Spiritual Life
Reasons to Believe
Religions & Sects
Church History
In the News
Faith & Reason Press Speaker's Forum Links Resources About Us

Reflections on Human Personhood:

Establishing a Framework

By J. P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae

Throughout the centuries Christians have believed that each human person

consists in a soul and body; that the soul survived the death of the body;

and that its future life will be immortal.1


In terms of biblical psychology, man does not have a “soul,” he is one.

He is a living and vital whole. It is possible to distinguish between his activities,

but we cannot distinguish between the parts,

for they have no independent existence.2


How should we think about human persons? What sorts of things,

fundamentally, are they? What is it to be a human, what is it to be a human

person, and how should we think about personhood? . . .

The first point to note is that on the Christian scheme of things,

God is the premier person, the first and chief exemplar of personhood . . .

and the properties most important for an understanding of our personhood

are properties we share with him.3




IT IS SAFE TO SAY THAT THROUGHOUT HUMAN HISTORY, THE VAST majority of people, educated and uneducated alike, have been dualists, at least in the sense that they have taken a human to be the sort of being that could enter life after death while one’s corpse was left behind—for example, one could enter life after death as the very same individual or as some sort of spiritual entity that merges with the All.


Some form of dualism appears to be the natural response to what we seem to know about ourselves through introspection and in other ways. Many philosophers who deny dualism admit that it is the commonsense view. When we turn to an investigation of church history, we see the same thing. For two thousand years, the vast majority of Christian thinkers have believed in the souls of men and beasts, as it used to be put. Animals and humans are composed of an immaterial entity—a soul, a life principle, a ground of sentience—and a body. More specifically, a human being is a unity of two distinct entities—body and soul. The human soul, while not by nature immortal, is capable of entering an intermediate disembodied state upon death, however incomplete and unnatural this state may be, and of eventually being reunited with a resurrected body. Augustine says, “But the soul is present as a whole not only in the entire mass of a body, but also in every least part of the body at the same time.”4 Similarly, Thomas Aquinas claims “we now proceed to treat of man, who is composed of a spiritual and corporeal substance.” 5 Today, things have changed. For many, the rise of modern science has called into question the viability of dualism. In popular and intellectual cultures alike, many argue that neurophysiology demonstrates the radical dependence and, in fact, identity between mind and brain, that genetics has shown genes and DNA are all that are needed to explain the development of living things, that advances in artificial intelligence make likely the suggestion that humans are just complicated computers and that cloning seems to reduce us to mere structured aggregates of physical parts. Interestingly, among contemporary Christian intellectuals there is a widespread loathing for dualism as well. We are often told that biblical revelation depicts the human person as a holistic unity whereas dualism is a Greek concept falsely read into the Bible by many throughout the history of the church. Christians, we are told, are committed to monism and the resurrection of the body, not to dualism and the immortality of the soul. In short, dualism is outdated, unbiblical and incorrect.


Concurrent with the alleged demise of dualism is the rise of advanced medical technologies that have made prominent a number of very important and difficult issues about ethics at both edges of life. Central to these issues are questions about the nature of human personhood, about the reality of life after death and about the existence, nature, accessibility and degree of justification of ethical or religious knowledge as compared to scientific knowledge. It is not too dramatic to say that we are facing a contemporary crisis in ethics, a crisis that has lead to a good deal of moral confusion, chaos and fragmentation.


In our opinion the concurrence of the demise of dualism (specifically a Christian form of dualism) and the ethical and religious crisis just mentioned is no accident. We believe that what is needed is a more careful formulation and defense of Christian dualism—a defense that renders intelligible a solid Christian anthropology and that shows the relative importance and specific roles science, theology and philosophy have in the integrative task of developing a model of human personhood that is adequate to what we know or justifiably believe from all the relevant disciplines. Such a task requires a multidisciplinary effort, and even if we were able to take on such a work (which we are not), a fully developed Christian anthropology would be impossible to complete in a single volume. Given these limitations, we shall offer what we hope will be an adequate defense of the most reasonable and biblically accurate depiction of human personhood, and we hope to relate that depiction to crucial ethical concerns that affect us all. This task is important for some of the reasons just mentioned. But it is also relevant because of the general human curiosity and angst about what persons are and wherein lies their destiny. As Blaise Pascal once put it, “The immortality of the soul is something of such vital importance to us, affecting us so deeply, that one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter.”6


In this chapter we shall look at a taxonomy of versions of dualism, investigate the Christian understanding of a human person as it has been traditionally conceived and discuss the broad contours of what a proper approach to human personhood should look like.



What Is Dualism?


As does any broad philosophical and theological notion, dualism comes in several varieties. At its root, dualism simply means “two-ism,” and it expresses a commitment to the proposition that two items in question are, in fact, two different entities or kinds of entities instead of being identical to one another.


Cosmic dualism is the view that reality in general is composed of two different entities (e.g., individuals, properties, realms of reality) that cannot be reduced to each other. Cosmic dualists sometimes go beyond this and accept the claim either that these two entities are both metaphysically ultimate—that is, one did not come from or is not dependent on the other for its existence—or that one entity is inferior in value to the other. For example, Zoroastrianism teaches that Ahura-Mazda (the good, wise Lord) and Angra Mainyu (the spirit of evil) are opposites locked in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. In Taoism the yin and the yang are bipolar forces (good-evil, male-female, light-dark, etc.) that constantly react to and with each other in governing all of reality. Gnostic dualism implies that spirit and matter are different and that the latter is of little value compared to the former. Is Christianity a form of cosmic dualism? The answer is no and yes.


Christianity does not affirm that there are two ultimate, independent realities. Everything besides God owes its existence to him in some way or another. Nor does Christianity teach that spirit is good and matter is evil. Yet there are clear cosmic dualities presupposed by and taught in Holy Scripture: God-creation, good-evil, truth-falsity, immaterial-material world, being-becoming and, we believe, soul-body. In addition to cosmic dualisms, there are various forms of dualism regarding the constitution of human persons (and animals, though we will focus here only on human persons). These anthropological dualisms may be divided into three categories: metaphysical, eschatological and axiological. Let us take these in order.


Metaphysical. The metaphysical category of anthropological dualism centers on the question of the constitutional nature of human persons. This version of dualism is the chief focus of this book. Property-event dualism is the idea that mental and physical properties or events are genuinely different kinds of entities. Thoughts, sensations, beliefs, desires, volitions and so on are mental events in which mental properties are embedded (e.g., they have intentionality—the property of being of or about something —or the property of being self-presenting); various brain events with physical properties are nonidentical to mental events. The rival to property-event dualism (indeed, to any form of anthropological dualism) is strict physicalism, or monism, the view that all properties, events, relations, individuals and so on are strictly physical entities. Monists believe that there may be an irreducible duality of language: for example, an event that is caused by a pin stick can be described by the two nonsynonymous terms pain and C fiber firing pattern. Nevertheless, monists insist that these two terms have the same referent and that the referent is a physical state.


Substance dualism is the view that the soul—I, self, mind—is an immaterial substance different from the body to which it is related. In order to adequately understand substance dualism, one must get clear on the nature of a substance, and we shall look at this topic in chapter two. But for now, suffice it to say that the substance dualist is committed to the claim that the soul is an immaterial entity that could, in principle, survive death and ground personal identity in the afterlife.


Two major variants of substa