Category Archives: Human Nature

Neuroscience and the Soul

During the 2012-2013 academic year, Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought brought together a number of philosophers, theologians, and scientists to discuss the relationship between traditional views of the mind and body in light of the contemporary findings of neuroscience. Neuroscience and the Soul: The Human Person in Philosophy, Science, and Theology (2016) represents the content of these discussions and conference. Edited by Thomas Crisp, Steven L. Porter, and Gregg A. Ten Elshof, the book is divided into three major sections: 1) recent debates in philosophy about the Mind-Body Problem, 2) recent debates about the bearing of contemporary brain sciences on the Mind-Body Problem, and 3) recent debates in theology about the mind-body problem. Written primarily for non-specialists, the sections are structured as a series of essays with responses and rejoinders. The idea behind this structure is that a thoughtful non-specialist could get a glimpse into the debates happening in the pages of academic books and journals, without needing to wade through vast and technical literature.

Overview

Section one begins with an essay by William Hasker in which he argues for the view that material composition cannot make sense of the unity of consciousness. Timothy O’Connor responds by arguing that conscious experience is a property had by materially composed persons, but is such that no “part” of the experiences is had by any of those persons, or is itself had by any of their parts

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 are an exchange between J.P. Moreland and Jason Runyan regarding top-down causation. Moreland makes a case against it while Runyan argues that there are no reasons for skepticism about the existence of top-down causation in nature. He explains that if one remains skeptical about top-down causation, complex systems theory may be able to do the work top-down causation aims at.

Section two begins with a friendly dialogue between Richard Swinburne and Daniel Speak. Swinburne argues that the scientific theory that mental events are caused by brain events fails the prediction criterion, thus we can never know that it predicts successfully without assuming its falsity. Speak responds by saying that an argument demonstrating a theory is not scientifically well justified, cannot, by itself, constitute a case against the epistemic credibility of the theory.

In chapter 10 Kevin Corcoran and Kevin Sharpe build an argument for physicalism from three neuroscientific case studies; but they concede the fact that consciousness seems to be very resistant to physicalist explanations. They conclude that despite the problem of consciousness, given the explanatory irrelevance of the soul, we should accept physicalism. Erick LaRock and Robin Collins respond by arguing that Corcoran and Sharpe’s commitment to physicalism is not actually warranted by the currently available evidence, and that it is contrary to the main preferences of science, namely simplicity and being true to the data of experience.

Chapter 13, written by Erick LaRock focuses on the so-called “hard problem of consciousness” that plagues reductive physicalist accounts of the mind. He argues that reductive physicalism cannot account for a robust account of consciousness. Corcoran and Sharpe respond to LaRock agreeing that reductive physicalism cannot account for the hard problem of consciousness; so they put forward a non-reductive account of consciousness.

Section three begins with Veli-Matti Karkkainen’s explanation and defense of “multi-dimensional monism,” the view that mind and body “each denotes the entire human being, while connoting some angle of vision on who that human is and what he or she is called to be.” (212) Stewart Goetz responds by raising worries about what Karkkainen’s multi-dimensional monism does for accounts of personal survival after death.

The final three chapters of the book are a dialogue between John Cooper and Brian Lugioyo. Cooper suggests that the turn towards physicalism among Christian scholars represents the prioritization of science over the Bible. Lugioyo’s response seeks to demonstrate that, in fact, biblical exegesis supports a monistic position and that a monistic interpretation for Scripture is healthy for the church’s ministry.

Assessment

Neuroscience and the Soul is a fine collection of essays from a varied cast of authors. If the editors intended to give non-specialists a glimpse of current debates in the field, then they have certainly done their job. I wonder, however, if the purpose would have been better served if the authors hadn’t chosen to prioritize “traditional” accounts of the mind-body debate over newer accounts. As I note above, the structure is one long essay, followed by a short response, and an even shorter rejoinder. Most of the sets of essays (5 out of the 7) begin with traditional accounts. This means traditional accounts get the long form essay and the rejoinder. Naturally, it was the editors’ prerogative to prioritize whomever they wanted; however, if they really wanted to give readers a feel for the state of discussion in academia, they should have prioritized newer accounts, or at least should have tried to balance out the essays. Another critique one might make of the book, which is not unusual for edited volumes, is that some of the essays are poorer contributions than the others. For instance, I am unsure what Eric LaRock’s essay is doing in this volume. His main argument is against reductive forms of physicalism. Yet, one would be hard pressed to find any Christians in the field advocating for reductive physicalism. LaRock is arguing against a non-existent opponent. Also, I question the inclusion of John Cooper’s essay. Surely Cooper has written one of the most comprehensive accounts of dualism, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting, but this work in its original form is almost 30 years old. It’s strange to think that the editors couldn’t find a more contemporary example of a Cooper-style defense of substance dualism.

Despite these minor drawbacks, I recommend this book for those looking to get their feet wet in the pool of Christian mind-body debates but don’t have time to go for a swim. It should also prove useful as an introductory volume for seminary and graduate students.

(Note: This was originally posted on Fuller Seminary’s Analytic Theology Blog.)

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Book Note: Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies

In the last several decades, theological anthropology has witnessed a Christocentric turn. Whether it was Ray Anderson’s claim that “only the humanity of Christ… discloses the radical form of true humanity” (1982), John Zizioulas’s understanding that “the mystery of man reveals itself fully only in the light of Christ” (1975), or Millard Erickson’s belief that “Jesus reveals what human nature is intended to be” (1998) it seems as though the Christocentric turn in theological anthropology has made for a truly Christological anthropology. But what does it mean to say that one is doing Christological anthropology? Does it simply mean that Jesus sheds some light on our anthropology, maybe on our concept of imago dei or ethics? Or does it mean something more robust?

In Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies, a book which is now almost ten years old, Marc Cortez begins to give shape to the project of constructing a more robust Christological anthropology which moves beyond issues of the imago dei and ethics. A few years later, in 2016 Cortez went on to claim that a robust Christological Anthropology is one in which “Christology warrants ultimate claims about true humanity such that the scope of those claims applies to all anthropological data.” (2016) However, in Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies, Cortez doesn’t yet have that definition fully developed yet. Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies is something like a case study in which the method of doing Christological anthropology begins to get fleshed out.

So how does Cortez go about developing his robust Christological anthropology? He turns to the theology of Karl Barth. Cortez spends the first few chapters of Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies explaining why Barth believed that human nature must be explained in reference to Jesus. Cortez concludes that for Barth, Christ’s significance for anthropology is primarily grounded in (1) the election of Jesus Christ in which other humans are included and (2) the covenantal faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Building on these insights Cortez draws out eight features that he takes to be Barth’s anthropological commitments. At minimum, any Barthian Christological anthropology must include the following eight features:

  1. A strong concept of selfhood emphasizing humans as subjects constituted by particular relationships
  2. An inner life comprised of self-conscious experiences
  3. An understating of continuous personal identity that involves the body and the soul but is ultimately dependent on divine faithfulness
  4. An appreciation of humans as capable of initiating intentional actions
  5. Some view of mentality that allows a causal relationship with extra-mental realities
  6. An awareness of humanity’s determination and freedom
  7. A strong appreciation for the role of the body in every facet of human experience
  8. A recognition that all aspects of human life and nature are contingent realities

With these eight features in place, Cortez turns his attention toward the mind-body debate in contemporary philosophy. Cortez suggests that Barth’s eight Christological criteria for theological anthropology might help to evaluate contemporary proposals about the mind’s relation to the body. In chapter five he evaluates several physicalist options about human constitution. He concludes that for Barth, given his eight criteria, reductive physicalism is off the table. However, non-reductive physicalisms may have some promise if they can account for mental causation, consciousness, and the continuity of personal identity through death and resurrection. In chapter six Cortez turns to several dualist accounts of human constitution. He concludes, that a strong Cartesian dualism is a non-starter for Barth. However, some forms of what Cortez calls Holistic Dualism, might be promising if they can account for mental causation, personal embodiment, and the utter dependence of the soul on God for its existence.

Cortez’s evaluation of recent proposals regarding the mind-body relationship are quite helpful for several reasons. First, chapters five and six provide excellent summaries of various physicalisms and dualisms. These chapters help those not at home in these debates get a grasp on the issues being discussed. Second, and more importantly, Cortez makes a convincing case that given the eight minimalist Christological criteria some forms of physicalism or dualism might be legitimate options for Christians. This is something that people on both sides of the mind-body debate need to hear. In recent years I have encountered numerous theologians who claim that any form of dualism is sub-Christian because it doesn’t take seriously our embodiment. This might be true of some dualisms, but Cortez shows that this is not necessarily true of all dualisms. For example, emergent dualism gives a very robust role to the body; after all the mind “emerges” from a properly organized physical system, i.e. the body. Perhaps these theologians are simply unaware of the variety of dualist options and hastily assume that any talk of “dualism” must mean a form of strong Cartesian dualism.

Besides providing us with the conclusion that Christology can give us minimalist criteria for reflecting upon the relationship between the mind and body, Cortez makes several other important contributions to the field of theological anthropology. First he shows us that Christology’s contribution to theological anthropology need not be limited to ethics or discussions about the imago dei; it can be applied to other aspects of human existence. Second, he shows us that applying Christological insights to our anthropological understanding is no easy task. In all honesty, I wish he would have devoted more attention to the challenge of deriving anthropology from Christology. However, I can’t blame him for not doing this. I understand that this book was something of a first pass at a more robust Christological anthropology. Even still, I hope he addresses these challenges in his forthcoming book on Christological anthropology.

(Note: This was originally posted on Fuller Seminary’s Analytic Theology Blog.)

Review of Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective by Mark Cortez

Cortez, Mark. Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016, pp. 272, $27.99, paperback.

christ-anthro

Marc Cortez is currently associate professor of theology at Wheaton College. His prior works include Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2010) and Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies: An Exercise in Christological Anthropology and Its Significance for the Mind/Body Debate (T&T Clark, 2008). As the title of these previous monographs indicate, Cortez has an interest in theological anthropology. The recently published Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology represents his third full length contribution to this field.

What makes us human? This is a question upon which much ink has been spilled. Most studies attempting to answer this question have tended focus on one of several topics: 1) human origins, 2) ethics, and 3) the imago dei. What Cortez brings to this already oversaturated field is a rethinking of the methodology upon which so many of these studies are founded. Cortez’s approach to theological anthropology is strictly Christological.

You can read the rest of the review at the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies.