Saturday, August 25, 2012

Addressing the Charge of Dualism

A gentleman once accused Jehovah's Witnesses of being dualists. He wrote:

"Perhaps more to the point, the JW (and, indeed, the Platonic approach, generally) association of our being and identity with something that is NOT that dust [of Genesis 2:7] is very troublesome. It's not just the JWs, of course, who do this; unreflective Christians have been doing this since the beginning."

I say that Jehovah's Witnesses believe the body + the breath of life mentioned in Genesis 2:7 jointly constitute the human soul (NEPES). Witnesses believe that humans do not have souls but are souls. According to Witness belief, I am body and the force that animates my being, which must include cognitive and conscious states. My own personal take on anthropology is that the self is neural (i.e. syntactic), as Joseph Ledoux argues. The self is ultimately realized brain activity (synaptic connections or higher-order brain processes). But there cannot be a neural self without the body proper, a point which neuroscientist Antonio Damasio helps us to appreciate.

My interlocutor then writes:

"As for your observation that hylomorphism is a type of dualism: I think you are greatly underestimating the distinctions between Plato's concept of the soul and Aristotle's (and Aquinas'). Applying the 'dualism' tag to the latter probably obscures a great deal more than it reveals, in my estimation."

MY RESPONSE: With all respect, I've taught classes about each one of these thinkers for a number of years and I've used Catholic, Protestant and secular works to do it. I believe that I understand the distinction between Platonic and Aristo-Thomist anthropology well. I don't see how one cannot place the label "dualism" on each one. Now to avoid conflation, I did call Aristotle's theory and that of Aquinas, "compound or holistic" dualism. Kevin J. Corcoran also uses this label. Furthermore, I've seen hylomorphism described similarly in major academic works.

Interlocutor again:
"I think you may be missing the key elements of the Catholic thinking on this question and conflating that thinking with the more casual, 'folk' anthropology. Aquinas, for example, doesn't take the approach that he wants to show we have souls at all -- rather, he agrees with Aristotle that all living things have souls: you, me, my dog, a lion, whatever. The interesting question is: what kind of sould [SIC] do we have and how do they differ from those souls of lower animals. So, the kinds of questions you are asking in this paragraph are not going to be productive, since they are coming from a very different set of assumptions."

MY RESPONSE: In my view, it begs the question to assert that all living things have souls. How do we know (with any degree of objective certitude) that each living thing has a soul? Besides, I believe that Aristotle possibly means something different by the word "soul" than Thomas Aquinas does. Be that as it may, it seems to me that before we talk about rational, nutritive or sensitive souls (or elements of the soul), we should first try to determine whether or not souls (in the relevant sense) exist.

Interlocutor: "Finally, I'm not sure where, exactly, you are coming from. I thought I read you to say that you were in favor of some sort of materialism. If so, then I am confused that you find the body is not essential to identity. These seem to be quite contradictory statements, so I must be missing something."

MY RESPONSE: I do favor some kind of Christian materialism. IMO, Ledoux states matters almost exactly as I would put them: we are our synapses and the self is neural. But identity is a very complex notion. We humans cannot truly be selves without bodies: a brain is not much good if there is no body to accompany it. However, as Nancey Murphy has written, many factors contribute to our identity (memories, personal character, our external relations and human embodiment). In addition to Murphy's list, I might add DNA as a factor in identity (associated with embodiment). So, to answer your question, I think that I need A body to be identical to the person "Edgar Foster" but I don't need THIS particular body to preserve my personal identity. If time goes on, I'll die one day and THIS body will decompose as it returns to the dust. Let us assume that God will one day rearrange my decomposed body with the same atomic constituents that it formerly had, after it has decomposed. Would that reconstituted body be identical with the body that existed during my former lifetime on this earth? I think you run into the problem of Theseus' ship at this point. Either way, I believe it's fallacious to call Witnesses "dualists."




Βασίλειος said...

"Ι say that Jehovah's Witnesses believe the body + the breath of life mentioned in Genesis 2:7 jointly constitute the human soul (NEPES)."

Allow me to be more precise: man (dust) + lifeforce = a LIVING soul.

Man = soul, but lifeforce makes the soul living.

The second thing I want to say about dualism is that it cannot be confined to terminology as regards the constitution of the human body. Dualism has a tremendous effect on soteriology and eschatology.

Platonic dualism focuses to the separation of the soul from the body (death is salvation and a return to home), which includes mysticism (the ascent of soul out of the body), and asceticism (denial of the material world).

The Eastern Church through the School of Alexandria inherited this tradition, even though it was balanced with the hope of resurrection, and maybe some deal of Aristotelism.

Many Protestants do not accept mysticism and asceticism, but as regards the divine reward they took their focus from the general resurrection ("We look for the resurrection of the dead") to the personal moment of death, following a pattern of the platonic personal salvation. For them death seems no more to be an "enemy", as the Bible calls it.

In addition, the vast majority of the organizations of Christendom proclaim a universal hope of heavenly life and a destruction of the material world by divine fire. Behind these doctrines I clearly see the platonic rejection of the material world as something naturally degraded and provisional.

aservantofJehovah said...

Your point about the complexity of human identity is well taken,At this verse in Genesis for instance
Genesis34:30NKJV"Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi you have troubled me by making me obnoxious among the inhabitants of the land,among the Canaanites and the Perizzites;and since I am few in number,they will gather themselves together against me and kill me.I shall be destroyed my household and I."
Apparently Jacob's self identity includes not just his body but his offspring and house servants.

Edgar Foster said...


Thanks for the example of Jacob. It's very helpful.

Edgar Foster said...


Your point about the living soul is a good one. It makes the idea more precise. I also concur with your remarks on dualism, although my discussion with the interlocutor I references was primarily about anthropological dualism. But dualism can be manifested in numerous ways (as you mention). We have eschatological, cosmological and forms of dualism that affect soteriological doctrines. Good points.

Edgar Foster said...

One qualification I would make is that asceticism can take many different forms or be manifested in various degrees along a continuum. Hence, there are ways of being ascetic that do not necessarily denigrate the body or inordinately elevate the soul. But I agree that Platonism has likely influenced Christendom's view of material things.

Βασίλειος said...

Thank you for your observations. It's true that asceticism can take several forms. We know for instance that about in 200 C.E. there were some puritan Christians (among who Tertullian too) who responded to the ethical degradation of their contemporary Christian Church by asceticism, and not because of the Gnostic or the Neoplatonic influence. Tertullian even supported the corporeality of the soul, and I think that he cannot be included to dualists in the platonic sense. Platonic asceticism can first be traced to Origen and by him it was spread among the ranks of monks in Egypt and elsewhere in the domain of the Eastern Church. This specific type of asceticism, because of its dualistic background, is naturally combined with mysticism. And even when the sharp, Origenistic (anthropological) dualism was rejected by the future Church Fathers who stressed the creatio ex nihilo and the resurrection doctrines, mysticism survived but by with an altered terminology that included somehow the body, as in Gregory Palamas.

Surely I agree with you that, when we speak of dualism and its results in anthropology, soteriology and eschatology, we must always have in mind that the spectrum of beliefs is very wide and it has many different shades.

Edgar Foster said...

I agree that Tertullian probably is not Platonically-oriented. His work De anima suggests that his anthropology (and other aspects of his thought) is partially driven by Stoic philosophy.

Anopther point I was trying to make is that asceticism may be practiced in a scriptural or non-scriptural way. For instance, the Nazarites were ascetics in some sense of the word. John the Baptizer was known for not eating or drinking because of his vows. Jesus also fasted forty days in the wilderness after he was baptized. So, while extrem asceticism should be eschewed, there are scriptural ways to practice ASKESIS.

However, to qualify my statement, I'm not advocating or condemning the practice for today. A Christian may fast if he/she chooses. But the NT suggests that it no longer has religious value per se.