Nancey Murphy

Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?

Review by Benjamin J. Samuels, 2008

Murphy, Nancey. Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 154 pages.

In this clear, concise and highly accessible treatise, Nancey Murphy undertakes no less than the construction of a new Christian theology informed by critical Bible scholarship, current scientific theory and contemporary philosophy.  The crucial issue at hand is the nature of human beings.  Are we, as the title of the book asks, “Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?”  Murphy defends a physicalist account of human nature and posits that, “we are our bodies – there is no additional metaphysical element such as mind or soul or spirit” (ix).  However, for Murphy, physicalism need not reduce to a gross, spiritually vacuous materialism.  On the contrary, Murphy believes that a physicalist account of human nature which accords with advances in scientific understanding can also uphold human beings as intelligent, moral and spiritual.  Within her system, religious experience too can be conceived of as wholly physicalist and rooted in neurobiological brain processes, yet still having religious integrity and spiritual authenticity (121-23).

Murphy develops and supports her thesis with four larger explorations: biblical theology, contemporary science, the challenge of reductionism, and the philosophical alignment of human distinctiveness, personal identity, and divine action with physicalism.  Chapter one gets right to the matter at heart: “Do Christians need souls?” Murphy argues that a physicalist account of human nature does not conflict with the biblical view on bodies and souls because “the Bible has no clear teaching here” (4).  In fact, critical biblical scholarship has increasingly identified a physicalist anthropology in the Hebrew Bible, which at times has been mistakenly understood as subscribing to mind-body dualism due to imprecise translations by the platonically influenced Septuagint.  The New Testament, on the other hand, contains a mix of physicalist, dualistic and trichtomistic (i.e., body, soul and spirit) readings, though Murphy contends that at least some of the dualistic readings may actually conform to a physicalist account (19-22).   While Murphy admits that throughout the Medieval and early Modern eras most Christians have been dualists, she believes that new theological constructs based on a physicalist account of human nature will allow Christians to eschew a now unsupportable spiritual other-worldliness and focus on the good behaviors and acts that she contends best represent Jesus’ ministry and early Christian values (37).

In Chapter Two, Murphy cogently explains why advances in scientific understanding undermine a dualist orientation.  First, the Copernican revolution brought with it a new atomistic understanding of matter and energy constrained by principles of conservation.  This led to an insuperable problem of how an immaterial mind or soul can interact with body.  Second, the Darwinian theory of evolution challenged human distinctiveness.  Some, like Pope Pius XII, have opined that although humans share a common biological development with the animal world, human beings are different from their forebears by virtue of divine ensoulment at the moment of conception.  Murphy, however, argues that the evidence of biological evolution better supports physicalist continuity between humanity and animals than a categorical distinctiveness (48-9). Human distinctiveness thus must be located elsewhere. Finally, contemporary studies in cognitive neuroscience lead us to a physicalist account of human nature.  She writes: “My argument in brief is this: all of the human capacities once attributed to the mind or soul are now being fruitfully studied as …processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems…The physicalist thesis is that as we go up the hierarchy of increasingly complex organisms, all of the other capacities once attributed to the soul will also turn out to be products of complex organization, rather than properties of a non-material entity” (56).

In order to square physicalism with Christianity, Murphy must compensate for the nonexistence of a soul and a spiritual world with an account of how human beings can possess free will, assume moral responsibility, enter into relationship with God and have religious experiences.  To do so, she must first surmount reductionism and its attendant determinism.  In Chapter Three, “Did my neurons make me do it?,” she does so with two lines of argument.  First, she rejects bottom-up causal reductionism which holds that the constituents of an entity determine the behavior of the whole.  Instead, she champions top-down reductionism wherein factors at higher levels of complexity have causal influence on the behavior of the smaller parts. Second, she argues that increased complexity and downward causality allow for self-direction, thereby enabling higher level moral reasoning to govern behavior (73).

In Chapter Four, Murphy mops up some remaining theological untidiness attendant to physicalism.  Despite our shared evolutionary history with Earth’s other living things, human beings indeed enjoy distinctiveness because nonreductive physicalism allows for human complexity to create an ability to autonomously fulfill moral duties.  Furthermore, we also therefore have the capacity to forge freely social relationships, and “to recognize and obey the voice of God” (123).  God too can interact with us through the indeterminism of quantum events (123-32).  And the combination of body, memory, consciousness, and moral character, the last three of which are higher level emergent features, constitute personal identity which is continuously shaped and reshaped throughout our lives (137-41).

Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? is an important introduction to cutting edge issues in contemporary theology.  Written as part of a series of “Current Issues in Theology” for non-academics, Murphy deftly introduces specialized studies in digestible form, as well as masterfully surveys the history of religious, scientific and philosophical views of human nature and theories of body, soul and mind.  Given the scope and purpose of this work, it is hard to critique it when it at times fails to fully elucidate a topic.  However, there are certain serious gaps that need to be addressed in order to provide a comprehensive and adequate physicalist theology.

Murphy contends: “We are, at our best, complex physical organisms, imbued with the legacy of thousands of years of culture, and, most importantly, blown by the Breath of God’s Spirit; we are Spirited Bodies (emphasis hers)” (ix).  What exactly does this mean? If Murphy rejects bottom-up causal reductionism, how could God divinely acting through Quantum events communicate with, provide spiritual experiences for, and directly influence people?  Murphy vaguely speaks at times of encountering God and even speaks of her own divine call toward theological education.  Her concluding statement is that “our embodied selfhood [is not] an obstacle to being touched by ‘the profoundest reality within and behind the universe.’”  However, absent her providing a theology of God, we are left wondering how the whole coheres.  Is human physicalist monism just part of a greater ontological dualism for Murphy, or does she subscribe to an overarching monistic whole?  Does physicialism demand a naturalist theology or can it jive with theism, as well. Without an adequate theory of God and explanation of the human-divine encounter, we are left with a compelling argument for physicalism, but without any security as to the authenticity and integrity of our religious traditions and experiences.