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?
Earlier, 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 Common Question 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.