Friday, December 26, 2014

Book Review of Kevin Corcoran's "Rethinking Human Nature"

Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Human Soul. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group. 160 pages long. All references below will be from Corcoran's study.

Philosophical anthropology is normally framed in terms of dualism and physicalism. Dualism asserts that humans are two things (body and soul) while materialism generally contends that we are one thing (body). Corcoran presents a "Christian materialist" alternative to universally held beliefs about human nature and the soul. He refers to his position as the "constitution view" (CV). Unlike other types of physicalism, CV maintains that the human body is not identical with the human person. Bodies constitute persons like marble or wood respectively function as constituents of tables. Another example that Corcoran gives regarding the CV is dollar bills: paper constitutes dollar bills, but is not absolutely identical with this form of currency.
The word "identical" is used as a technical term in order to reference things being numerically identical with one another (i.e. not replicas). Clark Kent is numerically identical with Superman because they are one and the same object. Other examples include books which are absolutely identical or a car that remains identical (persists as the same object) through time. What allows us to make identity claims of an object (X)? What justifies the belief that a thing (X) sustains its particular identity each year or every second? Corcoran discusses the subject of numerical identity as well as the role that persistence conditions play in the belief that X remains identical within a spatio-temporal context. He points out that the relevant persistence conditions for X depend on exactly what X is. The persistence conditions of a human body are not the same as those for a banana. Just what it means for a human body to persist will help to determine important questions regarding anthropology. Corcoran distinguishes between a) Substance Dualism; b) Compound Dualism or Hylomorphism and c) Emergent Dualism, and he perceives logical deficiencies in each species of dualism. For instance, Descartes' assumption about different kinds of properties not being instantiated in particular objects seems questionable: his arguments may be valid but there could be a question concerning their soundness.

This publication regards Plato and Descartes as Substance Dualists, and Thomas Aquinas as a Compound Dualist: "According to Aquinas' Compound Dualist view, a human soul is a kind of form, and forms are dynamic states" (36). This theoretical approach (hylomorphism or Compound Dualism) insists that soul and body constitute one thing, namely, a person. It thereby seems to generate problematics when trying to account for the post mortem intermediate state in which a soul obtains without a body. On the other hand, William Hasker is an emergent dualist. Emergent Dualism is demarcated from other forms of dualism insofar as it allows for mind to emerge from complex physical systems. Hasker even maintains that it is logically possible for mind to exist apart from its generating physical source (the brain) after the physical death of a biological organism--but Corcoran is critical of Emergent Dualism on two fronts. Firstly, while Hasker posits an intimate or natural connection between body and soul, it appears that he believes mind (soul) is not causally dependent on the body (a physical system) since its continued existence in this life or the next does not require causal dependence on a physical system (43). Secondly, the Emergent Dualism of Hasker apparently splits the human person "into two disparate entities" (ibid). Therefore, while Emergent Dualism may be able to set itself apart from Substance Dualism by appealing to physical systems, it retains problematics seemingly indigenous to Substance Dualism.

Another burning question in discussions of human nature revolves around the definition of "person." Corcoran helpfully outlines the conditions for personhood in multiple ways: a) the capacity for a certain range of intentionality; b) the ability for a first-person perspective; c) persons are essentially constituted by means of bodies; d) persons are inherently relational. The word "intentionality" (used technically here) means that persons can experience (inter alia) belief states: a person has the capability to believe that something is the case or a person can exercise self-referentiality. Furthermore, nothing a priori should keep persons from being defined in fully embodied terms. While persons are not identical with their bodies, as witnessed by the famous Ship of Theseus example, they evidently bear a unique relationship to embodiment.

But while Christian materialism potentially does not have some of the conceptual difficulties associated with dualism, and it may even be possible to render a coherent account of CV, one might ask whether Christian materialism is able to supply the conceptual resources needed to protect the human fetus? In other words, must one accept a dualistic account of humanity to secure the intrinsic rights of human personhood? J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae (85-87) argue that materialism in se cannot produce a suitable ethic for human persons. Instead, they submit that a dualist account of personhood is required to develop a proper moral account vis-à-vis abortion, human cloning, euthanasia and fetal research. Corcoran admits that CV alone cannot provide the metaphysical resources needed to generate moral obligations that adequately protect a human fetus. But he contends that dualism does not have the ability to generate such obligations either. Corcoran argues that one must supplement both dualism and materialism with other metaphysical resources to produce a suitable ethic of life. What is needed? We must posit God’s benevolent intentions toward creation to successfully undergird a metaphysical account of personhood. Without this foundation for an ethical system, Corcoran avers that the necessary metaphysical resources to protect a human fetus will be lacking. Of course, while the Creator’s good intentions can be accepted within a particular context, the philosophical tradition suggests that the Euthyphro Dilemma might be raised by this approach.

Corcoran includes the notion of immanent causal condition (ICC) in this work. This concept is an important consideration since the traditional philosophical intuition pronounces that once a thing (A) experiences an existential gap, A has ceased to be identical with itself. For instance, if a manuscript known as P66 is cast into the fire, but a scribe later produces another manuscript that is phenomenologically indistinguishable from P66, the common intuition is to say that the latter manuscript is a replica. However, ICC potentially accounts for a thing (A) remaining identical although it experiences gaps in existence. ICC suggests that as long as an earlier stage of pre-gap existence is causally relevant to a later stage of post-gap existence, then a thing (A) remains numerically identical. ICC further stipulates that a state (Y) must bring about changes (Z) within an object (A) rather than a numerically distinct object (B) in order for one to speak about ICC occurring within the same object.

The ICC apparatus supposedly functions as the diachronic condition of a thing: it may persist through time as a causally relevant mechanism for the biological organism. This causal condition thereby preserves the identity of A. Corcoran's book is a tightly argued work, it's accessible and he makes distinctions well. There are formally written parts to satisfy professional logicians; his work also meaningfully contributes to discussions on human nature and the study of personhood. I recommend this work for those interested in questions regarding philosophical anthropology and the post mortem condition for humans. But the approach in this work is more philosophical than biblical. While Corcoran concludes this book with scriptural passages, those seeking a biblical explanation for Christian materialism should probably consult other studies.


Killa Jules said...


Fellow witness here. I enjoyed this review but I still have some questions on dualism.

Firstly, how can (presumably deterministic) material brains possess intentionality, qualia and free will?

Secondly, could you describe the logical deficiencies of dualism in a little more detail?

Thanks in advance.

Edgar Foster said...


Thanks for asking these questions. Science does not have an easy time answering them now because of where our collective empirical knowledge is. Furthermore, there are obvious constraints on the empirical study of the subjects you mention.

Nancey Murphy ("Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies") has argued that it's (theoretically) possible that "self-direction" could emerge from an initial deterministic system. She refers to the idea as downward causation although I don't think she's the first to use the term.

She uses bacterial evolution to illustrate the idea along with some complex engineering diagrams that depict the parts and activities of self-directed or teleological systems. Maybe it's possible (in this vein) that higher-level states of consciousness arise from lower-level brain activities. John Searle has made similar arguments in his book "Mind."

Qualia are a little tougher to explain on a naturalistic level although much work has been done in this area too. One could posit external qualia as opposed to internal "raw feels." The late Fred Dretske tried to develop a naturalistic epistemology that included qualia of this kind.

Murphy has a discussion on how free will could fit within a physicalist framework, how it could emerge from an initially deterministic system as we see fictionalized on shows about AI (i.e., Person of Interest). The bottom line, however, is that no adequate solution has been found yet.

As for the logical defiencies, Corcoran poses a number of formal arguments to demonstrate that some of the claims made by the dualists may be logically valid, but they may fail to be logically sound (i.e., the premises are true which then lead to true conclusions).

Consider the argument:

1) If I can clearly and distinctly conceive of one thing existing without another thing existing, then the two are distinct things.
2. I can clearly and distinctly conceive of myself existing without my body existing.
3. Therefore, I am not the same thing as my body and can exist without it.

While the argument is logically valid--according to the canons of formal logic--is it sound? There are reasons to believe it is not since counterexamples can be adduced to show the argument could lead to a false conclusion.

Edgar Foster said...

Searle also uses the example of thirst to show that a conscious state (which is intentional) could arise from lower-level neural and biological states.

The Churchlands (Paul and Patricia) have offered arguments to this effect as well though their claims are stronger, imo. They want to eliminate "subjectivity" altogether it seems.

Edgar Foster said...

Free access to an article by Nancey Murphy about free will and physicalism.


Eric said...

Thanks for the reveiw...very helpful!

Edgar Foster said...

You're welcome, Eric, and I appreciate the feedback.