Posted by: dacalu | 7 May 2011


I’ve been talking in Wednesday’s Christian for a while now about two different views of the world, the physical universe and the spiritual cosmos.  The first constructs the experience of the world in terms of elementary particles which interact through the elementary forces.  Science gives us a great way, if not the best way to understand this universe, or should I say this model of the universe.  The second view construes our experience as the interaction between souls.  The forces here can be described as love, fear, etc.

Does that mean I a dualist?  By no means.

Dualists think that there is one universe that comes in two flavors. I’d like to mention briefly three popular dualisms and why I think they are problematic.

Many Gnostic dualists have thought that the physical universe is simply the shattered remains of broken souls from the time of the Fall.  Some spirits rebelled against God resulting in a great war.  Those that fell the furthest were most corrupted by physicality (devils).  Those least corrupted became angels and humans rest somewhere in between.  I object to Gnostic dualism because it teaches that the spirit is good and the flesh is evil.  Believers may be tempted to disregard the body, to have no qualms about harming their own or others’ bodies for the sake of spiritual ends.  Christians, remembering the incarnation and awaiting resurrection in the flesh know that the body cannot be so easily disregarded.  Numerous Christians through the ages have subscribed to Gnostic dualism, but I feel confident that it is not only a heresy (disapproved by the church), but downright wrong.  Interestingly Christian Scientists still subscribe to a similar belief, thinking that physical things are illusory and spiritual things are real. They do not think the flesh evil, but they may have the same temptation to disregard it.

Thomistic dualists (after Thomas Aquinas) believe in a single universe composed of two parts – the spiritual creation, of which the human soul is the least exalted, and the physical creation, of which the human body is the most exalted.  Only humans participate in both creations.  While Thomas avoided thinking of all flesh as evil – he valued learning about God through the good creation – he left readers with a rather dangerous divide between humanity and all other things in existence.  No animals go to heaven in Thomas’ schema, though new animals may be created for heaven.  This does not fit with Christianity because I think the whole world is being made new, that nature groans in the birth pangs of a new creation.  While I think humans have a special place, I dislike the idea that we are fundamentally different from all else created by God.  Even if it is true, it leaves us open to a terrible egotism when we look at our stewardship of the world.

Cartesian dualists (after Rene Descartes) believe in a mental reality and physical reality joined together in some obscure way. (Descartes suspected some connection through the hypothalamus or pineal gland.)  For them, we make choices in the world of ideas, in our minds.  The mind acts as a driver for the vehicle, our body; hence the expression, “ghost in the machine.”  I think I understand Descartes’ motivations.  I too see our experience of reason and decision making as more than the sum of fired neurons.  Nonetheless, I worry that this kind of dualism downplays the profound impact of physical stimuli on mental states, and what I consider to be a fundamental one-ness between body, mind, and soul.  It also leaves open some really nasty questions about causation – how does the mind drive the body?

Alas, the three dualisms often get mushed together in the popular imagination.  Despite the fact that they represent three radically different cosmologies (spirit + flesh, soul + animal, mind + body), each one leaves itself open to comparison with good + evil in some very unfortunate ways.  I believe that Christians hold a profound truth when we say that we believe in the incarnation and resurrection in the flesh.  Jesus was physical and remained so, even when he returned from the dead.  We value ourselves as God created us (enfleshed) and have no Biblical warrant for believing the world to come will be any less fleshly.

So, back to the original point.  I’m not a dualist.  But how does that work, didn’t I suggest a physical universe and a spiritual cosmos?  Yes, but I suggested them for models of the universe, and not the thing itself.

I think that the universe is monistic – there is a single type of thing in existence – but neither the physical model nor the spiritual model fully explains it.  The physical model falls down when it comes to souls, love, and purpose.  No matter how well I understand dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and testosterone, they have very little utility in learning to love someone.  The spiritual model falls down when it comes to practical manipulation of physical things.  The planets may have spirits that drive them, but I’m sticking with gravity and momentum at the moment.  I won’t do without either system, because each provides real utility in daily life.

Will there ever be a single science that comprehends both?  Perhaps.  It may be that one day we explain all human decisions in terms of neurochemistry or discover the seat of the soul in the brain.  I’m skeptical, but I allow that it could happen.  It may be that one day we will have a spiritual science that speaks of souls whose intentions move quarks.  More of a stretch, but still conceivable.  I don’t anticipate either revolution in the near future.  In the meantime, we are left with two very useful, very important models of the same world – the world we experience.

I honestly don’t know of anyone who treats human bodies as though they had no self-hood.  As though they were simply the result of deterministic processes.  We interact with people and need some theory of self to get us through our social interactions.  I’ve met a few people (always young and healthy) who genuinely believe (or at least advocate) that science has nothing to offer because the spiritual model is the only useful model.  It seems to close the door for them on almost any form of practical work in the world.

As a teacher, I know that sometimes a simple metaphor can convey more than an extended definition and factual explanation.  In martial arts, I regularly use the concept of chi (internal energy) to teach people how to extend, focus, and use their bodies well.  Do I think that such a thing is internal energy exists?  Usually.  Do I think it cannot be reduced to physical principles, to muscles and momentum, mass and movement?  Usually not.  Nonetheless, the math of human movement is ridiculously complex.  (We don’t move in straight lines.  I’ve seen the physics of a ball joint.  Trust me, it’s painful.)  Chi can be a far more effective way of teaching movement.  Why would I not resort to a useful alternative description?

Modernism has gone too far if we can no longer understand that different times and different tasks call for different lenses.  Just as my father uses bifocals to see the world close up and far away, I use science and relational theology* to see the same objects in different ways.  Anything less would leave me blind.

[* I was tempted to say theology here, but I realized that my theology must cover science and the physical universe as well as souls.  Theology must be comprehensive to lay claim to all of our heart, all of our mind, all of our soul, and all of our strength.  Relational theology here refers specifically to the spiritual cosmos and the ontology of souls.]


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