A week ago the Pacific Northwest region of ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) held its annual meeting. I blogged about it with respect to the plenary focus of the meeting: the Mind-Body problem. John Cooper (Calvin Seminary), Nancey Murphy (Fuller Seminary), and Marc Cortez (Northwest Baptist Seminary) were our speakers.
We’ve devoted a good deal of time to biblical anthropology in recent months. I wanted the chance to go through everything before the meeting; it was a worthwhile refresher. I thought I’d share a few thoughts.
I thought Nancey Murphy did a good job articulating why her position (non-reductive physicalism) isn’t outside the bounds of historic Christianity. For sure it’s a historically a distinct minority position, but it isn’t new. The other speakers also agreed that dualism isn’t the only way one could view what a human being is with respect to the Bible.
Despite the above success, Dr. Murphy had a difficult time with commenting on the exegesis of certain passages in the New Testament that we’ve talked about that seem to require dualism. She consistently deferred to other scholars who were biblical scholars, stressing she was a philosopher. That’s true, but I don’t think many thought it was sufficient, given the frequency of that sort of questioning. She deferred in particular to Joel Green. Green is a NT scholar. It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that Green’s exegetical strategy is to argue that the apparently dualist passages *might* be interpreted in ways that allow for physicalism, and that possibility is enough for him. But possibility is not probability, and that is the point of vulnerability / contention with Green’s work with respect to dualists.
I think the best thought I took away from the meeting was from Marc Cortez’s presentation. His talk basically was a very scholastic reminder that everything we say about what constitutes a human being, or what a human being is, or what consciousness is, etc. — all of that needs to be tested and sifted through Jesus’ humanity. In other words, does what we’re saying jive with a fully human Jesus? In this regard, the article I posted several threads ago by David Siemens is telling. He objected to Murphy’s position because it could not coherently account for the hypostatic union. I agree.
John Cooper was a very engaging speaker. I thought he did a good job of defending dualism and admitting where older forms of dualism couldn’t work.The only thing I disagreed with was his understanding of Sheol. As you all know, I think it is quite overstated to say that the OT has no heaven or hell concept. That view only works if you restrict the discussion to the word “Sheol” (and even then the “hell” rejection doesn’t seem to work completely).
After the meeting, I asked both Dr. Cooper and Dr. Murphy about how they’d handle the recent work on NDEs (Near Death Experiences). A lot of NDE testimony can be explained as brain activity, which would favor physicalism. I speak here of things like patients that see a bright light, or a tunnel, or who remember conversations in the operating room (the brain can sort of “tape record” such things). But other items are beyond brain activity — for example, (1) seeing things that happen in the operating room that are not spoken (how does one see something when your eyes are closed — and you’re dead?); (2) hearing and seeing things that occur in other rooms, or other floors, of the hospital (your body is on the table and is dead, so this pretty much requires a real disembodied presence / consciousness). Dr. Murphy had not studied NDEs; Dr. Cooper had some acquaintance with the literature (there are a couple books by MDs on this, as well as journal literature, as I’ve noted before). I think the serious NDE research favors dualism; I don’t see how physicalism works in these situations.
Lastly, Dr. Murphy was honest that the science is not conclusive; that is, the jury is still out on whether advances in brain science compel a physicalist position. I agree.
I don’t see any conclusive reason to depart from a dualist position, though I appreciate the efforts of Dr. Murphy. If the science does advance to the point where it becomes compelling, her work will take on even more importance.