Dualism,  Evolution,  William Hasker

Evolution and the Soul

Historically, Christians have held to various forms of dualism, the idea that the human person is both material and immaterial  This, it is said, is what makes it possible to exist beyond the grave even though one’s earthly body remains in it. To the materialist such an idea is archaic and unnecessary. Evolution explains our origins without human souls and if the cost is not living on after we die then so be it. Of course there are many who are both Christian and committed to an evolutionary explanation of human origins. If one is committed to evolution and to the idea of life after death one must explain a possible way that the soul emerges through the process of evolution.

There are a couple of general strategies for maintaining both evolution and life after death. First, is to suggest that, while we should not reduce reality to the physical, human beings nonetheless are physical first. That is to say that what we call mental states are produced by physical states. This line of thought deals with the afterlife by suggesting that immortality is not a property of human beings (found in their “soul”) but is derived from the relationship mental states have with God.

The trouble with this kind of view is that it ends up with the idea that all mental states are somehow “in” God. The reason mental states can only be in God, according to the underlying assumption of this view, is that mental states must be finally explained in a non-material way. And if one is committed to a fundamental materialism when it comes to human beings then one cannot locate thought in people. And if not in people, then in God (who is non-material). Perhaps the problem with this is obvious – our, supposedly human, thoughts are not really human, they are more like properties of God.

The second strategy is to posit an emergence of a soul from a certain arrangement of physical properties (i.e. human properties). In the evolution of humanid to human person a stage is reached whereby the soul naturally emerges. To grasp this idea one might think of the magnetic field generated when two magnets are in close proximity. In the same way a soul is generated when the physical arrangement of a creature allows for the soul to be generated. This view has gained some traction as it has been advanced by William Hasker.

Notice, though, that Hasker assumes not only evolution as regards to physical mutation, but evolution in regards to non-physical entities. Hasker’s underlying metaphysic is that for evolution to be coherent it must cover the gamut. God and creation evolve. In fact that is what evolution is driving at – not merely a description of origin, but of all reality, that all reality is in process, an eternal progression.

Both strategies assume the primacy of the physical and in the process subsume immutability and impassibility. Christians who follow the logic of evolution, not merely the description, find themselves in process and have trouble finding anything that is not in process. But God is not in any process. He is complete and unevolved and has been and will be that way for all eternity. The awkwardness of both propositions is found in the relationship of creation to creator. If an evolutionary idea of creation’s development is logically worked through in one’s metaphysic one ends up challenging ideas of God. Hasker is consistent on this matter, preferring an “open” theism to a classical view. Ironically, it might be possible to deny dualism and retain a classical theism if one drops evolution. Greg Bahnsen had a shot at this (here).

Here is my two cents on evolution (tentatively held). Evolution is not merely a description of origins, but a logic that requires a strategy. Its source is not scripture and it is not science. Its source is a priori. The logic of evolution, therefore, affects not only the description of origins, but the development of interpretation. If the logic is followed things like Biblical interpretation should evolve, progress in a dynamic process of selection. This, I think, is behind recent attempts to reconcile the Bible with evolution (see here for summary and comments). In fact, Peter Enns, a proponent of theistic evolution and a denier of a historical Adam states that his view is not about an evolution of Adam, but an evolution of our interpretation of Adam in scripture. And that, I think, is being consistent with the logic. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.