This article first appeared in Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 04 (2011). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Season One of AMC’s The Walking Dead is gory, brutal, and not for the faint of heart. Yet I’m fascinated by it and think Christian apologists may want to give it a watch. I can live without the blood, thank you, and Episode 2 contains a graphic sex scene I chose not to watch. What grips me, nevertheless, is the drama of a tiny group of humans fighting to survive against overwhelming odds. This is not your daddy’s 1970s zombie film. Indeed, unlike those earlier offerings, this one has believable characters in a realistic location (Atlanta). Its realness is gripping.
The basic plotline tells the story of what happens after a zombie apocalypse. A small group of human survivors moves about in search of protection from shuffling hordes of the walking dead.1 If bitten by one of the zombies, the victim dies a violent death only to resurrect a short time later as a deadly walker. The survivors are led by Rick Grimes, a sheriff’s deputy from a small Georgia county. As their odds for survival shrink, desperation pushes them to the very edge of sanity. They witness unspeakable horrors as the walkers can be stopped only with a gunshot through the head or a pickaxe through the skull.
It’s gruesome stuff. And it’s loaded with ideas worth discussing within the context of a Christian worldview.
FINDING PHILOSOPHY AMONG THE ZOMBIES
Episode 6 is a case in point. Rick and his tiny band of survivors arrive at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta hoping to find answers for the zombie outbreak. To their horror, the facility is locked up tighter than Fort Knox. Just before walkers overwhelm the humans, a door opens and the survivors escape inside. That’s where they meet Dr. Edward Jenner, the sole CDC staffer who remained behind after the zombie attack. Jenner then narrates a video clip to demonstrate how a zombie bite destroys the victim’s brain. Speaking of the brain, he states, “It’s a person’s life—experiences, memories, it’s everything. Somewhere in that organic wiring, all those ripples of light, is you, the thing that makes you unique and human.” To make sure the point is not lost, he zooms in on the frontal lobes for a closer look: “Those are synapses, electric impulses in the brain that carry all the messages. They determine everything a person says, does, or thinks from the moment of birth until the moment of death.” In short, Jenner says that we are nothing but our physical brains. All of our thoughts, feelings, and convictions are determined by synapse firings. When synapse activity ceases, you cease. At this point, Jenner is no longer doing science. He’s doing philosophy. He’s espousing a philosophical worldview known as scientific materialism (SM). According to SM, everything in the universe must be explained in strictly physical terms, meaning that nonmaterial things such as souls, God, and human dignity are not items of true knowledge. Matter alone constitutes ultimate reality. True, the universe may look designed, but it’s really the product of strict physical laws and blind random chance. Science alone tells us truth.2
Right away there are difficulties, as Jenner never says how nonmaterial minds emerge from purely physical processes. Nor does he show how consciousness arises from unconscious brain matter. As John Searle points out, “The leading problem in the biological sciences is the problem of explaining how neurobiological processes cause conscious experience.”3 If that were not challenging enough, Jenner’s materialism must also explain how these nonmaterial minds cohere with the physical states of the brain. The interaction between nonmaterial minds and physical bodies is difficult to explain, given materialism.4
Jenner’s speech, however, suffers from an even bigger flaw. If everything about human beings can be reduced to predetermined patterns of synapse firings in the brain, why is he trying to persuade his guests to adopt his point of view? After all, their thoughts are also predetermined by their individual synapses, meaning they are not free to think any differently than they already do. Thus, in the very act of trying to persuade, Jenner undermines his own case for determinism. His predetermined thoughts can be no more rational than theirs.
Moreover, if our minds are the result of blind and irrational forces of nature, why trust them to give us the truth about the world? Darwin himself doubted whether human beliefs were any more reliable than those of a monkey. “With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind which has been developed from the mind of lower animals are of any value or are even trustworthy.”5 Evolution, in other words, is concerned with preserving adaptive behavior, not giving us an accurate picture of the world. Patricia Churchland (an atheist) puts it this way: “The principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive….Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.”6 In short, if our cognitive faculties only tell us what we need to survive, not what is true, why trust them about anything at all?
A CHRISTIAN VIEW OF HUMAN NATURE
Orthodox Christianity has a different take on human nature, known as substance dualism that does a better job accounting for human equality and personal identity through time and change. Christian philosopher Paul Copan writes that humans are comprised of both physical body and nonphysical soul, and the soul gives humans their continued identity even though the body may change. “Body and soul are distinct but deeply interactive, organically integrated substances—physical and nonphysical.”7
According to substance dualism, I am not my body. Rather, I’m a soul that has a body and it’s my soul that gives me personal identity through time and change. As Copan points out, Scripture strongly supports this view.8 Jesus tells a dying thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43) and elsewhere states that humans can kill the body, but not the soul (Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:4–5). Paul writes that to be “absent from the body” is to be “present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8) and later describes a heavenly vision where he’s unsure if he was “in the body” (i.e., experiencing a vision) or “apart from it” (i.e., dead) (2 Cor. 12:2–3; cf. Acts 14:19–20, where many scholars believe this occurred). Either way, his recounting of the vision assumes personal identity beyond a physical self.
Meanwhile, Christian philosophers J. P. Moreland, Scott Rae, and Francis J. Beckwith (among others) defend the substance view by drawing careful distinctions between substance things and property things. Substances are living organisms that maintain their identities through time and change while property things, like my car, do not.9 What moves a puppy to maturity or a human fetus to adulthood is not a mere collection of parts, but an underlying immaterial nature or essence (soul) that orders its properties and capacities. As a substance grows, it does not become more of its kind; it matures according to its kind. It remains the same kind of thing from the moment it begins to exist. Thus, a substance retains its identity even if its ultimate capacities are never fully realized. A dog that never learns to bark is still a dog by nature. (That is, the dog’s particular nature, not the realization of some capacity he may or may not develop, determines what kind of thing he is.) Put simply, you remain yourself through all of the various changes you go through during your lifetime.
Property things like cars are just sum totals of their parts. Change a motor or replace a tire, and technically you have a different vehicle from the one that rolled off the assembly line. There is no essential essence or nature that defines it and orders its basic capacities. Property things like my car or a plane come into existence part by part. But living things are different. They come into existence all at once then gradually unfold themselves according to their inner natures.
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Herein lies Jenner’s error: if we are nothing more than physical beings, how can we account for personal identity through time and change? In the last seven years—indeed, in the last five minutes—my body has undergone numerous changes. In what sense, then, am I the same person I was seven years ago or even five minutes ago? As J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae point out, a property-thing view of human persons means that when a person’s properties change, he changes. This is deeply problematic:
From that perspective, there is no essential person that survives the process of change. This would suggest that, for example, the person who committed a crime, the person brought to trial for the crime and the person serving a jail term for that same crime are all different persons. The notions of moral responsibility and criminal justice are both premised on a substance-dualist view of a person; otherwise, it would be conceptually difficult to hold anyone responsible for immoral or criminal actions.10
THE VALUE OF LIFE
So why does the substance view matter to pro-life advocacy? First, despite Jenner’s implied claim that human personhood begins at birth, the substance view tells us that you are identical to your former fetal self even though you lacked a brain at that earlier stage of development. You are the same being now as you were then, though not because of something physical that will change over time, such as your brain function. From the moment you began to exist (conception), rather, you possessed a nonmaterial human nature that grounded your identity through all the stages of your development. There’s been no substantial change to your essential being even though your physical body has changed dramatically. Thus, if you are intrinsically valuable now, you were intrinsically valuable then as well.
Second, the substance view can account for human equality. Human equality is not grounded in some accidental property that may come and go in the course of our lifetimes (such as our immediately exercisable capacity for self-awareness), but in our common human nature. Put simply, the substance view says we’re valuable because of the kind of thing we are rather than some function we may or may not exercise.
Secularists like Jenner can deny this, but only at a terrible cost. For example, at any given moment, some of us can exercise greater brain function than others. In what sense, then, are we equal? Suppose my brain is severely damaged due to a stroke. Am I any less me? If I later regain all of my cognitive functions, am I back to my old self?
Consider this example from Francis J. Beckwith. Suppose you are in a motorcycle accident that leaves you brain damaged and comatose for two years. During that time, you lack the immediately exercisable capacity for self-awareness and have no sense of yourself existing over time. Are you the same person even though your brain function has changed? Imagine further that when the two years are up, you emerge from the coma but, due to your injuries, you have no memory of your past life. Your wife and kids are strangers. You touch the hot stove and get burned. You must relearn everything from speaking to eating to working with your hands. In many ways, you are much like the standard fetus: You possess a basic capacity for self-awareness, rational thought, and language, but lack the immediate capacity to exercise these things. Like the fetus, all of your life experience and memories will be new. Through all of these changes, would you still be you? Could doctors have justifiably killed you during your extended sleep because you couldn’t immediately exercise your capacity for self-awareness or sentience? If our right to life is based on our current brain function, rather than our common human nature, it’s difficult to say why it would be wrong to kill you while you are comatose. Yet, clearly, it would be morally wrong to kill you in that state and the substance view can explain why: you never stopped being you through all of these changes because you have a human nature that grounds your identity through time and change.11
Getting back to The Walking Dead story line, suppose while secluded in the CDC, Jenner clones human embryos in hopes of growing an army that will one day attack the walkers. However, instead of letting the human clones develop normally within their artificial wombs, he alters their brains during the early fetal stage so that synapse firings happen only at a minimal level, as in the case with Alzheimer’s patients. Once the clones mature, he trains them like robots to blow themselves up in a crowd of walkers. Would it be wrong to engineer clones this way? If so, isn’t that because we recognize that human beings by nature have a right to develop normally without outside interference?12
Contra Jenner, although humans differ in their respective degrees of physical development, functions, and talents, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature that bears the image of their Creator. Humans have value simply because they are human. Applied to the pro-life view, if the unborn are human, they also share that same human nature and thus have value—just like born people do. If I’m wrong about this and Jenner is right, human equality is a myth. Those with more brain function are more valuable than those with less—born or unborn.
Scott Klusendorf is president of Life Training Institute and holds an M.A. in Christian apologetics from Biola University.
- Summary from http://www.amctv.com/shows/the-walking-dead/about.
- Stephen Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 6.
- John Searle, “The Mystery of Consciousness: Part II,” New York Review of Books (November 16, 1995), 61. Cited in Paul Copan, “Can Michael Martin Be a Moral Realist?” Philosophia Christi 1, 2 (1999).
- J. P. Moreland develops this theme in his article, “Searle’s Biological Naturalism and the Argument from Consciousness,” Faith and Philosophy 15, 1 (January 1998): 68–91.
- “Letter to William Graham Down, 3 July 1881,” in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (London: John Murray, 1887), 1:315–16; cited in Paul Copan, “Does Religion Originate in the Brain?” Christian Research Journal 31, 2 (2008): 38 (http://journal.equip.org/articles/does-religion-originate-in-the-brain-).
- Patricia Smith Churchland, “Epistemology in the Age of Neuroscience,” Journal of Philosophy 75, 10 (1987): 544–53.
- Copan, “Does Religion Originate in the Brain?” 37.
- See, e.g., J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000); Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case against Abortion Choice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 49–50, 130–60.
- Moreland and Rae, Body and Soul, 232.
- Beckwith, Defending Life, 135.
- I owe this example in part to Beckwith, Defending Life, 148.