The Person in Modern Thought
Over the course of the modern period (ca 1650-1950) a variety
of reasons have emerged for rejecting the sorts of dualism separating
body, mind, and soul. These reasons encompass theological, philosophical,
and scientific considerations. Theological reasons include: (1)
the claim that dualism is not biblical and that theology ought
to reject Greek conceptions in favor of the original Hebraic conceptions
of the Bible; (2) the related claim that resurrection of the body
(rather than immortality of the soul) was the original Christian
account of life after death; and (3) the claim that dualism has
led to an un-Christian depreciation of the physical creation.
There have always been philosophical problems connected with
the concept of the soul. For example, Plato said that the body
could not affect the soul. If this is so, then how could the senses
provide it with perceptual knowledge? In the modern period, the
problems have become acute, leading most philosophers and many
theologians to conclude that a different account of the nature
of the human being is required.
The philosophical reasons for this change have largely to do
with the difficulties (or impossibility) of explaining how a nonmaterial
entity could interact with a material body. In addition, these
problems have been exacerbated by a variety of scientific developments.
(1596-1650) is considered the first modern philosopher, and he
has had a tremendous impact on all later conceptions of the person.
Descartes distinguished two basic kinds of created realities:
(1) extended substance, meaning all material things, and (2) thinking
substance, including angels and human minds. (Note in Descartes
the shift in terminology from `souls' to `minds.' These concepts
overlapped for ancient and medieval thinkers, and English-language
philosophy has generally used the term 'mind' rather than 'soul.').
The problem of mind-body interaction suddenly became more difficult
in the Modern period because a version of atomism came to replace
Aristotelian conceptions of matter. In Aristotle's theory,
matter and form were correlative, with form being the active principle
and matter being the passive. So the soul, as one type of form,
was conceived exactly as that which animated, or moved, the body.
In the early modern scientific conception of matter, especially
as developed by Isaac Newton, matter was also seen as inert, or
passive. But matter in Newton's conception, rather than being
moved by immanent forms, was moved by external, physical forces.
This raised a dilemma: if we maintain the immateriality of mind,
then there is no way to account for its supposed ability to move
the body. Alternatively, if we interpret it as some kind of physical
force, its effects ought to be measurable and quantifiable, just
like any other force in nature. However, no "psychic force"
is yet explained or accounted for in modern physics. To solve
this dilemma, a variety of philosophical theories have been tried.
For instance, "psycho-physical parallelism" holds that
mental events and physical events occur in parallel chains, only
appearing to interact causally because of a pre-established harmony.
And, "epiphenomenalism" claims that brain events cause
mental events, but mental events have no causal effects of their
own. Psycho-physical parallelism has had very few supporters.
Epiphenomenalism is problematic because it simply denies that
the mental, qua mental, makes any difference in the world.
Both of these theories see brain events -- which are presumably
governed by the laws of neuroscience, and ultimately by the laws
of physics as making things happen. This leads to the problem
of what it means for a physical (brain) event to cause a mental
These problems have led most secular philosophers to conclude
that we are better off not postulating minds as entities
at all. We may speak, instead, of mental events, but these
are still identical with physical (brain) events, in some way.
That is, we call them mental events as we experience them `within';
physical as we imagine a neuroscientist looking at the brain from
As we have seen, early modern science's new conception of matter
created philosophical problems for mind-body dualism. Many philosophers
have judged these problems to be insoluble, and this, in turn,
has led to a wholesale rejection of the concept of a substantial
link | Printer-friendly | Feedback
| Contributed by: Dr. Nancey Murphy