Southern Baptist Voices: A Response to John Hammett, Part 2

| By Tim O'Connor

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.

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 (yesterday and today) 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. 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.

In the first part of my response to Dr. John Hammett’s article “Evolutionary Creationism and the Imago Dei,” I briefly considered what the Scriptures mean in declaring us to be made in God’s image. In response to his first point, I agreed that the original BioLogos FAQ on this topic was inadequate for the reason he states. I then noted that for many Christians, this declaration—together with the doctrine of everlasting life—leads ineluctably to soul (or mind)-body dualism: the metaphysical account of human persons as composed of two distinct things, a wholly physical body (including one’s brain and nervous system) and a wholly nonphysical mind (“the soul”), which is the seat of our conscious states and choices and which alone is essential to us. This was the gist of the remaining two points that Dr. Hammett made in his article.

At the end of my first article, I noted that while this tidy division has considerable intuitive appeal and makes it easy to account for some important Christian teachings concerning human beings, it does not seem very plausible when we take into account what we learn from God’s other Book, the Book of His Works (or ‘of Nature’). That other Book points to a view of human nature, including our psychological and spiritual aspects, as more intimately bound up with our bodies, especially our brains and nervous systems. But does the theological argument endorsed by Dr. Hammett stand? Or is there an alternative to the dualist account that can fully accommodate both sources of our data, Scriptural and scientific? In what follows, I seek to answer this question. Surely if there is such an account, we ought to embrace it.

I do believe that there is a viable alternative account. (Note that I mean “account” in the philosopher’s sense of an abstract schema; it is the business of the human sciences to put flesh on the philosopher’s bones.) However, this sort of account is often overlooked by Christians and scientifically-educated religious skeptics alike, because both camps tend to assume an extremely reductionist view of the physical world. It is important to see that this view functions as an inherited assumption, rather than being something that neutral scientific evidence strongly indicates. It is the sort of view at work when people say that rocks and statues and plants and even (on materialist assumptions) human people are ‘nothing but’ molecules in motion. That is to say, that all composite objects whatsoever (living animal and human bodies included) are not only wholly composed of microscopic parts, all of their features and behavior wholly consist in the sum total of the behavior of those parts obeying impersonal, microscopic laws.

A short online article is not the place to mount a full-scale defense of a controversial thesis. So I will have to rest content with sketching an alternative account at least as it concerns minded creatures such as ourselves. I further note that this account is embraced by many nonreligious as well as religious scientists and other thinkers. According to this view, there is a duality to our nature, physical and mental (and so spiritual), but it is not a radical, all-or-nothing duality of fundamentally different kinds of substance. Instead, it is a duality of interwoven processes, “bottom up” and “top down,” taking place within a single physically composed object.

I am a living body, composed at any moment entirely of physical part, such that I have a total mass and size and shape. But unlike a hunk of rock or wood, I am a persisting unity despite undergoing massive change of my parts over time. What gives me this enduring unity as an individual person is not my identity as a partless immaterial substance, but rather my possession of biologically dependent but irreducible psychological and spiritual capacities: conscious self- and other-awareness; belief and motivation; awareness of moral obligation and capacity to reason morally; and ability to make choices that make a difference to how the world unfolds, fundamental to my individual moral responsibility. And all of these undergird my capacity for awareness of and friendship with God.

The reductionist view of the natural world is not wholly wrong. Many of the spectacular successes of twentieth-century science consisted in showing how certain ‘high-level’ features (liquidity and other molecular properties; biological life itself) can be seen to result directly from the properties and interactions of lower-level entities. These theories are elegant and persuasive on the evidence. However, alongside such reductionist successes we have seen the rise of the sciences of complex systems, which appear to indicate the importance of higher-level features of organized systems acting as fundamental constraints upon the lower-level behavior of the very entities that compose them.

How exactly we should understand such ‘emergent’ or ‘holistic’ features in different sorts of complex physical systems is a hotly debated question by theorists. I would claim only that it is especially plausible to see human consciousness and the capacities that it enables as metaphysically irreducible to—something ‘over and above’—the underlying physical properties that give rise to them. Conscious states and behavior are at once constrained by and constrain the brain’s underlying biochemistry.

Let us suppose that something along these lines is true. Is it consistent with the revealed truth that we have an immortal destiny? At death, our bodies decay, eventually reducing to a heap of inorganic matter. Yet continuity of biological processes seems essential to my continued existence on the one-substance emergentist account of human persons. It would seem to follow that I simply cease to be when the processes themselves cease. Suppose that God chooses, on the Day of Judgment, to cause there to be a living body again, largely constituted out of old parts of my body from the moment of my death, and that the resulting person resembles me psychologically and physically. It seems that such a person would not be me; it would merely be a copy of me (even if it would be a good enough copy to fool my wife and children). It is cold comfort to be told that while I, strictly speaking, will not survive death, someone a lot like me will continue on in glory.

It is this thought—that not even almighty God can bring it about that a long dead organism comes to live again—that is the chief motivation for adopting the two substance account. On that account, what I am at my core is wholly nonbiological, so the facts of biological decay are not relevant to the possibility of my surviving death. As Dr. Hammett notes, a related theological motivation for embracing the two substance account is the belief (seen by many as taught in Scripture) that human persons will exist in an interim state between death and the general resurrection, when we become ‘clothed with’ imperishable, immortal bodies. Is inferred that this is a bodiless state, something flatly inconsistent with the view I am suggesting, in which persons are living bodies manifesting emergent states and capacities that are distinctive of persons.

I think that, on this matter of precisely how we survive death, we are hampered by failure of imagination, an inevitable result of our complete lack of acquaintance with one half of the equation (the other side of death). But perhaps we can at least see the bare outline of how it might go.

We should bear in mind at the outset of speculation regarding ‘survival scenarios’ that, regardless of whether the two-substance or the one-substance view of human nature is correct, we are not ‘naturally’ immortal, as the ancient Greek Plato taught. Immortal life is a gift of God. No created substance, whether material or immaterial, persists through time except that God wills it to be so. Now it is evident, again on either of the two competing accounts of persons, that in this life our psychological lives depend, as a causal matter, on the proper functioning of our brains. So if we survive death, we do so because God so acts to preserve us as conscious, purposive agents even as the naturally sustaining functions of the brain collapse. In the two-substance account, it seems that God directly and miraculously takes over the sustaining role formerly played by the brain. (Note that He had, anyways, been sustaining the matter composing the brain all along. At death, you might say, He cuts out the “middle-man,” at least for a time, prior to the resurrection.)

What might God miraculously do to sustain us if the one substance account is correct? Here we have to be a little more imaginative. Suppose that God has conferred upon each of the particles that compose our bodies the ability to ‘fission’—split into two particles identical to the original. And suppose that this ability can be manifested only under very special circumstances. (Perhaps God must miraculously bring to bear some additional force-like factor that triggers the relevant disposition, and He does so only in situations of imminent demise.) In this imagined scenario, the particles that compose me are causally responsible for both the dying state of the body that remain on earth and a similarly composed but happily living state in another location. The dead earthly body,—while constituted by the matter that a moment ago had constituted me—is not me, for it lacks the unity-conferring emergent features essential to me. The ‘heavenly body’ retains those features, and so by virtue of its intrinsic causal continuity with my earlier state, it is I, myself.

Think of the previous paragraph as a basic recipe that can be modified to accommodate details of what revelation teaches under one’s favored interpretation. So, for example, the basic recipe seems to indicate that I persist in my normal form uninterruptedly across the moment of my ‘death.’ While the nature (and even the fact) of our existence after death but before the resurrection at the end of this age is a disputed matter in Christian theology, no one seems to imagine its being like that.

One alternative to the ‘persist as I am’ way of thinking about an interim stage goes like this: the causal connection between my parts pre- and post-death needn’t be one-to-one, or even very close to that, especially when we take into account the possibility of continuous rapid changes over a very short time interval. If what awaits us initially is in some ways a diminished state, appropriate to longing for the glorious resurrection to come, then that can easily be accommodated. Yes, in the present view, we are necessarily embodied, but the form and quality of embodiment can vary in both directions.

And this brings us to the bodily resurrection itself. The Apostle Paul seems to tell us that at the general resurrection, we shall become something minimally materially continuous with but quite radically different from what we are now—as a seed becomes a plant in the fullness of time, so our bodies ‘sown’ at death will become something remarkably different. For example, we shall no longer be subject to infirmities, decay, or death. One might worry that the intimated discontinuity is sufficiently great as to conflict with the emergent embodiment account’s requirement of significant material-causal continuity: how can matter as we know it become the stuff of immortal and incorruptible bodies?

My reply, again, is that unbroken causal continuity over time is consistent with dramatic change. And note that the change need be not only in our bodies (ourselves) but also in the environment we inhabit. Who can say what changes God might bring about so as to make possible such hitherto unknown flourishing? For example, might our post-mortem material environment (and so our bodies, constituted by the same basic material) include new yet congruent elements that transform natural bodily processes as we know them?

In the end, we must acknowledge that we have very little to go on for the purposes of formulating, let alone assessing, the ways available to God for making good on His promise to us of everlasting life. Given that this is so, we should not feel the need to adopt a view of human nature that makes the realization of that promise more readily imaginable to us. We are indeed ‘frail children of dust,’ but this is not cause for us to fear even death itself. Whatever the specific source or “home” of the capacity to have relationship with God, and however that capacity continues after the breakdown of the biochemical processes and structures at death, we have as our model the one true and perfect ikon of God, Jesus Christ, who we know did prevail, not just persist after his own physical death. We who follow Him rest in the hands of the eternal One who has, astonishingly, bound Himself to us eternally through His incarnate Son and declared that one day we will be like Him.


About the Author

Tim O'Connor

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