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The Table Video

Tim O'Connor& Thomas M. Crisp

O’Connor on What Human Persons Are

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
September 11, 2012

Tim O’Connor (Baylor University) discusses his “Emergent Individuals” view of the human person, which is that we are material organisms with psychological characteristics that cannot be explained by appealing solely to physics or biology.


You’ve done quite a bit of writing on the nature of the human person and how to think about what human persons are from a philosophical as well as theological perspective. So, I wondered if you could tell us a bit about your view, emergent individuals, your ideas that what we are as emergent individuals.

Perhaps, you could tell us both a bit about the view and then how you think it connects up with questions about traditional Christian belief in the afterlife, the intermediate state, the resurrection, and so forth.

Right, so, I should start off by saying that I and probably most philosophers, theologians would say, we have tentative views about exactly what the nature of the human person is, how to understand traditional language of the soul and how that connects up with our clearly, deeply embedded, embodied nature.

There are different views, and as you say, I’ve tried to articulate one sort of view, that’s somewhat non-traditional view. I’m not, at all, certain that it’s correct. But so the, what the traditional view that is embedded, there’s good evidence from anthropology just in human thought generally, let alone specifically religious thought is that human persons fundamentally are non-physical souls or it’s just centers of consciousness.

Immaterial minds or souls.

Exactly, that in some way are bound up with bodies. This seems to be a deeply embedded intuitive human belief and it’s certainly embedded in much traditional Christian thought. And one can understand why. It makes it much easier to understand how we might survive death and it can fit very well with different ways we might conceive of the general resurrection long after we have died and our bodies have decayed.

Part of my hesitation for embracing that view, I think, there some significant philosophical reasons that motivate this view which I won’t go into here. But I do think empirically that what we’ve come to learn about ourselves is both, in terms of our embeddedness and the history of biological life and the slow development of biological life over time and also just within an individual organism, our biological development from embryonic to fully mature human beings is a slow, gradual process.

And the reason I see this is, at least, posing a challenge for the traditional conception of the soul, it’s a distinct thing is that the soul on this traditional view is, it has no parts, it’s a simple center of conscious awareness and psychological capacities of willing and desiring and thinking, and so on. And so, it seems like if, so if the soul is present from our earliest moments in an embryonic state, then it must, the capacities it has, the psychological capacities it has must be the same as, the same basic capacities we have now as fully mature human beings.

So, with a bit of study, we can learn to do calculus. We have the capacity to engage in very abstract, rigorous mathematical thought. And this is, on the soul view, that capacity, it seems, would had to have resided even in the embryonic life, the soul of the individual embryo because there’s no, at least, it’s not clear to me that we can tell a story about how psychological capacities develop if there are no parts in development, biological development.

So, we know biologically, a lot, about the development of organisms and the human organism, and it seems a more natural interpretation is to suppose that as our neural structure develops, our brain and central nervous system develops and matures, that we come to have more sophisticated, cognitive capacities. So, that view, it seems to me, fits better with the thought that what we are fundamentally are biological organisms that have certain capacities that don’t reduce to mere biology, psychological capacities, again, of willing and of thinking and desiring.

We have states, we have a point of view on the world that is a subjective state that I don’t think can be identified with under a physiological state. So I do embrace a kind of dualism, a dualism of psychological states or capacities but I see those states and capacities as residing within a living, breathing organism or most directly associated, of course, with parts of our brain.