Well, I’m less than a week away from our regional ETS meeting in Tacoma. The topic, of course, crafted by yours truly, is the mind-body problem. It’s been a while since I posted about the positions people take on the question of whether humans truly have an immaterial component that survives the body upon death. Here is the previous post, which offered three articles for reading.  Here is the post before that, where I included summary positions of “where the soul comes from” via some systematic theology textbooks. I’ll try to summarize the salient data from Scripture we brought to those articles and theological definitions, and then summarize my thoughts on them, with a goal toward creating for myself a short list of issues I’d like to see addressed at the upcoming meeting.


1. We saw that terms like ruach, nephesh, leb/lebab are not divisible into parts, a conclusion that was quite evident from an examination of these OT terms. Part 4 of our biblical anthropology series summarized the overlapping of ruach and nephesh, and Part 6 brought leb/lebab into that discussion.

2. We saw that the fusion of body and the immaterial/inner aspect of humanity was so tight as to have both “parts” refer to the entire person. In earlier posts, this was seen when terms like nephesh were used of the body, living or dead, while elsewhere (mostly) referring to the inner person. Indeed, nephesh was seen to be a broad term for the entire human being and human life.

3. However, despite the above, the terms ruach and leb were less seldom (if ever) used to refer to the totality of the human person. Those terms spoke exclusively of the inner person / inner life.

4. There were two passages that seemed (with some clarity) to suggest that the immaterial part of humanity had an independent existence after death and an identification with what had been the total person.

A. Eccl 3:19-21 – “19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?”

This passage merely brings up the question of the soul; it does not put forth the proposition that there is a soul that lives beyond the body’s life. There is an air of uncertainty or even skepticism in the passage about the soul’s afterlife.

B. Eccl. 12:7 – “. . . the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

This text is incomplete, though it may be consistent with the more clear New Testament notion of a disembodied soulish existence beyond the body where the soul is effectively identified with the (formerly united / total) person. However, it could be construed as saying that “life” (the “life principle”; that which animated the body) returns to the Maker. In other words, it may be more abstract than NT statements.

5. I then introduced 1 Samuel 28:8-20 to the discussion (esp. v. 13) where the deceased, disembodied Samuel is still Samuel– and called “elohim” (which is, properly understood, a “place of residence term” that labels “normal inhabitants” of the spirit world, as opposed to embodied humans (or other critters) in the terrestrial world.  This passage, in my view, is a strong piece of evidence to affirm that there is a non-embodied existence of the same, formerly embodied, person taught in the OT.

7. We then moved to the New Testament, where there were several passages that seemed (in my mind) to clearly teach that there is a non-embodied existence of the same, formerly embodied, person.

The Articles and the Mind-Body Positions

The article on neuroscience and theology laid out the importance of the topic (and the science) well. Here are some excerpts with sporadic comments of mine indented:

“To rephrase the question, how can a system of neurons and networks provide for features like the freedom to reason and to decide? If our reasoning is simply a product of a deterministic neuronal state how does it conform to the rules of logic and consistency? If our decision-making is simply the product of our neuronal state how can we be held morally responsible for what we do? What motivates human beings? How do we develop consciousness, and with consciousness a sense of our own selves? All these features are traditionally regarded as issues arising out of our minds. There are other aspects of the mind, including our capacity to wonder at all that we see and understand. We are also passionate human beings affected strongly by our emotions. What role do they play? Where do they come from and where do they fit into our mental expressions?”

MSH: This is important for our biblica-theological discussion in that our study of the Scripture text used the terms nephesh, ruach, and leb/lebab for all these activities:  volition, decision-making, emotions, inner life, enthusiasm, humility, knowledge, skill. If it is the BRAIN  that controls these things, that would seem to suggest that there isn’t a separate, immaterial “thing” in us (and that can leave the body) that is responsible for them. These findings are an argument for physicalism, but that brings two questions: (a) what kind of physicalism? and (b) is that all they argue for —  is it really a 1:1 equation?

“The second issue arising out of neuroscience is, what is human? In particular what is the soul? The soul has been traditionally regarded as the essence of a human being, and it has often been given non-material status. How do we understand persons now? In particular there has been a lot of recent work the development of our sense of self- identity, our inner world expressed not just in isolation but also in relationships and in community. Is the soul a ghost in the brain machine?”

MSH: Really goes to the above comments (nephesh and ruach are also used quite often for self-awareness, as a synonym for “ourselves” and the inner life).

“As Christians, we regard the Bible as authoritative. But how do we understand the Bible in the light of the findings of neuroscience? Are we bound to the Bible’s metaphysics? And once we have interpreted the Bible, how do its insights impact on our view of humans? How do the “two books,” the book of Scripture and the book of nature, dialogue with each other?”

MSH: “book of nature” indeed — see my gripe below about what the scientific discussions on this subject aren’t addressing.

“Specific neurological functions are understood to occur at specific locations. This is confirmed by studying patients who have specific neurological deficits who are found, initially at autopsy and now with brain scanning, to have defects in defined regions in the brain. . . . As a result we have maps of the brain showing where different functions are located. We have the coordination area in the cerebellum, vision in the occipital cortex, sensation in the parietal cortex, movement in the motor area and so on. The centres involved in addiction are located in the sub-thalamic region, the nucleus accumbens and the central tegmental nucleus. . . . Consciousness emerges from an intact functioning brain. For an addict to find an addiction treatment center near them is near impossible in some isolated regions. ”

MSH: It goes without saying that consciousness emerges from the brain, and that this favors physicalism — but my questions above are still on the table. And I have other questions. I’m not terribly satisfied with the science at this point, as I don’t see it interacting with the genuine, serious research that is out there on NDEs (near-death experiences). I’m not talking about tunnels of light and seeing dead loved ones or images of the afterlife that could have been wired INTO the brain. I’m talking about instances where, say a patient dies on the operating table and then they claim to leave their body and wander around the hospital, over-hearing conversations, seeing things that their physical eyes could not have seen (since their eyes were closed and, well, they were dead!). There are some stunning cases like this. My dad actually had one, too. He died on the operating table after being shot six times when I was in third grade.  He only told me about it after I was in college. It got me interested in the subject.  If consciousness is only the brain, how can these sorts of things be explained? They seem to *require* disembodied existence of the real person. And then there are the brain dead people who aren’t really dead (see here as well – she even had the beginnings of rigor mortis).  Stuff like this tells me we scientists are not as knowledgeable about the brain and consciousness connection as they at times try to suggest — and so conclusions are not “givens” at this point.

“The most obvious point is that the mind and the body are inextricably intertwined. Most people, even with different mind-brain models, agree to holism. At one end of the spectrum there are some neuroscientists who advocate reductionism. They contend that mind-properties are ultimately brain properties and will be reduced to neuronal function. They call for the abandonment of concepts like the soul and the abandonment of dualism. There are an influential body of Christian thinkers, both scientists and theologians who embrace holism and reject dualism. Others feel called to defend what they see as the traditional view. The debate continues. This has led to a plethora of positions on mind-brain relations. I have tabulated some of these positions in an appendix.”

“Christians are divided on this subject. Both appeal to Scripture and state that the other side is interpreting the issue through their hermeneutic grid. Most commentators from both schools argue against a Platonic/Cartesian soul, that is a mind or soul which is completely distinct in substance from the physical. Most embrace a form of body-soul holism. The difference is in accepting or rejecting an ongoing disembodied existence beyond death.”

MSH: Most agree on holism . . . well, I’d like to see a real survey on that. I think what he really means here is what he says later on. Most would agree that, “Mind activity, while dependent on brain activity, cannot be reduced to brain activity.” There are serious researchers who do not believe that the mind and consciousness can be reduced to only brain activity. Examples: Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences; The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul.

The following is drawn from this article’s appendix. Here are the more interesting views for my money:

Dualism: soul can exist separately from the body, but not vice versa. Mind and soul are not synonymous. This is the position of one of our ETS regional speakers, John Cooper.

Emergent Dualism: Matter generates a field of consciousness which is the disembodied self; that self lives on after death prior to the resurrection (in other words, the matter of the brain gives rise to the disembodied self, and so they are intimately connected, but not each other).

Physicalism: the mind = the brain; there is no soul.

Non-reductive physicalism: Accepts emergent properties of mind/soul, but these are aspects of brain function.

This last one is the position of Nancey Murphy, another of our ETS regional speakers. My previous post had one of her articles. I’ll let what she says there make more sense of the above one-line definition.


“My claim, in short, is this: all of the human capacities once attributed to the immaterial mind or soul are now yielding to the insights of neurobiology.”

“No such accumulation of data can ever amount to a proof that there is no non-material mind or soul in addition to the body. But if we recognize that the concept of the soul was originally introduced into Western thought as an explanation for capacities that appeared not to be explainable in biological terms, then we can certainly say that for scientific purposes the hypothesis has been shown to be unnecessary.”

MSH: This is an important thought — she’s saying that the pre-scientific person postulated the familiar “soul” ideas to explain mental capacities that he/she lacked the science to decipher. I think this is worth considering, since the Bible elsewhere has pre-scientific content. But this one subject is a bit different in that, regardless of the scientific soundness of the articulation, the Bible is not just assuming a pre-scientific idea on the way to making a point, where the point itself doesn’t depend on the pre-scientific argumentation (there are other ways to get there). Rather, in this case, the idea of a disembodied real existence is being affirmed as a point of belief.

“It would be easy at this point to fall into the reductionist’s error of claiming that ‘morality’ or ‘religious experience’ is nothing but a brain process. . . . The version of physicalism I espouse argues that, just as life appears as a result of complex organization, so too sentience and consciousness appear as nonreducible products of biological organization.”

MSH: The analogy here would be just as it is hard to understand how quanta, atoms, molecules, etc. combine together to produce organisms that are beyond science in their complexity, so it is that sentience and consciousness emerge from those organisms on the other side in equally incomprehensible ways. For Murphy, there is no soul independent of the body, but sentience/consciousness, while derived from brain function, transcends the brain.

Implications and Questions

1. Do we really need (or have) an intermediate existence theologically?

Both Murphy and Gijsbers, the author of the first article, suggest that part of the problem for physicalism is the notion that TIME elapses between death and the resurrection, so that there needs to be some sort of intermediate existence of the person (the “soul”) prior to the resurrection. Both argue that may be a misunderstanding of the biblical teaching.  Here’s how each puts it:

Gijsbers: “There are a number of ways of understanding the time between death and the resurrection of the body. It could be that humans move out of the realm of our time into the timeless realm of eternity. It could be that, just as time seems to stand still when we sleep, so time for us stands still from the time we die to the time we are raised. It could be that we are “in the mind of God” between death and resurrection.”

Murphy: “If there is no soul, and the nervous system is the seat of consciousness, then how can there be a wakeful state between death and resurrection? One approach open to those who want to maintain this doctrine is to question the meaningfulness of a timeline in discussing eschatological issues. That is, we presume that God is, in some sense, “outside” of time. If those who have died are “with God” we cannot meaningfully relate their experience to our creaturely history.”

2. Just what is the glorified resurrection body — and what is the “natural body”?

Gijsbers also has this fascinating paragraph:

“When Paul discusses the resurrection of humans in 1 Cor 15, he makes a distinction between our current life in soma psychicon = Natural body, and the risen life when we will be in soma pneumatikon = Spiritual body. Some see this simply as a body empowered by the spirit rather than by the flesh, but others see this as an ontological change from mortality to immortality. It is fascinating that the natural body is described as the psychic body [MSH: as opposed to the body of flesh!] in contrast to the spiritual body. But what is meant by a spiritual body? How does a spiritual body differ from a natural body, and in what way is this a change of some sort? Does the acceptance of a resurrected immortal spiritual body deny physicalism?”

MSH: if the natural body, the one that will die, is a psychic body for Paul, does that favor physicalism?  If that body is changed in the resurrection into a spiritual body that is immortal, does that suggest that there was an immaterial, disembodied person who receives a different body, in effect denying physicalism?

3.  What about the last article, which argued that Murphy’s non-reductive physicalism cannot be reconciled with the hypostatic union of Jesus — the doctrine that Jesus had two natures, divine and human, perfectly fused together in his incarnate fleshly body.  The author (Siemens) writes:

Thus one may expect [MSH: in the traditional Nicean understanding] that two immaterial substances could be conjoined to produce a spirit-soul or divinehuman combination and that this combination could be united to a body to produce a human being. I cannot explain a mechanism whereby divine and human substances [MSH: remember, the “soul” is produced by matter in physicalism] can be joined. But then I cannot explain how soul and body are united, but I experience a seamless integration. Toe, touch and taste, heart, humor and humerus, medulla, memory and merriment, are inexorably united in me. It is still me though I am no longer a towhead child or an adolescent student. Beyond what I remember, I am told that there is a continual turnover of atoms in every part of my body, yet it is continuously me. . . . we can believe that two immaterial substances may be integrated, even though a miracle is obviously required. However, we cannot imagine how the mere function of complexly organized matter and a purely
immaterial substance can amalgamate. . . . if the human soul is only a function of the physical body, we cannot join it to the nonphysical divine substance. We cannot view the hypostatic union as sequential processing. This means that the Incarnation is evidently impossible given nonreductive physicalism.”

MSH: Good question; I’m planning on asking Nancey Murphy this one.

4. Traducianism or Creationism?

It’s pretty clear that traducianism makes the most sense in a non-reductive physicalist view. However, traducianism doesn’t require non-reductive physicalism.

Personally, the problem with creationism even apart from this debate is that, if each soul inherits Adam’s guilt, and if God creates each soul and inserts it into the body (since the soul isn’t produced by human procreation), then God is creating the sinful soul — so why would be need Adamic guilt for that?  It means that sinfulness of soul *isn’t* inherited (since the soul isn’t produced by human procreation), but is produced by God.

I don’t have that problem since, as readers know, I do not believe humanity inherited guilt from Adam (I don’t think that’s the point of Romans 5:12). We had lengthy discussions on that here at NB. All humans sin and are in need of Christ on other grounds (what Romans 5:12 is really saying; not going to digress here).  That also means I don’t have that problem for traducianism either, though for different reasons.

  1. For newcomers, please read the all the posts on the biblical data, collected here.