Swinburne and O’Connor on Neuroscience and the Soul (Full Interview)
CCT Associate Director Steve Porter interviews Richard Swinburne (Emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Christian Religion, Oxford University) and Tim O’Connor (Professor of Philosophy, Baylor University) on neuroscience and the soul, including whether substance dualism or the emergent individuals view offers a better theory of human personhood.
I’m Steve Porter, Associate Director of the Center for Christian Thought at Biola University, also Professor of Philosophy and Theology here at Biola. And I have with me today two esteemed Christian philosophers. On my right is Professor Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford. And to his right is Dr. Tim O’Connor, Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University.
Our theme at the Center for Christian Thought this year is Neuroscience and the Soul and so we will largely be staying in that realm of discussion, but who knows we might stray elsewhere. I thought I’d start out by asking you Richard, your view, what you 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 layperson be concerned with whether or not substance dualism is the correct account of human nature?
I think that all humans on earth consist of two parts, a body and a 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 we learn about the world through our eyes and ears and we act on the world through, 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 the soul continues and humans continue to exist, but only with souls. Souls will be reunited to a, possibly the remains of the old body, but at any rate, many other new parts just so that it 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 any general resurrection and since our bodies are decayed 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, you can’t, that person can’t have all of my body and if it’s decayed, at any rate, even in life I have 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 with a 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 gotta 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 incline 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 person, our 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 our, that the proper functioning of our brains and nervous systems are required for these capacities to persist and to function properly. And so I call this, the emergent individual’s view.
Why is is important to hold this view? Well, I think there’s more than one view that a Christian layperson 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, 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. And both books, 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 and development of increasingly sophisticated kinds of living things, including ourselves, 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 a 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, and 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 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 seem to me 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 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 each see, as well as anybody else that there’s a table there, that 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 if we take trouble to learn a little neuroscience, it’s a public piece of knowledge. If you, 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, I, 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 for my behavior about what I’m trying to do, and maybe if you look at my brain that’ll tell you a bit more, but then I could make that inference for 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. 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.
That is to say, who was having these 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, 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 that you could have my body and I could have yours, but it could also be different in the respect that a quite different person could own this body and I could never have existed, and yet, not merely would all the public phenomenon be the same, but the same thoughts and feelings would be going on. So a full story of the world has got to tell a history of persons and merely supposing that’s the history of bodies, would have left something out.
It would have left out, who was having the body, who were having the thoughts and the feelings? And so there must be something extra and beyond and 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, call it a soul, but if you say there 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 you 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 of a philosophical kind to show that it does continue to exist after death, but I can give argument of a philosophical kind to show that it could and a revelation can make it clear to us that it does.
But if the alternative doctrine were true, if the only things were physical things, then our bodies could be reduced, not merely to bones in the grave, but could be turned into energy so there would be nothing left to constitute us, and that seems to me it would rule out life after death.
I’ll just briefly respond. The difference between the view that I’m proposing, and 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 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 neurophysiological 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 would, Richard says there’s a further fact about who owns the thoughts that is, he suggests that it’s possible that I might, things might have been so constructed that I might have controlled his body and he might have controlled mine, but that supposition that that so much is possible, I think, depends on presupposing the mind-body dualism that this alternative rejects.
So if in fact these capacities, are capacities of this organism, then 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.
So Richard, Tim has suggested that his view, this emergent view comports with the contemporary neuroscience and some might think that substance dualism is in trouble when it comes to contemporary neuroscience because these things that we used to thought, we used to think the soul was responsible for we’re finding out that the brain is responsible for. So how do you respond to this idea that the soul is, you know, we have kind of a soul of the gaps response, that we don’t need the soul anymore given what we understand about the brain.
Well, I’ve given a straight philosophical argument for the existence of the soul. So your point is that it doesn’t fit with contemporary neuroscience. Well, I don’t see that at all. I have no objection to any particular detailed result that contemporary neuroscience has made. Quite clearly we are influenced, choices are influenced by goings on in the brain, but this isn’t news.
We’ve always known that humans are influenced to their choices by physical goings on. It’s well known that if people haven’t eaten for 24 hours they feel hungry and they are inclined to eat, this has been known for millennia. All that neuroscience has done is being to add a lot of further bits of information of that sort. Neuroscience has told us the mechanism by which we, lack of food causes the desire to eat. And neuroscience has pointed out other mechanisms that are at work causing desires. But neuroscience has never shown whether, which persons will inevitably act on the desires to which they are subject.
We have a choice of whether to act on one desire or another, whether to do what we believe good or to yield to a temptation to do what is evil and no result of neuroscience has shown that we can’t do that. Some results, or rather some statements of neuroscientists about what they have achieved, seems to be a manifestrate false account of in fact what they have achieved [chuckling].
Tim, Richard made the claim that, if I’m getting it right, that no amount of contemporary neuroscientific evidence is going to show that there isn’t any such thing as the soul, understood in a dualist sense, do you agree with that, and then if so, how is it then that you made the claim earlier that you think this emergentist view comports better with biological evidence including neuroscientific evidence?
Good, I think I probably agree with Richard that neuroscience is at any rate, unlikely to demonstrate the nonexistence of the soul understood as a purely mental substance. Scientific theorizing is always a matter of putting in interpretation, trying to put the best interpretation on observable facts and it doesn’t usually proceed by way of, you know, outright demonstration of truths, it’s just certain theories seem to prove more fruitful and more predicatively powerful than other theories and are therefore, we run with them until better theories come along and new data that need to be accommodated.
So, in a nutshell, if you’ve been comparing our views there’s a strong agreement on that our mental lives do not reduce to our physical lives, so why, what difference does it make? Well, my view, new capacities emerge, think about the development of a living organism, our bodies, we have a lot of, if we’re fully intact functioning adult human beings we have a lot of sophisticated cognitive capacities, and affective capacities of emotion and desire and so forth.
As I understand the dualist view one would have to suppose that the soul emerges, or appears, in the very early stages of embryonic development, since the soul has no parts, it’s not a composed object, all of its basic capacities are sort of there from the get-go. And then as the brain matures some of those, many of those capacities are completely latent, young infants can’t do calculus, all right. But as the brain matures then these, what the soul is capable of doing and engaging in thought now becomes activated as the necessary physical causal conditions on it.
That’s a possible view, but it suggests a kind of an abrupt break. So you have a very immature organism that is associated with something that has these, these potentially quite complicated functions already fully intact. Rather than on my view the mental capacities, since they are capacities of the organism, develop in tandem with the development of the organism and that just seems to me a more natural interpretation of what we know about organismic development, so.
One point I would, one stage in your argument seem to me mistaken, you’re arguing from the fact that the soul has no parts to the fact that it can’t grow in its capacities, but I don’t see that follows at all. Capacities are properties of a thing and a thing can acquire many extra capacities even if these all belong to one part so I don’t follow that stage of the argument.
But more substantially it seems to me that any theory which says there is a sharp break has a lot more to be said for it than any theory that says there is a gradual evolution because you talk the fetus developing into the child. But if we take, for example, the gradual development of the human race from inanimate matter over time, four billion years ago nothing had any feelings or thoughts, now we have lots of feelings and thoughts. So some time or other there must have been a first feeling or thought.
Some mental event that the subject was aware of and to which he had privileged access to which of a kind that had never happened before, that seems to me inevitable. If some, if it once upon a time there weren’t any such things, and now there are such things, there must be a first time at which such things appear. Now of course we don’t know that time is there. My argument is compatible with the higher animals having thoughts and feelings and therefore, by my argument, having souls, but who knows.
Nobody knows whether ants have feelings, or whether fish have feelings. I’m inclined to think that only mammals have feelings, but there comes a time, a sharp time, and if a theory says there isn’t a sharp time it seems to me it hasn’t grasped the very nature of the mental which is so different from the physical it’s something to which the subject has privileged access. And the moment there is a being who has mental events, has thoughts and feelings to which he has privileged access, there is someone who has these thoughts and feelings. And it’s a fact about the world that that individual has them rather than any other individual and given that, and given that the body doesn’t carry the identity because I could have a different body, it must be another part of me that has my, that identify, so the very emergence of consciousness must bring with it a soul and that’s how it is.
There is this sharp break in evolution because something has appeared that simply wasn’t there before and if some evolutionary theory tries to show there isn’t a break then it must be mistaken for this reason, the facts are, just stare one in the face on this matter. The French neuroscientist, Benjamin Libet, did certain experiments in the 1980s which other neuroscientists generalized to show which they suggested showed that never do our intentions, purposes, make any difference to what we do. What we do is controlled just by brain goings on and we think we have formed an intention and that’s why we do something, but really it’s just brain goings on that make this difference.
And the evidence which was brought forth for that by, generally the followers of Libet, was that they found that whenever somebody does an intentional action, decides to move their hand, or decides to go for lunch, or something, there is always some buildup of electrical potential on their skull which indicates some brain going on. And many neuroscientists, and that happens before the subject forms any intention to go to lunch, or any intention to wave their hand.
And so many neuroscientists said, oh, well what that shows is that the brain event causes the motion of the hand and the intention has nothing to do with it. But of course all that the experiment showed is that equally compatible with the experimental results would have been that the original brain event causes the intention and the intention itself causes the motion of the hand. Well, neuroscientists could try and do some more complicated experiment which might show that the motion of hands was simply caused by bodily goings on.
But I don’t think they could ever show that our intentions don’t cause that though in some few cases they might show that we are compelled by bodily brain goings on to form an intention, but I see no reason to suppose that to be generally the case because all that neuroscience throws up is information about the inclinations, the desires, to which we are subject and we all that when faced with a choice with acting on some desire, or yielding to temptation, it’s up to us what we do. And nothing that neuroscience has shown has any inclination to show that it isn’t in those cases.
So, on this view, dualism actually helps preserve free will in a way that otherwise free will might be brought into question?
Yes, I don’t think dualism is necessary for holding a doctrine of free will, but it certainly, well, helps to bring out what is involved in it. That is to say that what determines our actions is what we determine our action and we determine our action in the light of reasons and desires to which we are subject. And intuitively we know, or think we know, that’s how things happen and nothing that any neuroscientist has produced shows that it isn’t.
And, Tim, I know that you’ve been concerned to defend a version of free will as well. Do you think that you’re emergent view helps with the free will question, via the substance dualism?
I believe it’s as compatible as substance dualism is with the view that we exercise, a limited measure of autonomy, we’re not perfectly free beings. We’re constrained, as science show, not just neuroscience, but it shows through psychology we’re often subject to unconscious influences, so it’s a constrained freedom of will, but I do think we have sufficient freedom that we can be held morally accountable for our choices. It’s a common place that the popular press often does a very poor job of reporting scientific findings and I agree with Richard that in some cases the scientists themselves are a source of the problem in so far as they put philosophical glosses on their findings that go well beyond their findings, they’re putting an interpretation on their findings that the results themselves hardly imply, although they might be compatible with the findings.
And so I agree with Richard that it’s often overblown, some of the interesting things that are being learned about how the brain functions. But it’s, we should recognize that the science of the brain is still in relevant infancy, or maybe in it’s adolescence you might say at this point. Before the 1950s very little was known about the details of brain function and now scientists seem to have a very good handle on how individual cells of the brain, neurons interact transmitting chemicals across synapses and that sort of thing, but how large scale assemblies of neurons produce, are involved in the production of complicated bodily behavior, let alone conscious choices, is still not well-understood at all.
There is a differentiation of function, scientists have been able to identify different regions of the brain being associated with different functions, like the visual cortex, and the auditory cortex, and so forth, but most of the really crucial details about how complex behavior is produced are still wide open. And I agree that the Libet findings just show that there’s activity, a kind of preparatory activity perhaps, where we know we’re about to, you know, you have to think about the Libet sort of scenario where you’re being invited to engage in a specific behavior, such as wiggling your finger, within a short interval of time, and then you’re just asked to spontaneously decide when you will engage in that behavior.
And that there should be some sort of anticipatory brain activity to enable a smooth carrying out of that behavior when a choice is made, it’s not terribly surprising, right? We don’t, no sensible view, whether a substance dualist view, or my sort of view, or even on a materialist view, on no view do choices just come out of the blue quite apart from any antecedent influences. So, yeah, I think, I do want to have a view on which we have capacities to make choices that don’t reduce to physical capacities and that we consciously control that capacity, at least in many circumstances when we’re fully in control of our faculties and we’re aware of real options available to us and I think that wholly consistent with the findings in neuroscience.
Yes, all of that neuroscientists have discovered in more detail about the goings on in the brain before we make decisions. Only a lier, they may have established a corelation between certain goings on, and say, the subject moving their hand, but the corelation is not 100%, it’s 80%, or 75%, that is to say that indicates that what they’ve discovered is an inclination to do it to which eventually the subject may or may not decide to follow. But one point about neuroscience, I wouldn’t altogether agree with you about individual neurons.
Sure, what is known is that the brain has a large collection of neurons and each neuron transmits an electrochemical influence to the next neuron. But how it does this by releasing a small amount of transmitter substance which clings to the next neuron and starts an electrical pulse passing through that, but whether it does this or not just depends on just how much the transmitter substance is released and just how wide the gap between the two neurons, the synaptic cleft is, and just what happens to each bit of transmitter substance that’s released and these are goings on on a very, very small scale.
And such literature as I have read implies certainly favorable to the view that these goings on whether enough transmitter substance is released at the cleft in order to start an impulse passing through the next neuron, depends on such small differences that these differences lie within the quantum limit. That is to say the great physical theory of the 20th century, quantum theory, is an indeterministic theory.
It says that on the small, smallest of small scales, you can only talk about probabilities of things happening, not about inevitability of things happening. And the scales involved in the transmission of electric charge from one neuro to another are on that very small scale. So whether they potentially is transmitted does depend upon something within the quantum limit and is therefore not predetermined. Of course it is logically possible that these very small differences in one neuron isn’t gonna make a very great difference to large-scale behavior.
On the other hand it may make a very large-scale difference to our behavior that isn’t known, but there is undoubtedly a certain amount of indeterminism in the brain so it would be perfectly compatible, with all we know, about the operation of the brain to suppose that some of its operation is not determined by physical laws.
And, Richard, just since we’re on this kind of issue of origins, on your view, and perhaps if you could think of it too, not just in a theistic evolutionary picture, but those Christians that hold to some sort of direct creation of the first human persons. On your view does the soul, how does the soul come into existence? You have this sharp break, what, the sharp break is the emergence of the soul. How does the soul come into existence on this?
Well, there’s two possible theories either that as it were, it’s a basic law of nature, the brain, when it reaches a certain form, a certain kind of complexity throws up a soul, or alternatively that God gives to individuals who have a brain of that complexity, when it reaches that stage, a soul. I don’t have a very strong view which of these is correct because, I mean, God may operate through producing laws of nature which are such that when the brain acquires a certain complexity then it throws up a soul, or conversely he may act directly.
And as with regards anything I’ve been saying today it’s perfectly compatible with creationism, as far as, even if humans are not produced, don’t have an animal ancestry. Still there must have been a first human and therefore, again, a break in the evolutionary process so it doesn’t matter for the sake of my argument whether the process of evolution of bodies was gradual or suddenly human bodies arrived. The production of the soul must have happened at a particular time when a particular degree of complexity was there and that is the all important difference, not the animal ancestry of bodies, yeah.
Tim, how would you respond to that and particularly again thinking of, you might think that this emergent individuals view fits better with a theistic evolutionary picture of gradual development. But if you were addressing Christians who believe in, for various Biblical theological philosophical reasons perhaps even, in the direct creation of human persons, that would seem to be a view that would not fit as well with the emergent individuals view. Do you have thoughts on that?
Well, yeah, I think you’ve answered your own question, that is I do think while the view that I’m suggesting is consistent with some sort of notion of special divine intervention in the creation of human persons. It really is tailor-made for trying to integrate with the idea that human beings are embedded in these larger set of natural biological processes have appeared over, as more complex forms of organisms have appeared via purely natural processes, human beings coming at the tail end of that. And that the idea is that even as I develop, organismically, I’m acquiring new fundamental capacities as the organism matures.
Whereas, so it’s an attempt to be sensitive to the idea of gradual development. I agree with a remark Richard made earlier that on any view on which the mentality does not reduce to the physical there is some discontinuity, but there’s discontinuity and there’s discontinuity, and just how sharp, it’s an attempt to kind of minimize the discontinuity, the degree of discontinuity, but if you have a picture on which God creates human individuals at a moment in time directly, as it were, then why not go with the soul view? It has an easier time dealing with issues of survival of death and the afterlife.
On your view what comes at the moment of death? How would you explain the traditional belief in continued existence?
Well, I should say first of all, I have no idea how it is that God preserves us, and so, but I think it’s incumbent upon a thinker that wants to have a reasonable coherent view that it’d at least be possible that we survive death. So it’s important, as a philosopher, if you think we’re ascent, as I do, tentatively, that we are essentially embodied beings, survival of death does seem hard to understand, it can even look impossible on reflection. And so it’s important that we be able to at least imagine some kind of scenario on which it could happen consistent with facts, the facts of death as we know them. So here’s one way it might go.
It’s a very speculative, science-fictiony sounding suggestion, but again, it’s just intended to be a possibility proof, right, an indication of one way it could go. Presumably God is more imaginative than I am and maybe there are other ways that are better ways, that it actually goes, but, so here goes. Suppose that right at the moment of your death, as you’re about to die, let’s say you’ve unfortunately situated yourself vis-a-via a fast-moving bus and you are right in front of it and you are a fraction of a second from being hit by that massive fast-moving bus and so are, about to die and very quickly.
Suppose that the matter that composes you right at that moment, each of the fundamental particles fission, split in two, you know, as amoebas fission, right? Suppose that God has endowed the fundamental stuff that constitutes you with the capacity to fission, maybe God miraculously brings to bear something that is the necessary condition, God triggers some kind of latent disposition, all right?
And so then what happens is there are now two body products of this fissioning, one right where you were at the beginning of the process which dies instantly, right, and another we might suppose, and here’s where it sounds very science-fictiony, in a discontinuous manner it shows up in another location safely out of harms way. Or if you’re, the manner in which you’re dying is a decay of a disease, right, God prevents that death from occurring and brings about restoration of health, okay?
And I say that would be you and what remains on the ground in lifeless form is a mere offshoot of you, and the reason I say that’s not you, is because there’s no longer a continuity of the mental function that is constitutive of you as a living person, that these mental functions that give you an identity, as a composite whole, that make you a particular being, that’s preserved in this other body.
So I think it’s possible so I think this very sketchy, bizarre sort of picture shows that, perhaps shows, that we could survived death, but it’s an embodied survival of death and this is contrary to the way Christians have traditionally thought about the immediate survival of death. They’ve thought that we survive in a disembodied state until the time of the general resurrection. Whereas on my view if I’m essentially an embodied thing that would be impossible, I have to be embodied in some form or other. Then you might think that makes the resurrection a rather anticlimactic affair, rather than the object of Christian hope as it has been represented in the Christian tradition, but the reason the general resurrection is held out to us as a, something to long for and to hope for, is that we’re, it’s not just a time where we are restored to a bodily state, but we are clothed with immortality, that’s, the Apostle Paul says, that we now, our body is sown into the group, perishable bodies are raised imperishable.
And so there’s some kind of dramatic transformation that takes place and I think that’s consistent with my view that God could dramatically, right, we are changing things even on earth, as biological organisms, and who knows what the possibilities are for God to bring about still far more dramatic changes in the constitution of our nature consistent with our continuing on as conscious thinking things such that at the end result of a, perhaps a very rapid process, that subjectively feels like it’s instantaneous, but it’s actually a highly compressed rapid dramatic transformation, we now have bodies that are not subject to decay and so forth, and it may also be a function of a very different sort of environment that we inhabit too that accounts for some of the difference.
May I make a comment on that? That seems to me a wildly speculative ad hoc hypothesis. The suggestion that at death we split into two and a total duplicate of our bodies is produced, but we don’t see it because it’s taken away into a fifth dimension, or something like that. There’s not the slightest evidence this is true and this is only being brought in in order to make sense of how it could be that we survive death, whereas the more traditional account, which I have given, is motivated originally simply by the need to describe mundane phenomena.
You couldn’t describe the history of the ordinary world without bringing in the cell because you couldn’t describe the ordinary history of the world without telling who had what experiences and that’s not a matter of their, of who had what body. And given that, then as it were, at death clearly there are two parts and clearly the part that decays is the bodily part, so there is another part there, it doesn’t need speculative science to give you that and the analysis of what being conscious involves gives you that.
Of course, it’s a further claim that this continues to exist but it’s perfectly compatible with death that it should continue to exist, it doesn’t involve any new speculative science of any sort and so I think the traditional view is much to be preferred on that basis.
If I could just briefly respond to that. I agree with, there are interesting philosophical arguments for substance dualism, and Richard, he’s defended such arguments in several places, and if he’s right then of course then those arguments alone give us reason to prefer that view. It’s because I’m not persuaded by those arguments and that I do see at least attention with developmental biology with the substance dualist view that I’m inclined towards this more monistic view of human nature and then it’s true the survival of death scenarios look a lot more, it looks like a lot more contrivance is required in order for that to occur, and I agree.
But I guess the one thing I would emphasize is that even if substance dualism is true and I survive death because God preserves my soul, I think that’s something miraculous in any case. That is I don’t think it’s the Christian view, the view that Plato held, that the soul is naturally immortal, right, that it just is liberated at death and it just, it’s by its very nature, because it’s a simple object it must persist.
I think that a reasonable substance dualism will say that the soul naturally depends on the body and so when the body decays and is no longer capable of playing that sustaining function it requires divine intervention to keep it into being. So both views require that God act in a special way, outside of ordinary natural processes, in order to give us everlasting life.
Both of you are bright capable Christian philosophers, you’ve studied these views carefully and yet there’s substantive disagreement between you and we could bring in three or four other Christian philosophers, and folks who aren’t Christians, who have different views on this issue. What about the person who says, yeah, this is the problem with philosophical methodology, it’s not going to bring any sort of answer to these questions that, that’s gonna bring about, you know, wide-spread agreement. How do you respond to that kind of skepticism that this way of going about answering these questions is helpful? Richard, we can start with you.
It’s important to remember that philosophy is interested in questions of the deepest kind about what there is, the total constituence of the world, not just the physical constituence of the world, and what the world depends on, these are very deep questions. And it wouldn’t be surprising if it takes many centuries, many millennia, to get answers to them.
It’s taken two or 3,000 years to get answers to some questions in physics or chemistry, and these are much deeper questions. So it’s not surprising in itself, forgetting particular religious considerations, that these things take time. But we are both reasonably convinced that the Christian revelation is true and we are pointing out alternative ways of how it could be true. And that’s useful for people because they may not find one of these ways very, very compelling, or indeed, even at all attractive then the other way is available for them to think about the matter.
So it is good that there should be a certain variety of ways of spelling out the Christian tradition, so long as it’s essential message is there. And I think both of our ways are compatible with the essential Christian doctrines on these matters. Doctrines that in life humans have free will, the doctrine that based on my death, the doctrine of general resurrection after death. If this can be spelled out in more than one way that is more reason for believing it rather than less.
Yeah, there is plenty of profound disagreement in philosophy among people who study deep basic issues in philosophy. As Richard says, this is in part a reflection of that we’re asking very, very fundamental questions that don’t admit of direct empirical verification, although empirical information can bear on some of these questions as we’ve been suggesting. And we’re perhaps not especially well-suited as human beings for handling these problems, or not as well-suited perhaps as we are for doing elementary arithmetic say, or something where we have much more reliable procedures.
But I also think that it, sometimes it’s overplayed, the philosophical disagreement, I think there is such a thing as progress in philosophy. Certainly there’s a lot of progress by way of rejection of ideas where the consensus of informed thinkers is a particular theorists way of handling a certain issue just won’t work for pretty decisive reasons. So a winnowing, that over time there’s a winnowing, of the possibilities and greater cultivation of ideas, many contemporary ideas on basic issues and philosophies, or just variations on ideas that Plato and Aristotle held, but they’re more sophisticated, they’re developed in response to objections to older versions of these views. And so there is some progress, it’s just, it is a slower progress.
Well, I thank you both for your time today and your presence at the Center for Christian Thought.