The Table Video

William Hasker & Gregg Ten Elshof

Dualism, Materialism, Suffering, and God - William Hasker (Full Interview)

Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Huntington College
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
February 7, 2013

Dr. Gregg Ten Elshof interviews philosopher William Hasker (Huntington College) about issues in philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, and theology.

Transcript:

I wonder if we could start with a conversation that in some ways got cut short earlier this week. You and I were in church on Sunday morning and there was a person sitting behind us before the service with whom we struck up a conversation.

And when he learned what you think about and what you do he told us he was a high school physics teacher and so he’d done some thinking about the soul and about science and he mentioned that, he was I think glad, to hear you believe in a soul and he too confessed to his belief in a soul and said this was his main reason for being worried about evolutionary theory.

He just couldn’t buy evolution because he couldn’t see how it would ever kick up something like an immaterial soul. And your response to him had to be short because the service was about to start. You said something like, “Well I can help you with that.” and then the service started.

Yeah, right, right, yeah.

How would that conversation have unfolded had there been more time?

Well, I think it could be helpful for him and for other people for that matter to realize that there is a conception of the soul, one that I advocate actually but, one conception of the soul that does the things that Christians, I think, need to attribute to a soul, but that does not create the kinds of problems with evolution that he obviously felt to be the case.

I think a majority of Christians have held the view that each individual human soul is directly individually created by God, perhaps in time of conception or very early in ones life. If then you extend that concept of the soul, as you really have to, to many different kinds of animals, it does become quite difficult, I think, to see how this is going to fit in with a concept of biological evolution.

And yet I feel and I’m sure he feels some of this too that the evidence for biological evolution having occurred is pretty compelling. It’s at least strong enough that you wouldn’t lightly dismiss it. The concept that I hold, which I call emergent dualism, says that yes, the soul is a distinct entity. It’s the part of us, the aspect of us if you like, that thinks, that reasons, that has moral awareness, that is able to commune with God.

But the soul, in some admittedly mysterious way emerges from the biological functioning of the organism, especially the brain and nervous system. Now, some people find this a lot to swallow, but I don’t think there’s anything incoherent or contrary to known facts about the view and one of it’s merits, not the only merit, but one of the merits is that it fits in pretty smoothly with the concept of biological evolution because as you have presumably some kind of awareness or feeling or sensation at least, is present in quite simple forms of life. Now how simple?

We don’t have to fix that definitely but it seems to start pretty early on. I think when you step in a wasp’s nest, the wasp is really angry at you [laughing]. He certainly acts that way and I believe that it’s not an illusion. But as the creatures themselves become more complex, their brains and nervous systems become more complex and the creature has a soul, a consciousness, that is generated and sustained, supported by that brain and nervous system, which is also gradually more complex.

Now, humans are certainly unique in many ways. I mean that’s an obvious fact of the matter and we certainly need to recognize that but on the other hand, there’s no reason why the human soul should not be thought of as in some sense the same sort of thing, the same general type of thing that you have in a chimpanzee, a horse, a dog, perhaps a fish, perhaps at a much simpler level an insect.

So you can make sense of this continuity that seems to exist in nature and certainly is affirmed by evolutionary theory and still understand the uniqueness of the human being. So I think that that’s a perspective that could be helpful to that fellow, who as a science teacher, he wants to do justice to scientific evidence, but as a believer he thinks it’s important to believe in a soul and I think he’s right about that too, so that’s how it would’ve gone if we had another 15 minutes before the sermon.

Some, in an attempt to do justice to the continuity you’re describing and some Christians scholars who wanna do justice to that continuity, just go all the way and say at the end of the day the human person is a very complex material object. So there’s a materialist picture that contrasts with your emergent dualism. What’s wrong with that, why not just go all the way to materialism?

Well I certainly respect the motivation and good intentions of people who want to go that way and if I thought that kind of a theory could work and do the job that is needed, I’d be very tempted to do that myself, but I think there are problems. One problem is that the way the human mind and consciousness functions, it seems has to be fundamentally different than the way matter, ordinary matter functions in ordinary situations. The way matter works seems to be non-purposeful.

As a friend of mine put it, the stones in avalanche do not go where they go because it’s a good idea for them to go there. They’re not fulfilling a purpose, they’re just numbly following physical law. But human life and the human mind and human understanding are chock-full of purposes and so you have a kind of functioning that seems to be alien to the nature of matter as such. Another rather enormous problem is the problem of life after death or life of the world to come. It’s very difficult to understand how, okay suppose we are just this material thing.

We know this material thing is gonna stop functioning, it’s gonna die, it’s going to rot, in the normal course of things. It looks as though, if material is a mystery, there will be nothing left of us at that point. That’s pretty bad news if you’re a Christian, right? Really devastating news. Now, admittedly people who are Christians who are materialists, have showed great ingenuity in trying to explain how even though, according to them, we are simply material beings, yet we can enjoy a future life.

I suppose the most popular one is what might be termed the recreation theory. That at some point after you’ve died, maybe immediately or maybe very far in the future, God recreates a being who is just like you and according to them, who is you. But it seems to me and I think a good many people share this idea, that that would be the production of a replica, you know? I mean if somebody just like me is going to enjoy eternal life, well I wish him well but it doesn’t look like that’s going to do me, the particular individual, me, a lot of good and after a lot of consideration, I believe that that’s a compelling objection, that that theory just doesn’t work and that other approaches…

Of course this is completely crucial for the question of whether a materialist view is adequate and acceptable for Christians because without the life to come the Christian faith just doesn’t work. It’s not the faith that we have come to know and love and live our lives by, so I think that’s a very crucial objection.

I wonder if you can say something about how your emergentist view relates to life after death?

Oh right, very good, very good. That certainly is, I mean if I can’t answer that then I’m not any further along am I?

I mean, you might worry that if it emerges on physical stuff, then when the physical stuff goes away.

Absolutely, absolutely, yeah. The crucial point is that, on the view, the emergence, it comes into being through the operation, the functioning of the physical organism, body, brain and nervous system. But what comes into being is not a physical thing. Now an analogy and it’s only an analogy, is the production of say a magnetic field by a magnet.

Let’s say it’s an electromagnet, you have a piece of metal usually with some wire wrapped around it and so on and so forth and you pass a current through it, an electric current and an electric field is produced. The electric field is not a physical thing in the sense of matter. It’s not chunks of metal or anything else.

It’s a new kind of thing, but it’s produced through the operation of the magnet. But since the magnetic field is something different, distinct from the magnet, it is conceivable, thinkable, that the magnetic field might continue to exist even if the magnet disappears or you turn it off. In fact, one theoretical physicist has proved that a sufficiently strong magnetic field could do just that.

Now this field is gonna be stronger than any field that exists in the actual universe, so this is purely a theoretical idea, but it shows that the conceivability, the logical possibility as philosophers say. And what I want to say then is that the emergent soul is something distinct from the physical organism even though it’s initially produced and sustained by the organism and so it is possible, after the body has stopped functioning, it’s possible for God to keep this emergent soul or self in existence and then eventually to reembody it, to if you like, surround it with a new body that is suited to it’s needs but superior as Saint Paul says the resurrection body will be.

And so there is here a coherent and I think an understandable picture of life after death and the difference with the materialist view is of course that, on that view, there’s nothing to continue, there’s nothing to sustain. God so to speak has to start over again when he’s resurrecting you and again, the thought is, which I think is pretty compelling, that this wouldn’t be you. It would be maybe just as good from a certain standpoint, but not just as good from your standpoint, because it wouldn’t be you or at least that’s the way I understand it.

You know people sometimes make a great fuss about mind to body interaction, how can that work, they say. Well first of all, it’s as much a fact of our experience, our daily experience, as anything that we experience. I mean, I decide to lift my hand, my hand goes up. I pinch my finger and it hurts. If I get seriously injured it hurts a lot. I mean it’s just totally a fact of constant, everyday experience that our thoughts and our body mutually effect one another, so if your theory makes it hard to accept that then it’s more likely that there’s something wrong with your theory than that our experience is so totally misleading, at least that’s the way I do philosophy.

I mean if there’s something, if there’s a belief that is hardwired into our system as it seems and a theory tells us that that belief is false, well I’m gonna look really hard to see if the reasons for concluding that the belief is false are that compelling. So I think it’s totally a fact of experience that mind and body do interact.

Now, if you want to say well how does that work? Well there’s a kind of naive assumption here that we understand in general how cause effect actions work. But like it or not, that just ain’t so. According to contemporary science, our most basic, our most fundamental physical theory is something called quantum mechanics.

But if you ask how cause and effect works in quantum mechanics, the basic truth is and experts in the field will say this, nobody knows, nobody really understands why the world works this way, it just does. I mean, when you get down to the basics we can see that certain things happen and apparently certain things happen because of certain other things, but it really escapes us as to what’s going on.

And I think it’s arguable that even in familiar cases, what we think is our understanding is more familiarity based on habit. The classic example is shooting pool balls against one another and it looks like you can understand perfectly well, when one ball hits the other well, it communicates motion, it goes off in a certain direction and if you’re a good shot it goes in the pocket and so on. But why does it happen that way? Well, you know, I think at bottom it’s just we’re used to it happening that way so we know what to expect, so it feels comfortable, so we think we understand it.

Of course you could go down into the, maybe the molecular structure of the pool ball if you know something about that and you could tell a story down there, but at the end, at the bottom of all that, you would just have to say that’s the way it works. That’s just the way the world goes. So the idea that there’s some, well, I guess I wanted to say yes there is a mystery about how the mind and the body interact, but that’s just part of the bigger mystery of how does cause and effect work in general in all sorts of cases? And our understanding is limited, you know?

We can go deeper and deeper but at the end we always get to a mystery that we don’t grasp, which is not to say that it’s contradictory or absurd or doesn’t make sense, but we aren’t the ones who made all this.

You’ve done a lot of writing and thinking in the area of philosophical theology. You’ve thought deeply about the problem of evil and about God’s providence and his ability to know the future. You know, anybody who’s been bothered by evil and who believes in God presumably has been bothered by the fact that God knows that all of this awful stuff is gonna happen and yet he’s purposed to bring the world off in just the way that he does. How would you orient somebody who’s just beginning to think about these issues to that discussion?

Well I think one thing to, one thing that I think is probably important to understand at the beginning, is the difference between the philosophical problem of evil and what might be termed the pastoral problem of evil. You know, now the pastoral problem of evil is something that hits most of us at one time or another and some people much harder than others, but when some serious tragedy has happened that effects us personally, some loved person has cancer or has died suddenly or, you know, or all sorts of things can come in here, then it’s the problem for that, for such a person to feel hopefully some sense of comfort, some sense of encouragement and not to feel that they’re abandoned by God and so on.

And that’s a very deeply personal problem. It’s a problem that ministers have to, and counselors have to cope with. Hopefully when one can ask for the help of the holy spirit in one’s own life and other people’s life. What philosophy can do at that point is pretty limited. I mean, the person who’s child has just died does not want to hear a treatise on the problem of evil, right? And so I think we certainly have to respect that and not go, as philosophers go charging in, in a situation where we may do more harm than good.

But there’s also the philosophical problem of evil and that is the intellectual problem of how can we understand the fact that there is so much evil in our world that is created and governed by, we believe, a loving God and how is it that those people aren’t right and certainly there are many of them, who just quickly dismiss the whole idea that God could be in control of the world on the basis of the world’s evil. Do they have cogent, compelling reasons behind their feeling “Well, there just can’t be this kind of God when there’s so much evil in the world.”

And that I think Christian philosophers can address and we need to address. It takes more than a few minutes, as you know, yeah. I think one things that’s important here is that we not begin by claiming too much. A famous example of this in history was the philosopher Leibnez, who as you know promulgated the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. God who is wise and good has made the world and he would not have made it less good than it could possibly be, so since God has chosen to make the world like this and not some other way, this must be the best possible world. He was very sincere in this, I’m sure.

But it sets you up for a pretty devastating rebuttal and in history, well one thing that sort of shook things up was the great Lisbon earthquake that resulted in the deaths and devastation for that city in Europe. And in the aftermath of that Voltaire, the skeptical philosopher Voltaire wrote his full novel Candide, in which you have a group of people who are traveling around and meeting one inconceivable disaster after another.

But one of their group is the philosopher Dr. Pangloss, obviously representing Leibniz, who in each case carefully explains how if this terrible thing had not happened, something else much, much worse would have happened instead and so he’s able to reconcile all of these incredible disasters with the idea that this world is as good as it could possibly be. Well this is not a good way to go. It’s not a plausible thing to claim and I think it makes the task, I mean if you could really believe it I suppose it might be somewhat comforting, but the task of justifying that claim is, I think insurmountable.

But another claim that some people do defend, even today, is that everything bad that happens to a person, any kind of suffering, possibly accepting suffering that is the punishment that they deserve because of something they’ve done but any innocent suffering as we say, is something that is beneficial for that person. That’s not quite as extreme as saying that this is the best possible world that there could possibly be but it’s still pretty tough to defend.

Think of cases, well, hurricane Sandy or the tsunami in Japan, cases where suddenly, in a very short period of time with little or no warning, certainly in the case of the tsunami, vast numbers of people are killed or seriously harmed, maybe virtually every person in a particular area. It strains your credulity I think, to think that every individual in a group like that was in such a state that he or she would be benefited by that sort of devastation coming to them. This is really hard to believe and if it’s true of all those people then perhaps it’s true of all of us.

And of course with this part of the picture there then it must be that almost all of us at almost any time are in such a state that we would be benefited if we were to die instantly. Well, we don’t, nobody believes this right? There are just really too many situations where it seems that people are suffering and it really does make their life less good and while, okay sometimes there may be some hidden reason why it truly ends up being beneficial, it’s very hard to believe that this is always the case.

So again, and I’m not saying these things to be negative, I’m saying it to make the point that, we shouldn’t begin in discussing this problem of evil by making a claim that is too strong and too optimistic and ends up being too hard to defend because that ends up discrediting our belief instead of affirming it. How should we, how do we go about this? Well, there are a couple of key ideas and I’ll just sketch them briefly and then we can pursue it if you want to.

One concept that I think is very important and is pretty widely recognized as important is what is known as a free will defense or a free will theodicy, it’s the idea of an explanation. What you’re after is an explanation of how it is that God, who is good and loving, can nevertheless allow such evils to exist in his world. And the free will approach points out that, God has endowed us with free will, the power to choose, the power to choose between good and evil.

Are there many limitations on this, but nevertheless it’s a real power that we believe that we have. Now some people of course doubt that and that’s an argument in itself, but I think the majority of Christian philosophers do believe that in this sense we have free will. That there are alternative paths that we can take, that it’s really in our power to take, to go one way or another.

And it would be almost contradictory, or at least self defeating if God were to entrust us with this power, but then as soon as we make the wrong choice, he says “Okay, sorry, back up, “we’re gonna get a do-over there.” We discussed at the beginning of this discussion that if one of us went off on the wrong track we could back up and it would be edited out of the tape, but our life choices would be a lot less significant and a lot less real if we could get a do-over any time we wanted and sometimes we don’t even want to.

So the point is that, if God really gives us this ability to make choices and we make bad choices, there are going to be consequences and it would be, the ability to choose would be meaningless if God were to sort of reverse the, edit out the tape every time we choose wrong or would always prevent the bad consequences from happening. And so a tremendous amount of the evil that we see in the world is a result of the bad choices humans have made and we make some really, really bad ones. One way of looking at this is that God endowing us with this power to choose is taking a risk.

If you let your 16 year old drive your car you’re taking a risk. God willing he’ll be all right, but in handing the keys over, you’re giving up some of your control over what happens with your car. And God in giving us this power to choose has given up or qualified some of his control over what happens. So that’s an enormous part of, I think really by far, the greater part of the serious evils that inflict the world are of that kind.

This doesn’t, I think, cover everything. There are what are sometimes called natural evils. These are evils that result from just the way nature works, in a way that doesn’t in any obvious or understandable way result from human wrongdoing. Tidal waves, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, things like this can devastate parts of the world and human lives in ways that, you know, it’s far fetched to trace those to human activity. And to think about this, I think we need to back up a little bit and try to form a conception of how the world works overall, the kind of, the natural order if you like, that is set up by the laws of nature.

And when we do that, one of the things we find is that these disasters are the results of the way things work in a broader framework which as a whole is conducive to life and conducive to the flourishing of living creatures. Well, take the example of earthquakes and volcanoes, okay? An important part of what causes earthquakes is what is known in geology as plate tectonics. It seems that on the surface of the earth, the solid surface of the earth, consists of a number of huge plates of rock that are essentially floating on a sea of molten rock underneath.

A geologist can take about this in more detail but that’s the dime store version, that’s the crude picture of it. And in fact, these plates are moving all the time because of movements in the underlying magma, the molten rock. And so down the center of the Atlantic Ocean there’s a zone where the plates are separating and Iceland happens to be sitting right on top of this and that’s why they have so many volcanoes and a recent Nova segment pointed out that there are a number of volcanoes in Iceland that have the potential to do very serious damage not only to the Icelanders but to all of us.

I mean, the one that erupted and disrupted air traffic for a period of time, that was the small one, that was the less damaging than others that can erupt, that have erupted in the past. Okay, well, so it looks like this system of plate tectonics with the plates floating on the magma, it can be responsible for a lot of really devastating things. But, okay, without this, without a molten core to the earth, well for one thing, there would be no magnetic field, probably no magnetic field on the earth, which we need to shield us from the incoming stream of cosmic radiation, that otherwise would make life or at least any form of advanced life on earth impossible.

Now does this mean we’re back to Leibniz and this is the best possible world? Well there’s no denying that these volcanic eruptions and earthquakes and so on, tidal waves, they do serious harm to people. So in that sense it’s not saying everything is beautiful, but it’s part of a system, a natural order, that on the whole, makes life possible for us and is beneficial. Much more can be said about this, but I think you can see the general kind of pattern that I’m looking at here.

Bill, one of the things we’re spending time on at the center this year is the mind-body problem. Can you say, what is the mind-body problem? What is the problem?

Okay, okay. Well it’s a fact about us that we are bodily creatures. Each of us is composed of a certain amount of skin and flesh and bone and muscle and so on and so forth. We have a certain size and shape and weight and all that sort of thing. Also we are thinking, experiencing beings. We have thoughts, we have feelings, we have beliefs, we have desires, we make decisions and so on. We have a conscious life, as it were and we think of this as the life of our minds or sometimes traditionally it’s called our soul, okay? And if you just go through life, you know, normally that seems perfectly obvious and “Oh, why is it a problem?” But if you try to think about it, philosophers have found out and other people found out for that matter, that there’s really a lot that’s puzzling about, what is the relationship of this mental life, this thought life that I have and what is going on in my physical body and it’s relationship to the world?

We kind of think we know what a body is, I mean we see bodies all the time and we can talk courses in anatomy and physiology and so on. When you ask “Well what is the mind?” That’s more elusive, you know? I can look at my body in the mirror but I can’t, in any literal sense, look at my mind at all. My mind seems to be behind my eyes somewhere but I can’t get behind my mind.

Even if I see the back of my head with a mirror, that doesn’t seem to help with my mind. So what is the mind or what is the soul? Well, many people probably, in fact the majority of people who’ve thought about this in any way, have thought of the mind or the soul as something different from the physical body, something that in some way inhabits the body, possibly enlivens the body, it energizes it but, you know, something different then what is physical. In contemporary science, there’s a pretty strong push the other direction to say that our thinking life is just a manifestation of our physical bodies, that all the work is done by the body and then we have the computer analogies.

Our brain is the meat computer inside our head and we think we understand things that way but whether we really gain much understanding is certainly open to debate. But so the mind-body problem is the problem of sorting out the relation between the two. What is the nature of the body? What is the nature of the mind? What’s the relation between them?

And trying arrive at an understanding this, which is coherent, fits together with everything we can find out about the mind, the mental life, about the body, the brain, the way they function. And if we’re religious believers, all of this somehow has to fit into our belief in God and our religious view of the world. So it’s really a rather enormous problem and as you know philosophers spend their lives beating their heads against it and you know, we’ve made a tiny bit of progress here and there, that’s good, but it’s very difficult to really understand.

Yeah.

Transcript

I wonder if we could start with a conversation that in some ways got cut short earlier this week. You and I were in church on Sunday morning and there was a person sitting behind us before the service with whom we struck up a conversation. And when he learned what you think about and what you do he told us he was a high school physics teacher and so he’d done some thinking about the soul and about science and he mentioned that, he was I think glad, to hear you believe in a soul and he too confessed to his belief in a soul and said this was his main reason for being worried about evolutionary theory. He just couldn’t buy evolution because he couldn’t see how it would ever kick up something like an immaterial soul. And your response to him had to be short because the service was about to start. You said something like, “Well I can help you with that.” and then the service started.

Yeah, right, right, yeah.

How would that conversation have unfolded had there been more time?

Well, I think it could be helpful for him and for other people for that matter to realize that there is a conception of the soul, one that I advocate actually but, one conception of the soul that does the things that Christians, I think, need to attribute to a soul, but that does not create the kinds of problems with evolution that he obviously felt to be the case. I think a majority of Christians have held the view that each individual human soul is directly individually created by God, perhaps in time of conception or very early in ones life. If then you extend that concept of the soul, as you really have to, to many different kinds of animals, it does become quite difficult, I think, to see how this is going to fit in with a concept of biological evolution. And yet I feel and I’m sure he feels some of this too that the evidence for biological evolution having occurred is pretty compelling. It’s at least strong enough that you wouldn’t lightly dismiss it. The concept that I hold, which I call emergent dualism, says that yes, the soul is a distinct entity. It’s the part of us, the aspect of us if you like, that thinks, that reasons, that has moral awareness, that is able to commune with God. But the soul, in some admittedly mysterious way emerges from the biological functioning of the organism, especially the brain and nervous system. Now, some people find this a lot to swallow, but I don’t think there’s anything incoherent or contrary to known facts about the view and one of it’s merits, not the only merit, but one of the merits is that it fits in pretty smoothly with the concept of biological evolution because as you have presumably some kind of awareness or feeling or sensation at least, is present in quite simple forms of life.

Now how simple? We don’t have to fix that definitely but it seems to start pretty early on. I think when you step in a wasp’s nest, the wasp is really angry at you [laughing]. He certainly acts that way and I believe that it’s not an illusion. But as the creatures themselves become more complex, their brains and nervous systems become more complex and the creature has a soul, a consciousness, that is generated and sustained, supported by that brain and nervous system, which is also gradually more complex. Now, humans are certainly unique in many ways. I mean that’s an obvious fact of the matter and we certainly need to recognize that but on the other hand, there’s no reason why the human soul should not be thought of as in some sense the same sort of thing, the same general type of thing that you have in a chimpanzee, a horse, a dog, perhaps a fish, perhaps at a much simpler level an insect. So you can make sense of this continuity that seems to exist in nature and certainly is affirmed by evolutionary theory and still understand the uniqueness of the human being. So I think that that’s a perspective that could be helpful to that fellow, who as a science teacher, he wants to do justice to scientific evidence, but as a believer he thinks it’s important to believe in a soul and I think he’s right about that too, so that’s how it would’ve gone if we had another 15 minutes before the sermon.

Some, in an attempt to do justice to the continuity you’re describing and some Christians scholars who wanna do justice to that continuity, just go all the way and say at the end of the day the human person is a very complex material object. So there’s a materialist picture that contrasts with your emergent dualism. What’s wrong with that, why not just go all the way to materialism?

Well I certainly respect the motivation and good intentions of people who want to go that way and if I thought that kind of a theory could work and do the job that is needed, I’d be very tempted to do that myself, but I think there are problems. One problem is that the way the human mind and consciousness functions, it seems has to be fundamentally different than the way matter, ordinary matter functions in ordinary situations. The way matter works seems to be non-purposeful. As a friend of mine put it, the stones in avalanche do not go where they go because it’s a good idea for them to go there. They’re not fulfilling a purpose, they’re just numbly following physical law.

But human life and the human mind and human understanding are chock-full of purposes and so you have a kind of functioning that seems to be alien to the nature of matter as such. Another rather enormous problem is the problem of life after death or life of the world to come. It’s very difficult to understand how, okay suppose we are just this material thing. We know this material thing is gonna stop functioning, it’s gonna die, it’s going to rot, in the normal course of things. It looks as though, if material is a mystery, there will be nothing left of us at that point. That’s pretty bad news if you’re a Christian, right? Really devastating news. Now, admittedly people who are Christians who are materialists, have showed great ingenuity in trying to explain how even though, according to them, we are simply material beings, yet we can enjoy a future life. I suppose the most popular one is what might be termed the recreation theory. That at some point after you’ve died, maybe immediately or maybe very far in the future, God recreates a being who is just like you and according to them, who is you. But it seems to me and I think a good many people share this idea, that that would be the production of a replica, you know? I mean if somebody just like me is going to enjoy eternal life, well I wish him well but it doesn’t look like that’s going to do me, the particular individual, me, a lot of good and after a lot of consideration, I believe that that’s a compelling objection, that that theory just doesn’t work and that other approaches… Of course this is completely crucial for the question of whether a materialist view is adequate and acceptable for Christians because without the life to come the Christian faith just doesn’t work. It’s not the faith that we have come to know and love and live our lives by, so I think that’s a very crucial objection.

I wonder if you can say something about how your emergentist view relates to life after death?

Oh right, very good, very good. That certainly is, I mean if I can’t answer that then I’m not any further along am I?

I mean, you might worry that if it emerges on physical stuff, then when the physical stuff goes away.

Absolutely, absolutely, yeah. The crucial point is that, on the view, the emergence, it comes into being through the operation, the functioning of the physical organism, body, brain and nervous system. But what comes into being is not a physical thing. Now an analogy and it’s only an analogy, is the production of say a magnetic field by a magnet. Let’s say it’s an electromagnet, you have a piece of metal usually with some wire wrapped around it and so on and so forth and you pass a current through it, an electric current and an electric field is produced. The electric field is not a physical thing in the sense of matter. It’s not chunks of metal or anything else. It’s a new kind of thing, but it’s produced through the operation of the magnet. But since the magnetic field is something different, distinct from the magnet, it is conceivable, thinkable, that the magnetic field might continue to exist even if the magnet disappears or you turn it off. In fact, one theoretical physicist has proved that a sufficiently strong magnetic field could do just that.

Now this field is gonna be stronger than any field that exists in the actual universe, so this is purely a theoretical idea, but it shows that the conceivability, the logical possibility as philosophers say. And what I want to say then is that the emergent soul is something distinct from the physical organism even though it’s initially produced and sustained by the organism and so it is possible, after the body has stopped functioning, it’s possible for God to keep this emergent soul or self in existence and then eventually to reembody it, to if you like, surround it with a new body that is suited to it’s needs but superior as Saint Paul says the resurrection body will be. And so there is here a coherent and I think an understandable picture of life after death and the difference with the materialist view is of course that, on that view, there’s nothing to continue, there’s nothing to sustain. God so to speak has to start over again when he’s resurrecting you and again, the thought is, which I think is pretty compelling, that this wouldn’t be you. It would be maybe just as good from a certain standpoint, but not just as good from your standpoint, because it wouldn’t be you or at least that’s the way I understand it. You know people sometimes make a great fuss about mind to body interaction, how can that work, they say. Well first of all, it’s as much a fact of our experience, our daily experience, as anything that we experience. I mean, I decide to lift my hand, my hand goes up. I pinch my finger and it hurts. If I get seriously injured it hurts a lot. I mean it’s just totally a fact of constant, everyday experience that our thoughts and our body mutually effect one another, so if your theory makes it hard to accept that then it’s more likely that there’s something wrong with your theory than that our experience is so totally misleading, at least that’s the way I do philosophy. I mean if there’s something, if there’s a belief that is hardwired into our system as it seems and a theory tells us that that belief is false, well I’m gonna look really hard to see if the reasons for concluding that the belief is false are that compelling. So I think it’s totally a fact of experience that mind and body do interact.

Now, if you want to say well how does that work? Well there’s a kind of naive assumption here that we understand in general how cause effect actions work. But like it or not, that just ain’t so. According to contemporary science, our most basic, our most fundamental physical theory is something called quantum mechanics. But if you ask how cause and effect works in quantum mechanics, the basic truth is and experts in the field will say this, nobody knows, nobody really understands why the world works this way, it just does. I mean, when you get down to the basics we can see that certain things happen and apparently certain things happen because of certain other things, but it really escapes us as to what’s going on. And I think it’s arguable that even in familiar cases, what we think is our understanding is more familiarity based on habit. The classic example is shooting pool balls against one another and it looks like you can understand perfectly well, when one ball hits the other well, it communicates motion, it goes off in a certain direction and if you’re a good shot it goes in the pocket and so on. But why does it happen that way? Well, you know, I think at bottom it’s just we’re used to it happening that way so we know what to expect, so it feels comfortable, so we think we understand it. Of course you could go down into the, maybe the molecular structure of the pool ball if you know something about that and you could tell a story down there, but at the end, at the bottom of all that, you would just have to say that’s the way it works. That’s just the way the world goes. So the idea that there’s some, well, I guess I wanted to say yes there is a mystery about how the mind and the body interact, but that’s just part of the bigger mystery of how does cause and effect work in general in all sorts of cases? And our understanding is limited, you know? We can go deeper and deeper but at the end we always get to a mystery that we don’t grasp, which is not to say that it’s contradictory or absurd or doesn’t make sense, but we aren’t the ones who made all this.

You’ve done a lot of writing and thinking in the area of philosophical theology. You’ve thought deeply about the problem of evil and about God’s providence and his ability to know the future. You know, anybody who’s been bothered by evil and who believes in God presumably has been bothered by the fact that God knows that all of this awful stuff is gonna happen and yet he’s purposed to bring the world off in just the way that he does. How would you orient somebody who’s just beginning to think about these issues to that discussion?

Well I think one thing to, one thing that I think is probably important to understand at the beginning, is the difference between the philosophical problem of evil and what might be termed the pastoral problem of evil. You know, now the pastoral problem of evil is something that hits most of us at one time or another and some people much harder than others, but when some serious tragedy has happened that effects us personally, some loved person has cancer or has died suddenly or, you know, or all sorts of things can come in here, then it’s the problem for that, for such a person to feel hopefully some sense of comfort, some sense of encouragement and not to feel that they’re abandoned by God and so on. And that’s a very deeply personal problem. It’s a problem that ministers have to, and counselors have to cope with. Hopefully when one can ask for the help of the holy spirit in one’s own life and other people’s life. What philosophy can do at that point is pretty limited. I mean, the person who’s child has just died does not want to hear a treatise on the problem of evil, right? And so I think we certainly have to respect that and not go, as philosophers go charging in, in a situation where we may do more harm than good.

But there’s also the philosophical problem of evil and that is the intellectual problem of how can we understand the fact that there is so much evil in our world that is created and governed by, we believe, a loving God and how is it that those people aren’t right and certainly there are many of them, who just quickly dismiss the whole idea that God could be in control of the world on the basis of the world’s evil. Do they have cogent, compelling reasons behind their feeling “Well, there just can’t be this kind of God when there’s so much evil in the world.” And that I think Christian philosophers can address and we need to address. It takes more than a few minutes, as you know, yeah. I think one things that’s important here is that we not begin by claiming too much. A famous example of this in history was the philosopher Leibnez, who as you know promulgated the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. God who is wise and good has made the world and he would not have made it less good than it could possibly be, so since God has chosen to make the world like this and not some other way, this must be the best possible world. He was very sincere in this, I’m sure. But it sets you up for a pretty devastating rebuttal and in history, well one thing that sort of shook things up was the great Lisbon earthquake that resulted in the deaths and devastation for that city in Europe. And in the aftermath of that Voltaire, the skeptical philosopher Voltaire wrote his full novel Candide, in which you have a group of people who are traveling around and meeting one inconceivable disaster after another.

But one of their group is the philosopher Dr. Pangloss, obviously representing Leibniz, who in each case carefully explains how if this terrible thing had not happened, something else much, much worse would have happened instead and so he’s able to reconcile all of these incredible disasters with the idea that this world is as good as it could possibly be. Well this is not a good way to go. It’s not a plausible thing to claim and I think it makes the task, I mean if you could really believe it I suppose it might be somewhat comforting, but the task of justifying that claim is, I think insurmountable. But another claim that some people do defend, even today, is that everything bad that happens to a person, any kind of suffering, possibly accepting suffering that is the punishment that they deserve because of something they’ve done but any innocent suffering as we say, is something that is beneficial for that person. That’s not quite as extreme as saying that this is the best possible world that there could possibly be but it’s still pretty tough to defend. Think of cases, well, hurricane Sandy or the tsunami in Japan, cases where suddenly, in a very short period of time with little or no warning, certainly in the case of the tsunami, vast numbers of people are killed or seriously harmed, maybe virtually every person in a particular area. It strains your credulity I think, to think that every individual in a group like that was in such a state that he or she would be benefited by that sort of devastation coming to them. This is really hard to believe and if it’s true of all those people then perhaps it’s true of all of us. And of course with this part of the picture there then it must be that almost all of us at almost any time are in such a state that we would be benefited if we were to die instantly. Well, we don’t, nobody believes this right? There are just really too many situations where it seems that people are suffering and it really does make their life less good and while, okay sometimes there may be some hidden reason why it truly ends up being beneficial, it’s very hard to believe that this is always the case.

So again, and I’m not saying these things to be negative, I’m saying it to make the point that, we shouldn’t begin in discussing this problem of evil by making a claim that is too strong and too optimistic and ends up being too hard to defend because that ends up discrediting our belief instead of affirming it. How should we, how do we go about this? Well, there are a couple of key ideas and I’ll just sketch them briefly and then we can pursue it if you want to. One concept that I think is very important and is pretty widely recognized as important is what is known as a free will defense or a free will theodicy, it’s the idea of an explanation. What you’re after is an explanation of how it is that God, who is good and loving, can nevertheless allow such evils to exist in his world. And the free will approach points out that, God has endowed us with free will, the power to choose, the power to choose between good and evil. Are there many limitations on this, but nevertheless it’s a real power that we believe that we have.

Now some people of course doubt that and that’s an argument in itself, but I think the majority of Christian philosophers do believe that in this sense we have free will. That there are alternative paths that we can take, that it’s really in our power to take, to go one way or another. And it would be almost contradictory, or at least self defeating if God were to entrust us with this power, but then as soon as we make the wrong choice, he says “Okay, sorry, back up, “we’re gonna get a do-over there.” We discussed at the beginning of this discussion that if one of us went off on the wrong track we could back up and it would be edited out of the tape, but our life choices would be a lot less significant and a lot less real if we could get a do-over any time we wanted and sometimes we don’t even want to. So the point is that, if God really gives us this ability to make choices and we make bad choices, there are going to be consequences and it would be, the ability to choose would be meaningless if God were to sort of reverse the, edit out the tape every time we choose wrong or would always prevent the bad consequences from happening. And so a tremendous amount of the evil that we see in the world is a result of the bad choices humans have made and we make some really, really bad ones. One way of looking at this is that God endowing us with this power to choose is taking a risk. If you let your 16 year old drive your car you’re taking a risk. God willing he’ll be all right, but in handing the keys over, you’re giving up some of your control over what happens with your car. And God in giving us this power to choose has given up or qualified some of his control over what happens.

So that’s an enormous part of, I think really by far, the greater part of the serious evils that inflict the world are of that kind. This doesn’t, I think, cover everything. There are what are sometimes called natural evils. These are evils that result from just the way nature works, in a way that doesn’t in any obvious or understandable way result from human wrongdoing. Tidal waves, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, things like this can devastate parts of the world and human lives in ways that, you know, it’s far fetched to trace those to human activity. And to think about this, I think we need to back up a little bit and try to form a conception of how the world works overall, the kind of, the natural order if you like, that is set up by the laws of nature. And when we do that, one of the things we find is that these disasters are the results of the way things work in a broader framework which as a whole is conducive to life and conducive to the flourishing of living creatures. Well, take the example of earthquakes and volcanoes, okay? An important part of what causes earthquakes is what is known in geology as plate tectonics. It seems that on the surface of the earth, the solid surface of the earth, consists of a number of huge plates of rock that are essentially floating on a sea of molten rock underneath. A geologist can take about this in more detail but that’s the dime store version, that’s the crude picture of it. And in fact, these plates are moving all the time because of movements in the underlying magma, the molten rock. And so down the center of the Atlantic Ocean there’s a zone where the plates are separating and Iceland happens to be sitting right on top of this and that’s why they have so many volcanoes and a recent Nova segment pointed out that there are a number of volcanoes in Iceland that have the potential to do very serious damage not only to the Icelanders but to all of us. I mean, the one that erupted and disrupted air traffic for a period of time, that was the small one, that was the less damaging than others that can erupt, that have erupted in the past. Okay, well, so it looks like this system of plate tectonics with the plates floating on the magma, it can be responsible for a lot of really devastating things. But, okay, without this, without a molten core to the earth, well for one thing, there would be no magnetic field, probably no magnetic field on the earth, which we need to shield us from the incoming stream of cosmic radiation, that otherwise would make life or at least any form of advanced life on earth impossible.

Now does this mean we’re back to Leibniz and this is the best possible world? Well there’s no denying that these volcanic eruptions and earthquakes and so on, tidal waves, they do serious harm to people. So in that sense it’s not saying everything is beautiful, but it’s part of a system, a natural order, that on the whole, makes life possible for us and is beneficial. Much more can be said about this, but I think you can see the general kind of pattern that I’m looking at here.

Bill, one of the things we’re spending time on at the center this year is the mind-body problem. Can you say, what is the mind-body problem? What is the problem?

Okay, okay. Well it’s a fact about us that we are bodily creatures. Each of us is composed of a certain amount of skin and flesh and bone and muscle and so on and so forth. We have a certain size and shape and weight and all that sort of thing. Also we are thinking, experiencing beings. We have thoughts, we have feelings, we have beliefs, we have desires, we make decisions and so on. We have a conscious life, as it were and we think of this as the life of our minds or sometimes traditionally it’s called our soul, okay? And if you just go through life, you know, normally that seems perfectly obvious and “Oh, why is it a problem?” But if you try to think about it, philosophers have found out and other people found out for that matter, that there’s really a lot that’s puzzling about, what is the relationship of this mental life, this thought life that I have and what is going on in my physical body and it’s relationship to the world? We kind of think we know what a body is, I mean we see bodies all the time and we can talk courses in anatomy and physiology and so on. When you ask “Well what is the mind?” That’s more elusive, you know? I can look at my body in the mirror but I can’t, in any literal sense, look at my mind at all. My mind seems to be behind my eyes somewhere but I can’t get behind my mind. Even if I see the back of my head with a mirror, that doesn’t seem to help with my mind. So what is the mind or what is the soul?

Well, many people probably, in fact the majority of people who’ve thought about this in any way, have thought of the mind or the soul as something different from the physical body, something that in some way inhabits the body, possibly enlivens the body, it energizes it but, you know, something different then what is physical. In contemporary science, there’s a pretty strong push the other direction to say that our thinking life is just a manifestation of our physical bodies, that all the work is done by the body and then we have the computer analogies. Our brain is the meat computer inside our head and we think we understand things that way but whether we really gain much understanding is certainly open to debate. But so the mind-body problem is the problem of sorting out the relation between the two. What is the nature of the body? What is the nature of the mind? What’s the relation between them? And trying arrive at an understanding this, which is coherent, fits together with everything we can find out about the mind, the mental life, about the body, the brain, the way they function. And if we’re religious believers, all of this somehow has to fit into our belief in God and our religious view of the world. So it’s really a rather enormous problem and as you know philosophers spend their lives beating their heads against it and you know, we’ve made a tiny bit of progress here and there, that’s good, but it’s very difficult to really understand.

Yeah.

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