Friday, October 01, 2010

What Are We?

Underneath the flash and spark of the science and religion debates are some real issues that reflect some real differences of world view. One of these, I think, are differing ideas about what a human being is. What do you think we are?

Here are your choices: *

1. We are made of one "part"
a. a physical body only. (materialism)
b. spirited bodies, incarnated souls, (physicalism)

2. We are made of two "parts" (dualism)
a. a body and a soul
b. a body and a mind

3. We are made up of three parts, body, soul, and spirit. (trichotomism)

4. We are made up of one "part" which is spiritual or mental (idealism).

So, what did you pick? Was it hard to decide? Is this a topic you have given much thought to?

Nancey Murphy in her book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies, suggests that most people haven't thought very seriously about this. That's a shame, because as she points out, our view of what a person "is" affects our opinions about many modern concerns. Abortion, end of life, stem cell research- just to name a few.

Historically the mainstream Christian position has been dualism. Murphy contends that much of our Christian thinking about this has been more heavily influenced by Greek and Roman philosophy and less influenced by scripture. The Old Testament, for the most part, assumes a robust physicalism. This is not the "nothing but" materialism of modern reductionism which claims humans are nothing but our physical bodies and so genetics, endocrinology and the rest of science can account for all that we are. In the Hebrew Bible, people were understood to be unities of body, mind, and soul. We cannot be separated into component parts. Sometimes this idea is expressed by the phrase "incarnated souls" or "spirited bodies". The New Testament writers reflect the variety of first century opinions about what constitutes a human being but are more concerned about relationship.
So the Greek philosophers we have surveyed were interested in the question:what are the essential parts that make up a human being? In contrast, for the biblical authors each "part" ("part" in scare quotes" stands for the whole person thought of from a certain angle. For example, "spirit" stands for the whole person in relation to God. What the New Testament authors are concerned with, then, is human beings in relationship to the natural world, to the community and to God. Paul's distinction between spirit and flesh is not our later distinction between soul and body. Paul is concerned with two ways of living: one in conformity with the Spirit of God, and the other in conformity to the old aeon before Christ. (21-22)

So Murphy argues that there is no clear definitive Biblical teaching about what a human being is. Therefore, she believes Christians in our time are free to, and should, rethink our beliefs about what a human being is and that we should use the findings of modern science as well as scripture to help us do this.

Murphy acknowledges that there will have to be "adjustments" made to certain Christian beliefs but she contends that on the whole, they will be helpful. For example, physicalism could help Christians embrace a strong belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And, it could help encourage an appreciation for the physical world- our bodies included- that would discourage an "other worldliness" that sometimes keeps us from acting in this world.

I have to confess, I haven't finished her book yet. I'm reading it as part of a science and religion book discussion group and I haven't read ahead. It will be interesting to think more about this as she makes her case for physicalism.

But I am wondering about the implications of physicalism for the science and religion dialogue.

If more Christians adopted a physicalist view, would that remove some of the stumbling blocks in the science and religion dialogue? Removing dialogue stumbling blocks is not an adequate reason to adopt the physicalist position. But what if after serious study and prayer and discussion, physicalism became a more commonly held belief? Would we stop debating about souls and start focusing on entire people?

Certainly this view of humanity, physicalism is a more complex accounting of humans than the "nothing but-ism" of some materialists. There still might be too big a difference to overcome. How ever, not all scientists are materialists, and some are very willing to engage a more complex view of human kind.

What do you think? Is physicalism a view that Christians could faithfully adopt? Would a physicalist anthropology help resolve some of the science and religion tensions?


Adapted from Nancey Murphy's book Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, Current Issues in Theology, Iain Torrance, editor. Cambridge University Press: 2006.


Douglas Underhill said...

I think that taking the Biblical position of what you're calling physicalism would change the conversation entirely - not just with science and religion, but also regarding Heaven and Hell. The 'normal' view of Heaven and Hell isn't really Biblically based at all - it's based on a kind of hobbled Greek dualism, and I think it was reinforced with Enlightenment dualism, which we haven't really outgrown yet.

I'm not even sure I like the term "soul" because it is so infected with the idea of "the floaty-thing that detaches from the body and goes up to the clouds to get a harp".

I also don't think that reductionism actually accounts for all that science, even taken by itself, knows about what we are. If nothing else, it doesn't account for the mind, or for emergent behaviors or systems, etc. And what sense does reductionism make at the forefront of physics? Reductionist quantum physics is still pretty damn baffling apart from some serious math.


Nancy said...

Doug, I think that you are right, reductionism, while it has been amazingly fruitful for science, can't explain everything.There are areas of science where reductionim doesn't work. So I think the idea that we humans are "nothing but" biological systems will, ultimately be an inadequate explaination. At the same time, as we learn more about brains and minds, I think, it will become harder to locate our "real" selves outside of our bodies. Time will tell...maybe the ancient Hebrews were right?
By the way I like your "floaty-thing" definition of the soul.

John Edward Harris said...

I can live with physicalism, most of the time. I think physicalism best represents both creation accounts with their presence of both matter and spirit. However, can physicalism answer all our questions and address all our problems? There may be times when we must see a problem through one of the other lenses. Having said that, I still prefer a general consistency of view.

The Shadow said...

What about using our math skills like we do with the Trinity. 1+1+1=1 Father, Son, Holy Spirit Everything is Relational. They are three parts of each other like trichotomism and yet one.
Thus, Physical Heart (emotional) Physical Mind (intellectual) Physical body "Soul" (Spiritual) all in relationship with each other. three in one... OK I haven't read the book and am taking this off topic, but perhaps I am being led by the Spirit or maybe it was that something from my own mind? Is this something my heart is telling me to say? Oh, so many choices with just one thought! Alas I could be wrong! Ain't theology great!