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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 8 Of 8

Can we hope to find common ground in “the public square” over the critically important social issues of our day? Over the past seven weeks I’ve illustrated how the three different answers to the question “What are we” determines our answer to this question.

Our view of what we are also determines our view of whether abortion and euthanasia are ever justified, whether the gospel makes sense, how Christians best grow in their faith, what constitutes “ministry,” and so much more. Let me explain…


Implications for Biomedical Ethics (Abortion, Euthanasia and so much more)

The Substance Dualist believes that what makes us what we are—a human person—is having a human nature (an individuated human nature–a soul). Therefore, we are fully human persons at each and every stage of our lives. We are fully human persons before we are born, whether or not we can yet express all our capacities as human persons. As such, embryos have the same rights as any other human person. So abortion is simply murder.

For the same reason we are also fully human persons near the end of life, even though we may no longer be able to express all our human capacities, such as speaking, thinking clearly, or caring for ourselves. Simply in virtue of our humanness at this stage of life we retain our fundamental human rights. Thus (active) euthanasia is also murder and equally wrong. Issues on the horizon such as human cloning for “spare parts” are wrong for the same reasons.  

The Physicalist denies this essential definition of a person. Instead she searches for a “scientific” definition of a person and of life. Here again we see the Enlightenment thinking in the biological sciences and medical professions. Because all which exists is material, knowledge is only obtained by empirical observation and only “scientific” answers are acceptable. Therefore the Physicalist searches for an observable (and therefore measurable) characteristic to define what a person is (and for those in the medical professions, when life starts and ends.)

As a result, the Physicalist’s definition of a person is based on observable functions. What it is to be a person (or to be “alive”) depends on whether the thing in question exhibits one or a number of specific functions. Therefore whether something has human rights depends on whether it exhibits this function or functions.

There is much debate among Physicalists about which function(s) define personhood and life. Some argue matter becomes a human person—becomes alive—when the embryo implants in the wall of the mother’s uterus. Others argue it is when a fetus’ brain activity can be detected. Others argue it is when the fetus is “viable” (is able to live unaided outside the womb). And so it goes. Some go as far to argue matter becomes a human person when it can have meaningful social interactions with its environment (and so they argue infanticide—even up to two years of age—is morally acceptable)!

On the other end of life Physicalists have the same debate. Some argue a person is “gone” and thus active euthanasia is morally justified when there is no longer the ability to communicate. Others argue it is when there is no longer the ability to interact with the physical environment. Still others argue it is when there is no longer higher-level brain activity. And so on.

I believe there are serious deficiencies in these views. However, there is not space to go into the problems here. I’ll save that for a future post. If you would like to read more on the problems I see with this approach to biomedical ethics, especially as applied to euthanasia, see my Aquinas vs. Locke and Descartes: On The Human Person and End-Of-Life Ethics. For a broader treatment I suggest Scott Rae’s Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics.

The Postmodern Anti-Essentialist (PAE) agrees with the Physicalist that we are not defined by an essential human nature. Therefore the PAE also defines humanness in terms of one or more functions. Of course, the PAE does not share the Physicalist’s desire to define one or several functions as essential for all humans. This is too Modernistic and absolutist. The PAE argues we should each be free to define what function(s) we wish to determine as essential for us, and live accordingly (“being true to myself”).  But this only multiplies the problems Physicalism runs into with functional definitions of humanness. Again, I’ll discuss this in a future post.


Implications for “Non-Human” Ethics

The Substance Dualist maintains only those who share a human nature are human persons. This not only grounds equal human rights and protections for all human persons, it is also the reason only human persons have these human rights and protections.

For the Physicalist, following from her functional definition of a human person, it is possible (and even probable) that other types of things are actually human and should have equal rights and protections.

For instance, if the ability to interact with one’s environment defines humanness, how can we say dogs are not human and deserve equal rights? For that matter, all living organisms interact with their environment to some degree. And so all living organisms are humans based on this functional definition. As such, each enjoys equal human rights. Taken to this logical conclusion, this drives much of the radical animal rights agenda.

(Of course, on the Christian world view animals do have rights and should be cared for as living things—part of God’s good creation that He charges us to care for in Genesis 1:26-28. Yet they do not have equal rights as human persons, for they do not share the imago Dei. So they have rights, yet lesser rights.)

Taking this one step further, on a functional definition of humanness computers also have equal human rights, as suggested in a recent issue of The New Yorker. For instance, if to be human is to be able to engage in higher-level reasoning, such as calculus, how is a computer that can process these equations not equally human?

Our talk of computers “thinking” further reinforces this idea. Such talk makes sense for the Physicalist, since “thinking” is nothing more than physical interactions. It makes no difference whether these interactions are among atoms in the brain or electrons in the computer circuit board. (For the Substance Dualist to talk of computers “thinking” makes no sense, for thinking is a mental, immaterial event, not a physical event.)

The PAE has even less reason to distinguish between “human” and “non-human” ethics, for even these categories are subjective social constructs which have no objective meaning or value. Therefore these issues are amplified in the PAE’s view of rights for “non-humans.”


Implication Concerning The Gospel

The Substance Dualist believes we are a duality of soul and body. Therefore, the Substance Dualist who is not a Christian can understand why considering the Gospel is important. Given that we have an immaterial dimension (a soul), it is very important to pursue that which brings health to the soul. So he has “conceptual space” within his conceptual framework to consider the Gospel. As he understands the Gospel is the only means of healing, health and well-being for his soul, he will be able to accept it as Truth.

The Physicalist has no reason to be concerned with the Gospel (logically speaking, outside the wooing of the Holy Spirit). Since all we are is physical, there is no spiritual dimension or “soul” to be concerned with in the first place. It follows that she should only be concerned with the health and well-being of her body and do everything possible to care for, preserve and enhance physical life.

In fact, most in our culture are “practicing Physicalists”preoccupied only with meeting physical needs and pursuing physical pleasures. As a result, there is an inordinate concern with nurturing our bodies over caring for our souls. For instance, compare the meteoric rise in fitness club memberships as compared to the growth of churches. Compare the amount of money we spend on books, programs and products to care for our bodies with what we spend on the same to care for our souls. Compare the amount of time and money we are wiling to invest with a physician to diagnose and help correct physical ailments with the amount of time and money we are willing to invest with those who have expertise in diagnosing and correcting spiritual ailments.

This is all very dangerous if the Physicalist is wrong and we do have a soul. If so, she should be equally concerned with taking care of her soul. Only then will she flourish. In fact, if there is a soul, as the Substance Dualist argues, its well-being is much more important than the well-being of the body.

Again, the PAE agrees with the Physicalist that we don’t have an essential human nature, and so there are no objective answers to questions of salvation. There is no one “Gospel.” The “gospel” is whatever each individual takes to be necessary for his or her well-being. In the common vernacular, “There are many ways to God” and so PAEs are “spiritual but not religious” (where “spiritual” means “I pursue what is meaningful to me” and “religious” means “following the traditional, biblical definition of salvation, i.e. the Gospel.”)

This is equally dangerous for the PAE if there is an objective reality concerning the soul and spiritual matters.


Implications Concerning Spiritual Maturity

For the Christian Substance Dualist there are additional implications of us being a duality of body and soul. In terms of our growth in Christ (our spiritual formation toward maturity), this unity is important to take into account. At least on the Thomistic version of Substance Dualism (see my earlier post for this distinction), what we do in our bodies affects our spiritual growth. This is the foundation for the long and rich tradition of spiritual disciplines such as solitude, silence, fasting, and service. These and other bodily practices literally shape our souls. Dallas Willard does a wonderful job of unpacking this in his The Spirit of the Disciplines.

The fact that we have a natural end or “telos” is also important to understand in our spiritual formation. As is true of our bodies, our souls have a natural pathway to maturity, which can be obtained unless blocked in some way. Yet we all have blockages.

Our blockages may be intellectual—we may not understand biblical truth or fail to apply it consistently. The role of theologians, pastors and spiritual mentors is to help us identify these blockages and overcome them by increasing our biblical understanding and application.

Our blockages may be emotional—we may have emotional issues from our past hindering our growth that we must work through in order to continue growing. The role of counselors is to help us work through these issues and remove these blockages.

Our blockages may be relational—we may have broken relationships that are hindering our spiritual growth. This is so important in spiritual formation that Jesus says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23-24)

Our blockages may be volitional—related to the other blockages above, we may be choosing to believe or do something which hinders our spiritual growth. Scripture contains many encouragements to make wise decisions that will lead to our spiritual growth.

God has provide an example of a human person who most fully exemplified what a fully mature human soul looks like—a person who has none of these blockages. Of course this is the human person Jesus of Nazareth. Spiritual growth comes down to striving to be like Christ in all these ways: intellectually, emotionally, relationally and volitionally.

Implications Concerning Ministry

Finally are the implications for ministry. Since all people are a combination of soul and body, we minister to both dimensions. Some place a great deal of emphasis on helping others develop mature souls in the ways outlined above. But we also must be concerned with ministering to people in their physical needs. Too often we forget this, assuming ministry is only meeting a person’s “spiritual” needs. This is a wrong approach if we are a unity of soul and body. Others lean too far in the other direction—caring for physical needs but neglecting a person’s spiritual needs. This is equally egregious. Our view of what it is to be human should lead us to find balance in ministry to soul and body.

As our example, Jesus—the preeminent Substance Dualist—was very concerned about both the well-being of a person’s soul and body. He spent much time and energy meeting the physical needs of those around him, such as being committed to feeding the crowds that were following him (Matt. 14:13-21). At the same time, he constantly spread the good news of the arrival of the Kingdom, allowing for the salvation of the nations.

The Apostles were equally concerned with ministry to people in their physical needs, appointing leaders in the early church to care for people in this way (Acts 6:2-4). James tells us that spiritual maturity is caring for (the spiritual and physical) needs of orphans and widows (James 1:27). Yet they never stopped preaching the gospel. We, too, must minister to the whole person—soul and body.



As I said at the outset of this series, how a person answers the question “What are we?” has far-reaching implications. I’ve outlined the three answers to this question, and given reasons everyone should be a Substance Dualist. This week I’ve discussed some of the implications of these three answers. If you have not yet decided how you answer this question, I encourage you to study this issue more and make up your mind. Some of the books in my bibliography under Anthropology may be of help.

Until next week, grace and peace.

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