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What Are We? The Three Answers Underlying Many Spiritual, Moral And Political Disagreements (And Why One Answer Is Better Than The Other Two) Post 3 Of 8

What we believe we are, determines how we approach life, how we define human flourishing, and how we think about political, cultural, moral and spiritual issues. Last week I offered three reasons to believe we have a soul, in addition to a body. This then grounds our equality and dignity as human persons. This week I offer three more reasons.


Reason #4: We are a Unity At a Time

Right now I am thinking about this fourth argument for Substance Dualism. At the same time I am aware of a pain in my knee. And I am also feeling anxious about the big presentation I have coming up. I would also love to get another cup of coffee. Along with all of this I am choosing to keep writing this blog instead of getting to work on that presentation. So there exists a thought (an argument for Substance Dualism), a pain (in my knee), an emotion (being anxious about my presentation) a desire (for more coffee) and a choice (to keep writing).

Now these five things seem to be related. They seem to be my thought, my pain, my emotion, my desire and my choice. They seem to be united together as all of my experiences at the present moment. But the only way that makes sense is if I am a substance that stands under these diverse phenomena and makes them all mine.

Furthermore, they all seem to be related to one another. If these thoughts are coming together well, I can choose to keep writing. If my pain is severe enough, I may have remorse about playing football with my son in the backyard yesterday. If my desire for coffee is strong enough, I may choose to go get some. So there must be something that unites these very different types of phenomena such that they can affect one other. Again, this only makes sense if they are all united together in one thing—in a substance, or a self (in me—they are my thoughts, pains, emotions, desires and choices).

In fact, only because this is true can these phenomena, and their relationships to one another, be studied. For instance, psychologists study the relationships not between abstract beliefs and desires, but between the specific beliefs and desires that I have—my beliefs and desires.

This is also the role a spiritual mentor plays in our spiritual growth. She or he is able to help us understand healthy or unhealthy ways our beliefs, desires, emotions, and choices are related, and suggest ways to grow to have healthier relationships between these various aspects of our souls.

This only makes sense on the Substance Dualism understanding of a person.


Reason #5: We are a Unity Through Time

My unity is not only at this moment, but also from one moment to the next. I am the same person I was when I started writing this blog, and I will be the same person when I finish. Therefore, if my wife asks me what I did this morning, I can say “I began writingthis at 7:45am and I finished it at 8:55am.” I was present there throughout the entire process.

The same is true for longer spans of time. You keep pictures of yourself, because it is you in those pictures. You were really there! You are planning for your retirement because you will be there to enjoy it. And you fear going to the dentist next week for that root canal—because you know you will be there to experience the pain! It is clear that you endure over time as the same person.

However, one thing we know about our bodies is that they are always changing. We are constantly eating and assimilating new material parts (the atoms in nutrients). And we are constantly losing hair, skin cells, etc.

So how can we make sense of this idea that we continue through time, even though our bodies do not? The best, and I think the only answer, is that our soul is what endures through time. It is what stands under all the change—our immaterial substance is present throughout our lives and makes us us. There is sameness through change in light of our enduring self or soul. This is another strong argument for Substance Dualism.

This is very disconcerting for the Physicalist. I was once talking with a Ph.D. in Physics who kept arguing that there is no reason to believe in a soul. So I asked him who earned the Ph.D. displayed on his wall. It couldn’t be him, because it was earned over 20 years ago, and we know that every molecule in a person’s body is replaced at least every nine years. So if he is only a physical thing, there is nothing to tie him to the “person” who earned that degree—he’s an imposter! This got him thinking, and we had a very engaging conversation as a result.

I read a great story in an airline magazine teasing this out. A couple woke up on their ninth wedding anniversary and, given the implications of their Physicalism, observed that they were now entirely different people than the two who had married nine years ago. So they enjoyed a fabulous breakfast and discussed whether they should get married again for another nine years! (By the way, I’ve lost the article—if anyone knows where I can find it, I’d love to read it again!)

This is the implication of Physicalism, but actually much worse. In fact, the moment after they said their vows they should have had that conversation. If they are only their bodies, and their bodies change literally every moment (by adding parts [molecules] and losing parts [molecules]), there is no true bodily continuity moment to moment. There is simply no identity through time for the Physicalist. It is only by smuggling in the Substance Dualist’s assumption that Physicalists can assume they endure through time.


Reason #6: This is the Best Explanation of “Growth” and “Maturity”

Consider the birth and development of a child into adulthood. If the right conditions are present, she will develop in law-like ways. In the womb she will develop specific features and capacities at specific intervals of development. Once born, she will continue to develop her capacities as if following a schedule. At one year of age there will be a weight and height range that the doctor wants to see her achieve. If she does not there is a problem, and intervention is necessary (such as changing her diet) and so on until she is a fully mature adult.

What is true of physical growth is also true of a person’s other abilities. Mentally, if a three-year old is not able to write a coherent sentence, we all understand that is normal for his age. But if this is still the case when he is 10, we know there is a mental deficiency and intervene with specialized educational programs. Emotionally, when a two-year old throws a temper-tantrum we say it’s just the “terrible twos” and to be expected. But if he’s still doing this at ten, there is a serious problem. Volitionally, we don’t fault a seven year old for not being able to make a wise decision concerning financial investments, but we do when she is twenty-seven.

This is why we can define “maturity”—there are law-like developmental pathways in each area that ought to be achieved. This is also what practitioners study. For instance, physicians study how to diagnose and correct physical deficiencies—when a person is not developing physically as she ought to develop. They use terms like “disease,” “deformity,” and “under-developed.” The same is true of educators, psychologists and psychiatrists—they are trained to diagnose and correct deficiencies in other areas of capacity—mental, emotional and volitional, and use similar language to describe what they observe.

The fact that there are such “oughts” concerning our physical, mental, emotional and volitional development must be explained. The best explanation is that these law-like changes are grounded in our human nature (our immaterial substance or soul).

Further empirical support of these capacities being grounded in our nature or immaterial substance is that there seem to be “built-in” limits to this change. In breeding experiments we always find boundaries, beyond which we produce things that are sterile and cannot be further bred (such as mules). This adds further empirical evidence to the Substance Dualist’s view that in addition to our bodies we have an essential human nature that is fixed and makes us what we are.



There are very good reasons to believe we are a combination of soul and body—to be Substance Dualists. But some remain Physicalists. Over the next three weeks I’ll consider this answer to the question “What are we?”

Until then, grace and peace.


For further reading I suggest Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview by J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig; Chapter 11: “The Mind-Body Problem”

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