What role does the soul play? [Spin-off Old Earth or EC? A new book...]


(Matt Connally) #1

I really appreciate the tone and objectives of this book. I’ve been basically familiar with Intelligent Design though I’ve only skimmed a couple of their books. I’m less familiar with both Old Earth Creationism and Evolutionary Creationism (I’m only just now reading Collin’s books—and like them a lot). But last month I was thoroughly appalled with myself when I had no good answer for a student when they asked, “What happened to the dinosaurs?”. I’m still repenting of my ignorance. Anyway, all I really knew was ID, so when I looked around and then realized that you all are in disagreement with the ID crowd, I tried to understand the conflict and quickly became mentally fatigued. I read some of the reviews of Theistic Evolution (by Moreland, Meyer, et al) but just didn’t have the bandwidth to read further. So all that’s to say, again, that the best part of this book was its introduction and conclusion and the moderation, <=). Thank you all.

Now for Biologos: what role does the soul play in people? On page 207 you said that symbolic thought and moral altruism are distinctive features of people “and are not just mildly amplified versions of animal capacities.” So would you go so far as to say that these are supernatural (immaterial, spiritual) attributes? What if we tried to say that rationality was likewise an all-or-nothing supernatural phenomenon? Regarding primates, is there not plenty of room for skepticism about them actually being rational creatures? Semantics kicks in here, but could we clarify things by saying that rationality is not possible without symbolic thought?


Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation? A New Book Shows Fruits of Multi-Year Dialogue
(Phil) #2

Good question. Tough to define what the soul is. My musing is that it is what enters into relationship with God, and what comes into play with when we rise about our animal instincts, and love one another despite our tribal instincts and selfish natures. But I do not know, as some animals can be shown to have some of those characteristics. Well, dogs, but not cats.:wink:


(Randy) #3

Good question. George Macdonald, one of my favorite authors, wrote, “Never tell a child ‘you have a soul.’ Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body.” In some ways, such as explaining our responsibility as thinking beings who have choice, this is a helpful picture.

However, I disagree in essence with him here. Many characteristics (love, wonder, depression) that we thought a hundred years ago were from the soul alone have been severely affected by chemical and physical injury. I take it on faith that God has an interest in preserving some part of us beyond death. However, I don’t have any real idea what that will be, or what it will be like. I may be way off base here. I’m willing to get your input and correction.

A definition of “soul” is “1.the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal.”


(Mitchell W McKain) #4

What soul would that be? Would this be the soul of the pagan belief in the transmigration of souls? Or would this be the translation of the Greek word “psyche” that means life, or the translation that means mind. Or are you talking about the primitive belief in some non-physical entity animating the body which disagrees with all the scientific evidence that there is any such thing? Don’t get me wrong here, I am a Christian and I do believe in a spiritual aspect of existence, life after death, and the Bible, but I prefer to steer clear of pagan superstitions and go to clear detailed explanations in the Bible such as the one Paul gives in first Corinthians 15 when he addresses what kind of body do we have in the resurrection. There he speaks of the spirit and the spiritual body based on the Greek word “pneuma.”

Paul says that if there is a physical/natural body (perishable and made of the stuff of the earth) then there is a spiritual body (imperishable and made of the stuff of heaven). That is something I can sink my teeth into as actually taught by the Bible rather than reading a bunch of pagan beliefs into the text about soul getting inserted into bodies.

But ok, let’s suppose you don’t care anything about that stuff and say “soul” or “spirit” or whatever you call it… what role does any such non-physical supernatural thing play in people?

There is only one role given to the spiritual body in 1 Cor 15. Being imperishable, it continues after the physical natural body dies. “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies,” Paul says with some scorn! “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” Thus Paul seems to be telling us that the spiritual body, even if it exists during our physical life, it only plays a role after the physical body dies.

I do not speak for Biologos. But my answer is, No. These are attributes of the human mind which all the evidence tells us is an entirely physical existence. It just that we Christians believe that the choices we make have in impact on the life of the spirit and its eternal well being and destiny.

Science would make us look foolish by proving that this cannot be the case. Though on second thought, it may depend on what you mean by rationality… and for that see below.

Depends on what you mean by “rational.” Are computers rational? Primates have most of the same brain functionality that we have. And thus a lot of the same abilities for learning and calculation. What they don’t have is an abstract capable language with an ability to encode information that surpasses that of DNA. I believe that this gives the human mind a life of its own apart from biology with its own needs, desires, structure, development, health, and inheritance quite apart from that of the body and its biology – a memetic life as opposed to a genetic life. But is there anything supernatural in that? Nope.

Yes that would help. Might need a little more work to rule out other primates and computers, but I don’t think anything supernatural is either needed or is going to agree with the evidence.


(Shawn T Murphy) #5

Dear @jpm,
This is the area that have done most of my research on. In your musings, what do you image that your soul has been doing for the past 13.7 billion years? Jesus gives a hint:

And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out. (Luke 19:40)

Evolution has a singular spiritual purpose, leading the soul to goodness and, therefore, virtue. What virtue does a soul learn trapped in a stone for millions of years? Patience and Humility.

I see your musings uncovered the truth about dogs. The final stage of animal spiritual evolution is dog, horse or dolphin. These are the three that can demonstrate selflessness, and are willing to risk their life for humans.

One of my most favorite mediations is about a poor shepherd and his dog. He named his dog Jo, because Johannes was to difficult to call out. They lived and worked together alone on a mountain with their sheep. The shepherd prayed with Jo every night, and explained the Gospel to him. When the shepherd finally died, the first thing he asked was to see Jo. After getting reacquainted, the shepherd was able to witness Jo’s transformation from dog into a human soul. He had learned everything he could in the animal kingdom, and now it is time for his final test in humanity.


(Matt Connally) #6

“Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body.” That’s excellent!
Regarding the effects that chemicals and physical injury can have on a person, these do reveal a lot of profound things about the complexity of the brain. However, due to that complexity, I also think there’s plenty of room for skepticism that we should attribute such things as love and wonder to the brain. The skeptical view could still be to compare it to a driver and a vehicle: the way a vehicle performs may reveal very little about the driver’s feelings or attitudes. And a brain is a million times more complex than a car. I thank God for psychology, for antidepressants, etc. But as powerful as chemicals can be, words can be more powerful. (For example, if someone learned that they had a lottery ticket worth $500M, their feelings and attitude and state of mind would instantly change based on that information alone.)


(Matt Connally) #7

Well there are a lot of directions we could go here, but let me focus on rationality being an all-or-nothing phenomenon. I notice you have a BS in math, so let me compare it to mathematics being an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Just like you can’t have the number 7 without having 4,5,6…8,9,10 ad infinitum, so also you can’t have it without all the rest of math. For example, think of a 2-D mathematical plain. You think of looking down on the plane, or looking up at it, or passing through it. Regardless, your perspective is always 3-dimensional. Nobody can actually think in just two 2-dimensions, much less in a 1-dimensional number line. And the same is true if we translate it all algebraically. So in a similar fashion, rationality is a singular phenomenon. (Numbers are nothing more than words, after all, and equations are nothing more than sentences)

Now that certainly doesn’t mean that a rational person has to be able to articulate or explain all rationality. Someone can be perfectly fluent, even poetic, in English even if they don’t know the difference between a noun and a verb, even if they would fail a 5th grade English test. Similarly, someone can have very rational, mathematically precise thinking even if they would fail a 5th-grade math test.

And now just consider the concept of infinity, which all of mathematics depends upon. Without calculus (which is all about using infinities) we would have zero modern technology–or, at the very least, nothing which requires transistors. The fact is that infinity is about as useful and necessary and objective a tool for any engineer as is a pencil or crane. And yet infinity, by its very nature, has no physical qualities. Furthermore, it cannot every be represented in any way–whereas, by contrast, the number 7 could be represented by abacus beads or apples or knots or a myriad other media. As useful and objective as infinities are, they will always only be immaterial phenomena.

Therefore, there is no way the human brain–or any other circuitry–could ever comprehend or perceive or “know” the meaning or existence of them. Whatever does comprehend the concept of infinity must be just as immaterial as infinity itself.


(Mitchell W McKain) #8

I don’t even understand the issue let alone what you are trying to establish. This is certainly not something I spoke about in my post.

Incorrect. Your limitations is not everyone’s limitations. People can and have thought of a 2d mathematical plain without ebedding it in a 3 dimensional space. This is in fact what is done in the mathematics of manifolds devised by Einstein in his general theory of relativity.

Also incorrect. People routinely come up with mathematical proofs for things in 1 and 2 dimensions. They cannot do that unless they can think in 1 and 2 dimensions. I think your confusion comes from the idea of imagining any of the things important to you in 1 and 2 dimensions, and since they are 3 dimensional, this is indeed impossible.

That is like saying the Bible is nothing but ink on paper… or we can use your words to say it like claiming the Bible is nothing but words and sentences… No, I am not buying that particular gold mine in the desert.

I certainly agree that being rational and be able to explain rationality are two entirely different things. But I have no idea what you think the relevance of this may be to the discussion.

If your argument is that there is more to reality than the physical universe then I have already granted that. But the conceptual nature of things like infinity does not establish that conceptual things are supernatural existences. Just because the dragons and jedi knights in stories and movies do not exist in the physical world, does that mean they exist as supernatural beings? I don’t see why conceptual things like numbers need be anything more than conceptual things any more than story book creatures and characters need be anything more than story book creatures and characters.

In fact I can show you how computers can do calculus and mathematical manipulations with infinity, does that mean that computers must have a soul or spirit?

Incorrect. Just because infinite or numbers like pi cannot be represented in the same way as numbers like 7 doesn’t mean that they cannot be represented. They can be represented in numerous ways sufficient for computers to handle calculations with them.

They are conceptual mathematical objects which can demonstrably be represented and manipulated in material media.

No. The human mind which is a physical living organism whose existence depends on the human brain, created and devised such concepts as numbers and infinity and gave them whatever meaning they may have, so it is absurd to claim they cannot comprehend them. Besides the nature of numbers and infinity is conceptual not spiritual or supernatural and that just means that they exist within the symbolization of the human mind and communication media just as dragons and jedis exist with the symbolization used to tell stories in human communication media as well.


(Matt Connally) #9

But manifolds cannot be separated from the context of 3-D mathematics. With the illustration of the 2-D plane, I was just trying to give an example of how mathematics is an all-or-nothing phenomenon. (I had brought up in my initial post that rationality is all-or-nothing, so that’s how this started.) We know this because even though each of the 3 dimensions is perfectly unique and coherent in and of itself, each one of them contains the whole of mathematical truth whether we want it to or not, whether we can articulate it or not. I mean, for example, you can take all mathematical truth (including manifolds and all of topology) and translate it digitally (i.e. one-dimensionally). It was Cantor who discovered that, for example, a one-inch line segment has just as many mathematical points on it as are in a cube the size of the Milky Way.


(Mitchell W McKain) #10

That sounds rather nonsensical to me… like the following…

  1. The real number line cannot be separated from the context of the number 7.
  2. Non-Euclidean geometry cannot be separated from the context of Euclidean geometry.
  3. Evolution cannot be separated from the context of blackbirds.
  4. The universe cannot be separated from the context of the earth.
  5. Story telling cannot be separated from the context of Santa Claus.

In each case the first thing is an invention of a context for the latter. The mathematics of manifolds is the the more general context of which the mathematics of 3d space is just an example. In none of those cases does the more general thing depend on the specific example. Just because mankind went from one specific example to the more general idea does not mean that someone elsewhere in the universe/existence couldn’t come up with the same general idea from very different examples.

Which remains an issue which I do not comprehend – either what the point is that you are trying to make or the relevance to our discussion.

Not buying that. Not at all. Simple specific examples and more primitive conceptions and ideas do not contain within them the more general theory or the modern analysis. Nope.

I am not buying the idea that the articulation of something is such a trivial addition. In fact, there is good reason to believe that the articulation is as significant an invention and addition as the human mind is a significant addition to life on this planet.

Which just shows the limitation of the point concept and the need to understand and devise the concept of metrics. It is like looking at only the topological properties of geometrical constructions. This make no distinction between a cube and a sphere because it looks at things in only a very limited way.


(Matt Connally) #11

Actually, manifolds all depend upon 3-D space as their point of reference. But the reverse is not true. Thus extra dimensions are like analogies of the first three dimensions (which, again, only exist as a whole)–coherent, rational, useful analogies.


(Mitchell W McKain) #12

This is not true. Perhaps a teacher or reference you accessed used concepts from 3d or Euclidean space, as Wikipedia does, to explain the ideas but there is no dependence of manifold mathematics upon the mathematics of 3d space. The claim doesn’t even make any sense. And it isn’t even necessary to use 3d space mathematics to explain manifold mathematics. I know because it wasn’t used in the text from which I studied it, which was Hawking’s “Large Scale Structure of spacetime,” where it was contructed by theorems without any reference to 3d space whatsoever.


(Randy) #13

Thanks. But aren"t thoughts and words actually chemical and physical themselves? Feelings are, as well. Thanks.


(Mitchell W McKain) #14

Yes… but that is again like saying the Bible is paper and ink. To be sure physical things are composite and their existence depends on what they are made of. Disrupt the relationships between those component parts and the things dissolve. But via encoding they are more than just the composite parts. There is information there and the chemistry and physics are just the medium. And so mattconnally is correct the information is so much more than just the medium and there is a power in them to affect things on large scale.

But I know… your point is, there is no need to pull in spiritual or supernatural elements into any of this. All of the above is explained by the physics of chaotic dynamics, whereby the smallest and seemingly most insignificant things can change the world.

But then again none of this rules out the spiritual and the supernatural. So we have a choice. To believe or not to believe. And sometime all it takes is to lay out that choice uncluttered by irrational statements and demonstrably incorrect claims.


(Shawn T Murphy) #15

Dear @Randy and @mitchellmckain
I like to use Rob Hoffman’s model for a human because of its simplicity. I think it is good foundation to start from. Hoffman defines the human as a quadrinity, made up of the intellectual self, the emotional self, the physical self (body) and the true self (soul). The goal of enlightenment is to find harmony among all four aspects of self - giving room for each aspect of self to find fulfillment.

Chemical processes take place in the body, but the question for science to help determine is: Are the chemical reactions the cause of the emotion, thought, word, movement, or a reaction to the same. The act of crying for example, can be the body’s reaction to dry conditions, or the emotional self’s reaction to loss, or the true self’s cry for attention.


New Article: Intro to Metaphysics and Tim O'Connor
(Mitchell W McKain) #16

I would not say this is wrong, but I do use a different model which coincidentally is also a quadrinity. It is the intersection of two simultaneous effective dualities (remember that I am actually a substance monist), body and mind on the one hand and spiritual and physical on the other. Two important principles are:

  1. Body and mind are two very different but interdependent physical forms of life with their own needs, desires, organization, mediums, health, and systems of inheritance – genetic life and memetic life.
  2. Physical living organisms create a spiritual form by the choices they make. But the spiritual is not dependent on an external system for its existence and thus essentially eternal in nature, but they can decay from within due to self-destructive habits.

The relationship between physical and spiritual consistent with scientific findings would have to be one that is mostly epiphenomenal, that is with the physical affecting (creating) the spiritual but the effects of the spiritual on the physical being extremely restricted – operating though such a narrow window that effects can easily be dismissed as coincidental.

So to address your question more directly. The emotions, thoughts, words, movements, and reactions of a person are all part of an extremely complex interacting system. There can be purely chemical effects disrupting all of these in various illnesses, but this does not mean that any of these are purely chemical or independent of the others. Words and ways of thinking can effect emotions, just as emotions can effect ways of thinking.


(Charles Keller) #17

I’m late to this discussion but last year our Los Alamos Faith and Science Forum considered what the soul might be.
As someone on the discussion wrote: maybe you don’t need your spiritual soul until you die!
I sort of follow Polkinghorne who says that, since we are a unity in being your, when you die nothing is left excepting God’s complete knowledge of you and as such can reconstruct you on the last day
But this misses the many events which seem to show beings in heaven interacting with us. In our discussions we came to an interesting idea. That your soul is God’s loving knowledge of you


(Mitchell W McKain) #18

I don’t know that I would go quite that far! I only know that the effect of the spirit on the physical must be very subtle. It leaves open the possibility that the spirit is important for the subjective experience of consciousness. It certainly seems to me that consciousness requires taking some ownership of ones choices and I cannot help seeing a connection with the way I think our spirit takes its form from the choices we make.

The problem with this idea is that you are left with a choice between two possibilities…

  1. God is a cruel sadistic monster who resurrects suicides who didn’t want the life He gave them just so that He can torture them some more.
  2. There is an escape from the consequences of our actions and choices so ultimately they are somewhat lacking in meaning and value.

This supports the methodological naturalist approach that the spiritual body is simply eternal in nature, and this is confirmed by Paul in 1 Cor 15. This suggests that it would be very much against the natural order for God to euthanize spirits in order to spare them the negative consequences of their own actions and choices. I believe in a God who makes the rules and sticks to them so that we just have to learn how to manage with those rules. Adjusting the rules to make things easier just doesn’t seem right to me, and so I do not believe God does such a thing.


(Jennifer Thomas) #19

Hello, Matt. I’m coming to this discussion a bit late, so I hope you won’t mind a few thoughts from me about your original question.

My thoughts don’t fit neatly into any of the longstanding theories about the soul that have circulated in various religions at various times and places. So you may not like my thoughts! But here goes . . .

Although Western Christian orthodoxy long ago split up its theories about the soul into diverse doctrines such as creation, humanity, sin, the Last Things, and the like, in the early centuries of Christianity, writers such as Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine of Hippo wrote extensively on the soul. So there’s a long history of such questioning in Christianity. I don’t particularly agree with Tertullian et al, but I think that as Christians today it’s not only important for us to ask questions about the soul, but necessary as a means of stitching together some of the most difficult questions we have about God, Creation, the afterlife, and especially how to build a relationship with God while we’re here on Planet Earth.

I know that most Christian denominations take the doctrinal view that God doesn’t create our souls until there’s a physical body to attach the soul to. (I’m simplifying, of course.) But I disagree with this view. I personally believe that the soul preexists our lives as human beings. I’m not saying that all souls have existed since the beginning of Time – but I am saying that each of us is a child of God, a child who is uniquely loved by Mother Father God, a child whose true soul nature exists in the quantum universe to which we’re are born as souls and to which we return as souls once our lives as human beings are complete.

From a scientific point of view, I believe that a much stronger case can be made for consciousness as a quantum non-Materialist phenomenon than as a purely baryonic, Materialist phenomenon. After all, probably 95% of God’s Creation consists of non-baryonic enery, so to say that God isn’t smart enough to be able to bring forth life (i.e. soul consciousness) at a quantum level (as opposed to a purely baryonic level) does strike me as a bit of insult to the amazing God who has created the amazing and good Creation we live in.

As for the mechanics of how God would or could manage to arrange things so we, as children of God, could incarnate for a short time in 3D biological bodies (for the purpose of better knowing and loving our beloved God), the best analogy I’ve seen during many years of study as a Christian mystic is this one: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/caterpillar-butterfly-metamorphosis-explainer/.

A quote from the article says this: “the contents of the pupa are not entirely an amorphous mess. Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on.”

If you think of the soul as having a complex set of “imaginal discs” related to our unique emotional, intellectual, temperamental, and talent-based soul attributes, then it’s not such a big stretch to suppose that a God who can juggle a vast Creation can also juggle the specifics of moving our “imaginal discs” straight into our DNA, where they can gradually unfold into the intertwined attributes of heart, mind, soul, and strength that Jesus spoke of when he talked about love.

So what I’m saying is that some of our human attributes can be linked directly to our soul’s “imaginal discs” and some of our human attributes can be linked to the “3D toolkit” God gives us so we can experience baryonic life. It’s all intertwined, though, and it’s meant to be this way so we have the chance to struggle with our Free Will.

The interpretation I’m suggesting here raises a whole bunch of difficult and painful questions about our human lives that, to be honest, are probably more frustrating than the Christian doctrines of creation, sin, and Last Things. No doubt creation + sin+ eschatology is an “easier sell” than the idea of good souls incarnating in 3D bodies to see what Forgiveness and Free Will feel like when you’re not totally blanketed by Divine Love each and every day . . . but this is what my experiences as a mystic have taught me.

Thanks for listening!


(Shawn T Murphy) #20

Dear Jennifer,
Thank you for your eloquent words. This is the type of position that I would gladly help you to reinforce. It is the topic of my third book, Torn Between Two Worlds: Material and Ethereal .

I agree that the consequences of this belief for modern Christians are enormous, relative to the issues that are discussed in churches or in this forum. The red herring for me in this whole story is that it was the emperor of Rome who declared the preexistence of the soul to be anathema, not the church. The emperor Justinian make Trump look like a teddy bear.
Best Wishes, Shawn