Science, Body, and Soul 1 (RJS)

Over the next couple of weeks or so I would like to look at two books, not new but fairly recent, that think through some ideas on body and soul. The first is by Kevin Corcoran, Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul where he develops a constitution view of human persons.  Professor Corcoran is a philosopher teaching at Calvin College specializing in philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion  – a philosopher who tries to connect philosophy with bible, theology, faith, and science.

The second book is by Joel Green, now a professor of New Testament interpretation at Fuller Theological Seminary. His book  Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible looks at a biblical view of human nature and argues that a dualistic view of the human person  as material body and immaterial soul is inconsistent with both science and Scripture. Green is a biblical scholar who works to connect bible, theology, and faith with philosophy and science.

I, on the other hand, am a scientist who would like to connect science with philosophy, bible, theology, and faith. Join us it should be interesting.

To get this going let’s start simple, with a little question.

What kind of things are we?

Corcoran poses the problem like this (pp. 11-13):

A common Christian view through the centuries has held that we are immaterial souls – contingently and tightly joined to bodies on earth but capable of existing without them. The essence of our being is this immaterial soul and this is what is preserved after death and in the age to come.

But this is decidedly not the common view in our modern (or postmodern) western culture. As Corcoran puts it:

… today the dominant view among philosophers, ethicists, neurobiologists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists is a “nothing but” view of materialism, the view that creatures like us are “nothing but” complicated neural networks or mere biological beasts. (p. 12)

The question of human nature has profound ramifications and impacts christian views of  such topics as cloning, abortion, stem cell research, and even organ transplants. The question of human nature also touches on the afterlife and the meaning of creation “in the image of God.”

We ran a short series awhile ago looking at the science of sin (Part One and Part Two). This series explored the idea that what we are and how we behave is intimately related to the make up of our physical bodies.  Not only that but how we choose to behave and to think has an impact on the make up of our physical being. Virtue, like vice, can change the structure of the human brain. This information also impacts the way we think about human nature -  and how we view ourselves.

Corcoran presents a version of materialism – not nothing-but materialism, which is a view inconsistent with Christian faith – but a version of materialism which keeps essential insights from the dualist view of of human nature while presenting a view of humans as what I would call embodied unities. This is, according to Corcoran, a Christian materialism. He doesn’t claim definitive answers, but opens his ideas for discussion.

This brings us back to the little question above as a way to begin this discussion – a question we can express in several ways, take your pick…

What kind of things are we?

Are we, in our essence, immaterial things or material things – or both?

If both, what kind of compound beings are we?

Is a materialist view of human persons and human nature consistent with the Christian faith?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

  • theologien

    Not to press the point, but doesn’t scripture say that we are souls (Nephesh), not that we have souls?
    Spirit, or Ruach is a different matter. Sometimes it is The Spirit, and sometimes it something like a “spirit of fear” or whatever.
    So, my vote NO- we don’t have a soul, and Yes- we have a “spirit”.

  • Scot McKnight

    Theologien, or would you say we “are” souled bodies or spirited bodies?

  • http://bramboniusinenglish.wordpress.com brambonius

    I am not a materialist at all… I do believe in immaterial beings that may be differently material in other dimensions, the ones we call angels and demons in common speech; even though I’m not too sure about the ‘every spiritual being = angel/fallen angel’ theory I’ve grown up with… But I’ve encountered enough stuff in my life to never be a materialist (even when it wasn’t that much) I have no clear theory about spiritual beings right now, but I am inclined to believe that some kind of spirits may have a more ‘para-organic’ origin.
    I believe humans to be integrated amphibious animal/spiritual beings in essence. The animal may descend from the same common decent of all animals, and the spiritual part may be the the lifebreath God breathed into man in genesis (which may mean that humans are spiritual beings in another way than aforementioned beings, in a more Godlike Eikon way). I don’t know.
    Jesus came back in a glorified body, not as a spirit, so I don’t think spirits without bodies are ever complete… The body and it’s DNA are one way of coding the essence of a human being, and the spirit/soul that leaves a body after death may be another one… But I think a human is only complete as a integrated body+soul/spirit
    shalom
    Bram

  • Kevin

    I agree with Corcoran. At least on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I do. (-:

  • Shane

    Gen 2:7 “[God]… breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living soul/being (nephesh).”
    I guess i’ve come to understand man as a living soul composed of body and spirit, neither of which are complete without the other. So i’d say we are a soul, and we have a body/spirit. Interesting question

  • dopderbeck

    Cool! I’ve read Green’s book but haven’t yet read Corcoran. I’ve also read Nancey Murphy’s stuff on this, and John Cooper’s more traditional book.
    Ok, so here’s my “meta” question: to what extent must the Tradition constrain our understanding of the “soul?” The Athanasian Creed, for example, refers specifically to Jesus’ having a “rational soul.” Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas — all agree that there is a “rational soul” and that this notion is essential to theological anthropology. My “fear” is that this is a subject we shouldn’t even broach, much like we shouldn’t advocate ideas about God that deny the Trinity.

  • http://www.life-mission.org/blog Adam

    This is an important topic. Green’s book confirmed many thoughts I’ve had in working with people. I can’t say I understand or agree with everything, but it’s clear to me that we are fighting against reality when we don’t come to terms with an embodied existence. A Cartesian view of humanity doesn’t seem to comport with how people actually live and are shaped. Additionally, it actually leads to an objectifying of people since it tends to teach that we are not our bodies, which results in many cruel ways of relating.

  • http://christiannonduality.com/blog/ John Sobert Sylvest

    If someone put a gun to my head and told me I had to get it right or else, I would opt for a nonreductive physicalism to describe human nature, pretty much following Nancey Murphy.
    The better our anthropology, the better our theology will be. At the same time, beyond a robust phenomenology, which needn’t delve heavily into minute ontological particulars in order to capture the essence of the human experience, it seems to me that we will rather quickly reach a point of diminishing returns with our investments in one speculative metaphysic or another, one philosophy of mind or another. To some extent, good old fashioned common sense and a simple faith seem to be enough to properly understand humanity.
    We can successfully defend notions of downward causality without any violations of physical causal closure. We know that tacit dimensions can, in an ineluctably unobtrusive manner, be utterly efficacious. By analogy, then, if we do live in an hierarchical reality, it is not that difficult to imagine divine causal joints that would be unobtrusive and undetectable, in principle, even while quite effective in actuality. We cannot know a priori whether such an ontological discontinuity between Creator and creature is the only such discontinuity in nature, itself.
    In other words, such a putative hierarchy could be multi-layered and there is no way we could, in principle, empirically measure or logically demonstrate same. An appeal to the notion that there is scientific support for physicalism but not dualism seems disingenuous; after all, if created reality is in any way dualistic, we’re not going to be able to subject same to science. At some point, our investigations could be thwarted and we’d simply be left with metaphysical conceptions and inferences that are not empirically measurable, logically conclusive or hypothetically falsifiable. The soul, however, does not seem to be one of those elusive realities; neuroscience seems to have described its functions rather well.
    Whatever the case may be, I don’t think Scripture or tradition are inextricably intertwined with one particular anthropology or one particular metaphysic. Science doesn’t ask the questions that are the most meaningful to us, anyway. It’s role is not to “reduce” our culture, philosophy or religion or other emergent realities that are terribly interesting and tremendously significant as phenomena no matter what their underlying mechanisms are. I’m not denying that folks don’t devise wholly reductionistic explanations , only observing that they lack explanatory adequacy and are question-begging tautologies, uninteresting at that (to me).
    With no gun to my head, metaphysically, I’m agnostic regarding the created realm. My nonduality is an epistemic stance and not an ontological position, except for my nuanced panentheism and except for my sneaking suspicions, or very provisional closure, regarding the soul.

  • Karl

    Scot, I raised a question related to this in an earlier thread that probably got lost in the shuffle. I’d be interested in your thoughts though. I’m trying to reconcile the idea of body/spirit as a false duality, with the post-death, but pre-resurrection state of a redeemed person.
    If the body/soul or body/spirit dualism is completely false and the two (or three?) are really inseparable, then where is the child of God (and what part of her is there) when her body has died and has been cremated, but the New Kingdom hasn’t yet been brought to its fullness. When she is experiencing “life after death” and hasn’t yet arrived at N.T. Wright’s embodied-in-a-newly-remade-body “life AFTER life after death”?
    Or in other words, what implications (if any) do those Christian beliefs about “life after death” and “life after life after death” have on the idea that body/soul are inseparable?

  • BPRjam

    I’m thoroughly materialist, though I’ve encountered many non-scientists that don’t really get what that means. I also believe that our complexity is such that it transcends the sum of our parts, but I’m reductionist enough to believe that science will one day be able to explain this. Perhaps I’m more “science of the gaps” than “God of the gaps”.
    That doesn’t mean I think everything that IS is material. It just means that I believe WE are inextricably material. This affects the way I see human life today (no dualism), the way I see the “afterlife” (though much of my view of the afterlife is not fleshed out. How could it be?), and how I understand our being made in the image of God.
    I’ve not read this book (and likely won’t get to it during this discussion), but it seems that most of the stuff I read on this topic continually want to give a nod to dualism. Why is this? We don’t continually feel the need to give a nod to a concentric cosmology or deities that battle for supremacy, though it appears to me that biblical authors believed those things. Why the need to continue interacting with dualism?

  • RJS

    Karl,
    I saw your earlier comment and knew it would come up here again. So I waited to comment. That and I’m traveling. The phone doesn’t allow for long comments easily.
    More later.

  • Scot McKnight

    Karl, in a word I’d say we don’t know with certainty. Paul says we will be “with the Lord” and in that passage (2 Cor 5:1-10) is reflecting on the nature of that body as a “putting on over” — not all that clear to be sure.
    So, I’d say: we are with the Lord somehow and not totally dissolved into nothingness and the resurrection reconstitutes that same body/person/souletc into a new, but continuous, existence.

  • Travis Greene

    I was thinking about this while watching this week’s episode of “House”. The patient-of-the-week in the episode was a porn star, who was married to another porn star. Upon being asked if that ever causes problems between them, one of the characters said something like “Relationships are emotional; sex is mechanical. One doesn’t have to have anything to do with the other.”
    It strikes me that although most traditional views about sex, fidelity, monogamy, etc are seen by many as “too spiritual”, “hating the body”, and so forth (and of course there is much truth to thisaccusation), the opposite is in fact true. It’s the folks who are casual about sex who don’t really care about their bodies, since all that really matters is how you feel. Much of our culture may be predicated on materialism, but I think “on the ground” we’re pretty much still gnostics, with emotion in the place of spirit.
    dopderbeck,
    I’m not sure the creeds add any more trouble for us than Scripture talking about the breath of life, etc. All the Athanasian creed says is that Jesus was “of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting” and that “the reasonable soul and flesh is one man”. If anything, the creeds help us remember that only a unity of spirit and flesh makes a human being.

  • http://www.precipicemagazine.com Darren King

    Doperback asked:
    ” to what extent must the Tradition constrain our understanding of the “soul?”
    And then added:
    “My “fear” is that this is a subject we shouldn’t even broach, much like we shouldn’t advocate ideas about God that deny the Trinity.”
    I’m curious as to what exactly you’re getting at here. Again, people understood God, themselves, and the rest of reality, through their own necessarily-limited worldview constructs. So why would we enshrine all of their constructions in stone? This seems to me to be a form of “beliefism” more than Christian faith.
    Care to elaborate?

  • Karl

    Scot, thanks for the reply. I would be suspicious if you tried to offer much more clarity – I agree that we don’t and can’t know with certainty. I heard NT Wright field a similar question and he said pretty much the same thing.
    But that then takes me back to my frustration/dissatisfaction with “certainty” that body/soul/spirit are completely inseparable. If our bodies burned up in a fire but “we” are “with the Lord” until being reconstituted . . . then what, exactly are “we” while we are with the Lord? What about the “great cloud of witnesses” who are, presumably in that state (whatever it may look like exactly). That language seems to me to suggest something more than just an unconscious limbo, but rather a significant personhood. Or do you see the great cloud of witnesses language as just metaphorical, rather than an actual suggestion that departed saints are aware of what occurs on earth?

  • Bob

    That cover comes from William Blake who said that the body is the form of the soul as apprehended by the senses. I wonder if the connection is intentional or if the publishing house just thought it looked neat-o.

  • RevGrant

    This is a fascinating discussion, though I confess some of the finer points are a little over my head… Ladd said that in the O.T. a human was understood as an animated body rather than an incarnated soul. Paul seemed to understand some part of us to exist post-death as Scot and others have pointed out. But his understanding is thoroughly Hebrew in origin, not Greek. Over the years I have increasingly come to realise how important in Christian belief is the physical resurrection – that humans are incomplete without a body, even in eternity. This has given me fresh appreciation for the importance of the material world in God’s economy, and refreshed excitement to aim to live fully human as He intended.

  • mick

    To quote a famous philosopher, theologian and man of the sea:
    “I am what I am and that’s all that I am”! Popeye
    Deep stuff :)

  • dopderbeck

    John (#8) — I like your critical realist approach here. However, you’re a Catholic, right? Isn’t dualism dogma in the Catholic tradition (by “dogma” here I mean nothing derogatory — I just mean teaching that is central)?
    Darren (#14) — this goes back to the discussion we had with Jim Belcher about the “Great Tradition” having some degree of authority. I guess I always worry, perhaps a bit too much, about what minimal set of beliefs are necessary to the definition of “Christian.” I like the idea that the early ecumenical creeds summarize a centering set of beliefs. And there it is in the Athanasian Creed — a reference to the “rational soul” — a notion embedded deeply in historic Christian anthropologies. My inclination in looking for ways of finding complementarity between contemporary neurobiology and my faith tradition therefore involves trying to preserve a notion of ontological dualism.
    Karl asks what is a key question in this debate: the related doctrine of the “intermediate state.” Scot (#12) — I think Murphy, Green and most other nonreductive physicalists go further than you’ve gone here. They say there is no “intermediate state.” When a person dies, the “person” is nowhere until the resurrection, because the death of the body is the death of the “person.” At the resurrection, the entire person is reconstituted, in some way in continuity with the person’s prior existence. (This is my understanding of Green and Murphy’s views; I think Corcoran’s might be a bit more nuanced). Critics suggest — with some justification? — that this starts to sound more like “reincarnation” than “resurrection.”

  • Jason

    I’ve always entertained the idea that we are spirits who have souls and we live in a body. Our spirit determines the core of our identity in Christ. Our soul is our personality and our body is simply the “earthsuit” that holds us. After the new birth our spirits are perfected, our souls are in the process of sanctification, and when Jesus returns we get a new body. I will admit that I simply believe this because it is what I’ve been taught. I’ve never really dug deep into the subject but I’m now feeling the need to.

  • Travis Greene

    Jason @ 19,
    I’d encourage you to do so. That was the same teaching I grew up with, and there is a good case to be made that it is unbiblical and in fact harmful, notwithstanding the good hearts and intentions of those who propagate it.

  • http://www.precipicemagazine.com Darren King

    Doperback,
    I agree that it can be scary, and certainly a little disorienting, to start messing with assumptions in creedal statements. But at the end of the day, our faith is in Spirit of God that is still leading today, not in documents written about people’s experience of that same Spirit of God thousands of years ago.
    This relates to what I’ve been saying across a few of these threads, I think the problem is that we lack a robust reliance on, and theology of, the Holy Spirit.
    And besides, fear is never a good motivation for much of anything, save perhaps climbing into a lion’s den.

  • http://www.everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    If I am simply a material being – I see no reason to think my beliefs, desires and choices do not ultimately reduce to the unthinking movements of atoms.
    In fact, on the materialist position, it seems to me that human identity itself is an illusion. What are “you” beyond the temporary collection of these atoms at this place at this time (and of course those atoms are consistently changing).
    If this form of materialism is true it seems to me justifying human freedom, seeing our passions and beliefs as anything more than chemical splashes in our grey matter, and the “you” that exists over time all become highly problematic.
    Be well – Jeff

  • Frog Leg

    I’m with Karl on the false dualism of body vs soul. The most natural unity of the two concepts (for me) is to view the physical body as appearance, and the soul as ontology. The body is the appearance of the soul. This comports with what we know of physics, particularly relativity and quantum mechanics–every measurable physical quantity depends on the viewpoint of the observer. The distinction between material and non-material is then fundamentally a difference between how we know the two, rather than a difference in what the things are. The material is then defined by what we observe.
    As to Karl’s point on the life-after-death and life-after-life-after-death, I have taken a heterodox viewpoint on it. The unification of body and soul is what happens at death, rather than a separation of the two. The unification takes place because at death we see ourselves finally as we are, not just as our limited senses allow. In this viewpoint the end times is a personal event, not a global one. This viewpoint also takes care of the problem with Matthew 24:34 (“Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.”) in that “these things” occur for each person when the generation passes.

  • Brian in NZ

    This is an interesting discussion, but I wonder one thing: Isn’t the whole concept being discussed similar to the centuries earlier discussion about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
    How does this line of discussion, actually change anything. Yes it is intellectual, and stretches the gray matter, but does it do anything more than that?
    We are what we are, and life after death is an unknown (intellectually), so discussion is hypothetical.

  • Travis Greene

    Brian @ 24,
    But if I believe I am in fact just a particularly clever animal, with nothing to look forward to after death, won’t that cause me to live very differently than if I believe in some kind of immortality and/or judgment? At the very least, I’d be much more reluctant to risk my life (or even my comfort) fighting injustice or working for others. I’m not worried about total materialists descending into violent chaos (as in the silly question some theists put to atheists: If you don’t believe in God, what keeps you from raping and killing everyone?) as much as I am a middle-class bourgeois refusal to rock the boat.
    I am the first to say we’ve majored far too much on belief to the detriment of action, but what we believe matters too. Yeah, a lot of this is speculative, but it’s a concern with implications for justice (Jesus seemed to think his followers would likely end up dead pursuing his kingdom, and he was right) and pastoral concerns (people do still want hope for themselves/their families).

  • RJS

    Brian in NZ,
    I don’t think this is a conversation similar to the how many angels question. It seems to me that how we view ourselves in the context of our faith can have rather profound consequences.
    Is the body bad and something to be conquered?
    Is it possible to separate “relationship” (thought and love) from physical responses? (Is sex just physical?)
    How does one live in a Christian fashion – just pray and hope, or is virtue and discipline with physical consequence a key part of the process?
    Do bodily responses count (kneeling, sacrament, fasting…) or is spiritual separable from physical?
    I could go on. And we will get to some of these issues specifically. But I am convinced that this is a question we will do well to ponder seriously.

  • RJS

    Kevin #4,
    Materialist T Th Sa but dualist M, W, F? (Su is a day of rest)

  • RJS

    Karl,
    I would have to agree with Scot (and you asked him in the first place I realize). I don’t know with any certainty what will happen between death and resurrection (or for that matter completely in the resurrection). NT Wright often gives an analogy from Polkinghorne about software and hardware – but seems rather agnostic about the exact nature of life immediately after death himself.
    I think that the questions of body and soul are critical for here and now though – how shall we live? This is a focus that seems to me to have serious consequences. Others are free to disagree of course.

  • Richard W. Symonds

    May I contribute to the discussion here – which I believe is critical…not just important.
    Mega Theory states we have a Moral Instinct (or Moral Sense) which is both immanent within us, but also transcendent :
    http://gatwickcity.phpbb3now.com/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=535&start=200
    Another word for the “Moral Instinct” could be “Soul”, “Spirit”, “Conscience” etc
    Chomsky & Pinker have already fully developed the idea of a “Language Faculty or Instinct” and Hauser with “Moral Minds”.
    Mega Theory & The Moral Instinct is a development from that, as well as from the ‘Transcendence-Immanence’ ideas in CEM Joad’s “RECOVERY OF BELIEF – A Restatement of Christian Philosophy”.
    As I see it, a greater understanding of Christian Philosophy will be a critical pre-condition for Humanity’s survival.

  • Brian from NZ

    Travis @ 25
    Fair comment about our beliefs in things that can’t be proven (aka our faith) do affect how we live and how we treat those who live around us. I guess I was commenting on how the discussion appeared to be revolving around things that can’t be substantiated one way or the other. Do we have a new body, when do we get it, is it like this but different and so on.
    I certainly believe that our world view is dramatically shaped by our spiritual views on how God sees/accepts/relates to us, what happens when we die etc. etc. These views establish values that we live our lives by.
    Some of the comments have been too esoteric for my untheologically trained mind, so I’m certain that I missed many of the fine points in some comments.
    RJS, keep the good discussion topics coming. Thanks.

  • http://christiannonduality.com/blog/ John Sobert Sylvest

    dopderbeck 18 asked: John (#8) — I like your critical realist approach here. However, you’re a Catholic, right? Isn’t dualism dogma in the Catholic tradition (by “dogma” here I mean nothing derogatory — I just mean teaching that is central)?

  • dopderbeck

    John (#31) — maybe it’s because I’ve never been Catholic, but I still don’t “get” what it means to be Catholic. On the one hand, it seems strongly, almost rigidly, confessional; on the other hand, it seems like folks can interpret those confessional statements in radically different ways?

  • Karl

    RJS, thank you. I’m sorry for not including you in my question along with Scot because I am very interested in your thoughts, too.
    I like the this-world implications of an approach like N.T. Wright’s. But I’m wrestling to square that approach (body/soul/spirit as one entity and completely inseparable) with these other things that seem to be hinted at. However mysterious and unknown they are, they do seem to imply a separation and continuation of some essence of “self” from the body. And retreating at that point into agnosticism while still holding to a “hard” position that body/soul/spirit are inseparable just doesn’t seem wholly satisfactory to me.

  • David

    Quote from initial post: “But this [substance dualism] is decidedly not the common view in our modern (or postmodern) western culture.” While this is not a major point I think we need to clarify things right at this stage.
    Substance dualism is not the common view amongst a certain class of individuals (academics). But I’d be shocked if it was not the common view amongst just about everyone else (I have no empirical research to back me here so feel free to fire away).
    So if by common view we mean (what that phrase undoubtedly suggests) the majority of persons no matter their education, etc, then the claim seems false. If by common view we mean (what the phrase undoubtedly does not suggest) academics, then the claim is true.
    (By the way this is not a nitpicky point. Figuring out who our interlocutor’s take seriously and who they don’t is important for sustainable diaglogue)

  • RJS

    David,
    I am sure that you are at least partly right about “common views” and probably mostly right. But I don’t think that materialism or distrust of substance dualism is confined to “academics.”
    This discussion comes back to Scot’s post on “little foxes” from Wednesday where he looked at the section of Wilkens’s and Sanford’s book dealing with scientific naturalism. This is a script and common that is invading our society fairly deeply in many circles.
    I wonder how much it is confined to an educated “elite” and how deeply it really penetrates though.

  • RJS

    Karl,
    I have not finished Corcoran’s book yet, or started Green’s, but I hope that some of your questions here will be part of the overall discussion.

  • Tim C

    I think the idea of human definition… the view of what we are, body and soul, or mind and body, or purely material bodies that somehow the sum of which forms a being that is more than it’s parts…. is a huge and crucial place for Christians to think through.
    And where it might seem esoteric (how many angels can dance on a head of a pin territory) it really isn’t — it cuts to the heart of the Christian world view. It impacts our view of the value of the body, sexuality issues, begining and ending of life issues, and all the way to our views of the Incarnation of God in Jesus.
    (Which to most people they view Jesus as a material body which instead of a human soul inside it, His body somehow had God’s essence in it’s place)
    Fascinating and Crucial. And I’ve personally always wondered how much today’s Christans views of the issue were influenced by Athens, versus Jerusalem.
    Tim

  • http://christiannonduality.com/blog/ John Sobert Sylvest

    dopderbeck (#32) wrote: “maybe it’s because I’ve never been Catholic, but I still don’t “get” what it means to be Catholic. On the one hand, it seems strongly, almost rigidly, confessional; on the other hand, it seems like folks can interpret those confessional statements in radically different ways?”
    David (#34) hit upon an important distinction re: common views, academics & theologians versus the majority of persons no matter their education. That’s in play here. Another critical distinction is that between the Catholic hierarchy or magisterial teaching office (a/k/a Rome) versus mainstream theologians versus even what the faithful (sensus fidelium) actually believe and practice.
    Perhaps the most critical distinction in play, however, is that between more progressive and more traditional believers. At the extreme, progressives have a tendency, it seems, to treat what might really be essential or core as accidental or peripheral. For their part, ultra-traditionalists have a tendency to treat what might really be accidental or peripheral as essential or core.
    A question that begs, then, is what could one possibly mean by the qualifier REALLY core or peripheral. While it is true that, in addition to Scripture & Tradition, Faith & Reason, Mysticism & Experience, Catholics have another leg to our stool called the Magisterium or hierarchical teaching office, in THEORY the Magisterium is NOT structured as a TOP-DOWN reality, although IN PRACTICE, that dynamic does seem to be in effect, at least in part, because their is a “temporal” power of the purse and of juridical authority that very much controls the destiny of many peoples lives vis a vis their expression of and experience of church. Being less abstract: 1) women cannot be ordained 2) some priests must remain celibate 3) some politicians get visibly interdicted at the communion rail 4) some ex-priests cannot teach in a parochial school because they weren’t laicized via a formal dispensation 5) some divorced and remarried teachers, similarly, are turned away from church employment because they did not obtain a marriage annulment.
    In theory though, the Magisterium is only supposed to articulate the faith and morals that it has faithfully, diligently and dutifully observed via an active listening process, whereby it has discerned (BOTTOM-UP) what has already been received through the aid of the Holy Spirit by the Faithful, the sensus fidelium. In other words, the universal church asks: What is the sense of the faithful? And the Magisterium, speaking on our behalf should respond with what the church, broadly conceived, has properly gathered and practiced via scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Let’s just say that many of us recognize that, just like with scriptural exegesis and interpreting God’s Word, this process of interpreting the sensus fidelium and articulating its beliefs is a tad more problematical than many, including those both in the hierarchy and the laity, seem able to imagine.
    What do I think is going on?
    Catholic progressives, both Roman and Anglican, are more closely related hermeneutically to each other than they are to their coreligionists in their respective denominations. Same thing with our traditionalist brothers and sisters. Increasingly, I have found that progressive Roman and Anglican catholics have a GREAT deal in common with much of liberal Protestantism and the emerging church conversation(s). This is to say that we are in large agreement regarding essential vs accidentals, core vs peripheral beliefs. I am in much more agreement with the Anglican approach to moral doctrine, church disciplines and church polity than I am with my own Roman tradition, but these are not essentials in my view, while our creeds, our sacraments, our liturgical traditions and incarnational outlooks are. Otherwise, out of personal integrity, I’d have to offer myself up in the recent prisoner swap (yes, that’s a euphemism for a recent impolitic event).
    What makes one distinctly catholic?
    It is not atonement theory. Most Franciscans, following Scotus, don’t buy into the notion that the incarnation was a divine initiative in response to some earthly felix culpa.
    It’s not Greek metaphysics. Even the hierarchy is clear in that science and philosophy are autonomous from faith. While theological discourse will employ inculturated language in articulating beliefs, it is no more tied to this or that metaphysical concept than it is tied to a particular language. It simply translates the essentials of the faith into this or that idiom. I am heavily invested in the American pragmatist tradition (Peirce, less so James, much less so Dewey) and the best parts of our Transcendentalist tradition (Josiah Royce) and don’t do substance metaphysics or Thomism, so my (meta)metaphysical constructs are going to be nondual vis a vis a triadic semiotic. Rome doesn’t publish catechisms in this idiom, only a group of folks who belong to the John Courtney Murray Society at Berkeley find it engaging (best I can tell, anyway; I’m not an academic and I do not get around much).
    I could go on dismissing what is not essential and trying to overcome stereotypes, which we have earned, but …
    Essentially, the catholic outlook on created reality is radically incarnational, rejects moral depravity, sees all of creation as intrinsically good even if flawed, sees created realities mediating the God-encounter & is thus sacramental. Catholicism embraces faith and reason (fides et ratio) but rejects any conflation of science, philosophy and faith, viewing these approaches to reality as methodologically autonomous, hence rejecting fideism and scientism. Essential dogma is contained in the creeds with other stuff up for grabs, although controversy surrounds the only two so-called infallible pronouncements ever articulated, the Assumption and Immaculate Conception, which is more vs less problematical depending on how one conceives so-called “original” sin.
    Finally, coming full circle back to the aim of this thread, there is the question of whether or not there can even be such a thing as a Christian Philosophy or a Theological Anthropology or a Religious Epistemology. And my answer, and I’m pretty sure the orthodox Catholic answer, is no. Anthropology is science. Epistemology is philosophy. Metaphysics belong to various philosophical schools.
    Do people articulate anthropologies, epistemologies, metaphysics and philosophies that would be incompatible with faith? Of course, but that’s because they are doing bad anthropology, bad epistemology, bad metaphysics and bad philosophy, in ways that don’t employ philosophical rigor and can’t withstand philosophical scrutiny. Do believers articulate scientific and philosophical perspectives derived from their religious stances? Sure, but that’s because they’re doing bad science and bad philosophy. In other words, category errors are not uncommon.
    Thanks for your active engagement, sincere curiosity and patience with what must seem like an idiosyncratic and dense prose. I sometimes fear sucking the life out of different threads, which is why I typically will read a forum post, blog on it and then post a condensed version with a link back to my blog. I hope this protocol is okay. If not, please advise. I don’t want to offend charity here, being a Catholic interloper. I’ve been around the Internet for a long time and Jesus Creed is flat out one of the coolest places in cyberspace, even if I feel like a redundant resource just articulating why I agree with most everything Scot, RJS and David Opderbeck and am merely trying to show how it is consonant with my stances.

  • David

    Maybe the following points will be helpful to keep in mind during this discussion (and your reading).
    Suppose that are choices are: reductive materialism (RM), non-reductive materialism(NRM), dualism (D), idealism (I) (I am not sure about a non-reductive idealism; perhaps certain forms of phenomenalism?).
    Like others in the discussion I am interested in the compatibility between Xianity and each of the above positions. But stated this baldly, the question is too vague. So perhaps the thing to do is proceed in the following way: take some doctrine that all (or nearly all) parties agree is essential to Xianity and ask if that doctrine is compatible with each of the above. For example we might start with the resurrection of the dead and ask–Is RM compatible with the resurrection of the dead?; Is NRM compatible with the resurrection of the dead?; and so on. Others?
    Now by my lights each of the above is compatible with the resurrection of the dead (admittedly idealism is a tough one–but I think it can be done).
    What are some other essential doctrines relevant to this discussion? Perhaps the imago dei?

  • David

    One more (for now)quick comment. One of the things that drives me crazy in this debate is when theists give the following argument in support of their reductive or even non-reductive materialism: The interaction problem shows that material substances and souls could not interact with one another (or at least it lowers the probablity of such interaction significantly). So, we should abandon our belief in souls. Well if you are a theist this should not be a problem at all. God is a spirit and He apparently interacts with matter quite a bit. So given theism the probability of interaction between non-material stuff and material stuff is quite high. Indeed given theism and the existence of matter, the probablity that non-matter and matter interacts is near one.
    An aside: I recommend J.P. Moreland’s recent book on the argument from consciousness for the existence of God. It’s very relevant to the discussion here (I hope to have a review of it done very soon for Review of Metaphysics).

  • RJS

    David,
    I am not a philosopher but a scientist (a professor and researcher) so some of your terms seem to assume a knowledge of definitions I don’t have. It would be helpful to give a little more than a term (reductive materialism, nonreductive materialism, or idealism – even “interaction problem”) the first time a term is used – at least it would help me in the conversation.
    Given theism – the probability of interaction would seem to be one unless there is a technicality of definition of which I am not aware.
    On Moreland – are you referring to his book “The God Question”?

  • David

    Hi RJS,
    I apologize for not providing definitions to the terms I used. As you know definitions themselves can be contentious so I’ll to be as brief as possible and yet informative.
    Reductive materialism: All mental events/things are identical with material events/things
    Non-reductive materialism: Not all mental events/things are identical with material events/things but all mental events/things have a material base (or are constituted by material events/things).
    Idealism: All events/things are mental events/things
    Interaction Problem: How can non-material things/events cause/be caused by material things/events?
    The probability of interaction between material and non-material things/events given theism is not one because the probability of there being anything material at all is not one.
    The reason I hesitated on saying that the probability of interaction between material and non-material things/events is one is because some (most?) believe that only necessary truths have a probablity of one.

  • RJS

    Thanks David.
    I will put up another post on Corcoran’s book on Tuesday which will continue the discussion I am sure.
    This is probably a philosophical detail – and reflects a difference in starting point but I would say that the probability of there being anything material at all is exactly one.
    The probability of a nonmaterial reality is not one.
    But as a theist – given both material and non material – interaction is also a given.

  • http://christiannonduality.com/blog/ John Sobert Sylvest

    Regarding reductionistic approaches, in general, we can also ask what specific aspects of reality one aspires to describe. 1) One might employ a reductionistic interpretation to such concepts as mind or soul, restricting one’s description to philosophy of mind concerns. 2) One might employ a reductionistic interpretation to other, but not all, aspects of created reality, beyond the mind. 3) One might employ a reductionistic interpretation to all of created reality. 4) Finally, one might employ a reductionistic interpretation to Reality writ large (primal and local).
    Different attempts to describe the nature of the soul in the various philosophy of mind approaches, which David discussed, don’t pose any problems for Christianity, in my view. I also agree with David that the interaction problem is a pseudo-problem (assuming that one’s concepts have been properly disambiguated, suitably predicated and sufficiently nuanced).
    Eliminative materialism pertains to a philosophy of mind approach and need not suggest, necessarily, the progressively broader materialist stances. Different in/compatability issues will emerge for different Christians whenever materialism gets invoked to explain more and more of reality, “eliminating” nonmaterial categories. One could ask, beyond the nature of the soul: What’s essential to Christianity from progressively broader materialist/physicalist perspectives vis a vis, for example, putative supernatural created realities (angels and demons, miracles and so on)? Those questions might be beyond the scope of our present consideration, though not unrelated.
    When one “does” metaphysics, one chooses a “root metaphor” for one’s ontology (description of reality) such as substance, process, experience, field, matrix or even consciousness. In so choosing, one is adding a category to the “givens” of reality, such as its primitives (e.g. space, time, mass, energy), forces (e.g. strong, weak, electromagnetic & gravity) and axioms (e.g. laws of thermodynamics, relativity, quantum mechanics). The speculative grammar of metaphysics has historically used a “modal” ontology that employs the modes possible, actual and necessary. This third category, necessary, has been replaced by the “probable.”
    I’m all for metaphysics and feel that a thousand metaphysical blossoms should bloom. At the same time, it is a highly speculative enterprise and it is not easy to cash out the practical value of most metaphysical concepts in our daily lives. I’m not saying that folks cannot and do not inhabit elaborate tautologies articulated in all types of metaphysical concepts but I am saying that many find it very difficult to jump outside these systems [JOTS] in order to enjoy alternative takes on reality. They not only have problems with JOTS; they also have problems recognizing that these systems are inescapably probabilistic, as metaphors will eventually collapse and are not otherwise “necessary” truths.
    The practical upshot of what I am describing is that, when we reason from how things are (our descriptive ontology) to how things should be (our normative de-ontology), we must be mindful of the very highly speculative nature of our ontology and recognize that, derivatively, our deontology might best be considered very highly tentative. Because we live in an increasingly pluralistic society, we need to understand that, to the extent that our metaphysical concepts and categories are not understood, recognized or accepted by others, they will have little or no normative impetus, which is to suggest that they won’t likely find their ways into a given society’s codes and laws because they have no meaning in that society’s social, economic, cultural, political or, even, religious discourse. Such concepts must first be translated and then negotiated.
    This is not just an issue for interideological and interreligious discourse. It is an issue within Christendom, itself, between and even within denominations. In my view, the essence of Christianity is a LOT less propositional (though it certainly has propositional elements) and much more practical in nature, theologically speaking. Metaphysically speaking, it is WAY less propositional, addressing only the most essential God-concepts and their proper predication. Beyond that, the metaphysical nature of created reality is wholly up for grabs and any theological discourse regarding God’s relationship to created reality, in general, and human nature, in particular, does not require robustly descriptive metaphysical conceptions, only our vague phenomenological understandings and participatory imaginations (which means “hometown” knowledge: we know HOW to get from home to school even if we cannot easily put it into words or engage in conceptual map-making about our experience of our reality).


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