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The Table Video

Dean Zimmerman& Thomas M. Crisp

CCT Conversations - Dean Zimmerman and Tom Crisp (Full Conversation)

Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University / Director of Rutgers Center for the Philosophy of Religion
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
December 13, 2013

Philosophers Dean Zimmerman (Rutgers University) and Tom Crisp (Biola University) discuss the nature of human persons, the existence of the soul, God’s Relationship to time, and open theism.


So Dean, it’s good to be with you this week. Thanks for coming to the Center and giving these talks that you’ve been giving and I thought we could sit down and talk about a few issues that are of importance to the Christian community and they’re issues about which you’ve thought a lot. So I was hoping we could talk a little bit about the idea of the soul, that maybe human beings aren’t just material objects, but they have some kind of immaterial part, a soul.

Then also I wanted to talk a bit about the idea that God might be in time in something like the way we’re in time, experiencing its flow and undergoing change contrary to the usual way of thinking about God on which He’s somehow outside of time.

Then I wanted to ask you just briefly about your views on what is often called open theism, the idea that maybe the future isn’t set and God doesn’t know everything that’s coming in the future. So thanks for joining me.

Well, thanks for having me here, I’ve been having a great time. It’s great to see you again after quite a few years.


And we don’t see one another nearly enough.


Hopefully, we’ll be doing more of this sort of thing with your Center. So you wanna talk about, basically, what kind of thing is a human person and it’s a question to each of us can ask ourselves.

Look into yourself, close your eyes and think, “Okay, what sort of a thing am I?” One thing that’s sort of, maybe, to me, seems kind of surprising is the confidence with which so many people nowadays in the, in the sciences in particular, but really anywhere in the Academy how confident they are that we are entirely physical and that no talk about spooky immaterial souls is to be countenanced at all. It’s not to be heard.

Well what’s of interest about that for the Christian community is historically Christians have thought that we aren’t just physical beings, that we have an immaterial soul and so I think it’s disconcerting for some to be hearing from the Academy that well we all now know that, of course, that’s not true.

And when you think about it a little bit you realize it’s not just that Christians have thought this, it’s that everybody has thought this, for eons and, you know, the founders of the modern scientific revolution, most of them thought that we were not entirely physical. So what is it that’s changed, in the last, say, 100 years?

That has made it clear to us that there’s no such thing as a soul. One thing that has become clearer and clearer is the extent to which our ability to think and… Many of our character traits, and… Lots of aspects of who we are. Our dependent upon the brain in very complicated and deep ways. So brain lesions can produce all kind of… Inabilities can produce all kinds of bizarre agnosias. And the depth to which our thinking and our conscious life is tied to the brain has become more and more obvious.

So DeCartes famously thought perhaps the connection between mind and brain is mediated by some tiny little part of the brain.


And we know that’s not right. It looks like the connection between mind and brain is pervasive. Any kind of change to, or very tiny changes to the brain, all throughout the brain cause changes in the mind, changes in consciousness. There’s a very tight dependence of mind on brain.

Right. But just because there’s dependence doesn’t mean that there’s identity. I’m also dependent upon my glasses for seeing and I’m dependent on lots of things that aren’t, strictly speaking, part of my body to do things and… Could it still be that the soul uses the brain to think, in some sense?

So, it’s now almost universally thought in the Academy that human beings should be identified with their bodies or with a certain material organism. This view turns out to be somewhat problematic. There are problems that arise with thinking of identifying human persons with just their bodies. What are some of these problems.

Well, one of them is just that bodies are… Fuzzy, vague kinds of objects. They’re no more sharply bounded when you look closely than, say, a cloud. And when you see the cloud from below it looks like it’s sharply separated from the blue sky.

You get in a plane and fly into the cloud if someone were to ask you, “Are we in the cloud yet? “Are we in the cloud yet? “Are we in the cloud yet?” There would be these times when, well, there’s some wispy vapors, but you’re not in the cloud and then there’d be more and more of vapor and then, eventually, it will be dark and you know you are in the cloud. Now what’s the right way to think about clouds, given that they’re vague in this way.

The natural way to think about them is there’s all these things there, all these masses of water and air and which one of them is “the cloud”? Well, there’s no real answer to that. When you’re inside of all of the good candidates for being the cloud, then you’re definitely in the cloud.

When you’re just inside of some of them, you’re on the periphery. You’re kind of in the cloud, kind of not. Well, human bodies and human brains are a lot like that when you look closely. There’s bits coming in, bits going out, and uh…

One thinks here about the movie, The Incredible Voyage. Was that the 1960s?

No, Fantastic Voyage.

Oh, The Fantastic Voyage.

Fantastic Voyage.

Right, if you could be shrunk down small enough, you’d be in this system of particles that was very cloud-like. And on the borders it would be unclear whether or not these particles are part of the body or not.

Yeah, this bit of oxygen is being transported across the cell wall or something. When exactly does it become part of the body, inside of the lungs and when is it just a bit of gas floating around in there? Now what’s wrong with supposing that we’re vague, fuzzy things, kind of like clouds?

Well, if we’re gonna think about human bodies in the same way that we’re thinking about clouds, that would mean right here in this chair, wearing these clothes, there’s a whole bunch of different things and they’re all, roughly, my shape and size and weight. And it really doesn’t matter which one of them we focus on because they’re all very similar, they all have brains inside their heads. If each one of those things is conscious, alive, aware, awake, there’s a whole bunch of conscious beings here and uh…


Millions, yes. And given the number of bits at the exterior, or bits that are inside are about to be absorbed or shed. This is gonna explode, the number of these things. And that’s a little bit, I don’t know, it induces some vertigo, I think, or it should. Of course, perhaps, that’s what we should conclude that we are.

You know, science reveals surprising things. Where you thought there was a sharp boundary, there isn’t a sharp boundary. So perhaps that’s something we have to live with.

There’s another way of going here. You might look at a cloud and think… And think there’s not lots and lots of clouds there, but nor is plausible think there’s one cloud there because the boundaries are so vague. I think maybe the better way of thinking about it is, strictly speaking, there’s not a cloud there at all.

What there are a bunch of particles arranged cloud-wise, as it were. And that’s really the more precise way of describing what’s going on metaphysically. Then you bring this down to the level of bodies or organisms, and since when you get to the very small, we are cloud-like. I think some… I’m sort of tempted to think, strictly speaking, there’s a bunch of particles arranged organism-wise here. And there isn’t any thing which is this organism.

Yeah, so if when you look closely you find that something is really just a swarm of other things organized in a certain way, behaving in a certain way. Hanging together or working together to replicate some of their parts. If when you discover that, your reaction is, “Oh, there isn’t just one thing here, “there’s a whole bunch of things.” It’s kind of like a swarm of bees. In that case, you really have a powerful reason to think that I’m not just this body, because I do know that I exist. Whatever else, I know.

And if in fact there isn’t a body here, there’s just a bunch of bits of matter kinda working together working together to keep my clothes from falling off. [laughs] Then you really must be something else. Of course, you might think that you’re some tiny part.

There could be a little tiny particle in my head somewhere, but presumably not.

But that’s hard to credit because there’s no distinguished particle that we’ve identified, so it just doesn’t seem to be a good candidate for that. If, on the other hand, you think, well wherever you’ve got a swarm of things, you know, like a swarm of bees, or some gas inside of a balloon holding the walls out, or the skin out, wherever you’ve got a bunch of things that are doing something together, you’ve also got a whole that’s made out of those things. Then discovering that my body is a swarm of things doesn’t lead directly to the conclusion that I must be something else.

Nevertheless, because there are so many of them, you have a puzzling question about which on you are, how you could sort of be indeterminately all of them or something like that. Now we get used to this idea, I think, when we’re dealing with inanimate objects or when we’re dealing with artifacts. It doesn’t bother us that the car that you’re driving has little bits at the periphery that aren’t clearly on or off. My car has probably more of these than most and some of them are larger than you might’ve thought. It’s not entirely clear whether that fender is a part of my car any longer.

It’s barely hanging on.

It’s barely hanging on. I gotta get sone duct tape on it actually. But, you know, bits of the rubber on the tires are about to come off. Are those parts of the car? Do you wanna call the GPS that’s plugged into the lighter a part of the car? Well, how about if it’s sort of attached to the dash? How firmly does it have to be attached to the dash to be part of the car.

So, in this case, I think we’re happy to say it just doesn’t matter. It’s a matter of our just deciding. To call the GPS part of the car if it’s attached with glue and we’ll say it’s not part of the car if it’s attached with a suction cup.

It’s an arbitrary…

It’s an arbitrary boundary


And we could lay it down the one way, we could lay it down the other way and it doesn’t matter. There are these things there. If we’re giving up the swarm of you, there are these things there, these hunks of metal and plastic. One of them includes all the car, plus the GPS, and one of them doesn’t. And we can just decide which we’re talking about for purposes of ownership, say.

If I sell you the thing we better decide whether that’s gonna be part of it or not. And it’s up to us. It’s hard to think about oneself in that sort of way. So is it just sort of up to us whether to include within my boundaries a dead hair that’s just about to come out out my head or my fingernails. The tips of them are getting kinda long and kinda dead. Is that part of me or not?

Well, if in fact a body is just a vague swarm and these bits are sort of on the periphery, we can feel free if we want to talk about all of me except for those little bits, or we could talk about a larger thing.

Now am I able, thereby, to change the change the facts about what I’m referring to when I’m talking about a living body. If so, then you run into problems about how consciousness is hooked up to these things.

Yeah, so one natural way of thinking about it is… There are all of these overlapping hunks of… Bio-stuff. And consciousness is hooked up to lots and lots of them, so they’re many conscious beings. It’s a mystery, it’s a sort of puzzle I guess for the philosophy of language, which of them or how many of them the word “eye” picks out. But one natural way of going, I guess, I guess if you’re gonna embrace this picture is the surprising thing we learn from science is there are millions upon millions of conscious beings sitting in this chair right now. I suppose someone could say, “Well, that’s a surprise.”

Yup, we learn lots of surprising things. We thought the Earth was flat, so…

Right, but now it strikes me that one of the reasons it’s not quite in that category is… You wonder whether some of these things… What happens when I cycle, I cycle material in and then it goes out, and who knows, maybe I’ve been doing this for long enough that the stuff that made me up 10 years ago, 15 years ago, is now spread out around the atmosphere somewhere surrounding it.

Yeah, if hunks of matter are real and they certainly get treated as real when we’re doing things like working out what, what… How strong a chair has to be to hold you and things like that. We treat these hunks of matter as real. There’s a hunk of matter there and it’s gonna be spread all through the atmosphere and the ground and taken up into other organisms and so on. Now what’s the relationship between that thing and you?

The worry is, what if I am a hunk of matter that in ten years is gonna be spread out like that.

Your future is kind of bleak.

Yeah [laughs] And that’s not the kind of thing I could just say, “Ah, well, science has taught us an interesting thing.” Now something really fundamental about how I look at the world is…

Has changed, yeah.

Changed, yeah.

Another puzzling thing arises if you think that consciousness is a special extra feature of the world, in addition to the physical goings on. So if you think the brain is like a computer, thinking is like computation, it’s probably okay to say, “Oh, there’s all these object here. “They all have a computer inside of them, “mainly the brain, and that thing is doing “the thinking and thinking is just computation.”

Okay, that might be all right, but if you think that consciousness is an extra something, if you take Libet’s thought experiment seriously. Libet said, “Suppose the brain works… “Blown up to the size of a mill “and you could walk around inside of it.” He was thinking of a factory. You wouldn’t see consciousness there anywhere. There wouldn’t be any feelings or thoughts. And if you take that seriously, then you think, “Well, when you have a brain “that’s functioning, a new property comes into being, “namely, being conscious.”

There’s new feelings, thoughts, sensations… And these are not just a matter of the physics of the brain. If that’s your view then you have to suppose that something has those. And it then becomes an open empirical question what that thing is.

You’ve found a swarm of things in the vicinity of your head and your body. Is it one of those things that has gotten this new feature. If so, which one? How did it get selected? Does consciousness get spread over all these things? Are there are all these many fuzzy objects or objects that are sharp, but just slightly different from one another? Is each one of them conscious? And if so, how did the consciousness just stop there and not spread out to include some things that had my sweater as a part?

Given that these objects are not very special from the point-of-view of fundamental physical laws. It would be surprising if the Laws of Consciousness generation were to select one of these gigantic arbitrarily bounded objects.

Right, without selecting its neighbors.

Its neighbors, yeah. So… It might be natural to think that the brain is the thing that’s primarily thinking, but if consciousness involves a new feature, if when I have a headache there’s a new property in addition to all the physical brain states.

Something has to have that property, what is it? The traditional answer has been it’s my soul. You know, there’s a further thing there. If that’s wrong then it’s got to be a part of the brain, a whole bunch of parts of the brain. And none of these look like very natural candidates to be showing up in a fundamental law of any kind.

Yeah, yeah.

Now, of course, lots of philosophers don’t think consciousness is fundamental, that there are basic laws about it. But many do because of Liget’s thought experiments.

So do you think there’s any arguments from what we now know about how the brain works what neuroscience has taught us, that disprove the soul or offer any kind of powerful reason for thinking there isn’t a soul?

Well, I don’t know as much about neuroscience than I ought to, so I don’t want to answer that with very much confidence. I know some people who know more about it than I do and they tell me some really fascinating things about the parts of the brain that seem to be subserving different functions. They say surprising things about the division of labor in the brain. The idea that detection of fast motion could be associated with one part of the brain. And detection of colors and shapes. Another, well how in the world does that work? And it turns out you can knock one of these out without knocking the other one out.

Somehow the brain is able to put these together in a united kind of experience. Now, does that show that there’s no such thing as a soul? Well, um… It might turn out that you actually could use a soul on the scene here because something has all of these experiences and is able to compare them to one another.

You compare a sound with a color and you can compare the motion with a sound, and so on. And if the parts of the brain where these percepts are being generated are separate from one another, then there’s gotta be a further thing that somehow unites them all. And one hypothesis is the brain as a whole, but the brain is a whole is this vague fuzzy thing and there doesn’t seem, I’m told, to be a sort of um… One place to which all of the sensory information is, is headed. If that were to turn out to be the case, introducing a soul as a kind of hypothesis about the thing to which the phenomenal experiences happen, the thing that actually feels the pain and smells the smell, and senses the color.

It’s not the brain at all or even a part of it. That might be a… A suggestive empirical hypothesis. You certainly, if you opened up the skull and you found that the parts of the brain that are associated with colors and shapes were separated from one another and not even communicating with one another at all, well this would give you… Because you know that you can, you’re aware of both of these. It would give you a reason to suppose you’re something else.


Now, of course it isn’t exactly like that, but there are some surprising results about the lack of neural connections between areas of the brain that are responsible for a single unified kind of experience.

So sometimes, philosophers talk about the unity of consciousness, our experience of the world is tied into a unity. It’s one person, so it presents itself to me having this visual experience and having this auditory experience. It’s tightly unified into a single subject of consciousness. But we look in the brain and there doesn’t seem to be any process that unifies auditory processing with visual processing with different kinds of visual processing. And so the thought is, well maybe there isn’t any kind of physical unification of those different processes going on. Maybe it’s all being unified in a single soul.

It’s a nonphysical unifier. Yeah, yeah, and as I say, my knowledge of these cutting edge neurosciences pretty slender. But what one does hear is that this is a serious problem and you have different approaches to solving it.

At least part of it would be called “the binding problem”. How do different aspects of us, a single experience, get sort of bound together? If you’re aware of a couple of shapes and a couple of colors, how is it that the one color gets associated with the one shape and not the other. There’s proposals, but none of them I’m told has a… Sort of carrying the day at this point. Of course that’s no reason to stop looking, but for people who believe in souls, it’s a suggestive… Result.

Well when you think about believing in the soul as a kind of a… Research program or a way of trying to conduct research into what human beings are, how they work, it’s an attractive possibility that uh… Maybe these problems explain the unity of consciousness, suggest a kind of empirical roll for the soul, that it’s not just purely a philosophical hypothesis, it might play a role in the way we do science.

I wanted to talk to you briefly about this question. One reads a lot in, well, Classical theology, but also popular theology. The idea that God is… Timeless or eternal, that He’s not like us in being in time and subject to the change and passage of time, that somehow, He’s outside of it all, seeing all of history at once as it were. And in some ways that’s a really attractive picture because it suggests a kind of impressiveness that being with like that would be… Much higher or more impressive than we are in a way. But another way, it’s not such an attractive picture, I think, because it’s difficult to make sense of the Biblical portrayal of God who seems very much to be in time and changing, and reacting to us. And then I also have wondered whether it’s difficult to make sense of that kind of being in the prayer life, where it seems like we have an interactive relationship with God. We feel His pleasure or His…

Or displeasure. [laughs] Sometimes we feel called by God or even spoken to by God and you might think it’s difficult to make sense of all of that if God is a perfectly static, changeless, timeless being. So you’ve thought a lot about these things and what are your views about this?

Yeah. Of course one can say things about a timeless deity that make it a little bit easier to understand how such a being might be doing something like interacting with us. So if you think of the timeless perspective that God has, as nevertheless, sort of divisible into… Levels, so to speak. So God timelessly knows everything, but God timelessly knows that you and I exist because God timelessly knows, that God created people. Our parents, and so on.

And so God, part of God’s timeless knowledge and action can be dependent on other bits of it. So if I pray, timelessly, God knows that I pray for wisdom and making some career decision or something. And, timelessly, God wills that a thought occurred to me, you know, a solution occurs to me, and an answer occurs to me about what I should do. And, timelessly, God knows that I respond to that appropriately. So that’s a kind, you could have a kind of responsiveness in a timeless being, even though there isn’t really a series of thoughts and a series of actions.

I don’t want to rest too much on that. Nevertheless, I wanna say I don’t see the attractive, I don’t see why putting God outside of time is such an attractive thing to so many people and I think it can be traced back to early theological, well early philosophical influences on Christian theology.

Things are better if they don’t change. The physical world is not so good because things decay and change is always either change for the better or change for the worse. So if God were changing, God would be getting better, couldn’t do that. Or getting worse.

Well, that wouldn’t be good either. So when you have these thoughts about how great it is for a thing to be unchanging, you make it less and less like human beings and more and more like some abstract thing that’s very much apart from the world we’re familiar with, including the world of time.

Was that a good idea? That theological package, which I think, like you say you don’t get that. It just doesn’t jump out at you from the Hebrews scripture certainly or from the Christian scriptures, the New Testament. So where did that come from? Well, it was kind of a theological overlay. Theology is important, you know, and we can’t avoid it, but we can ask questions about where we’re getting some of the, some of the principles that are guiding it. And I think these principles were questionable.

Now one of these principles that you’ve already mentioned is… God is a perfect being moreover he’s the being than which none greater can be conceived. So however we think of God we’ve got to think of Him in that way. And maybe this is an argument from Brian [mumbles], I can’t remember where it comes from, but this did strike me as having a little bit of bite. It seems like it would be better for a being if it were not subject to the loss that we’re subject to when something recedes into the past, so I think about these great experiences I had when I was a kid with my family, and now those are gone.

They’re gone, yeah.

And there’s a kind of a sadness to that, right? There’s something sort of less than perfect about that, and so the thought is wouldn’t God… Wouldn’t it be a better being who didn’t have to suffer that kind of loss? And just always could have the whole spread of history immediately present too.

Yeah, that’s an interesting thought. Of course, God would have perfect recollection. You know, could sort of perfectly relive, in a sense, any… Past, positive… Event or experience. A being that is outside of time couldn’t anticipate anything. There’s something good about that.

That’s right, There’s also good about certain events, so good experiences, I miss those, but there are bad experiences.

It would be nice to have them over.

It’s good that they’re gone. [laughs]

Right. And I guess it would be well a timeless God would just always have those right there.

Yeah, so it feels to me like there’s big value judgment that’s being made here. Is it better to be the kind of being who can dynamically interact with other persons and… And respond and change… Is that a better kind of being to be or is it better to be static and unchanging? You know, I’m inclined to think that being flexible and open to others. And vulnerability to others. That these are signs of strength and courage, and I mean that’s how we think about one another. Is it wrong then to think of God as… Becoming vulnerable to us, and interacting with us, and leaving some things about the future open to us to determine. I think that’s a kind of strength and not a kind of weakness. Where some Christians think that God’s sovereignty requires that God brings everything about, causes everything, and anything less than that detracts from God’s strength and glory.

There’s a view debated in Christian circles called open theism, according to which the future isn’t yet fixed. What the future is still open, it may go one way or it may go another. It hasn’t been decided yet. We’re over err on this view, God doesn’t know which way it’s going to turn out.

He may well know all the truths, He may well know all true propositions, but on this way of thinking of things there are propositions about the future, which at this point anyway, haven’t been settled, don’t have a truth value yet and so God just doesn’t know those. You are one of the prominent defenders of this way of thinking about God. What are some of the things about this way of thinking about God that are attractive? You mention here His vulnerability, flexibility, openness to change?

That certainly is… Is one aspect of the view that I find… Attractive, appealing. It seems to me to do justice to God’s character as it’s revealed in Christ, for instance. God is making Himself vulnerable to us and uh… Pleading with us.

Not causing us to do whatever we do. And Jesus, of course, says that He doesn’t know everything about the future. Now of course you could say God in some other recents God does, so God does and doesn’t, relative to the incarnate. Christ God doesn’t know things, but in another aspect of God or another person of the Trinity does know these things.

Or maybe Christ has two minds somehow, the divine mind, a human mind, but yeah.

So there’s various ways around that, but it doesn’t seem to me to be out of keeping with the Spirit of Christianity to suppose that God is um… Trying to persuade us, sort of exercising power from below as Greg Boyd puts it, where love exercises power, by being vulnerable to others and trying to get them to see by the very vulnerability that you’re showing that they must behave differently. That they must come around to your side.

So God is appealing to us to get on the side of love by being vulnerable to us. That, open theism strikes me as a way of making sort of precise and philosophical sense that kind of… Vulnerable love on God’s part.

Now why do I believe open theism? I guess it’s because I think there really is a deep incompatibility between determinism and freedom between there being facts about the past that already settle what I’m going to do, and freedom, so if God believed from the beginning of time that I’m freely going to tell a lie tomorrow then for me to be able to tell a lie tomorrow would require that I can change the past.

I can make God to always had a different belief. And I think that’s as impossible as it is to make it the case that there’s always been something else different, written down on a sheet of paper somewhere. If the paper’s already been written on then it’s too late.

So facts about what God believed. Those facts are fixed. We can’t do anything now about them.

Yeah, that’s what I think. And… If however there’s no fact in the matter about what I’m going to do tomorrow, on some occasion when I really am free to do otherwise.

If there’s no fact in the matter then, of course, God doesn’t believe that I’m going to do one thing rather than another, God knows the truth. Which is that there is no fact of the matter about this, so God is still perfectly omniscient in the sense that if something’s true, God knows it. If it’s not true, God doesn’t believe it. But there are things that remain undetermined until the time comes.

And what do you do with those? Because a lot of people wonder, “Well what about when Christ says to Peter before the day’s over, before the count grows.

You will deny me three times. [crosstalk]

Those kinds of passages.

Well so I think, for one thing, we may be free on far fewer occasions than we think. You can still be morally responsible for things, for good or bad things that you do when you’re not acting freely right then if your action is the result of the kind of character that you’ve formed over the years and if you had some freedom or prospect to that, you’re still a dirty rotten scoundrel if you betray somebody, even if it’s too late for you to do anything else.

So long as you had freely made yourself into a dirty rotten scoundrel what God could predict, you would do is still a morally reprehensible thing. So perhaps Peter was a coward and if God knew what people were gonna say to him and God knew how cowardly he was it would be easy for Jesus to know what he was going to do.

And there’s other kinds of prophecies about the end times, and so on, how things are going to wrap up. And understanding exactly what those mean is really really difficult, but if we take them as showing us that God knows something about how things are gonna wrap up, the open theist does have to believe that, of all the different ways that things could go, God knows that some of them are going to come about in a certain way.

And preps God’s prepared to make them happen. Make people do things. God hardened pharaoh’s heart. Sometimes, pharaoh hardened his own heart, but sometimes God hardened pharaoh’s heart and uh… What’s important is that we are partly responsible for what we do and that we do have morally significant freedom to move towards love and virtues and get on God’s side. Or to pull away. We don’t have to be free on every occasion when we act, in order to have that kind of moral responsibility.

Well Dean, I think we’ll conclude there, so thanks very much for this time.

And enjoy. [mumbles]

Well I’ve been really enjoying my time here at the Center and thanks for having me. [light music]