Materialist Christianity: “Soulless” Constitutional Humanity

DNA materialistic anthropology

In the work, In Search of the Soul: Perspectives on the Mind-Body Problem, author Kevin Corcoran presents his view of Constitutional Humanity. What follows is my reflection and my response to a book of essays I really suggest you grab.

“Constitutional humanity” is a materialist stance regarding human persons. It is an anthropological position that stands counter the normal idea that people have “souls.” At the same time, it is a position striving to avoid better or worse a materialist reductionist stance. Such would teach people are only material accidents. Corcoran is a theist; overall, he is closer to “scientism” than the popular Thomas Negel a secularist who also seeks a reductionist alternative but favors telic arguments.

I have a lot of complaints about the position; I feel it will eventually be rendered more viable with certain issues addressed.

Why Study ideas like Constitutional Humanity?

In other articles, this blog has dealt with:

  1. The history of the idea of immortal souls
  2. It has occurred to me that to faithfully read scripture we need to be careful with over-defining the Greek terms for life-force, soul and spirit
  3. And I’ve explored how at the core of the Christian religion there is a stress between the idea of souls in heaven and faith in the Resurrection.
  4. The Greek ideas of souls has deep history in Christian religion found uncritically in even the reformation creeds

Now for myself and my own interest, this is a study in technical theology. It’s heady and akin to finding the proper definition of the word eternal in reference to God. Yet I am aware that for others “souls” and life after death are major motivators for belief. In the realm of apologetics souls are something normally to defend.

I am not currently of that opinion. The full humanity and divinity of Jesus is spiritual enough connection to God to sever any other string. Our faith needs nothing more than his actual physical presence. But I don’t think Corcoran actually gets that far.

If anything, the materialist move overturns the option for a classical liberal “spiritually sensitive” Jesus. There is not but a resurrected Jesus, search the tomb. It’s empty and will stay that way for all seeking some teaching there!

Corcoran’s Constitutional Humanity

As Corcoran explains, his motivation for developing a materialistic view of humanity rest upon the fact that dualisms ignore the interrelation of body and mind.[1] Materialistic Duelist make them two separate things in two separate realities.

He also is confident that if the goal of proposing a soul is to counter “animalism”[2] or to establish an afterlife[3] such is readily achieved without recourse to dualism.

Cocoran justifies these two positions by the relatively simple observation that the human body or animal is not identical to the human person.[4] If the human personality is destroyed by a change that leaves the human body, or even vice versa someday, it follows the two are not identical. As Cocoran tends heavily towards psychology in his thoughts, the best example of this would be a brain-dead body.

Humans as bodies and as persons

Brain map
Image courtesy of Pixabay, no known restrictions

Person-hood is for Corcoran a crux issue. Personhood is for Corcoran that something immaterial to replace souls. It rest not on DNA, but rather is a mental or social capacity. It also satisfies his need for it to not always be present in a human body. That could be because it has not developed yet (a child is a potential human) or is lost (brain-death).

There is some danger morally in such thinking. Examples of “humanity” and basic rights being denied ethnic groups, the mentally handicapped, and the “not yet able” abound in today’s culture.

However, it is inappropriate to read too much into Corcoran’s point ethically and dissemble beyond the scope of Corcoran’s actual argument. For Corcoran reminds  that we hold ethical obligations to non-persons.[5] We owe food to pets, taxes to the state, etc.

It’s actually an interesting idea that actually cuts deeper than most “pro-life” arguments resting on souls/ “humanness.” Just because “it’s not a person” means there’s now no obligation.

Anyways, what he means by all this is that the difference between body and human is appropriate only for anthropological lines of thinking.

Corcoran’s philosophy rest heavily on realism

Philosophical inspection of Corcoran’s argument renders it even less radical. And I feel it is too dependent on realism as he presents it. Instead of pointing out all the instances of it, it’s best just to break down the issue in a digression:

Placing emphasis on the fact that the operable sum of the parts “a complete person” is different from the parts,[6] Corcoran provides an argument that can almost be used by a duelist or to back an emergent view of humanity.

What’s more, the logic of his person-hood argument is dependent on a philosophical realism. What that means is the idea that such word play between the terms “Human, Body, or Person” conveys that there is some concrete reality underpinning the shift in terms.[7]

A specific example of this is Corcoran’s claim that a “statue” is an actual real existence separate from lump of metals that forms it.[8] Corcoran’s philosophical method is still very culturally Christian. It’s akin to Plato’s form based thinking, and it echos medieval realism. A philosophical idealist who is skeptical of universals (forms) would reject most of Corcoran’s arguments, yet they would agree with Corcoran’s rejection of dualism.

Realism and Resurrection

Now, the focal point in Corcoran’s essay comes when he introduces the issue of the bodily resurrection of believers in the “now/not yet” as regards our query, “Can I preach materialism at a funeral?!”

He starts out well. He reminds that even if an intermediate state of “soul-life” exist, one is no less troubled by the issues of the post-resurrection and pre-resurrection physical body’s numerical sameness than a materialist.[9]

Yet, when he wades out to tries to drain the swamp. I find his essay’s solution less than compelling.

Suspended Causality

Suspended causality
Image courtesy of pixabay, no known restrictions

To provide a continuity of personhoodCorcoran ultimately posits that at the moment of death there is a temporal “pause”[10] in the human body’s causality. This is latter “un-paused” with no loss of persistent existence. This is true even if the actual molecules composing the un-paused organism are now ontologically different. [11]

To be honest, this position requires a lot of pre-gap and post-gap musing.[12] Corcoran even exclaims he feels forced into this belief in “gap-y,” or in other words broken temporal existence, due to biblical data being limited.

I find his thoughts on the subject less than compelling but I understand why he’s doing it.

It seems an unnecessarily abstract methodology. Given that Corcoran posits that there is a “Person” that arises from the body and is not identical to it, why go to great lengths to assure his readers the body has a temporal persistence when the issue of personal persistence would seem more pressing?

I think it’s in order to win over idealist.

Still, I feel he could more easily have swapped in a conception of Aristotelian forms[13] for Platonic ones and held a material person akin to a “blueprint” for the atoms or something equally creative in the hands of a skillful God.

Put bluntly, the human doesn’t have to be made the same way twice even for a materialist.

I also feel there’s more biblical data that Corcoran doesn’t develop

Instead of really building on this methodological objection and boring the reader needlessly, I find a more fatal critique of the “gap-y” existence hypothesis is given by the Biblical data set itself.

What Brian Edgar, who writes the counter essay to Corcoran in the book, hold the intermediate state as being totally unnecessary. That’s one objection fatal to Corcoran’s “pause-gap!”[14]

Edgar’s general argument, put succinctly, is that all the philosophies that insist on the need for linear and simple temporal continuity in this realm overlook their contradiction with Paul’s explicit teaching of a now/ not yet paradoxical existence.

Now/ Not Yet

For the non-initiate, this teaching is found  in the book of Roman’s where Paul states:

“Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” (Romans 8:30).

The Greek for glorified, ἐδόξασεν is aorist most likely in the complexive sense, which is fancy academic talk for indicating that the “glorifying” is here meant as an achieved reality.

Yes. This is just a singular proof-text of a core aspect of Paul’s now /not-yet temporal sense which Edgar expounds. But it’s a theme Paul uses often which develops into the teaching that we are still waiting the resurrection, but at the same time already resurrected as symbolized by baptism, grace, etc.

I favor a “dual reality” continuity

The type of linear continuity that Corcoran wants to establish is grounded on gaps and re-constituted bodies; per Edgar we need simply to focus on the fact that the dead are more clothed (Thessalonians) with immortality. Edgar implies we have the basis for that continuity already in us and it’s amplified by death.

For myself, this underscores that on a more simple level, Corcoran loses sight of the larger doctrines. Christ’s coming ending “history,” a new earth or “kosmos,” us as new creations, and other such things are exactly what “soul-talk” and popular piety obscures.

It’s also too old-fashioned! Knowing that space and time are interconnected in relativistic worldly physics, there is a need to bridge not between two distinct “absolute” timelines but two universes, and we should not only establish the “self” firmly on the one which is passing away.

The world view of Corcoran is still as eschatologically troubling as the materialistic dualist’s views.

Constitutional Humanity shares much with Materialistic dualism

Computeristic humanity
Image courtesy of pixabay, no known restrictions

After so much negativity, I still have high hopes for this school of thought because I believe with slight modifications it remains useful pastorally and theologically.

A metephore used by Alvin Pantinga, on the opposite end of the spectrum as a materialistic dualist in the same book, provides a useful illustration for where I would like to see the doctrine go. He uses of computer as a metaphor for humanity.[15] I’m stealing the metaphor; placing it into materialistic terms:

If we allow, that the “soul” emerges from out of the physical brain like “software” and simply strip away the old-fashioned metaphysics terms we can do justice to the observations of both materialistic dualism and Constitutional views of humanity:

The PC is a powerful tool that runs of off physical hardware (a brain) and immaterial information in specific patterns (software). The two are not identical, and the software can have an independent existence from the hardware yet cannot run without it and the kernel (really core part of the OS) must be specialized to the chipset.

Yes, it’s an imperfect metaphor. If only because the human intelligence is still necessary for a PC to function; as Pantinga points out, the outputs on the screen of typed sentences composed of pixels has no meaning less the “end user” give it meaning.

I feel there’s a lot of room forward here

The extra step of an “Intelligence” I believe may even allow someday to create an empirically verifiable metaphysics; it still would blocks the substance duelist position that the soul and body are separate.

The ideas of multiple philosophers and cutting edge science will need be added to the project. Such as those of Murphy, who holds that even if Intelligence arises from reductionist causes, and that its complexity which makes something else arise.[16]

Corcoran’s position, moving forward in dialogue with duelists because he has a baseline realism can assume the other schools strengths. It is a hypothesis trending towards a more possible and popular formulation.

See how he develops them in his recent book:

Constitutional Humanity

Conclusions on Constitutional Humanity

The above is not an offer to correct Corcoran. Nor to delineate the only way his school of thought can develop. But rather to expound upon precisely where I feel his position needs be stretched or rejected enough to present it as a more useful philosophy.

I believe that a modification such as my “human software” hypothesis gives credence to the perceived reality the average person calls a “soul” in a stronger manner than Corcoran’s “person.”[17]

Moreover, it gives a plausible answer to the problem Corcoran cannot resolve with materialism, namely that it must ‘provide for strict identity without benefit of a soul that carries the personal identity of the individual.’[18] The software hypothesis makes the question more one if HAL 9000 will dream when he’s put on a floppy-disk. At the very least I think it uses familiar terms people can understand.

Issues such as sin, evil, sanctification do not often feature in such discussions

It makes for an interesting apologetic for the issue left mostly untouched by all four authors of In Search of the Soul. I find that the loss of our sinful nature must certainly entail many “inner” changes at the personality or “soul” level. Evil proceeds from the heart; thus, the idea of an upgrade or software patch to our brain might offend less those weaker siblings in Christ who need to retain an outmoded enlightenment era western notion of Cartesian freewill.

But the biblical hope, and not theories of souls or lack there-off is what we need preached.

It is my conclusion then that a funeral or any other major religious event could be positively affected by such a doctrine. It is a basic tenet that the dead corps in the casket is just as “now but not yet” glorified in Christ as the people still alive (1 Thess. 4:15).

And we can strongly affirm that while we do not apprehend it in our subjective reality, the person is now just as completely removed from this fallen timeline and with Christ in Paradise (Luke 23:43) as we are! Some may object that this is paradoxical and unfulfilling explanation or dodging the question. Are we leaving those who grieve with a snarky silence?

To the contrary!

This particular paradox is so intrinsic to the human situation per Philippians (cf.3:12-16) that a solution without it in a Christian setting requires a stronger burden of proof. If objections persist, one can redouble that a singular tidy linear timeline flies in the face of all our plain science tell us.

You can guess the weather from the clouds, why not look for more?

Image courtesy of pixabay, no known restrictions

Space itself bends to simple physical forces such as gravity.

If we conclude that the “linear only” view of time not only fails to correspond to this reality, but that it cannot hope to adequately measure or understand the plain conception, scope, or the reality of the timeless scale of eternity on which God operates and salvation occurs… are we actually radical?

All this can make for great funeral preaching, because a funeral is a time to preach the same good news as the day of baptism.

In a morbid sense, there are secondary benefits to the constitutive view for those who strive after doctoral purity and those who mourn. The admission that a beloved member of the community is truly very dead may perhaps be the best panacea in the long run.

Pastorally, this affirmation of death’s gravity serves as a corrective the church desperately needs. Pastors need to keep in the fore of their mind that there are “Christian” icons, concepts, and statues to which people today burn incense and pay undue affection. Things that carved before the first iconoclast or Martin Luther drew breath, and things that survived reformation.

Calvin is correct when he points out the human propensity to create idols; moreover, humans have a tendency to take comfort in the creations of their own minds. It is unfortunate that Calvin could not see how Descartes, Luther, or himself, in perpetuating soul talk only exacerbated the issue. It may seem cruel but spiritually the appropriateness of allowing the believed to take comfort in the remaining spiritual “presence” or “watching over” of the dead is not the hope to which we are called; we are called to hope in Christ alone.

Still, it is a project requiring tact.

Common sense dictates that a funeral or an Easter sermon for that matter is not the time to attempt a spiritual corrective.

It is instead a time to allow the community to fall back on its traditions be they liturgical, musical, or a jargon. That said the pastors job is still to preach the truth. What some call a soul, others may call software, but it is a secondary point to the primary point that the Christian hope is the bodily resurrection and a new act of creation on God’s part. Those who place any part of it in the persistence of the soul relative to the timeline of the fallen world miss just how big an event the incarnation was.

That resurrection hope cannot be made bed buddies with naïve sentiments attached to an Ego or Id desperate to prolong this fleshly existence.

In fact, the Gospel’s impact lessens if the pastor allows that to happen. The bible is very clear that we cannot hope in God and something else, and in a tense situation it is a pastor’s primary duty to show her flock that even given the absolute gravity of death that the hope for the living is not lost for the dead. Nor are they truly separated. But in all things we are not to hope of salvation “of this world.” Comfort like a river does not flow out from the idea of a ghost hanging around, that is for horror movies.

But the truth through the murky glass remains that though we do not see it yet even now all the elect are resurrected in Christ.


[1] Kevin Corcoran “The Constitution view of Persons” in In Search of the Soul, Second Edition: Perspectives on the Mind-Body Problem ed. Joel B. Green (Eugene: WIPF & Stock, 2005). pg. 155.

[2] Ibid. pg. 156.

[3] Ibid. pg. 161-4.

[4] Ibid. pg. 157-8.

[5] Ibid. pg. 175.

[6] Ibid. pg. 158. – Think of it as comparing an actively running old car to an assembled old car, who’s the motor may or may not work. The Duelist needs only say that “running” is the cars soul even if it sounds laughable to all but an auto enthusiast.

[7]Ibid. cf. 161. Take for instance the argument here, Corcoran uses semantics to state there is a “real” difference based on the conceptions differences.

[8] Ibid. pg. 158-9.

[9] Ibid. pg. 162.

[10] Think of an old VHS, you can take the tape out and play it somewhere else.

[11] Ibid. pg. 167.

[12] Ibid. pg. 169-172.

[13]Ibid. pg. 159. – He even admits they are useful for his thinking

[14] Brian Edgar “Biblical Anthropology and the Intermediate State” in Evangelical Quartely Vol. lxxiv. No. 1,2. Accessed 6/2/2014,

[15] Alvin Plantiga, “Persons Human and Divine” in Materialism and Christian Belief ed. Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman. (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 2007). Ebook. Pgs. 99-141. Accessed 6/1/2014

[16] See Nancey Murphy “Nonreductive Physicalism” in In Search of the Soul, Second Edition: Perspectives on the Mind-Body Problem ed. Joel B. Green (Eugene: WIPF & Stock, 2005). pg. 155.

[17] Even if I’m not sure quite how.

[18] Corcoran, “Constitution View” pg. 183.

Post Author

Paul is the founder of and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.

You may also like

Leave a Reply