Emergent Dualism and the Sanctity of Human Life

My wife and I spent May 10-11 at the annual conference of Biola’s Center for Christian Thought (CCT), where the theme for 2012-2013 has been “Neuroscience and the Soul.”  The plenary talks are not all on the web, yet, although some are on Facebook, but a number of discussions on the general topic may be accessed here.  I encourage readers of this blog to spend some time knocking around the CCT website.

The weekend (though perhaps not the year, more broadly) didn’t have much neuroscience in it.  Most of the time was spent talking about philosophical and theological anthropology—in particular, what is the soul?  As I have previously written on this blog, I am most attracted to a “Thomistic substance dualism” (after Thomas Aquinas) of the sort advocated by J.P. Moreland of Biola, who argues that the “soul” is a simple (it doesn’t have parts) nonmaterial substantial entity that contains all the ultimate capacities of an organism and which is intimately involved in directing that organism’s development and expression of those capacities.  The word “ultimate” is critical here, because, as we all know, not all members of the human race realize all capacities at all times.  Moreland’s development shores up some shortcomings of Aquinas’s dualism (e.g., the notion that human embryos acquire souls at either 40 [males] or 80 [females] days of prenatal development), while attempting to retain its merits.  It, and other approaches that reject equating mind with brain function, appeal to certain Cartesian intuitions, like those of self-awareness, the sense of “what it is like” to have an inward experience, and others.  The philosophers call these “qualia” of mental events, which make them non-identical with physical/biologic events.  At the same time, Moreland and those of like mind reject the radical Cartesian distinction between mind and body in favor of a more wholistic, as it were, view of what the soul is and does.

Now, this fits nicely with the biblical notion of the image of God, even if one rejects Moreland’s view that the image is what man is, not just what man does (tend the earth), or the relationship between man and God, or the “status and standard” of man relative to God, creation, and the ultimate perfection man.  But I would argue that Moreland’s Thomistic substance dualism is not just faith-based, but also supported by formidable philosophic arguments and accessible on the terms of general revelation.   As such, I think it provides the strongest support available for the sanctity of individual and collective human life.  One sees this in arguments most commonly employed (perhaps not surprisingly) by Roman Catholic thinkers like Robert George; to wit, “humans are the kind or sort of being that….”

Two criticisms of Moreland’s view are:

  1. It amounts to vitalism, an otiose idea long-ago relegated to the biology’s scrap heap of history.   Moreland’s rejoinder to this is to claim that bad, old-fashioned vitalism was too crude, and that a more modern view, “organicism,” is more promising.  (I can’t carry on about that, yet.)
  2. Evolution is irreconcilable with the Thomist view of the soul, because the latter requires that genus and species not be degreed properties, but be in a real sense, immutable.  I agree that the Thomist view pushes one there, and I think that (along with Moreland, I believe), as these critics claim, the Thomist view requires one to accept that God is progressively active in creation.  But these points are said to be unacceptable because of the science of human evolution.

So, as an alternative, some philosophers who remain sympathetic to the idea that mental phenomena are not reducible to physical processes, and in fact are different in ways that cannot be fully explained by appealing to physical processes, nonetheless inescapably depend on those processes and “emerge” from them.  However, they would hold, what is emergent is not just mental properties but an actual, and in a meaningful sense, substantial self.  So they are dualists about human nature—even, in a sense, “substance dualists,” but they are less ready to allow that the human soul might exist independently of bodily life and processes—particularly those of the brain.

Now, there is more to be said about this than I can say, here or elsewhere, but it seems to me that the appeal to a “degreed” nature of life or consciousness disallows categorical distinctions of moral status between individual people, or people in general, and other beings.  (It seems to me that the emergent dualist also conceives “soul” as too readily identified with higher mental properties than the Thomist view would insist on.)  It risks making “personhood,” or “dignity” or moral status a degreed property.  Should we be more concerned about an anencephalic baby, or a fetus with Down syndrome, than a fully-endowed and functioning gorilla, and if so, why?  Should we be troubled about creating a human/non-human hybrid, and if so, why?  Would a super-intelligent robot, if there could be such a thing, potentially be a rival of “natural” humans in competing claims for concern?

I tried this out on a prominent Christian emergent dualist at the conference, and he quickly dismissed my objections.  To be fair, I hit him with a “drive by” on the coffee break, but as it happened, when I pushed, he responded, in effect, we can’t base all our moral appeals on rational argument.  Sometimes we have to just demonstrate the truth of the gospel, and show people the choice between worldviews and their consequences, and ask them what do they really prefer?  And, as unfairly as this brief post may be posing the issues, that kind of rejoinder worries me.

Ultimately, some appeal to a “givenness” of human nature is necessary to defend boundaries in bioethics.  We might indeed appeal to the naturalist by counseling caution—evolution has, over millions of years, presented us with ourselves, including our common intuitions—and we ought to have a “default” position of “no-go” on the most “out there” ideas.  We might indeed present a “two views” picture, and ask people to choose what kind of world they really want and what sort of people they ought to be.  We might argue, as I take the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas to argue, that the interplay of human autonomy, human language, and human social relationships lead us to conclude that some technological interventions would tend fundamentally to destroy who we are in community, and so ought to be avoided.  But I think it’s harder to identify, on emergent dualist grounds, what if any specific maneuvers ought to be proscribed with “thou shalt not,” or words to that effect.

The emergent dualists might be right.  (I tend to agree with Moreland that the position is unstable, tending toward either his dualism on the one hand or functionalism on the other.)  If so, we should, as the philosopher I challenged told me, follow the inquiry where it leads.  (One approach that could be called into question is Francis Schaeffer’s approach of asking whether one can live with the consequences of one’s philosophy.)  But my efforts, at least, are still awfully preliminary.

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Karl Holmlund
Karl Holmlund
7 years ago

Great post! Keep writing about this stuff. I don’t fully understand it yet, but please keep writing.