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Implications Of A Nonreductive Physicalist View

Both Judaism and Christianity apparently began with a concept of human nature that comes closer to contemporary nonreductive physicalism than to Platonic dualism. But, both made accommodations to a prevailing dualistic philosophy, and combined a doctrine of the immortality of the soul with a doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The pressing question now, concerns whether to return to those earlier nonreductive physicalist accounts of human nature, as many Christian theologians have urged throughout this century.

If a nonreductive physicalist view of the person is acceptable theologically and biblically, as well as scientifically and philosophically, a variety of consequences follow in the fields of ethics, spiritual development, medicine, and psychotherapy.

For example, many arguments against abortion depend on when the human soul is presumed to appear. If the soul is present from the moment of conception, then abortion at any stage of pregnancy is full-scale murder. This argument no longer makes sense with a nonreductive physicalist account of the person, in which there is no soul upon which one's humanity depends. Similar sorts of issues arise with regard to euthanasia. It is certainly true that the concept of the soul has been valuable for ethical purposes; it needs to be shown that equally powerful arguments can be constructed using the nonreductive physicalist account of personhood. For example, Jesus' injunction to care for the "least of the brethren" (Matthew 25:40) can be applied supremely to children before they are born, as well as to the elderly at the end of their life. Notice that in Jesus' parable the emphasis is not on saving the souls of those who are in distress, but rather, on meeting their bodily needs for food, water, clothing, and companionship.

Spiritual formation throughout most of Christian history has presupposed a Platonic conception of the person. It has often been understood, for instance, that "mortification of the flesh" is necessary for the flourishing of the soul. It is likely that a nonreductive physicalist account of the person will lead to healthier and more effective approaches to spiritual life.

Psychotherapists have already come to realize the dependence of psychological health on physical health, such as when a serious illness leads to depression. Equally important is the less-frequently recognized dependence of physical health on psychological and spiritual factors. This includes, for example, the role of stress (a psychological factor) in causing ulcers, high blood pressure, and other psychosomatic ailments. Spiritual factors, such as resentment resulting from an inability to forgive others, also play a significant role in affecting one's physical health. Increasingly, studies are finding that prayer and church attendance are associated with better health. A nonreductive physicalist conception of the person can be expected to promote a more integrative practice in a variety of health-care professions. That is, it will not be possible to compartmentalize the person and to conclude that physicians treat only physical illnesses, psychologists only mental illnesses, and pastoral counselors only spiritual ills.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Nancey Murphy

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