International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Whatever Happened to the Soul: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Theology and the Sciences)

edited by Warren S. Brown , Nancey Murphy , H. Newton Maloney

Introductory Essay by Stephen G. Post

Few edited books have the sustained impact that Whatever Happened to the Soul has since its publication in 1998. The collection of outstanding chapters are framed in response to the assertion that as science is able to “map” human consciousness and capacities onto the various regions of the brain, “religion” will become obsolete because it depends on the existence of a nonmaterial soul – or in technical terms, on a “substance dualism” between spirit and biological substrate. Once the nonmaterial soul goes, God goes, or so the argument put forth by some Darwinians proceeded. Nancey Murphy, drawing on the philosophical anthropology of philosopher Roy Wood Sellers, argues that our relationship with God does not depend on our possessing a nonmaterial soul. Murphy in effect gives up on her soul as a nonmaterial eternal entity, and asserts a version of Sellers’ “non-reductive physicalism,” whereby God is perfectly capable of knowing us, and we God, with our neurological-physiological substrate as the “point of contact.” Murphy may give up on her non-material soul, but she does not give up on her Christianity. Granted, there are sophisticated substance dualists who would counter that it is impossible to sustain a robust Christian worldview in the absence of the nonmaterial soul. Indeed, Whatever Happened to the Soul set off a storm of controversy, as Christians from around the world responded in strong agreement with the book’s theses, or in powerful criticism.

Murphy’s philosophical and theological position about what sort of human substrate is needed for the preservation of a Christian worldview is followed by a significant chapter by Francisco J. Ayala. Ayala asserts that there is no essential tension between a Darwinian evolutionary view of the human capacities for profound experiences and Christianity or religion generally. Other esteemed scientists who echo this perspective in the book include the geneticist Elving Anderson, the neuropsychologist Malcolm Jeeves, and neuroscientist Warren S. Brown.

The book gets especially challenging in later sections, beginning with an exegesis of the New and Old Testament by biblical scholar Joel B. Green. Green underscores that the Hebrew Bible is more or less fully consistent with non-reductive physicalism, for it rarely, if ever, asserts a nonmaterial soul. Moreover, Green argues that the New Testament can be interpreted as consistent with Judaism on this point. Without going into detail, Green does as good a job as anyone possibly could in pointing out how inessential dualistic moments are to the overall New Testament portrait of human nature. The theologian Ray S. Anderson then proceeds to elegantly explicate the Jewish position on why a nonmaterial soul is not necessary for the Jewish faith and worldview to be sustained robustly. Stephen G. Post assesses what is at stake for the moral life with regard to the two views of human nature being discussed. In the final analysis, he does not think that a life of agape-inspired love and ethics depends in any essential way on the existence of a nonmaterial soul. Warren S. Brown then makes a comprehensive effort to reconcile a scientifically informed physical naturalism with the biblical accounts of human nature.

Christians can be people of deeply and abiding faith regardless of the nuances of their portrait of the human soul, material or not. One suspects that a book such as Whatever Happened to the Soul will fall on deaf ears or finely attuned ones, and that there is not much middle ground. This is a book that no one interested in the theology or philosophy of the human substrate can ignore. It is a readable, carefully edited, and challenging work of great insight and integrative depth.