The Falcon | Volume 83, Issue 53
Dr. Rebekah Rice takes questions following her lecture on the philosophy of physicalism.
Photo credit: HALEY STOKES/The Falcon.
Dr. Rice considers whether humans are wholly physical
By ALLISON NORTHROP,
Published: April 18 2012
The debate centering on the relationship between evolution and Christianity is being replaced by a new hot topic: the implications that physicalism has on religious faith, Dr. Rebekah Rice said.
Dr. Rice, assistant professor of philosophy, spoke at Seattle Pacific’s annual Weter Lecture on Tuesday after receiving the 2012 Winifred E. Weter scholarship award.
Physicalism, Dr. Rice said, is the dominant philosophical view held in today’s world.
“[It says] human beings are composed entirely — and only — of physical stuff,” she said.
In an interview before her speech, Dr. Rice said she had a certain person in mind as she developed her lecture.
“The starting point [to this speech] was imagining a very particular type of person — someone who may be into physicalism or at the very least thinks, ‘What if this is really true? And what effect does that have on my theological beliefs?’” she said.
Her lecture focused on whether life after death is possible in light of physicalist thinking and whether ideas of physicalism could be reconciled with Christian belief.
Rather than convincing her audience to take a particular stance on physicalism, she said she hoped to educate people about the possibility of its compatibility with a Christian worldview.
“I think physicalism does not rule out the possibility of Resurrection,” she said. “There does seem to be a methodological assumption [to physicalism]. If you want to study the human mind, the thing to do is study the brain.
“That methodological assumption betrays another kind of assumption — that if we really understand everything there is to understand about the brain, we won’t have any questions left about the mind.”
Dr. Rice said it is important to start examining the implications of both Christianity and physicalism, and that philosophy adds a lot to the discussion.
“Sometimes, people hold beliefs in [opposition] when probably, they ought not to,” she said. “We sometimes just assume that they are incompatible, when they might not be.”
Philosophy can help to sort out these seeming inconsistencies, Dr. Rice said.
In her lecture, Dr. Rice defined two types of physicalism: reductive physicalism and non-reductive physicalism.
Reductive physicalism is the belief that a person’s mental life is wholly reducible to natural events and chemical processes, she said.
Non-reductive physicalism, the kind at which Dr. Rice said some contemporary theologians look, is the notion that a person is only physical substances, but those substances have irreducible mental states.
Dr. Rice gave two examples of how the latter view could be interpreted and complemented by the concept of life after death. The first is the view of Resurrection by reassembly, or the idea that God reassembles a person’s body after death.
The other view is the constitution view, which Dr. Rice described as some divine activity going on in the moments of a person’s death, in which God theoretically snatches the body and replaces it with a simulacrum, or a “fake” body.
The topic of Dr. Rice’s lecture was relevant to those who attended the event.
“I find [approaching physicalism and Christianity] pretty difficult because of the amount of research that makes us ask all of these questions and then leaves us with just the question without these definitive answers,” said sophomore Tanja Sutton. “I personally believe it’s important to learn about the brain and neurology and how that plays a role in the human body and human existence, but also I think there’s a lot more to it. I think there are some things we just aren’t truly meant to know.”
Junior Kyle Vandenbroucke said he had a different view on physicalism after listening to Dr. Rice’s lecture.
“[Physicalism] seemed like it didn’t answer enough questions for me, so I’m probably a dualist in a minimalistic sense,” he said. “[But now] I’m more lenient. I used to believe that a physicalist Christian was almost a cop-out.”
Vandenbroucke said he now sees that there are some strong arguments for a physicalist framework of knowing.
Dr. Rice said the one thing she wanted to do in her speech is to get people to consider whether two beliefs are mutually exclusive.
“In our culture, we always want to know what the right answer is,” she said, “and then we don’t really ask much beyond that.”
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