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The Person in Modern Thought

Over the course of the modern period (ca 1650-1950) a variety of reasons have emerged for rejecting the sorts of dualism separating body, mind, and soul. These reasons encompass theological, philosophical, and scientific considerations. Theological reasons include: (1) the claim that dualism is not biblical and that theology ought to reject Greek conceptions in favor of the original Hebraic conceptions of the Bible; (2) the related claim that resurrection of the body (rather than immortality of the soul) was the original Christian account of life after death; and (3) the claim that dualism has led to an un-Christian depreciation of the physical creation.

There have always been philosophical problems connected with the concept of the soul. For example, Plato said that the body could not affect the soul. If this is so, then how could the senses provide it with perceptual knowledge? In the modern period, the problems have become acute, leading most philosophers and many theologians to conclude that a different account of the nature of the human being is required.

The philosophical reasons for this change have largely to do with the difficulties (or impossibility) of explaining how a nonmaterial entity could interact with a material body. In addition, these problems have been exacerbated by a variety of scientific developments.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is considered the first modern philosopher, and he has had a tremendous impact on all later conceptions of the person. Descartes distinguished two basic kinds of created realities: (1) extended substance, meaning all material things, and (2) thinking substance, including angels and human minds. (Note in Descartes the shift in terminology from `souls' to `minds.' These concepts overlapped for ancient and medieval thinkers, and English-language philosophy has generally used the term 'mind' rather than 'soul.').

The problem of mind-body interaction suddenly became more difficult in the Modern period because a version of atomism came to replace Aristotelian conceptions of matter. In Aristotle's theory, matter and form were correlative, with form being the active principle and matter being the passive. So the soul, as one type of form, was conceived exactly as that which animated, or moved, the body. In the early modern scientific conception of matter, especially as developed by Isaac Newton, matter was also seen as inert, or passive. But matter in Newton's conception, rather than being moved by immanent forms, was moved by external, physical forces. This raised a dilemma: if we maintain the immateriality of mind, then there is no way to account for its supposed ability to move the body. Alternatively, if we interpret it as some kind of physical force, its effects ought to be measurable and quantifiable, just like any other force in nature. However, no "psychic force" is yet explained or accounted for in modern physics. To solve this dilemma, a variety of philosophical theories have been tried. For instance, "psycho-physical parallelism" holds that mental events and physical events occur in parallel chains, only appearing to interact causally because of a pre-established harmony. And, "epiphenomenalism" claims that brain events cause mental events, but mental events have no causal effects of their own. Psycho-physical parallelism has had very few supporters. Epiphenomenalism is problematic because it simply denies that the mental, qua mental, makes any difference in the world. Both of these theories see brain events -- which are presumably governed by the laws of neuroscience, and ultimately by the laws of physics – as making things happen. This leads to the problem of what it means for a physical (brain) event to cause a mental event.

These problems have led most secular philosophers to conclude that we are better off not postulating minds as entities at all. We may speak, instead, of mental events, but these are still identical with physical (brain) events, in some way. That is, we call them mental events as we experience them `within'; physical as we imagine a neuroscientist looking at the brain from without.

As we have seen, early modern science's new conception of matter created philosophical problems for mind-body dualism. Many philosophers have judged these problems to be insoluble, and this, in turn, has led to a wholesale rejection of the concept of a substantial mind.

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The Person in Modern Thought

Neuroscience & the Soul: Topic Index
The Person in Greek Thought
The Person in Medieval Thought
Neuroscience and Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas, Moral Behavior and Phineas Gage
The Person in Hebrew Scriptures
The Person in The New Testament
The Person in Christian Theology
The Person in Jewish Thought
Is Behavior Determined, or are we Free?
Implications Of A Nonreductive Physicalist View


Dr. Nancey Murphy


See also:

The Cognitive and Neurosciences
What Makes us Human?
Are we Free?
Saint Augustine
Rene Descartes
Sir Isaac Newton
Books on Neuroscience and Theology