Category Archives: Apologetics

review

The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters

Many years ago I was intrigued with and influenced by John W. Cooper’s excellent Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate. It nicely canvasses the historical, biblical, and philosophical landscape arguing for a view of human nature Cooper labels “holistic dualism.” At the time it was one of the best treatments available on showing that all humans are essentially composed of two parts, body and soul.

As an excellent partner to Cooper’s book, a thorough treatment on the human soul is now offered by one of Christianity’s keenest philosophers. J. P. Moreland‘s The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters is an outstanding treatment of key issues and concerns. An able spokesman on the subject of the human soul, Moreland concludes that “scripture, sound philosophical reasoning, and everyday experience all point to the reality of an immaterial soul” (book description).

From beginning to end it is clear that this offering by Moreland does not shy away from challenging some of the most recent findings of neuroscience, naturalistic philosophers, and even the voices of popular culture that seek to reduce humans to merely material beings and render the human soul nonsense or altogether obsolete. Appropriately subtitled, this book goes a long way in providing a solid defense that humans are indeed made up of two parts, material and immaterial and Moreland wisely and pastorally demonstrates that this thesis matters immensely on a practical level.

Each chapter ends with a summary review, vocabulary/definition section, and end notes providing the reader a good grasp on the main points and key terms. For those unfamiliar with philosophical writing, I would recommend beginning with the summary and previewing the vocabulary before beginning a chapter, which may serve to build a conceptual framework around what to expect.

Summary Review and Comments

After noting in the introduction that abandoning belief in the human soul is tantamount to sacrificing reason and revelation on the alter of science, Chapter 1 begins to unpack the tools needed to construct a human soul. Moreland shows the inadequacy of neuroscience when discussing various concepts around the human soul, such as the nature of a property, mental versus physical substances, etc.

He employs “Leibniz’s Law of the Indiscernibility of Identicals: For any entities x and y, if x and y are identical, then any truth that applies to x will apply to y as well” to show that if “something is true of the mind or its states and not the brain or its states,” then “physicalism is false and dualism, provided it is the only other option, is true” (p 36). A central motif and claim throughout this book is that “neuroscience is inept for resolving disputes about the nature and existence of consciousness and the soul” (p 150). Though useful, data gleaned by neuroscience is “simply irrelevant” for addressing and resolving conflicts around the nature and existence of consciousness and the soul. This is substantiated by showing Leibniz’s Law is consistently violated by those who argue that the human person is solely and merely physical.

Property dualism versus substance dualism and supervenience are among the philosophical categories broached in this chapter.

Chapter 2 will be a welcome read for those more familiar with the Bible than with philosophy. Though not entirely absent of philosophical speak, this chapter provides Scriptural references that, for my mind, persuade readers to adopt a dualist view of human persons. Topics rarely discussed regarding life after death are also mentioned, such as necromancy, differences between soul and spirit, extinction/re-creation view versus immediate resurrection view versus temporary disembodiment view, all of which are alternative readings of the biblical materials.

Chapter 3 is a defense of property dualism, which is the notion that “A human being is one material substance that has both physical and mental properties, with the mental properties arising from the brain” (p 114). This chapter is metaphysically rich and philosophically thick so Moreland offers the reader an opportunity to bypass some of its deep waters. Staying the course, however, will provide a solid basis for maintaining that consciousness is non-physical. Taking another stab at the limitations of the scientific/naturalistic venues, he shows that “The Nature and Reality of Consciousness” (the chapter title) must be discussed in the philosophical arena, since the the epistemic burden that mental states are only physical cannot withstand the evidence nor sound reason.

In “The Reality of the Soul” Chapter 4 makes a case for common ground between 3 different types of substance dualism; namely, that “the self or ego is an immaterial substance that bears consciousness” (p 118). After expounding upon five arguments for substance dualism and the immaterial nature of the self, Moreland provides a taxonomic-like framework for understanding the human soul, possessing five states and five faculties. They are:

Five States of the Human Soul
  1. Sensation: A state of awareness, a mode of consciousness, e.g., a conscious awareness of sound or pain.
  2. Thought: A mental content that can be expressed in an entire sentence and that only exists while it is being thought.
  3. Belief: A person’s view, accepted to varying degrees of strength, of how things really are.
  4. Desire: A certain inclination to do, have, avoid, or experience certain things.
  5. Act of will: A volition or choice, an exercise of power, an endeavoring to do a certain thing, usually for the sake of some purpose or end.

(p 149)

Five Faculties of the Human Soul
  1. Sensory faculties: Sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing.
  2. The will: A faculty of the soul that contains my abilities to choose.
  3. Emotional faculties: One’s abilities to experience fear, love, and so forth.
  4. Mind: That faculty of the soul that contains thoughts and beliefs along with the relevant abilities to have them.
  5. Spirit: That faculty of the soul through which the person relates to God.

(p 149-150).

In Chapter 5, “The Future of the Human Person”, Moreland speaks to the afterlife or life after death. Offering grounds for and briefly describing two cases of NDEs (near death experiences), Moreland insists that the afterlife is real and should be taken seriously. Most of this chapter then turns to two key topics: the importance of heaven the purpose of hell.

Moreland admits he’s not an expert on heaven (p 159) but then goes on to describe it in considerable detail drawing heavily upon Richard Swinburne’s insights that heaven is a specific kind of place fit for a specific kind of people. Put simply, “heaven is the type of place where people with wrong beliefs and a bad will would not fit, and heaven must be freely and noncoercively chosen” (p 164).

This seems to fit our basic intuitions about the kind of place that heaven might be and the kind of people who might occupy it. In fact, heaven is not a reward for doing good but for being good and it is this life that is intended to be the training ground, as it were, for turning us into good people through advancing our spiritual formation. Readers familiar with Moreland’s other works in this arena will readily identify with these notions (see, for instance, his Kingdom Triangle.)

Reasons for hell are both morally and intellectually justified, given a right view of God’s holiness and justice. Moreover, given that

Jesus Christ and His apostles were moral experts [, then...] if they, being as virtuous as they were and having well-developed moral sensibilities, did not balk at the notion of hell but even embraced it as just, loving, and fair, then our current distaste for the doctrine says more about us than about the doctrine itself. To deny this conclusion is tantamount to claiming that our modern moral sensibilities are more developed than those of Jesus and His apostles, not to say those of the overwhelming number of godly people who have followed Jesus since. But this claim is clearly arrogant and unreasonable.

(p 169)

Moreland interacts with some objections to hell, which include universalism, second chances, annihilationism (or conditional immortality), and the always deeply difficult psychological objection, “What about those who have never heard?”

Regarding annihilation (the belief that hell is not eternal torment but instead, after a period of suffering, humans cease to exist) Moreland argues that all human persons created by God have intrinsic value (e.g., freedom and dignity). Therefore, snuffing out their existence is an act of dishonor and disrespect. He states “One way God can respect persons is to sustain them in existence and not annihilate them…[since] annihilation destroys creatures of very high intrinsic value.” Another way God respects persons is to honor their choices “even if their choices are wrong….Since God will not force His love on people and coerce them to choose Him, and since He cannot annihilate creatures with such high intrinsic value, the only option available is quarantine. And that is what hell is” (p 167). In addition, Moreland observes that the biblical, moral, and ethical arguments for annihilation are weak and cannot stand up to careful exegetical and hermeneutical scrutiny, some of which he briefly unpacks.

As for the “What about…?” objection, Moreland’s answer may seem less than traditional, but it is honest and the reader gets a sense he’s thought greatly about this sticky wicket in theology. After insisting that the Bible does not explicitly address this question (and I agree), he states:

I believe it is certainly possible that those who are responding to the light from nature that they have received will either have the message of the gospel sent to them (cf. Acts 10) or else it may be that God will judge them based on His knowledge of what they would have done had they had a chance to hear the gospel. The simple fact is that God rewards those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6). It does not seem just for another to be judged because of my disobedience in taking the gospel to others, and it is surely the case that the gospel has not been taken to others in the way God commanded. I am not sure this line of reasoning is true, but some deem it plausible in light of the information we have.

(Page 177).

In addition, Moreland answers a related question “Why would God create people whom he knew would reject him?” His response is essentially the classic Arminian proposal based on God’s middle knowledge (as expounded by William Lane Craig, see “No Other Name”: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Exclusivity of Salvation Through Christ. For Reformed alternative through this theological conundrum, see Terrance L. Tiessen’s post “Responses to Craig’s Molinist model of God’s providence” and his Who Can Be Saved?: Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions.)

The book concludes with an excerpted essay titled “On What There Is: Theism, Platonism, and Explanation” by Paul M. Gould and Stan Wallace, from a collection of essays in honor of J. P. Moreland, Loving God with Your Mind: Essays in Honor of J. P. Moreland. This essay is a robust introduction to metaphysics and working through it will set the introductory student of philosophy on a solid course toward loving the discipline.


I wish to offer special thanks to Moody Publishers for a review copy of this book.