Of Two Minds on Dualism

The mind-body problem has been a topic of debate from the inception of philosophy itself, and has recently became a hot topic in Christian circles.  Throughout the course of history, neither monists nor dualists have been able to conclusively demonstrate the falsity of its opponent and the veridical nature of itself.  This has not stopped thinkers, including myself, from picking a side though.  Before entering the debate, we will do a brief historical review of the developments of monism and dualism.  From there we will look at nonreductive physicalism, the most common form of Christian monism, and provide critiques of it.  Then we will finish with my dualistic perspective and its implications for Christian spirituality.  As we investigate this topic, we will have to wrestle with arguments from science, philosophy and theology.

Before we start, a few definitions are in order.  I define monism as the belief that humans are metaphysically one substance.  Dualism then, is the belief that humans are metaphysically two substances.  Both positions can and often times do affirm the reality that humans are a psychosomatic unity.  Monist just think humans are made up of one thing, and so claim that we are not souls with a body nor a body with a soul, but we are souls.[1]  While dualist say we are not identical with our body but are made up of two things, a physical body and nonphysical soul.[2] 

To situate the discussion, we will briefly look at the historical landscape of this discussion.   Dualism has been the dominant metaphysical anthropology in Christianity since the fourth century AD.[3]   Although the church fathers were engulfed in Greek culture, and many learned in Greek philosophy, it would be inaccurate to think secular Greek philosophy was the determinative factor in their thinking on human composition.  They founded their dualism on arguments taken from Scripture and explicitly rejected Plato’s conception of the soul.[4]  Patristic thinkers were committed to a psychosomatic unity in reference to human composition, but still distinguished between body and soul.[5] 

As we move past the early fathers, two influential thinkers who have shaped Christian conceptions of the soul with effects into the present would be Augustine and Descartes.  Both can be seen as developing their concept of the soul against the backdrop of Plato’s understanding of the soul.  Both Augustine and Descartes reject Plato’s notion that the body is somehow evil, but they affirm the tight relationship between the soul and body, and argue that it is good.[6]  This relationship is not seen as intimate as the patristic thinking of a psychosomatic unity, since both affirmed that the soul is not dependent upon the body for existence or thinking.[7]  It is this division between body and soul that current monism wants to push back against.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century though, monism began to gain popularity and pushed dualism towards the shadows as we moved into the twentieth century.  This was due to developments in science and philosophy.  Nonreductive physicalism, a form of monism which has become the popular position towards human composition among Christian thinkers, has its roots in thinkers like Spinoza, William James, and most recently Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers.[8]  Towards the end of the twentieth century though, dualism has begun to see a resurgence.  This resurgence has been met with theological developments that claim the Bible’s view of human composition is best interpreted through a nonreductive physicalism.[9]

To get an understanding of nonreductive physicalism, we need to see how it is a development of reductive physicalism.  Reductive physicalism is the claim that humans can be wholly and exhaustively understand once we understand all the physical facts about them.[10]  That is to say, all higher-order properties can be explained exhaustively by the lower level properties, the subvenient base.[11]  Humans are no more than the physical happenings that go on in the body.

This sort of reductionism is routinely rejected by Christian thinkers as untenable.[12]  Scientifically, philosophically, and theologically, it does not provide an adequate description of humans’ subjective experience the world.  Theologically speaking, this sort of reductionism does not allow for any form of spirituality at all.  The Bible would be entirely at odds against any position that rejects a spiritual reality, as the Bible sees the spiritual world integral to being a human.[13]  The idea of a spirit, a non-physical part of human existence, is impossible in reductive physicalism.   

Philosophically and scientifically, reductive physicalism provides inadequate answers to questions about free will and consciousness.  In reference to free will, Richard Swinburne has detailed how any theory of determinism, which a physical reductionism would be constrained to, would either fail in the predictive or simplistic criterion in trying to offer a proof for determinism.[14] As for consciousness, physical reductionism does not seem to have the resources to answer the hard question of consciousness.[15]  It appears incapable of providing an explanation of why physical matter gives rise to consciousness and is unable to tell us “what it is like” to have an experience.  In light of these difficulties, Christian monists have largely rejected a reductive physicalism and turned to nonreductive physicalism.

This position affirms that humans are metaphysically one substance, that is physical matter, but has characteristics that are irreducible to matter and physics.[16]  This perspective is desirable for many reasons.  Scientifically, it seems to align with many of our modern scientific understandings of neuroscience.[17]  Neuroscience has demonstrated the deep dependence the mind and mental states have on the brain. 

Neuroimaging has helped show the strong connection between psychological states and brain states to such an extent that you could practically know someone’s psychological state just by seeing a neuroimage of their brain states.  Beyond just showing a strong correlation between psychological states and brain states, there is even suggestion that brain states can actually cause mental states.[18]  The correlation and interdependence between the mind and brain is so great that it seems like there is no role for a nonphysical soul to play in consciousness.[19] 

Nonreductive physicalist Christians are pleased by the work physicalism does in explaining the connection between psychology and neuroscience.  However, they are also concerned with the connection between neuroscience and consciousness.  In wanting to maintain the value of human subjective experience and a robust sense of consciousness, some have turned to dual aspect monism.  This position contends that humans are one entity but with two different aspects, the internal subjective one and the external objective one.[20] 

The double aspect theory gives us a foundation to tackle the subjective nature of human experience.  Yet in doing so, it presents further challenges.  The task for nonreductive physicalism is to be truly non-reductive and truly physicalist.  Yet by being truly physicalist, it seems that we are not allowing any room in the causal gap for non-physical causes, thus falling into a reductionism.[21]  To guard against this, Nancey Murphy turns to the idea of supervenience.  This is the idea that high-order properties can be wholly dependent on lower-order properties, without being entirely reduced to them.[22]  With supervenience, Nancey makes room for mental causation in her affirmation of top-down causation.[23]  

This position has not gone unchallenged though.  Two primary ways to challenge this position is at the level of supervenience and then the level of top-down causation.  As for supervenience, it has been argued that Nancey’s understanding of supervenience is really structural and not emergent.[24]  That is to say, Nancey’s examples of emergent properties are really just structural, which is only the reconfiguration of the lower-order properties and do not actually produce any new emergent properties.  As for top-down causation, without proper supervenience by emergent properties, you will not be able to have mental causation.   The issue of supervenience, combined with causal closer, overdetermination and the irreducibility of the mental are cause for rejecting Nancey’s version of nonreductive physicalism.[25] 

Kärkkäinen, as a monist himself, offers a few critiques which display that a nonreductive physicalist’s deep insistence on physicality, is ultimately what is the downfall for nonreductive physicalism.[26]  The first critique is more philosophical, in that he agrees with J.P. Moreland’s claim that top-down mental causation is real, but is incoherent in a physicalist framework.[27]  This is part of the reason which leads him to develop his multidimensional monism.  The second critique is more scientific. 

He pulls in recent developments in science that show our traditional conceptions and ideas of what physical matter is, is beginning to look less and less physical.[28]  He warns that trying to partner monism with physicality may become a mistake if we learn reality is not as physical as we thought.  Kärkkäinen is concerned that there is a potential problem with dual aspect theory in that stressing physicality, it could make the mental less than real and merely just a perspective or experience.[29] 

His last critique is more theological.  He aptly points out that the physical is only the penultimate, and the spiritual should be ultimate.  Thus, to the extent that nonreductive physicalism loses sight of this, is to the extent it falters.[30]  In fact, he is convinced that any authentic physicalism will lead to ontological physicalism, which affirms that all there is, is physical.[31]  We need to be careful not to down play the significance of physicality though.  It is clear that for the Bible, physicality and embodied experience is fundamental to human existence in this life and the next.[32]  Yet that needs to be seen light of the reality that eternity will be spent in what Paul calls in ‘spiritual bodies’ in 1 Corinthians 15:44, because he tells us in verse 50 that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. 

            Kärkkäinen is convinced we need multiple levels of explanation to understand humans.  This is why we have biology, chemistry, psychology, neuroscience etc.  Given the multilayered approach needed to understand humans, we should be weary of trying to give an explanation that only allows us one level, that being just the physical.  Biblically and scientifically we are directed to the multidimensionality of humans.[33]  Humans are “psychosomatic unities rather than dual beings composed of a spiritual soul housed within a material body.”[34]  Kärkkäinen is still a monist of sorts, although he aims blur some of the distinct categories that have been set up when talking about the mind-body problem.[35]  So, I now want to turn to some dualist specific critiques. 

            From a dualist perspective, I find the most powerful critiques of monism are the location problem, the binding and unity of consciousness problems, and the biblical critiques.  The location problem is detailed by William Hasker.  His question is “where in the brain is experience located?”[36]  His argument is that under a nonreductive physicalist view, consciousness has to be found somewhere in the brain.  However, when we start to investigate where, we are led to saying that consciousness happens in only and in every brain particle.[37]   This leads to his conclusion that under emergent material persons theory, which is a form of nonreductive physicalism, each individual quark experiences our full range of experience.[38]  For under a physicalist perspective, this would be the only way for us to have the unity of experience that we have.

            The unity of consciousness problem is also brought out by Eric Larock.  In his analysis of neuroscience and consciousness, he points out that without there being a global point of view of consciousness, we would not be able to experience a unity of consciousness.  This is seen in the binding problem where we are not able to adequately explain how our brain correctly binds features together to ensure that we consciously experience what we are really experiencing.[39]  From there he shows that just because different regions of the brain can be conscious of different aspects of reality at the same time, this does not therefor mean the entire brain is having a unified conscious experience of reality.[40]  Without a global point of view to bring all of those aspects together, we are left with multiple different regions only knowing part of an experience, and none of them knowing all parts of experience.  Thus, Larock suggests that dualism with an irreducible subject actually has explanatory power in the unity of experience problem and also improves information efficiency across the brain.[41] 

            The last critique is biblical.  It first needs to be recognized that biblical arguments for dualism based solely an analysis of definitions for words like “body” “soul” “flesh” “spirit” etc. will be in adequate.  First off, these sorts of analysis typically are not sensitive to the way that language use impacts the meaning of a word in a given context, and not just the definition.[42]  Also, it rarely considers the fact that these words are not really analytic and specific in the way we use them today but often times are functional and overlapping in meaning.[43]  Leading forms of biblical arguments for dualism avoid this simple approach.[44] 

            That being said, it is still important to study and parse the definition of those words used in the Bible that do possess the ideas of soul, spirit, flesh, and body.  With that said, I do think the eschatological approach is more promising for supporting dualism.[45]  A dualism of some sort, will protect against the idea that you as a person die when your body dies.  If we are comprised of two parts, then our body part can die, but our soul part can go on continue living, if only by the supernatural power of God.[46] Even though the Old Testament is almost universally agreed to not portray an anthropological dualism,[47] John Cooper has challenged that idea.  He points our attention to 1 Samuel 28.  In this chapter Saul summons Samuel’s spirit and talks to him, even though in the beginning of the chapter it details that Samuel’s body has been put into a tomb.  The mere existence of Samuel beyond death and that he is able to be summoned while his body is in a tomb, suggests a sort of dualism in human nature.[48] 

            In light of these critiques of monism, I have changed my position from monism to an emergent dualism.  Emergent dualism is the position that the soul is located in the body but does not consist of any parts and emerges from the human nervous system.[49]  Emergent dualism recognizes the deep connections the mind/soul has to the brain, but also recognizes that the soul can become detached from the physical body and remain living, if not only by the power of God.  Emergent dualism can also fit within the concept of a psychosomatic unity which right suggests that it is the whole person, not just some part of the person, that is truly the person. 

When it comes to Christian Spirituality, often times it is really the concept of psychosomatic unity that is most important.  If that is maintained, then in many ways varying monistic or dualistic understandings of humans generally lead to fairly similar ethics and Christian living.[50]  Yet we still need to acknowledge that differences in human composition do lead to real differences in ethics and Christian living.  For nonreductive physicalists, these worldly concerns receive greater emphasize since humans are fundamentally physical beings and so our physical needs must be met.  Also, if humans are fundamentally physical beings, spiritual practices become more physical in that they are tied closer to improving one’s mood and feelings and mental state.  Whereas with a dualism, spiritual practices can be more firmly about your spiritual health and development, acknowledging that spiritual health is connected with overall health but not necessarily on a one-to-one relationship like with a nonreductive physical monism. 

This paper has been a critical look at monism, and in particular nonreductive physicalism.  From my understanding of nonreductive physicalism, and the critiques I have displayed here, I have come to conclude that an emergent dualism is the best perspective on human composition.  I do recognize that I did not present critiques of emergent dualism, which there are plenty.  This speaks to the reality that neither monist nor dualist have a knockdown argument for their position.  That being said, I have been convinced of the emergent dualist position.  As a result, my Christian Spirituality reflects that.

Bibliography

Clarke, Peter G H. “Neuroscience and the Soul: A Response to Malcolm Jeeves.” Science and     Christian Belief 21, no. 1 (April 2009): 61–64.

Cooper, J. W. (2016). Whose Interpretation? Which Anthropology? Biblical Hermeneutics, Scientific Naturalism, and the Body-Soul Debate. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 238-257). William B Eerdmans Publishing.

Corcoran, K., & Sharpe, K. (2016). Explaining Consciousness. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 181-189). William B Eerdmans Publishing.

Corcoran, K., & Sharpe, K. (2016). Neuroscience and the Human Person. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 121-136). William B Eerdmans Publishing.

Green, Joel B. “Monism and the Nature of Humans in Scripture.” Christian Scholar’s Review 29, no. 4 (Sum 2000): 731–43.

Hasker, W. (2016). Do My Quarks Enjoy Beethoven? In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 13-40). William B Eerdmans Publishing.

Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism”: A Constructive Theological Proposal for the Nature of Human Nature. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 201-227). William B Eerdmans Publishing.

LaRock, E. (2016). Neuroscience and the Hard Problem of Consciousness. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 151-180). William B Eerdmans Publishing.

Moreland, J.P. (2016). Why Top-Down Causation Does Not Provide Adequate Support for Mental Causation. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 51-73). William B Eerdmans Publishing.

Norman, David A. “Beyond Reductionism and Dualism: Towards a Christian Solution to the       Mind Body Problem.” Science and Christian Belief 16, no. 1 (April 2004): 3–12.

Rickabaugh, Brandon L. “Alister Mcgrath’s Anti-Mind-Body Dualism: Neuroscientific and            Philosophical Quandaries for Christian Physicalism.” Trinity Journal 40, no. 2 (Fall          2019): 215–40.

Swinburne, R. (2016). The Impossibility of Proving That Human Behavior Is Determined. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 93-108). William B Eerdmans Publishing.


[1] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism”: A Constructive Theological Proposal for the Nature of Human Nature. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 201-227). William B Eerdmans Publishing. 220.

[2] Rickabaugh, Brandon L. “Alister Mcgrath’s Anti-Mind-Body Dualism: Neuroscientific and Philosophical Quandaries for Christian Physicalism.” Trinity Journal 40, no. 2 (Fall 2019): 215–40. 217.

[3] Norman, David A. “Beyond Reductionism and Dualism: Towards a Christian Solution to the Mind Body  Problem.” Science and Christian Belief 16, no. 1 (April 2004): 3–12. 3.

[4] Rickabaugh, Brandon L. “Alister Mcgrath’s Anti-Mind-Body Dualism” 222.

[5] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism” 203.

[6] Rickabaugh, Brandon L. “Alister Mcgrath’s Anti-Mind-Body Dualism” 218.

[7] Rickabaugh, Brandon L. “Alister Mcgrath’s Anti-Mind-Body Dualism” 218.

[8] Clarke, Peter G H. “Neuroscience and the Soul: A Response to Malcolm Jeeves.” Science and Christian Belief 21,  no. 1 (April 2009): 61–64. 62.

[9] Green, Joel B. “Monism and the Nature of Humans in Scripture.” Christian Scholar’s Review 29, no. 4 (Sum           2000): 731–43.731.

[10] Corcoran, K., & Sharpe, K. (2016). Explaining Consciousness. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 181-189). William B Eerdmans Publishing. 183.

[11] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism” 207.

[12] Norman, David A. “Beyond Reductionism and Dualism”. 4.

[13] Green, Joel B. “Monism and the Nature of Humans in Scripture.” 739.

[14] Swinburne, R. (2016). The Impossibility of Proving That Human Behavior Is Determined. In 916731722720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy,    science, and th (pp. 93-108). William B Eerdmans Publishing. 94.

[15] Corcoran, K., & Sharpe, K. (2016). Neuroscience and the Human Person. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 121-136). William B Eerdmans Publishing. 133.

[16] Corcoran, K., & Sharpe, K. (2016). Neuroscience and the Human Person. 122.

[17] Clarke, Peter G H. “Neuroscience and the Soul: A Response to Malcolm Jeeves.” 62.

[18] Clarke, Peter G H. “Neuroscience and the Soul: A Response to Malcolm Jeeves.” 63.

[19] Corcoran, K., & Sharpe, K. (2016). Neuroscience and the Human Person. 131.

[20] Clarke, Peter G H. “Neuroscience and the Soul: A Response to Malcolm Jeeves.” 62.

[21] Norman, David A. “Beyond Reductionism and Dualism” 6.

[22] Norman, David A. “Beyond Reductionism and Dualism” 10.

[23] Moreland, J.P. (2016). Why Top-Down Causation Does Not Provide Adequate Support for Mental Causation. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 51-73). William B Eerdmans Publishing. 51.

[24] Moreland, J.P. (2016). Why Top-Down Causation. 57.

[25] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism” 208.

[26] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism” 209.

[27] Moreland, J.P. (2016). Why Top-Down Causation. 51.

[28] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism” 210.

[29] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism” 215.

[30] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism” 211.

[31] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism” 216.

[32] Green, Joel B. “Monism and the Nature of Humans in Scripture.” 738.

[33] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism” 215.

[34] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism” 212.

[35] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism” 218.

[36] Hasker, W. (2016). Do My Quarks Enjoy Beethoven? In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 13-40). William B Eerdmans Publishing. 48.

[37] Hasker, W. (2016). Do My Quarks Enjoy Beethoven? 34.

[38] Hasker, W. (2016). Do My Quarks Enjoy Beethoven? 35.

[39] LaRock, E. (2016). Neuroscience and the Hard Problem of Consciousness. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 151-180). William B Eerdmans Publishing. 174.

[40] LaRock, E. (2016). Neuroscience and the Hard Problem of Consciousness. 175.

[41] LaRock, E. (2016). Neuroscience and the Hard Problem of Consciousness. 196.

[42] Green, Joel B. “Monism and the Nature of Humans in Scripture.” 739.

[43] Kärkkäinen, V. (2016). “Multidimensional Monism” 219.

[44] Rickabaugh, Brandon L. “Alister Mcgrath’s Anti-Mind-Body Dualism” 225.

[45] Green, Joel B. “Monism and the Nature of Humans in Scripture.” 734.

[46] Cooper, J. W. (2016). Whose Interpretation? Which Anthropology? Biblical Hermeneutics, Scientific Naturalism, and the Body-Soul Debate. In 916731722 720518749 G. A. Elshof (Author), Neuroscience and the soul – the human person in philosophy, science, and th (pp. 238-257). William B Eerdmans Publishing. 241.

[47] Green, Joel B. “Monism and the Nature of Humans in Scripture.” 737.

[48] Cooper, J. W. (2016). Whose Interpretation? 244.

[49] Rickabaugh, Brandon L. “Alister Mcgrath’s Anti-Mind-Body Dualism” 220.

[50] Green, Joel B. “Monism and the Nature of Humans in Scripture.” 736.

9 thoughts on “Of Two Minds on Dualism

  1. I agree with this statement “While dualist say we are not identical with our body but are made up of two things, a physical body and nonphysical soul.” I was confused by some of what you said as well

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  2. I was confused when you said” As for consciousness, physical reductionism does not seem to have the resources to answer the hard question of consciousness. It appears incapable of providing an explanation of why physical matter gives rise to consciousness and is unable to tell us “what it is like” to have an experience. In light of these difficulties, Christian monists have largely rejected a reductive physicalism and turned to nonreductive physicalism.

    This position affirms that humans are metaphysically one substance, that is physical matter, but has characteristics that are irreducible to matter and physics.”

    Are you saying that reductionism doesn’t fully explain how we have the ability to think and etc. ?

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    1. I’m saying that physical reductionism, the belief that all things can be explained in terms of physical matter in motion, doesn’t and can’t explain this reality that it “feels” like something to be a human. So I’m not saying that reductionism can’t explain thought, because it can explain thinking through neurons firing in our brain and stuff like that (although as I explained, there are levels of thought I think it isn’t able to explain) but that when we have an experience, there is something that it feels like to have that experience. So, the argument is that if you were a dog, or a cat, or a bat, or any sentient being, there is something that it feels like to be that creature, but that physical reductionism isn’t able to explain why there is this experience or how to explain what that experience really is.

      Liked by 1 person

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