The end of the world as we know it (4): Human nature

As we’ve seen, Polkinghorne is developing an eschatological vision that takes the findings of modern cosmology seriously, but is consonant with the deepest insights of the biblical tradition. The key principles are: that any hope for life beyond this world must be rooted in God’s faithfulness and that the shape of this hope will be determined by the kind of discontinuity-in-continuity. This is displayed preeminently in the resurrection of Jesus.

Polkinghorne believes that the view of human nature that is most consistent with modern biology and neuroscience is one that sees human beings as integrated wholes rather than soul-body compounds. The language of “the soul” can be maintained, he thinks, but we should think of it as the “information-bearing pattern” which makes me the unique individual I am. Polkinghorne sees this as an updating of the traditional Thomistic-Aristotelian language of the soul as the “form” of the body. “It would be altogether too crude to say that the soul is the software running on the hardware of the body–for we have good reason to believe that human beings are very much more than ‘computers made of meat’–but that unsatisfactory image catches a little of what is being proposed” (p. 106).

Polkinghorne’s suggestion, then, is that our destiny beyond death consists of God “re-embodying” our “information-bearing pattern” in a new form:

It is a perfectly coherent hope that the pattern that is a human being could be held in the divine memory after that person’s death. Such a disembodied existence, even if located in the divine remembrance, would be less than fully human. It would be more like the Hebrew concept of shades in Sheol, though now a Sheol from which the Lord was not absent but, quite to the contrary, God was sustaining it. It is a further coherent hope, and one for which the resurrection of Jesus provides the foretaste and guarantee, that God in the eschatological future will re-embody this multitude of preserved information-bearing patterns in some new environment of God’s choosing. (p. 108)

Polkinghorne addresses the objections that some philosophers have had to this notion of “re-embodiment” or “replication.” The concern is that such a replicated person living in the eschaton would not really be me, but merely a new person who resembled me with respect to certain psychological traits. This has sometimes been expressed by the hypothetical scenario in which two replicated individuals with the same “information pattern” are brought into existence – which one is the authentic “descendant” of the deceased person?

Polkinghonrne argues that this is a pseudo-worry. “The answer is surely that only God has the power to effect such re-embodiment and divine consistency would never permit the duplication of a person” (p. 108). But this seems to me not to do justice to the objection. The problem isn’t that there’s any reason to believe that God would actually bring about such a state of affairs. It’s that the mere logical possibility of post-mortem “twins” shows that this kind of resemblance is an insufficient criterion for continuity of individual identity.

It’s actually somewhat surprising that Polkinghorne invokes St. Thomas in trying to articulate the relation between body and soul. For, though Thomas certainly employs Aristotle’s “form/matter” terminology, he also clearly believed in a substantial soul that survives the death of the body. Whatever qualifications he makes, Thomas is clearly a kind of dualist. (Though Thomas is clear that a human soul without a body is fundamentally “incomplete” and that we will be re-joined to our bodies at the final resurrection).

Polkinghorne admittedly is treading a middle ground between outright dualism and a pure replication theory. He’s not entirely clear what type of subjectivity a disembodied “soul” has in the “intermediate” state. So, there may be room for him to assert a degree of continuity that is sufficient to guarantee personal identity. There’s support for this in Polkinghorne’s suggestion that there will be a kind of purgatorial “healing” in the intermediate state.

Wherever one comes down on this particular issue, Polkinghorne is right, I think, to insist that our hope for resurrection is grounded in the love of God, and that God intends to save us in our entirety, not as disembodied shades. This point is reinforced by Polkinghorne’s insistence on the fundamental importance of relationality in constituting our selves. The people we become are formed by our relationship to the world around us, and these relationships are mediated by our bodies. To exist without bodies of some kind would to be cut off from any kind of relationship. And these relationships extend beyond other human beings to all of creation.

6 thoughts on “The end of the world as we know it (4): Human nature

  1. Right, which is why I always thought Thomas was trying to have his cake and eat it too. Though, in fairness, there is that obscure stuff in Aristotle about the intellect being immortal.

  2. On the other hand, much in popular fiction (recall teleportation in Star Trek) supposes you are a form, so to speak.

    Sometimes the pattern in question pertains, in fact, only to your memories, character, personality, etc.

    As when it is assumed all that could be transferred to a computer, where you would then reside after death until somebody could build you another body.

    Of that could be transferred to a new body directly, or even to more than one new body.

    Being a particular person is then not a question of being a specific individual, but of having the right traits.

    Hence there need not be only one of you. There could be real duplicates, if this were true.

    This is an opinion shared, in fact, by many since at least John Locke and going back to whoever Plato had in mind when discussing whether the soul was a harmony.

    Personally, I am partial to the Plato, Augustine, Descartes tradition for which a person is a single, substantial, individual soul.

    The consequence that there could be multiple Plato’s strikes me as fatal to any theory that entails it, since I think it quite clear that there was and could be at most one person, Plato.

    And I think that is what most Christians really believe.

    The idea of an immortal part of a soul, with the latter being the substantial form of the body, always struck me as incoherent.

    In fact, the idea that the body is really a single thing with a substantial form seems as much a mistake in the first place as supposing the famous ship of Theseus to be that.

    (In fact, the idea of corporeal substance strikes me as incoherent, in the first place. But never mind.)

  3. Jennifer

    “The people we become are formed by our relationship to the world around us, and these relationships are mediated by our bodies. To exist without bodies of some kind would to be cut off from any kind of relationship.”

    Yes! I think this is key.

  4. Pingback: The end of the world as we know it (5): New creation « A Thinking Reed

  5. Space-time is the perfect recording media, infinitely better than a CD or DVD.

    It seems easy to understand our eternal nature and the mechanism of resurrection if you make the following standard cosmological and philosophical assumptions :

    Augustine of Hippo wrote that God is outside of time—that time exists only within the created universe. Many theologians agree. On this view, God would perceive something like a block universe, while time might appear differently to us finite beings.

    Use Eternalisim. Eternalism is a philosophical approach to the ontological nature of time. It builds on the standard method of modeling time as a dimension in physics, to give time a similar ontology to that of space. This would mean that time is just another dimension, that future events are “already there”, and that there is no objective flow of time. It is sometimes referred to as the “Block Time” or “Block Universe” theory due to its description of space-time as an unchanging four-dimensional “block”, as opposed to the common-sense view of the world as a three-dimensional space modulated by the passage of time.

    Then I assume; God has room and time of his own above our own dimensions. For an interface between our four dimensional space time and Gods transcendent domain we have the seven extra dimensions of string theory. According to scientist these extra dimensions are rolled up into tiny plank length superstring. I think the reason extra dimension are not revealed in experiment or everyday life is that they are hidden like length is hidden behind a point of a pin or area is hidden behind the edge of a razor. Using this pattern of thought you could say; the Kingdom of God is hidden behind our space-time.
    Our 4 dimensional space-time universe is said to have a global geometry. Scientists are trying to figure out its shape. As a mental aid I assume it has a boundary referred to as a space-time hypersphere.

    To put resurrection in our terms, imagine this cartoon; God sits in his living room and pulls out a hypersphere recording called HUMANITY! Relaxes in his chair and “listens” to the long concert of life. This type of recording would be infinitely deeper and more meaningful than a retelling of an individual’s experience. The nuances of complex interactions and relationhips are revealed. Think more than two-channel stereo or even surround sound. Think about tapping into the perception of all creatures at once. Pleasure, Pain, love, hope, and awe would be appreciated and relived in all of its detail. You are alive again but in a much richer state of being. If this is so, I am happy to be a player.

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