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Paul Flaman
The Human Soul: A Catholic Theological Response to Non-Reductive Physicalism


Non-reductive physicalism, the view that ontologically we humans are not only physical but that we have real freedom, consciousness and so forth, is supported by a number of Christian authors of different specializations today. These authors generally believe that we human persons cease to exist when our bodies die but that we will be reconstituted by God in a future bodily resurrection. As a Catholic theologian, I agree with a number of points made by authors supporting non-reductive physicalism, but I disagree with their denying that we human beings have immaterial immortal souls. Non-reductive physicalism does not adequately account for all of the related data from the Bible and human experience. There are a number of biblical texts (e.g., 1 Sam. 28:3-19; Luke 23:43 and Phil. 1:23-24), according to some good biblical scholars and theologians, which support the view that the human soul continues to exist in an intermediate state between bodily death and resurrection. Jesus and his disciples also considered God to be “Spirit” and angels to be real created personal spiritual beings. The traditional Christian view that the human person is normally a profound unity of a physical body and a spiritual soul, which transcends the body, is in line with this view. Non-reductive physicalism is also not able to explain adequately some data of human experience which supports the view that a dimension of the human being (i.e., the human soul) is immaterial and immortal. These include qualia, subjective experiences such as consciousness and free will, some near-death experiences, miracles experienced related to requests for intercessory prayer by deceased saints, and human experience related to the continuing identity of persons. It seems to me that the Thomist view that the human person is a unified being, a compound of a body and an immaterial immortal soul, is more in line with biblical data and is better able to explain all of human experience than is non-reductive physicalism. It also is more in accord with all of God’s ways being expressions of maximum love. Having an immaterial immortal soul does not mean that we need to value less our bodies and ecosystem. It, however, provides a more solid foundation for defending the great intrinsic dignity of all human beings. It would mean that we have a greater affinity with God who is “Spirit” and would allow a more profound union of the human person with God in a way somewhat analogous to the Incarnation. It seems to me that, if one who dies loving God can experience heaven before the resurrection and continue to play an active role in the communion of saints, then this is truly “good news” compatible with the Christian view that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.(Rom. 8:38-9)

Paul Flaman is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta.  He received a Four-Year Honors BA from the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1974.  He received Bachelor, Licentiate and Doctorate degrees in Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Italy, in 1979, 1981 and 1985, respectively.  In 1983 he began teaching in the area of Christian Theology at St. Joseph’s College, a Catholic College affiliated with and located in the heart of the large secular University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  He was promoted to Assistant Professor in 1985 and to Associate Professor in 1998.  His courses are mainly in the areas of Christian ethics and spirituality.  Some questions related to these courses, as well as a growing interest in neuroscience, led him, together with Dr. Heather Looy, a biopsychologist who teaches at The King’s University College in Edmonton, to develop a course called “Neuroscience, the Person and Christian Theology.”  (For more information, see:  Related to this course, in 2001, they received a Course Award from Templeton’s Science and Religion Course Program.  The team taught this course in 2002 and 2005.  Professor Flaman taught this course alone in 2007 and is scheduled to teach it again in 2009.  Among other things, this course deals with body/soul/mind/brain questions.


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