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Nancey Murphy
Nonreductive Physicalism and Free Will


In my paper, I shall first briefly outline the history of Christian scholarship arguing against dualist and in favor of physicalist anthropology, along with even more abbreviated comments on issues in Judaism and Islam. Then I turn to the distinction between reductionist and anti-reductionist forms of physicalism. I claim that reductionism, in general, has been one of the most significant assumptions of the modern worldview; we are only in this generation working out suitable nonreductive understandings of complex phenomena. The developments here involve definitions of downward causation and of emergence, and the development of a new set of concepts for describing complex dynamical systems.

The major focus of the paper will be the most difficult aspect of distinguishing nonreductive from reductive physicalism, that of free will. While I shall not be able to provide here a full treatment of free will, I shall argue, first, that there is no such thing as the free-will problem; it is anachronistic reading of philosophical history to assume that there is a single problem. What many of the individual free-will problems do have in common is the opposition of free will to determinism—of some sort or another. The sort of determinism that is of particular interest to physicalists is neurobiological determinism.

I shall argue, however, that neurobiological determinism is only a worry if neurobiological reductionism is true. The latter decidedly is not true, as I shall attempt to show in the brief time allotted. In making my argument, I shall be aided by reference to points of agreement and contrast between my approach and the approach of Robert Kane in his influential book, The Significance of Free Will.

Nancey Murphy is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA.  She received the BA from Creighton University (philosophy and psychology) in 1973, the PhD from U.C. Berkeley (philosophy of science) in 1980, and the ThD from the Graduate Theological Union (theology) in 1987.

Murphy's research interests focus on the role of modern and postmodern philosophy in shaping Christian theology; on relations between theology and science; and most recently on philosophy of mind and neuroscience.  Her first book, Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (Cornell, 1990) won the American Academy of Religion award for excellence.  She is author of eight other books, including Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics (Westview, 1997); On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics (with G.F.R Ellis, winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion); Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?  (Cambridge, 2006); and Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will (With W. S. Brown; Oxford, 2007).  She has co-edited nine volumes, including Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (with Robert Russell, Theo Meyering, and Michael Arbib); and Emergence and Evolution: Systems, Organisms, Persons (with W. R. Stoeger; Oxford, 2006).

She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (and former chair of the board); the American Philosophical Association; and the Society of Christian Philosophers.  She has served as an advisor to the American Association for the Advancement of Science's program on dialogue between science, ethics, and religion, and serves on long-term planning committees for a series of conferences on science and divine action and on the problem of natural evil sponsored by the Vatican Observatory.

In 1998, Murphy was Creighton University's alumnus of the year, and in 2006, GTU Alumnus of the year.  She was the 1999 J.K Russell Fellow at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences.  She was elected to the International Society for Science and Religion and serves on its steering committee.  In 2007, she was included in the Los Angeles Magazine 100 most influential people.  She is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren.


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