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Are human beings composed of two parts, a material body and a nonmaterial soul, or are human beings purely physical beings? This question reflects a deep, but often unspoken, conflict within our culture over views of the very nature of humans. The first of these views is called dualism (body-soul dualism or mind-body dualism), and the second is here called physicalism. While this question is an old one, going back nearly to the beginning of Western intellectual history, it is becoming more prominent at the present time, due to developments in the cognitive and neurosciences. While many religious believers hold a dualist view, these scientific developments make it less and less plausible that we need the concept of an immaterial mind or soul to account for human capacities and behavior.

Within the physicalist camp there is another important distinction between reductionist and nonreductionist views. Thus, we can distinguish between "reductive physicalism" and "nonreductive physicalism." The reductive physicalist says that humans are purely physical beings and thus all of our thoughts, emotions, and experiences are nothing but brain states. For example, the laws of neurobiology could, in principle, explain all of human life, including rationality, morality, and even religion. The nonreductive physicalist, in contrast, says "yes," humans are purely physical, but this leads us to recognize that it is our brains (in our bodies and in social relationships) that enable us to think, to make moral choices, and even relate to God. Thus, the nonreductive physicalist position is equally opposed to dualism and to reductive physicalism.

While many conservative believers worry about conflicts between religion and science, it is more often argued that religious belief and science are so different they cannot possibly relate, either positively or negatively. However, this brief survey shows that concepts of human nature in our culture are the product of both religion and science, as well as philosophy. Presently, there are conflicting views on the nature of a person. Thus a dialogue between science and religion can help provide timely clarification of these issues.

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Go to Neuroscience Topic Index


Neuroscience & the Soul: Topic Index
The Person in Greek Thought
The Person in Medieval Thought
The Person in Modern Thought
Neuroscience and Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas, Moral Behavior and Phineas Gage
The Person in Hebrew Scriptures
The Person in The New Testament
The Person in Christian Theology
The Person in Jewish Thought
Is Behavior Determined, or are we Free?
Implications Of A Nonreductive Physicalist View


Dr. Nancey Murphy


See also:

The Cognitive and Neurosciences
What Makes us Human?
Are we Free?
Saint Augustine
Rene Descartes
Sir Isaac Newton
Books on Neuroscience and Theology