Why I am a Universalist, Part 5: Salvation in a Post-Cartesian World

This post carries over from my post on Moral Luck. I want to talk specifically about free will systems of soteriology (e.g., Arminianism) and the crisis they will face in the coming years.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel in his essay "Moral Luck" correctly notes a connection between moral luck, free will, and responsibility. Perhaps you also sensed the connection when you read that post. Specifically, contemplation of moral luck tends to shrink the scope of human agency. Further contemplation can shrink agency to the point where it goes "poof!" Gone.

So this post will consider a kind of worst case scenario for human agency and free will: What if free will becomes wholly untenable to future generations of Christians? How will soteriology have to cope with that possible theological future?

But is that future possible? Will free will really undergo a theological crisis? I'll argue that, yes, the crisis is coming and is already starting.

Where is the crisis coming from? Simply, it is due to the demise of Cartesian dualism.

As most are aware, the belief that we are comprised of both body and soul is referred to as Cartesian dualism, or simply dualism. The name is due to Rene Descartes who was the pivotal Western thinker who articulated the idea in the Western philosophical literature. For those dismissive of Cartesian dualism the idea is called "the Ghost in the machine."

As Descartes paints the Ghost in the Machine model our soul inhabits our body or at least interfaces with it and, thus, via that interface mechanism, directs the actions of the body. But this model creates a whole other round of issues known as the "mind-body problem." How exactly does the soul (typically aligned with the mind/consciousness) interface with the body? And how does the body interface with the soul? These kinds of considerations have generated such a large speculative literature that it defies my ability to summarize it all.

But I don't think we need to dwell on the mechanics of dualism because dualism is growingly untenable. Modern people are increasingly refusing to believe that they have a soul inhabiting their body. There is no Ghost. Why is this assessment growing in the population? Answer: Neuroscience.

To illustrate these popular trends, trends that will grow over time, below I walk through two different newspaper editorials in the mainstream media by two very influential psychologists.

In a New York Times September 10, 2004 piece, entitled “The Duel Between Body and Soul,” the psychologist Paul Bloom stated that:

The great conflict between science and religion in the last century was over evolutionary biology. In this century, it will be over psychology, and the stakes are nothing less than our souls.

Why does Bloom draw this conclusion? He explains that science is gradually making the idea of the soul untenable:

The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls are purely corporeal; they emerge from biochemical processes in the brain. This is starkly demonstrated in cases in which damage to the brain wipes out capacities as central to our humanity as memory, self-control and decision-making.

According to Bloom, this conclusion, that the soul is nothing more than the brain, is creating enormous tension between the religious and the scientific view of man:

The conclusion that our souls are flesh is profoundly troubling to many, as it clashes with the notion that the soul survives the death of the body. It is a much harder pill to swallow than evolution, then, and might be impossible to reconcile with many religious views. Pope John Paul II was clear about this, conceding our bodies may have evolved, but that theories which ‘consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.’ This clash is not going to be easily resolved.

We find similar sentiments expressed by author and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker his September 27, 2004 Newsweek article entitled “How to Think About the Mind: Neuroscience shows that the ‘soul’ is the activity of the brain”:

Every evening our eyes tell us that the sun sets, while we know that, in fact, the Earth is turning us away from it. Astronomy taught us centuries ago that common sense is not a reliable guide to reality. Today it is neuroscience that is forcing us to readjust our intuitions. People naturally believe in the Ghost in the Machine: that we have bodies made of matter and spirits made of an ethereal something. Yes, people acknowledge that the brain is involved in mental life. But they still think of it as a pocket PC for the soul, managing information at the behest of a ghostly user.

Modern neuroscience has shown that there is no user. ‘The soul’ is, in fact, the information-processing activity of the brain. New imaging techniques have tied every thought and emotion to neural activity.

Pinker, like Bloom, also recognizes the lurking conflict with religion that this view of the brain entails:

In Galileo's time, the counter-intuitive discovery that the Earth moved around the sun was laden with moral danger. Now it seems obvious that the motion of rock and gas in space has nothing to do with right and wrong. Yet to many people, the discovery that the soul is the activity of the brain is just as fraught, with pernicious implications for everything from criminal responsibility to our image of ourselves as a species. Turning back the clock on the ultimate form of self-knowledge is neither possible nor desirable. We can live with the new challenges from brain science. But it will require setting aside childlike intuitions and traditional dogmas, and thinking afresh about what makes people better off and worse off.

Here is why I am citing these two articles:

1. This is the growing view in the modern world. Neuroscience is making Cartesian dualism untenable. In short, in the coming decades Christian reference to the "soul" will seem quaint and charming. Like speaking about the tooth fairy or Santa Claus.

2. We are currently training ministers to go out into a post-modern and post-Christian world. Well, that's great. But let me make clear a challenge that bible professors are wholly overlooking. We are sending ministers out into a POST-CARTESIAN world. And, I ask, are these ministers being prepared for THAT? How quaint that we are training people to go out to reason in the world with notions as charming, to the listeners, as the Easter bunny.

3. Neuroscience, like evolution before it, is setting up up for a titanic struggle between faith and reason. And this one will be much, much worse. The soul itself is at stake. But what if Christianity looses this battle as it has with evolution? What if the soul is removed as a legitimate category of discourse? How will theology need to adjust?

In fact, theology HAS begun to adjust. Embodied visions of humans which reject the Platonic influences inherent in Cartesian dualism are on the rise. See the work of Nancy Murphy as a case in point (start with her book Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies?).

Although I applaud the work of Murphy, I don't, however, think she or others are really facing up to the real crisis. The real crisis isn't about the soul. The real crisis is about free will.

The doctrine of the soul is only important in that it allows a mechanism for free will. For what other reason would we care if the soul existed or not? If I have no soul why should I care? Immortality isn't really an issue, because the vision in the bible is of a bodily resurrection. No, the fear of not having a soul isn't about immortality, it's about free will and moral accountability.

For the soul is believed to allow us causal powers outside of the scope of environment, heredity, and moral luck. But if there is no soul, as Nagel points out, human agency reduces until, poof!, it's gone. Again, the crisis isn't really about the soul. The crisis is about free will.

So, as a psychologist, let me tell you about the theological landscape of the future:

It will be a world where the soul has no place. In its place will be behavioral genetics, neuroscience, and psychology. "Sins" will be increasingly be viewed as biological or environmental issues (e.g., addictions, chemical imbalances). And, as a consequence, issues of justice, crime and punishment will continue to move more toward rehabilitative and social contract (e.g., deterrence) models. In short, the brain with its related sciences will slowly transform notions of free will and in its wake notions of virtue, sin, justice, crime, and punishment. Humans will be viewed as the product, a nexus, of causal activity and we will strive, as a self-reflective species, to understand and manipulate that causal machinery to engineer a harmonious future for all. We are in the beginning stages of this process, you see it already around you, and it will intensify as Pinker and Bloom say it will.

And as this future evolves, how will Arminian soteriological systems fare?

Not well.

How will universalism fare?

Very, very well.

Why? Because as notions of "free will" erode we will have to alter notions of moral praise and blame. Moral luck will dominate discussions of human responsibility. And Arminian systems will have no leverage in these conversations. But universalism will. Because universalism is fully compatible with a causal vision of the will. That is, God is fully willing and able (from a time perspective) to work with you as causal nexus, working with and shaping your contingent will to mold you into the image of Jesus.

Universalism is on the rise. And the factor driving this trend is, interestingly, neuroscience.

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13 thoughts on “Why I am a Universalist, Part 5: Salvation in a Post-Cartesian World”

  1. The doctrine of the soul is only important in that it allows a mechanism for free will.

    Not the case, as I understand it. To illustrate: the Christian philosopher Peter van Inwagen (my favorite Christian philosopher, actually) is a materialist about personal identity and a libertarian (as opposed to a compatibilist) about free will. So it isn't just inevitable that without an immaterial soul, the prospects for free will come to a vanishing point. Van Inwagen maintains that it's an undeniable fact that we have free will, but since free will is incompatible with either determinism or indeterminism, free will must needs remain a mystery.

  2. From Pinker's article, "New imaging techniques have tied every thought and emotion to neural activity"

    I admit my ignorance of neuroscience, so my question will likely readily display that ignorance.

    Nonetheless, can the imaging techniques determine that neural activity causes every thought and emotion? Is it possible that some thoughts and emotions cause neuro activity? For example, as I sit here typing, I know that if some neuro scientists were imaging my brain, they'd see activity in the language processing part of my brain. However, I'm choosing the language I employ. I'm not even sure that's a good example, or if I'm even making sense at this point.

  3. Micah,
    Always wanting to educate myself I went in search of van Inwagen. I've ordered his Essay on Free Will from Amazon as this seems to be his pivotal work in the area. Thank you for the reference.

    I also read some of his online essay's that represent his current thinking. It seems that he offers no constructive argument for the existence of free will. He simply winds up in "mystery." Is that correct? In the essay I read he concludes with saying he is "absolutely clueless" (his words) about the relations existing between our experience of will and the presumably deterministic laws of nature. He many indeed be right that the free will issue is insoluble, but without a constructive argument in place I'll have to stand behind my post's predictions about the future. Some libertarian philosophers may be buffaloed about free will, but neuroscience marches on and it will create a growing disillusionment with both the soul and free will.

    Jason (and Micah still),
    I don't want you to think that I believe in determinism. In this I'm probably very much like van Inwagen. I just don't know. All I am claiming is that we are living in a post-Cartesian word. Pinker and Bloom are illustrations of it. I'm not saying that you should BELIEVE Pinker and Bloom, just that Pinker and Bloom (as types) are going to define the intellectual landscape of our futures. It is true that debates surrounding free will and the soul will continue to exist in that future. But the workaday implications of neuroscience will make grand appeals to metaphysical freedom or the soul ring very thin in many quarters. And in such a world, Arminian systems will suffer.

    Jason, on a different note, it is difficult to define a "thought" or "emotion" independent of brain functioning. How would you do this without making an appeal that would not look, to a neuroscientist, like conjuring up the tooth fairy? Further, how would this incorporeal "thought" cause brain changes? What is the nature of the interface? I bring up these questions because they are the questions Pinker and Bloom (as types) will pose to the ministers of the future. What answers will they have?

  4. I'm not sure I could provide an answer that would satisfy Pinker or Bloom--just one of many reasons why I'm an English teacher and not a minister.

    There's no scientific means of validating the point I was trying to make. I realize that in order for me to think something there has to be a neuroreaction. But what instigates that reaction? I'm still not sure if my question conveys what I'm really trying to get at.

    Maybe I'm arguing for non-reductive physicalism or perhaps even some sort of holistic-dualism, if there is such a term.

    As for the Bible, I think scripture is a little ambiguous as to whether a "soul" exists after death and awaits the resurrection. Of course, as you say, given physical resurrection, whether we have souls may be a moot point. However, what do we make of Christ's parable of Lazurus and the rich man or his promise to the thief on the cross? Also, I know some people assert that Paul's "calling up to the third heaven" may have been when he was stoned and left for dead.

  5. Jason,
    I do know of some very respectable philosophers who do argue for a non-reductive dualism. I tend to gravitate toward David Chalmers' position in his book The Conscious Mind. The issue, for me, is the relationship, if there is any, between consciousness and the soul. Is the non-reductive nature of consciousness (often called the Hard Problem of Consciousness in the literature) in any way supportive of a notion of "soul'? Dogs seem conscious, so do mice and perhaps even bugs. Are all these possessed of souls? Chalmers in his book does move toward a pan-psychic position in his book which is odd but admirable in that he's willing to follow his propositions to their logical conclusion. In short, the mysteries of consciousness may ALWAYS be with us. But are those mysteries providing wiggle room for the soul? That seems like an open debate.

    And don't sweat being an English teacher! I'm a psychologist writing a blog about theology for crying out loud. We can be clueless together:-)

  6. To use a metaphor--and an oversimplified one at that--I've always thought of a car and driver relationship in regards to the mind and soul. As the driver of my car, I serve as the instigating agent by starting the car, pressing the gas,etc. But if something goes awry with the car's engine or some other part of the car, it won't run properly despite the fact that I'm still in the driver's seat. My inability to control the car at that point wouldn't be tantamount to me not existing as the driver.

  7. Richard,

    I discovered your blog based on a reference from a comment left on mine. Interestingly enough, I also have a series entitled "Why I am a universalist." Mine, however, approaches the subject from the perspective of dogmatic theology (a la Barth), since I am a systematic theology student at Princeton Theological Seminary. I appreciate your posts very much, and I look forward to reading more.

    While I too am, for the most part, a materialist, I believe the language of "soul" is necessary simply because we need a word that can communicate the fact that we are more than just our bodies. We are more than the sum total of our biological parts. And by "more" I mean we have importance or significance that is non-quantifiable. The soul is a metaphor for this "something else," which I as a theologian would ascribe to God's relation to us and our (often unknown) relation to God.

    As for the reality of a post-Cartesian world, you could not be more right. Of course, the attack on Cartesian philosophy has been going on for some time, but it has not yet trickled into every area of life yet. I do think the traditional idea of "soul" is in its death throes. It will no doubt take the churches a long time to catch up to this fact.

  8. All my education is in theology, so I no nothing about any of the psychologists that have been referenced in this blog and in the comments, however, from a theological standpoint I find this discussion intriguing. The debate raging over what is divine and what is human in all of us is anything but a new concern. Gnosticism was hot on the heels of the Church's birth, and I would argue that defining soul and body was central to the Gnostic worldview. In my personal opinion the polarizing of the "body" and the "soul" is one of the greatest heresies of the modern Church. I say this because it seems to me that we have lost a sense of history...the ancient history. We trace our theological roots back to the Greeks, forgetting all the while that we are a religion of the Jews. It was the Greeks who first developed the idea of the divine Logos, which influenced Christianity as it became more and more Greek. However, if we trace our heritage back to the Hebrews we do not find a soul living within our bodies. What is divine within us is not a soul, but life itself, breathed into humanity by God. Jesus follows this ideology when he often refers to zoe, or life, in the Greek. In English zoe is often translated as "soul," but it can also simply mean "life." The Church has often pushed the words of Christ into a soteriological lens, which may very well be justified, but make no mistake that Jesus did not come to show us the afterlife, but rather what life could look like in the present. Saving souls (zoe) and restoring the life (zoe) of the crippled was many times the same thing.

    The Pharisees had a problem with this. Hopefully we remember when Jesus forgave the lame man's sins in front of the religious leaders. "Who gives you the authority to forgive sins!" they cried. Jesus' response is interesting, "So that you may know I have the authority to forgive sins, pick up your mat and walk." (This is paraphrased.) Forgiving sins and healing the body are acts of the same kind.

    I say all this to say...living in a post-cartesian world may finally force the Church to actually participate in its own existence. A soul is passive, and as such life passes it by. How often has life passed the Church by? By forcing the Church to again engage flesh and blood, a post-cartesian ideology may finally breathe new zoe into our existence.

  9. Richard,
    I actually haven't had the chance yet to closely study van Inwagen's free will work, but so far as I understand it, his idea of free will as a "mystery" is pretty much as you describe. He doesn't give a "positive thesis" for free will, it's true, but as an example it does go to show that it's perfectly possible not to hold to any form of dualism and yet believe in free will.

    The further point I was thinking about making is by analogy with a separate point van Inwagen has made about dualism with respect to consciousness, which is that it's a mystery why material things should have consciousness simply because it's a mystery why anything should, so the problem of consciousness is not specially solved by adopting substance dualism. So the analogy would be that free will is equally a mystery whether one holds to dualism or materialism. But this isn't quite the case, since material identity or supervenience means being subject to the chain of physical causation, whereas substance dualism does allow one to conceive of one as standing "outside" said chain in some sense. So if dualistic and materialistic free will are both mysterious, they would at least have to be different kinds of mysteries.

  10. BJ,
    I like what you say here. I sometimes wonder if my theological sensibilities are more "Jewish" than "Christian." For example, I tend to be very monotheistic. That is, I tend to de-emphasize Satan when I make causal attributions regarding the world around me. As an illustration, someone just called me stupid in my Halloween post (see sidebar) for doing just that (de-emphasizing the Devil that is). Appreciate your post.

    I too am intrigued by the “Hard Problem of Consciousness.” I tend to see it as fairly insoluble, a mystery, as well. I actually floated among some friends a kind of “proof” for God’s existence leveraging off of the relationship between experience/consciousness and entropy (i.e., it seems that the goal of consciousness, which is not reducible to physics, is to move matter toward greater complexity and even morality). I was going to post this “proof” on this blog but I got chicken. Maybe I'll do it if all the smart, philosophically inclined readers promise to not make fun of me! I'm just a lowly social scientist...

  11. But what if the soul directs the neurological system, including the brain? The brain is where the emotions reside, but not necessarily where they originate. A damaged house can affect the contents, but no one believes the house created the contents. What if the soul is the reason for our love, our self-sacrifice, and our other free-will decisions?

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