Dualistic Delusions

First Things, February 2005, with Patrick Lee.

Disputes about metaphysical issues rarely make the newspapers. The ancient argument about the nature and identity of the human person, however, turns out to be highly relevant to issues that contemporary Americans read about, and argue about, every day. As Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom recently observed in an op-ed piece in the New York Times , “What people think about . . . gay marriage, stem-cell research, and the role of religion in public life . . . is intimately related to their views on human nature.”

Consider, for example, the abortion issue. Many defenders of abortion implicitly suppose that a human person is a consciousness or series of conscious acts that has or inhabits a body, and so they hold that your human organism came to be at one time but that you came to be at another time (say, with the emergence of your self-consciousness). But if they are wrong, if instead a human person is a human physical organism, then the person came to be whenever this physical organism came to be. Similarly, if the human person is a bodily entity, then it makes no sense to regard the body as a mere extrinsic tool which we may legitimately use simply for the sake of obtaining desirable effects in our consciousness (which is regarded by people who accept dualism as the ” person that inhabits, or is somehow “associated with,” the body)”a view widely held by defenders of sexual liberalism and same-sex “marriage” in particular.

And yet it is often the proponents of traditional morality who are accused of holding a body-self dualism. For example, advocates of abortion often assume that defenders of prenatal human life maintain their position on purely religious grounds, believing on faith that the soul is present from conception onward. Abortion advocates then say that “souls” cannot be shown to exist, assert that this is backed up by science, and then smugly conclude that science is on their side against religious zealots who believe in an unprovable and mysterious soul.

In fact, intelligent pro-lifers do not first inquire whether the soul is present and from that inquiry conclude that there is or is not a human being present. Rather, they understand that it makes more sense to begin by asking whether there are characteristics”physical characteristics”which indicate the presence of a human being, however small and developmentally immature he or she is; it is on the basis of the answer to that question that one can conclude that the human soul must be present. It is actually defenders of abortion who often implicitly assume body-self dualism, even though at other times in the debate they deny or disparage the idea of a soul and embrace or postulate materialism. We will show below that neither body-self dualism nor materialism is sound, that a third possibility represents an intellectually superior view of what a human person is, and that this view is key for understanding many of the great ethical controversies of the day….

Patrick Lee