A drawing by René Descartes illustrating his understanding of dualism

A drawing by René Descartes illustrating his understanding of dualism

Does Christianity imply “dualism”? Many people – especially outsiders – think so. In particular, Christianity is often associated with “Cartesian dualism,” a variant of dualism attributed to French philosopher René Descartes. According to one popular understanding of Cartesian dualism, the soul is a “ghost in the machine” (to borrow Gilbert Ryle’s phrase) which “controls” the body; the implication is that the body – or, more broadly, the material world – cannot affect the soul. Such an understanding of human nature would appear to contravene a more “scientific” (or monistic) view of humanity. What is the Christian to do with cases such as that of Phineas Gage, whose personality changed completely after suffering a severe brain injury?I could simply say that I, as a Christian, am not committed to Cartesian dualism. In fact, I reject it, as do almost all the Christians whom I know. (Most Christians I know would agree with dualism’s central tenet – namely, that the soul is of a different “substance” than matter – while arguing that the body and brain can affect the soul and mind.) If someone tells me that Cartesian dualism is implausible, I can only say that I agree.

Unfortunately, “I agree” does not make for a very interesting blog post. But there are a few interesting things to be said on the matter:

1. Why would very intelligent non-Christians think that most or all Christians accept Cartesian dualism? Where does this misconception arise? Perhaps many Christians do think that Cartesian dualism is true, in which case there is no “misconception” to speak of. But I think it is more likely that the Christian community is not communicating itself clearly and is allowing one minority voice to crowd out everyone else.

2. Whatever one may say about Christendom, one cannot say that it is monolithic. Not all Christians are dualists, let alone Cartesian dualists. I know of Christians who conceive of man as a tripartite entity and of some (admittedly few) who advocate a form of Christian materialism. To see how complicated this issue can be, consider the following question: Are the “mind,” “soul,” and “spirit” synonymous?

3. Not only is it the case that most contemporary Christians reject Cartesian dualism, I have reason to believe that the apostle Paul would have rejected it. The Greek word translated in the NIV as “sinful nature” is σαρχ (sarx), which literally means something akin to “flesh.” (See, for example, Romans 7.) Obviously, if our sinfulness inheres in our flesh – in our body – then the material world does influence the soul, and Cartesian dualism is false. (Also remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 26: “The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”)