I recently completed a 25 page paper for a philosophy seminar I took last semester. I’m glad to have it behind me. Essentially, the paper was a detailed analysis of two recent books that explore what emerging trends in neurosciences (brain science) have to say about theological understandings of what it means to be a human being.
Essentially, throughout much of the history of Christian thought, Christians have held to the idea that there is a very strict separation between “soul” and “body,” or “mind” and “brain.” Such a conception is labeled dualism (as opposed to monism).
Recent work in neuroscience, however, calls into question such a dichotomy. The prevailing opinion today (particularly in secular academic circles) is that a monistic understanding of human beings is more accurate. Such a view refutes the dichotomy I’ve just described, arguing there is really no such thing as an immaterial soul that can exist apart from the body.
Some of the evidence they point to will be familiar – the way a person’s body greatly impacts their “mind.” The example of Alzeimers Disease, Touret’s Syndrome, and anecdotal evidences from brain tumors and the like. The argument is that if brain chemistry or biological substances exercise such a powerful influence on aspects of personhood we generally consider to be the mind or soul (such as personality, emotions, spirituality), then it does not make sense to think that the two are separate.
Another name for “monism” is materialism or physicalism. As the names suggest, this is the belief that man is simply a physical being through and through, everything about us ultimately flows from the “stuff” of our bodies.
Many Christian scholars are jumping on board, and the two books I interacted with were compendiums of writers in fields ranging from the sciences, psychology and counseling, and theology trying to present a biblical case for such a view.
The biblical emphasis on embodied spirituality is high on their list of arguments. The great hope of Christianity is not that the soul flees the body to exist in a state of spiritual bliss (“Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away”). The great hope of the gospel is the hope of Resurrection. An embodied existence in a new earth, a “celestial city.”
Our bodies matter and we should treat them accordingly.
In short, there is clearly a very high level of connection between the mind and body. And the strict separation held to in traditional teaching really does have more to do with Plato than the Bible. So the current work is a necessary corrective to an overly-extreme view.
With that said, however, I think it is an overreaction to fully embrace monism. The writers too easily dismiss biblical and philosophical arguments that call into question their conclusions in their haste to make amends with science. They point to the way the Church was embarrasingly opposed to Copernicus and Galileo and seem to want to avoid such a fate here. (Of course, Intelligent Design theory is vindicating the Church’s obstinate opposition to Darwinism, proof that one need not always sell out a worldview at the first sign of scientific trouble).
A primary issue standing in the way of embracing the monistic position is what is called the “intermediate state,” the idea that at death our souls do continue to exist in some way apart from our bodies, if only temporarily awaiting final resurrection when we will once again be embodied. It is very difficult to explain away passages in both the OT and NT that point to this. For example, when Jesus told the thief “today” you’ll be with me in paradise, he presumably had in mind something apart from the body.
So I ultimately find the arguments for monism unconvincing.
On the other hand, the Church really has been overly extreme. So I would disagree with the extreme position articulated with some who would say I am basically a ghost piloting a machine. No, I am an embodied human being.
So I favor a position articulated by philosopher John W Cooper, which he calls “functional holism” or “holistic dualism.” Such a view holds that mind and body are intrinsically linked and interdependent but that, at death, the soul can and does separate from the body. Such a state is not ideal and not the way things are supposed to be – it is the result of sin.
The hope is of resurrection when we will once again be embodied people for eternity in the eternal city.