Non-reductive Physicalism:
Strong Medicine for Traditional Christianity

A student response to
Dr. Nancey Murphy’s “From Neurons to Politics – Without a Soul”
by Jesse Yoder, Nov. 7, 2005

What do humans, animals, and rocks all have in common? They don’t have souls! At least, that’s the view of Dr. Nancy Murphy, a professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. In her lecture titled “From Neurons to Politics — Without a Soul”, Murphy outlined her reasoning as to why the traditional Christian perception of the soul as a distinct non-physical object is problematic in the face of modern science and has little biblical basis to begin with. Murphy responds to traditional Christian Dualist attitudes with a philosophical position titled “non-reductive physicalism,” in which what we normally call the “mind” or “consciousness” is seen as being casually affected by biological brain states, yet also allows for “top-down” causation. In other words, our brain state affects our thoughts but our thoughts can also affect our brain state. This stance complies with scientific evidence showing the intense relatedness between the conscious self and the brain yet retains a space for free will and spirituality.

As a physicalist position, non-reductive physicalism negates much of what is typically thought of as the “supernatural” characteristics of the human person and questions the hierarchical ontological divide of Greek-influenced Christian thought where humanity is seen as straddling the line between inferior physical bodies and coveted supernatural spirit or soulfulness. According to Murphy, it is because of this traditional view of humanity and its relation to the metaphysical that makes the statement that one doesn’t have a soul seem to indicate that one doesn’t believe in God. However, Murphy says that rejecting the Greek-influenced hierarchy in favor of an ontological divide between God and “everything else” means that one can disbelieve in a distinct metaphysical soul and still remain Christian in a traditional sense. “I’m denying dualism,” says Murphy, “not spirituality.”

In the book Whatever Happened to the Soul?, edited Nancy Murphy, Warren Brown, and Newton Malony, the soul-body Dualism is looked at from both scientific and biblical perspectives. The authors cite that there is ample biblical support for a non-dualist position. Scientifically, the dualist position is problematic in the face of overwhelming evidence that our biological brain state is causally connected to conscious events and the “mind”. Through various cases of brain injury and surgery, it has been observed that those aspects of personality and character that have traditionally been thought of as “soulful” quality are quite malleable and changeable. One example is that of a man who suffered bizarre personality and character changes after surviving a brain injury involving a metal spike passing through his frontal hemisphere. Although the increasing evidence does not disprove the concept of a distinctly metaphysical soul, it does show that human psychology and personality can be broadly explained as biological. Non-reductive physicalism, however, decries the notion that all psychological phenomena are directly and synchronously related to brain events on a completely bottom-up level.

Murphy’s stance is that while evidence for complete reductive physicalism shows that our minds can be explained as biological brain events, it doesn’t account for how exactly our consciousness is related to individual neurons, or how our “thoughts” can affect our brain state. Using the concept of supervenience, Murphy argues that the mind supervenes on the physical which is affecting through “top-down” causation. Thus, concepts of “free will” are retained. As stated by Dr. William hawk in his response to Murphy’s lecture, “free conscious agency is preserved via contested notions of ‘supervenience’ and ‘top down causality.’”

It appears that non-reductive physicalism is an attempt to create a workable Christian philosophy in an age where scientific evidence strikes damaging blows to what has been in the past considered by many as Christian doctrine. Appealing to those who retain their Christian beliefs and yet conform to modern scientific thought, the non-reductive physicalist stance may be seen as quite a change for those with more traditional Christian background. Different from the more secular “reductive physicalism” in which thoughts and mental events are considered totally reducible to biological brain events, Murphy’s position retains room for belief in the spiritual and supernatural which is appealing to those of a religious background yet may be found questionable by those of a more secular view.

Because of the confusion related to defining concepts of supervenience and ‘top-down causation’, the relationship between non-reductive and reductive physicalism is a fuzzy one. Arguably, the “cash value” of non-reductive physicalism is most apparent to those of the religious community who can benefit from a solution to the problems of traditional Dualism that have arisen in modern times.

However, non-reductive physicalism may prove to be “strong medicine” for the traditional Christian. Accepting a physicalist account of the universe conflicts with many commonly held beliefs of the supernatural manifestations of God in the world. Although Murphy’s position may provide ready relief for the more scientifically and academically inclined of the Christian community, it is of interest how well it will be received by those uneducated to the problems with traditional Dualism.

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