We've moved!

Check out our new site at
and be sure to update your bookmarks.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Do Persons Have Souls?

FROM NANCEY MURPHY, PROFESSOR OF CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY AT FULLER SEMINARY: In his day, early modern philosopher Rene Descartes used Latin and French terms for the “soul” that could also be translated as “mind,” and it was only later that philosophers adopted the second term, while the former predominated in religious circles. Descartes thought the mind was a nonphysical substance separate from the brain, a version of “substance dualism” influenced by fifth-century theologian Augustine and his Platonic predecessors. Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, was among the first of the modern philosophers to deny the existence of a mind or soul, arguing instead that humans are entirely physical.
At the time, most Christian thinkers associated their theories of human nature with Descartes’ dualism, but in the 19th century, many adopted the popular philosophy of “absolute idealism,” meaning that all of reality (including humans) is essentially mental or spiritual. Meanwhile, Charles Darwin’s work on the continuity between humans and animals led some to conclude that if animals have no souls, then neither do humans. Others avoided this conclusion by arguing that while the human body may have evolved, God creates a soul for each individual at conception.
Throughout the 20th century, biblical scholars, historians of doctrine, and theologians increasingly concluded that the body-soul dualism is not inherent in biblical teaching, and many opted for physicalism. By mid-century, philosophers were divided between mind-body dualism and physicalism. And developments in neuroscience have put dualists more and more on the defensive. Among physicalists, the important debate today is between reductionists and anti-reductionists; that is, if we are purely physical, then must it not be the case that all thought and behavior are simply determined by physics, genetics, or neurobiology? Scholars engaged in the science-and-religion dialogue have joined with anti-reductionist philosophers of mind to explain how our higher human capacities, such as reason, morality, and even spirituality, arise out of our complex neural equipment but are not entirely determined by it.
Today, scientists, theologians, and philosophers have converged on a physicalist account of human beings: In other words, we do not have minds or souls. But informal polls show that the majority of people in this country are divided between body-soul dualism and a tri-part account of humans as body, soul, and spirit. It’s important that we keep this split between scholars and the general public in mind during political discussions of issues like abortion and stem cell research.

Nancey Murphy appears with J.P. Moreland, Richard Swinburne, Daniel Dennett, Peter van Inwagen, the Venerable Yifa, and Huston Smith in "Do Persons Have Souls?" the eighth episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, hosted and created by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. The series airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants will share their views on the previous day's episode.


V.V. Raman said...

On the ABC Evening News some years ago, we saw a woman in profound grief, saying good-bye to her deceased dog which was neatly laid in an elegant coffin. She placed a flower on the pet in peace, along with what seemed like a little velvety bag, filled perhaps with beef-biscuits. Tears rolled down her eyes in profusion even as sympathetic friends and relatives tried to console her aching heart.

Another person in the news declared something to the effect that if anybody deserved to go to heaven, it was his very faithful and loving Labrador. Yet another expressed the judgment that Heaven wouldn’t be Heaven if there were no chihuahuas there. All this was related to the profound theological question as to whether dogs have souls.

Among the ancients, Pythagoras and Brothers (like many of their Hindu cousins even to this day) had little doubt that not just dogs but all animals have souls: indeed that some of these could well have inhabited other human beings in their previous terrestrial trips. On the other hand, Christianity and Islam deny entry into Heaven for animals, as well as to non-Christians and non-Muslims: to the former because they have no souls, to the latter because they have not accepted the only Savior/Messenger of God there ever was or will be.

Descartes gave a death blow to dog-dignity by declaring those lowly creatures to be mere automata. Today some animal-rights groups conduct funeral services for deceased dogs and cats in caskets. All of which brought the reporter to an eminent theologian of the Judeo-Christian persuasion who reasoned that animals simply cannot have souls because they have no free-will, and that therefore there was no question of having pets in paradise. This must have broken the heart of the lady who was lamenting at the mortal remains of her dear departed dog.

If the question had been posed to a biologist, he/she too would have definitely denied souls to dogs, but more curtly, by asking: “Are you kidding?” This is one issue on which modern scientists and thoughtful theologians of certain traditions concur without blinking an eye: that animals have no souls, except that most modern biologists deny it to humans also.

One may of course ask, if there are flora in Heaven, why not fauna? But that just complicates the debate.

It was also reported that more than 40% of Americans believe animals have souls. We need less than 10 more percent to prove that the proposition is true.

The moral of the story, it seems to me, is that contradictions and confrontations are inevitable when we mix up metaphysical understandings of the human condition with physical descriptions of the same. The two are truths of two very different categories.