Thinking About Now

A student response to
Dr. Nancey Murphy’s “From Neurons to Politics – Without a Soul”
by Veronica Y. Hoffman, November 2005

Ask Nancey Murphy, and she’ll tell you that you do not have a soul – nor does she, for that matter. Had I heard this in my first year of college, I would have been ,to say the least, taken by surprise; to be more accurate, I might have thought this professor from Fuller Seminary a bit ridiculous. Indeed, it was as a freshman that I first encountered a taste of Murphy’s nonreductive physicalism, and my most articulate thought in response went about like, “Can Christians really think that?” Murphy spent much of her recent lecture at EMU detailing an answer to just that question.

Nonreductive physicalism is an explanation of human nature alternative to a more commonly held dualism of body and soul. Most Christians, whatever “part” they emphasize, seem to have taken for granted the notion that a human being has at least two distinct parts – a body, which at death gets buried in the earth, and a soul that continues after death, separate from the body. Generally this immaterial soul is what a person would identify as the thing to which he refers when saying “I” or “me,” his core or real self. As a consequence of this dualism, the main Christian concern over the past two thousand years has been “saving souls,” which with its focus on an afterlife, guaranteed in pleasant form to the “saved”, tends to relegate issues about real, embodied life now to the proverbial back burner.

To the nonreductive physicalist, this shift of focus away from our present lives is a mistake. There exists no such soul to be plucked away from our bodies at death, impervious to what happens with us in life; our bodies are what we’ve got. However, and this is the “nonreductive” part, a person is not “nothing but” the material stuff that makes up his body – that is, a person cannot be explained entirely in terms of neurons firing or atoms colliding. Since there is no soul to survive death, a Christian taking this stance cannot focus as the dualist might on the “guarantee” of a pleasant after-death experience. The focus must rest here, on whatever beauty and ugliness, justice and injustice there is in life.

But can it be a Christian belief that humans do not have souls? Murphy argues that it can. Biblically there is no clear stand on the subject: besides that varying stances could be found in different writers, the Bible – New Testament especially – emphasizes human relationships over any attempt to divide the person into parts. Even where there is language of parts such as body, spirit, and soul, it may be understood to refer to different capacities of the whole person – aspects, not parts. There are in addition many places where the text was translated into the term “soul” (perhaps augmenting dualism) from the original Hebrew “nephesh,” a word that scholars have come to understand as a reference to the person as a whole, rather than a distinct part of the person. These things suggest room within biblical understandings for Murphy’s anthropology.

Nonreductive physicalism, further, may be an understanding truer to Hebraic and early Christian ideas than dualism. Biblical images of spiritual moments and encounters of God – the calling of Abraham, the covenant at Sinai, etc. – are highly physical, with which the idea of an immaterial soul carries no resonance. Furthermore, early Christianity was set out in socio-political terms, quite different than the focus deriving from dualism. “What would Christians have been doing these past two thousand years,” Murphy ponders, “if there had not been such a thing as souls to save?”

In due honesty, though, I am not sure what I think about Murphy’s lecture. I found it interesting, along with the book study that led up to it, but interesting in a manner similar to my interest in literature or crossword puzzles. By this point, I no longer am surprised that a Christian might argue that people do not have souls. But I have not taken the topic very seriously otherwise; or perhaps more accurately, I have not seen the subject as one worth my worrying about to any great extent. Maybe I am more of the mind that she described as a probable New Testament attitude; if asked how many parts a human is made up of – one, two, or three – I may well reply, “Who cares?” I am glad to have heard Murphy’s lecture, but the more I think about it, the less sure I am on what she thinks Christians actually ought to do now and why her project would push us to any better action in a way that cannot happen under whatever ideas we hold at present.

Murphy spent much of her effort in the lecture explaining the ideological background for and implications of nonreductive physicalism, which is understandable. It would be unreasonable to expect her to explain, in one hour, not only what is nonreductive physicalism, what it means for our theology, and its justification to date, but its full ethical implications as well. Sixty minutes simply isn’t enough. But this theory is a lot of work, right? It would be quite a shift for a dualist to become a nonreductive physicalist. Thus far Murphy has focused on the possibility of her own theory; she has argued not so much that she is right and dualists wrong, but that she could conceivably be right.

Murphy stated also that the whole of Christian ethics needs reworked and nonreductive physicalism offers the opportunity to evaluate critically our actions and priorities as Christians; yet when asked what it would mean in a specific situation, Murphy responded that she has not worked out the ethical implications. So I find myself questioning why this is worth so much effort.
I have spent the last few days enjoying the relative quiet of my home and watching puffs of snow sift over the cars and trees and buildings of my neighborhood. Right now, I am not particularly concerned about whether I have some phantom soul. Whatever I have or am, the snow pleases it, a warm house pleases it, good music pleases it, and this is where I am more interested in spending my thought. Murphy has yet to convince me that a conviction one way or the other about souls will improve or degrade my experience of Chanticleer or silence or, further, will change my thoughts about environmental issues or economic and social justice. I care about those things, too, though I have not taken a fighting stance on the existence or nonexistence of souls. And I wonder, what would Murphy say to this?

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