Sometimes Less Is Just Less: Contending for Dichotomy over Monism

A graphic of a man, with a circle in half, representing the dualistic nature of a body and soul.

We are often told less is more—like when putting on perfume. A little can leave someone wanting just a bit more. A similar principle is applied in science—the principle of simplicity that says that if a simple theory or hypothesis is able to adequately explain some phenomenon just as well as a more complex theory, then the simple is more likely to be true because it has fewer variables to contend with. But in other cases, less is not more, it’s just less. In theological discussions over dichotomy, trichotomy, and monism, monism is that theory where the saying “less is more” simply doesn’t apply.

Rather, monism is more like baking: go too easy on the yeast, and you simply get less bread.

The argument

The discussion over dichotomy, trichotomy, and monism is really about a more fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? Are humans the kind of things that are one, two, or three types of things? Are we made up of more than one part? Are we simply our bodies, with brains like animals? That is the monist view. Or are we bodies and souls (the dichotomist view)—or bodies, souls, and spirits (the trichotomist view)? I will argue in what follows that we are, at a minimum, made up of two types of things, hence the dichotomy or trichotomy view.

An ontology, such as monism, that is unable to capture aspects of the biblical teaching should be rejected in favor of an ontology that is. I will argue that monism is indeed unable to capture aspects of biblical anthropology, so we should reject monism in favor of a superior ontology.

The monist view

The monist view is that humans are one type of thing, namely a material thing like a body or a brain. And Christian monists argue that this is the likely teaching of Scripture. Nancey Murphy and others have recently championed the monist view as the view of Scripture, because Scripture highlights the physical resurrection of the body and the holistic nature of humanity. She summarizes these intuitions by highlighting the physical resurrection of the body, here:

So the strongest point I can make here is to claim, as I did in the preceding section, that physicalism—along with an eschatological hope for resurrection of the body—leads more naturally to a concern for the physical world and its transformation than does dualism.1

Murphy highlights the physical resurrection of the body as the primary fixture of biblical anthropology and, though more subtly, implies the holistic nature of the human. In several places Murphy, along with Joel B. Green and other monists, argues that holism implicitly excludes dualism.2

There are two important responses a dualist should make.

But holism in no way excludes dualism; the physical resurrection is not the only fact of biblical anthropology. John Cooper argues this point forcefully in his Souls, Bodies, and Life Everlasting. He says that dualism accounts for both the physical resurrection of the body and the holistic nature of humanity—because resurrection is the final state of humanity. Also, Scripture emphasizes the holistic nature which the resurrection doctrine seems to entail; that is, humans are unified beings rather than divided beings. In fact, as Cooper carefully shows, the human can be holistic in nature because the person is functionally united as a soul-body unit that functions, ideally, in harmony. And, when the soul acts in ways that disagree with or ignore aspects of the body or brain, it affects the states of the soul and vice versa.3

For example, quite simply, when the soul (or mind) chooses to avoid drinking water and the body becomes dehydrated, the states of the soul (or mind) is negatively affected. In a similar way, when the soul attends for too long to negative beliefs or emotions, this begins to stress the body. So, accordingly, the soul and body function in unison, and when they find a proper balance, not only does the body function properly, but the soul perceives more clearly. If Cooper is right, then dualism does more, not less, than monism.

But, it is important to step back for a moment to consider the intuitive nature of dualism and its plausibility in Scripture.

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Common sense dualism

Dualism is simply the intuitive view, as the Georgetown moral philosopher Daniel Robinson has argued in more than one place:

The brain has no motives and seeks no solace. That actual persons—possessed of brains and other anatomical structures—are, indeed, motivated and do, indeed, strive to find deeper meaning in an otherwise indifferent cosmos is beyond dispute. That such motives and longings are somehow enabled by the brain should be readily granted but not as a fact that would give the motives and longings to the brain or locate them in the brain. Such inferences might well trigger activity in the anterior cingulate cortex in any creature expecting propositions to be meaningful.4

There is a common concern that dualism is a leftover from Greek thought, which makes dualism both foreign and antithetical to a biblical anthropology. Such a thesis has become common amongst many biblical and theological interpreters of Scripture. Alister McGrath reflects this common opinion and asserts that it is the consensus of Old Testament interpreters.

Yet, according to these authors, this is not how the writers of the Bible understood these ideas. The notion of an immaterial soul was a secular Greek concept, not a biblical notion. The Old Testament conceives of humanity “as an animated body and not as an incarnate soul.” The biblical vision of humanity was that of a single entity, an inseparable psychosomatic unit with many facets or aspects. “Soul” is an Anglo-Saxon term used to translate a variety of biblical terms, often having the general sense of “life.” Thus the Hebrew word nephesh, translate as “soul” in some older English Bibles, really means a “living being.”5

But, are Murphy, Green, and McGrath correct in their handling of Scripture? I don’t think so for a variety of reasons. First, if it can be shown that dualism is, in fact, compatible with holism, then dualism cannot be ruled out—but that would require more detailed philosophical analysis of the varying “dualisms” on offer and why it is that they cannot in fact affirm a robust and healthy functional holism. To date, that has not been shown. Second, the the negative association with Greek thought has a wide and varied reception in biblical scholarship that remains with us today. But it is important to point out that dualism is not, first, the product of illicit Greek patterns of thinking but rather the result of common sense—something which is not so readily dismissible in the court of appeal.

To begin, I wish to take the notion of “mere dualism” seriously, drawing from Stewart Goetz as a place to start. Doing so avoids platonizing one’s hermeneutic—an effect often perceived as a stain on dualism. But it is not committed to such Platonization, let alone any other Greek philosophical entailments. For Goetz, the “mere” in front of “dualism” or “substance dualism” means something like the following: human beings are made up of two things, body and soul. Bodies are one type of thing that have attributes of material, space, extension; and souls (or minds) are attributed with other things like thoughts, choices, willing, emotions, and the like. This might also be called “generic dualism” or “generic dichotomy” because it doesn’t seek to specify in any detail beyond the fact that there are these two distinct parts that make up what it means to be a human.6

And this is contrasted with that of, say, Platonic, Augustinian, Thomistic, or some other sort of dualism that requires a great deal many more commitments. But the point is that to be committed to some form of dichotomy or dualism does not make one committed to Plato or other illicit Greek ideas like the denigration of the body. It is rather a commitment to what many conceive of and have argued for as the commonsense view of humans—that we have two distinct parts that are significantly distinct in a way that, say, our physical heart and our brain are not.

Another way to describe the commonsense view is to call it the view of the common man, because it is the man on the street who naturally believes that he has a mind or soul that is distinct from his or her body.7

It is the lay view that requires no tutoring from the elites. This is further supported by the fact that it is the common view throughout history by most religions and cultures. As philosopher Stewart Goetz and scientist Mark Baker have said, “Most people, at most times, in most places, at most ages have believed that human beings have some kind of soul.”8

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They are not the only ones. In fact, dualism has been defended as the natural, intuitive, commonsense view of humans by many cognitive scientists, anthropologists, and psychologists. Take for example the famous anthropologist Alfred Gell:

It seems that ordinary human beings are “natural dualists,” inclined more or less from day one, to believe in some kind of “ghost in the machine.”9

The reason we are naturally inclined dualists, as someone like psychologist Paul Bloom would call us, is because we operate out of that basic sense of ourselves and our bodies.10

In other words, apart from good reasons to deny it, we have a deep experience that confirms it. And it’s a view that has not been disconfirmed by science like the belief of the older “scientific” view that the world isn’t spherical. It can’t be dismissed so neatly, nor should it.

What should this persistence of a commonsense dualism tell us? It should tell us that we have good reason to believe in the dichotomy position (minimally). It should tell us that the common man on the street has legitimate access to his own beliefs, that they are worthy beliefs—and unless we have very good reasons to believe we have bad beliefs or historically misguided notions of which “elites” might disabuse us, then we have a good reason to stand firm on this basic idea.

Scripture a corrective to common sense?

On the other hand, some might have you think that we do in fact need to be disabused of this belief and corrected by scriptural patterns of thinking. Nancey Murphy has argued precisely that point:

[B]iblical scholars called body-soul dualism into question beginning a century ago (but given the current popularity of books for and against the soul, they apparently neglected to inform their congregations!).11

It is here that I believe C. S. Lewis’s sage advice in the context of morality comes to mind.

The idea … that Christianity brought a new ethical code into the world is a grave error. If it had done so, then we should have to conclude that all who first preached it wholly misunderstood their own message.12

Similarly, Scripture does not act as an elitist ready to disabuse us of our folk assumptions about the soul.

One way to confirm our beliefs is to attend more closely to our common sense and not less. One principle that can help us either track our common sense in a way that helps us verify its truth or permits us to secure deeper confirmation (or justification, as the philosophers say) for arriving at a firmer conviction—namely, when we think about beliefs as “entrenched” beliefs that cannot be excised.13

These beliefs about the fact of souls distinct from bodies is the view of the biblical authors as well. Using this notion of “entrenched” will help confirm the fact that both the authors perceived, or experienced themselves in this way and we as readers incline toward this view. It is an entrenched view that can be confirmed through repeated attention to our own experience, the experience of others as well as a careful attending to the biblical material.

The biblical data

While it may be true that the biblical authors do not give us a philosophical treatise, nothing to this point has committed us to a full-blooded philosophical treatment of humans. What the biblical authors often show us is that they affirm these basic, intuitive, or commonsense views that we have of ourselves; and repeated attention to some of the data helps us to see just that. The basic intuition is that my body and the parts of my body are distinct from the contents of my mind and the experiences I, as a person, have. This basic intuition is deeply rooted in one’s experience of Scripture in a way that interfaces quite naturally with the experience the authors of Scripture had themselves.

For one example, Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 12:7, “And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit [ruah] returns to God who gave it.”14 Gregory of Nazianzus comments on this passage in a way familiar to theological reception when he says, “The soul is the breath of God, a substance of heaven mixed with the lowest earth.”15

Gregory, like many other theologians, may import more here than the commonsense views of biblical authors, but certainly not less than the minimal or general dualism as defined earlier. In fact, as some biblical commentators have argued (in keeping with earlier theologians), ruach neshama can rightly be translated as “soul” or “spirit”:

Thus says God, the Lord, who created [bara’] the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath [neshamah] to the people on it and spirit [ruah] to those who walk in it. (Isa. 42:5)16

There is far more to discern from these passages that might lead to more sophisticated dualisms, but certainly not less than mere dualism. A conceptual dualism is found when we attend even to less sophisticated exegesis of various passages of Scripture.

See further how the Scriptures track what I’ve called intuitive dualism or “mere dualism.” Consider: “My soul [psychē] doth magnify the Lord” (Luke 1:46 KJV). Mary in this passage presumes a commonly made distinction between her self, as soul, and her body. There is something distinct about her experiences and the access she has to them that is intuitively distinct from the fact or object of the world and the body that she experiences through. And this tracks quite naturally onto the dualist assumptions that there is some difference between the subject of thought, experience, and the object of that experience. Psalm 42:11: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” Here again, the psalmist makes this commonly made assumption that tracks onto our views about self. The fact that I am a subject of experience doesn’t readily map onto the fact that I just am my body or the parts of my body, but I am altogether distinct.

Jesus on the cross makes this intuitive distinction even more striking when he states: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit [pneuma]” (Luke 23:46). Now presumably, Jesus is making a similar first-person pronouncement about his state and he is saying something about his self that is distinct from his body. Similarly, Stephen in Acts 7:59 presumes something similar, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit [pneuma].” All of these passages make an intuitive assumption that do not readily map onto the monist interpretation that we just are our bodies and that once the body dies, we—you and I—presumably go to the grave. In fact, the intuitive distinction maps onto the authorial intent in a way that there is a natural interface between my experience and that of the author’s. I am not my body, strictly speaking, and when my body dies, presumably, it can persist in a different state than I do.

Rationales for considering dualism (and possibly, trichotomy)

We’ve addressed the intuitive nature of dualism (at least “mere” dualism) and its implicit plausibility in various passages of Scripture, but there are two other lines that solidify dualism, minimally, as the entailment of Scripture. The first has to do with the worldview considerations of both the Old and New Testament authors. The argument isn’t simply that belief in the afterlife includes something like ghosts, spirits, and souls that can exist in some diminished, disembodied capacity (although that is true); it is the fact that dualism is a deeply entrenched view that factors into the overarching mission of God to his people. The second line has to do with the sage reflections of those of the past that have become so entrenched as to be enshrined in the form of dogma—to deny this would be tantamount to denying beliefs that are not peripheral but central to upholding the fabric of the worldview in question. These buttress what we already know to be true about selves—that your soul is distinct from your body. If the souls do exist disembodied, then the monist view is inadequate to capture that which the Scriptures clearly teach.

Worldview considerations

The common interpretation both of the reader and the author lends itself to dualism.

The argument here is not from a democratic opinion to stated claim (as if majority wins), but rather that the belief is so deeply entrenched among the biblical authors and later appropriations of biblical texts that it cannot be easily extricated. This lends further credence to the plausibility structure of said readings that are later codified in dogmatic ways.

Old Testament scholar Richard Steiner, in his Disembodied Souls, even argues for dualism as an immaterial substance from the Old Testament despite what some contend to the contrary. He argues that the ancient Near Eastern pattern held this notion as apparent, and, further, it factors in a deep way into the fabric of creation and God’s redemptive purposes for humans. He argues forcefully that such an interpretation is common to the worldview of the Old Testament. Further, he advances an explicit exposition of the word nephesh in Ezekiel 13:18–20 that requires not just the interpretation of souls disembodied, but that we actually translate the word as “souls.” What is more, this belief in the possibility of disembodied souls is not something that is simply commonly believed, but it factors into the Old Testament consensus of an afterlife that God will sustain the faithful disembodied souls.17

This becomes further entrenched if the biblical interpreter lends any credence to dogmatic and theological interpreters throughout church history.

Afterlife considerations

Thomas Aquinas argued quite forcefully for an interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:1–10—a passage commonly appropriated by both Catholic and Reformed traditions—that ultimately leads us to dualism. Thomas argues that there is a disembodied interim state in which the beatific vision occurs. This comprises part of his doctrine of eschatological hope. While this is not the final hope, mind you, which is bodily resurrection, it is the initial hope of the believer. This is, undoubtedly, important dogmatically and an entrenched belief in the life of the confessing community throughout church history (be it Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Reformed dogmatic readings), but it has the very real and practical benefit of being able to tell the believing saint on his or her deathbed that they will in fact be in the presence of God when they die. This is not believable, and certainly not intuitively believable, on monism.

Two passages overwhelmingly support this reading and appropriation of Scripture and become thorn’s in the monist’s side. These include the stories about the witch of Endor and the conversion of the thief on the cross. On the first story, Saul illicitly seeks the help of a witch (which the Old Testament law condemns) and in doing this the witch conjures the soul of the prophet Samuel. The narrative portrays Samuel as if rising from the ground in a disembodied state (because we know that he is dead) and speaking to Saul. The second story further buttresses the Old Testament portrayal in the New Testament where Jesus informs the thief on the cross that he will be in paradise that day, which rather than yielding a delayed view of bodily resurrection confirms a more natural belief in the disembodied soul. For these reasons, the monist view struggles to conform to the biblical portrayal of anthropology and fails to capture some of it’s more important features—namely, the fact of survival after bodily death. One would’ve thought Jesus’s statement upon his resurrection secured the commonsense dualistic view rather than monism. He distinguished the disembodied state from the resurrection when he stated in Luke 24:39, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” An ontology of less, in this case, gives you less and not more—so accept more, not less!

Trichotomy and plausibility

The real debate historically concerns a discussion over dichotomy vs. trichotomy, not monism. As has been shown above, the plausibility of dichotomy (or dualism) has been shown from the force of intuition, from wise reflections of those preceding us, and, even more forcefully, from scriptural patterns of reasoning.

To date, there are still live debates in theology concerning trichotomy. Once we have accepted that biblical patterns lend credence to dichotomy, trichotomy must answer the question: “What is left unsaid by dichotomy?” There are two positions readily present in theological literature: Eastern readings and charismatic readings.

Conclusion

To this point, monist readings have significant hurdles to overcome. More important, they must contend with why we should accept a more minimalist ontology of the human person over the intuitive appeal of dualism, and of monism’s inability to account for the afterlife.

Also, appeals to recent literature on annihilationism or conditionalism won’t do, since these readings (while, arguably, inclining toward monism) can be read just as easily as dualist interpretations. Accepting perceived simpler ontologies only become plausible when one can capture the data, but, in the end, the monist cannot capture all aspects of Scripture. So, in accepting less, the monist commits him or herself to an anemic eschatology, and, by extension, an anemic anthropology. In this case, then, accepting less means actually getting less.

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  1. Nancey Murphy, Souls, Bodies, or Spirited Bodies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 35.
  2. Joel B. Green, Body, Soul and Human Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 21, 22. Also see Murphy, Souls, Bodies, or Spirited Bodies, ch. 2. For a brief response to Green’s arguments in a bit more detail, see Joshua R. Farris, “Aren’t Souls Passé? Biblical Reflections on Human Nature,” The Table Shortreads, August 5, 2015, https://cct.biola.edu/arent-souls-passe-biblical-reflections-human-nature/.
  3. John Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000). Cooper calls it “dualistic holism” because the human person is a functional and phenomenal unity, yet dualistic because the person can and does persist beyond the grave. The most sophisticated philosophical defense of dualism as holistic is found in Charles Taliaferro, Consciousness and the Mind of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  4. Daniel N. Robinson, “Theological Anthropology and the Brain Sciences,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology, eds. Joshua R. Farris and Charles Taliaferro (Milton Park: Routledge, 2017), 79.
  5. Alister McGrath, The Big Questions: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 137–38. He cites Old Testamant scholar H. Wheeler Robinson.
  6. Stuart Goetz, “Substance Dualism,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology, eds. Joshua R. Farris and Charles Taliaferro (New York: Routledge, 2015), 125.
  7. Jesse Berring, “The Folk Psychology of Souls,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29 (2006): 453–98.
  8. Mark Baker and Stewart Goetz, The Soul Hypothesis (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 1.
  9. Quoted in Nicholas Humphrey, Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 195.
  10. Paul Bloom, Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
  11. Nancey Murphy, “Reductionism and Emergence: A Critical Perspective,” in Human Identity at the Intersection of Science, Technology and Religion, eds. Nancey Murphy and Christopher C. Knight (New York: Routledge, 2010), 79.
  12. C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 46–47.
  13. See McNabb, Religious Epistemology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), esp. 25–37. McNabb advances a criterion for detecting the warrant of one’s belief using “frequency.”
  14. Assuming Genesis 2:7 as a creational lens for reading Ecclesiastes, the interpreter cannot simply dismiss this reading as naive and exegetically unfaithful on grounds of lexical argumentation—although there is more to say about it. Those who dismiss it are injudicious to the facts of the ancient Near East as exemplified in Steiner’s detailed exegesis and in the wider tradition’s reception of it.
  15. Andrew Louth, ed., Genesis 1–11, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture 1 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 51.
  16. For a concise theological anthropology from an Old Testament perspective, see Hoffmeier and Siefert, “What Are Human Beings?,” in Hoffmeier and Siefert, Can We Believe in Creation and Evolution? (forthcoming). James Hoffmeier has confirmed this in conversation.
  17. Richard C. Steiner, Disembodied Souls: The Nefesh in Israel and Kindred Spirits in the Ancient Near East, with an Appendix on the Katumawa Inscription, Society of Biblical Literature Ancient Near East Monographs 11 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015).
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Written by
Joshua Farris

Joshua R. Farris is Humboldt Experienced Researcher Fellow at the University of Bochum. Previously, he was the Chester and Margaret Paluch Professor at Mundelein Seminary, University of Saint Mary of the Lake and The Creation Project; and fellow at Heythrop College. He has taught at several universities in philosophy, theology, and Great Books. He has recently completed, 'The Creation of Self.'

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