Southern Baptist Voices: A Response to John Hammett, Part 1

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June 21, 2012 Tags: Brain, Mind & Soul

Today's entry was written by Tim O'Connor. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Southern Baptist Voices: A Response to John Hammett, Part 1

Note: One of the most gratifying aspects of the ongoing conversation between Southern Baptist Scholars and the BioLogos community is discovering just how much we have in common, and this particular exchange is exemplary of that fact. Indeed, Dr. Hammett’s critique of the existing BioLogos statement about evolution and the imago Dei were exactly in line with ongoing internal discussion at BioLogos—discussions that resulted in several changes in the statements to which he refers even before this series got under way.

To put it succinctly, we couldn’t agree more with him on “the necessity of divine intervention in giving to humans the image of God,” and his point that “the image of God is what distinguishes humans from other animals in Genesis 1.” The relational aspect of the image of God has been at the center of other recent BioLogos statements about the image-bearing role of humanity, not least the exchange between William Dembski and Darrel Falk. In short, while the original Question that touched on the imago Dei was indeed flawed, we think Dr. Hammett will find much to affirm in our updated version posted June 23.

However, while we agree that the imago Dei has everything to do with God, we deny that it is incompatible with an evolutionary understanding of human biological origins. Dr. Timothy O’Connor’s response to Hammett’s paper (today and tomorrow) argues that a dualist model of the soul is not necessary to the doctrine of the image of God, nor is it the best understanding of the Scriptural and scientific data. Continuing next week, we will post additional essays that explore biblical and theological reasons why the imago Dei can be understood in light of human biological continuity with animals. We look forward to deepening our conversation with our Southern Baptist partners, not only here, but in our next exchange when we continue to address the issue of what is “essentially” human.

I am glad to have the opportunity to dialogue with Dr. John Hammett. In addition to our shared Christian faith and our shared lack of expertise in evolutionary science, we have in common one of our teaching and scholarly foci: the nature of human persons. Dr. Hammett approaches this topic as a trained theologian, whereas I approach it as a philosopher. However, on a topic such as this one, those disciplinary boundaries can get smudged a bit when the discussants approach the matter from the standpoint of a biblically-rooted Christian faith. Indeed the issue is of such importance and complexity that I would welcome continued conversation with Dr. Hammett beyond this initial exchange.

The Christian Scriptures teach that we human beings have been created in God’s image. What does that mean? I am in substantial agreement with Dr. Hammett on this question. While I think that bearing God’s image involves our having or having a potentiality for certain basic psychological capacities that we associate with the term “person”, it has to do even more profoundly with our specific capacity for relationship with God. Indeed, I would go further and say that it is not just our having this capacity that makes us divine ikons, it is also the fact that God has activated this capacity—He has given the precious gift of His self-disclosure to us. Further still, it has an eschatological dimension, based on the revealed promise of a future development and perfection of each of us, and so by implication, of human nature itself, by almighty God. We are in the process of becoming fully human: beyond a descriptive biological or even psychological notion of human nature lies a teleological one—not a telos of nature but of God's loving purposes for us. Despite our unequally born deficits—physical, cognitive, emotional, and moral/spiritual—we are destined for a fuller, supernatural realization of our common nature.

That we are in these ways God’s image bearers is a (wonderful!) teaching of our faith. The Scriptures also speak in various places of the human “soul.” The idea of the soul seems clearly connected to the idea that we are divine ikons. But here we should tread carefully. It is of course not unique to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures to use some such singular term to refer to that which is most distinctively human and that by virtue of which we are able to survive the death and decay of our bodies. But it is one thing to use the term as a kind of placeholder for whatever it is about us that enables us to be, feel, and act in distinctively human ways in this life and to survive death into the next; it is another thing to link the term to a specific metaphysical account of the matter, such as might say whether the soul is a kind of thing or substance, what kind of thing it is, and exactly how “it” relates to the human “body.”

It is (and always has been) very common for Christians to invest the term “soul” as it used in Scripture with such a metaphysical account. As these fellow Christians understand it, when the Bible speaks of my soul, it is referring to an immaterial substance that is, in the final analysis, the thing that I am. I have my body (by interacting directly with it and only with it among physical objects), but I am my soul. Many will add that, after my death and prior to the resurrection of the dead, I will exist in a completely disembodied state—a naked soul, as it were.

However, I believe it is a mistake to interpret Scripture as teaching or implying any such metaphysical account of the underpinnings of our distinctively human personal attributes or our capacity for surviving death. Now, after reflecting on the matter, we might conclude that the only way these Scriptural teachings could be true is for such a metaphysical account to be true, as well—an account in which we are immaterial substances, entirely separate from our bodies. Indeed, many have thought hard about it and have drawn just such a conclusion, and it is not hard to see why they find it tempting to do so. But to do so is to make a disputable philosophical inference; it is not a teaching of the faith.

The general perspective of BioLogos, which I embrace, is that theorizing about the underlying nature of the soul is best done by trying to read God’s Two Books (His Word and His Works) in tandem. Both Books have a great deal to say about us, and, as common products of an infinitely wise and loving Creator, what they say must ultimately be in harmony. As with any attempt to understand something deep and wondrous in God’s Creation, we should proceed with humility and carefulness and be prepared to rethink familiar and received ideas.

Spelling it out just a bit, the common Christian understanding of what it is to have a soul involves the yoking of two radically different things, a functioning human (wholly material) body and an immaterial mental thing that is the direct bearer of psychological properties such as self-awareness, emotions, and thoughts, and is that which chooses in accordance with desires and purposes. In short, a complex biological machine and a pure subject/purposive agent which interface in the brain. I want to acknowledge that this is a very natural perspective to have, quite apart from Christian revelation (hence its popularity among humans generally). It is very natural because our psychological abilities seem, introspectively, to be plainly something more than mere resultants of impersonal physical particle interactions, however numerous and complex these are within the human brain.

We can design highly sophisticated computers that process complex bodies of information with extraordinary speed, but no computer is a subject, or has a point of view. As philosophers of mind like to say, there is nothing “it is like” to be a computer in the way that there is something “it is like” to be a conscious subject. Put another way, no mere computer is a conscious, experiencing subject, having a point of view from which it regards and interacts with its environment. Neither do computers make autonomous choices in the face of competing moral and self-interested motivations, and so on. It seems but a short step from this observation to the conclusion that human persons (and thinking/desiring/choosing things more generally) must be fundamentally different sorts of things: fundamentally distinct capacities must reside in fundamentally distinct kinds of substances (mental and spiritual substances as opposed to physical substances, however complex).

I have just described how matters appear from the ‘first-person perspective’ of conscious experience and self-awareness. Let me be clear that I take such evidence very seriously: I know my own conscious thoughts and experiences better than I know any scientific theory,—even a very well-attested one—as all of our theories are at bottom built on information we derive from our experiences. So awareness of the distinctive character of conscious experience is part of what is given to us in the Book of God’s Works, since we are a part of that Book.

But alongside that ‘first-person’ data, we have had an explosion of relevant information coming from the ‘third-person’ perspective of the natural sciences, specifically evolutionary and developmental biology and cognitive neuroscience. This information, while still incomplete and only imperfectly understood, sheds light on the deep natural history of humans and present-day animals; the processes by which individual organisms of any species develop from inception to maturity; function-specific neural structures and processes that sustain and help regulate the unfolding first-person perspective of conscious agents; and finally, observed correlations between increasing complexity of neural structures and increased psychological complexity. This last correlation between structural and cognitive complexity is evident both when examining individuals as they develop, and when making comparisons across sentient species.

I suggest that this third-personal scientific information does not comport well with the two-substance or dualist metaphysical account of human persons. The fundamental problem is that our sciences point to continuous processes of increasing complexity, but the two-substance account requires the supposition of abrupt discontinuity. The “coming to be” at a particular point in time of a new substance with a suite of novel psychological capacities would seem to be a highly discontinuous development, both in large-scale bio-geological time and within the development of individual organisms.

Since souls as purely immaterial things would lack parts, we cannot make sense of the accumulation or diminishment of capacities by proposing increased or decreased structural complexity within the bearer of such capacities. And it just seems implausible to suppose that all the necessary basic capacities for, say, calculus problem-solving are there in the soul from the beginning, awaiting only physical maturation in the body in order to become activated, but still not directly dependent on that maturation. It seems rather that psychological capacities arise and develop in tandem with the development of the brain and nervous system.

Of course, it is possible for the soul-body dualist to retrench: we might offload to the brain ‘side’ of the divide some of the psychological functioning that, prior to the advent of neuroscience, we might have mistakenly thought belonged to the soul. But that tack risks (as neuroscience progresses) reducing the soul to a simple, immaterial object that is radically incomplete, merely a “bearer of consciousness” that enables personal identity over time and through death.

Despite the fact that such future retrenchment would seem to be required, this kind of dualism remains tempting for the Christian thinker. Why? The obvious answer is that it can seem to be the only way to accommodate our specifically Christian data that human beings are not mere machines: our thoughts, emotions, goals, and intentions are deep, not superficial features of ourselves; they confer a dignity upon us that makes us suitable bearers of the divine image such that human beings, after our skin has been destroyed, will yet see God. (Job 19:26). But is it true that the coherence of Christian theology requires this account? And if coherence of Christian theology does not require this account, which account might be the best one?

Tomorrow, in Part 2, I will address this question.


Tim O'Connor is a philosopher whose chief interests lie in metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of religion.

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