Book Review: Rethinking Human Nature

Rethinking Human NatureRethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul
by Kevin J. Corcoran
Baker Academic, 2006
152 pages (paperback)

Powell’s Books

Suppose for a moment that it is two hundred years from now and you’re dying.  Your body is connected to a machine and at the last minute your consciousness is to be transferred to an entirely new body.  Well, it is not so much transferred as it is copied, but people in this period ignore that part in favor of the illusion of long life.  In fact, your copy has your memories to up to the exact moment of you being copied.  For all intents and purposes, it is you.  When the momentous occasion arrives, a nervous technician accidentally pushes the button twice and two of you pop out of the machine.  Your last will stipulates that the new you in your new body will receive your estate, but which is the real new you?  Do you figure into the picture at all?

I’ve heard this borrowed (see Philosophy Bites, podcast 82) fictional scenario—repeated with some variation—in many discussions on the nature of personal identity.  More than fodder for science fiction (see for example, Farscape or Star Trek TNG), it is also a discussion that has enticed philosophers and theologians for centuries.  How is it—assuming some form of an historical Adam, for example—that human beings who did not personally participate in Adam’s choice to sin, can be culpable of his sin?  How can he and his progeny be one enough as to justify guilt?  A brief foray into this discussion made it into my dissertation and it still entices me.  If the old man at eighty years old and the same man as a newly born infant have not a single cell that belongs to both of them, how can they be identified as the same person?  What makes you, you?

The issue of personal identity is a large component of Kevin J. Corcoran’s Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialists Alternative to the Soul. In this thin, but highly-ambitious text, Corcoran offers an intriguing look at human nature, challenging the traditional Christian understanding of a human being as a composition of body and soul.  For centuries of Christian theology, it has been understood that when a person dies, the body went to the grave and the soul entered into heavenly life, awaiting the day in which Christ returns and resurrects the body for life in a new heaven and earth.

The identity of the person is not wrapped up in the physical body itself, but in this scenario, it is found in the immaterial essence of the person.  The continuing existence of the soul preserves the identity and personhood.  Even when the body is resurrected—whether it is a fresh, glorified creation that is a genetic match or it is a resurrection by gathering every scattered atom—the future new body is personally identified by the fact that the persisting soul is joined to it.

Corcoran argues against this body-soul dualism by engaging it at the heart of its reasons for existence: personal identity and ethics.  How do we identify the true person?  Is the person equal to the body or is the person equal to the soul?  Or is there something else we should consider?

Corcoran does not treat all body-soul dualism the same, and makes distinctions between positions like substance dualism, compound dualism, and emergent dualism.  He begins with Plato and Descartes on substance-dualism.  The body is a feeder of information for the soul, but the thinking person is found within the immaterial, soulish self, not the physical body.  Descartes view of human nature is—like most views in this book—handled briefly, but effectively.

It was Thomas’s view, compound dualism, that interested me more.  I’ve never had a satisfactory view of the material and immaterial nature of the person, but (for lack of a better idea) I’ve adopted a more holistic view that resembles that of Thomas.  Following Aristotle’s hylomorphism, Thomas argued for the substantial form to matter relationship of the soul to the body.  Human beings are not souls or bodies, they are what happens when a soul and body come together.  This is the magical combination required for a human person.

Corcoran, while readily admitting the inevitable oversimplification of Thomas’s position in his treatment, argues that Thomas is still going to end up in some type of substance dualism, whether he likes it or not.  The soul “in its disembodied state,” writes Corcoran, “…is, with divine assistance, able to engage in intellectual contemplation of God.”  How is the disembodied soul, being that it is not a whole person, able to contemplate God?  Does this not imply a sort of dualism Thomas seeks to avoid?  Argues Corcoran:

It is strange that contemplation of God is going on in the case of a disembodied soul with no one doing the contemplating.  It is not that some human person is contemplating God, for there is no human person. There is just a naked soul.  And, of course, it is mystery enough how there could even be a naked soul, a substantial form that does not organize any material thing.

This same point (and others) has left me unsatisfied for years with my defacto, best-option-available position, but does the simple materialist position fix the problem?

Corcoran spends time engaging your garden variety materialist options out there.  He rejects the “nothing-but-materialism” or animalism view, since it calls for understanding the human person as equal to the body.  We are not, as he argues, equal to our bodies.   His illustration is appropriate: “statues are often constituted by pieces of marble, copper, or bronze, but statues are not identical with the pieces of marble, copper, or bronze that constitute them.”  This point is essential to the discussion of nailing down the essence of something.  So what is the solution?

For Corcoran the solution is the “Constitution View” or CV for short.  Humans have the capacity for “intentional states,” such as “believing” and “desiring,” and they are capable of a “first-person perspective,” that is, the ability to “think of oneself as oneself without the need of a description or a third-person pronoun.”  Lastly, humans are constituted by their biological and material selves, though not equal to them: no body, no existence.

There are several aspects of Corcoran’s view that need exploration.  Right from the start he recognizes the potential discussions of orthodox Christology, particularly in terms of the incarnation.  It seems to me that he treats the discussion fairly quickly, though I do believe he is right in that any potential difficulties are not insurmountable with the C.V. position.  It would simply require a restatement of Chalcedon in contemporary categories; it’s not like Chalcedon did not borrow from the philosophy of the day for its own discussion, after all.

Another aspect of this position, however, is that it takes into real consideration the importance of the physical being and the process of biological change, particularly as one grows in the womb (which Corcoran addresses).  It also, however, appears very relevant to another category of physical change: evolution.  As Christians regularly recognize the important role evolution plays in the creation of a species, this particular view appears more friendly and capable of engaging the new categories that arise from the most recent discussions without having to resort to an us-against-them apologetic.

Theologically, it appears to help alleviate the messes that come from another discussion, that is, creationism versus traducianism.  By the former, theologians mean the creation of the immaterial part of human beings by God, not some polarizing discussion on Genesis 1.  By the latter, one intends the idea that human beings produce the immaterial in the reproduction process. Both of these positions generally cause serious problems.  For example, given traditional Christian categories of righteousness and unrighteousness, how does a sinless God create a sinful soul without getting his own hands dirty?  Or, how does two beings who are physical, and whose reproduction is a physical act, produce the immaterial as well?  For C.V. these problems appear, pardon the pun, immaterial.

Corcoran’s point about the first-person perspective may also require some adjustment as new research in chimpanzees have passed a “mark test” demonstrating significant self-awareness.

Corcoran’s work should be expanded and I hope to see more from him in the future.  For now, I plan to take him up on his many footnotes urging the reader to read his articles for more discussion.

  • Thinking like this will become increasingly necessary as neuroscience increasingly uncovers just how inseparable mind and personality are from our material bodies.

  • garver

    As a traducian Thomist of sorts, I wasn’t convinced by Corcoran’s argument, but it’s a great read nonetheless — clear, concise, carefully argued in most instances. The excursus on embryonic development and stem-cells was very helpful, and I appreciated his emphasis upon the irreducibly social character of human identity.

    My main sticking points are philosophical and biblical. It seems to me that Aquinas’ view actually takes up philosophical categories in a way that enables him to strike the biblical balance well: affirming an intermediate state apart from the body, but seeing this as a diminished state of existence, a naked seed of a person, better in some respects than the present life, but also falling far short of resurrected, embodied glory.

    On the whole I find the difficulties remaining with such a Thomistic approach more palatable and less philosophically problematic than the new set of problems generated by Corcoran’s approach — though, I’d also suggest that Corcoran’s view is fundamentally Thomist in character, maintaining a distinction between a person and her body that amounts to a distinction between form and matter, recognizing “form” as dynamic, relational, and goal-directed.

    Still, Corcoran provides a plausible alternative way of thinking about the contours of such a distinction, in connection with the human person. Whether or not one agrees with his account in the end, it’s an account that helpfully forces one sharpen one’s own viewpoint.

  • @Mark This sort of view does have the potential for engagement with current scientific discussions, especially given the ever-merging world of cognitive science and religious studies. Theologians definitely cannot ignore these discussions since they offer significant and real challenges to traditional Christian doctrine or at least traditional expressions of that doctrine. The question is, what form will these discussions take (I think Corcoran is a foreshadow of what is to come) and who will take the lead in addressing them.

    Like @Garver, I agree that there is both a biblical and philosophical dimension that is not entirely satisfied. I think it can be if explored. The shift from the categories and vocabulary of an ancient world to that of our quickly changing, scientific world, creates a large communication gap. And given how fast this world changes (like a car flooring it at a green light, leaving behind the station wagon behind it) this gap will only grow greater. I wonder what this will do for a theologian’s ability to communicate. Of course, it is not necessarily just a make it up as you go kind of thing, but I’m thinking more about theological expression that speaks out of contexts, much like the discussions of Christian theology as done in the Global South versus traditional North American contexts. What does it do for causing us to re-engage a topic at new angles?

    For that subject, I’ll be putting up a review of Polkinghorne’s Theology in the Context of Science soon. 🙂

  • Oh, and thanks for joining the conversation. If you want to suggest any good reads, let me know.

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