Christian Theology, Science, and the Human Soul
Dr. Timothy O’Connor of Baylor University explains an alternate theory of human composition which he has called emergent individualism. He explains that substance dualism does not seem to match well the empirical evidence of neuroscience. Rather, humans can be understood to be composed objects whose mental capacities are emergent properties of their composition. Following Dr. O’Connor’s argument, two philosophers offer comments on his assertions.
Thank you all for coming. Last conference I went to, I actually wore a suit, which I don’t generally do a part from weddings and funerals. And I was like the most over dressed person at the conference. So I thought, here I’m coming to southern California, I’ll dress real casual. I got my sandals and everything even Dan Speke had a suit on, [audience laughing] which is shocking. So I’m not guessing well. All right. The Christian scriptures teach that we human beings have been created in God’s image. What does that mean exactly? If you look at the history of Christian thought, theological opinions have differed somewhat, in terms of how we understand that notion. 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 a relationship with God. Indeed, it’s not just our having this capacity that makes us divine icons, it is also the fact that God has in fact called us to this relationship. Further still, it involves a promise even at its best, our awareness of God is not and never has been what it will be. Our potential as divine image bearers will be fully realized only in the life to come.
In this sense, we are still all in the process of becoming fully human. That we are in these ways God’s image bearers is the teaching of our faith. The scriptures also speak in various places of the human soul. The idea of the soul as it is used in scripture seems clearly connected to the idea that we are divine icons, image bearers, but we should tread carefully. It is one thing to use the term soul as a kind of place holder for whatever it is about us that enables us to be, feel and act in distinctively human ways in this life, and to survive the death and decay of our bodies 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 is 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 general 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 directly implying any such metaphysical account of the underpinnings of our distinctively human personal attributes or our capacity for surviving death. To be sure after reflecting on the matter, we might conclude that the only way the scriptural teachings could be true is for such a metaphysical account to be true as well, and account in which we are in material 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 itself a teaching of the faith, and there is empirical reason to doubt it. I will sketch an alternative position which I dub emergent individualism on which human persons are physical entities in the sense of being wholly composed of physical parts, but having ontologically emergent capacities in properties in a sense that I will explain. I will go on to consider basic Christian teaching concerning the promise of eternal life. I will argue that this teaching is consistent with the emergent individual’s account that I’m proposing. All right. I wanna start with some empirical reasons to doubt the traditional mind body dualism on which a human persons fundamentally our minds a distinctive mental kind of substance separated from the body, but interacting with it by in the brain. The common Christian understanding of what it is to have a soul involves the yoking of two radically different things, a functioning human holy 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 or purposive agent, which interface in the brain. This is a very natural view and is common in diverse cultures. It is very natural because our psychological abilities seen from the first person perspective, that is from the inside as we experienced them, to be plainly something more than mere resultants of impersonal physical particle interactions.
However, numerous and complex these are within the human brain. It seems, but a short step from this observation to the conclusion that we, in thinking desiring, choosing subjects more generally such as animals must be fundamentally different sorts of things. Radically distinct capacities you might think must reside in radically distinct kinds of substances, mental substances as opposed to physical substances however complex. All right. But alongside that first person data, we have our own direct acquaintance with our own subjective inner life. We’ve 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 in 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 such as ourselves, 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 within an individual lifetime. And when making comparisons across sentient species. Species with greater neurophysiological complexity tend to have greater psychological function as well as it is indicated by their behavior. I suggest that this third person, scientific information does not comport well with the two substance or dualist metaphysical account of human persons. I don’t say that it’s decisive, it disproves it, but I don’t think it comports well with it. The fundamental problem is that our sciences point to more or less continuous processes of increasing complexity. But the two substance account appears to require the supposition of abrupt discontinuity. Since souls conceived as purely immaterial things would lack parts, they must, it seems come into existence with a built-in and fixed suite of fundamental psychological capacities.
Compare fundamental particles such as electrons. While they may be involved in more or less complex local interactions, their fundamental natures remain the same. The dispositional properties of specific quantities of charge, mass, spin and magnetic moment which fix their causal powers throughout their existence. So they have a package of fundamental dispositions that they retain throughout their careers. Even though the specific interactions they engage in give rise to different specific results. They don’t acquire new fundamental capacities. And it seems that, we can explain that fact by the fact that they don’t have parts, right. They don’t differentiate and add on new complex parts that could give rise to new new sorts of capacities. But the coming to be at a particular point in time and associated with an immature organism of a new substance with the basic mental capacities necessary for mature human psychological activity would be a highly discontinuous development both in large scale bio-geological time and within the development of individual organisms. 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 for the existence of the capacity itself.
It seems rather that psychological capacities arise and develop and at time other times diminish in tandem with the structural development of the brain and nervous system, and the fairly stable relational developments in causal informational terms among their components. Now the soul body dualist may retrench. We might offload to the brain side of the divide, some psychological functioning that prior to the advent of neuroscience, we mistakenly thought belonged to the soul, but that [mumbles] risks as neuroscience progresses, reducing the soul to a simple, immaterial object that is radically incomplete. A mere bearer of consciousness that enables personal identity over time and through death. Well, I judged the foregoing consideration to motivate seeking an alternative account of human persons. What might an account in alternative that is both introspectively and theologically satisfactory look like? All right, well, we need to work our way up to an account, starting with an account of simple things, okay. Here’s where things get a little bit abstract and philosophical, and I’ll try to easy through this part of the talk. Okay, so think about it on current physics, electrons are treated as simple things. Maybe they’ll turn out not to be simple things, but they’re currently treated as simple things. That is individual bearers of properties that have no objects as parts, okay? They’re treated as simple in that sense. They don’t have more fundamental parts.
Now consider what sort of fact grounds the truth of the statement that a particular simple particle, any of the electron, let’s say focusing on one individual electron, who occupies region are three at time T3, right? Is the very same particle individually, not just in kind as the particle that previously occupied region R1 at time T1, right? So we had this particle moving along through space and time. What makes it the case that it’s the very same particle, the very same individual? It’s not, it can’t be merely that there has been a qualitative similarity over a continuous path that is that the properties that electrons have of mass charge, spin and so on, have been continuously exhibited along a spatial temporally continuous path. The reason why I say that can’t be what grounds the fact that it’s the same individual, is we could imagine God simultaneously annihilating and recreating electrons throughout that path may be on a few occasions, may be continuously right? We’re guide to do that. We would have continuity of properties, electron type properties being exhibited along the path, but we’d have a series of different individuals, not just one individual. So it’s not enough that mass charge spin magnetic moment all sort of go together along a continuous spatial temporal path.
So it seems like when you think about it hard, we have to say it’s some kind of primitive fact, right. The fact of being the same thing, you can’t analyze it in terms of something else, okay? So on my view, the fact that the object has, I would say the object has a bear particular or thingy element that persist throughout the interval of time, okay. So on this way of thinking particular objects that have no object parts like electrons perhaps, nevertheless have a kind of part whole structure. They contain first property elements like mass, charge, spin that ground facts of objective similarity, difference in qualitative character and in their disposition to behave in the way that science described. So electrons have their characteristic properties that differ to some extent from protons, and other kinds of particles. But they also have a thingy or each such particle has a thingy, or particular rising element that grounds their individual difference, even from qualitative duplicate. So we’ve got Eddie the Electron and Eleanor the electron, two different electrons. They have exactly the same intrinsic properties, but they are two, not one. So it’s not the properties that differentiate them. it’s just this primitive thingy elements that is just basic. Both of these kinds of properties and this thingy elements, this particular rising element, are incomplete in isolation, right? They exist only when bound together in an object. You don’t ever find free floating negative charge. That’s not the charge of something. And you don’t ever find a free floating thingy element that has no properties. It’s just objects have this kind of structure necessarily there’s the particularizing aspect, and then there’s the shareable object aspect that, in virtue of which they have some commonalities to it, other things.
All right, that was the most abstract metaphysical part of this talk. So let’s shift now from thinking about what it is to be a basic individual object, to thinking about the properties, the intrinsic natural properties of non basic wholes and how those properties relate to the properties of their parts. A familiar question, right? Part whole relationships are our whole composite objects like this, this electron and nothing, but a bunch of particles swarming in the void kind of that kind of issue. Let’s think about that. Let’s think about the properties of say this electron. The intrinsic natural properties of what I’ll call garden variety composite objects, are we typically presume fixed or determined by, or what philosophers like to say supervene upon the natural properties and relations of their parts. For example, the shape of this lectern in here is wholly fixed. We ordinarily think, by the properties of in relations among all the billions of particles that constituted. Shape is not some further basic feature, right? It’s somehow it’s fixed by, it’s a resultant of the interactions, the properties of and the interactions among all of all the parts held in stable bonding relationships. Shape, macroscopic shape falls out of you might say, these more basic properties and relations among objects. This is so, it’s plausible to think even for many composite properties that exhibits strikingly different patterns of unfolding than those characteristic of their most basic constituents.
So the liquidity of water is a rather striking phenomenon. It’s very different from other kinds of firms like solid objects. The way water flows, seems like a very noble sort of thing. And yet there’s good reason to think that the liquidity of water is wholly fixed by the chemical properties of its constituents. In some sense it’s a result of, it’s not something over and above. It’s not a basic feature of reality. It’s a feature that’s fixed by underlying properties of the parts of water of the molecules, and then more fundamentally, the atoms that compose the molecules. And how those things are related to one another. So for a lot of things, so the point being here that for a lot of macroscopic sized objects in substances like masses of water, the macroscopic properties that we observe, are holy fixed by underlying properties, and that’s the job of fundamental science to try to figure out what those fundamental properties and relations are.
But prior to investigation, there’s nothing to preclude the possibility that some composed individuals are different in this way. They have ontologically basic natural properties. That is properties that don’t supervene on the properties and relations of their parts. So I’m gonna use the term strong emergence as follows. I’m gonna say that, a property is strongly emergent, a property of a whole is strongly emergent, just in case it’s an ontologically basic natural property. It’s not a structured property like the shape of this table, right? Built up out of that the properties and relations of a part, it’s a basic property like negative charges currently treated as a basic property in physics. But it’s unlike the basic property of simples like electrons. It’s a basic property of a composed individual, because this lectern has many, many parts. And if there were an object, unlike the lectern that had emergent properties, it would be a composed object and yet it would have an ontologically basic property that makes a basic causal difference to the way the object behaves, right. And as I think of it, if there were properties like that, it’s an empirical claim, right?
Suppose though right now we’re just doing what philosophers do. Just saying suppose. Suppose you could have an object like this where it has some kind of just stalled overall property, that is just fundamental, right? And it makes a fundamental difference to the way the object behaves in addition to the contributions made by the parts of the object. There’s this further irreducible top down puzzle feature of the object. And you might say, where would that property have come from? Well, it’s plausible to say that, if an object has a property like that, it’s caused to have that property by the objects parts being arranged as they are, right. That those, the object’s parts have latent dispositions, you might say that just that await the right configurational context before they give rise to this overall, property that is the particles that, so [mumbles] anticipate, right? If human beings conceived as living organisms have emergent properties associated with our conscious mental capacities, right? Well, our fundamental parts are no different than the fundamental parts of this lectern, right? According to current physical theory. And yet this lectern doesn’t give rise to co … The particles right now composed in this lectern are not giving rise to conscious mental properties. So there’s something about, but they have the disposition to do so because parts that are embedded in this lectern could become parts of me, eventually, right? And so they have this latent disposition that requires the right kind of organized structure in order for it to kick in. It’s only a disposition to give rise to properties under very specific kinds of organized complexity. So that’s the idea, okay. So now we have briefly considered, so here I’ve just floated the idea, right? It could be that there are two kinds of composed objects. Those all of whose properties are wholly fixed by the properties and relations among its parts and another kind, we’ll call them emergent systems, at least some of whose properties are not wholly fixed or a mere result in dove, the properties of its underlying parts. They have overall irreducible properties that make a causal difference, okay.
So painting a very abstract two abstract categories, two kinds of wholes, you might think, irreducible wholes and wholes that are just, well, I won’t use contentious labels, but wholes that don’t exhibit any kind of emergence. All right, but now let’s consider, emergent composed individuals over time, right? So suppose, I am an emergent object in the sense that I have conscious capacities that are basic, right. But that are sustained by the change over time in part, as a function of the changing neurophysiology that I have. But I’m the same individual. I’ve undergone a great deal of change over my life. You know, you consider that little rug rat, running around on the floor as a four year old in 1969. I’m very, very different physically from that individual, and yet I think I’m the very same individual, as that person. How do we understand that sameness of being individual? It’s easy for an electron, right? It’s just a primitive, this primitive fact of being this individual. How about for emergent objects? Well, start first with non-emergent composites, okay. Like this lectern, like hunks of rock, like tables, chairs, certainly like all artifacts, and maybe other kinds of objects as well. That is again, composites that have no strongly emergent properties. This lectern is just a sum of many billions of parts. The individuality of each of the lecterns parts is primitive, right? That’s the composite part. It’s a composite object. It’s composed of individuals, each of whom is individuality is just a primitive fact about it. Eddie the Electron, Eleanor the Electron, all the other Edward the Electron, all the many, many electrons and other fundamental particles they’re composed this object. It’s not emergent in the sense that it’s intrinsic features are the strict results, resultant of the more fundamental features of in relations among its parts. That this is so suggest that it’s individuality as an object is a mere resultant of the primitive facts of particularity of its ultimate parts. That is, it’s not some individual fact, right? If God is counting up all the individual facts there are, in our world over time, well, he’s aware of all the persistence of all the individual parts of this electron and then he doesn’t … Sorry, speaking crudely, kind of anthropomorphically, but just to make it vivid to you. He doesn’t say to himself, “Oh-oh.”
And then there’s also the fact that the lectern exists. That fact that the electric lectern exist, is not some further basic fact over and above the fact that all the particles composing the electron exist and stand in certain relationships to each other. It’s not another basic individual, right. Now that conclusion of course, raises questions then about their persistence over time of things like electrons. ‘Cause even though electrons are pretty stable objects, they don’t want to undergo a lot of change ordinarily. But they are changing all the time. They’re losing and sometimes acquiring parts. So physicists tell me, when I go like that, there are electrons flying off the surface of this lectern. So is it the very same object, given that it’s a different collection of particles over time? Well, let’s not worry about that. I’m interested in the question of objects that are emerging composites, okay. So let’s now turn to emerging composites. An emerging composite would be a hierarchically organized system that exhibits one or more strongly emergent features. These features, if you think about it, confer on the object, a substantial unity such that one is required to treat it as a genuine whole in any minimally adequate description of the character and dynamics of the world. So again, if you’re like God, you don’t have computational limits and you wanna be able to fully characterize and describe the way the world unfolds.
If there were no emergence systems, if all composed objects where like this lectern, all you’d have to do is talk about the intrinsic properties of and evolving relationships among the fundamental objects. And you had thereby have given a minimally adequate characterization of the whole world. Out of that description would fall descriptions involving these chunky middle-sized objects. But you wouldn’t have to say things about them directly. You’d be implicit in the information you already gave when you talked about the way the fundamental things operate. But if there are systems that have properties as a whole, they’re not reducible to the properties of and relations among their parts and those properties make a causal difference to how they behave, then you have to talk about, if you’re gonna give an adequate description of what’s happening because they’re making a difference, you have to talk about them as wholes. Over here in this region of space time, we’ve got this composite thing and here’s a certain kind of overall property it had, and here’s the cause of difference it makes. And this causal functional unity grounds the systems, it seems to me having a distinctive or basic particularity of its own as an enduring thing. You have to treat it, there seems to be a fact about it as an individual that is not captured by talking about all the parts of the individual.
So, if this is right, we may say that the object, an emergent composite system is not a fundamental object in the way that an electron might be, but it is nonetheless basic, not reducible to the existence of its parts at any given moment. Okay. All of this was an abstract foundation for how I propose we think of ourselves, namely as emergent human persons. I suggest that human persons are composed yet basic objects. And we’re basic objects because I propose that properties of our conscious mental lives are emergent properties. We can talk about why one might think that. But I think that’s right. But I still think we’re composed objects. I think we acquire new emergent properties as our neurophysiological systems mature. As we grow over time, from infancy to adulthood. Some of our capacities, we lose some of our capacities when we undergo trauma or injury or other aging issues. But we are composed of basic objects and we persist through various physical and mental changes over time. So long as whatever unity, conferring based what you might say, baseline emergent mental features we have for precess, the very general capacity we all have for our conscious awareness. I’m not talking about the specific capacity for being aware right now visually perceptually of you in the audience, but a more general capacity for having some kind of conscious awareness of one’s surroundings might be such a baseline features for us. So long as that capacity persists, it confers a unity on us despite the fact that our particles of our body are constantly changing so that we are the very same thing.
The particles that compose us are not all very same thing, but we are, we have a primitive thisness, a primitive, being the same thing. Having such a persisting capacity will of course, depend on the right sort of causal continuity of our composing matter. It’s because our neurophysiological systems are functioning the way they’re intended to function, that they allow this capacity to persist. The immediate sources of our emergent capacities are substructures in our brains and central nervous system, but it’s also plausible to suppose as we ordinarily do, that everything that is integrity bound up with this immediately generative source in us of our emerging capacities is also part of us. We are whole organisms, not merely bodies, okay? [sighs] We’re done with all of that heavy metaphysics. How should we think about the life everlasting, if such a picture where true? According to Christian theology, human persons survive death as individuals. It’s not just that the memory of us lived on in our loved ones and so forth, right? We no, I myself am going to survive death. According to Christian theology. According to this emergent individuals philosophical account that I’ve proposed, human persons are living organisms, wholly composed a fundamental physical parts who’s unity of nature is conferred by emergent features that are sustained by the persistence of a functioning hierarchically arranged nervous system, but which nervous system dissolves at death.
Now, God’s creating an intrinsic duplicate of me at some later time is clearly insufficient for my being raised from the dead. I want me to survive not just an individual who’s just like me, even if it would fool everyone around me, around him [chuckles], and thinking it was me, right? No, it’s that I survived. So that’s not good enough. It’s easy to imagine how that could go. God just does the …. Create matter organized in much the way the matter of my body is created together with all the memories and personality attributes and all that could be a functional duplicate of me, but that wouldn’t be me, right? So that’s not good enough. What is more God’s eventually regathering the parts that once constituted me and reconstituting a whole much as I was at the time of my death also seems insufficient. It’s not enough that, so I die, my body dissolves eventually, parts that once were part of my body enter the biosphere, may be become parts of other people’s bodies and so forth.
But God keeps track of all that and make sure that at least the majority of them, he’s got names for them, he’s gonna reassemble them much the way they were at the time of my death. And you say that’s how God could do it, right? But I say, no, that’s not sufficient either. Fore think about it. He might do that right now with the particles that composed me back on my 10th birthday, right? Since all of those parts, all or most of those parts are no longer part of my body. Suppose he did that, he put them all together and plot the resulting individual down next to me here right now, that would be quite a spectacle. But that newly organized person would not be me. So [mumbles] why there’s a brokenness in the causal continuity, right? So even though you have sameness of parts as I was 10 years ago, I’m me not this 10 year old imposter.
So one thing that seems required for the persistence of a changing physical system such as our bodies are, is the right sort of ongoing causal continuity of the composing matter. I can undergo change of parts. I do it all the time. In fact, life depends upon that. But the parts that compose me now, must be what, and as they are in large measure, because of the parts of me previously being what and as they were. There has to be this continuity. So we face a problem. If all of these things are so, survival of death can seem impossible. Not even God can do the impossible. Yes, I know that with God, all things are possible. But I … Well, I don’t want to get into what I think that means. You might worry that there’s just nothing, there’s no strategy even I’m nipping God to implement in order for me to survive, given that he’s allowed my body to fall into decay and dissolution if causal continuity is required. Because isn’t that the end of causal continuity? And if we said that’s a necessary condition on my persistence, you’ve just made it impossible for us to survive death.
So you can see, this is why theologically it’s very attractive to have the view of the soul as a distinct substance from the body. And it doesn’t … The body may causally play an important role in keeping the soul going, but God can do whatever the body’s been doing to keep that soul going. You don’t have to worry about the body’s decay. All right, so here’s my reply. About a dozen years ago, Dean Zimmerman is gonna talk later today, way off in the back. He suggested a gene … Well, you might think of as a general recipe for a path of escape from this problem that’s available to any accounts on which human beings are essentially embodied. I think the emergent individual’s account, in particular, is a specially good version of this recipe. I don’t say that this is how, what I’m about to describe is how survival of death actually works. After all, God is much more imaginative than I am. Think of it as a just so story intended to show only that it is possible for embodied persons to survive death. And then you can relax as long as you know it’s possible, then you know how it actually goes. We don’t have to worry about.
All right, here’s how it goes. Suppose that the simple constituents of my body or perhaps some critical mass of them have a tendency, a causal tendency when embedded in emergent human bodies to fission split right, into two simples qualitatively similar to the original such that one of them is identical to the original, the other is not. It has two products. It gives you, so an individual Eddie the electron just is given this capacity in certain contexts, he only to fission into two electrons, right? One of them is actually identical to Eddie. The other is a mere causal offshoot of Eddie. Now, providentially this tendency is entirely latent. It doesn’t manifest itself until situations of imminent demise of human persons. Like when you’re standing in front of a train that is rapidly, sorry. Greeson’s philosophers sometimes think Greeson’s scenarios, you’re just about to die, right? I mean, after all, we don’t see this happening all around us. These things suddenly fissioning and so forth. So perhaps God must miraculously bring to bear some additional force-like factor that triggers the relevant disposition, right? It’s there. It’s a prime disposition, but only when God complete, he does something necessary to trigger that disposition and he does it just at the moment of death. Suppose further that the products of the fission will be located in two very separated regions. One that is continuous with my body pre-fission. It’s the corpse that people then observe. And while the other is somewhere else, and perhaps some other time. The resulting dead earthly body while constituted by matter that a moment ago had constituted me, is not me, for it lacks the unity conferring emergent features. It’s my remains. The separated surviving body retains those features. It’s intrinsic state also has the imminent causal continuity to my earlier state, and it is, I suggest I myself.
All right, supposing that I’m right, that we can make sense of our surviving death on the embodied emergent individual’s account, we might still see a further theological difficulty. How is this account consistent with our having a disembodied interim existence before the general resurrection? On most theological views, we exist. We continue to exist immediately upon her death. But before the general resurrection of the dead. The first thing I would say in reply, is that there is no explicit suggestion in revelation written perhaps Richard will correct me, I think there’s no explicit suggestion that we exist entirely disembodied. It’s only that we lack the promised glorious incorruptible bodies of the life to come. That much is said to us. That doesn’t imply that we lack body, any kind of embodiment altogether.
So we might suppose therefore that we exist in an embodied, but diminished state appropriate to longing for the glorious resurrection to come. And this can be easily accommodated on the view that I’m proposing. Yes, on the present view, we are necessarily embodied, but the form in quality of embodiment can vary in both directions. And this brings us, the fact that it can go in both directions, brings us to a third and final theological issue. The Apostle Paul tells us that at the general resurrection, we shall become something minimally, materially continuous with, but quite radically different from what we are now. So the metaphor that he uses, as a seed becomes a plant in the fullness of time, something very different, physically from what the initial thing that gave rise to it, so our bodies sown at death will become something remarkably different. For example, we shall no longer be subject to infirmities, decay and death. One might worry that the intimated discontinuity is sufficiently great as to conflict with the emergent embodiments account requirement of significant material causal continuity.
How can matter as we know it become the stuff of immortal in incorruptible bodies? My reply is that unbroken causal continuity is consistent with dramatic change, quite dramatic change over time. And of course God could speed up the change process to an extent that it will be experienced by us as transformation in the blink of an eye. What might, in the kind of bodily processes we’re familiar with take many, many years for that radical change in final. God could just speed it up massively. Could take place in less than a second, no problem. And note that the change need be not only in our bodies that is 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 postmortem material environment, and so our bodies constituted by the same basic material, include new yet congruent fundamental elements that transformed naturally bodily processes as we know them. I don’t see why not. So in conclusion, with the right kind of divine assist, survival of death seems possible on the emergent individual’s account. More generally, it seems to me that whatever good reasons there may be, and you’re gonna hear some of them, later on this conference, but whatever good reasons there may be to embrace the more traditional substance or mind body dualism, they will not be reasons flowing directly out of Christian theology. But perhaps you will now persuade me to think again. Thank you. [audience applauding] How long did I go? [mumbles]
Hi. I wanna start with a couple of thank you’s, thank you to Tim, who keeping with his informal attire, I’m going to refer to as Tim rather than Dr. O’Connor. [Tim chuckles] And I also want to take this opportunity to thank Biola the Center and everyone involved, including my fellow fellows from last semester for giving me the opportunity to be here and have such an amazing experience.
Okay. So I’m gonna offer a different type of commentary from what you typically get from a philosopher. So rather than offer specific criticisms of an argument or a position to which Tim would then respond, I want to use my time today to ask a big methodological question, which I’ve been wondering about for awhile. To do this, I’m going to describe the dialectic as I see it between term and the substance dualist. So this is gonna be kind of repetitive, but it’s my teacherly instincts, I think at a first pass a lot of things, you can’t remember everything. So I’m gonna sort of repeat some of what Tim said, but certainly not all of it ’cause I want to show you what parts I want to focus on. And lucky for you, it’s not the metaphysical bit. [chuckles] So Tim points out that the standard Christian view of the human person is a form of substance dualism. As he puts it, the basic idea is persons have bodies, but they are immaterial souls. On this view, it is relatively easy to make sense of the Christian belief in the possibility of eternal life. My body might be rotting in the grave, but my soul, which constitutes my essence precess. Tim thinks that there are empirical reasons for thinking that this understanding of human persons is false.
In particular, Tim thinks that the correlation between increased brain complexity and increased psychological complexity both across different species and in the development of individuals is difficult to reconcile with the conception of human persons as simple immaterial souls. According to Tim, since souls are generally conceived as lacking parts, they must come into existence with all the fundamental psychological capacity. Capacity as a person will develop over time, already intact in some form. As Tim points out, this seems at odds about what we know about how evolution and individual development unfolds. The empirical evidence suggests that there’s a continuous process in both cases in which things gradually and continuously increase in complexity without any ‘abrupt discontinuities’. Think, for example, of the development of a human infant. Babies don’t wake up one morning with the ability to crawl or to walk or to talk. They slowly develop these abilities over time.
And at the same time, we see developing brain structures which help support the abilities of the infants. And I think that, that’s the kind of idea of what Tim’s talking about, when he’s talking about the empirical evidence sort of doesn’t support this simple sort of soul view. In place of the substance dualist view, Tim Offers an account of human persons that accords better with the empirical evidence. On his account, human persons are ‘living organisms, ‘holy composed a fundamental physical particles ‘who’s unity of nature is conferred by emergent features ‘that are sustained by the persistence ‘of a functioning hierarchically arranged nervous system, ‘which dissolves at death’. So the emergent features aren’t physical, they’re ontologically distinct from the brain structures, but they are dependent on the physical structures of the brain, which means when the organism dies, the emergent mental features die too. So Tim’s argument against the substance dualist takes the form of an inference to the best explanation. So the idea here is that we have two competing theories of the human person. We have the substance dualistic account and the emergentist or Tim’s account.
And Tim argues that the ladder, the emergentist account, does a better job of accounting for the empirical evidence. Since the emergent properties manifest themselves as the underlining brain structures developed or diminished maybe over time. The substance dualist account is, Tim would, I think, concede logically possible. That is, it’s logically possible that souls come equipped with all the fundamental psychological capacities of a human person. But his argument is that it doesn’t make sense in light of what we know about how the brain and how the world generally works. To pause in an immaterial soul, would be inconsistent with our scientific knowledge. But from another direction, Tim’s account is itself subject to challenge by a different kind of inference to the best explanation argument. The last part of his talk focus on how to accommodate the worry that the emergentist can make sense of the promise of eternal life. For the substance dualists, this looks pretty straightforward.
The body dies, the soul, which is the bear of many, if not all of my psychological properties, so things like memories and emotions, thoughts and so forth precess. It’s not so easy to see how eternal life is possible in Tim’s emergentist account of the human person, but Tim falling a proposal by Dean Zimmerman suggest that there is a logically possible way to make sense of the promise. This is the fissioning jumping animal account that he gave at the end. I’m happy to see this does seem to be logically possible. But of course, as you know, Tim admit there’s not a lot of reason to suppose that is what actually happens, right? It’s just logically possible. So it seems to me here that the substance dualist might have a better explanation. So we started with the assumption that some individuals will experience life after death, and moreover they will continue to exist in some meaningful sense as the same individual they were before their death. We have two competing theories about how that’s possible. The first involves the continued existence of the soul as the bearer of the psychological properties. The second involves a fissioning and a whisking away of the new body to some new time and maybe a new place.
I think here in terms of who has the best explanation that substance dualist has the upper hand. The substance dualistic account has a long intellectual history. It’s been compelling to diverse groups of people. It has a myriads apart from its ability to explain how it’s possible that an individual might survive the death of her body. In making sense of the possibility of eternal life just falls out of the substance dualist account. It’s not sort of ad hoc move, it just sort of falls naturally out of the view. So it seems to me that we’re kind of at a stalemate in terms of trying to decide which accounts has the best explanation. It’s going to depend on which commitment you prioritize. On the one hand, there is a theological commitment to the promise of eternal life, which a Christian account of the human person needs to make sense of or at the very least be consistent with.
On the other hand, there’s a commitment to come up with an account of the human person, which is both consistent with an informed by the empirical evidence. I think that most Christian philosophers working in this area, recognize and respect both of these commitments. While I think that they give them different weight. Many substance dualists not all, but many, it seems to me start with a theological commitment and then try to show how their account is compatible with the scientific evidence. And there’s lots of ways that they could try to do that. And I don’t have time to explain them for you, but there are moves to be made. Tim and other Christian physicalists start with empirical considerations and then work to accommodate the theological commitment. Now, I don’t have a position on whether one or the other is the right way to do Christian philosophy. And I really doubt that there is one right way. But I do think that reflecting on and justifying one’s methodology is an important part of the philosophical endeavor. So I wanted to take this opportunity to begin a discussion, more specifically, I’d like Tim to discuss his own reasons for giving more weight to the empirical commitment or if he thinks that my way of characterizing his position is mistaken, which pretty much every philosopher usually does. [audience laughing] He will address how he does prioritize the competing assumptions. And finally, if Tim finds my entire characterization of this debate between the substance dualist and the emergentist, and he finds that it’s confused somehow or miss characterization, I would be interested in hearing that too. Thank you. [audience applauding] [clears throat]
I once thought like Tim O’Connor that emergent property dualism would suffice to explain our most cherished mental phenomena, but I think when we reflect upon his position against the backdrop of current neuroscience we’ll discover that it faces multiple challenges regarding the unity of consciousness. In particular, I’m going to suggest that emergent property dualism fails to provide a satisfactory account of objectionable unity. That is an account of how distributed mental properties are bound into a unified object of consciousness, and subject unity. That is an account of the singularity intrinsic to every conscious experience and how that singularity relates to the unity of consciousness across modalities of the brain.
Take for example the problem of objectual unity, also called the object property binding problem. For our purposes, I will clarify and delve into the scientific motivation behind this problem and show how it applies to a O’Connor’s brand of emergent property dualism. Contemporary neurobiology indicates that visual consciousness relies upon the specialized activity of neuronal assemblies distributed throughout the visual hierarchy. For example, as one gazes upon a maple tree, the maples retinol topic pattern is rapidly laid out on the surface area of visual area one, the primary visual cortex at the back of the brain. Neurons in areas, V1 and V2 respond to primitive visual properties such as edges and contours in a variety of orientations. Once a relatively stable figure of the maple has been established and separated from its background in these lower areas, attentional mechanisms send information about the maple downstream for further processing in specialized areas of the ventral and dorsal pathways, also known as the what and where systems. The ventral systems, neuronal pathway projects from the except to lobe to the inferior temporal lobe, separate neuronal subassembly is distributed throughout the visual system, play the functional roles of processing information about an object’s figure, color and texture. Neurons in visual area three respond to figure and neurons in visual area four respond to color. The dorsal systems neuronal pathway projects from the occipital lobe to the parietal lobes.
It performs the functional role of processing information about an object’s location and size. The middle temporal and middle superior temporal lobes process movements associated with individual objects or collection of objects against stable or relatively stable background conditions, less visually perceiving a maples properties on a blustery day, would at least involve the relevant firing patterns of neuronal subassemblies in areas V1 through four, [mumbles], MT & NST. Neuropsychological evidence confirms this distributed view. For example, damage to neurons in visual area four produces achromatopsia that is colorblindness. Damage to neurons in IT produces associative agnosia. That is the inability to identify shapes. And damage to neurons MT produces akinetopsia that is motion blindness. At the same time, there are very few of any direct neural connections between specific visual areas such as those that represent color and motion. And furthermore, [mumbles], has conducted a series of experiments showing that there can be a time gap as much as 80 milliseconds between these perceptual processing sites.
Moreover, various studies indicate that the dorsal system as our underlying spatial attention capacity, spacial representational capacity, and the ability to discriminate within and between objects. Thus, what we currently know about the visual system is that it relies upon several specialized subsystems distributed throughout the visual hierarchy. Although this functional specialization has enabled the brain to process information efficiently, it also implies several vision related binding problems, including the object property binding problem. As Timothy Bain and Dave Chalmers observe the notion of objectual unity is closely tied to a central issue in cognitive psychology in neurophysiology. When I look at a red square, the color and the shape may be represented in different parts of my visual system, but somehow those separate pieces of information are brought together so that I experienced a single red square. The phenomenon is often referred to as binding and the question of how it is achieved is often referred to as the binding problem. Now here’s the rub against O’Connor. The stimulus properties of an object correlate with activities in the respective specialized subsystems. Thus a color property correlates with activity in V4, emotion property correlates with activity in V5. A figure property correlates with activity in V3 and so forth. By implication, the distinct properties of an object correlate with their respective geographically separate neuronal assemblies and thus it is not clear how O’Connor’s brand of emergencies and could account for objectual unity. This is truly a difficult problem for O’Connor’s brand of emergentism and other brands of physicalism.
These considerations inspire a further problem about the unity of consciousness that O’Connor must face as well. Aptly known as the problem of subject unity or the problem of explaining the singularity intrinsic to every conscious experience and how that singularity relates to the unity of consciousness across modalities of the brain. In addition to the objects of consciousness, there is also a subject that is a point of view or a singularity in relation to the objects of consciousness. Subjects have objects of consciousness. They are not the objects of consciousness. For example, I hear a guitar sound off in the distance an object of audition, while seeing a red ball rolling down a hill an object of vision. I have these two objects of consciousness as part of my experience. Thus, the further question arises for any theory that purports to offer an explanation of mental phenomena and that is a question about subject unity. Let us hold that for any two or more objects or properties of consciousness that correlate with different modalities of the brain. Those objects are properties count as subject unified only if they are possessed by the same subject at any given time or over time. As with the problem of objectual unity, there empirically based worries that motivate the problems of subject unity for O’Connor’s branded emergentism. How could a distributed account of mental properties within across different modalities of the brain explain subject unity? Now the kind of cross modal unity discussed here, for example, seeing the characteristic color and hearing the characteristic sound of a bee as a phenomenal unity, should not be confused with the subject’s capacity to recognize the difference between kinds of properties. For the very capacity to recognize a difference between kinds of properties already presupposes the singularity or emergent individuality of the subject.
As Dean Zimmerman observes, if a single thinker can recognize the difference between sounds and colors, this thinker does not enjoy the ability to compare the two, simply by having one part that does it’s seeing, and another part that does it’s hearing. Even if those parts are tightly bound together. Recall under the hypothesis of emergent property dualism, the neural areas by which various kinds of mental properties are generated or emerge, correlate with activities and geographically separate modalities of the subject’s brain. Thus making an appeal to emergent properties, per say could not account for the cross modal kind of unity that a subject experiences. When a subject sees and hears a bee he undergoes those mental events as their common subject and thus experiences taken to be a unitary state of the subject that is not analyzable in terms of anything over and above the subject. Thank you. [audience applauding]