The Mind-Body Problem
by Peter Saunders
Basis for Respect
Another problem with materialism is that, it has led to judge a person’s worth by how clever they are. This results in us having no real basis for treating brain-damaged human beings any differently from animals. Bioethicist Peter Singer has put it quite starkly:
‘Once the religious mumbo-jumbo surrounding the term human has been stripped away, we may continue to see ‘normal’ members of our species as possessing greater qualities of rationality, self-consciousness, communication and so on than members of any other species, but we will not regard as sacrosanct the life of each member of our species, no matter how limited its capacity for intelligent or even conscious life may be’.3
Based on this belief Singer has been an advocate for infanticide, euthanasia and placing animal rights alongside human rights. These attitudes may shock us, but they do follow naturally from the belief that human beings are ‘less than persons’ if they have lost, or never gained, reasonable mental faculties.
The mind-body problem is complex. While Christians do not all agree on its solution, many take a dualist rather than a monist position. Christian researchers believe they are students both of the book of Nature (science) and the book of God (the Bible).
A Christian solution will be consistent with the science and also with the teaching of the Bible. What light does the Bible have to shed on the nature of human beings, and hence the mind-body problem? It tells us that human beings are godlike, complex, responsible and eternal – but also limited.
God has a mind and yet doesn’t need a body to act in the world. Similarly, although human bodies are part of the natural world, human beings also have minds, which to some extent, transcend the natural order, and yet can affect what happens in it. Being ‘made in the image of God’4 confers on us godlike qualities of creativity, rationality, personality, free will, self-awareness and consciousness and also gives us a special dignity, which deserves respect.5
The Bible describes man as consisting of spirit, soul and body.6 But these components are not separate parts stuck together as in a ‘lego kit’. Whilst Greek culture liked to separate spirit, soul and body, the Bible is strong in presenting human beings as a complex unity. Man was created by God to be a ‘living being’ composed both of the ‘dust of the ground’ and the ‘breath of life’.7 This tells us that we have both material and non-material aspects, but that they exist and belong together. Materialism, in contrast, tends to look for the simplest solution to issues.
The Bible teaches that human beings can make real decisions, and are accountable for them. We are not simply ruled by nature or fate. This is why God can justifiably judge us. If we were just automatons and thereby the product of forces beyond our control, it would be unfair for God to hold us accountable for sin8 (literally ‘missing the mark’). This again implies that our minds are in some way outside the natural order.
Our bodies die and yet the Bible teaches us that, despite this, human beings are eternal and live forever. The person survives death, implying that we are more than just bodies, But death does not lead to life as a disembodied spirit, or reincarnation. Rather, The Bible teaches that man’s destiny is to die once and then face judgement9 and either heaven or hell depending on our response to Jesus Christ.10 People who have a relationship with God through Jesus will experience resurrection and live with God forever in a perfect ‘new heaven and new earth’,11 with new resurrected bodies like that of Christ’s after his resurrection.12 This is clear from Jesus’ pronouncement to the thief on the cross – ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.
Finally, unlike God, human beings have finite power and knowledge. Despite our abilities we are limited in time and space. Even with sophisticated technology there are many things about the universe that we will never know. This does not give us an excuse for failing to ask questions or invoking God to explain the gaps in our knowledge. But we will recognise humbly that some things will always remain mysteries and beyond our understanding. Perhaps the mind-body problem is a mystery that is impossible for human minds to solve.
We may never fully unravel the intricacies of the mind-body problem, but we should be wary of too quickly embracing materialism. Materialism fails to explain our intuitive sense of self and has unwelcome implications for the way we should treat human beings. The Bible tells us that because human beings are made in God’s image,they have real dignity, no matter how deformed the body or deranged the mind. They must therefore be treated with the utmost respect. The body has a natural end, but because human beings are eternal, there is hope of a better life to come after death, when the person survives, to be renewed and clothed by God with a new body in a perfect new world.
- Chalmers D. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a fundamental theory. Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Eliasmith C. Dualism. In Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind. www.artsci.wustl.edu/~philos/MindDict/dualism.html
- Singer P. Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life? Paediatrics 1983; 72:128-9
- Genesis 1:26,27
- Genesis 9:5,6
- 1 Thessalonians 5:23
- Genesis 2:7
- Romans 3:23; 6:23
- Hebrews 9:27
- Revelation 20:11-15
- Revelation 21:1-5
- Philippians 3:21
- Luke 23:43
Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 18, 2002