Mind and Consciousness

Charles Taliaferro

Mind and consciousness are philosophically and theologically significant in many religious and secular traditions. This article focuses on the importance of the concepts of mind and consciousness in Christian theological views of human nature and God. Christian theological teachings that have implications for ideas of mind and consciousness are diverse; theological anthropology includes versions of soul-body dualism, hylomorphism, materialism, and a variety of alternatives. Because of the historical prominence of some form of soul-body dualism in Christian thought about human nature – and because critics of Christian theology in recent philosophy link the credibility of theism with the plausibility of dualism – this article investigates the cogency of dualism and its ostensible link with theism. Sections include an overview of Christian theological anthropology; a depiction of the hostility toward mind and consciousness in modern philosophy; the combined critique and the recent resurgence of dualism and Christian theism; theological objections to dualism; and mind and consciousness in Christian theology without dualism, including Christian forms of agnosticism, hylomorphism, materialism, idealism, and panpsychism.

1 Mind and consciousness: a general introduction

In contemporary philosophy of mind, ‘mind’ is often taken to refer to a person or self or subject. The term features in claims like ‘the mind is (or is not) the brain’. What is known as ‘the problem of other minds’ is the (alleged) problem of knowing whether those around you are as they appear to be (persons, selves, subjects) or whether they are actually zombies (mindless creatures). In this vein, ‘mind’ refers to a substantial individual, while the related term ‘mental’ may refer to an aspect or property of a substantial individual, as in the claim that ‘humans have mental and physical aspects or properties’. ‘Mind’ may also refer to a person’s goals or intentions (e.g. ‘what do you have in mind?’) and it may refer to modes of awareness or activity (as in the warning ‘mind your head’ or ‘please be mindful of the needs of others’). ‘Consciousness’ typically refers to states of awareness or subjective experience, as in claims that persons are conscious, self-aware subjects who have desires, beliefs, intentions, etc. Consciousness is often defined ostensively by examples, e.g. you are conscious (rather than not being conscious) when you are aware of yourself and your surroundings. You may be conscious in dream states as when you have vivid dreams (dream experiences may involve states of awareness, desire, fears, etc.) and can consciously recollect such dreams. In contemporary thought, states of consciousness are often construed as phenomenologically evident to the subject who is conscious. It is widely held that persons (or subjects, minds, or souls) are conscious, whereas the state of consciousness is not itself conscious, just as persons engage in thinking and running, but the activities of thinking and running are not themselves thinking and running. The terms ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ are linked when someone claims that humans are (or have) minds and act with conscious, mindful intentions. The terms become religiously charged under many conditions, for example in traditions that refer to God as an all-knowing, all-powerful, good creator. Such a reference at least appears to refer to God as a supremely mindful, conscious reality.

Given this initial understanding of mind and consciousness, they seem to have profound religious and philosophical significance. In theistic religious traditions – e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, theistic Hinduism, Sikhism, some Indigenous African religions – the divine is described and addressed as a knowing, wise, powerful creator, revealed in and through the world and in human history through prophets, sages, and providential events. These traditions suggest, or at least imply, that the divine is not a mindless, non-conscious force. Rather, the divine is mindful on an extraordinary, perhaps unsurpassable level, and not lacking in consciousness. Concepts of mind and consciousness are also deeply embedded in many non-theistic religious traditions, as in monistic Hinduism and Buddhism which, in different ways, posit levels of consciousness, reincarnation, Karma, and important teachings about minds and mindfulness. Philosophically and theologically, contemporary concepts of mind and consciousness play a key role in reflections on the credibility of religious and secular views of reality, religious pluralism, religious experience, theories about human nature and animals, the philosophy of science, the theory of knowledge, value theory, and morality.

1.1 Mind and consciousness in Christianity

This article is focused on mind and consciousness in Christianity. The Christian Bible contains abundant references to God and creation that invite recognition of mind and consciousness. While the Hebrew and Greek terms in the Bible that are translated as ‘mind’ abound (e.g. ‘and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’, Mark 12:30), neither ‘mind’ nor ‘consciousness’ appear in the earliest Christian creeds (the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed). However, mind and consciousness are implied in biblical and subsequent theological claims about God’s awareness of creation. This includes God knowing the true inner desires, passions, virtues, and vices of creatures; God’s active role in human history; and the language of the creeds about God’s creation, the incarnation, redemption, the crucifixion and resurrection, and final judgment. There seems to be no substantial area of Christian thought and practice that does not have some bearing on matters of mind and consciousness. Claims about revelation concern, for example: the mindful, conscious awareness of the divine; the practice of different forms of prayer (petitionary, confessional, adoration, etc.); questions about God’s awareness and power, and the fitting states of mind of those praying; virtually all aspects of moral theology, which involves evaluations of conscious, mindful thoughts, intentions, desires, acts and omissions; and more. This article focuses on the nature of mind and consciousness as it bears on fundamental claims about human nature and God.

In two millennia of theological reflection, the terms ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ have had a complex history. There is considerable contemporary debate about that history, with terms being employed in the debate like dualism, materialism/physicalism (the two terms are usually treated synonymously), hylomorphism, panpsychism, holism, idealism, etc. This article will define such terms below, but it is important to appreciate that such terms were unknown to biblical authors and early Christian theologians. Still, a prevailing theological tendency historically has been to recognize that the God of Christianity is neither identical to nor constituted by creation; God is instead the creator and sustainer of the creation. The Christian God is traditionally thought to be incorporeal (immaterial or nonphysical), omnipresent, and not limited to some object in the created order. Orthodoxy conceives of the second person of the Trinity becoming incarnate as Jesus Christ, but this is a matter of embodiment rather than the incorporeal God becoming identical with a physical body. Moreover, the incarnate Jesus would come to be described in much of Christian theology as wholly God (totus Deus) but not the whole of God (totum Dei). Interestingly, God’s presence in the creation was articulated by some medieval philosophers through the analogy of the soul’s relation to its body; one may be wholly present in feeling a pain in one’s foot, but that foot is not the whole of you or the soul.

Some contemporary theologians believe that there are compelling biblical and theological reasons for thinking that created persons are physical (with mental aspects). There is however a strong theological tradition, historical and contemporary, which contends that while created persons are fully embodied they are not identical with their material bodies; they are or contain souls which are incorporeal or nonphysical. The book of Genesis contains the narrative of God breathing the breath of life (nephesh) into Adam who is formed from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7). This suggests a holistic anthropology, rather than body-soul dualism. However, as James Barr observes, the Hebrew terms nephesh and ruah are sometimes used to refer to an element in human nature that is distinctive and possibly separable from the material body (Barr 1992; see Isa 26:9; Ps 86:13; Job 23:31; Wis 12:7; Bar 2:17; 1 Enoch 9:3). In History of the Concept of Mind, Paul Macdonald writes that the book of Maccabees

several times explicitly demonstrates body-soul dualism in so far the immortal soul separates itself from the body in death. According to the speaker, death is the right way to immortality, the victor’s prize for virtue, at the hour of death the soul of the righteous is received by the patriarchs. (Macdonald 2019: 91–92)

It is hard to understand verses such as Eccl 12:6–7 without seeing them as conveying the idea that human persons are more than their bodies; death is described in these terms: ‘the dust [body] will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it’.

Turning to the New Testament, there are many disputes about whether some form of soul-body dualism is present. N. T. Wright (whose work is treated in section 4) argues (along with others) against soul-body dualism on both biblical and theological grounds, whereas J. W. Cooper argues for what he calls ‘holistic dualism’ in the New Testament (Cooper 1989). A case for some form of New Testament dualism involves many passages and teachings, including Jesus’ parables (e.g. the poor man dying and then being carried to the bosom of Abraham, Luke 16:19–26), Christ’s crucifixion (Matt 26:38 and 27:50), Christ’s descent into hell after death (1 Pet 4:6; Eph 4:9), and especially passages such as 2 Cor 5:1–10 which appear to support the view that when persons die there is an intermediate state in which they may be with God prior to bodily resurrection. The traditional interpretation of this passage is that it affirms such an intermediate state (e.g. Aquinas 2012; Summa Theologiae III.59.5), and such a state is difficult to conceive unless persons are more than their material bodies. Historically, many Christians have held that at the time of death, those who are redeemed immediately are in the presence of God (inspired by verses such as Phil 1:21–23; 2 Cor 5:1–10; Heb 9:27). This again suggests some form of soul-body dualism, because when such saints are in the presence of God their bodies may have been destroyed – in the case of martyrdom perhaps eaten by wild beasts or cannibals (something that created anxiety for Christian accounts of the resurrection of the body). This intermediate state is sometimes described in terms of disembodiment, but is principally referred to as being, prior to the resurrection of the body, in the presence of God (whether reembodied or disembodied) at the moment of death or, in extreme cases, the annihilation of their earthly bodies.

Other ostensibly dualist verses include 2 Cor 12:2–4 where Paul boasts that he was caught up into paradise, though he could not remember whether he was in his body or out of it, suggesting he identifies himself as a soul that can exist without a body. There are also passages which suggest that belief in some kind of soul-body dualism was an element among Jesus’ contemporaries (not just the Pharisees, who affirmed life after death). When Jesus asked his disciples what people thought about his identity, it appeared that some thought he was John the Baptist, others that he was Elijah, and others still that he was Jeremiah, or one of the prophets (Matt 16:13–14). Even Herod, who had John the Baptist executed, wondered if Jesus was John (Matt 14:20). Given that it is reasonable to assume that John the Baptist’s body could easily be located, it seems that some people thought Jesus might be John’s reembodied soul. Virtually all Christian sources that bear on theological anthropology – the New Testament, early Christian theology, and the creeds – affirm the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of humans, but these have historically been interpreted by many in accord with soul-body dualism. The incorporeal second member of the Trinity became embodied materially as Jesus of Nazareth. After death and prior to resurrection, he (as a soul) descended into hell while his body was in the tomb. As the bodily resurrected Christ he was recognizable (sometimes by his wounds) but capable of transformed powers (including ascension). Many Christians believe that Christ (as a member of the Godhead) is omnipresent (not limited to a human body) and even made present sacramentally through the Eucharist (see Taliaferro 2010). This seems to comport better with soul-body dualism than to suppose Jesus was only a corporeal, circumscribable, material body.

The resurrection of humans has been understood by many (but not all) Christians as a reuniting of soul and body, albeit a resurrected body which is imperishable and spiritual (1 Cor 15:42, 44; section 4 will consider theological objections to dualism). Some critics think soul-body dualists make the resurrection of the body unnecessary or superfluous: why should God bother with physical resurrection rather than sustain human souls in a disembodied state? Some soul-body dualists insist on the intrinsic goodness of embodiment and treat passages like 1 Corinthians 15 as a call to have reverence for our embodied life (see section 4). Nevertheless, significant Christian theologians and philosophers, historical and contemporary, maintain that there is some biblical support for dualism (see Farris 2023). The claim is rarely put in terms of proof. Paul Gundry presents the following confident portrait:

Paul along with most Jews and other early Christians habitually thought of man as a duality of two parts, corporeal and incorporeal, meant to function in unity but distinct and capable of separation [...] There is no single formula by which Paul expresses his dualist view of human nature, but terms such as ‘inner man’, ‘spirit’, ‘mind’, and ‘heart’ all refer to the incorporeal aspect or part, and terms such as ‘outer man’, ‘flesh’, ‘body’, ‘members’, and so forth all refer to the corporeal aspect or part. (Gundry 1976: 154–155)

Gundry’s thesis is not obvious to many contemporary readers, but historically some kind of soul-body dualism took hold in early Christian thought and emerged as a major force.

Soul-body dualism is hinted at in the post-Nicene creeds, as when the Council of Chalcedon referred to Jesus as having ‘a rational soul and body’. Some form of dualism that recognizes the distinct reality of the soul (or mind) and body (often referred to as substance dualism) was nurtured and developed by Clement of Alexandria, Origin of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, the Florentine Academy, Reformation theologians such as John Calvin, the Cambridge Platonists, modern philosophers such as René Descartes (who was greatly influenced by Augustine), John Locke, and Thomas Reid, and by some of the most active contemporary Christian philosophers (Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga). For a clear commitment to a soul-body distinction, consider the reformer John Calvin:

Moreover, there can be no question that man consists of a body and a soul; meaning by soul, an immaterial though created essence, which is his nobler part. Sometimes he is called a spirit. But though the two terms, while they are used together differ in their meaning, still, when spirit is used by itself it is equivalent to soul, as when Solomon speaking of death says, that the spirit returns to God who gave it (Eccl 12:7). And Christ, in commending his spirit to the Father, and Stephen his to Christ, simply mean, that when the soul is freed from the prison-body, God becomes its perpetual keeper. (Calvin 1960: 161)

Reference to the soul and body comes to be used in Christian liturgy. The Book of Common Prayer, for example, invites believers to present their souls and bodies as an oblation to God. The practice of prayerfully seeking the aid and intercession of the saints also suggests that individual persons who have died can be aware of – and act on behalf of – the living, prior to the resurrection of their bodies (such intercessions have been sought even while venerating parts of the bodies of saints as relics). For a sympathetic portrayal of such prayerful intercession, see Benedicta Ward’s account of the practice of the great philosophical theologian Anselm of Canterbury (Ward 2009).

As noted, theological anthropology that recognizes souls and bodies is often referred to as substance dualism. ‘Substance dualism’ can be a misleading term for several reasons. First, ‘dualism’ (literally, ‘two-ism’) suggests there are only two kinds of things (events or substances), whereas those classified as substance dualists have often believed there are an indefinite number. In some recent theology, ‘dualism’ is associated with a denigration of the body and material embodiment (McFague 1987), whereas many so-called substance dualists affirm the goodness of material embodiment (Taliaferro 2001). This objection will be addressed in section 4.

Critics sometimes neglect the way that many who are classified as dualists prize the integration of soul and body. Many early Christian theologians who recognized souls and bodies were adamant about the body-and-soul redemption of human beings (e.g. Justin Martyr, Athenagoras of Athens, Irenaeus; see Jurgens 1970: 63, 72, 99). The insistence on the value of the body by Irenaeus and others was often in explicit opposition to Gnosticism, which advanced a kind of hyper-dualism that valorized the soul while vilifying or denigrating the body (this sometimes involved denying that Jesus was truly incarnate or materially embodied as a human). The term ‘dualism’ was first introduced in the nineteenth century to describe Zoroastrianism, so none of the great ‘dualists’, from Plato to Augustine to Descartes, described themselves as such. While the term ‘dualism’ is a latecomer to theology and philosophy, there is evidence that some form of dualism is a natural or common-sense view of persons (Wellman 1990: 50; see also Martin 2006). What Dean Zimmerman writes about dualism and philosophical debate and philosophical scrutiny can be said about theological debate and theological scrutiny:

A serious philosophical debate about the relative merits of dualism and materialism will seem anachronistic to some. But really, it should need no defense. Dualism has arguably been the majority view for as long as we have records about such things; and perhaps, given the way our minds work, it is inevitable that we will continue to think of ourselves in dualistic ways. As the default assumption of humankind, dualism surely deserves philosophical scrutiny. (Zimmerman 2024: xiii; on the pervasiveness of dualism, he cites Paul Bloom’s Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human, 2005)

Thus, even if some theologians reject the idea that dualism is integral to biblical and subsequent Christian history, they may still wish to address what Christianity has to say to the embedded – apparently natural – human proclivity for dualism. Christian theologians may have at least two additional reasons to be interested in dualism: the critique of dualism has been paired with the critique of theism (e.g. if the idea of an incorporeal soul is incoherent then so is the idea of an incorporeal God) and, conversely, the plausibility of dualism has been used to argue for the plausibility of theism (see, for example, J. P. Moreland’s Consciousness and the Existence of God, 2008).

2 Mind and consciousness at risk in modern philosophy and why this matters to Christian theology

At the beginning of Early Modern philosophy in Britain, the seventeenth-century philosophers who would come to be known as the Cambridge Platonists were convinced that recognizing the reality of mind and consciousness was essential to Christianity. Two of the prominent figures in this movement, Ralph Cudworth (who is credited with coining the term ‘consciousness’ in English) and Henry More, contended that the denial of mind and consciousness would undermine humans’ experience of ourselves as morally and religiously responsible subjects and, ultimately, such a denial would lead to denying the reality of the God of Christianity. They held that the materialism of Thomas Hobbes would lead to atheism. Notwithstanding Hobbes’ profession of theism (albeit he held that God was corporeal) and his appeal to the authority of the Bible in his political writings, the Cambridge Platonists saw him as ushering in a mechanistic philosophy with no room for the God or soul of traditional Christianity. The Cambridge Platonists supported the emergence of modern science (More may have influenced Newton’s view of absolute space), while contributing to natural theology, defending a non-materialist view of mind and consciousness, moral realism (belief in eternal truths about what is good and right), human free will (Cudworth developed the first detailed account of libertarian freedom in English), and the authenticity of the Bible as divine revelation. In retrospect, perhaps the most prominent debate in Early Modern philosophy was the conflict between Hobbesian materialism and the apparent allure of atheism on the one hand and, on the other, the affirmation of God and theism (Cudworth coined the term ‘theism’ in English) by the Cambridge Platonists and Descartes (More promoted the work of Descartes, though More in his correspondence with Descartes defended a more integrated form of substance dualism, as noted in section 4).

The Cambridge Platonist movement and its allies (mostly Cartesians), were influential and (to an extent) successful on many fronts. Leading Early Modern philosophers resisted Hobbesian materialism and atheism. The twentieth-century materialist U. T. Place aptly summarizes the early modern intellectual climate:

Since the debate between Hobbes and Descartes ended in apparent victory for the latter, it was taken more or less for granted that whatever answer to the mind-body problem is true, materialism must be false. (Place 2002: 36)

However, the tide changed in the mid-twentieth century towards materialism and the rejection of theism. Some modest forms of materialism (sometimes called non-reductive materialism) will be discussed later in this article, but here it is sufficient to note the radical form of materialism that sought to eliminate the mental (mind and consciousness) altogether. Among the philosophers who proposed such a radical move that would also eliminate theism as a live option are Paul and Patricia Churchland, Daniel Dennett, Richard Rorty, Stephen Stitch, and Alex Rosenberg. The two-pronged attack on the mental and theism is evident in the title of Rosenberg’s book advancing eliminativism, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (2011).

The contemporary discussion of mind and consciousness, partly influenced by philosophers, is ably described by the prominent naturalist philosopher Jaegwon Kim. In this passage, Kim recognizes that while consciousness may seem central to our everyday self-understanding, many philosophers and scientists find it (as well as mind) problematic:

For most of us, there is no need to belabor the centrality of consciousness to our conception of ourselves as creatures with minds. But I want to point to the ambivalent, almost paradoxical, attitude that philosophers have displayed toward consciousness […] Consciousness has been virtually banished from the philosophical and scientific scene for much of the last century [twentieth century], and consciousness-bashing still goes on in some quarters, with some reputable philosophers arguing that phenomenal consciousness [what seems to appear to us in experience], or ‘qualia’, [technical term for ostensible appearing] is a fiction of bad philosophy. And there are philosophers […] who, while they recognize phenomenal consciousness as something real do not believe that a complete science of human behavior, including cognitive psychology and neuroscience, has a place for consciousness in an explanatory/predictive theory of cognition and behavior. (Kim 2005: 10–11)

While Kim himself did not think mind and consciousness should be jettisoned from a rigorous view of reality, he attributed only a marginal role to mental life and none to theism. Some of the drive against mind and consciousness was fuelled by modern science.

2.1 Modern science and a mind-independent cosmos

A principal reason why mind and consciousness came under suspicion in Western thought is that Early Modern science bracketed mind and consciousness in its investigation of the cosmos. It was not that Early Modern scientists themselves (Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton) doubted the reality of mind and consciousness, but they sought an account of the world without recourse to the mental. Isaac Newton’s laws of motion make no reference to desire, reason, or passion. His laws pertain to mindless material bodies and their persistence of motion, mass, acceleration, etc., but are silent in terms of explaining or describing the motion of human bodies, for example, and their attraction, persistence, and love stories. The exclusive focus of Early Modern science did not threaten teleological personal accounts of reality, until a proposal gradually emerged to explain all of nature – including human and nonhuman animal life – in terms of mechanistic, non-teleological forces. After all, modern science has been massively successful, both in terms of technology and in terms of the description and explanation of the cosmos. The natural (or physical) sciences have achieved an unprecedented prestige, leading some to ask: why not use the physical sciences to form a foundation for a theory of everything? Why not appeal to the same laws of nature and use the same scientific methods to investigate radiation, photosynthesis, and continental drift as we use to explain human life and thought? The Australian materialist J. J. C. Smart expressed his exasperation that consciousness might be excluded from the domain of scientific accountability:

It seems to me that science is increasingly giving us a viewpoint whereby organisms are able to be seen as psychochemical mechanisms […] There does seem to be, so far as science is concerned, nothing in the world but increasingly complex arrangements of physical constituents. All except for one place: in consciousness […] I just cannot believe that this can be so. That everything should be explicable in terms of physics […] ‘unbelievable’. (Smart 1959: 141–156)

Mind and consciousness were pivotal in the emergence of the social sciences in the modern era. However, each of the domains of the social sciences – psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, political science – has been subject to a materialistic trajectory that downplays the role of mind and consciousness as subjective realities. Perhaps the most obvious is the case of psychology. While early psychology aspired to be rigorously materialist, as seen in the early work of Sigmund Freud, Freud himself reluctantly gave enormous recourse to explanations in terms of desires, reasons, dreams, etc., without any theory about how such mental phenomena might be identical or reducible to brain states. This recalcitrant account of mind and consciousness would become deeply suspect with the emergence of behaviourism, when psychology would become viewed not as a science of the mind but a science of behaviour. In this framework, subjective experience and introspection (desires, reasons, dreams) was replaced with analyses of current and dispositional bodily behaviour, including language. Gilbert Ryle was reluctant to self-identify as a materialist or behaviourist (as he was reluctant to embrace any ‘ism’). Yet he was highly influential in supplanting references to mental, subjective experience (that might be directly known as occurrent subjective states), and replacing this with observable, public behaviour, including dispositions to such behaviour, and speech. In his classic work, The Concept of Mind (2002), there is great confidence about the workings of bodily processes, but little patience for mental processes that might be known directly in subjective experience, as depicted by Descartes (see Lewis 1969 for a close analysis of Ryle). Ryle depicted the mind-body dualism of Cartesians as positing a ghost in a machine. Subsequent philosophers who sought an exorcism of this ghost would go on (perhaps beyond Ryle himself) to eliminate the mental from their final vision of reality; they would become known as eliminativists.

History and political science – which in practice made ample use of mental and subjective language (in the spirit of Collingwood, historians might seek to put themselves in the minds of their subjects) – came to be more impersonal in their subject and methods, preferring (for Marxists) to focus on categories such as the proletariat and bourgeoise rather than individual subjects. Perhaps the most radical eliminativist approach to history and the study of politics is Alex Rosenberg’s How History Gets Things Wrong (2018). Rosenberg contends that our ordinary recourse to explanations in terms of conscious mindful purposes is illusory. He gives as an example the 1815 Congress of Vienna. He writes that the participants appeared to have purposes (establishing a stable Europe after the defeat of Napoleon after the Battle of Waterloo), but these were illusory:

[The Congress] had no purpose and neither did the machinations of any of its participants. In fact, none of them – not Metternich, not Talleyrand, not Castlereagh and not Tsar Alexander – came to the Congress with any purpose. There weren’t and indeed aren’t any purposes […however there] is the appearance of purpose. (Rosenberg 2018: 231)

Rosenberg contends that conscious thoughts are not foundational in accounting for behaviour:

Our conscious thoughts are very crude indicators of what is going on in our brain. We fool ourselves into treating these conscious markers as thoughts about what we want and about how to achieve it, about plans and purposes. We are even tricked into thinking they bring about behavior. We are mistaken about all these things [...] You cannot treat the interpretation of behavior in terms of purposes and meaning as conveying real understanding [...] What individuals do, alone or together, over a moment or a month or a lifetime, is really just the product of the process of blind variation and environmental filtration operating on neural circuits in their heads. (Rosenberg 2011: 210–255)

Turning back to Rosenberg’s analysis of the Congress, he writes about Talleyrand’s

firings in his hippocampus [...] sending sharp wave ripples out across his neocortex, where they stimulated one neural circuit after another, until combined with firings from the pre-frontal cortex and ventral striatum, and doubtless a half dozen or more regions of Talleyard’s brain, causing his throat, tongue, and lips to move and him to speak. No narrative to report here – just one damn electrochemical process after another. (Rosenberg 2018: 160)

From Rosenberg’s perspective, descriptions and explanations in terms of mind and consciousness are illusory.

The impact of this for theology is enormous. Traditional Christian theology views creation as suffused with purposive intentional beings made in the image of God. Through their acts and omissions they can bring about good and evil – for which they deserve praise or blame – and seek after the loving and just God for forgiveness and justice. From the perspective of Rosenberg, this is all illusory.

2.2 The revolt against dualist views of mind and consciousness

While Rosenberg and other eliminativists assaulted any phenomena outside of the domain of the physical sciences, they also joined other philosophers in four lines of reasoning that target substance dualism specifically and its ally theism. These focused on the problem of causal interaction, the problem of individuation, the violation of ordinary language and common sense, and Ockham’s razor. Each is sketched briefly below, as the objections are quite widely known.

The problem of causal interaction is perhaps the best-known Achilles’ heel of substance dualism. It is commonly supposed that dualists conceive of mind and consciousness as not spatially extended: how can it be that something nonspatial can causally effect that which is spatial? Historically, dualists have not identified a scientifically-defensible mechanism linking mind and body. A similar plight hangs over Christian theism: how can a nonspatial, incorporeal being causally interact with a material, spatially-extended cosmos? One can add to this problems arising from the scientific principle of the conservation of energy and the physical causal closure principle. On the first, causation requires the transfer of energy. Positing the soul or God with the energy necessary for causal energy seems on the surface to be incoherent. On the second, many scientists assume that causal events must have physical causes. Again, souls and God seem to be anti-scientific, lacking necessary qualities to count as explanations of events in the world.

The problem of individuation arises because humans know how to identify and individuate physical objects and events but are at a loss when it comes to nonphysical events. Consider two identical twin persons, Tweedledee and Tweedledum (two of Lewis Carroll’s imaginary characters). No matter how hard it is to tell them apart, we can know there are two of them in virtue of their spatial distance from one another. However, imagine two nonphysical souls that are distinct but resemble each other in every way: what would distinguish the souls of Tweedledee and Tweedledum? Why would one soul causally effect one body and not the other? Also, it has been argued against theism that all human language of persons is grounded in our bodily identities. And yet our idea of an incorporeal God, without a bodily identity, seems incoherent. Anthony Kenny writes:

It is perhaps barely possible to conceive of a disembodied spirit which is individuated not by having a body but by having an individual locus or viewpoint on the world. By this I mean that we imagine it as possessing information which, in the case of a normal embodied mind, would be available only from a particular point in space and time. This limited viewpoint would mark off an individual of this kind from other possible such disembodied entities. The viewpoint would thus find expression in the content of the thoughts entertained by such a being. The being could be tracked, one might say, as an information centre. Such a being would be something like a poltergeist or a tinkerbell. The intelligibility of the notion of pure spirit along this route seems to be in direct proportion to its triviality.

Even if such a spirit is conceivable it will not help us in giving content to the notion of a God who is a non-embodied mind. For it was precisely the limitations in space and time that we imagined for such a being which made it possible to individuate it without a body. That is of no assistance towards conceiving of a personal God who is immaterial, ubiquitous and eternal. It is not just that we cannot know what thoughts are God’s thoughts, but that there does not seem to be anything which would count as ascribing a thought to God in the way that we can ascribe thoughts to individual human thinkers. (Kenny 2004: 79)

A third objection to dualism that impacts theism is related to the above objection: both seem to violate ordinary language and common sense. Arguably, dualism entails that you do not directly see and hear those around you. Instead, it seems that you are seeing and hearing their bodies and only inferring that they have souls which are controlling their bodies and are causally impacted by what happens to their bodies. Souls seem like ghosts inhabiting bodies. Just as this seems superstitious, according to our experience, it seems nonsense to posit a divine ghost inhabiting our cosmos.

The fourth violation is the problem of Ockham’s razor: if souls are not needed to describe and explain human behaviour, why posit them? The same applies to God.

Section 3.2 considers the way these four objections have been treated and why both dualism and theism have undergone a recent resurgence. Sections 3 and 3.1 consider why mind and consciousness have been revived.

3 The revival of mind and consciousness

Eliminitivism of mind and consciousness has come to be seen by many as threatening to undermine the very practice of science and philosophy, let alone what we appear to recognize in our experience of ourselves and others. For example, if consciousness and mind are such poor indicators of what is really going on in an exchange of ideas, why should we give any evidential weight to what we and others report about our conscious thoughts? In section 2, Jaegwon Kim was cited in providing an overview of the contentious climate in which mind and consciousness are unwelcome; yet in the following passage from the same book cited earlier, Kim writes about why many philosophers resist eliminativism:

Contrast this lowly status of consciousness in science and metaphysics with its lofty standing in moral philosophy and value theory. When philosophers discuss the nature of the intrinsic good, or what is worthy of our desire and volition for its own sake, the most prominently mentioned candidates are things like pleasure, absence of pain, enjoyment, and happiness […] To most of us, a fulfilling life, a life worth living, is one that is rich and full in qualitative consciousness. We would regard life as impoverished and not fully satisfying if it never included experiences of things like the smell of the sea in a cool morning breeze, the lambent play of sunlight on brilliant autumn foliage, the fragrance of a field of lavender in bloom, and the vibrant, layered soundscape projected by a string quartet […] It is an ironic fact that the felt qualities of conscious experience, perhaps the only things that ultimately matters to us, are often relegated in the rest of philosophy to the status of ‘secondary qualities’, in the shadowy zone between the real and the unreal, or even jettisoned outright as artifacts of confused minds. (Kim 2005: 10–12)

However, the project to marginalize or eliminate mind and consciousness has itself become suspect.

An essay that did not advance substance dualism, but was highly influential in diminishing the drive for eliminativism, and for accounts of mind and consciousness that identified them with bodily states, was Thomas Nagel’s ‘What is it Like to be a Bat?’ (1974; see also T. L. S. Sprigge’s The Importance of Subjectivity, 2011). Nagel contended that there is some subjective experiential state of being a bat, but that this was not accessible to (or discernible by) a study of a bat’s body, its parts, or behaviour. Such a claim became a part of increasingly dualist-friendly thought experiments. In The Conscious Mind (1996), David Chalmers observed:

[…] consciousness is a surprising feature of the universe. Our grounds for belief in consciousness derive solely from our own experience of it. Even if we knew every last detail about the physics of the universe – the configuration, causation, and evolution among all the fields and particles in the spatiotemporal manifold – that information would not lead us to postulate the existence of conscious experience. My knowledge of consciousness, in the first instance, comes from my own case, not from any external information. It is my first-person experience that forces the problem on me. (Chalmers 1996: 101–102)

In 2007, John Searle offered the following overview of a seismic shift in philosophy of mind:

When I first started working in this area, the mainstream views were versions of ‘materialism’, usually ‘reductionist’, but sometimes ‘eliminativist’. The idea was that a scientific account of consciousness would have to reduce it to something else, such as computation, or would eliminate it by showing that it does not really exist but is some kind of illusion. The idea of the materialists, to put it crudely, was that if consciousness really exists it must really be something else, because if it is not something else it cannot really exist […] Dualism, though widely held by the general public was not taken seriously by most scientists and philosophers […] I think that in the past couple of decades the weaknesses of reductionism and eliminativism have become apparent to most people who work in the field. However, an odd thing has happened: dualism has gradually come to seem intellectually respectable again. (Searle 2007: 116)

This portrait of the shift in the intellectual climate is telling, as Searle is not a dualist.

3.1 The revolt against eliminativism: the indispensability of mind and consciousness in science, philosophy, and experience

Perhaps the single most important factor that accounts for the revival of mind and consciousness is an appreciation of their apparent indispensability in all human experience, including our experience of practising science and philosophy. Arguably, science is inconceivable without scientists who purposively and consciously make observations, test theories, compare evidence, etc. The study of the brain (the hippocampus, wave ripples, neural circuits, the prefrontal cortex and striaturn, Rosenberg references, etc.), is unimaginable (let alone not trustworthy) unless we can trust the reliability of our conscious, mindful, purposive scientific research. To many, Rosenberg’s position itself seems unintelligible: is it possible to explain Rosenberg’s writing, speech, and arguments against the reality of conscious, mindful purposes without recognizing that his writing, speech, and arguments were causally brought about by his conscious, mindful purposes? It has been argued that Rosenberg and other eliminativists are in the self-refuting position of someone who claims to believe there are no beliefs (Baker 2017). So, how has this suspicion of eliminativism fed the return of dualism and theism?

3.2 The revival of dualism and theism

The revival of dualism has been substantial. A partial list of substance dualists includes C. Stephen Evans, Joshua Farris, Stewart Goetz, William Hasker, Robert Koons, H. D. Lewis, E. J. Lowe, David Lund, J. P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, Alexander Pruss, Brandon Rickabaugh, Howard Robinson, Richard Swinburne, Charles Taliaferro, Peter Unger, and Dean Zimmerman. Most of them are theists; one exception is Peter Unger who is an atheist.

This section will consider some replies to the four objections to dualism and theism noted in section 2.2. The first objection about causation seems the most important, and merits the longest consideration as it can bring to light the new stress on the explanatory role of the mental (mind and consciousness).

3.2.1 Causal Interaction

There is a substantial rejoinder to consider about our understanding of causation itself, plus some minor observations first. The principle of the conservation of energy is applicable to closed causal systems, and it is not clear that either a living, embodied human, or the cosmos as a whole, are closed systems. Robin Collins argues that the principle is false in general relativity, and not all causal interaction involves the transfer of energy (Collins 2011). Anticipating a point raised about individuation, the supposed problem of linking souls that are radically similar to different bodies seems no less puzzling than causation at the quantum level where interaction is indeterminate. Moreover, the alleged problem is phrased in terms of souls lacking spatial extension, whereas some dualists (such as the Cambridge Platonists) hold that souls are spatially extended, albeit not in physical space. As for the causal closure of the physical world, if that excludes psychological properties (believing, thinking, reasoning, experiencing) then it leaves only the eliminativism of Rosenberg and others which seems to lead to intolerable results.

Be that as it may, there is a more fundamental issue to consider. Some of the objections to substance dualism rest on the assumption that we have a problem-free concept of the physical world and its causal relationships, quite independent of mind and consciousness. However, the gist of some recent work in philosophy has been to question such an assumption. As pointed out earlier, one cannot practise science without scientists – conscious persons whose mental life (observing, reasoning, theorizing, testing) is the essential component of science. The so-called third-person or impersonal scientific worldview would not be possible without a host of reliable, interconnected, trustworthy first-person perspectives. Arguably, it is our command and trust of mental causation (the mental processes of when we reason from one idea to another) that enables us to grasp any physical to physical causation. We can form no concept of the Earth’s rotation, of radiation, or of photosynthesis without having the concepts of planets, rotation, gravity, atomic theory, plant biology, and more. A host of mental processes are required to claim that A causes B or that there is a law that all events like A cause or explain events like B, or that there is a conditional that if A, then B. Returning to Newton’s laws, even precepts about mass, motion, reaction, etc. presuppose the concepts of mass, motion, etc. As an initial response to materialists, who claim we have only a tangential grasp of mental causation vis-a-vis mind-independent physical causation, it may be argued that the shoe is on the other foot (Taliaferro 2018). Moreover, it may also be argued that the supposed progress of explaining that the mental is actually physical is, itself, chimerical.

Some materialists have claimed that we have discovered the following: sound is just a train of compression waves traveling through the air; light is just electromagnetic waves; colour is just a triplet of reflectance efficiencies of the object; warmth is identical with mean kinetic energy. Yet none of these claims are true if ‘sound’, ‘light’, ‘colour’, and ‘warmth’ refer to the subjective experiences involved – what persons hear (an auditory experience), see (a visual sensation), and feel (a tactile sensation). For example, compression waves are the causal factors that stimulate a person’s inner ear, causing electrical signals that stimulate parts of the brain, that eventuate in a subject having an auditory experience. The auditory sensation is itself not observable in the subject’s brain; we only infer what persons hear based on their reports and their behaviour (a person screams that she hears a charging bull and seeks an escape).

It has been objected that the apparent distinctness of the mental and physical may be an illusion. One might think that the following two sets of things are distinct – Muhammad Ali and Cassius Clay, and aspirin and acetylsalicylic acid – yet there is only one subject and one substance. Note that these pairs are easily seen as one: in the first case there are two different names for the same boxer. In the latter, there is the relationship of composition. Yet one does not see this in the case of mental-physical pairing: no matter how much a person observes their own pain, they do not see their brain fibres. Feeling pain is not a concept, nor a feeling of a concept; feeling pain is an actual feeling. We can use different words for the pain, or descriptive phrases (I feel a throbbing pain), and ascribe different sources for the pain (a knife wound or a hurtful betrayal), but this is not analogous to the examples of a boxer and a pain-relieving pill.

Daniel Dennett has claimed that it is illusory to think that our feelings, such as pain, have an intrinsic, felt quality, analogous to the way some people come to think that money has intrinsic value (Dennett 2005: 178). However, as in the case of the boxer and the pill, the analogy is incorrect. Presumably, few adults ever think that the money in their hands has an intrinsic worth (its worth is a function of markets, contracts, conventions of recognition and exchange, etc.), whereas the intrinsic nature of pain is virtually ubiquitous and not the outcome of theory and social agreements (even if social conventions may compel persons to suppress their crying or pain-avoidance behaviour).

What is found in neuroscience is a correlation between the mental and the physical, but correlation is not the same thing as identity. It is plausible to claim that persons think with their brains, but this is not the same thing as claiming that one’s brain is thinking. As Roderick Chisholm points out:

Many have assumed – quite obviously incorrectly – that from the fact that one thinks by means of the brain, it follows logically that it is the brain that thinks. We walk by means of our feet, but our feet do not walk in the sense we do (if they did, then they would have feet). (Chisholm 1991: 544, original emphasis)

The important point at issue is that we are immediately aware of our thinking and reflecting and only indirectly aware of our brains and different bodily processes (Rosenberg 2004: 3–4).

Some might ask whether there is a problem in holding that mental-physical interaction is not explained by some mechanism (perhaps a half mental, half physical animal spirit). Yet it is hard to see why, other than by begging the question and ruling out a priori such causal interaction. Arguably, mental-physical interaction is the most commonly evident fact in all our activities. In an important essay, ‘Understanding Interaction: What Descartes Should Have Told Elizabeth’ (2013), Daniel Garber writes about the evident nature of such interaction as the most evident case of causation:

Mind-body interaction is the paradigm for all causal interaction, it is that in terms of which all other causal interaction must be understood [...] Mind-body interaction must be basic and intelligible on its own terms since if it were not, then no other kind of causal explanation would be intelligible at all; to challenge the intelligibility of mind-body interaction is to challenge the entire enterprise of causal explanation. Furthermore, we cannot give a simpler or more easily understood account of causal interaction than mind-body interaction because there are no more basic or more inherently intelligible ways of explaining the behavior of anything open to us. (Garber 2013: 50–51, emphasis added)

If the above is correct, mind-body interaction is the least mysterious form of causation available.

3.2.2 Individuation

Dualists have tended to argue that the individuating of physical objects depends upon, or presupposes, a deeper first-person self-awareness. If you are watching two identical individuals playing a game of tennis, you need to be certain that you, as the viewer, are the same person who saw the beginning of the match as the one who saw its end. In a phrase: individuation begins with first-person awareness. This includes identifying your body. Each person discovers (and sometimes, after injury, needs to rediscover) the scope, powers, and liabilities of our bodies. We do not individuate our thoughts by individuating our body and its parts. In fact, a dualist concept of the soul-body relationship was used by some medieval Christians to portray God’s relationship to creation. Just as you may experience yourself throughout the whole of your body (at the same time sensing the location of your legs and feeling your face getting cold), God may be omnipresent throughout all creation by knowing all places in the creation, sustaining all such places and things in being, and being able to communicate with any number of creatures at the same time. Neither we, nor God, need to be thought of as a poltergeist. It is possible that the soul (or, for a materialist, the brain) would be a kind of centre, but it is not obvious that such a centre would have to be a limited, finite object.

3.2.3 Ordinary language and common sense

There have been at least two replies to philosophers who contend that substance dualism violates ordinary language and common sense.

First, in severe cases, especially in the case of brain injuries, there can be a coming-apart of persons and bodies. Sometimes, a person might actually appear to be a ghost in a machine or come to experience their body as a container. Some have objected to substance dualism on the grounds that they do not want inferred friends, and substance dualism appears to make our access to one another indirect, by inference. Yet, sadly, sometimes someone may only appear to be a friend and their behaviour and expressions compel one to be puzzled over whether an ostensible friend is actually a friend. Therefore the first reply is that there are cases when persons may actually suffer from bifurcation or dysfunction, and not form an integrated unity (Taliaferro 2001).

A second rejoinder has been to appeal to the many philosophers and psychologists who now acknowledge that our ordinary language and common sense is in keeping with substance dualism. Kim, who is no dualist, observes:

We commonly think that we, as persons, have a mental and bodily dimension [...] Something like this dualism of personhood, I believe, is common lore shared across most cultures and religious traditions. (Kim 2001: 30)

The materialist philosopher David Papineau concedes the enormous, intuitive appeal of dualism:

Indeed, I would say that there is a sense in which even professional philosophical physicalists, including myself, cannot fully free themselves from this intuition of distinctness. Of course, we deny dualism in our writings, and take the theoretical against it to be compelling, but when we aren’t concentrating, we slip back into thinking of conscious feeling as something extra to the brain. (Papineau 2008: 57)

Arguably, the distinctness of mind (persons, souls, or consciousness) has a long history, as it has probably played a role in human approaches to death. Burial practices in many cultures seem to support the idea that the death of the body is not equivalent to the absolute (irreversible) annihilation of the person. After examining such practices, Raymond Martin and John Barresi propose that some form of substance dualism ‘did not even begin with the Greeks or Hebrews, or even the Egyptians. Rather, it began much earlier, perhaps with the Neanderthals’ (Martin 2006: 290). There are now many studies about how substance dualism is in keeping with common sense and ordinary language. Henry Wellman, for example, has argued that even young children find some form of substance dualism natural: ‘Young children are dualists: knowledge of mental states and entities as ontologically different from physical objects and real events’ (1990: 50). What might be called the naturalness of substance dualism undermines the charge that it violates common sense and ordinary language. It has been argued that in healthy cases of embodiment, the person and body function as a united, integrated whole (Taliaferro 2001).

3.2.4 Ockham’s razor

Most theological or philosophical dualists from Augustine onward maintain that we are directly aware of ourselves in an unmediated fashion. The soul, on this account, is not a theoretical posit that might prove to be expendable (contrary to eliminativism).

As for theism and Ockham’s razor, there is not space in this article to review and assess all the arguments from natural theology and religious experience, and to critique the many nontheistic alternatives. A brief historical note is offered on the combination of dualism and theism.

Given limitations of space, it suffices to note that the revival of dualism in the late twentieth century coincided with the revival of theism. To highlight one distinguished exemplary philosopher whose work deserves attention, given his relevance to Christian theology: H. D. Lewis (1910–1992), author of twenty books, editor of the Muirhead Library of Philosophy for thirty years, founder of the prestigious journal Religious Studies and its editor from 1964–1979. Lewis authored books defending dualism (such as The Elusive Mind, 1969) and theism (Our Experience of God, 1959). While aware that the truth of dualism did not entail the truth of theism (and vice versa), he held that the plausibility of dualism removed some telling objections to theism. It also made theism more plausible for providing a broader philosophical framework to account for our souls and bodies and the contingent cosmos as a whole. One of his books that addresses some of the main themes of this article is The Self and Immortality (1973).

4 Theological objections to dualism

In this section, the focus is on the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. This is partly because of his prominence and influence on contemporary Christian theology. Wright rejects soul-body dualism on a number of grounds, principally for the reason that dualism is at odds with the biblical view of death and resurrection, and the goodness of the earth and our bodies. He is not the first to muster the objection that dualism is contrary to biblical theology. The French Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullman (1902–1999) associated dualism with Greek thought that was foreign to Christianity:

There is a radical difference between the Christian expectation of the resurrection of the dead and the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul [...] Although Christianity later established a link between these two beliefs, and today the average Christian confuses them completely, I see no reason to hide what I and the majority of scholars consider to be the truth [...] The life and thought of the New Testament are entirely dominated by faith in the resurrection [...] The whole man, who is really dead, is brought back to life by a new creative act of God. (Cullman 1965: 57)

Section 5 will address many other Christian thinkers who reject dualism (some favouring what is now called Christian materialism), but here Wright is the central figure. The plentiful citations in what follows ensure that Wright is presented in his own voice, rather than making use of paraphrasing. (All citations are from Wright 2011 [no pagination].)

Wright offers a general critical judgment when it comes to methodology. He describes what he thinks should be the primary role of Christian anthropology:

I believe therefore that a Christian anthropology must necessarily ask, not, what are human beings in themselves, but, what are human beings called to do and be as part of the creator’s design? Not to ask the question that way round, and to think simply about ourselves and what we are, risks embodying, at a methodological level, Luther’s definition of sin: homo incurvatus in se.

Wright contends that a widespread Christian error is to suppose that our role on earth is to escape death to get to heaven, a realm that is disembodied and (literally) otherworldly.

The western tradition, catholic and protestant, evangelical and liberal, charismatic and social-gospel, has managed for many centuries to screen out the central message of the New Testament, which isn’t that we are to escape the world and go to heaven, but rather that God’s sovereign, saving rule would come to birth ‘on earth as in heaven’. The story of all four gospels is not the story of how God came in Jesus to rescue souls for a disembodied, other-worldly heaven. It is the story of how God, in Jesus, became king on earth as in heaven. Ultimately, any would-be Christian view which doesn’t serve that central vision is, in my view, either folly or idolatry, or possibly both.

These are serious charges to be considered below. Wright laments theological concern for causation and God’s intervention in earthly events. He aligns positing a soul with positing a god-of-the-gaps methodology.

This has conditioned, for instance, debates about causation: does a putative God ‘intervene’ in the world or doesn’t he, and does a putative soul cause events in the body or doesn’t it? It is, basically, the same question: and just as I believe that we are wrong to look for a god-of-the-gaps, hiding somewhere in the unexplored reaches of quantum physics like a rare mammal lurking deep in the unexplored Amazon jungle, so I believe we are wrong to look for a soul-of-the-gaps, hiding in the bits that neuroscience hasn’t yet managed to explain. What Descartes and others tried to do to the person, then, has the same shape to what Enlightenment Epicureanism did to the world; and I regard both as highly dubious projects.

Wright proposes that soul-body dualism is foreign to ancient Jewish religion, and has led to supposing that evil is an ontological power in itself.

The radical rejection by most ancient Jews, in particular, of what we find in Plato and in much oriental religion, and the radical embrace of space, time and matter as the good gifts of a good creator God, the place where this God is known and the means by which he is to be worshipped – all this remains foundational, and is firmly restated and underlined in the New Testament. Creational, providential and covenantal monotheism simply leave no room for those four dualisms in the middle. In particular, I argued that such dualisms tend to ontologize evil itself, whereas in first-century Judaism evil is not an essential part of the creation, but is the result of a radical distortion within a basically good created order.

Wright contends that ‘dualism’ is an awkward, overly-simple term to identify the New Testament view of human persons.

It simply won’t do to demonstrate that the NT shows awareness of aspects of human life which appear to be non-material and to conclude from that that some kind of ‘dualism’ is therefore envisaged, or the ‘soul’ thereby proved. In particular, as I shall shortly show, it seems to be almost ridiculously arbitrary to lump together such things as soul, mind, consciousness, sensation as though they are all part of the same second, nonphysical reality. Why ‘dualism’? Why not five, ten, twenty different ‘parts’? And – a key question – is ‘parts’ really the right image in the first place?

Wright contends that soul-body dualism tends to degrade the body and leads to dangerous results when reflecting on human dignity in medical ethics.

One fourth and final question or challenge to the popular dualistic paradigm. To begin with, however much we may deny it, an anthropological dualism tends to devalue or downgrade the body. We see this in ethics. Yes, much discussion of things like embryo research, not least in Roman Catholic circles, has concentrated on the question of whether the embryo possesses a soul. But I regard this as the wrong tactic. The important thing is that it is already a body, a human body, and as such possesses dignity and worth. To imply that dignity and worth will only come about if we can postulate a soul is a dangerous hostage to fortune, and falls back into that soul-of-the-gaps problem I mentioned earlier (original emphasis).

Below are some replies to Wright’s claims about Christian soul-body dualism, in the order they were introduced above. These are counterpoints to be considered, not definitive replies.

On methodology: have those who practice theological anthropology committed a sin by giving primacy to questioning who and what we are, rather than asking first who and what we are as part of God’s design? As Wright does not identify specific theologians he has in mind, it is not easy to weigh his serious charge of sin. Prominent Christian dualists like St Augustine and the Cambridge Platonists seem to be equally concerned with questions about ourselves and God’s provident will. Indeed, they appear to believe that self-reflection leads to theism, and that inquiry and godly practices (seeking justice, acts of compassion) go together. Wright’s citation of Luther is interesting, as significant Lutheran theologians have wished Luther had more introspective reflection, exercising more critical self-awareness of his biases (given his infamous antisemitism).

On Wright’s initial characterization of the folly or idolatrous nature of Western Christian theology: Wright is painting with a broad brush, and it would be a difficult to canvas this alleged sin of vast numbers of Christian dualists. Even so, the charge of large numbers of Christians being guilty of folly or idolatry is not lighthearted. Three brief points are worth keeping in mind in further reflection.

First, heaven and hell have often (but not always) been imagined by Christians as involving some kind of embodiment (for example, in Dante’s The Divine Comedy).

Second, it is rare to find Christian concepts of the afterlife which are not profoundly connected to life on earth, so that heaven is not entirely remote from earthly life. Many Christians believe earthly life definitively determines the nature of the afterlife. Even Christian universalists (who believe that salvation may or will ultimately occur after death) take seriously the seismic importance of one’s earthly life.

Third, ‘escaping death’ might sound peculiar or cowardly, but it seems difficult to ascribe folly or idolatry to parents praying that a beloved child dying from bone cancer finds herself immediately in God’s presence after she dies. Does wisdom and piety require them only to pray that their child is resurrected at the eschaton (perhaps not occurring for billions of years)? It may well be that loving parents even hope that materialism is false and that their child’s soul will be Coram Deo (in the presence of God); see Taliaferro 1990 for reflections on the implications of belief in a loving God and the belief and desire for life after death.

There is also the issue Wright raises of theological concern with causation, God’s intervention, and his proposal that positing a soul is akin to positing a god of the gaps. Perhaps Wright is correct, but this article has highlighted the cost of eliminativism and the theological importance of mind and consciousness in virtually all areas of theology. If psychological (mental/mindful/conscious) factors are irrelevant in explaining the causes of human behaviour, then it appears that all talk of sin, divine covenants, etc. are groundless. God’s intervention in the world seems pivotal to most Christian accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and positing the soul is not like positing a god of the gaps. The most famous Christian dualists of the past (St Augustine and Descartes) and present (like Richard Swinburne and those cited earlier) contend that the soul is directly experienced. You are self-aware, immediately aware of being a substantial individual self (or soul); further arguments from Augustine and others provide reason for thinking you are not identical with your body (for a helpful corrective on the assumption that we lack self-awareness, see ‘The Direct Awareness of the Self’ in Chisholm 1979). A ‘god of the gaps’ outlook is typically faulted because it posits a divine cause only when there is a gap in the explanation of some naturalist account of events. From a dualist perspective like Augustine’s, the reality of the self or soul is a fundamental datum, known from a first-person perspective, and not a hypothesis to account for some explanatory gap.

Wright’s claim about ancient Judaism is plausible, but needs to be weighed in terms of the emerging concept of the soul historically (see section 1.2). If dualism is a common-sense view of human nature, there is no essential link between biblical hints of dualism and Greek influence. Wright may be correct about dualists giving too much power to evil, but it is interesting that the most famous Christian dualist in all Christian theological history, St Augustine, did the exact opposite. He defended the notion of evil being the deprivation of the good.

Wright contends that ‘dualism’ is an awkward, overly-simple term used to identify the New Testament view(s) of human persons. Many of those classified as Christian dualists would agree. In assessing Wright’s charge, the earlier observations in section 1.2 about the drawbacks of the term ‘dualism’ are relevant.

Wright also argues that dualism tends to degrade the body and leads to dangerous results about reflecting on human dignity in medical ethics. There are certainly many Christian dualists historically and presently who do not degrade the body (Taliaferro 2005: ch. 1). A full assessment of Wright’s claim may need to assess how different accounts of human nature have tended to make such degradations: have dualists been worse than, e.g., materialists? Such an inquiry goes beyond the scope of this article. On medical ethics, it may be difficult to address issues like when a foetus should be considered a person, or when a person dies, without going beyond materialism or observing human anatomy and behaviour. When taking into account the presence or absence of mind or consciousness, one almost has to entertain some even modest from of dualism (e.g. perhaps humans lack souls but they have mental aspects, properties, or states that are not observable by third parties). The criterion of death is often the irreversible loss of consciousness; assessment of the plausibility of this criterion inevitably involves philosophy of mind, something that goes beyond an affirmation of the dignity of the human body.

As an overall observation, Wright’s appeal to the Bible in his case against dualism (as well as John Cooper’s biblical case in favour of dualism, cited earlier) may have to take into account a theology of biblical authority. Even if the Bible insists that earthly physical resurrection is the only route to an afterlife of persons (no intermediate state), this is not guaranteed to be a definitive core contemporary Christian belief. Some biblical expectations (such as an expectation in the imminent return of Jesus) and beliefs (biblical passages that appear to condemn homosexuality or forbid female preaching or to take a permissive view of slavery) have been amended in Christian traditions. Or, for example, the issue of a geocentric picture of the afterlife: the earth’s diameter is around eight thousand miles with a current population of around eight billion. One wonders what the earth might look like, populated with trillions of resurrected persons. Alternative conceptions of an afterlife, such as John Hick’s in Death and Eternal Life (1994, with its multiple worlds and dimensions (alternative realms of space, not spatially distant from the earth) has some attraction over a geocentric model of the afterlife.

The above observations and replies are raised for future reflection and are not intended to settle the issues at hand. It should also be appreciated that N. T. Wright’s contribution to Christian theology is broad and not narrowly focused on debating dualism.

5 Christian theologies of mind and consciousness without dualism

Many Christian theologians and philosophers resist substance dualism quite independent of appeals to the Bible. Partly this has been motivated by a desire to align Christian theology with contemporary science. Substance dualism seems to involve souls (minds or selves) emerging from natural causes (when the brain reaches a certain complexity and function, there is an embodied, sensing subject) or creationism (the mind or soul is created and embodied by God). The first option (endorsed by William Hasker) construes the self as emerging from natural causes, while the second (endorsed by Joshua Farris) seems to involve supernatural causation. Both views have been defended as compatible with the natural sciences (see the Farris 2024), but Christian theologians and philosophers have searched for what they see as more modest positions (modest insofar as they do not posit the pervasive, regular process of incorporeal substances coming into being). Property dualism is the view that persons are individual, material bodies with physical and mental (perhaps nonphysical) properties. Dual aspect theory is very similar, often articulated as the thesis that persons have two aspects, physical and mental. This may configure the mind-body relationship in terms of points of view; for example, from the standpoint of neurology we are physical processes, but from a first-person perspective we are conscious, mental subjects. Functionalism is an interesting position that can, in principle, be adopted by dualists or materialists. On this view, mental states can be identified by their causal function; for example, pain might be identified as that state caused by skin laceration or as that which explains pain-avoidance behaviour. Each of these options (along with some of those that follow) have been deemed less extravagant, and therefore more plausible than substance dualism.

One major trend in post-dualist Christian theology has been to understand divine action in ways that are not ‘supernatural’ or depict God intervening in natural processes. This has often involved fully embracing the natural sciences, especially physics and evolutionary biology, but without embracing eliminativism or reducing all mental and conscious processes to nothing but material processes. A key element in resisting eliminativism has been to stress the role of emergence. The mental, and, for some, even Jesus Christ himself, is conceived of as emerging from the natural world. Theologians stressing emergence include Philip Clayton, Arthur Peacocke, Niels Gregersen, and Elizabeth Johnson. Clayton offers an apt, succinct depiction of this new movement that focuses on emergence: ‘the new emergent picture of the world is used as the organizing principle for systematic theology’ (Clayton 2008: 88).

For the most part, emergent Christian theologians seek to preserve the notion that the natural world has purpose or teleology. God is understood as upholding and surrounding the whole cosmos in which life emerges from inanimate matter and energy, and ultimately there emerges mind and consciousness. Freedom, creativity, and moral and religious accountability are real phenomena supported by a hierarchy of natural, causal systems. God is (for Peacocke) the ultimate whole that unites the multitude of all finite cosmic systems. For many such theologians the cosmos is nondeterministic. Peacocke, like John Polkinghorne, contends that the unpredictable, flexible interrelationship of systems in nature allows one to understand divine agency without violating the laws of nature (see Polkinghorne 1988; Peacocke 1993). God acts not as an interventionist but in accord with natural processes. For Clayton, it is in human consciousness that the divine may be understood as acting.

An important trend has been to preserve mind and consciousness within some form of theological naturalism. This is evident in Fiona Ellis’ God, Value, and Nature (2014) and in Sarah Lane Ritchie’s Divine Action and the Human Mind (2019). This trend or movement is treated in other SAET entries: see Theology and Naturalism, Theology and Science, and Creation.

The next section sketches five non-dualist Christian approaches to mind and consciousness: agnosticism, hylomorphism, materialism, idealism, and panpsychism.

5.1 Christian agnosticism

Christian theologians may acknowledge the reality of mind and consciousness but still claim to be not certain of what is material or physical. Some contemporary philosophers propose that the very concept of what is physical or material is problematic. Noam Chomsky writes that ‘the supposed concepts “physical” or “material” have no clear sense […] There seems to be no coherent doctrine of materialism and metaphysical naturalism, no issue of eliminativism, no mind-body problem’ (1994: 12). Michael Bitbol takes a similar view: ‘Material bodies are no longer the basic objects of physics […] Ironically, the notion of material body motivated the very research that eventually dissolved it’ (Bitbol 2007: 243). In this position, a theologian or philosopher may not be agnostic about mind and consciousness, but not committed to a particular account of what is physical. This position may be in keeping with the spirit of Wright when he urges theologians to focus more on their role in God’s plan than on the metaphysics of causation and theological anthropology.

5.2 Christian hylomorphism

This alternative was formulated by Aristotle and refined for Christian theology by Thomas Aquinas. ‘Hylomorphism’ is derived from the Greek hylos, meaning matter, and morphos, meaning form. From a hylomorphic perspective, a statue may be made of marble (matter) and shape (form) as an intentional artifact. Human beings consist of body (matter) and soul (form). The combination of body and soul are essential for being human. Aristotle held that matter cannot exist without form, and form cannot exist without matter. This outlook appears to rule out the soul existing without its body. Aquinas’ version of hylomorphism is more complex and recognizes the soul as a substantial form, capable of existing without its body. He held that the soul at death is in the presence of God, but because of his strong commitment to a person being a composite of soul and body he proposed that his soul is not identical with himself: ‘However, the soul, since it is part of man’s body, it is not the whole man, and I am not my soul’ (Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, paragraph 924). Elsewhere Aquinas writes:

The soul is a part of human nature; and hence, although it can exist apart from the body, it ever can be reunited, and therefore cannot be called an ‘individual substance’, or a ‘hypostasis’ or ‘first substance’ any more than a hand or any other part. So we can neither define it nor speak of it as a ‘person’. (Aquinas 1948; Summa Theologiae, Ia, q.29.1.s 3)

The above position has puzzled some theologians, as Aquinas defends the view not only that at death the saints see the essence of God but also that the saints are able to be aware of our prayers and intercede on our behalf. This implies that they are persons, albeit not composites of soul and body. This may be either a terminological matter or a way in which Aquinas is safeguarding the importance of soul-body union. In Aquinas’ anthropology, postmortem saints may, in some ways, be akin to selves, prior to resurrection, but not persons insofar as personhood requires the reuniting of soul and body.

Some substance dualists, like Richard Swinburne, treat Thomistic hylomorphism as a form of substance dualism, but a majority of contemporary Christian theologians advocating hylomorphism reject such an assimilation (Jaworski 2012). Hylomorphism is gaining increased support in recent years. Advocates have defended its coherence with contemporary science and traditional Christian theology (Toner 2009; Blaschko 2010; Madden 2013). One of the most recent creative defences of Christian hylomorphism is James Turner’s On the Resurrection of the Dead: A New Metaphysics of Afterlife for Christian Thought (2019).

A theme among many Christians in this movement (along with the Christian materialists discussed below) is that they offer a more satisfying theological account than substance dualism of the resurrection of human persons. In a phrase that Turner uses frequently, if substance dualism is true, and it is possible for persons to enjoy disembodied post-mortem paradisal experience, then the resurrection of their bodies is superfluous (or a matter of superfluous hope). On Turner’s version of hylomorphism, the resurrection of your body is (metaphysically) necessary for your survival of biological death.

Turner’s position is philosophically fascinating, involving a philosophy of space and time that leads him to what he calls ‘eschatological presentism: a model of immediate eschatological resurrection’ (Turner 2019: viii). There is not space to fully lay out and assess his complex model, but it should be noted that Christian dualists may take issue with Turner’s use of the term ‘superfluity’ when it comes to thinking about the resurrection of one’s body. When describing some event as superfluous there is a suggestion that it is not just unnecessary but is not a great or awesome good. Many (but not all) Christian theologians have thought that God creating and sustaining the cosmos is a free gift, not a matter of metaphysical necessity, and yet resist calling this ‘superfluous’. Many Christian dualists do not think that survival of death requires the resurrection of an actual physical body at the time of biological death (especially when we imagine the body riddled with disease and brokenness), and yet they look for a resurrection as some ensouled transformed, heavenly, spiritual body (using Pauline terms) with proper, loving, or fearful hope. Such a resurrection might be an awesome good, even if not a matter of metaphysical necessity.

5.3 Christian materialism

There is a growing advocacy of Christian materialism. One of the leading contemporary philosophers defending Christian materialism is Peter van Inwagen, and there are a host of other Christian materialists such as Andrew Bailey, Kevin Corcoran, Joel Green, Trenton Merricks, and Nancey Murphy. Lynne Baker may also be considered a Christian materialist, though rather than propose that human persons are identical with their physical bodies she holds that human persons are composed of their physical bodies. Neither Baker nor any of these thinkers are eliminativists. They fully recognize the reality of mind and consciousness, and are not materialists when it comes to God. In terms of human persons, however, they are often thought of as non-reductive materialists.

Nancey Murphy is perhaps the best known contemporary philosopher working to reconcile Christian theology with a materialist account of mind and consciousness based on contemporary neurology and biology.

All of the human capacities once attributed to the mind or soul are now being fruitfully studied as brain processes – or, more accurately, I should say, processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems, all interacting with the socio-cultural world. (Murphy 2006: 56)

One might wonder about the cogency of this claim if one added the term ‘only’ before ‘brain processes’, as it is hard to imagine fruitfully studying brain processes without contending that they are correlated with mental states and processes. The concept of ‘the socio-cultural world’ also seems to invoke a host of phenomena that are teleological (purposive), involving reasons, desires, and emotions that go beyond what is customarily classified as physical. Murphy is not unaware of these worries (readers interested in exploring Murphy’s important work are referred to another SAET entry where her work is engaged: Soul-Body Dualism and Science).

Christian materialists have proposed several ways that a person may die physically and yet have life after death. One is to rely on an early Christian conviction that God resurrects a person’s actual dead body, in whole or in part, changing it into a transformed, incorruptible body (1 Cor 15:53). Faced with the challenge of how body elements might be identified and sorted out (given that many parts of a person’s body might have become parts of other bodies or appear to have been annihilated), Christians may remind critics that such a task would not be impossible for a God of limitless power and knowledge.

A more recent proposal is that one’s body is taken by God at the instant before death and God substitutes in its place a simulacrum (see van Inwagen 1978 as well as his later, more nuanced view of personal identity in Material Beings, 1990). This hypothesis has been widely criticized as implicating God in mass deception. Even so, it was advanced as a mere metaphysical possibility, and not as a serious proposal worthy of an all-good, non-deceiving God.

Dean Zimmerman and Kevin Corcoran have proposed an alternative that does not involve divine deception yet still transports (so to speak) a person’s physical body to the next life. It is usually referred to as the Falling Elevator Model: imagine a person is in a falling elevator (a fatal accident). Just before death, God causes the fundamental components of the person’s body to fission, transporting this new body to the afterlife, while the original body remains as a corpse (Zimmerman 1999; see Corcoran 1999 for further work; Zimmerman is a self-identified substance dualist, but he advances this alternative on behalf of Christian materialists).

Yet another alternative is to propose that at death a person – as a material being – passes out of existence, but is recreated later (perhaps at the eschaton, the second coming of Jesus). Lynne Baker’s proposal is that at the point of physical death a person may be reconstituted by a different body (the new constitution may be material or incorporeal).

The above scenarios may be of interest not just to Christian materialists but also to Christian dualists who are committed to believing that the afterlife involves the continuation and transformation of both the soul and the material body.

5.4 Christian idealism

While some Christian theologians and philosophers have recently gravitated toward materialism, there is also a movement in the opposite direction: idealism, both in the tradition of George Berkeley and Hegel. Both forms of idealism give a central role to mind and consciousness. Hegelian idealism has theistic and non-theistic versions. In Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, an ardent atheist, aligns himself to some form of idealism in the Hegelian tradition rather than to reductive physicalism. Berkeley’s form or idealism, on the other hand, is thoroughly theistic. Two of its most prominent advocates in recent years are John Foster and Howard Robinson (see, for example, John Foster’s A World for Us: The Case for Phenomenalistic Idealism [2008]; additionally, The Routledge Handbook of Idealism and Immaterialism [2023] provides an excellent resource on the revival of idealism).

The growing interest in idealism is theologically significant as it provides a sophisticated contrast to Christian materialism and explores the consequences to developing a theistic worldview that takes mind and consciousness as its starting point, not the natural sciences. Christian idealists argue that their position is consistent with the natural sciences, but argue that the natural sciences are not able to fully accommodate our experience, reason, and values. Keith Ward is an interesting philosophical theologian who advocates a moderate form of theistic idealism. While he does not contend that the material world is constituted by mind, his theistic position that the cosmos is mind-dependent aligns him with what he terms ‘personal idealism’ (Ward 2022).

5.5 Christian panpsychism

Uniting different versions of panpsychism is the view that, in the words of Thomas Nagel, ‘all elements of the physical world are also mental’ (Nagel 2012: 57). One major motivation behind this view is what may be called the problem of emergence. Arguably (contra eliminativism), consciousness is real. Accounting for the emergence of consciousness from non-conscious elements or forces is deeply problematic, according to Nagel and a host of other philosophers (including Galen Strawson, David Chalmers, and Joanna Leidenhag). The problem of emergence is avoided if one claims that consciousness (or the mental) has always existed as a dimension, property, or state of the physical world.

Perhaps the most recent sophisticated form of panpsychism has been advanced by Philip Goff in his book Why? The Purpose of the Universe (2023). Goff appeals to factors like the fine-tuning of the physical world (including gravitational force, electromagnetic force, etc.) to justify thinking of the cosmos as teleological or purposive. On his view, the cosmos itself is conscious and good, albeit this cosmic consciousness is not theistic or endowed with divine attributes like omnipotence. Goff resists theism for many reasons, not least due to the problem of evil. Goff’s cosmic ultimate reality is thus teleological but not akin to a powerful, good moral agent who may be blamed for allowing suffering.

Goff’s project is a fresh form of panpsychism. Critics, like Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne, object that Goff’s philosophy does not answer the question of why the cosmos exists at all, and have defended theism in the context of Goff’s assessment of the problem of evil (Swinburne 2023).

Panpsychism is compatible with a thoroughly secular worldview (as is the case with Nagel and Strawson), but it can generate a framework for Christian theology. An important contribution to panpsychism and Christian theology is Joanna Leidenhag’s Minding Creation: Theological Panpsychism and the Doctrine of Creation (2021). To Leidenhag, theological panpsychism can illuminate Christian views about the presence of the Holy Spirit, provide a rich framework for ecological stewardship, the incarnation, and the conception of creation as a community. The conclusion of her book should awaken theological interest:

A world in which mind is a fundamental property found throughout creation is a cosmos full of experience, open to God’s presence, and responsive in giving God glory. A more enchanted and theologically rich ontology would be hard to come by. At the very least, the revival of panpsychism within philosophy of mind is not a development that theologians should fear and resist, but is a trend that theologians should welcome and may profitably employ within a doctrine of creation. (Leidenhag 2021: 174)

6 Summary

The Bible and the Christian theological tradition presuppose the reality of mind and consciousness. God is not a mindless, non-conscious being, but supremely mindful in creating and sustaining the cosmos. Mind and consciousness are in play in understanding God’s role in the incarnation and redemption of humans and in the human response to God. Virtually all dimensions of Christian theology are impacted by matters of mind and consciousness; moral theology, soteriology, Christology, mystical theology, and eschatology are just the beginning of a long list of domains that bear on mind and consciousness. As seen above, there are multiple ways of understanding the nature and bearer of mind and consciousness in both the human and divine. This article has considered the merits of some form of soul-body or substance dualism and multiple alternatives, including recent theological work in reconceiving the relationship between God and creation. One conclusion is that Christian theological approaches to mind and consciousness are not homogenous but yield many paths for future theological and philosophical exploration. Christian theologians and philosophers are currently engaged in work on different forms of dualism, materialism, hylomorphism, idealism, panpsychism, and other models in which to understand mind and consciousness.


Copyright Charles Taliaferro (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Baker, Mark C., and Stewart Goetz. 2011. ‘Introduction’, in The Soul Hypothesis: Investigation into the Existence of the Soul. Edited by Mark C. Baker and Stewart Goetz. New York, NY: Continuum, 1–25.
    • Barret, Justin L. 2012. Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief. New York: Free Press.
    • Cooper, John. 2000. Body, Soul and Life Everlasting. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2nd edition.
    • Cucu, Alin C., and J. Brian Pitts. 2019. ‘How Dualists Should (Not) Respond to the Objection from Energy Conservation’, Mind and Matter 17, no. 1: 95–121.
    • Fumerton, Richard. 2013. Knowledge, Thought, and the Case for Dualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Goetz, Stewart, and Charles Taliaferro. 2011. A Brief History of the Soul. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
    • Hasker, William. 1999. The Emergent Self. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
    • Lund, David H. 2005. The Conscious Self: The Immaterial Center of Subjective States. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.
    • Robinson, Howard. 2016. From the Knowledge Argument to Mental Substance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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