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The Table Video

Richard Swinburne, Tim O'Connor& Steve L. Porter

Substance Dualism and Emergent Individualism in Conversation

Emeritus Nolloth
 Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, University of 
Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Theology, Spiritual Formation, and Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
September 11, 2012

Richard Swinburne (Oxford University) and Tim O’Connor (Indiana University) present and discuss their views—emergent individualism and substance dualism, respectively—on the nature of human persons.


I thought I’d start out by asking you, Richard, your view, which you’d call as many others have substance dualism. Could you offer just a brief description of what substance dualism is. And then also, why should an average Christian lay person be concerned with whether or not substance dualism is the correct account of human nature? I think that all humans on earth consists of two parts, a body and the soul.

And the soul is the part that thinks and feels and decides. And the body is the part that is in causal interaction with it and causes some of our feelings and what we learned about the world through our eyes and ears, and we act on the world with our arms and legs. So the body is the vehicle through which we learn about the world, and through which we act upon the world. But the real essential me is the soul. At death, these two come apart. The body decays, eventually but the soul is still there.

And it’s there, in my view, ready to be joined to a new body in the general resurrection, which God will bring us all to life. In the meantime, the normal christian view has been that the soul continues and humans continue to exist but only with souls. Souls will be reunited to it possibly the remains of the old body, but at any rate, many other new parts just forms a new body in the general resurrection. That’s almost always been the normal Christian view of the matter. Why does it matter?

Well, it matters firstly because of the normal Christian view that we continue to exist after death before and the general resurrection. And since our bodies are decayed and in the ground, it must be the soul which if we don’t have a soul, we don’t continue to exist. But more importantly, the soul is the vehicle of our identity. That is to say, let’s ask what is it that makes a future person at the general resurrection me?

Well, he can’t that person can’t have all my body in many bits of decayed and at any rate, even in life. I have different different bits all the time new cells replace old cells. So, what would make a future person me? And if you say well, it would be that the future, the person to the future body has certain memories and certain character. Well, there could be innumerable people with rather similar memories and rather similar character, but that wouldn’t make them me.

At any rate, who knows how much of our memories, of our past life we might have at the general resurrection? There’s got to be something that makes a future person me. And if the soul is the essential part and continues to exist, then the future person is me, if it has my soul, otherwise it isn’t me. So the soul is the guarantee of a unique person, after the resurrection being me. And since life after death is important, the soul is the guarantee of that life after death. So, for these reasons, it is very important that we hold this view.

Tim, could you offer a brief description of your view, emergent individualism and as well, why should the average Christian, be concerned that your view, is the correct view of the matter?

Right, Well, let me start by saying that I hold my views on this as well as many other philosophical matters rather tentatively. It could well be true that mind body dualism is correct that the soul is the biblical language of the soul is properly understood to refer to an immaterial part of me. That’s separable in principle from my body. Still, I tentatively inclined towards a different view on which I am, all of my parts are physical parts.

I’m a biological organism, but that many of the capacities that we most associate with ourselves as persons are capacities of thought, action, desire, intention and so forth. These capacities emerge from the body. They’re not reducible to bodily processes. But they are caused and sustained partially caused and sustained by the proper functioning of our brains and nervous systems ,are required for these capacities to process and to function properly. And so I call this the emergent individuals view. Why is it important to hold this view?

Well, I think there’s more than one view that a Christian lay person could be drawn to, that would be adequate, both for theological purposes and for purposes of integration with other things we know. But I prefer this view because I’m much drawn to Francis Bacon, the famous thinker, of the early modern era, who spoke of God’s two books. The Book of His Works of creation or nature and The Book of His Word. Through both books we learn about ourselves and important complimentary truths.

And it seems to me that in recent years, especially since about the mid 20th century, we’ve come to learn increasingly a lot about one aspect of The Book of God’s Works, namely how our bodies function, and specifically our brains and how they develop. And it seems to me that a view on which human persons are fully embedded in the natural world it’s going to be important to maintain both when we look at the biological history of the slow emergence in development of increasingly sophisticated kinds of living things, including ourselves and much later in the game.

And then also what we know about organismic individual development, from embryonic state all the way to a fully matured human being. There’s a gradual development and an increasing sophistication of mental function that correlates very closely with the development and the development of our brain and nervous system. And so a view on which new capacities are emerging as brain structure is developing in maturity seems to me to fit well with the information that we have.

And so I think it’s important as a Christian, and I’m sure Richard agrees, that we integrate what we think about human persons, based on revealed truths with what we come to learn to varying degrees of confidence from the study of the natural world, because certainly we do get information about persons in our natures from scientific study of human beings.

I have no quarrel with the idea that soul and body are closely connected. Indeed I emphasize that power, our mental powers are sustained by our bodies and that we act through them. But my views on the soul are not derived from although they are of course compatible with they are not derived from Christian doctrine, but they’re seemed to be compelling arguments from purely secular knowledge in favor of this view.

If you were to try and tell the whole history of the world, you would have to tell her what happened to physical things, that is to say, tables and chairs and planets, which are physical in the sense that everybody has equal access to them, we can eat, see, as well as anybody else. There’s a table there, there’s a planet out there in the sky. And we can each see as well as anybody else. What is going on in my brain, at least we take trouble to learn a little neuroscience. It’s a public piece of knowledge. If you can find out what’s going on in my brain, I can find out what’s going on in my brain and conversely.

But when we come to thoughts and feelings and beliefs and desires and intentions, the subject, the person who has them has privileged access to them he or she knows better, what they’re thinking about, what they’re intending. You can of course, make an inference from my behavior about what I’m trying to do. And maybe if you look at my brain that will tell you a bit more, but then I could make that inference from my behavior and look at my brain.

But, I have a greater access to it, because I’m actually doing the trying and I know that. And therefore there are truths about the mental life which simply are not truths about, even though they may be caused by goings on in the brain. And given that, all the same even if you knew, even if by some mechanism or other, you knew everything, not merely that was happening to my body and brain, but what thoughts were connected with that, there would be still an all important truth that you wouldn’t know.

There is to say, who was having for his thoughts? Because after all, the world could in all public respects be the same, only, if I had your body and you had mine. And if I was having your thoughts and connected with your body, and you were having my thoughts connected with my body. So a full account of the world will not have merely have to describe bodies, physical things, and what physical properties they have mass, size, shape and so on.

Also, it must describe the mental goings on the thoughts and feelings. But it would also need to add, who was having these thoughts and feelings? The world could be different, as I say, in the respect to that, you could have my body, and I could have yours. But it could also be different in the respect that, quite different person could own this body and I could never have existed and yet, not merely will over public phenomena be the same, but the same thoughts and feelings would be going on. So a full story of the world has got to tell the history of persons and merely supposing that’s the history of bodies would have left something out.

It would have left out who is having the body? Who are having the thoughts and the feelings? And so there must be something extra and beyond that something is not merely the existence of a mental life, but the existence of someone who has a mental life. And give it a name for the extra bit that’s essential, or call it a soul but if you say that is no bits to me apart from my body, then it would follow that we would know all about the history of the world, if we simply knew about the history of bodies, and the feelings that were associated with them, but clearly we wouldn’t, because we wouldn’t know who was in control of the body.

So inevitably, the very fact of human consciousness forces us to say we can only make sense of this, in terms of a soul and given that there’s a soul, then it’s a part of me, and it could continue to exist after death. Of course, I don’t think you can give an argument to the philosophical kind to show that it does continue to exist after death. But I can give argument of the philosophical kind to share the record and Revelation can make it clear to us that it does.

But if the alternative doctrine would show with the only things for physical things, then our bodies could be reduced, not merely to bones in the grave, but could be turned into energy. So there’ll be nothing left to constitute us, and that seems to me would rule out life after death.

I’ll just briefly respond. The difference between the view that I’m proposing and the the more traditional view that Richard very capably defends, is, in some respects a rather subtle one. And that’s borne out by the fact that much of what he said especially the opening part of his remarks, I fully agree with that. That is, I think our mental lives cannot be captured in purely physical terms. My conscious thoughts and feelings, intentions, goals and so on, are aspects of me properties I manifest, capacities that I have, that are not the simple resultant of even complex neuro physiological processes, they are causally sustained by those processes, but they’re distinct from those processes. So we agree on that.

And then the question, the difference between our views is just where do those capacities reside? And I say they reside within the living organism, they are associated with the living organism. And so then that wouldn’t, Richard says, there’s a further fact about who owns the thoughts? That is, he suggests that it’s possible that I might have, if things might have been so constructed, that I might have controlled his body, and he might have controlled mine.

But that supposition that that’s so much as possible, I think, depends on pre supposing that the mind body dualism, that this alternative rejects. So if, in fact, these capacities are capacities of this organism, and his psychological capacities, are capacities of that organism, then that would not be a possibility that there is not that further fact to be accounted for.