/12, I’ve posted 18 questions, including the five above. I’ve yet to receive any answers/responses.

Kevin Corcoran - #72048

August 19th 2012

Francis, let me be the first to answer those questions of yours pertaining to my post.  I will take them in order.

1. I believe in the resurrection of the body.  You will have to help me, however, with where in the bible it is claimed that a person’s soul is judged and sent either to heaven or hell.  I’m not familiar with this as a “traditional Christian teaching.”  In fact, I should think that persons are judged, not their souls.  

2. On my view, what goes to heaven or hell are (human) persons.  And since I believe that human persons are essentially constituted by their bodies, there can be no human persons in heaven or hell without their bodies.  So, I guess to answer this questions, I would say 2 & 3.

3.  Yes.  Christ indicates number 3.  And since on my view there cannot be human persons in heaven without their also being their constituting bodies, 3 implies 2.  

4. Well, if we take that verse literally, then my answer to 3 must be true!!  Right?  

5. I believe in hell.  

Don’t know if that helps.  Hope so.



Dunemeister - #72052

August 20th 2012

I don’t believe in heaven as a destination one goes to after one dies. “Heaven” is simply wherever it is that God’s will is done. “Earth” is where our will is done. One day, heaven and earth will passionately kiss in an eternal embrace. Meantime, we fumble under the sheets as it were. Instead, I believe (as I think Jesus did/does), that time is divided into two ages (aeons): the present age and the age to come. The age to come is the age characterized by the rule of God, whereas the present age is ruled by the devil. At the incarnation, the age to come invaded the present age, and we now live in an uneasy transition between the ages.

In that context, there is the doctrine of resurrection. Some time after our deaths, we will receive our new bodies and enjoy the age to come without dilution, if I may express it so. The philosophical/theological problem is, is my resurrected body “my” body or is it simply a facsimile? What connects “me” (whatever that is) with “him” (the resurrected form of whatever I am)? To my mind, the soul (again, whatever that is) is what identifies the current me with the future me. If, when I die, I am completely gone (as physicalism implies), the resurrected me will have all my memories, appearance and so forth, but it will still not be me, just a cunning copy (which is actually better than the original). However, if when I die I am not completely gone, if there is an immaterial aspect of me that survives physical death, that thing can provide the identification over time of current me with age-to-come me.

Traditionally, the soul is invested with a number of other faculties, such as the ability to interact in sophisticated ways with both the physical and angelic realms. We might argue about these. But it seems to me that what is unarguable is that something is needed to connect the present and future mes.

Francis - #72062

August 20th 2012

Kevin J. Corcoran,

Thanks for responding.

You wrote: “You will have to help me, however, with where in the bible it is claimed that a person’s soul is judged and sent either to heaven or hell. I’m not familiar with this as a “traditional Christian teaching.” In fact, I should think that persons are judged, not their souls.”

Perhaps we have a difference of semantics between “person” and “soul”. I’d say a “person” is both body and soul (aka spirit?). The body is an important part of the person. It’s like a unique vehicle, like a special marker. But the truest essence of a person and that which animates personhood is soul. When a person sins, it is the soul that sins, not the body. An analogy would be when people say “guns don’t kill people, people using guns kill people”. That traditional Christian teaching, or at least the teaching of Christ and the Apostles, says persons’ souls are judged seems obvious to me. Examples: Saving souls - James 1:21, 1 Pet 1:9; Condemning souls – Mat 10:28, Luke 12:20, Acts 2:27, James 5:20.

However, I don’t think you really addressed my first question (“How is physicalism in accordance with the traditional Christian teaching …”).

Do you believe that “persons” or “souls” (or some other word for the “essence” of humans) are in heaven or hell right now (speaking of the deceased, of course)? I hope so. (cf. Luke 23:43).

If yes, then they are there currently without their bodies, without their “physicalness.”

What does this say for your belief in “physicalism”?


Kevin Corcoran - #72069

August 20th 2012

I believe if there are human persons in heaven right now (or hell) then there are bodies in heaven (or hell).  I believe that between death and resurrection there is indeed conscious existence.  Without it, the doctrine of the communion of saints would havet to be false. But I believe the doctrine is true.  All that follows, given my view, is that between death and resurrection we have intermediate state, not-yet-glorified bodies, numerically the same bodies as we had on earth.  Numerically the same, though qualitatively different.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72071

August 20th 2012


I think you exercie is wrong headed.  The problem is not the soul.  The soul is a Greek invention that has really no place in Christianity.  It was adopted and adapted along with the rest of Greek philosophy.  Thus the soul is a mirage, but the spirit and the mind are real.

Thus the soul is a straw man.  Your exercise is just rearranging the furniture on the decks of the Titanic, because it is the false dualist physical/spiritual view of the world that is the problem.  Some people want to say that nothing but the physical exists, but if this is true thinking and loving and all other good things that are not material do not exist. 

If you want to posit that thinking and loving exist, but humans are completely physical, that is fine, but it seems that you have the same problem that the monists have.  What is the human spirit?   

Francis - #72074

August 20th 2012

Kevin J. Corcoran,

“I believe if there are human persons in heaven right now (or hell) then there are bodies in heaven (or hell).”

You seem to be saying two things here:

1) You’re not certain, as a matter of your Christian beliefs, that those who have died are right now in heaven or hell.

2) “If” they’re in heaven or hell, they have bodies which are not the bodies they had on earth (those are still in the grave) and are not the glorified bodies of the resurrection but are rather a third type of body.

Do I understand you correctly?

BioLogos says it is a community of “evangelical” Christians, and says elsewhere that it subscribes to “conservative Christianity” (http://biologos.org/blog/the-vision-lives-on-.-.-.-and-on). (Although “conservative Christianity” has never been defined by BL to my knowledge.)

Would you say your physicalism is in synch with “conservative, evangelical” Christianity?

Kevin Corcoran - #72075

August 20th 2012

Francis.  We disagree, I think.  I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.  I don’t believe in a doctrine of replacement of the body.  In other words I believe that the bodies we have in the hereafter are numerically the same bodies as we have here.  They will be qualitatively different.  Radically different.  Radically different but numerically the same.  I believe that that is the teaching of scripture and is what is codified in the ecumenical creeds.  And incidentially, the bodies we had on earth are not in the ground after we die.  What goes in the ground are corpses, i.e., all the stuff that used to compose our bodies.  But, for a fuller explanation, I’m afraid youl’ll have to read my book.


Is my physicalism in sync with “conservative, evangelical Christianity?”  Depends on what you mean by those words.  If you mean what most (if not all) evangelical (or orthodox) Christians have believed down through the centuries the answer has to be, no. And so I believe as a Christian that when one departs from what most devout Christians have believed down through the centuries, one better have very good reasons for departing from tradiition.  I think most Christians down through the centuries, much like ourselves, could not understand how we human persons could be unique among creation except by possessing an immaterial soul, which is why I believe that most Christians have believed in an immateral soul.  I believe I can account for our uniquenes without positing an immaterial soul.  We, among all of creation (so far as we know) are persons.  And it is this that sets us apart.  (For an account of personhood, again, I would direct you to my book, Rethinking Human Nature.

Let me say this, though, because I think it’s really important.  The particular views one holds on such issues as what kind of thing we are (are we physical or non-physical, a union of the two, etc.), the issue of special creation vs. evolutionary creation, though important are not essential to Christian orthodoxy.  I think it’s helpful to think about our Christian beliefs falling on a series of concentric circles.  In the center are what is essential ecumeical orthodoxy—God exists in three persons, Jesus was both human and divine, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, rose again on the third day, etc.  To deny any of these beliefs is to locate yourself outside of orthodox Christian faith.  Going out from the center are other issues, issues that are important: did the natural world come about by evolutionary creation, are human beings physical, non-physical, a combination of the two; what happens at the eucharist, do the elements become the actual body and blood of Jesus, etc. etc. These are impotant issues and I hold some pretty settled views about most of them.  But, THEY ARE NOT ESSENTIAL TO ECUMENICAL ORTHODOXY.  I would be stunned (and perhaps I will be stunned) if I were to get to judgment day and God asked me if I believed he were in Christ reconciling the world to Himself and I said, “yes, Father, I have staked my life on it.”  And then, if God said, “And what was your view on the issue of creation?  Human nature? If said in reply, “Well, I think the natural world came about by evolutionary creation” or “I believe that we are physical things.”  If God were to respond, “WRONG ANSWER Corcoran!  TO HELL WITH YOU!”  I would be stunned.  Totally stunned.  

Francis - #72079

August 20th 2012

Kevin J. Corcoran,

“one better have very good reasons for departing from tradiition… Going out from the center are other issues, issues that are important: did the natural world come about by evolutionary creation, are human beings physical, non-physical, a combination of the two; what happens at the eucharist, do the elements become the actual body and blood of Jesus, etc. etc. These are impotant issues … But, THEY ARE NOT ESSENTIAL TO ECUMENICAL ORTHODOXY.”

John Paul II called the Eucharist the “source and summit” (i.e. an essential) of the Catholic faith.

Isn’t it strange that some Christians spend so much time thinking, writing and preaching about things which they say aren’t essential to Christianity?

Isn’t it strange that these “non-essentials” have such practical import that they have fractured Christianity into tens of thousands of denominations, independent congregations and “movements” (e.g. “evangelicalism”), with each one believing things a bit different and sometimes a lot different than the next one? Again, these “non–essential” differences seem essential enough that some Christians wouldn’t step foot in another Christian’s church.

I thought of the World Trade Centers, and how the upper floors might have been considered important but not essential to the WTC. But after the top floors were impacted, pretty soon the whole structure collapsed. Probably a bad analogy.

In John 17, Jesus prays that Christians “may be one”. Four times.

How far the “non-essentials” have taken us from “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” [Ephesians 4:5].



“One” is one of my favorites. You too?


PNG - #72181

August 25th 2012

Jesus said that at the judgement some will come to Him and point out all the great things they have done in His name (one imagines that that may include great theological and philosophical works.) Jesus says that He will say, “I never knew you, depart from Me.” There isn’t going to be a theology test at anyone’s Judgement, just that one test, did He know you? It’s a great shame that Christians have killed each other over these things. Some of them may have enough practical effect (episcopal authority comes to mind) that Christian groups who disagree about them are better off to work separately. But when it comes to the judgement, they won’t matter. The Spirit of God knows who He knows, whatever group they belong to now.

HornSpiel - #72097

August 21st 2012


I read your posts with great interest. I am wondering if you could say the person is something like a story in a book (irrespective of where it came from). The story exists in the book and people come to know it. If all copies of the book are destroyed and the people that know it die, does the story cease to exist? Do ideas cease to exist if they are forgotten? Does the statue cease to exist if the bronze is melted down? The idea is not bound by the medium once it is conceived. If we become known by God, then we become eternal because He is eternal.

Am I on the right track in understanding your ideas?

I sympathize with your view that the soul is wholly physical. I too have come to the same conclusion. The higher animals all evidence a soulishness that is not qualitatively different from humans. I consider the soul an emergent property of a complex, physical mind. Yet there is a special connection that man has with God, which is at least in part the Imago Dei. I think that the essence of the person exists in the world though the soul but is not reducible to the soul.

Existence is contingent. It is creation. It is not eternal. So in that sense God does not exist. Existence is not essential to Him. So I think that God exists in the world though his Images, most particularly His Church. In the same way our essential selves, our Hearts if you will, only exist in this would through our souls, which, as you say are entirely, material.

I am not sure if we are saying anything that is compatible, but would love to know your opinion.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72130

August 22nd 2012


You wrote, “If we become known by God, then we become eternal because He is eternal.”

I quite agree and indeed that is what the end of Romans 8 says, Nothing, not even DEATH, can separate us (saved Christians) from the Love (HS) of the Father through Jesus Christ.  (Annotated paraphrase) 

Now a serious question remains, because God cannot love something that does not exist.  Paul says that we exist in the next world in a non-material spiritual form or body.  The Apostles’ Creed affirms the Resurrection of the Body, which I believe includes both the body of Jesus Christ and saved human beings.

It would seem since we had our exchange about the heart, that it would be the heart for you that is resurrected.  I would say that it is the body, mind, and spirit which is resurrected, but it is the relational body, mind, and spirit which lives, not the physical body, mind, and spirit.        

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72185

August 25th 2012


You are right.  It is not what we do that is important, but our relationship to Jesus Christ.

Thus it is very sad that many evangelicals think that their belief in the Bible is more important than their relationship to Jesus the Savior.

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